The Great Beers of Québec - A Discovery!

by: HorstDornbusch on 07-16-2004 The following is a report of Horst Dornbusch's observations, conversations, and tastings during the Mondial de la bière 2004 (Montréal International Beer Fest 2004), which took place between June 2 and June 6 at the old Windsor Station and Courtyard in downtown Montréal.

Montréal, June 2 - 6, 2004 - Ask anybody about the half-dozen or so greatest beer cultures in the world and there is a good chance that most people will list -- though perhaps not always in that order -- Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and the United States. But ... there is a new beer power on the rise where few would have suspected. Poised to take its place among the world's great beer cultures is ... Québec, Canada's francophone (French-speaking) province.

Québec is a vast expanse of land, roughly the size of Texas, bounded to the south by Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York and to the north by the icy waters of Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay in the Arctic. It is home to some 6.5 million inhabitants, about half of whom live in Greater Montréal. Within the New World context, Québec is clearly taking its place alongside such craft-brew notables as Washington State, Oregon, California, Colorado, New York, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts. In terms of quality and especially variety, however, Quebec may arguably even trump them all. The proof is the annual Festival mondial de la bière, the Mondial for short, held this year for the 11th time in downtown Montréal.

A Beer Fest with an Elegant Venue
The Mondial is staged in Windsor Station, Canada's oldest railroad station, built in 1889 as the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway's just completed transcontinental line. In those days, the spacious, well-lit hall, which is now used for events and exhibitions, served as the departure point for puffing and straining steam locomotives pulling lines of stately sleeper cars on their six-day, 2,891-mile journey from Montréal through the woods and muskegs of Ontario, across the Prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and over the Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia, to Port Moody (near Vancouver, B.C.) on the Pacific. The Courtyard in front of Windsor Station -- once perhaps a place for hearty goodbyes or just for idling away the time until the whistle signaled the trains imminent departure -- served as the Mondial's food court, pub, and sound stage for evening entertainment.

Windsor Station is right above the Bonaventure stop of the Metro, Montréal's subway, which makes it an ideal site for happy imbibing without the temptation to mix drinking and driving. But for those who did take their car and then overdid the fun, the festival had teamed up with Point Zero 8, a volunteer designated-driver organization, whose members stood ready to drive anybody home at no charge.

Few beer connoisseurs are aware that the Mondial is the biggest, and probably fastest-growing, beer fest in North America. By my standards, it is also the most elegant and best organized that I have attended in a long time. The venue this year was well-laid out, clean and attractive. The crowds were lively but never unruly. The Mondial started in 1994 as a mostly local affair but this year it attracted more than 75,000 visitors -- about 20 percent more than last year. About 15,000 of them came from outside Canada, with a large contingent from the northeastern United States. This impressive attendance means that roughly three times as many visitors gathered for the 2004 Mondial as usually do for the archetype of beer fests, the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado.

Local Color and International Flair
The selection of beers available for public tasting at this year's Mondial was truly global. There were more than 340 beers. Some 130 brands participated for the first time. There were Asahi and Sapporo from Japan; Grolsch from Holland; Traquair Jacobite Ale and Newcastle Brown Ale from Britain; Bitburger, Holsten, Karlsbrau, Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Königs Pilsener, and Hacker-Pschorr from Germany; La Chouffe, DenDerMonde, Echt Kriekenbier and Duvel from Belgium; Smithwick's from Ireland; Boris and CH'TI (a bière de garde) from France; and Faxe from Denmark.

The United States was represented by 65 beers, among these were Rapscallion Blessing from Concord Brewery in Massachusetts; Copper Ale from Otter Creek in Vermont; Troegenator Double Bock from Troegs in Pennsylvania; Hennepin Saison from Omegang in New York; Dunkel Weiss Bier from Tabernash in Colorado; Imperial IPA from Rogue in Oregon; and 60 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head in Delaware.

From the Canadian provinces outside Québec, there were, among others, Artic Red from Yukon Brewing in the far north; Espresso Stout from Pillips Brewing in British Columbia; and Silver Creek from Sleeman in Ontario;

Perhaps the most spectacular and diverse craft beers, however, were homegrown Québécois. Though French by culture and heritage, Québecers do not seem to have adopted their ancient mother country's almost exclusive predilection for wine. Instead they have embraced the craft brew revolution with a fervor that has spawned, according the Mondial President Jeannine Marois, about three dozen craft breweries. This is a handful more breweries than are in Massachusetts, for instance, a state with roughly the same-size population as Québec and a fairly mature craft brew industry.

