Quebec Oyster Parties

National Breweries Limited; the Royal Canadian Legion 

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, I attended oyster dinners held at Royal Canadian Legion halls in the West Island of Montreal. The Legion was and is an association of veterans and other supporters of the armed services.

A small charge bought oyster soup, a light-coloured broth (maybe chicken-based) filled with plump oysters. Then came raw oysters, Quebec-style bread (a light, white loaf, nothing like traditional breads in France), and of course beer! The beer was bottled brands of the day, all domestic. There was no stout, famously connected to bivalves, even though Guinness was brewed in Quebec then, under licence.

I think, too, there were Quebec desserts such as the creamy rich tarte au sucre, and the lattice top, square tarts of  fruit or raisins. The sugar pie was surely French in origin, as I’ve found similar confections in France.

Legion Halls held these parties to raise funds for operations. The bivalves were always Malpeques, from Prince Edward Island, among the best in the world. Quite large and salty, they lack the iodine taste of Belon oysters from France, also now grown in Maine, U.S.A., but maybe are better on that account.

I don’t think there was entertainment, maybe recorded music.

The oyster party is an old Quebec tradition, inherited from the 1800s and indeed widespread at one time in the Northeast.

National Breweries Limited, which grouped most of the breweries in Quebec in the 1940s, prided itself on holding these for employees. The parties were regularly mentioned in the house magazine, called The Review.

This issue in 1949 has excellent pictures of these parties, see the last few pages. They were held at each brewery in the group. The “Transport” group had its own, as well. (All that garage space, surely). Men and women each attended their own party, there was no mixing of the genders.

The men are shown in coat and tie, every one of them. The women were well-turned out as well. The oysters were served informally, piled on long plank tables improvised from beer cases or simple wood frames. Underneath, empty oyster shells were cast into boxes for easy disposal. Beer a plenty is shown, of course, to accompany the briny treats.

Some pictures show full cases of beer under the trestles – no quicker way to get a beer.

At the Legion parties I attended I’m quite sure we sat down, but the oyster feasts of National Breweries were stand-up – altitudinal, you might say.

Considering that at least three or four brands of all-malt, well-hopped beer were available,* that was their version of the modern beer festival. They did not so bad.

Canadian Breweries Ltd. was the vehicle of Toronto-based mogul E.P. Taylor. CBL bought out National Breweries in 1952. As day follows night, one can assume its “bean counters” combed the accounts of National Breweries. Did they allow the oyster tradition to continue? Somehow, I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure.

Today, even the Legion Halls seem to hold them only occasionally. Maybe oysters are too costly now. Still, I found two such events for Alberta last year.

The issue I mentioned of The Review has an interesting article on changes to the Dow Ale label and the marketing logic. I think the columns entitled “Autrefois” (meaning formerly) and “Maintenant” (meaning now), for the old and new designs, were reversed, but we’ll set that aside.

The labels that state “22 oz” meant Imperial ounces; these bottles were “pintes” in the old Quebec terminology. A stubby, non-returnable format is also shown for Dow Ale. That was 12 oz., or a “chopine” in Quebec. The stubby was not new when introduced industry-wide in Canada in the early 1960s, except in the sense of being returnable.



On the same page as the ladies’ oyster event is a photo of another females-only party. This one honoured Ste. Catherine, the patron saint of girls and unmarried women. A woman is costumed to play the vieille fille, or old maid. That’s how things were, then…

The Ste. Catherine celebration, known throughout the French-speaking world, had particular resonance in Quebec, and still continues. A 2016 story in Toronto’s National Post brought matters to our time.

Note re image: the image shown is drawn from the issue of The Review (La Revue) identified and linked in the text. The magazine appears on the City of Montreal’s superb virtual exhibition on Dawes Brewery history. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Canadian ale and lager at the time were all-malt, I have documented this separately. That was a point of difference to American practise.











National Breweries Ltd. and the Ontario Market, 1940s

In a 1944 issue of The Review, the house journal of Montreal-based National Breweries Limited (NBL), a detailed article described the Ontario office and sales organization of NBL.

Ontario then was new territory still for the Quebec breweries. Long accustomed to steady markets at home, they didn’t expand as quickly into ROC (rest of Canada) as they should have. Yet Ontario’s Labatt Brewery made repeated efforts, with some success, to enter the Quebec market from the late 1800s. So did other Ontario breweries, as I’ve showed in part earlier.

