Dow Ale – A Great Beer Name With A Sad Ending


Dow Ale was a legend in Quebec brewing, until a strange event in the late 1960s spelled the end of the brand as a force. Quebec City, the old capital of the Province of Quebec, was a stronghold of the Dow brand. William Dow had started brewing in the 1800s in the Province and by the 1960s and after mergers and takeovers of other breweries, the company, formerly National Breweries, had four main brands: Dow Ale; Kingsbeer (a lager); Champlain Porter; and Dow Porter. Dow Ale was the big seller.

In 1966, hospitals in Quebec City started to notice that within a short period, men in their 40s-60s known to be heavy beer drinkers were suffering from cardiomyopathy – often manifested by irregularity of heart rhythm. Many died, something like 20-25 people. Not all these men consumed Dow Ale, but most did. Dow in Quebec – it had a brewery there and in Montreal –  made the fateful decision to dump its inventory of Dow Ale, a good faith gesture meant to reassure people. However, the population took the gesture as an admission of fault. The beer forever became known as “la bière qui tue” (the beer which kills). Medical studies later conducted by Quebec authorities never established a direct link between Dow’s product and the deaths.

However, it was felt cobalt sulphate, added to improve head retention, may have caused or exacerbated the mens’ medical issues. To be sure, they were heavy drinkers, consuming a dozen beers each day or more, and as well, the problem seemed concentrated in Quebec City although Montreal was a large market too for the brand. However, while many brewers in Quebec then used cobalt sulphate in their brews, apparently Dow used a larger amount than the others, some accounts state ten times the amount. Many felt that the cobalt was probably responsible, but it was never conclusively proved. Of course the company stopped using it after the debacle and the deaths did not recur, or not in the concentration anyway which had been noticed.

Needless to say, the brand fell sharply in sales after the disaster and in 1972, the brand label was sold to Molson Breweries which continued to brew it until the early 90s. Later, Molson merged with Carling O’Keefe, final successor to the old National Breweries, itself formed just before WW I from the combination of 14 breweries of which Dow was standard-bearer subsequently.

There are many online examinations of this unique incident in brewing history, and this is a good place to start for those interested to pursue it further.

In recent posts, I was talking about the great Quebec and Canadian culinary authority, Jehane Benoit, who had studied food science in Paris in the 20s under the master, Edouard de Pomiane. I was also discussing beer cuisine in various francophone areas in the world (except Belgium, I’ll get to that later), and observed that Quebec cuisine had only a few recipes with beer in the cooking. Later, I found out Mme Benoit had, in the 1950s, counted Dow Brewery as a client, she did promotions for the company and in fact wrote a book of recipes featuring use of its beer, called (in English) Cooking With Dow.

Therefore, it is not just the last 20 years or so which feature books purporting to create a Quebec beer gastronomy, the creative and enterprising Mme Benoit was doing it in the 1950s. Plus ça  change, plus c’est la même chose.

In a later post, I will discuss these recipes presented en bloc by this great food authority.


Note re image shown: The image shown was taken from this Montreal blog, which discusses a permanent exhibition of Dow Brewery history in Montreal. The building housing the exhibition is part of the historic Dow facilities and is now occupied by a technological centre associated with the Université du Québec. The image itself appears to derive from the exhibition, and is believed in public domain or available for non-commercial use. All feedback welcomed.



9 thoughts on “Dow Ale – A Great Beer Name With A Sad Ending

  1. They do state, in part, what heavy meant because they recite the level the sick patients were habitually drinking, a minimum of a dozen drinks a day or so which is way too much. Whether they would consider half that, 6 drinks a day, heavy, I don’t know, I would certainly.

    I don’t think it’s really changed and the martini lunch thing was always exaggerated anyway. I starting working in about 1975 and drinking at lunch was very rare, it was only done at Christmas, or for isolated entertainment of clients.

    In England then maybe people did drink more than today, the culture was different, but even then I have my doubts.


  2. But what was socially acceptable then?
    One reads of “martini lunches”, etc.
    I’m not suggesting that, physically, there would have been less or more of a detrimental effect.
    I remember a friend of my wife’s, he was English, telling me thirty years ago that in (business) London two pints was acceptable with lunch. If you ordered a third it was bad form and people would talk.
    What interests me is that this study you referenced states “heavy” without defining the term, and I’d love to know what they meant!

    • It’s hard to say, you would have to look back to see what experts advised as the maximum safe units per week people should drink. In general, I don’t think it’s really changed much, but that’s an impression.


  3. Gary.
    I wonder what a “heavy drinker” was back then, considering the time and what was acceptable, socially.
    Far (far) more than today I’m guessing.
    I’d be interested if you could speak to this further.

    • Well, these men were drinking about a dozen standard units a day as a minimum, and some well exceeded that, so that’s very heavy drinking, then or now. I’d say more than a couple a day is heavy…


  4. Gary.
    Fascinating story.
    Do you recall sampling it yourself? If so, how did it taste? Was it popular due to quality or excellent advertising?

    • Alan, thanks. I do remember it clearly in the 70’s, people knew of course the story of the decline of the brand and some wouldn’t touch it, but I did buy it occasionally. In this period it was very ordinary. However, the 1970s was a time when most well-known brands had declined in taste and bitterness. I am sure in the 1950s and earlier it was good and distinctive.


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