Marian Engel’s Beer Essay

The Great Canadian Beer Book, ed. by Gerald Donaldson and Gerald Lampert, was published in 1975 by McLelland and Stewart, a premier Canadian publisher. Today M&S is an imprint of Random House/Bertlesmann. Lampert is long-deceased, while Donaldson, still active, carved a notable career in auto race journalism and biography.

Despite its irreverent, “scrapbook” design popular in the 70s, the book covers many angles: technical, historical, culinary, pictorial, and more. While a jocular note pervades the text, characteristic of beer discourse then, an underlying respect for beer comes through.

Once again, we see that modern beer culture, wound around the craft beer world, has a foundation – isn’t cut from whole cloth.

We learn some early Labatt history including the origins of its now defunct I.P.A. We learn of the Olands, Carlings, and O’Keefes, all brewing notables. Recipes cover beer in the kitchen, a buffalo-and-beer stew, say. There is a formula for “coffee beer”, years before craft beer thought of the idea.

The Calgary Red-Eye, the Brunswick Tavern in Toronto, the King Cole Room here (jazz), Henninger Brewery in Hamilton – it’s all here and more.



Numerous Canadian authors and artists penned contributions including Al Purdy, David Helwig, and Marian Engel. Engel (1933-1985) was a Toronto-born novelist, book reviewer, critic, and feminist. Her birth surname was Passmore but she went professionally by Marian Engel, her married name.

Engel won high honours including a Governor-General’s Award and membership in the Order of Canada. She is remembered as well for spearheading a national campaign for authors to receive a greater share of compensation generated by their published work.

In her memory jointly with the late Timothy Finley, $25,000 is awarded each year to a deserving Canadian author in mid-career. Margaret Atwood was one of the first to endow the fund.

Engel contributed 1000 words on beer in the book. She describes growing up in a Temperance family, finally acceding at 21 to “half a draft”, to make it easier to get dates, she writes. She toured “German” taverns in Ontario’s Mennonite country including in Neustadt, remembering “plates of pigs’ tails” and “lots of beer”.

She drank beer at Paddy Greene’s in Hamilton and out in Manitoulin. She taught for a while at a girls’ school in Montreal and drank beer on Saturdays with the games mistress, “quarts of Molson”.

After graduate work she landed a job in Missoula, Montana, probably at the university there, finally earning a M.A. in literature from McGill University in Montreal.



She describes from her Montana time the Oxford and Chicken Inn bars. One beer came “in plaid cans”, she drank it on tap with pizza. “Schooners of Scotchguard”, she called it. She couldn’t recall the brewery 20 years later but it was Highlander, which closed in 1964.

American beer writer and editor Kate Bernot mentioned on Twitter that the Highlander name has been restored, so I looked it up. Indeed, a brewpub not connected to the original brewery brews under the Highlander name. It sells a pilsner that might be close to the “Scotchguard” Engel recalled.

The original Highlander was never a Scotch ale properly speaking (dark, strong, rich). Highlander seemed here originally to mean a Montana hill resident, not a beer type. But in time the first brewery employed Scottish iconography to help sell the beer. Current branding for the modern namesake does something similar, it appears.

It turns out that true Scotch-style beer is popular today in Montana. I think the reason ultimately is due to the “Scotchguard” label Engel recalled. Some things adhere in the folk memory and show up in unpredictable ways later. The memory of a plaid can encouraged, in other words, (we think) the idea Montana could be partial to rich Scotch ale.

Kate Bernot noted that an early craft brand, Cold Smoke, had a role in making Scotch ale a thing in Montana, so perhaps it’s “all of the above” .

Engel writes that after coming home from a long European trip:

… we decided that since we’d always drunk the wine of the country, we’d drink beer. The only way to entertain is to put a case in the middle of the living room floor, bring out the opener, and some cheese and get on with it. I drink out of the bottle; some boyfriend’s father taught me to gargle it right down. Cold, it goes down, down, down.

Later in life she liked whisky, sometimes, apparently foregoing the beer. She explained it became too much trouble to lug cases home from Brewer’s Retail.

I don’t think Engel enjoyed her Montana sojourn much, I wonder if she would feel differently now. Presumably she’d be pleased to see her “Scotchguard” still in the market, and many more beer types that no one could imagine in the 1950s.

Sadly, she won’t write a further essay on beer, or any more novels. She died, too young, over a generation ago.

Note re images: the first image above, of Marian Engel, was sourced from this German book site. The image above of a vintage Highlander beer was sourced at, here. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.