Marian Engel’s Early Beer Essay

The Great Canadian Beer Book, authored by Gerald Donaldson and Gerald Lampert, was published in 1975 by McLelland and Stewart, a premier Canadian publisher then and now. It’s a unit today of Random House/Bertlesmann. Lampert is long-deceased, while Donaldson later carved an impressive career in auto racing journalism and biography and is still active.

Lawrence Sherk, a leading Canadian collector of breweriana, contributed a chapter. Larry as he is known to the Ontario brewing community is still very much with us, I met him only a few months ago. In this and other ways, the book, while written 44 years ago, seems quite contemporary.

Despite its helter-skelter, “scrapbook” design popular in the 1970s the book is chock full of information on every level: technical, historical, breweriana as noted, culinary, photographic, literary, and more. True, there is a jocular, semi-derisive tone characteristic of beer writing then, but an underlying respect for beer and its traditions comes through. Once again, we see our modern craft beer culture is a development of something very old – not a new departure as many think who don’t plumb the past.

There is an interesting timeline on early Labatt history and the origins of its now defunct I.P.A. There is a lot on early Oland, Carling, and O’Keefe family history. There is a section with well-drawn beer and food recipes. There is a formula for coffee beer, years before craft brewing thought of the idea. The Calgary Red-Eye, the old Brunswick Tavern in Toronto, the King Cole Room (jazz), Henninger Brewery in Hamilton (an all-malt craft progenitor), singer Stompin’ Tom Connors and his ode to workers of Inco, are all there and, well, lots more. Get the book and see.

A number of Canadian authors and artists contributed on beer including famed poet Al Purdy, David Helwig, and Marian Engel. Engel (1933-1985) was a Toronto-born novelist, book reviewer, critic, and early feminist writer. Engel was her married name, her own surname was Passmore but she went professionally by Marian Engel.

Engel’s career is beyond my scope here but information is easily available. She won high honours including a Governor-General’s Award and was a member of the Order of Canada. At times she was controversial, but her place in Canadian literary history is secure.

An annual Canadian literary award of $25,000 is made to deserving authors in mid-career, the award is titled in her name jointly with the late author Timothy Findley. Margaret Atwood was one of the first writers to endow the award.

Engel contributed 1000 words on beer to the Donaldson-Lampert book. She describes growing up in a Temperance family, finally acceding at 21 to half a draft, initially, to make it easier to date boyfriends. She toured German taverns in Ontario’s Mennonite country, including in Neustadt – plates of pigs’ tails and “lots of beer” – and drank beer at Paddy Greene’s in Hamilton, in Manitoulin, and Montreal. She taught for a while at a girls’ school in Montreal and on Saturdays the games mistress drank her “way under the table”, “quarts of Molson”.

After some graduate work she landed a job in Missoula, Montana, probably at the university there, finally graduating with an M.A. in literature from McGill University in Montreal.

In Montana, she mentions different bars – the Oxford, the Chicken Inn among others, but only one beer: “in plaid cans” which she drank on tap with pizza. “Schooners of Scotchguard” she called it. She evidently enjoyed the beer but couldn’t recall the brand 20 years later – however it is Highlander beer, from a local brewery that closed in 1964.

The American beer writer and editor Kate Bernot told me on Twitter that the Highlander name has been restored, so I looked it up. Indeed, a brewpub not connected to the original brewery brews numerous brands under that name including a pilsner that may be close to the original “Scotchguard”.

That beer was never a Scotch ale, and I think originally Highlander simply meant a Montana hill resident, not a type of beer. But in time the old brewery used Scottish iconography to help sell the lager and this is remembered in some of the current branding.

It turns out Scotch ales are quite popular today in Montana, and I think the reason, ultimately, is due to “Scotchguard”. These things adhere in the folk memory and manifest sometimes decades later in ways otherwise hard to explain. Bernot told me of an early craft brand as well, Cold Smoke, that had a role in the process.

In her essay, Engel explained that on an overseas stint in France and Britain, so this was after Missoula, French beer was “bad” but English bitter warmed her “cold heart” – she meant it stopped the shivers from the damp. No less than Louis MacNeice, the British poet and playwright, would buy her a pint at the George while waiting for her husband after work, a “long lean drink of water”, she called MacNeice. “You can’t go higher”, she said, and I believe it. At the time a woman would not easily buy a pint on her own in a pub; MacNeice saw her dilemma and helped the Canadian out, perhaps remembering our soldiery from the war years.

Once back in Canada:

… we decided that since we’d always drunk the wine of the country, we’d drink beer. The only way to entertain is to put a case in the middle of the living room floor, bring out the opener, and some cheese and get on with it. I drink out of the bottle; some boyfriend’s father taught me to gargle it right down. Cold, it goes down, down, down.

And that was the way it was in those pre-connoisseur days, well sometimes anyway.

In the latter stages of her too-short life she favoured occasionally a drink of Scotch, no longer the beer. She states on the days Brewer’s Retail in Toronto did deliveries, she had “standing engagements” away from home. Nor could she carry cases from the outlets home as she had developed “tennis elbow” from years of doing so. She didn’t drive, and a taxi was too costly, hence the Scotch substituting for beer.

I am not certain if she is being facetious here, e.g., did Brewer’s Retail really deliver then? Maybe it did, more ahead of the time than I would have thought!

If Marian Engel was living today and could visit Missoula again, I’m sure she’d be amazed to discover her Scotchguard was still available. I don’t think she enjoyed the town then (apart from the beer), she makes a number of statements that suggest it was a place best left behind. Maybe it is different today, or she would find it so. Sadly, there won’t be an essay that appraises Scotchguard Mark II, or the I.P.A. that has replaced the Labatt I.P.A. of the old jazz clubs in Toronto.

Note re images: the first image above, of Marian Engel, was sourced from this German book site. The image above of a vintage Highlander beer was sourced at, here. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





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