Quebec Ale and Porter: the Heyday

The images below are from stunning colour plates in the 1948 annual report of National Breweries Ltd., a group of six breweries with headquarters in Montreal.

The 1909 merger combined (mainly) the Boswell, Dow, Dawes Black Horse, and Ekers breweries, to which the Frontenac and Champlain breweries were added in later years.

The group was publicly traded but senior management still derived from the main components of the merger, the Dawes, Boswell, and Ekers names recur in the documents.

In 1952 E.P. Taylor’s Canadian Breweries Ltd. scooped up the group and considerably trimmed production facilities and product lines.* Taylor started off in Ottawa with Brading, a brewery founded by his gran-dad and whose ale was still available in the late 1960s in Ontario and Quebec.

Here are the star beers of National in the late 1940s, a time seemingly indomitable for the business but only too evanescent as history showed.

All the beers except the one lager from Frontenac are ale and porter, styles handed down by the early Canadian brewers who worked in the British way. In many cases the founders were immigrants from the U.K. or Ireland.

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

The 1948 and 1947 reports are luxurious in presentation and design. The 1949 report is rather slimmed down, probably reflecting increasing financial travail that led finally to takeover by raider Taylor. I didn’t look at the balance sheets but they are there to analyze…

The reports show how sophisticated Canadian business was by then. The tone is pitched perfectly between business needs and “PR”. “Drinking local” is nothing new as the reports explain proudly that Canadian barley was used and a good deal of the hops were grown in British Columbia.

Then, as now, brewers made hay of all the taxes they paid. Then, as now, brewers lauded the benefits of taking over the small guys. One report states smoothly that the recent acquisition of Champlain Brewery improved its distribution and henceforth the beers would be available in all parts of Quebec. Sound familiar?

The brewers also lauded their employee benefits and public service record, which in truth was impressive especially the war effort but it went beyond that.

One difference from today is the subtle deprecation of historical brewing techniques. You see it continually through the reports, for example comparing aging in the 1700s in dank-looking cellars to modern halls of tall (albeit wood-built) tuns.

Today, the public mind has reverted to favouring old-fashioned ways, to non-“processed” as best. In the 1940s businesses took pride in being ultra-modern with the implication their products were better, and safer, than ever.

Whether that is true or not for the line-up of beers shown is hard to say, but I would note the ales and porter at any rate seem to have been all-malt. The reports make no reference to brewers’ grains apart from malt.

I’ve discussed earlier that 1930s American brewing processes, while typically using malt adjunct, displayed high hop rates and high attenuation compared to today’s commercial norm. If that is so and the Canadian ales were still all-malt – in fact I know Boswell’s was, I documented it earlier – one can imagine that the beers had even more character.

Indeed, this was an era in which Canadian beers had the reputation of being better than American, not just in Canada. National’s beers of the 1940s may well have approached our modern craft beers in taste.

The picture above of Champlain Brewery’s India Pale Ale is noteworthy. The porter of this brewery is well-remembered by beer historians but the IPA is rarely or never mentioned. Here you see it in its glory.

The Champlain facility (in Quebec City) was closed in 1956 and the IPA disappeared. The porter was made into the 1990s at least, by Molson Breweries which absorbed Carling O’Keefe in 1989, successor to National Breweries. The porter had a 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.

**Some B.C. hop culture history can be gleaned from the online museum exhibition, Brewers Gold, of Chilliwack Museum in Chilliwack, B.C.