On what should be a quiet weeknight in January, the barstools and tables of La Barberie—The Barber—slowly fill up. First dates mix with old friends out for a beer. The patio, like a forgotten memory of summer, lies dormant and covered in snow.
I’m at Québec’s first cooperative microbrewery and bar, held in common ownership by all full-time staff. The idea may sound like an extension of today’s sharing economy, but La Barberie has been around since the late 1990’s—predating both the sharing economy and the surge of micro-brewing.
Straddled between thumping concrete overpasses and the St Charles River, the bar is outside the walls of the old city. There is no glitz to its facade, no European masonry. It serves a clientele from the Limoilou and Saint-Roch districts; these once working-class neighborhoods are undergoing a radical change as the city gentrifies. The bar, with its deep roots in the area, balances delicately between being a catalyst for the change, and a victim of it.
I order a tasting flight; the picture on the menu shows four glasses. Eight arrive in a rainbow of amber hues perched on a wood carousel.
I steady myself for what I anticipate will be a long slog. (I find out after that those eight beers are only equivalent to two pints and any inkling of pride is extinguished.)
The beer taps—and the logo of the bar—are Viking helmets, dating back to when the founders of the microbrewery all had long beards.
Food on offer is sparse. The selection ranges from a Mason jar full of sliced, cured sausage to potato chips. But the bar allows a flow of food delivery people to enter, searching out customers who placed orders from their phones. La Barberie even has a microwave for customers to heat up their own food.
Quirkiness aside, I’m curious to get insight into something else baked into the DNA of the province: Québec’s cooperatives.
The cooperative movement is a cocktail of many ingredients—the seasonal vagaries of agriculture, a sense of protectionism for not just industry, but identity. Early on, these cooperatives allowed Québécois to assert themselves economically against the rest of Canada; the phrase—maîtres chez nous—”masters in our own house” was a commonly used slogan. This move aggregated competing interests into a common goal. With roots tangled in Québec’s Quiet Revolution (a period of intense socio-economic change) and the subsequent separatist movement that rocked the country in the 1980s and 90s, they may not be as old as the city, but they have a rightful place alongside the sugar shacks and poutine of Québecois tradition.
Cooperatives take different forms—from the small housing and brewing co-ops all the way up to the behemoths of agriculture and forestry that hold political, social, and economic capital. If you want to see both political and economic power, look no further than Québec’s dairy co-op Agropur—made up of thousands of dairy farmers across the province—which pulls in billions in sales each year.
The microbrewery’s structure allows it to take risks where other small upstarts can’t.
“We were the first to add fruit. And tea,” says Emilie Dumais, a bartender and, by extension, a member of the co-operative. “Anything weird, really.” Those experiments caught on; now it’s common to have a blueberry-infused ale. Cuivrée au thé (made with Earl Grey tea) and a sour mash ale bookend the first of two tasting menus. The brewers experiment—a lot. La Barberie produces 100 different beers each year. “Some are great. Some definitely aren’t,” says Dumais as she pulls the tap on a blackberry-infused Belgian white.
Dumais says the cooperative nature of the business defuses costs for expansion and new equipment. “We have 14 new fermenters back there. Each holds 2,000 liters,” she says of the glistening metal cylinders which recently replaced the bar’s aging fleet.
Bars often aim to be the keystone of a neighborhood—as a gathering place and music venue—but La Barberie is more ambitious.
Cooperatives, by their structure, attempt to put all players on the same level. The directors use surplus funds to rehabilitate the neighborhood. What was once a run-down field behind the bar became a large project for the co-op. “We restored the park with the city [council],” says Dumais. “We want to be a part of the community.” The bar is a key player in policy advocacy for the neighborhoods. When they first opened, Saint-Roch was a dilapidated district—the victim of concrete flyovers. Now, it’s become a vibrant neighborhood.
“The beer is kept cheap, so everyone can drink,” says Dumai. Families sit down beside loggers who sit beside beer snobs. “We’re an equalizer.”