Molson Brewery finally built a plant in Toronto in the mid-1950s. It was too late for NBL, bought out in 1952 by sharp-eyed E.P. Taylor of Toronto-based Canadian Breweries Ltd. Still, NBL made some efforts to sell in Ontario.

The multi-page article (in French) describes the head office of the Ontario branch, at the Harbour Commissioners Building in Toronto. That historic columned building still stands in a now resolutely modern district, and last sold for $96M some years ago.

The article has a slightly envious tone, or so it seems to me, when describing this outpost. Unlike presumably any of NBL’s Victorian or early-1900s facilities, the Toronto digs were laid out in cool, modern style with a variegated colour scheme. The sleek, new wood furniture was noted as well. The article explained for readers that this was the prevalent style in Toronto. For most of them, Toronto might have been on the far side of the moon.

Even then, land around the Harbour Commissioners Building had been conquis, or reclaimed, from Lake Ontario; the edifice no longer stood as it once did at the edge of the water. Even as the area had changed, many ships still docked nearby to transact commerce, the article noted. This is a change from today except for tanker deliveries to nearby Redpath Industries, which still refines sugar, and perhaps the other odd bulk delivery by water.

The Ontario Brewers’ Retail system is described in detail, neutrally, but in a way that probably struck readers as somewhat regulated (it still is). Photos are shown, only one of which I’ve seen before, the “ice-cold beer” one. A glassed-in example of a Brewer’s Retail is shown. Despite the reputed Soviet-style grimness of these stores, the shop looks quite inviting with its shining glassed exterior – oddly similar to not a few brewpubs I’ve seen! Glassed frontage was continued in modified form into the 1970s, but looked better then.

The writer describes how the beer was ordered. Except for the wartime voucher system, and excepting the self-serve feature now available in many stores, the system is unchanged today, 76 years later. The customer states his request to the clerk. It is relayed by a speaker system to the back. There, an employee sends the packaged beer clattering down metal rollers to the waiting consumer.

Empty bottles were handled then just as today, as well.

Although I’ve read about interprovincial restrictions on beer, which did surely exist, the article makes no mention of this. Perhaps wartime exigencies relaxed the rules. The article makes clear that NBL’s beer was retailed at Brewer’s Retail. The only problem mentioned was long distances to get the products from Montreal to delivery point.

I should add, NBL’s sales force covered all geographic areas where the Brewers Retail stores – there were 130 in 1944 – were located, since store managers had discretion what to buy. There was no centralised buying, according to the article, but it does note that the managers tried to ensure a variety of beers available.

The cover of this issue shows, as another article explains, beer loaded at Canadian Pacific Railway’s Place Viger for shipment to Port Arthur, Ontario. It mentions a cargo of chopines and pintes, which were 12 oz. and 22 oz., respectively. Molson Coors still sells some beer in the old pinte bottles, at its Creemore Batch brewpub in Toronto. (In English, we called the small bottles pints and the large ones quarts, which shows you nothing is simple).

This article noted that the railcars were “heated” to maintain the beers’ condition. This seems odd, but the article, which appeared in March 1944, was probably prepared over the winter. And winters in eastern Canada were, famously we are told, much colder than now…

The main article claimed the beers, still all-malt in the NBL era,* were highly regarded in Ontario. Still, the transport factor alone would have lessened the profitability of these sales, viz. that is the Ontario brewers.

The rationing system was four coupons (free) per month, with one coupon entitling to six chopines. (One for every day except Sunday, right?).

Now, such ration doesn’t seem overly burdensome, particularly for families where not every adult drank beer, but the article described it as only “a little”. A window on Canadian beery proclivities and/or a loyal upholding of the corporate mission, take your choice.

I don’t know if Quebec had a similar system, presumably not as the article makes no mention of it.

NBL beer surely pleased some in Toronto, but not enough to make any difference to the company’s fate, clearly. The home market had to up its game enough, and it never did, at least not the way NBL was structured into the 1950s, with six operating breweries. These were Dawes Black Horse, Dawes Draft Beer Plant (formerly Ekers), Dow, and Frontenac in Montreal, and Boswell and Champlain in Quebec City.

