Beer: Brewing


The Origins of Beer

Ten thousand years ago, the basic human diet consisted of fermented and flavoured cereal gruel. Women (since it was they who prepared the meals) produced the yeasty beverage, thereby laying the groundwork for the beer-making process.

At first a sort of cereal soup or liquid bread, beer grew to be an important staple in society. Its primary purpose was as human food and drink, made by transforming raw grain crops into edibles. Later, with the addition of medicinal plants, it was used to treat the sick. In religious processions and rites, beer not only fulfilled a symbolic function but also played a fundamental role in communing with the gods.

With the coming of Christendom, the use of wine became a ritual part of sacred ceremonies, and this relegated beer to a different status. While wine was associated with the blood of Christ among Christians, beer was associated with barbarian and pagan peoples in need of conversion. But that did not stop monasteries from brewing beer and refining the process throughout the Middle Ages. Or from getting rich by levying a tax on gruits, the herb, spice and berry mixtures used to flavour the drink. The clergy fiercely opposed the use of hops in beer making, condemning the plant as demonic and wolfish (Humulus Lupulus) and fearing to lose the revenue that the gruit tax brought in.  

Archeological and historical evidence suggests that, as early as the dawn of recorded history, beer was probably an important agent in the development of religion, medicine, early forms of trade and, by extension, the economy.

In the 15th century, as Europeans were discovering America, hops became the plant of choice among beer brewers. In New France, brewing was a household task commonly performed by women. Religious communities made beer to nourish the monks, the clerics, the sick and the indigent; for example, Brother Ambroise brewed for the Jesuits in Sillery, and the Charron Brothers had a brewery in Montréal. There were also a few artisan brewers scattered around the vast territory. It was not until the arrival of Jean Talon that a large-capacity brewery was established. However, due no doubt to a miscalculation of the beer market, Intendant Talon’s brewery operated for just five years (1670-1675). More than a century would pass before the inhabitants saw a beer-making facility of similar size again.

A Brewery in Lachine, P. Q.

In the 19th century, there were three large breweries on the Island of Montréal, including one in Lachine founded by a Mr. Dawes. Thomas Dawes (1785?-1863) settled in Quebec in 1808 and worked as a brewer at Joseph Chapman’s brewery before starting his own business. On April 21, 1826, he and his friend Archibald Ogilvie, a miller, bought a parcel of land in Lachine, in the southwestern area of the Island of Montréal, for the purpose of running a farm and a brewery. The earliest mention of Thomas Dawes in official documents lists him as a farmer. Owning a farm gave a brewer the enormous advantage of direct access to his raw ingredients. It allowed him to plant the best varieties of barley and select the finest hops to produce his beers.

In addition to the brewery and the farm, Thomas Dawes operated a malting house, where he could convert his cereal grains into malt as needed. Because it was self-sufficient in raw materials and controlled every aspect of production, Dawes Brewery was turning out internationally renowned beers by the early 20th century. Furthermore, direct access to the ingredients ensured greater cost efficiency and thus greater profits. As a result, more and more land near the brewery was acquired for farming, so much so that, in 1880, barely 50 years after the company’s founding, the Dawes family owned more than 370 acres whose barley and hops harvests went to producing beer.

The Dawes also raised Berkshire hogs and Percheron horses on their land. It cost them practically nothing to feed the animals since they thrived on spent brewers’ grain, a brewing by-product that usually goes to waste. The horses were used to deliver beer, while the hogs, once fattened, were sold, and the profits further filled the Dawes family coffers.

In addition to producing its essential resources, the family boasted two master brewers with some of the best training available at the time. James Powley Dawes II (1843-1907) trained at the Burton-Upon-Trent Brewery, in England, while Normand James Dawes (1874-1967) learned his craft at the United States Brewing Academy, in New York. The chemistry of brewing thus held no secrets for the Dawes, giving them, it appears, another distinct advantage over their self-taught competitors. For, with their knowledge, the brewers were able to extract maximum flavour and yield from the raw ingredients.

The brewing components and operations at Dawes Brewery were identical to those then used at other breweries, with the exception of the farming activities that set the company apart.  

Barley Grain: The Primary Ingredient of Beer


Dawes Brewery handled the business from A to Z. After sowing, cultivating and harvesting the barley and hops, the next step was malting. In the malting house (gone except for a low wall on St. Joseph Boulevard), employees converted the barley grain into malt. The operation was directed by the maltster, responsible for creating ideal germination conditions that allowed the barley to develop the enzymes needed to modify its starches (complex sugars) into simple sugars, which yeast could then turn into alcohol.

The malting process, which took about ten days, began with steeping the grain in large tanks of water to moisten and soften the husks. After several hours, the water was drained away and the grain was left to air out. This operation was repeated two or three times.  

