Beer in Victorian French Canada


Image Attribution: By Smudge 9000 (originally posted to Flickr as The City Wall) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Quebec’s John Bull Character in the 1800s

Saying “Victoria” and “Quebec City” in the same breath may seem contradictory. Quebec City, or Ville de Québec, is the historic capital of Quebec Province, French Canada’s heartland. It was founded in 1608 and has always been predominantly French (although the population was for a time nearing 50-50 French and English in the mid-1800s).

Yet, from many points of view, the city was indeed British Victorian, at one time. Quebec province was ceded to Britain by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. This followed the fateful defeat of General Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham by General Wolfe of the British Army. Certainly the Quebec Act of 1774 enabled the survival of French civil and religious society by recognizing the French language, the Catholic faith, and French civil law. But British rule in Quebec was consequential, to say the least.

One result was major areas of the economy became the preserve of incomers from Britain or the United States. A good example is the brewer John Molson who came to Montreal in the 1780s and established what is the oldest surviving brewery in North America, now called Molson-Coors. Fortunes like Molson’s were created in many sectors including sugar refining, mining, furs, forestry, shipbuilding, insurance, and banking.

English-speakers seeking business opportunities settled in Quebec City from the 1770s, not just the larger centre of Montreal. Quebec City is about 150 miles downriver of Montreal, east along the St. Lawrence River. Quebec City was and is the spiritual centre of the St. Lawrence Valley, the historic destination of French settlement in Quebec. Indeed a 1940s projects for Quebec independence envisaged the new country as “Laurentia”.

While modern Quebec is a huge territory and has been settled well beyond this heartland, its Laurentian core always expressed its French character most completely. Still, the arrival of English commerce changed Quebec City, and Quebec province, considerably. At one point later in the 1800s Quebec City’s population was 40% anglophone. The “English” side was in fact a mix of citizens of Scots, English, Irish, and American background.

The large, influential anglophone group declined precipitously in the 1900s, and today is hardly perceptible although not quite forgotten. The Scottish-derived Simons have been in Quebec City for hundreds of years and still run what must be Canada’s oldest department store controlled by the same family.

Brewing fit in well with the new régime because under French rule beer had been brewed continuously since the earliest arrivals. The first commercial manifestation was 1668 when the Intendant Jean Talon set up a brewery on the site of what was later the Intendant’s palace. Finally (in 1852) the site became a brewery again, the Anchor Brewery of Joseph K. Boswell, a Dublin-born settler. The brewery had been operated earlier by different English speakers.

In Quebec City in the 1800s the larger breweries were owned by Paul Lepper, James McCallum, and not least Joseph Boswell. Boswell’s sons continued to run the business until (and even after) the brewery became part of National Breweries in 1909.


The breweries of the Anglo-Saxon incomers reflected an organisation and technology similar to developments elsewhere in the English-speaking world. This extended quite naturally to beer styles. The sorts of beer made by early Quebec brewers were similar to those made in Britain at the time, hence porter, mild ale, pale ale, Burton ale, and Scotch ale.

Simply put, they were the beers the people knew who set up these breweries, by dint of homeland memory or via ongoing cultural connections. And these traditions were handed down to their Canadianised progeny.

Although it is another story the domination of the Quebec economy by English-speakers always rankled in Quebec. French-speakers after WW II were about 80% of the Quebec population, yet did not control the levers of  economic power (vs. political). This triggered a series of changes to Quebec society, some ultimately enforced by language or expropriation laws, the result of which was to transfer a good part of the economy to French hands. I am speaking here of the era up the current globalized economy, at least.

But this post addresses an earlier time, when those of English mother-tongue tended to dominate the business scene. It was a time for example when a brewery in Quebec could use English in advertising and signage without feeling obliged to include a French version. Today, that would be an anomaly, to say the least, in fact impossible under Quebec’s French language laws.

Our interest here can further be defined to know how residents of Quebec City who took more than an average interest in beer, viewed its palate and quality. Two sources, one in English and the other in French, shed light.

