In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
In Quebec, La Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness) refers to the 15 years after the Second World War – boom years in most of North America, but a period of relative stagnation under authoritarian premier Maurice Duplessis. Grande Noirceur is also a seasonal dark stout from the microbrewery Dieu du Ciel!, which knows a good punning opportunity when it sees one.
In case anyone should miss the allusion, the label on the bottle features a glaring caricature of Duplessis, manipulating a crowd of ordinary Quebeckers like puppets. Church steeples crowd around his head, as a reminder of the Catholic Church's role in keeping his voters in line.
As Karl Marx almost said, everything in history happens twice – once as tragedy, the second time as beer. That's especially true in Quebec, where many microbreweries have developed a robust tradition of brew labels that reflect on the province's culture, history and mythology.
Consider Shawinigan Handshake, a "pugnacious strong ale" inspired by the chokehold Jean Chrétien put on a peaceful demonstrator in 1996. The label features a caricature of the former prime minister throttling Don Cherry, one of the few to offer public support for Chrétien's novel approach to crowd control.
Shawinigan Handshake was launched two years ago by Le Trou du Diable, a Shawinigan microbrewery with a keen sense of local reference. The company's 20 brews include La Buteuse, an "extra strong divine ale" named for a Jesuit missionary who was thrown into Shawinigan Falls in 1652. There's also Aldred, a "bière illuminée" named for the American businessman who launched and led Quebec's first major hydro-electric facility, and without whom, as the brewer's website says, "our city would still be a village." The dour-looking industrialist is sketched in front of the dam he built on the St-Maurice River, with a few giant robots clutching power poles.
Labels that trumpet a sense of place make obvious sense for small brewing operations. For them, standing apart from the universal branding of multinational conglomerates is both a raison d'être and a marketing plan.
It's hard to imagine Molson or Labatt launching a draft ale as tied to locality or political history as 1759, an "extra special bitter de style anglais" from La Souche Brasserie Artisanale in Quebec City. The company's brew kettles are only a five-minute drive from the Plains of Abraham, where the army of New France fell to English troops in 1759.
Unibroue offers more nostalgic illustrations of Quebec's past, especially the French colonial past. Don de Dieu's label shows Samuel Champlain's tall ship, shining like gold in the sun. Noire de Chambly displays an old-school colonial tableau of French troops marching with drum and flag, while a habitant and a docile indigenous man loiter nearby. The labels for Unibroue – which since 2006 have been owned by Sapporo Breweries of Japan – are the Heritage Minutes of Quebec beer.
They're also the most faithful to the vision of old Quebec put forward by Lionel Groulx (1878-1967), the priestly historian who helped create Quebec's modern self-image. For a century before Groulx came along, Catholic thinkers of his ilk saw the conquest almost as a lucky break, in that it saved the province and its clergy from the gory republicanism of the French Revolution.
However, as industrialization and new immigration began to threaten the stability of francophone Quebec, Groulx sensed that a more positive back-story was needed. He searched the annals of New France for heroic tales that he could mythologize into a more inspiring national narrative.
Groulx is memorialized in several Quebec streets and a central metro station in Montreal, but not in a beer. Those in the nationalist pantheon, including René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Henri Bourassa, are perhaps too sacred to go on a label – unlike the choke-holding federalist Chrétien or Wilfrid Laurier, whose face appears on a mild oat beer from Les 3 Brasseurs.
The labels of many small breweries in Quebec mock religious symbols or otherwise suggest that beer and brewing are on the side of the dark angels. Unibroue's Eau Bénite (Holy Water) features a grinning devil in the foaming basin of a church font. Le Trou du Diable's Mellifera has a portrait of the Madonna and child, in which Mary's face is made up like a Day of the Dead skull, and the baby Jesus wears a lucha libre mask. The brasserie name Dieu du Ciel! is a curse in itself.
Never mind that many Quebec beers are based on Belgian brews, some of which are still brewed by Catholic monks. The oddest thing about the microbrasseries' use of transgressive religious imagery is that even at the peak of its power, the Catholic Church in Quebec was much more concerned with what people read than with what they drank. The province was stony ground for several generations of temperance activists, who came mostly from the anglophone minority.
When Les 3 Brasseurs decided to honour a temperance hero on a label, it had to go out of province for the colourful William Temple, who helped keep his west Toronto neighbourhood dry until 1994. Quebeckers like to know that Ontario is still prudish about booze, which explains the wide recent coverage given to a modest liberalization of beer marketing rules by the Kathleen Wynne government.
However, sacrilegious beer labels fit right in with the culture of cursing in Quebec, founded as it is on the rock of sacramental objects. If tabarnak works for you as profanity, then maybe you want to see a devil grinning from a holy water font on your beer bottle. A few brew names even seem calculated to fit in with the francophone sport of stringing sacres together in inventive ways. Donne-moi une autre Eau Bénite, calisse!