Once the right moisture content was reached, the maltster controlled the germination process. The barley was spread on large surfaces called malting floors to allow the kernels to sprout and grow rootlets. It was turned regularly to provide airing and break up clumps of tangled rootlets, dissipate the heat and energy generated by the grain and prevent rot from setting in. Careful sprinkling maintained consistent dampness. During the five- or six-day process, enzymes developed and converted the starch into simpler molecules for breakdown by yeast, making the grain sweeter. The result, called green malt, required further processing.  

Kiln Drying

In Lachine, the next step – carried out in the still-standing Dawes Brewery building mistakenly known as La Vieille Brasserie (the old brewery) – consisted of heating the grain for up to two days. The kilning process dried the green malt, releasing its aroma and reducing the water content so that it could be stored for later use.

The sprouted grain was spread on screens above a fire to dry and develop its flavour. The heating began at a low temperature and gradually increased to colour the grain according to the type of malt the maltster wanted to make. Low heat produced a pale malt, used as a basis for all beers, whereas high heat produced a roasted malt used to brew darker beers, such as the famous Black Horse Stout and Black Horse Porter. (It bears noting that the more the grain is heated, the more the malt sugars break down; heavily roasted malt can also be used simply to colour a blonde beer, made from pale malt.) After kilning, the malt grains were sieved to remove any remaining rootlets, and then bagged and taken to the storehouse. This gave the brewers a ready supply of the malts that went into the famous Dawes beers. L’Entrepôt (the storehouse), one of the largest buildings in the Dawes Brewery complex, has since been converted and now serves as a venue for shows and exhibitions.

Beer Brewing

Making beer is a complex process that requires high-quality equipment and raw materials, of course, but also the brewer’s valuable know-how. It involves a series of steps, each one essential to producing a good beer.  


The brewer counts on the miller’s skill to properly grind the malt into grist, taking care not to destroy the husks that later act as a natural filter for the wort (sugary liquid). This crucial step determines how much sugar can be extracted from the malt.


Brewing beer requires pure water, which the Dawes drew directly from Lake St. Louis. After milling, the malt is mixed with hot water in a mashing tun (tank) to activate the enzymes that convert grain starches into fermentable sugars. Once the enzymatic conversion is complete, the wort is left to drain through a bed of malt husks into the brew kettle. The spent grain is then sparged (rinsed) with hot water to extract the remaining sugars for the wort.


The wort is boiled for several reasons: to pasteurize and sterilize it, to cause certain proteins to coagulate, to condense the wort by evaporation, to caramelize the sugars and to flavour the wort with hops. Depending on the beer recipe, the boiling time can vary from one to four hours, during which the brewer adds varieties of hops at different stages to intensify the bitterness or heighten the aromas. The wort is then aerated and quickly chilled before transfer to the fermentation tank.


Depending on the desired type of beer, the brewer selects a strain of yeast and mixes it into the wort in the fermentation tank. Brewing Kingsbeer Lager called for a lager yeast, which ferments at about 10°C, whereas Black Horse Ale required an ale yeast, which ferments at about 20°C. During this step, the yeast converts the sugars into carbon dioxide, alcohol and various aromatic molecules.


At the Dawes facility, when fermentation was complete, the brews were poured into enormous wooden vats where they were left to mellow until the suspended particles settled to the bottom, leaving the liquid clear. The conditioning or maturation period that enhanced Dawes beers lasted from several weeks to several months.


During bottling, the final step before commercial distribution, brewers must protect the beer from contact with air, which can ruin the product by oxidation. They also have to make sure that the beer contains the right amount of carbon dioxide, because beer must be sparkling to be refreshing and to produce a creamy head of foam for enthusiasts.  

Lastly, a cardinal rule is to ensure sterile conditions prior to brewing beer. All of the material and equipment must be meticulously cleaned before the operation begins. Sanitation is a guarantee of quality control, because the cleanliness of the vats determines the safety and stability of the beer, which consumers demand. That is why breweries use up to 10 litres of water (depending on the efficiency of the system) to produce a single litre of beer.

In the Dawes business, all production activities were fully vertically integrated. In summer the workers were in the fields and in winter they made beer. After the beer was brewed, the by-product of the raw ingredients they grew was fed to the livestock, which, in turn, produced the manure that enriched the farmland. The coupling of the farm with the family business distinguished Dawes Brewery from most of the breweries then operating on the plains around Montréal. The Dawes brewers’ professional training and their attention to keeping the equipment clean helped make the brewery a model of efficiency and high performance.

Dawes Brewery, which operated within the National Breweries consortium from 1909 on, no longer exists. However, it is safe to say that the company maximized its material and human resources to become a highly successful business and a fine example of entrepreneurial know-how in Quebec.

Stéphane Morin,
Beer Historian and Sommelier

August 2013


Resource References:

laboratoire.pdfLa Revue. Publié dans l'intérêt des employés, vol. 11, no. 1, January 1948, The National Breweries Limited, Montréal, P.Q., pp. 9-1, 20.  

origine_porter.pdf:  La Revue. Publié dans l'intérêt des employés, vol. 11, no. 1, January 1948, The National Breweries Limited, Montréal, P.Q., pp. 23 and 25.