Elaborates John Bailey, Managing Director of Québec operations for Sleeman Breweries Ltd. of Guelph, Ontario, Canada's third-largest brewery, "Statistically, within the Canadian context, Québec is under-represented in wine and spirits consumption, and over-represented in beer consumption." Adds company founder John Sleeman, "Though Québec is Canada's seconds-largest beer market, after Ontario, in absolute volume, it is clearly the center of Canada's beer culture." John Sleeman is convinced of the truth of his words, because -- to use a well-worn phrase -- he has put his money where his mouth is. On April 20 of this year, he announced to the press a CAN$36.5 million (approx. US$27 million) deal to acquire Unibroue of Chambly, slightly to the east of Montréal, a largely Belgian-oriented, 65 to 70 thousand hectoliter (55 to 60 thousand barrels) per year operation.

As the maker of such classics as Maudite ("the damned"), Fin du Monde ("the end of the earth"), and Blanche de Chambly ("wit of Chambly"), Unibroue is arguably Québec's flagship artisanal brewery and Canada's best-known craft brewery internationally, with growing markets not just across Canada, but also in the United States and even in such European countries as France and Belgium.

Typical of the variety and quality of beers offered by a standard Québec brewery nowadays is the line of Les Brausseurs du Nord, which I liked across the board. There is the Boréale Blonde (a 4.5% pale brew), the Boréale Rousse (a 4% red ale), the Boréale Dorée (a 4.8% golden ale brewed with local honey); the Boréale Noire (a 5.5% rich coffee-and-liquorice stout); and the Boréale Cuivrée (a 6.9% copper-colored, fruity ale).

Québec Beers -- from Classic to Funky
To me, the most interesting of Quebec's artisanal breweries is the five-thousand hectoliter-per-year (approx. 4,250 bbl/yr) Microbrasserie La Barberie, run as a coopérative de travail (a workers' cooperative) at rue Saint-Roche in Québec City. At its booth at the Mondial, La Barberie dispensed an incredible 23 beers from rotating taps as well as 17 beers in bottles. Several beers were fruit beers, for which, as Antoine Lachance, one of the Barberie brewers emphasized, only fresh local fruit were used. No syrups, no extracts.

Some of the Barberie brews I tasted were truly creative. Here is a sample: Blanche aux agrumes (a citrus flavored wit); Blonde au melon d'eau (a water melon flavored lager); Blonde limes et gingembre (a lime and ginger flavored lager); Rousse forte aux fruits (a red ale that is flavored with raspberry, grape, and cherry, and then aged for eight months); Stout miel sarrasin et avoine (a honey-buckwheat-oatmeal stout); Stout aux mûres (a blackberry stout); Rousse au chanvre bio (an organic hemp red ale); and Cuivrée aux coings (a copper-colored, quince-flavored ale).

My subjective Barberie favorite was the Ambrée au piments fort (a hot pepper brown ale). Hot pepper beers are notoriously difficult to make, because you can usually just taste the heat, but nothing else. If you can taste the hops and malt, on the other hand, the beer usually has no heat. The Barberie Ambrée, however, was surprisingly balanced. As brewer Lachance explained, "We backed off on the hops to make room for the hot peppers. We then experimented with the quantities, so that you notice the peppers only in the finish."

Other interesting beers at the Mondial included the Blé et abricot (an apricot flavored wheat beer) of the Basserie McAuslan and the Claire blonde (a vanilla flavored pale ale) from a small brewery in Joliette, north of Montréal, that calls itself L'Alchimiste (the alchemist).

Perhaps the funkiest beer name offered at the Mondial was for a spiced brown ale brewed by La Barberie, called La Corriveau. The name refers to the passionate and frightening maiden Marie-Josephte Corriveau of old Québec. She was born in 1733, and ended up as Canada's most infamous serial killer. In 1761, Marie-Josephte's husband of a dozen years, Charles Bouchard, was found dead from a bad case of molten lead that somebody had poured into his ear while he slept. Marie-Josephte was the only suspect, but nothing could be proven, so after 15 months of widowhood, in 1763, she landed a second spouse, Louis Dodier, who, too, was found dead only a few months later. La Courriveau had smashed his skull with an axe, also while he slept. This time the tribunal reached a guilty verdict and, by the customary penalties of her time, this happy homemaker of New France was hanged for her felonious moonlighting, and her chained corpse was displayed in public in an iron cage. Well, I raised a glass of La Corriveau to this damsel's just rewards.

