Brewing Industry Advances In The Jazz Era


1920s Innovations in Packaging Beer Echo Down The Ages

Some may wonder why the 1908 Molson Pale Ale, or that style of “real ale”, was out of production for so long.

Increasingly after WW I, bottled ales, in areas influenced by British beer traditions, became clear, fizzy and well-filtered. In Canada they tended to resemble lagers. In England they retained a more traditional character but were still different from beer naturally-matured in the bottle.

The technological pace quickened after WW I. The brewers claimed that is what the public wanted, which is at least partly true. There were complaints before the war that beer with a yeast deposit required discarding a portion of it – in those years people liked to pour their drink clear – to decant it.  Another reason was to ensure better stability in the bottle. To further this end, a lot of this new type of beer was pasteurized.

The new style was variously called sparkling ale, dinner ale, gem ale. In Canada and the U.S., draft beer took this form too. In England, the draft beers were still for another 40-50 years cask-conditioned and reasonably traditional in nature, albeit somewhat altered too, being weaker and less hopped than before.

Molson Export Ale, first released in 1903, was a harbinger of this new style. Today, beers such as Labatt 50 and Keith’s India Pale Ale best exemplify the type.

In 1908, one can infer that Molson still made some of the older style. The recreation is 6.8% abv and accords pretty much with known characteristics of pale ale before 1900: placed in the bottle unfiltered; light amber in hue; 6-7% abv; aged in cask and then the bottle before being released to the market.

IMG_20160211_213351One could infer all this history from the product types known to be in the market at different times and from English brewing sources. But as it happens, confirmation comes from Molson itself, in the form of a speech a fourth generation member of the family gave in 1922 to a group of British brewing experts. The presentation was called, The Brewing Industry In Canada and given by Col. H. Molson who had scientific and legal credentials. It was published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Vol. 28, Issue 7. The account provides a clear and authoritative short history of Canadian brewing (not just Molson’s) from inception to 1922 and contains much of interest.

When discussing the kind of beer Molson’s had fixed on for the future, it is clear this beer was 5% abw or less (a law enacted a year earlier in Quebec required that, it should be noted), filtered and carbonated, aged mid-50sF*, and with characteristics of both ale and lager. Molson said the “stock” beers of the 1800s, strong, aged nine to 12 months in wood and then bottled and aged again, were a memory. Indeed this proved accurate for the next 95 years, but this 1908 pale ale is a rare return to the past, one which proves that Canadian brewing in its early years had the hallmarks of craft brewing.


*In an earlier draft, I stated “aged cold” but changed it to the phrasing stated as, re-reading Molson’s remarks, I see he states the beer was held at 52-56F for eight to 16 weeks, and dropped to freezing (32F) only before bottling. Clearly, in 1922, the beers (ales) were processed in a way to retain some traditional character including still being all-malt. This changed in later decades with increasingly shorter storage times, colder storage, and introduction of grain adjuncts, generally in the Canadian industry that is.

Note re first image used: the image above is called Art Deco Border by Dawn Hudson, and is in the public domain. It was sourced here.

3 thoughts on “Brewing Industry Advances In The Jazz Era”

  1. The new law after WW I which regulated alcohol content of beer in Quebec – this followed a semi-temperance period when the alcohol limit was even lower – was 5% by weight. While higher in volume terms than the norm in the last two generations certainly (5% abv), it is clear that by the 1930s Quebec brewers had fixed on 5% abv as their norm or very close to it. In Alfred Nugey’s “Brewing Formulas” of the 1930s, he gives four alcohol levels for Quebec or Canadian ales.

    If we except the unusually low level for one Quebec Ale, which was clearly a pre-1921 semi-temperance beer, they are all 4.3% abw which equates to 5.4% abv – very close to the modern norm in other words. Herbert Molson clearly set his brewery, probably in common with other brewers in the province, to keep beer around 5% abv and it has been – for the mass market product and excepting the light beer category – ever since. An interesting question is how Quebec law came to be changed in this way…


    • Thanks, Brian. I really don’t know the answer. I would think for marketing reasons a long time ago, an old 19th century name was applied to a modern, sparkling-style ale. Stock is still decent if you get it very fresh, and is apparently 100% malt, but nowhere near the “real” quality of the 1908.


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