The Ten Breweries of Montreal (in 1898)

In 1898 in a splashy advertorial-style piece, the French-language newspaper La Presse wrote up the ten breweries then in business in greater Montreal. La Presse was founded in 1884 by William-Edmond Blumhart, a descendant of a Hessian officer who served with British forces in Quebec.

By the start of the 20th century La Presse was a major force in Quebec publishing, friendly to business yet with a liberal, inclusive outlook. At least as I remember it, La Presse was never strongly nationalistic, for example. Today, the paper is digital-only and run as a social (non-profit) trust.

The breweries described were Molson, Dow, Dawes, Ekers, Union, de la Court, Reinhardt (claimed as first lager brewery in Montreal, 1852), Star, Canadian Brewing, and Montreal Brewing. The three oldest were Molson (1786), Union (formerly Williams Brewery) (1808), and Dow (1809). Today, only Molson survives, now called Molson Coors Beverage Inc.

Brewing continues in Molson’s historic location by the St. Lawrence River but a new plant is being built in St. Hubert, Quebec. When turns the key, that will spell the end certainly of mass production of Molson-Coors beer by the riverside in Montreal.

The article was probably financed by the brewers as a kind of joint anti-Prohibition exercise, as it continually suggests the health, economic, and social benefits of moderate drinking. The breweries are given disproportionate space to their size, Molson got only a small paragraph, for example. It is difficult to know why, perhaps each paid for so much space.

The piece is noteworthy for the historical detail, ownership and management information, and product descriptions.

Most breweries were owned by Anglophones despite the fact that Montreal has always had a French-speaking majority. Star Brewery was owned by a Belgian financier, Count Debellefeuille. The de la Court name suggested a possible second European connection, maybe Dutch.

Many breweries were staffed by British-trained brewers, e.g., in Burton, Scotland or Ireland.

In the 20th century, brewing in Montreal was started up by Francophones, e.g., Frontenac Brewery, and today of course most craft brewing is probably owned by Francophones. The 1890s was a time when English-speakers still dominated the economy in Quebec.

The types of beer made were pale ale, India Pale Ale, stock ale, porter, stout, and lager. Some made both lager and ale, Ekers for example produced a Milwaukee Lager. Its plant was – and is, the building – on St. Lawrence Boulevard north, past the Schwartz smoked meat restaurant many readers will know.

Dawes, then in Lachine, Quebec also made a No. 1 Heavy Ale, suggesting Scots influence in the range.

What happened to these breweries? De La Court ceased in 1900 according to the late Allen W. Sneath’s Canadian brewing history. It seems Star Brewing had ceased business as well by that year.

All the rest, excluding Molson’s, merged in 1909 with a few breweries outside Montreal in Quebec, to form National Breweries Limited. Dow, Dawes, Ekers, and Boswell in Quebec City, were the main surviving units. National Breweries later acquired other breweries in the province, notably Frontenac in Montreal, and Champlain in Quebec City. For further details, see on page 8 this financial “historique” of National Breweries in a Quebec newspaper in 1930.

Toronto industrialist E.P. Taylor’s Canadian Breweries Ltd. (CBL) acquired National Breweries in 1952. In 1989 the successor of CBL, O’Keefe Brewing, merged into Molson’s. The canny Molsons ended with it all, today sharing control with the Coors family and the whole shebang now run from Chicago. But Geoff Molson, of the seventh generation, is still actively involved in management.

La Presse cited various names as likely to be long remembered in Montreal brewing, but the Molsons, given relatively short shrift in its coverage, ended up claiming that honour.

Note re images: the first image was sourced from the story identified and linked in the text. The second, from a later period in Montreal brewing history, is from the City of Montreal’s online exhibition,To Get a Drink You Have to Sell, which memorializes Dawes brewing history.  All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.