Beer in Victorian French Canada


Image Attribution: By Smudge 9000 (originally posted to Flickr as The City Wall) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Quebec’s John Bull Character in the 1800s

Saying “Victoria” and “Quebec City” in the same breath may sound contradictory. Quebec City, or Ville de Québec, is the historic capital of Quebec Province, French Canada’s heartland. It was founded in 1608 and has always been predominantly French.

Yet, from many points of view, the city was indeed Victorian, at one time. Quebec was ceded to Britain by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. This followed the fateful defeat of General Montcalm’s forces on the Plains of Abraham by General Wolfe of the British Army. Certainly the Quebec Act of 1774 enabled the survival of French civil and religious society by recognizing the French language, the Catholic faith, and French civil law. But British rule in Quebec was consequential, to say the least.

One result was that major areas of the economy became the preserve of incomers from Britain or the United States. A good example is brewing, via eg. John Molson who came to Montreal in the 1780s and established what is the oldest surviving brewery in North America, now called Molson Coors. Fortunes similar to Molson’s were created in many sectors of the economy including sugar refining, mining, furs, forestry, shipbuilding, insurance, and banking.

Numerous English-speaking settlers came to Quebec City after the 1770s, not just the larger Montreal. Quebec City is about 150 miles downriver from Montreal, east along the St. Lawrence River. Quebec City was and still is the spiritual centre of the St. Lawrence Valley, itself the historic destination of French settlement in Quebec. (One of the 1940s projects for Quebec independence envisaged the new country as “Laurentia”).

While modern Quebec is a huge territory and settled well beyond this heartland, its Laurentian core has always expressed its French character most completely.  Still, the arrival of English commerce changed Quebec City, and Quebec province, considerably. At one point later in the 1800s, Quebec City’s population was 40% anglophone. The “English” side was in fact a mix of citizens of Scots, English, Irish and American background.

This large and influential anglophone group declined precipitously in the 1900s, and today is hardly noticeable although not quite forgotten. The Scottish-extraction Simons have been in Quebec City for hundreds of years and still run what must be Canada’s oldest department store controlled by the same family.

Brewing fit in well with the local scene because under the French regime, brewing had been conducted continuously since the earliest arrivals. Its first commercial manifestation was in 1668 when Intendant Jean Talon set up a brewery on the site of what was later the Intendant’s first palace. Finally (1852) the site was a brewery again, the Anchor Brewery of Joseph K. Boswell, a Dublin-born immigrant.

In Quebec City in the 1800s, the larger breweries belonged to Paul Lepper, James McCallum and not least, Joseph Boswell. Boswell’s sons continued to manage the business until (and even after) the brewery became part of the National Breweries group in 1909.


The breweries of the Anglo-Saxon incomers reflected an organisation and technology similar to what was occurring in elsewhere in the English-speaking world. This extended quite naturally to beer styles. The sorts of beer made by the early brewers of Quebec Province were similar to those made in Britain at the time, for example porter, mild ale, pale ale, Burton ale, Scotch ale. Simply put, they were the beers familiar to the people who set up the breweries, by dint of homeland memory or as cultural inheritance (handed down in the new land).

Although it is another story, the domination of major parts of the Quebec economy by English-speakers always rankled in Quebec. French-speakers after WW II were about 80% of the Quebec population… This sentiment triggered a series of changes to Quebec society, some enforced by language or expropriation laws, which transferred parts of the economy to French hands.

But we are talking in this post of an earlier time, when Anglo-Saxons or others with English as mother-tongue tended to dominate the business scene. This was a time for example when a brewery in Quebec could use English in its advertising and signage without feeling obliged to include a French version. Today, that would be an anomaly, indeed impossible under the French language laws.

Our interest here may further be defined to know how residents of Quebec City, who took more than an average interest in beer, viewed its palate and quality. Two sources, one in English and the other in French, shed light on this question.

