Of meat, beer, disease and death


All this chatter about meat recalls brought a waft of sudsy, luke warm nostalgia through the Maclean’s Montreal offices this morning. It wasn’t last night’s Mojitos, either – though if you can beat those at La Distillerie on Ontario street, I’ll eat my socks. No, Maple Leaf’s gigantic recall of its products after several deaths brought to mind a formally fabled Montreal staple: Dow Beer. And there are certain similarities between the struggling purveyor of deli meats and the long gone Montreal brewery.

Until 1966, the Dow Brewery had enormous market share in a province that, more than most in the country, liked a pint or seven before, during or after work. “It was omnipresent, like Coca-Cola is now,” remembered the late, great columnist, city councillor and lifelong enemy of sobriety Nick Auf der Mar in 1987. Part of the beer’s charm was the abundance and consistency of it head – the result of a cobalt additive with which, as it turns out, the company was a little too generous.

Sixteen Quebec City-area men died of cardiomyopathy, a degeneration of the heart muscle. Beer, doctors surmised, was the culprit, and for months rumours swirled about the type that had poisoned the poor lads. In a bid to, uhh, quench the hysteria, Dow temporarily shut down its Quebec City plant and dumped all its vats into the St. Lawrence. Dow then returned to the shelves, sans cobalt.

It wasn’t enough. The beer went from popular to pariah practically overnight. In November 1966, a Quebec doctor charged with the investigation concluded that a total of 25 people died – every one of them a heavy drinker, consuming at least eight quarts a day. O’Keefe bought the brewery in 1966 and let it die a slow death; it became the beer of drunkards attracted more by its low price than any sort of nostalgia. Dow ceased production in 1992.

I have no idea what the meat consumption equivalent of eight quarts of beer a day is, and realize that cardiomyopathy and listeriosis are two very different beasts. Maple Leaf, it’s also worth pointing out, has been forthright about the outbreak of listeriosis, while Dow remained silent only until it simply couldn’t. Still, it’s worth considering how quickly a company will succumb to a tragedy. You can clean the machines; it’s much harder to restore a brand.

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Of meat, beer, disease and death

  1. I recall having a few Dows back in 88 at some dive off St. Catherine St. They had a big promotion which, it was explained, was due to a relaunch of the brand. So I assumed that it had been discontinued some time before; or maybe it was just the Quebecois Black Label, making an ever-so-brief return to the glory days. (Of course my father used to drink Red Cap, so I can’t really put on airs.)

    My understanding about the scandal was that the cobalt reacted with some people’s heart medication (which was probably a new drug) but far be it from me to dispute anything said by Nick Auf der Mar. Given the actions and statements by Michael McCain and others at Maple Leaf, I think that Tylenol is a better role model for the company’s response, at least so far.

  2. @Davey Boy: Apparently the problem wasn’t so much the use of cobalt, but the amount. Many beers of that era used the metallic substance (!); Dow just used more, so much so that it interfered with certain heart medications when drank in excess.
    I only noticed this after I posted it, but if you look at the picture above you’ll see that this label was from the O’Keefe era, circa 1970 — well after the scandal in ’66. It also seems Dow continued to win awards despite its downfall.

  3. Silly Quebecers, Trix are for kids.

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