NBL treated its employees well. Reading numerous issues of the house organ, one can tell this from the ambit of activities organized for them and various social benefits including retirement and life insurance plans. This was by no means common at the time. The City of Montreal’s virtual exhibition on Dawes brewery history, in which these magazines appear (covering 1942-1949), states that employee wages had doubled in the 10 years from start of the war.

I hope this largesse, to put it that way, didn’t contribute to the ignominious end of NBL. Certainly under E.P. Taylor things changed, with closures of some plants, paring of brands, and alteration of some recipes, as I will show soon.


*I’ll document this in another post soon.




Altitudinal Drinking Returns

“The Scholar and the World”

In mid-1935 an American, Albert Abrahamson, authored The Price Study: The Price of Whiskey. It was not conventionally published, being an internal document the U.S. government commissioned when examining pricing for key consumer goods. (I’ve referenced the HathiTrust version, and Google Books has it as well, in full text).

Abrahamson, born in Portland, ME in 1905, was a Columbia-trained economist with a long career at Bowdoin College in Maine. He was also regularly engaged by governments to advise on economic policy, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

He was only 30 when the study appeared but it shows an uncommon sophistication. The book, about 60 pages long, has three sections. The first examines the lead-up to National Prohibition and drinking and alcohol supply during the Volstead period (1920-1933).

The second reviews current industry pricing for whiskey, and the last part discusses pricing through the prism of the consumer interest.

The full study is absorbing, but we found the first part of especial interest. Abrahamson considers that Prohibition largely resulted from the need to end the abuses of the saloon and the “tied house”, or brewers’ (mostly) control of saloons and bars. He also notes the ingrained, indeed continuing, moral opposition to drinking in large parts of the country.

Among the many interesting observations, this one may be cited, on the multifarious reasons for alcohol use.

One must distinguish the various shades — the quenching of thirst, the derivation of a slight glow to ease the incidence of social formalities, the desire for partial escape and the quest for complete forgetfulness and unconsciousness. Poets have forged immortal verses in praise of the virtues of whiskey; psychiatrists have justified its use as an escape from arduous endeavour; and a distinguished historian of English society has contrasted the rival consolations of religion and the public house. How much one drinks and what one drinks depend upon the goal one sets and how soon one wants to get to it.

A further element in demand arises from the wishes of some consumers to do the smart thing. This means that some people drink in emulation of movie actors, professional endorsers, social leaders, and other members of the tribe that sets the consuming pace for so many Americans. It is difficult to say when a vague desire to do the smart thing shades off into more compelling demands and finally results in a stubborn habit. The case histories of alcoholics would doubtless reveal many items of interest.

Can the demand for whiskey, partially indicated in the preceding paragraphs, be described by a word or a phrase? Can the demand in future years be predicted? Statistics are of limited value in describing so miscellaneous a phenomenon. The industry is too new to have a significant quantitative history. The figures of pre-prohibition days are not applicable, and the prohibition data are simply guesses.

I was struck, too, by his statement that once gin transferred from the distillery to the “bathtub” during Prohibition, gin replaced whiskey for the bulk of Americans. By this, he meant cheap home-made gin was available to almost all who wanted a drink, whereas whiskey had to be smuggled from Canada or elsewhere and hence cost more to buy.

An exaggeration perhaps, as whiskey did regain a major part of the liquor market after Repeal, but the later Dry Martini craze shows a certain truth in his observation.

He also considered that despite new alcohol control laws, the saloon in large cities continued in its essential form, hence his jaunty term altitudinal drinking (for standing at the bar, leitmotif of the old saloon).

He notes that following Prohibition the liquor industry gained enormously in sophistication, both in business structure and advertising techniques. The newly-legal distillers borrowed developments other industries, for example the public utilities, had pioneered in the 1920s. He found some of these questionable, citing as an example selling what appeared the same grade of whiskey at different prices. His “Royal Flush” example (see the text) is worth pondering.

Abrahamson was evidently much admired at Bowdoin, and while he died in 1988, is still remembered. This college blog by a 1976 graduate, whence our sub-title is taken, is warm in reminiscence. See also the comments from numerous former students and associates.


The Sand Porter of Montreal (Part II)

In my last post I discussed a “sand porter” advertised by two brewers in the Montreal area in the 1880s and 90s.

The most likely explanation for the term is that the porter was filtered through a sand bed, in order to be reasonably bright and stable in the bottle. Through the 19th century, recommendations appear to filter beer in sand (and other substances), probably as a spin-off of early water treatment.

