The Phoenix Biner Brewery

In the early 1970s, when I was a graduate student at Michigan State University, I visited an underwhelming little stamp shop in Lansing and purchased their entire stock of (two) Canadian covers. One was an illustrated brewery cover from Phoenix, BC. After retiring to Victoria, I finally got around to looking at that cover again and researching the story behind it.

Figure 1
Advertising cover for Phoenix Brewing Co., Biner & Sons, illustrated with the company logo featuring the legendary phoenix bird. Postmarked with a Phoenix B.C. duplex marking, OC 22 08, and addressed to Chicago.

Phoenix is located in the Boundary region a few kilometers north of the American border and roughly 10 km northwest of Grand Forks. It came into existence in the 1890s after a massive copper deposit was discovered there. Phoenix, incorporated as a city in 1898, became a boomtown with a population of about 1,000 in the early 1900s. Situated at over 1400m above sea level, Phoenix characterized itself at the time as ‘Canada’s highest city’.

The mine, operated by the Granby Consolidated Mining Co., accounted for about half of the copper produced in Canada in the early 1900s. When World War I came to an end, copper prices plummeted and the Granby mine was shuttered. The people who called Phoenix home pulled up stakes and left, and buildings in the town were dismantled and reassembled elsewhere. By the mid-1920s, Phoenix had become a ghost town.

The Phoenix Brewery was established in 1899 by Julius and Andrew Mueller. It was sold in 1905 to Theo Biner, who had emigrated from Switzerland to Montana in 1882, then relocated to Washington state in about 1903. Theo Biner operated the Phoenix Brewery with three of his sons, and about 1912 sent two other sons to a brewing school in Milwaukee. Upon his return from Milwaukee, William ‘Billy’ Biner, who has previously achieved a measure of fame as a BC boxing champion, took over as brewmaster of the Phoenix Brewery.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the brewing industry was highly decentralized, with many smaller breweries serving local markets and producing beer of varying quality. The Phoenix Biner Brewery was typical in its smaller size and local market focus. It had a reputation for the excellence of its beer. It also stood out from the crowd because of the very colourful, intricate labels – designed by Billy Biner, who was also known for his artistic skills – on its bottles.

Figure 2
This September 1908 Phoenix Beer ad alludes to its medicinal powers: “Will relieve that tired feeling so quickly that it will surprise you”.

The Phoenix Biner Brewery went out of business in 1920, soon after the closing of the copper mine. Billy Biner headed south to Los Angeles, where his father had previously moved about 1916. The brewery in Phoenix was dismantled in 1923 and taken to Mexico for reassembly.

Billy Biner continued to work as a master brewer until his retirement in the late 1940s. He seems to have had chronic “itchy feet”, as he was constantly on the move, from one job to another. After leaving Los Angeles, he moved to Mexicali, Mexico and worked as a brewer (1924–1929), then back to Washington State, and in the early 1930s to British Columbia. He worked at breweries in Merritt, Princeton, Trail, and Nelson, then in 1936 headed back to the USA and took a series of positions at breweries in western Washington and northern Idaho.

Originally published in the Victoria COVID Times, October 2020
by Bob Stock
Source: The Phoenix Pioneer and Boundary Mining Journal, 1908-01-25.

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