Dow Ale – A Great Beer Name With A Sad Ending

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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. By the 1960s and after various mergers and takeovers, Dow, formerly named 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 a spate of men in their 40s-60s, known to be heavy beer drinkers, were suffering from cardiomyopathy. It’s an ailment often manifested by irregularity of heart rhythm. Many died, something like 20-25 people. Not all these men consumed the Dow brand, but most did. Dow in Quebec City – 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“, or the beer which kills. Medical studies later conducted by Quebec authorities never established a direct link between Dow’s beer and the deaths.

Nonetheless, many felt that cobalt sulphate, then used in beer to improve head retention, probably caused or exacerbated the medical issues. To be sure, these men were heavy drinkers, they consumed a dozen beers each day or more. Also, the maladies seemed to be concentrated only in Quebec City, yet Montreal was a large market too for the brand. But while many brewers in Quebec added cobalt sulphate to their beer at the time, Dow apparently used an unusually large amount, some accounts state ten times the normal quantity. Hence the feeling including by many doctors that cobalt was probably responsible, but it was never conclusively proved. Still, the company stopped using the chemical after the debâcle and the deaths did not recur, or not in the concentrations which had been noticed.

Needless to say, the Dow brand fell sharply in sales after the disaster. In 1972 it was sold to Molson Breweries which continued to brew the beer until the early 90s. Later, Molson merged with Carling O’Keefe, the final successor to the old National Breweries (itself a combination of 14 breweries formed after WW I of which Dow was a key component).

There are, online, numerous examinations of this unique incident in brewing history. Here is a good place to start for those interested in more information.

In recent posts, I was discussing the great Quebec and Canadian culinary authority Jehane Benoit, and it turns out she had a connection to Dow.

Benoit had studied food science in Paris in the 1920s under a master nutrition expert, Edouard de Pomiane. I was discussing beer cuisine in various francophone areas in the world, and noted that Quebec cuisine appeared to have only a few recipes using beer.

But Dow Brewery was a client of Mme Benoit in the 1950s, she did promotions for them and this led to a book of recipes called, in English, Cooking With Dow. While the origin of the recipes in the book is diverse and some were probably invented by Mme Benoit, this book must be considered to enlarge the number of Quebec dishes which employ beer in cooking. It is not, therefore, just in the last 20 years or so that books have appeared in Quebec proposing a beer-based 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 some interesting recipes proposed by this great food authority.

Note re image shown: The image shown was sourced 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.

    Gary

  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.

      Gary

  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.
    Alan.

    • 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…

      Gary

  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.

    • 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.

      Gary

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