Quebec—Canada’s “Belgian” Province
Walk down the aisles of any well-stocked beer store and you will notice there is a quiet revolution taking place. Caged-corked champagne-style bottles of Belgian-inspired beer are invading the shelves. If you have stopped to wonder who is responsible, blame Canada. Specifically, blame Quebec.
More specifically, if there is a single French Canadian to blame, it is Andre Dion, one of the founders of Unibroue. One of Canada’s most impressive breweries turns out some of the most distinctive Belgian-style ales on this side of the Atlantic.
After a buying trip to Belgium, Dion was so smitten by the white beers he found there that he quit his job as president of mega-hardware giant Rona Inc. to enter the beer business. In 1990, Dion and a business partner obtained a 75 percent interest in the struggling Massawippi brewery in Lennoxville, one of Quebec’s oldest breweries. By the end of 1991 they owned Massawippi outright. In 1993, they moved the brewing facilities to Chambly, Quebec.
Unibroue predates such North American Belgian-style stalwarts as Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery by one year, Maine’s Allagash by five years and upper state New York’s Ommegang by seven years. Coincidentally, the first product for both Allagash and Unibroue was a Belgian styled white beer. But that still doesn’t explain why beer lovers in Quebec are ahead of the rest of North America in embracing Belgian style beers.
The French Connection
Like all trends or historic events there is a series of smaller, less noticeable episodes that cumulatively lead to the final result. In this case, a French mindset and a love of all things culinary are key to the Belgian-styled ale explosion in Quebec North America.
The contrary French cast of mind is demonstrated in a tendency to defy convention, even with the most pedestrian of beers. Unlike the rest of North America, where yellow bubbly macro lager is king, in Quebec the ale reigns supreme: the two most popular products in Quebec are Molson Export and Labatt’s 50, both of which are ales.
Some say the Quebecois and the Walloons, or French Belgians, share a like viewpoint. They are both French-speaking ethnic groups. Yet neither feels accepted by the French themselves, and both feel oppressed by the larger populace in their own countries—English Canadians and the Flemish, respectively.
This shared outlook translates into shared beer affinities: Look in any well-stocked beer section or any brewpub in Quebec and you will see a large representation of Walloon beer styles like saisons and hoppy blond ales.
Quebec has long been known as a culinary bright light in Canada and one area where the Quebecois resemble Belgians is in their love of cheese. The two areas each manufacture over 300 different cheeses. When Winston Churchill once proclaimed that, “Any country with two hundred cheeses must be healthy,” Charles De Gaulle countered with “Any country with three hundred cheeses must be ungovernable.” By these standards, Quebecers ought to be very long-lived anarchists, though to date they have only shown occasional, unsuccessful inclinations toward separation from the rest of Canada.
Essence of Quebec
French Canadians are intensely proud of their heritage, and Unibroue has captured this essence like no other Quebec brewery. The company tapped into this sentiment by incorporating Quebec’s early history, myths and legends in the names of their beers and the artwork on their labels. They integrate the early period of New France and the early settlement of Canada, celebrating the inhabitants and voyageurs, or first pioneers, of the new land. They also mirror the Belgian custom of naming beers along the themes of death and religion, with beers such as La Fin du Monde (End of the World), Maudite (The Damned), and Eau Benite (Blessed Water).
Unibroue melds French Canadian passion for beer and food through its involvement in one of the world’s truly great bière et cuisine restaurants, Le Fourquet Fourchette. The name of this establishment means “the mashing fork (a brewery tool) and the culinary fork” and the restaurant’s symbol intertwines the two to illustrate the harmony of beer and food. The restaurant focuses on the foods of New France and native North Americans, with delicacies made from locally grown products, and unbelievable French Canadian dishes of Old World style featuring caribou, fish, lamb, chicken and duck—all cooked in, or paired with, a matching Unibroue beer.
The interior is magnificent and conjures up images of the voyageur and trapper life in New France or old Canada. The staff dress in period Habitants (farmers) wear and the place is dripping with Quebecois atmosphere, right down to the oddly-sized Sherwood Forest chairs and the one-of-a-kind light fixture shaped like a birch bark canoe that hands over the bar.
The stunning terrace provides a magnificent view of the Chambly Basin from the banks of the Richelieu River. For a peek at how pretty the area is, just look at the illustration on a bottle of Blanche de Chambly.
Le Fourquet Fourchette also has an interesting store in the front of the restaurant that stocks Unibroue beers and products made from their beers, including jams, vinegars and mustards. There are also produits de terroir, or locally-sourced and produced cheeses, sausages, jerkies, smoked meats and other delicious treats.
Brewing With Ingenuity
After a dinner at the restaurant, it’s a short evening stroll to one of the most interesting brewpubs this side of Belgium, Bedondaine & Bedons Ronds. The name is a play on words, incorporating a French Canadian cartoon, the brewer’s nickname and the term for pot belly. Nicolas Bourgault, the brewer-owner, is passionate about brew and his passion resonates from every pint to the layout and look of his pub. The pub proudly displays a portion of his very large collection of Quebecois and world beer memorabilia. It’s a mere fraction of his entire compilation: he has a barn full of additional items. Bourgault has plans to further his attempts of world breweriana domination by opening a beer museum.
