A Case of Champlain

Mega Merger Births Champlain Brewery

Earlier I discussed a 1909 merger of breweries in Quebec Province. All breweries in the Province joined the resultant, Montreal-based National Breweries Ltd. (NBL), except famed Molson Brewery, and small Silver Springs Brewery in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Proteau & Carignan, a small Quebec City brewery, was in the merger. In 1911 an ex-employee, Alfred-Pierre Robitaille, decided to establish his own brewery in the city. Further details are set out in a webpage of the Quebec Historical Society. My searches suggest he was an accountant, not a brewer.

His Champlain Brewery was named for the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain. It remained independent until 1948 when NBL bought its shares.

The Larger Social Context

37 years of business independence seems pretty good, comparable to a modern craft brewery bought out after a generation. But in Quebec, such events can have significance beyond the purely commercial.

It relates to language and culture. Brewing in the Province had been Anglophone-dominated since the British Conquest in the late 1700s. But spirited Francophone firms did make attempts to crack the market. Proteau & Carignan was one, established in 1891 in Quebec City.

The Frontenac Brewery, established in 1912 in Montreal, was a second. Champlain Brewery a third, and a fourth, Imperial Breweries Ltd, was up as a French-managed cooperative in Montreal again, in 1907.

All ended being absorbed by NBL. NBL’s senior executives were mainly Anglophones who formerly had managed the Dawes, Dow, Ekers, and Boswell breweries, the main components of the merger.

NBL’s in-house magazine of the 1940s was, to be sure, bilingual. Clearly, two languages were used on the shop floor and by the sales force. But NBL was not owned or, for the most part, managed by French-speakers.

Yet, Francophones formed, and still do, about 80% of Quebec’s population. French-speaking business in many sectors could not get a foothold, a historical legacy connected to the British takeover.

Frontenac Brewery was absorbed by NBL in 1925, 13 years after starting business. Imperial Breweries was also absorbed by NBL, after only two years of operation.

A full explanation why Francophone breweries could not keep pace with NBL is beyond my scope here. It would make an interesting study in a branch of the social sciences or economics. Francophone firms had the advantage certainly of appealing to national sentiment. Imperial Breweries tried this tack, as I discussed earlier.

It appears Frontenac was more nuanced in this regard, but still the sub-text could not be ignored. French-speakers at Frontenac made a product popular among the population – it made sense their compatriots should buy the beers.

Not enough did, it seems, but again a comprehensive study using an appropriate methodology awaits.

La Madelon Beer and a Famous Tune

Champlain Brewery did try an appeal to Francophone nationalist feeling to market its beer. In 1935 it launched its new brand, La Madelon, with an evident French name and themed to francophonie.

At the same time, Madelon was clearly an ale, British in pedigree, not a “Continental” lager such as Frontenac made. This charming label shows “ale” next to “bière” (source: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Collection on Flickr):



At the time ale had the great bulk of beer sales in Quebec, irrespective of the consumer’s mother tongue. In this sense the brand was a kind of hybrid.

In 1936 the brewery listed its current range, making a frank appeal for French-Canadian support, in the newspaper Le Soleil (June 30, 1936, via Quebec Government Archives):



In English: “French-Canadians: If we helped each other in all aspects of life, so much stronger would we be!”. The brand was named for a patriotic French song of WW I, which was also known as “Quand Madelon”. The stirring tune persisted in popular memory and remained a rallying point into the Second World War.

The song was popular in Britain and the United States as well, with many recordings made in English. A recent performance is affecting, linked in an informative blogpost at The University of Melbourne.

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

An Emotive Brand

Champlain’s selection of the Madelon name and image was strategic. The allusion mainly mainly had Francophone resonance even though a Union Jack appeared on some labels. A version of the Union Jack, the Red Ensign, served as Canada’s flag as well then, so the British flag, particularly given the recent war effort, did not offend as such.

The flag would also appeal to Anglophone beer drinkers, and why alienate that market? The rustic-looking Madelon had to remind French Quebeckers as well of a less urbanized, old-fashioned French Canada, one quickly receding in memory as Quebec became increasingly industrialized and modern.

In sum, the right notes were struck. Still, the brand seems to have languished, and is not mentioned in post-acquisition business reports of NBL.

Champlain’s Mid-1930s Beer Range 

The beer range in the 1936 ad is interesting to consider. The first, the Special, was a classic India Pale Ale. This is made clear in later company reports, as I discussed here.

A label at Thomas Fischer also shows that Special was an India Pale Ale. The third beer, Champlain XXX, was likely a medium-gravity porter. “Real Stout”, described as a “Porter anglais“, was probably a stronger stout.

Madelon was perhaps a lower gravity, filtered version of the Special. In the early 1920s Champlain marketed two I.P.A.s, one subtitled Export as this press ad shows:



The Export Ale was probably filtered and “sparkling”, as the better-known Molson Export Ale was introduced before WW I. Likely the Special was stronger, more hopped, and perhaps bottle-conditioned – older school.

It seems likely La Madelon of the next decade was the Export version of India Pale Ale –  renamed and relaunched.

Endgame for Champlain and Similar Breweries

Although NBL scooped up the Francophone-owned Champlain Brewery in 1948, in 1952 NBL itself was gobbled up, by E. 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, at least assuming a free market.

True, Francophone breweries had a seeming advantage of cultural identification with the majority population. But whatever business flowed from that wasn’t enough, or other factors were at play, as an in-depth study perhaps would show.

Canadian Breweries Ltd. and Anti-trust

The buy-out of NBL and subsequent closure of Champlain Brewery – Boswell Brewery in Quebec City alone continued, as Dow Brewery – probably contributed to the later anti-trust investigation of Canadian Breweries Ltd.

A March 1951 story in Le Soleil stated a union delegate requested the support of his Trades Federation to ask the federal government to investigate whether a monopoly in brewing existed.

I don’t rule out that cultural factors were at play here, beyond the usual economic impacts.

The NBL purchase followed many acquisitions and closures of breweries by Canadian Breweries Ltd. across Canada. The NBL example was similar to the others in economic impact: rationalization of plants, trimming of personnel, and reduction of brands, but it also weakened the French-Canadian economic base.

Charges were eventually laid against Canadian Breweries Ltd. for violating Canada’s Combines Investigation Act. The company was acquitted though, mainly because it was found a normal competitive market did not exist in the brewing industry, given the significant regulation of breweries by each Province.

Note re images: the source of each above is 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.












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