The crevices of sand trap the yeast and protein particles, so the filtering works by physical action, as charcoal does, with a clarifying and purifying effect. The medium must be continually washed so the material can regenerate for use. Sand is virtually indefinitely re-usable, hence cost-effective and environmentally responsible. White sand was typically advised.

Today, among numerous other methods, diatomaceous earth (DE) is often used for close filtration, a sand-like, silica-based substance. DE is a better filter, as it is more neutral and traps more and smaller particles, but sand recurs for discussion among modern brewing technologists. One reason is that DE may pose certain health risks, cancer has been cited.

(The filtration issue has lessened in importance in craft circles, although much craft beer has been, and will continue to be filtered if only roughly).

The following references, among many more I consulted, will support the above. The second, an 1888 American bottling manual by Charles Sulz, covers more or less the period we are dealing with.


Sulz advises the sand filtering for light beers that otherwise would be liable to sour, versus strong beer that conditions by long standing but remains stable. It is interesting that he mentions molasses and sugar beers in this regard, as molasses may well have been used to bulk out the staple porter in Quebec. The old Champlain Porter, which I recall in the 1970s, had a light flavour of molasses.

Reference no. 1, an early 1800s British encyclopedia, offers a detailed discussion of beer filtering and advises sand for this use. A well-known engineer, Joseph Bramah, is cited, known among beer historians for his work on the beer engine or vacuum hand pump, associated with cask-conditioned beer.

Sand filtration was later superseded by DE and other methods, supplemented by pasteurisation. Still, the concept has never completely disappeared. Numerous studies continue to canvass its effects as compared to other materials, e.g., “Evaluation of a Substitute Filter Medium for Removal of Haze in Beer“, by Ma. Perpetua M. Marquez, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Adelaide.

Sand porter is perhaps not the most elegant term, which may explain its demise in the Montreal market, but the process was probably more widely used than the name.

Note: See my Part III of this series, posted December 7, 2020, which extends the discussion.



The Sand Porter of Montreal (Part I)

In the 1880s and 1890s in Montreal, at least two breweries advertised sand porter. The “s” in sand is not a typographical error, as I’ve reviewed numerous ads for the beer.

Here are two links to such ads. The first is from The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle of Montreal in 1892. Montreal Brewing Co. advertised typical products of the day – India Pale Ale, pale ale, stout porter (i.e., stout), and the sand porter.

Montreal Brewing Co. placed many such ads in the press in this period, in French- and English-language newspapers, especially the early 1890s.

Dawes Brewery was a much larger brewery based at the time in Lachine, Quebec just outside Montreal. It too sold sand porter. It advertised it in different-size bottles (pintes and chopines, old French measures). See in French at p. 3 its advertisement in Le Peuple, in 1882, or the same ad the same year in English in the Montreal Herald, here.

The fact that two brewers advertised such porter suggests “sand” was descriptive, not a trade or fancy name. No one surnamed Sand was connected to these breweries, as far as I know, or to a process for porter. There were no beaches near Montreal or Lachine of the type that would suggest an obvious borrowing from local topography.

Since porter was always regarded as a rich, restorative drink, it seems unlikely sand referred to a sunny holiday destination, something unrealistic for the time anyway.

There were no ownership connections between Montreal Brewing and Dawes brewery then, not until 1909 which is years after sand porter disappears from the scene.

Montreal Brewing was helmed by Thomas Cushing, son of prominent businessman Lemuel Cushing of Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Lemuel was issue of a well-known United Empire Loyalist family from New England. Thomas had set up in brewing in Montreal in 1876.

His brewery was one of the smaller ones in Quebec then. Still, it was prominently profiled in the 1898 La Presse article I discussed recently that described contemporary Montreal brewing.

In 1909, Montreal Brewing, Dawes Brewery, and most others in Quebec became part of National Breweries Limited, a Montreal-based combine. NBL endured until Toronto’s E.P. Taylor, a pre-eminent international raider, bought NBL in 1952 via Canadian Breweries Limited (since 1989 part of Molson-Coors Beverages).

Cushing had two sons who were associated with National Breweries. One was Gordon Cushing who later became a stockbroker but stayed on the board of National until the end.

Sand porter seems to disappear from the scene by 1900, it is not mentioned for example in the La Presse profile (while other brews of Montreal Brewing were). I have not been able to locate a label for it. As it endured at least between 1882 and 1892, it was not a flash in the pan. I would think it was the staple porter of these breweries, perhaps for bottles, with their stout being the premium grade.