The Public Decides "What's Hot and What's Not"
All beers entered at the Mondial automatically took part in a public beer contest. As the visitors sampled different beers, they could cast votes for their preferred brews in ballot boxes at the site. The winners were proclaimed on the festival's final day. Said Jeannine Marois, President of the Mondial, "The beer contest is one of the festival's raison d'être. It offers brewers a chance to test their products, and it offers beer fans a chance to be among the first to sample new tastes. Consumers can tell the brewers what's hot and what's not. This is how new tastes get on the shelves." The beer contest winner in the lager category was Elixir Céleste ("heavenly elixir," a Bohemian Pilsner) brewed by the Montréal brewpub Dieu du Ciel ("God in Heaven"). Top honors in the ale category went to Microbrasserie du Lièvre ("Microbrewery of the Hare") for its La Ginger Beer Épice (a spiced ginger beer). La Duchesse de Bourgogne ("Dutchess of Burgundy") from the Verhaeche Brewery in Belgium took the Belgian-style category, and Blanche aux mûres (a blackberry wheat) from La Barberie won the fruit/honey beer category. A special mention was awarded to La Péché Mortel ("the deadly sin," an Imperial coffee stout) from Dieu du Ciel.

La Bélgique au Québec?
You can find just about any beer style brewed in Québec nowadays, but the styles Québec brewers seem to excel most in are the Belgians. There is hardly a Québec brewery that does not feel compelled to brew at least one Belgian-inspired beer, often a bière blanche, a wit bier. In fact this year's signature beer at the Mondial was MonKriek (my Kriek), a beer especially brewed for the occasion by Jean-François Gravel, Master Brewer of Dieu du Ciel. MonKriek is a peculiarly experimental cross between a Belgian Oud Briun (old brown) and a raspberry-flavored geueze. Fermented with both ale yeast and lactic-acid bacteria, and augmented by an addition of raspberries during secondary fermentation, MonKriek is a refreshing summer quaff and a fine example of the inventiveness of Québec artisanal brewing.

I asked Jeannine Marois, chief organizer of the Mondial, about the reasons for the remarkably strong Belgian orientation of Québec's brewers. "Of course we have the French language in common," she suggested, "which gives us a certain affinity with the Belgian people. Also, making great-tasting Belgian beers gives us the opportunity to sell them in the European market, even in France, which we do." This is clearly one explanation, but I believe that language affinity alone is not the entire story. After all, one half of Belgium speaks Flemish, not French. As an outsider, I might offer a different perspective. It is apparent to me that Québec brewers have also caught the artisanally creative bug -- a bug that happens to have been alive in Belgian brewing for centuries. The Belgian beer culture simply lends itself so much better to experimentation than does, for instance, the more mainstream Reinheitsgebot-lager tradition of Germany or, for that matter, the venerable ale tradition of the British Isles. What has emerged in Québec, perhaps more so than in any other place in North America, is a blend of both authentic classic beer styles and funky, one-of, brews in the vein of Belgian beer diversity. Therefore, if beer heaven is where you want to go in North America, consider Québec as your destination.

Cidre Glacé -- Uniquely Québécois
Beer was not the only fermented beverage on display at the Mondial. Québec is a major apple producer and ever since the first French colonists arrived in the valley of the St. Lawrence River in the early 17th century, has the making of hard cider been a farmhouse activity. Today, there are dozens of artisanal cideries in Québec using pure strains of wine yeast -- often specialty yeast varieties bred for Riesling-making -- to produce a large spectrum of bubbly ciders from douce (sweet) to sec (dry). One particular Québecois specialty is cidre glacé, a hard cider allowed to stay in a stainless tank outside during the severe Québec winter. As the water in the cider freezes, much as it does in the production of the Bavarian Eisbockbier, the cider-maker draws off the now concentrated flavor essence. The result is a gentle, almost-liqueur-like desert beverage of 10 to 14% abv. The taste of cidre glacé is reminiscent of Calvados apple brandy. But while much of the apple flavor is lost during the distillation of Calvados, it is enhanced during the freezing of cidre glacé. This gives this apple ice wine a flavor note that faintly resembles that of botrytized white desert wine (like a French Sautern or a German Trockenbeerenauslese).

