Black Horse Ale, an International Affair

Reader David Conant mentioned enjoying Black Horse Ale when made by Fred Koch in Dunkirk, NY in the 1970s and early 80s. This is a different Black Horse than the one made by Dawes Brewing/National Breweries/Dow Breweries in Quebec. Their successor, Molson Coors, still makes a Black Horse today but for the Newfoundland market, and it is a lager.

I will compress some history below gleaned from numerous online and print sources. Forgive me for not citing sources in most cases, but it will be easier and faster to relate the story.

Dunkirk is a small town west of Buffalo on Lake Erie. This is the northwestern corner of the Empire State, across from Niagara in Canada and to the west but comparatively a stone’s throw.

That brewery, founded 1888 and always very small, closed in 1985. Despite its size and obscurity, or perhaps because of it, the brewery was purchased in 1982 by another small, northern brewery, Vaux of Sunderland, England, a story unto itself. Hence (I presume) the oddity of seeing Jubilee Porter sold on the shores of Lake Erie in an atmosphere of Friday night fish fries and quasi-Midwestern accents. (But porter and Catholic parishes …. maybe the Jubilee idea wasn’t so dumb…).

The story is yet more intricate as Carling in Waterloo, Ontario brewed a Jubilee porter too in the 1950s-1960s. Carling, given its extensive U.K. interests starting in the 1950s, probably had a connection to Vaux if not owning it at one point.

This online reference for Fred Koch refers to its Black Horse Ale as introduced in the early 1960s and initially made under contract by Diamond Spring Brewery in Lawrence, MA.  See a basic outline of the latter’s history here. In the 1960s the brewery was called in fact Black Horse Brewery. It closed in 1970 and presumably Fred Koch bought, licensed, or continued the name for its production in later years.

Champale, Inc. of Trenton, NJ, also known under the moniker Iroquois Brands, had since 1939 brewed its malt liquor line, still produced today by Pabst. Champale also made a Black Horse originally licensed by the Lawrence, MA brewery. James D. (Jim) Robertson, in his 1978 The Great American Beer Book, considered the Champale Black Horse the best ale in America. That’s pretty tall praise and Robertson had an excellent palate.

See an extract of his comments included below.

I had the Fred Koch Black Horse a number of times and remember an odd talc taste, but this was when Fred Koch was on its last legs. Perhaps the beer had declined in quality. I never had the Trenton one.

Online collections show the Black Horse labels of Lawrence, MA and Dunkirk, NY as almost identical, both had a legend claiming an English ale character.

In his comments on the Champale version, Robertson speculates that it “descends” from the Dow (Dawes, originally) Black Horse which was marketed as an import in the Northeast in the 1940s. He also states in the 1950s a brewery in Lawrence, MA was making a Black Horse Ale.

Indeed Tavern Trove labels for the Canadian Black Horse show a version marked imported from what seems the 40s or 50s. Tavern Trove also shows a Michigan brewery in 1933 making a Black Horse Ale with a label quite similar to the Canadian Black Horse. Maybe that was the first American-made one.

Perhaps the Diamond Spring brewery, as it was known in the 1950s, or another brewery in Lawrence, licensed the brand initially from Dow in Quebec, or the Michigan brewery did, but this is unclear.

Certainly under the name Dow’s Black Horse Ale, the Canadian beer was still being sold in the U.S. in the 1970s. There must have been a particular legal situation which allowed two U.S. Black Horse ales to be sold concurrently as well. One can speculate endlessly, e.g., maybe the Canadians had not trademarked the Black Horse name early enough in the U.S. and local producers acquired common law rights in their region.

It’s hard to say until more information may become available.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced from this website and the second from Tavern Trove here. The last was extracted from my print copy of Jim Robertson’s book mentioned above. Full publication and purchase details may be viewed here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





6 thoughts on “Black Horse Ale, an International Affair”

  1. Is there anybody left in the business of Black horse ale? I have come across a painting from 1935 they might be interested in having….

  2. Gary,

    Here is a late response to beers your question about my current beer preferences (June 20 post on Black Horse).

    I had a long-standing preference for Blue Point ESB and Pale Ale, usually bought in growlers from the brewery for bargain prices. (One of the original owners, Mark Burford, and I have been acquaintances since meeting in the 80s as homebrewers.) Now neither beer is regularly available, so I am casting about for a new favorite. Montauk driftwood tastes good. I like Brooklyn Pilsener and Founders Porter. I also like Great Lakes lagers (Eliot Ness, for example) but distribution in this area has been ended.

    I also have a comment regarding the geographic split of brands, similar to Black Horse. Atlantic of Chicago and Spokane, Washington marketed Bohemian Club. They dealt the brand in the northwest to Blitz-Weinhard, but sold the midwestern rights separately, ending up with Huber. These were different beers with different labels. The Blitz (Brewing Co. of Oregon) version was notably cheap and bland (I drank some of this in the early 70s). In the late 70s, the Huber version was OK, being on the malty side, similar (or identical) to the main Huber brand.

    • Thanks Arnold, very helpful. The Montauk Driftwood is great, I know it well, I like it not too chilled. Very English-styled. I know some of the others you mentioned too, all certainly good.

      Interesting about differences in brands dealt out as you said to different brewers, I’ve noticed that too in other contexts.


  3. Our local bar in Mastic on Long Island stocked bottles of Champale’s Black Horse Ale in the late 70’s. I drank a bit of Champale’s Black Horse there, usually with an Italian style dinner, and at home when I could find it at the beer store. I recall that it had a fairly full body with possibly some unusual “off” flavors that didn’t spoil the drinking experience. My personal preference was McSorleys Ale (then brewed by Ortlieb), which I thought was excellent (nothing like the current product). At the time, I also liked the combination of low price and good quality of Yuengling Lord Chesterfield, which also may have gone downhill since then.

    • Thanks for this, I agree Lord Chesterfield was very good with a notably hoppy odor and taste, I think it has gone downhill since then. I never had McSorley’s when it was any good, it was made by Fidelio brewery in the 30s and was said to be a stock ale, an old-style ale with some aging.

      Do you still like beer, what do you drink now?


  4. Thanks for doing all that research. I remember both the Koch and Champale versions with some fondness. They were outliers of interesting taste in that pre micro brew era of homogeneous blandness. Koch made another ale, Deer Run of which I have no memory, and a rich malty seasonal lager, Koch’s Holiday, during the holiday season. To a 20 something budding beer fan these were fascinating finds. That and crossing the river to Ft Erie and exploring the mysteries of the Brewer’s Retail. I wonder what might have been possible if Koch had been able to hold on for just a few more years. Keep up the good writing.

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