The story of the (re)founding of Sleeman Breweries is the stuff of legend. English immigrant John H. Sleeman started the Stamford Spring Brewery in St. David’s, Ont., which he ran from 1836 to 1847. Then, in 1851, he opened the Silver Creek Brewery in Guelph, Ont. It was renamed Sleeman and Son in 1862 and the family business continued in operation until 1933, when its brewing license was suspended for 50 years after charges of smuggling and tax evasion were raised against it.
When the business was shuttered, young Florian Sleeman took possession of the founder’s recipe book and a distinctive bottle from the brewery, vowing to pass them on to a successor after 50 years had passed. True to her word, in 1984, she handed on the family legacy to her nephew John W. Sleeman, the great-great grandson of the founder, who had already developed an interest in running an English-style pub, and was importing English beer brands such as Bass, Worthingtons and Newcastle Brown.
Until his aunt approached him, Sleeman was only dimly aware that he was descended from a brewing family. “My parents didn’t talk about Sleeman Brewery and, in fact, there was no alcohol consumed in the house,” says Sleeman, now chairman of the company.
In 1985, he relaunched Sleeman Brewing & Malting Co. Ltd. and in 1988 the company began selling Sleeman Cream Ale, brewed from a recipe on p. 64 of his family’s handwritten recipe book of 1897.
“I had no problem convincing consumers; there was no cream ale on the market,” he says. “The biggest challenge was convincing the financial institutions that it would be viable. The business environment in the mid- to late-’80s [encouraged] a belief that small brewing industries would fail — and who would drink your stuff anyways?”
Of course, the business thrived. In 1996, it merged with Okanagan Spring Brewery to become Sleeman Breweries Ltd., and in 2006 it was purchased by Sapporo Breweries for approximately $400 million.
“People want to express their individuality; they want to be able to discover something, and that has really spawned the growth in variety of small craft brewers,” Sleeman says. “As a legacy, I hope my family will continue to be involved in the business. When people think of Sleeman, they think of the good things that come from a family; we care about our employees and we listen to what our consumers say.”