Willis Russell

Willis Russell was American-born. He came to Quebec from New England when he was about 30 and became the best known hotelier in the city. His career is well-summarized in this early Canadian biographical entry. Russell was active in numerous other businesses and investments, and also in civic government.

He wrote a history of Quebec City in 1857, no doubt to help promote his hotel interests, and took notice of the brewing businesses in town. He spent numerous pages lauding the plant and products of the Boswell brewery, in particular. (Whether Boswell paid him some coin for this lavish attention, we shall never know). Some of Russell’s comments reflect an imperfect knowledge of beer and brewing, but it is clear from his discussion that Boswell made India Pale Ale, porter, probably mild ale, and a strong, Burton-style ale.

Russell notes that the beers were never sour and were made without addition of – permit me the Victorianism – factitious ingredients. Russell noted that some hops were imported from Kent, England but some were sourced in Canada and barley malt was locally obtained as well. He considered local ingredients of excellent quality. While approving the beers made by other breweries in Quebec City, only Boswell’s came in for an extended encomium.

His connoisseur’s estimation, in his own words: “Indeed Quebec can produce the fine India Pale Ales of Edinburgh; the rich sparkling amber ale of Burton; the stingo of Dorchester; the entire or half and half of Barclay Perkins, London; and famous dark porters of Dublin”.

Hubert LaRue

Hubert LaRue was a French Canadian physician who was one of those protean 19th century figures. He was interested in literature, agriculture, politics and history. He mixed in the elite set of Victorian Quebec City, and had connections to the University of Laval of which he was the first medical graduate. Today, we would call him a public intellectual. This impressive figure – quite appropriately – took an interest in the topic of beer. In his 1881 Mélanges historiques: littéraires et d’économie politique, Volume II, he made many observations on the beer of his native city and “Canadian” beer in general.

These included: hops were being grown in Quebec province but generally without success due to early frosts or other problems; hops were also available from New York and Wisconsin but were variable in quality; none of these hops could equal the best from England and Bavaria; and imported hops were used for the finest beers. LaRue said that domestic hops reminded him of the nauseous quality of aloes. Aloe or aloes is a botanical often described as bitter, acidic, and bad-tasting in various ways: one source says baby vomit! The poor opinion of North American hops at the time accorded with professional brewing opinion in England, then.

Brewing took place in Quebec, he said, all year round, vs. the malting of barley, due to the availability of ice. (Beeretseq remembers wood shed-stored ice during the summer in the 1950s, sheathed in sawdust). An analysis of Canadian beers by LaRue showed they contained 7-8% alcohol, he specifically states “Gay Lussac”, which means alcohol by volume. This alcohol level accords with much historical data on the bottled beers of the day; stout and various ales all easily inhabited this range.


LaRue credits Montreal-based William Dow with bringing major improvements to Quebec brewing inspired by English practice, and says all Quebec beer improved considerably as a result of Dow’s influence.

Then, LaRue makes a very interesting statement: he says Canadian beers reminded him a lot of beer in Bavaria on trip he took there in 1856. This statement can be parsed in different ways, but I believe he was referring to the good stability of Canadian beer – it wasn’t sour or infected. In good part, this was probably the result of the liberal use, even prior to mechanical refrigeration, of ice in the brewing and storage process. England in this period, France too, simply didn’t have the ability to ensure long-keeping of beer without some acidification or wild yeast development. This was despite the use of heavy hopping for some styles of beer and the blending of beers to obtain a drinkable product.

Bavarian beer was, by the 1850s, lager beer. It benefitted from stability due to being being stored cold in deep cellars or Alpine caves (initially) and being kept cold until dispense to customers. This common climatic factor and availability of ice in large quantities was the key factor, I believe, despite that all Quebec beer in this period was top-fermented (ale or porter) and Bavarian beer was mostly lager.

Note re second and third images used: the McCallum’s Pale Ale label is from the collection of the McCord Museum in Montreal. All details on its full name and ownership can be found here. The third image was sourced from the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto, and similar details in its regard are here. These are believed available for use for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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