A look through sources in the last decade of the 1800s shows that Canadian brewers, certainly in the east, continued a remarkable adherence to English beer types. A typical list, I give examples below, looks like something you might see on the blackboard of a modern craft beer pub more than anything one thinks of as Canadian beer of the pre-craft era.
Numerous Canadian breweries were represented at the landmark, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition aka the Chicago World’s Fair. The beers exhibited which won awards can be noted in this Canadian government publication of the period. John Labatt’s beers were:
Bottled extra-stock ale, winter brewed; bottled extra-stock ale, autumn brewed; bottled extra pale ale, summer brewed; bottled India Pale Ale; porter in wood; India Pale Ale in wood; extra-stock ale in wood; XXX bottled stout.
All these types were well-known to English brewing, a good example is extra-stock ale. It was probably a strong ale of 8-9% abv, something Labatt still put a focus on as it offered two vintages in bottles, and if that wasn’t enough, it did a draft (“in wood”) version, too. The listing from Dominion Breweries in Toronto – the saloon adjacent to the old brewery still functions as a bar – also offered a draft stock ale. Dominion Breweries forebore from marketing a bottled stock ale, but as consolation perhaps, seems to have had available two versions of its India Pale Ale in the bottle.
A glance through the full list shows it replete with these old-fashioned beer types. Only two breweries, Carling in London, ON and a brewery in Winnipeg, offered lager. One or two “export ales” were offered, which was probably the progenitor of the lighter, “sparkling” Canadian ale style which, by WW I, had pushed out the old strong heavy ales. What a difference 20 years made.
“Amber ale” appears numerous times in the list, and it is well-known to brewing history sleuths that northeastern American breweries also did a turn in amber ale in the mid-to-later 1800s. What was this beer? I would argue it was the amber ale, sometimes called twopenny, brewing author Friedrich Accum described in this 1821 text. Different accounts of amber ale are scattered in British Victorian brewing literature. Accum’s account rings true to me due to its length and anecdotal detail included. Amber ale seems to have been sold mild, or new, and technically was an ale, i.e., hopped less than a beer. Its best use was for purl, a heated, compound drink of amber ale, bitters, gin and sometimes orange flavouring.
When Accum likened amber ale to porter, I think he was referring to their somewhat comparable dark colours, and perhaps a lightly smoky taste, since porter was always a beer (well-hopped), not an ale, technically again.
Accum notes that amber ale was out of date by the time of writing (1821), but the style lived on in the colonies or former colonies to the dawn of Edward’s age. In this 1897 Canadian government listing of beers, assessed by the Inland Revenue Department to determine strength and other attributes, one amber appears, from B&M Co. in Toronto. The “pc” of alcohol shown in this table appears clearly to be by weight, not volume. B&M’s amber was a strong ale, therefore, about 7% abv which accords with the strength of the staple mild ale in England into the mid-1800s – before gravities started to fall, that is.
Frequently, when an article of commerce takes root in an outpost or export market, it lasts much longer there than in the home country. This is why, say, goat’s head soup is still a well-known dish in parts of the Caribbean, when it had largely been excised from the British diet by 1900. Countless examples can be given, possibly Ontario’s famous butter tart qualifies. Despite what you read, the best explanation for its name, or so Beer Et Seq is persuaded, is that it is a corruption of border tart, a similar item of baking or confectionary in the Scottish-English borders.
Amber ale, and strong old stock ale – at least its prevalence in 1890s Canadian brewing – were examples of such distant survivals. They had taken root early in Colonial days. They lived on to about 1900 in reasonable flower despite that Britain’s beer preference had long turned to other styles, well-represented in Canada too until WW I such as porter, stout, pale ale, IPA and mild ale.
By the mid-1920s, temperance rules passed during or in the immediate wake of WW I had been repealed or relaxed. The surviving Canadian brewers, certainly the large ones, modernized their production and fizzy ales of 5% strength or, increasingly, blonde lager beer, became the norm. The strong old English beers were largely a memory.
Craft brewers have brought back these venerable tastes and Molson Coors has just done so from its own archive, to its credit, see the 1908 pale ale pictured above.
Note re first image above: this image is from the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto, and was sourced here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.