Some Fascinating Canadian Brewery History – Dawes Brewery Mid-Century in Montreal, QC
Online is a great resource for students of beer and brewery history: a virtual counterpart to a permanent exhibition in Lachine, Quebec on advertising in the 20th century viewed through the lens of Black Horse Ale. The exhibition is called: To Get A Drink You Have To Sell – Pour Boire Il Faut Vendre.
The name is from an old French drinking song, its theme of marketing to consume was inspiration to the designers of the exhibition. I should add it is extremely well done. I’ve seen too the physical one in Lachine, but in many ways the online is better as most of the hundreds of documents and objects can be magnified and easily read – provided (in many cases) that you read French.
Black Horse was a top-selling brand of Dawes Brewery, which was founded in the early 1800s by an English immigrant in Lachine, Quebec, now a suburb of Montreal. Not long before WW I, more than a dozen Montreal breweries, including Dawes, combined to form National Breweries Ltd., a typical combine of the era. It was formed to better compete against Molson Breweries, in particular. Molson was invited to join the group, but declined. (Molson had the last laugh, it bought out National’s successor in 1989).
National was bought by E.P. Taylor’s growing leviathan of breweries in 1952 but before that, for some 40 years it functioned for most of the time with a core of five breweries.
These five in the “family”, as it is often referred to in the employees’ magazine reproduced on the website, were:
– The Dawes Black Horse Brewery, by the 20s relocated to a new plant in downtown Montreal
– The Dawes Draft Beer Brewery, which occupied the Ekers plant on St-Laurent Blvd., further north in the city (Ekers was one of the smaller concerns absorbed into the National group)
– The Dow Brewery in Montreal
– The Frontenac Brewery in Montreal (notable for originally having francophone ownership, unlike the others)
– Boswell’s Brewery in Quebec City, founded on the site of a brewery established in the 1600s by Jean Talon, the Intendant of Quebec sent by the French king.
In the late 40s, a sixth was added, the Champlain Brewery in Quebec City, well-known for its Champlain Porter. It was still being sold by National’s successor, Carling O’Keefe, in the 70s in Quebec (it was sweet and licorice-tasting). Champlain too I should add had been francophone-owned.
A review of the employees’ magazine reveals that each plant ran fairly autonomously, of course there was central purchasing of malt and hops and other inputs, but each plant had its brands and if I read the exhibition right, each brand had its own yeast, a single-cell type. There is a decorous quality we have lost in the business world since then. One plant would receive the personnel of another, and engage in sports and activities as a unit. When any plant acquired new trucks or brewing equipment, this was proudly described in the magazine. Some people worked for these units for decades, one retired in the mid-40s who had started in 1898.
Reading the magazines gives a real sense of how the “family” functioned. The personnel were a mix of English and French names with the odd European one. The magazine came out in English and French but almost all those currently online (over 80) are in French, as are many of the advertising objects and other materials. Some is in English though, and crucially to students of brewing history, two detailed brewing recipes. One is for Dawes’ Kingsbeer Export Lager, the other for a draught special ale, both from the 1930s. Probably the draft ale was sent to the taverns and bars of Quebec Province. There are numerous interesting black and white pictures of some of these and the interiors look very similar to taverns I recall in Montreal in the early 1970s.
The brewing recipes are very detailed, in a format I have not seen before, but notable points include all-malt production for Kingsbeer and all-Bohemian (Czech) hops. There is even a taste-note: the beer smelled and tasted “mildly hoppy”. I hope so, by my reckoning they were using about 3/4 lb hops per barrel of finished beer – that’s a lot by today’s standards even for your typical craft beer. The draught ale also was all-malt and used even more hops, not far under 1 lb per barrel.
At various periods, English, Californian and Canadian hops were also used. During the war, just North American. In a magazine issue post-1945, it was noted that hops up to three years age were stored and blended for production.
Kingsbeer, which I had always thought had a British connotation, was originally called Konigsbeer and dates from before 1914: it probably was a Dortmund-style beer, due to the descriptor “export”.
Mid-40s, the Dawes line was Dawes Black Horse Ale, which seems a derivative of an IPA; Dawes Export Ale, probably the newer (post-1900) lager-ale hybrid which was becoming popular; Kingsbeer Lager; and Dawes’ Porter. Filled bottles still exist of some of these and can be viewed in the virtual exhibition.
There are great photos of the different plants in the group and of a pilot brewery at Dawes in Montreal which looks like it would make the perfect modern craft brewery. I didn’t see too much discussion of beer production in the magazines. Mostly they deal with employee matters – bowling tournaments with Boswell’s in Quebec City (they played to win a turkey), marriages and retirements, congratulations on a new birth. (“It’s a boy – good work Jim!”). There is lots in the early 40s on the war effort, e.g., one of the Dawes family was wounded fighting in Europe but apparently recovered. Bond drives, blood donations, sending beer and cigarettes to the troops, lots of course on those areas.
One magazine issue though describes beer production at Boswell’s in Quebec City. Boswell’s became Dow’s plant in Quebec which made the fateful beer in the 60s that may have caused the death of heavy drinkers in the city; I wrote about this a few days ago.
The two beer recipes, running three or four pages each, are at the bottom of this link.
Note re image above: the image was sourced from this Canadian government archive collection and is believed in the public domain. All feedback solicited.