Quebec Ale and Porter: the 1940s Heyday

These images are from striking colour plates in the 1948 annual report of National Breweries Ltd. (NBL). NBL comprised six breweries in Quebec province, with its headquarters in Montreal.

A 1909 merger had combined, as the main components, the Boswell, Dow, Dawes Black Horse, and Ekers breweries. These were joined by the Frontenac and Champlain breweries in later decades.

NBL was publicly traded but the top management still derived from the pre-merger breweries. The Dawes, Boswell, and Ekers surnames regularly appear in the documents.

In 1952 E.P. Taylor’s Canadian Breweries Ltd. scooped up NBL and considerably trimmed the production facilities and product lines.* Taylor had started in Ottawa before the war with Brading’s, a brewery founded by his grandfather. Its ale was available into the 1960s in Ontario and Quebec.

The star beers of NBL in the late 1940s, a time seemingly indomitable for the group but proving evanescent, included these:

 

 

While Frontenac offered a lager, ale and porter dominated the NBL portfolio, inherited from early Canadian brewers working in the British way. The founders were typically immigrants from the U.K. or Ireland.

The beers had evolved by the late 1940s, but there is reason to think they preserved features of their ancestry.

The 1948 and 1947 reports are luxurious in presentation and design. The 1949 report is, by contrast, slimmed down, likely reflecting the increased financial pressures that resulted finally in takeover.

The reports show the sophistication of Canadian business by this time. The tone is perfectly pitched between business needs and “PR”. Selling the virtues of “drinking local” is nothing new: the reports vaunted NBL’s large purchases of Canadian barley, and hops grown in British Columbia.

 

 

Then, as now, brewers made hay of taxes they paid. Then, as today, brewers argued the virtues of taking over inefficient, small brewers. One report stated smoothly that buying Champlain Brewery improved distribution and meant the beers would be available all over Quebec. (Sound familiar?).

The brewers lauded their employee benefits and public service record, the latter on display notably during WW II. In truth the breweries did make many contributions to the war effort. I documented some of this viz. Dawes earlier, as gleaned from issues of its house magazine.

One difference from today is the stress placed on efficient modern production methods, with an implied critique of historical brewing methods. Eg. a pictorial compares aging barrels of beer in dank-looking, old cellars to tall ranks of orderly tuns (albeit made of wood) in spic and span modern halls.

Today, the public mind favours, or ostensibly, the old-fashioned, the local, the small. In the 1940s business vaunted the ultra-modern, the “hygienic”, with the implication products were better, and safer. Both are constructs in which marketing plays a large if not decisive role.

 

 

In their favour, NBL’s ales and porter were all-malt; the reports make no reference to brewers’ grains apart from malt. I discussed earlier that in the 1930s American brewing albeit reliant on corn and rice as brewing adjuncts, still featured high hop rates and high final gravities – compared that is to today’s mass-market norm.

NBL’s beers were likely as good or better since they were still 100% barley malt. Indeed it was an era in which Canadian beers had a high reputation in America. NBL’s beers likely approached modern craft beers in quality.

Champlain Brewery’s India Pale Ale is noteworthy. Champlain’s porter is remembered by beer historians but its IPA is rarely or never mentioned. Here you see it in its glory.

Champlain’s facility in Quebec City closed in the 1950s and the IPA forever disappeared. The porter was made into the 1990s by Molson Breweries which had absorbed Carling O’Keefe in 1989, the successor to NBL. Champlain porter, which I drank many times, had a frankly sweet, liquorice taste.

Note re images: The images above were sourced from the National Breweries Ltd. Annual Report linked in the text, part of McGill University’s digital business library. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are included for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

………………………………………

*See Allen Sneath’s summary in his 2001 Canadian brewing history, Brewed in Canada, here.

**Old-time B.C. hop cultivation is explained by an online museum exhibition, Brewers Gold, at Chilliwack Museum, Chilliwack, B.C.