Any ideas what it was?  I have an idea, but will solicit opinion first.

Part II follows.

Coffee Cocktail? Don’t Mind if I do

An interesting discussion on Twitter recently bore on the coffee cocktail, a concoction popular from the 1880s until 1920 when National Prohibition ended the official drinks culture.

There was both an alcohol and non-alcohol version. The alcohol one generally used sugar, port, brandy, and egg. The proportions of brandy to port varied, everything from a film of brandy over the wine to equal parts.

No recipe I saw stated the type of port to use, and I imagine in practice a variety was used, from ruby to vintage. David Wondrich, an authority on cocktails history, stated if tawny port is used the drink actually resembles coffee or café au lait.

I haven’t tried any version as yet, so must hold my counsel on what the various combinations would produce.

A typical c.1900 recipe can be read here, in The Gorham Cocktails Book. A dusting of nutmeg is advised, as in some other recipes, but a flourish will not alter the essential taste, much as at Starbuck’s today. Similarly some recipes called for a dash of bitters.

Charles Mahoney, in The Hoffman House Bartenders Guide, is restrained on the issue of taste, all but suggesting a coffee cocktail does not taste like coffee. He states it looks like coffee, hence probably the name, but goes no further, and considers the name a “misnomer”.*

A similar view is expressed in 1894 in a French book on English cuisine and baking that takes in both English and American drinks. See Alfred Suzanne’s comments highlighted.

Brown brandy would have made even red port drinks look darker, as would brown sherry if that type was used, and at least one recipe I found called for sherry in addition to port. Where crème de cacao was used, as in this 1909 recipe (Daily Star, Long Island, NY), that would deepen colour and add a suggestion of coffee taste. An 1896 reference to the drink, in the magazine Table Talk, is to same effect.

The latter two recipes seemingly were intended to make a drink not typically tasting of coffee do just that. A parallel idea can be inferred from Jack Grohusko’s c.1910 manual on wines and mixed drinks. Under the japing name Sabbath Cocktail, what is clearly the coffee cocktail has “1/2 pony” of black coffee added.

In the early 1920s, as seen in this 1921 issue of the trade journal Hotel Monthly, a coffee cocktail was a small black coffee served before a meal, without charge. The discussion suggests it was either a temperance version of the alcohol coffee cocktail or a re-dubbed, non-alcohol restaurant staple, the “coffee appetizer”.

I found a few references to this version both before and after 1920 especially for the South. This makes sense as large sections of the Bible Belt went dry even before WW I.

The discussion on Twitter concerned a text a tweeter posted on bartender etiquette. Source and publication date were not mentioned, it was apparently 1920s (when Prohibition was in force) but perhaps earlier. The context was usual drinking matters without reference to restrictive laws, that is.

A tip for bartenders stated that if a customer requests a coffee cocktail, do not retort that you have no coffee. Our exchanges bore on the meaning of this statement. David thought it was probably a bartender’s joke, because the alcohol version involved more trouble to make than many other drinks.

This is plausible, certainly, but if the instructions were written in the 1920s, the tip may have meant, don’t deny the customer a complimentary coffee, an item patrons might request to obey the Prohibition law, or lessen the effects of (illicit) alcohol consumed.

The coffee cocktail illustrates one of the many mysteries of etymology and origin in food and drink history. From steam beer to Stilton cheese, from Welsh Rabbit to the Michigan hot dog, people still argue how these things got their name and what they really meant.

The temperance version must take the cake though (further felicity of outcome!) as it was a simulacrum of a simulacrum.

N.B. As might be expected, in the early years after Repeal in 1933 the coffee cocktail has sporadic appearance. Here is an example from Buffalo, NY in 1934. G. Selmer Fougner, the New York-based drinks writer of the 1930s, mentions the drink a couple of times in the same year. But as for most of the pre-Prohibition cocktail panoply, it disappears for practical purposes by WW II certainly.


*It appears the misnomer idea originated with pioneering cocktails writer Jerry Thomas, whose 1887 edition of his bartenders guide first gave the recipe. Thomas states neither bitters nor coffee enter into the recipe, which appears to be true as a general rule, but later recipes did occasionally incorporate coffee, or another drink made with it, as shown above.