Boswell Brewery in Quebec City (1852-1968)
An extraordinary story is the tale of Boswell and its beer in Quebec City or La Vieille Capitale, founded in 1608. Quebec City is one of the oldest urban settlements in North America.
Joseph Knight Boswell (1812-1890) was an Irish immigrant from Dublin. He came to Quebec City in the 1830s (some say in 1844) to work with John Racey. Racey owned two breweries. One, Cape Diamond Brewery, was acquired in 1830 from an earlier operator and continued in business through the 1800s. The other, on Rue Saint-Paul in Quebec, ended in Boswell’s hands. In 1852 Boswell bought land at the foot of Côte du Palais, or Palace Hill, on Saint-Valliers Street, to expand this brewery. Even by then the area was known for a storied history, but after a period of abandonment and fires was revived as a commercial area. A brewery fit well among the tanners, bakers, and other businesses in Palace Hill.
On part of the land Boswell purchased there had been a much earlier brewery, famously the first in Canada, the Brasserie du Roi, or King’s Brewery. This brewery was established in 1668 by the Intendant Jean Talon, when Quebec counted only 1000 people.
The Intendants were the chief administrators of French colonies and required to see to their economic and moral development. Between the first French presence in Quebec and 1759 when the English prevailed on the Plains of Abraham, a dozen Intendants had administered Quebec. Talon was considered the best and most enlightened, according to a National Breweries Ltd. 25th Anniversary commemorative booklet published in 1934 which reviewed the history of its component breweries.
It seems spirits of bad quality were being abused by the colonists. Jean Talon sought to substitute a more healthful drink and keep the money in the community. Prior to establishing a brewery, Jean Talon tried his hand at potash which was used to make soap and glass in France, but this was short-lived.
The brewery did not last long, either. By 1675, brewing had ceased; the brewery had lasted only seven years. It seems the product cost too much and people continued to buy imported spirits, or brewed at home. Other accounts say the next Intendant, Count Frontenac, didn’t have Talon’s foresight and closed the brewery hastily. The brewery building was, in the last quarter of the 17th century, used as a military prison and then for the Intendant’s residence – the palace – and judicial centre. It was progressively enlarged and modified for these purposes.
In 1713, a devastating fire burned down the brewery-turned-palace. A new palace, only 50 metres to the northwest, was built. Beneath the second palace a series of arched stone vaults were built. There were stone cavities under the first palace, too – vestiges remain today – but I am not clear whether they were built for the brewery of Jean Talon or later, when the property was a prison. (I’ve made inquiries in Quebec amongst people who may know and will report further any useful information). After the 1713 fire, the first palace location was used as the King’s storehouse, it henceforth comprised small buildings which never had the prestige of the first palace – after 1713, that transferred to the second palace.
The second palace was an expensively built, substantial building, as it served to administer French interests in North America which stretched to what is now the southern U.S. and western Canada. It burned too, in 1726, but was promptly rebuilt. The second palace was largely destroyed in 1775 by British fusillades when invading American troops led by Benedict Arnold had taken refuge there. The site remained abandoned and desolate for many decades.
When Boswell bought his land in 1852, it is not clear if he used its underground chambers to store beer. Some accounts state that, variously in the 1850s or 1860s, he rented from the War Department stone cellars under the second palace site nearby to store beer. At some point, he acquired long-term rights to build on this second emplacement, one source refers to a 99 year lease. Effectively, this was ownership, for that period. Hence, Boswell ended by controlling both former palace sites but only one had formerly housed the royal brewery, the one he bought in 1852.
After building his brewery Boswell continually expanded it, finally to four stories. After 1875 he erected a brick building on the ruins of the second palace which was destroyed in the 1775 Siege of Quebec. The new building was used for storage and a maltings. Boswell’s ceased making its own malt by the 1920s.
In 1930 National Breweries Ltd., owner of Boswell’s Brewery from 1909, opened the “Talon Vaults” in the cellars under the former maltings. These were used as a reception centre and for tourist visits. As Boswell had ceased making its own malt it made sense that the vaults were re-purposed. This marketing move can be viewed as embellishing an undeniable link between Boswell’s business and Jean Talon’s brewery, since the vaults were built in the early 1700s for use by the second palace: Jean Talon had never used them to store his beer, that is.
Archaeological work since the 1980s has confirmed the true facts, although it seems the history was known early in the 1900s, too. Perhaps, therefore, there was commercial puffery as the 25th anniversary booklet of National Breweries Ltd. refers to one palace only and assuming the distinction between the two was known, the document doesn’t say.
Between 1930 and the early 1970s when all use of the Boswell complex for brewing had ceased, some 2,000,000 people had visited the vaults. They are now more properly termed the Palace Vaults (les Voûtes du Palais) and house an interpretation centre, that is museum run by the City of Quebec.
But did Jean Talon build cellars in 1668 under his brewery site to store beer? And if he did, did Boswell use these chambers to store his beer from 1852? Certainly there are surviving cellars or tunnels under the first palace site. They are described in archeological studies conducted since the 1980s, e.g., Marcel Moussette’s excellent study cited below. The brewery used one of these chambers to funnel an aqueduct pipe through, at least in later years. If I learn anything further I will discuss it here, as stated earlier.
In 1965-66 heavy drinkers in Quebec City of Dow Ale, made in the Boswell plant, perished in a clustered case of apparent alcohol cardiomyopathy. By 1968 all brewing onsite permanently ended. Some use of the site continued as a distribution centre for Dow Ale made in Montreal, but by 1974, the main brewery was torn down. A few buildings survive, including an art deco garage built in the 1930s.
