Dow Ale was a legend in Quebec brewing until a strange event in the late 1960s spelled the end of the brand as a force. Quebec City, the old capital of the Province of Quebec, was a stronghold of the Dow brand. William Dow had started brewing in the 1800s in the Province. By the 1960s and after various mergers and takeovers, Dow, formerly named National Breweries, had four main brands: Dow Ale, Kingsbeer (a lager), Champlain Porter, and Dow Porter. Dow Ale was the big seller.
In 1966, hospitals in Quebec City started to notice that a spate of men in their 40s-60s, known to be heavy beer drinkers, were suffering from cardiomyopathy. It’s an ailment often manifested by irregularity of heart rhythm. Many died, something like 20-25 persons. Not all these men consumed the Dow brand but most did. Dow in Quebec City – it had a brewery there and in Montreal – made the fateful decision to dump its inventory of Dow Ale, a good faith gesture meant to reassure people. However, the population viewed the action as an admission of culpability. The beer forever became known as “la bière qui tue“, or the beer which kills.
Medical studies conducted by Quebec authorities never established a direct link between Dow’s beer and the deaths. Nevertheless, many experts felt that cobalt sulphate, then used in some brewing to improve head or foam retention, probably caused or exacerbated the medical issue. To be sure, these men were heavy drinkers, they consumed a dozen beers each day or more. Also, the malady seemed to be concentrated in Quebec City, yet Montreal was a large market too for the brand.
But while many breweries in Quebec added cobalt sulphate to their beer at the time, Dow apparently used an unusually large amount, some accounts state ten times the normal quantity. Hence the feeling on the part of many doctors that cobalt was probably responsible, but it was never conclusively proved. Still, Dow stopped using the chemical after the debâcle and the deaths did not recur, at least not in the concentrations that had been noticed.
Needless to say Dow beer fell sharply in sales after the disaster. In 1972 the brand was sold to another brewery, Molson Breweries in Montreal, which continued to brew the beer until the early 1990s. In 1987 Molson merged with Carling O’Keefe, the final successor to National Breweries (itself a combination of 14 breweries formed after WW I of which Dow was a key component).
Online there are numerous examinations of this unique incident in both Canadian and international brewing history. Here is a good place to start, for those interested in more information.
In recent posts, I was discussing the great Quebec and Canadian culinary authority Jehane Benoit, and it turns out she had a connection to Dow.
Benoit had studied food science in Paris in the 1920s under a master nutrition expert, Edouard de Pomiane. I was discussing beer cuisine in various francophone areas in the world, and noted that Quebec cuisine appeared to have only a few recipes using beer.
But Dow Brewery was a client of Mme Benoit in the 1950s, she did promotions for them and this led to a book of recipes called, in English, Cooking With Dow. While the origin of the recipes in the book is diverse and some were probably invented by Mme Benoit, this book must be considered to enlarge the number of Quebec dishes which employ beer in cooking. It is not, therefore, just in the last 20 years or so that books have appeared in Quebec proposing a beer-based gastronomy. The creative and enterprising Mme Benoit was doing it in the 1950s.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
In a later post, I will discuss some interesting recipes proposed by this great food authority.
Note re image: The image above was sourced from the Thomas Fisher Library beer label collection at University of Toronto via Flickr, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.