I tasted one particularly spectacular cidre glacé at the Mondial, called Pomme de Glace from the ciderie Le Clos Saint-Denis of Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu. It had won seven gold medals in various competitions, and is being exported to the United States. The Pomme de Glace's balance between sweetness and acidity was perfect. This cidre was long on the palate, fruity and smooth -- an excellent accompaniment perhaps to a fois gras, a creamy brie, or a bitter chocolate truffle. But there was something other than apple in the taste of the Pomme de Glace, a note that I could not identify. When I asked the booth attendant about it, she admitted to the presence of a "secret ingredient." I had to use all my charm to finally pry the "secret" out of her: It was a miniscule touch of pure vanilla extract added to the fermenter.

La bière et la vie Québécois
The culinary delights of Québec probably rank among the most underreported stories in the food and beverage literature. For the visitor, Québec throws many amenities and experiences into the bargain, in addition to its beers. There is the omnipresent charm of the French language and culture without the expense and fatigue of an overnight flight to Europe. The sounds of everyday life along the St. Lawrence River are definitely foreign. But don't worry, even if you are a unilingual "Anglo," almost every Québecer knows English, and getting around is no problem. Just plunge yourself into the '"otherness" that is Québec.

In the small villages on the banks of the St. Lawrence, with their rustic pièrre à feu (field stone) farmhouses, reminiscent of medieval Normandy, you can partake of the glorious New-World Canadian cuisine with an Old-World French accent. Just try a Gaspésie saumon (Gaspe salmon) caught in one of the wild rivers near the mouth of the St. Lawrence, a truite au lac (lake trout), or a flaky tourtière, a French-Canadian meat pie originally filled with passenger pigeon, but now made with pork.

At the Mondial, visitors were able to sample a small taste of the aliments du Québec (Québec-grown foods). There were BBQ-ed slivers of bison and boar, morsels of venison, cheeses from Canada's top artisanal dairies, deep-fired crunchy pastries called queues de castor (beaver tails), and sinfully sublime chocolates -- all from Québec's indigenous natural food producers, and all tailored to pair well with Québec's fine brews, which clearly can compete with the best in the world.

At heart I am a beer philosopher. I am always happy to see the return of beer to its rightful place of honor among the pleasures of the table, anywhere. And it is happening now in Québec's artisanal brewing. In the brewing arts, just as in the culinary arts in general, greatness in my view is measured by three criteria: comprehensiveness, complexity, and originality. These separate the ordinary from the extraordinary. In beer, this means that you must cover all stylistic bases, from stock ales to fruit ales, from black lagers to blond lagers, from barley beers to wheat beers. You must brew your beers with finesse and sophistication so that they may stand out as memorable examples of their breed, exhibiting flavor, depth, and subtlety. Finally, you must be able to "play" within the boundaries of the world's beer styles and brewing traditions -- putting your individual stamp on them, interpreting them, but without obfuscating them.

Seasoned epicures the world over appreciate the complexity, character, and distinction of beer as the oldest, most ubiquitous, and most sociable alcoholic beverage on earth. Because of the diversity inherent in beer, there are styles for any moment, any mood, any occasion. As Québec's craft brewers -- and their brethren around the globe -- are proving, beer is so much more than swill. Like the celebration of any gastronomic pleasure, it is above all a cultural experience. It is a life style choice that requires time and serenity, a way of living that is centered around profound passions.

Beer as part of a civilized life style contrasts radically with the conformist and superficial norms of our modern, cell-phone-enslaved, sensory-overloaded, fad-crazy, multi-tasking, hyperactive, loud, no-time-for-contemplation society. The Mondial, smack in the middle of the cosmopolitan metropolis of Montréal, is where life resumes a calmer place, where the values that nourish and enrich our core as humans are tangible. The Mondial is where food and drink is celebrated with charm, panache, and flair. It is well worth a beer lover's visit.

For further details and announcements about the Mondial de la biére 2005, check out the Mondial de la bière website.

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