Bicycle and Beer: “Sympa” in Quebec

The Tradesman’s Bike of old Quebec

There seems a kind of mystical connection between bikes and beer. Many craft beer fans are ardent cyclists. There is the urban type who defends expansion of bike routes.

Others focus on mountain biking or cross-country. Some like to sample beers on formal bike tours, I have done this myself, in Oxfordshire, Portugal, and California.

Apart the idea to dispel the excess calories of beer, a spiritual comity emerges, an alliance of low-tech forms. Low-tech, at least, compared to their “higher” forms, the cocktail and car, say.

In Canada, specifically Quebec Province, grocery stores in the past delivered beer in a no-gear, black, simple-frame bike fitted with a wide frame over the front tire, sized to hold a case of 24 bottles.

In a 2010 article by Judith Lussier in l’Actualité in Quebec, you see an example of this bike. The shot of a vintage Carlsberg truck probably dates from the early 1970s when (Danish) Carlsberg beer was first licensed for production in Canada.

Pinterest shows many examples of what were known as tradesmens’ delivery or carry bikes, all similarly black and simple-function, with a wide or deep box to carry purchases to domicile.

In the ’60s and ’70s in Montreal the grocery bike – by then the corner épicerie had acquired its Québécois denomination le dépanneur – was a commonplace, especially in working- and middle-class quarters.

As Judith Lussier explained, people ordered beer and other groceries in this way for a variety of reasons, the prevalent cold of Quebec being one.

An obvious reason though is the weight of a case of beer. For persons who didn’t have cars, as common then, a case of 24 bottles was too heavy to carry. A taxi could be fetched, at a price. The grocery store threw in the delivery, at most the delivery boy got a tip (all males then, from my recollection).

It is long odds that someone who actually performed that office can tell of it today, accessible at any rate by a keystroke or two, but such is the case.

In April 2020 Gabriel Deschambault recorded his memories as a grocery delivery boy ca. 1960, for a website devoted to the history of the Plateau in Montreal. The Plateau is a formerly working class section or mainly so, as there were some bourgeois streets. Today it is a hot place to live in general.

His amusing account includes delivering beer to “tourist rooms”. He uses the English form, evidently as displayed in that period, before language laws. He had to walk the cases upstairs – when he started in the business he weighed hardly more himself, he says – and wonders if some of the denizens weren’t “tourists”.

The French statesman Georges Clemenceau then comes in for quotation, which shows where pondering the Quebec delivery bike can take you, or past a certain age.

This image illustrates well the bike in its classic period, and shows too the stand many bikes were equipped with, obviously helpful when loading heavy articles like beer.

 

(Source: it appears the ultimate source of this image, which dates from1976, is M. Philippe Du Berger, uploaded by him to this Flickr link. See with further detail his comment to M. Deschambault’s post linked above. My immediate source was the website Montreal Cycle Chic).

I could be wrong but suspect the tradesman’s bike emerged in Britain long ago, probably the Edwardian era. A fine example of a British tradesman’s bike, the Hercules brand, is preserved at the National Museum of Scotland, again similar to the type I recall in pre-1980s Montreal.

I am not sure about today but into the 1990s solid black cycles with no or few gears were fashionable in parts of London, South Kensington and similar. These had a distinctive carry box, often wicker.

Long-skirted women drove them, plying short routes. These bikes seemed a stylized version of the grocery bikes I knew in my youth.*

Certainly when I saw them it brought back memories, of different walks, in a different city.

My bike of choice as a teen was English too, but not a stolid no-gear job: rather a sleek blue Raleigh, with a butterscotch-coloured seat. And you can be sure I roamed far and wide with it.

I never transported beer, for money or otherwise, but I watched others who did, and je me souviens.

Note re image: source of image is identified and linked in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the owner, M. Phillipe Du Berger as noted. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*A quick search seems to prove these as popular as ever in London, see this link at Pinterest for examples.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Bicycle and Beer: “Sympa” in Quebec”

  1. I would bet a lot of the time they were pushed in the kind of snow in that photo instead of ridden. I’ve ridden bikes in the snow and it’s dicey enough even without a case of beer over the front wheel throwing off the balance. The bigger wheels and higher clearance may have been an advantage over a traditional wagon when getting through unshoveled patches too.

    Reply
  2. Very interesting as usual! A case of 24 bottles of beer was, indeed, too heavy to carry for any distance, as I learned the hard way. My first week out of my parents’ house, as it were, in September 1976 I arrived as a frosh at Queen’s University, staying in one of the residences on Leonard field. Naturally the first thing I thought to do was to establish myself as a regular guy by walking up to the Brewers Retail on Princess (not that far, I thought; about 1.5 km I now see on Google Maps) to buy a 2-4 for myself and any new friends I might make. Bought the case of 24 alright (drinking age was 18 in Ontario back then) but barely made it home, after multiple stops to rest. Never again!

    Reply
    • Thanks and proof positive the ambulatory method, even for the young and strong, wasn’t that wise! The Ontario writer Marian Engel ran into the same problem, in about the same period, I advert to it here: https://www.beeretseq.com/marian-engels-early-beer/

      She came up with a solution, as you see. 🙂

      I wonder if such bikes existed in Ontario, perhaps not as beer by the case was, as you said, only sold at authorized (semi-public) Brewers’ Retail Stores. I think some form of delivery did exist, so maybe the bikes did too.

      Reply

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