Willis Russell

Willis Russell was American-born, from New England. He came to Quebec at about 30 and soon was the best-known hotelier in the city. His career is summarized in this early Canadian biographical entry. Russell was active in numerous other businesses and investments, and also in civic government.

He wrote a history of Quebec City in 1857, no doubt to promote his hotel interests, and took notice of the brewing trade in town. Numerous pages laud the plant and products of Boswell brewery, in particular. Whether Boswell paid him money for this lavish attention, we shall never know.

Some of Russell’s comments reflect an imperfect knowledge of beer and brewing, but it is clear from the discussion that Boswell’s made India Pale Ale, porter, probably mild ale, and a strong, Burton-style ale.

Russell notes that the beers were never sour and were made without addition of – permit me the Victorianism – factitious ingredients. He stated that some hops were imported from Kent in England but some were obtained in Canada and that the barley malt was locally sourced as well. He considered local ingredients of excellent quality. While approving the beers made by other breweries in Quebec City, only Boswell’s came in for extended praise.

In his connoisseur’s estimation: “Indeed Quebec can produce the fine India Pale Ales of Edinburgh; the rich sparkling amber ale of Burton; the stingo of Dorchester; the entire or half and half of Barclay Perkins, London; and famous dark porters of Dublin”.

Hubert LaRue

Hubert LaRue was a French Canadian physician, a protean 19th century figure interested in literature, agriculture, politics and history. He mixed in the elite Victorian set of Quebec City, and had connections with the University of Laval of which he was the first medical graduate. Today, we would call him a public intellectual. This impressive figure – quite appropriately – took an interest in the topic of beer. In his 1881 Mélanges historiques: littéraires et d’économie politique, Volume II, he made observations of interest on the beer of his native city and “Canadian” beer in general.

These included that hop cultivation in Quebec generally did not succeed due to early frosts or other problems; hops were available from New York and Wisconsin but were variable in quality; none of these hops could equal the best from England and Bavaria; and imported hops were used for the finest beers. LaRue wrote that domestic hops reminded him of the nauseous quality of aloes. Aloe, or aloes, is a botanical often described as bitter, acidic, and just bad-tasting: one source states baby vomit! The poor opinion of North American hops accorded with professional brewing opinion in Britain, then.

Brewing was performed, he added, all year round, vs. the malting of barley, due to the availability of ice. Beeretseq remembers wood shed ice available in summer in the 1950s, sheathed in sawdust. An analysis of Canadian beers by LaRue showed they contained 7-8% alcohol, he specifically states “Gay Lussac”, which means alcohol by volume. This alcohol level accords with much historical data on the bottled beers of the day; stout and various ales all easily inhabited this range.


LaRue credits Montreal’s William Dow with bringing major improvements to Quebec brewing, inspired by English practice, and states that all Quebec-brewed beer improved considerably as a result.

Next, LaRue makes an interesting statement, that Canadian beers remind him a lot of beer in Bavaria on trip he took there in 1856. This statement can be parsed in different ways, but I believe he was referring to stability – Quebec beer wasn’t sour or infected. In good part, this was probably the result of the liberal use, even prior to mechanical refrigeration, of ice in brewing and  for storage. Ice of course was easily at hand, and storable, in Quebec. And in general, the Quebec climate is pretty cold much of the year.

Britain in this period, France as well, simply were not able to ensure long-keeping of beer without some acidification or wild yeast development. This was despite the use of heavy hopping for some styles and blending beers to obtain a drinkable product.

Bavarian beer was, by the 1850s, lager beer. It benefitted from good stability due to being being stored cold in deep cellars or Alpine caves and being kept chilled until dispense. The common climatic factor plus availability of ice as mentioned probably made Quebec ales and stouts seem similar to Bavarian beer in a way British beers were not, despite that is the difference in fermentation style.

N.B. (Added December 23, 2019). For a continuation of this post, see our post “Canadian IPA in 1867 – a Heady Brew” posted Dec. 23, 2019.

Note re second and third images: the McCallum Pale Ale label is from the collection of the McCord Museum in Montreal. Details on its full name and ownership can be found here. The third image was sourced from the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto, similar details in its regard are available here. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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