A Case of Champlain

Mega Merger Gives Rise to Champlain Brewery

In my writing on the history of Quebec brewing, I highlighted a 1909 merger of breweries in the Province. All joined the resultant National Breweries Ltd. (NBL), except Molson Brewery in Montreal and the small Silver Springs Brewery in Sherbrooke, QC.

Proteau & Carignan, a small Quebec City brewery, joined the merger. An ex-employee, Alfred-Pierre Robitaille, decided to establish his own brewery, in 1911. See details from the Quebec Historical Society. My searches suggest M. Robitaille was an accountant not a brewer, but it’s not fully clear.

His Champlain Brewery, named for the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, remained independent until 1948. In that year NBL bought its shares, as I described in this post.

Larger Context of the 1948 Sale

37 years of independence seems pretty good, comparable to modern craft breweries bought out after a generation’s run. But in Quebec, such events had – still do – significance beyond the purely commercial.

And it relates to language and culture. Brewing, even in the historical capital of Quebec City, had been Anglophone-dominated since the British Conquest. But spirited Francophone firms did make periodic attempts to crack the market. Proteau & Carignan was one, established in 1891 in Quebec City.

Frontenac Brewery, established in 1912 in Montreal was another. Champlain Brewery a third.

Yet a fourth, Imperial Breweries Ltd, was incorporated in 1907 as a cooperative managed by French speakers, in Montreal again.

All ended being absorbed by NBL. Its senior management was dominated by Anglophones who formerly had run the Dawes, Dow, Ekers, and Boswell breweries, the main components of the merger.

The NBL in-house magazine of the 1940s was bilingual, as I discussed earlier. Clearly two languages were used at work. But the business was not owned and run by French-speakers, who formed about 80% of the Province-wide population.

French-speaking business in many sectors couldn’t get a foothold, or not a permanent one. Frontenac was absorbed in 1925, just 13 years after being formed. Imperial Breweries was taken into NBL after only two years of operation.

Why Francophone breweries couldn’t keep pace with NBL is beyond my examination here. It would make an interesting study in some branch of the social sciences or economics. They had the advantage of appealing to national sentiment. Imperial Breweries did, as I explained in earlier accounts here.

So did Champlain. Frontenac seems to have been more nuanced, but even there the sub-text could not be ignored. French speakers there made a product popular among the population; it only made sense their compatriots would buy the beers.

Not enough did, it seems, but there may be more to it than that. A range of technological, economic, and market questions need careful study.

I’ll cite one example where Champlain made a clear attempt to appeal to nationalist sentiment, in the 1930s.

La Madelon Beer; a Famous Tune

In 1935 Champlain launched a new brand, La Madelon. This was clearly an ale, British in pedigree, not a “Continental” lager such as Frontenac was making. Surviving labels for Madelon state “ale” next to bière. The charming label below illustrates this (via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Collection on Flickr).



In 1936 the brewery listed its current range and made a frank appeal for French-Canadian support. From Le Soleil of June 30, 1936 (via Quebec Government Archives):



“French-Canadians: If we helped each other in all aspects of life, so much stronger would we be!”.

Clearly La Madelon, with its French name, was intended to support the nationalist appeal. The brand was named for a patriotic French song of WW I, also called Quand Madelon. The stirring tune endured in popular memory, remaining a rallying point into the Second World War.

The song was popular in Britain and the U.S. as well, with many recordings in English. A recent version, included in an informative blog entry at The University of Melbourne, is affecting.

Whether sung in French or English, Madelon was a young server Allied soldiers encountered at her father’s tavern. She reminded them of home, of what they were fighting for.

Emotive Features of the Madelon Brand

It is noteworthy that Champlain selected the Madelon name and image. On the one hand, the allusion was French, not British as such despite the two flags on some labels (a version of the Union Jack, the Red Ensign, served as Canada’s flag too, at the time).

This precluded the charge of over-sympathy with the British-inspired war effort, always a sensitive point for French Canada. (This derived from being defeated by the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1759).

On the other hand, the name commemorated the Allied victory, something most citizens, Anglophones too of course, could gather round. Why alienate that part of the Quebec drinking public? Many French Quebeckers fought in the war, in any case – need I mention the Van Doos?

The depiction of rustic-looking Madelon also had to remind French Quebeckers of a less urbanized, more old-fashioned French Canada, one modern life was quickly effacing.

In sum, the right notes were struck. Still, the brand seems to have languished. It was not included as a keynote brand in the 1940s annual reports I mentioned.

Mid-1930s Beer Range of Champlain

The range in the 1936 ad is interesting to analyze. The first beer, the Special, was an old-line India Pale Ale. This is made clear in 1940s company reports, which I discussed here.

This Thomas Fischer item shows that Special meant the IPA, as well. The third beer, Champlain XXX, was likely the regular gravity porter. The “Real Stout”, termed “Porter anglais” vs. porter alone for the XXX, was probably higher gravity.

Real Stout may have been all-malt or without licorice – something in other words more strictly English in character.

(I recall the descendant of Champlain Porter in the 70s and 80s being sweet and with a licorice tang).

The Madelon was perhaps a lower gravity, filtered version of the Special India Pale Ale. In the 1920s Champlain marketed two IPAs, one subtitled Export as this advert shows.

The Export was perhaps filtered and “sparkling”, à la Molson Export Ale introduced before WW I. Maybe La Madelon was simply the Export IPA rebadged.

Endgame for Champlain and Similar Breweries

In the end, NBL scooped the Francophone businesses – for a time. By 1952 it was gobbled up by a bigger fish, Edward P. Taylor’s Toronto-based Canadian Breweries Ltd.

Business, finally, is impersonal in its objects: it has an internal logic irrespective of patriotic and other considerations, assuming at least a free market.

True, the Francophone breweries had a seeming advantage of shared national identity with the market. But whatever business was extracted thereby wasn’t enough, or other factors were determinative.

Canadian Breweries Ltd. and Anti-trust

The buy-out of NBL and closure (1951-1952) of Champlain Brewery (Boswell Brewery in Quebec continued, it became Dow Brewery)  probably contributed to a subsequent, federal anti-trust investigation of Canadian Breweries Ltd.

A March 1951 item in Le Soleil stated a union delegate had requested the support of his Trades Federation to cause the government to inquire into whether a monopoly in brewing now existed.

The NBL deal followed many acquisitions and closures of regional breweries in Canada by Canadian Breweries Ltd. The Quebec example was similar to the others in economic impact – rationalization of plants and trimming of brands.

Economic consolidation though had an added dimension in Quebec, where the Francophone breweries’ distinctive character was lost initially to NBL, then to Canadian Breweries Ltd.

Charges were finally laid against Canadian Breweries Ltd. for violating Canada’s Combines Investigation Act. The company was acquitted though, mainly because it was found provincial regulation of beer markets necessarily excluded a normal competitive market.*

A Hockey Connection?

Howie Morenz was the great star of the Montreal Canadians hockey team in the 1930s. He had a connection to a Montreal restaurant called Madelon, which specialized in French cuisine. In a website collecting his memorabilia a restaurant card features his name.

Whether Champlain Brewery was connected I cannot say. The time period seems right, and the links between big brewing and hockey are well-known.

Yet the Madelon name was widely used by different establishments at the time, so it may be a coincidence. Indeed a brewery in France had the name.**

Morenz died tragically young after a bad check on the ice. When I grew up in Montreal he was still legend.

Note re images: source of images above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.


* For more detail see this study by the Toronto lawyers Tim Kennish and Janet Bolton.

**I believe it exists today, in the Vosges, after revival some years ago.










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