A Picture of Boswell Brewery Not Long After Its Founding On Saint-Valliers Street
Remarkably, only five years after the brewery was built on Saint-Valliers Street, a travel guide to Quebec, by Willis Russell, gave a favourable review of Boswell’s beers with a detailed description of the activity. Several brands were mentioned: an XXX ale, India Pale Ale, and an amber, sparkling beer the writer termed “Burton”. The brewery sounds well-laid out and reflected experience Boswell had picked up on his sojourn in Edinburgh (for training) before leaving for the New World. An example is sparging, the sprinkling of water on the mash to drain the last usable extract from the grains.
Interestingly, there is mention of cellars, the author states they are shaped like the letter H on its side. It’s not clear to me if these cellars were under his property or the site of the second palace, then leased from another party. Second, if they were entirely under the land which formed the first palace, by their shape they sound like a jail built to hold prisoners, i.e., square rooms with a partition. This may suggest the rooms were built after 1668 when the property was adapted for a prison.
Boswell’s Brewery in the Mid-1940s
By the war years Boswell was making a red label Export Ale, green label India Ale, and a Cream Porter. A fine collection of Boswell labels from the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto can be seen here. These beers were likely fairly similar to Boswell’s beers in the later 1800s except that the export ale was surely a newer development, probably a lager-ale hybrid. Another change from the Victorian era was that the beers in the 1940s were probably 5% abv, whereas they were rather higher c. 1900. Nonetheless, Boswell was still using open wooden fermentation tanks during the war years and probably until later in the 1950s. The company, too, was still using wood barrels in the 40s, coated with a clear tar of some kind. Later in the 50s this changed to metal.
Somme toute, the British heritage in the beers’ make-up was still strong which did not prevent a predominantly French city, Quebec, from enjoying and indeed taking pride in them.
Boswell Brewery’s Beers in the 1940s-1950s
Brewing information about Boswell and Dow beers is set out in Nicole Dorion’s ethnological study of Boswell history, see Table 1 which appears to date from the late 1940s-early 1950s. While an outline only, it states that Boswell’s beers used barley malt and some sugar in the boil, and were matured in both wood and glass-lined metal tanks for three months. In contrast, Dow Ale was aged for four weeks. Three months is a very long time to store ale and porter in 1950, even by British standards. Also, Boswell’s ale, at least the IPA green label, was dry-hopped. Yet, Boswell also wanted its beers well-filtered and carbonated. They were a real hybrid of 1800s and 1900s techniques.
By the 1960s, the Boswell brands were history. As a result of Canadian Breweries Ltd. – E.P. Taylor’s – purchase of National Breweries Ltd. in 1952, Dow Ale became the focal point of its business in Quebec Province. The component breweries of National Breweries were amalgamated and re-named Dow Breweries.
What did Boswell’s India Ale, aged three months and dry-hopped, using its special yeast, taste like? There would be men in Quebec City, in their mid-80s, who still remember. If anyone is reading who knows such a gentleman, or Madame, pray ask and tell me what they say.
Note re images: The first image above is Breakneck Steps, Quebec City, c. 1870. Believed in public domain, sourced here. The second was sourced from a University of Laval, Quebec website, here. The third is titled A View of the Intendant’s Palace, Quebec, 1759 by William Elliot, also in the public domain and sourced from Toronto Public Libraries, here. The fourth image was sourced from Nicole Dorion’s 1991 article, L’industrie de la bière – Le Cas de la Brasserie Boswell (cited below in no. 3). The last image, a Boswell beer label, was sourced here. All are used for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.
- Le site du Palais de l’intendant à Québec: genèse et structuration d’un lieu urbain, Marcel Moussette (1994, Septentrion, Sillery, QC): https://books.google.ca/books? id=xJcToJ5_W0IC&pg=PA179&dq=palais+quebec+biere+Boswell&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=palais%20quebec%20biere%20Boswell&f=false
- Quebec Government website on Boswell Brewery: http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=104017&type=bien#.VrZ5fsfPBH
- L’industrie de la bière – Le Cas de la Brasserie Boswell, Nicole Dorion, University of Laval (1991, article published in Material Cultural Review): https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/17465/22524
- Web site of L’îlot des Palais: http://ilotdespalais.ca/a-propos/
- Le Second Palais de l’Intendant à Québec (Robert Nadeau, 2008, dissertation submitted to University of Laval): www.theses.ulaval.ca/2008/25133/25133.pdf
- University of Laval website on L’îlot des Palais: http://www.laboarcheologie.ulaval.ca/chantiers-ecoles/historique/brasserie-boswell-dow/
- National Breweries Ltd. 25ième anniversaire: http://www.explorationurbaine.ca/abandonne/Mont%20Sinai%20Sanatorium/NBLtd/NBLtd%20copy.pdf
- Quebec: As It Was, And As It Is, Willis Russell (1857): https://books.google.ca/books?id=o_QpAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA137&dq=boswell+brewery+amber+ale+quebec&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=boswell%20brewery%20amber%20ale%20quebec&f=false
- National Breweries Ltd. Review, April, 1943 issue: http://villedemtl.ca/pourboireilfautvendre/fr/fiche-item/rg-1999-452-1943-04
- Quebec independent historian Jérôme Ouellette’s blog post on the Boswell brewery site (note 1923 insurance map details): https://histoireurbaine.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/la-cote-du-palais-extra-muros-1921/
- Interesting additional facts on the brewery from historian Luc Nicole-Labrie, e.g., Boswell had financial difficulties in the 1860s: http://histoiresociete.blogspot.ca/2010/08/la-biere-quebec-2-la-brasserie-de.html
- Brewed in Canada: The Untold Story of Canada’s 350-year-old Brewing Industry, Allen W. Sneath (2001, The Dundurn Group, Toronto):https://books.google.ca/books?id=NVldNYzUMJAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=allen+sneath+brewed+in+canada&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=allen%20sneath%20brewed%20in%20canada&f=false