This brewery brews on a five-barrel system that is more suited to ambitious homebrewing than to commercial usage. For such a small budget system, it is surprisingly well thought-out and technically sound. On a recent visit, Bourgault was proud of his most recent purchase, an industrial grain mill, as his old homebrewer’s mill had broken down. It is hard to imagine how long it took to mill grain for a 300-litre batch with a homebrewer’s mill.
Adding to the novelty, this facility uses a sewing machine in the kegging process. A homebrewer would sub-cool his keg to near freezing temperatures, inject as much CO2 as possible, and then shake the gases through the beer. This process would possibly be repeated as many as three times. Bourgault produces 16 kegs (19 litres each) per batch, and would then have applied the above technique to each of his kegs. Now he mounts the kegs, individually, on the pedal of an antique sewing machine and lets the foot pedal do the shaking. Ingenuity on very limited funds.
On an esoteric note, truth is stranger than fiction; the owner and his wife are both accredited sex therapists. This gives a new meaning to “putting love into what you do.” His well-made brews have Belgian, British and Scottish inspirations, but also owe a nod to the Kama Sutra. His usual selections of 11 outstanding taps sometimes have suggestive names, described by Bourgault as a “wink” to his old profession, while others pay homage to his ancestry. Bourgault mentioned the pub was planning to be the first pub in Quebec with a mascot, a sheep.
Chambly, just outside of Montreal, with its combination of Unibroue, Le Fourquet Fourchette and Bedondaines et Bedons Ronds, is a must-see on a beer lover’s visit to Quebec. It doesn’t hurt that Fort Chambly, a national historic site, is Le Fourquet Fourchette’s neighbour.
The Devil’s Hole
Nobody disputes that Montreal is in the vanguard of Quebecois artisan brewing, but, as Chambly shows, there are some lesser-known beer gems in the Belle Province. Heading east from Chambly along the northern shores of the St. Lawrence seaway will not only provide a scenic tour, but lead to another fantastic brewpub. The Trou du Diable or “Devil’s Hole,” is located in Shawinigan, approximately halfway between Chambly and Quebec City. The name describes the whirlpools and strong currents that whip up near the town’s hydroelectric dam. It also alludes to legends attached to these whirlpools: if you fall into the Devil’s hole, you will never come out.
Some Quebecois bièrophiles feel the same way about this brewpub. This place embodies both French Canadian passions of quality beer and gourmet food. Their menu features “Côtes Levées du Diable” (the devil’s ribs), succulent beer-boiled ribs glazed in a homemade barbeque stout sauce. The menu here looks amazing, with the Quebec artisan cheese plate, game features including bison and deer, fresh seafood, Quebec lamb, Cornish game hen, and the over-the-top artisan pork “of the very round pigs” from Isle-de-Madeleine. These pigs are fed initially on milk from the local cheese dairy and subsequently on feed enriched with the juicy spent grain from the brewing process.
The beer menu at Le Trou du Diable is equally enticing and covers the full gamut from the Archangel Abbey Triple, to their hoppy Monsure IPA (French for “bite”) with an herbaceous 77 IBUs, and an outstanding made-to-style weizenbock.
Continuing east for another 100 miles will culminate in historic Quebec City. Quebec’s Old Town is the only North American fortified city north of Mexico whose walls still exist. Quebec City was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985 as the “Historic District of Old Quebec.” It is also one of the oldest cities in North America, celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2008.
The Old Town is the most European of all the towns in North America and has all the charms of the walled European cities. From a beer perspective, Quebec City cannot compete with the craft beer found in Chambly and Shawinigan, but what it lacks in microbeer substance it makes up for in ambiance and style. The historical Old Town has numerous multi-tap pubs and world-class restaurants. Some of these are located in the ancient buildings that are part of the city’s old centre. Pub Oncle Antoine, housed in what appears to be an ancient wine cellar, is especially cool. The grotto-like atmosphere is very cozy, and the pub offers a fine selection of beer. The pub serves only light snacks, but its proximity to great restaurants allows for a nice break while you wander through the picturesque walled city.
Quebec’s huge size makes it difficult to typecast. Yet Quebec’s French Canadian heritage differentiates the province from its Canadian and U.S. neighbors. The visitor immediately picks up a palpable European feeling, where history is visible in the buildings, forts and heritage sites, but it also permeates the mindset of the locals. The attention to food and beer, to lingering over a meal, or to savoring a beer on a patio overlooking a lazy river or a bustling street harkens to attitudes in Europe. Quebec is the un-North American getaway in North America.
Mike Tessier lives in Calgary, AB, though he lived in Quebec for many years. He writes about beer for a number of magazines. He would rather have a brewery tour and couple quiet pints with one impassioned brewer than go to a beer festival. He also believes the path to enlightenment is yoga, golf and beer.