Quenching a Thirst for History
The beer-making tradition in Québec goes back to the time of New France, when Intendant Talon opened the first major brewery at the foot of today’s Côte de la Potasse where the green space is. After housing the Intendant’s Palace, the site returned to its roots in the 19th century with Boswell’s commercial brewery. Today’s Saint-Roch microbreweries are noted for their creativity rooted in time-honoured know-how.
The first colonists and their drinking habits
In the 17th century, the first colonists in New France drank regularly, a habit they brought with them from France, where the polluted water often made people sick. Here water was clean and plentiful, which the poorest inhabitants were satisfied to drink. But others bought wine and spirits imported from France, often at great cost.
Jean Talon’s brewery
The first beer was brewed in the colony in 1620 by the Recollect Brothers for their own use. The Jesuits did the same a few years later. In 1668–1669, Intendant Jean Talon wanted to try his hand at making beer on a large scale in a bid to reduce wine consumption and use local barley and hops as a boost to the economy. He even foresaw exporting half the beer produced to the Caribbean.
Archeological digs have unearthed the remains of the brewery commissioned on the current site of Îlot des Palais. The 45-foot-long building had a water tank, a germination room, and an oven to convert the barley into malt. (The fermentation tanks were shipped back to France in Talon’s time.) But because of the small population of 800 and weak commercial ties with the Caribbean, the business was unprofitable and folded in 1675.
Commercial beer production
In 1852 Irish brewer Joseph Knight Boswell bought a huge lot left vacant by the 1845 fire that had razed Saint-Roch practically to the ground. His business did so well that in order to meet demand he gradually added enough buildings to fill the property. By 1868 Boswell was storing part of his inventory in the vaults of the second Intendant’s Palace, built in 1719.
A century later, Boswell merged with its competitor—the nearby Dow brewery—the producer of one of Québec’s most popular beers. Unfortunately, in 1966 its beer was linked to the mysterious death of some 15 people in the Québec City area. Sales plummeted. Dow was sold to O’Keefe Breweries, which marked the end of the beer-making era in Québec.
Here on rue Vallière only two buildings remain from this industrial period—the warehouse built after 1875 where the second Intendant’s Palace had been located (no. 8), and the Art Deco building that appeared sometime around 1935 as a garage for Boswell’s brewery (no. 7).
Return to artisanal beer
La Barberie and La Korrigane, two microbreweries, opened in Saint-Roch since the 1990s. They produce several kinds of richly flavoured beer using small-scale brewing techniques that are very popular now. They borrow from traditional know-how from around the world to vary their beer menu and create new beers. In their own way, they are perpetuating the district’s beer-making tradition.