Black Horse Ale and “The Rock”

Black Horse Ale’s First Sales in Newfoundland

The new issue of Ontario-based Loren Newman’s The Canadian Brewerianist showcases memorabilia for Newfoundland’s Black Horse Beer. Coasters, labels, and bottles from different eras are displayed in a piece by Mark Armstrong.

The beer still goes strong in the Province, a macro mainstay along with Dominion Ale and a few others. Craft beers there are as well, but not part of our story today.

A website maintained by Chris D. Conway, a craft brewer, beer journalist, and scholar of Newfoundland beer history, states:

Much of … [the] history is only glanced at through beers which, while once brewed by small Newfoundland producers, are now brewed in the province by either Molson-Coors or AB-Inbev (as Labatt). These beers, Bennett Dominion Ale (Molson), India Beer (Molson), Blue Star (Labatt), and Jockey Club (Labatt) are brands which have been around in Newfoundland for well over half a century. Other beers, particularly Black Horse (Molson), also have a long tradition in Newfoundland, though it was never brewed by a Newfoundland-owned brewery.

Spread through his site Conway imparts considerable information on these beers’ history, especially Black Horse Beer (as now called). It is an excellent site with much of good value.

E.g. he shows Newfoundland Brewery had an India’s Holiday Bock Beer in (seemingly) the 1950s – a name one might expect to see in our own craft times. At 8% abv, they needed no lessons from craft on strength!

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, Breweriana Collectors, and Atlantic Canada Beer Blog also contain label, or other, information relevant to Newfoundland brewing history.

I will add my part, here.

The Pre-Craft Breweries of Newfoundland

Through the mid-century until 1962, three independent brewers competed in Newfoundland. Conway summarizes their arc in his site. They were Bavarian Brewing Company Limited (1932-1962), Newfoundland Brewery Limited (1893-1962), and The Bennett Brewing Company (1827-1962).

As one can see at a glance, in the same terminal year, each was sold, to one of the three main Canadian brewers then. Molson Breweries got Newfoundland Brewery, Canadian Breweries Limited took Bennett Brewing, and Labatt scooped Bavarian Brewing.

Since Molson Breweries and Carling O’Keefe, formerly Canadian Breweries Limited, merged in 1989, Molson ended controlling the brands of the former Newfoundland Brewery and Bennett Brewing.

Origins of Black Horse Ale and Extension to Newfoundland

One result of the buy-out of Bennett Brewing was it started to brew Black Horse, a brand in Canadian Breweries Limited’s portfolio. Toronto-based Canadian Breweries Limited acquired the brand in 1952 when it bought National Breweries Limited in Quebec.

National Breweries Limited included Montreal’s Dawes Brewery, where the brand originated in the 19th century, actually in Lachine, Quebec at Dawes’ first brewery.

As Armstrong notes in his article, Conway’s site states that even before Bennett Brewing started to make Black Horse:

Canadian Breweries Limited (1951) … already had Black Horse and O’Keefe’s Old Stock in … [Newfoundland].

I am not sure what the “1951” means. It may simply mean that Conway traced a Black Horse Ale listing in Newfoundland as far back as that year, but his site does not add further detail.

Armstrong states while he has no evidence Black Horse was sold in Newfoundland before Bennett Brewing started to brew it:

I just feel there had to be an established market in Newfoundland  … My reasoning being, why would Bennett … become a licensee for that product if it didn’t already see a market for it?

Armstrong also notes that usually Canadian Breweries Limited phased out fading brands in favour of “big sellers”. The implication: unless Black Horse, in decline elsewhere in Canada, had some history in Newfoundland, it seemed not to make sense to introduce it there.

Early Export of Black Horse to Newfoundland 

In fact, the brand has a pre-history in Newfoundland. I have traced it back to December 1940. Perhaps it was there even earlier, but as shown below, Montreal-made Black Horse Ale was available in Newfoundland through the 1940s. Presumably therefore, it was sold in the 1950s and early ’60s as well.

In the past in Canada, except for a few off-shore and American imports, beers retailed in a province were manufactured there. Various provincial laws required or encouraged this, as a trade protective measure.

This is why, say, Molson Breweries operated, and still does via Molson-Coors Beverage Co., numerous breweries across Canada to supply local markets.

There were exceptions and it depended on the laws in a particular period. It must be remembered, as well, that Newfoundland was not part of Canada in 1940.

It was a separate possession of the British Empire, in fact under close U.K. administrative control due to a financial crisis resulting from the 1930s Depression.

Therefore, when National Breweries Limited in Quebec sent its Black Horse Ale to culturally adjacent, not-too-distant Newfoundland, it was nonetheless still an exported product.

The following ad is from the December 11, 1940 issue of the Western Star, a newspaper in Curling, Newfoundland, today part of the City of Corner Brook:

 

 

Similar ads appeared in Newfoundland right until Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949. Here is another, from the same newspaper in 1948:

 

 

I think probably this export of beer benefitted from some kind of exemption connected to the war. Canadian breweries generally, as I discussed earlier, were not permitted to export during wartime unless connected to the war effort.

Newfoundland certainly enjoyed, so to speak, an economic boost due to the onset of war in 1939. A webpage of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa explains well how the war impacted Newfoundland.

Beer had no trouble finding a sale during World War II, in general. The Newfoundland brewers who had struggled in the 1930s surely did not mind “a hand” from a Canadian brewer, to help supply new thirsts locally, or old thirsts now backed by ready cash.

Cover-the-Bases Advertising

An ad for Black Horse Ale in Sherbrooke, Quebec in August 1940, set a stylish tone for the brew, likening it to Champagne:

 

 

The mention of Champagne in 1940 seems odd, not because inapt in a beer context, but because France had fallen to the Germans in June that year. It is likely though the ad appeared earlier in 1940, before the debacle.

To support the quality of Black Horse Ale, the ad invokes alternately heritage and modernity, ostensibly opposed concepts. The traditional wood vat is stressed versus, say, equipment made from a shiny metal emblematic of contemporary aero, locomotive, or auto design.

The early origins of the brand and multi-generational history of manufacture, are stressed as well.

But how many ads, then or now, actually stated the beer was not as good 25 and 50 years earlier? I mean, the same brand, so setting aside modern craft beer. This showed how dominating the idea of industrial progress was then.

While the same dynamic is at work today, in brewing as any branch of industry, we are more loathe to admit it. We prefer the gauzy romance of handicraft, the down home, the pre-industrial. Never mind most of it is gleaming/computerized, in one way or another.

So this is the beer sent from Montreal to Newfoundland aka “The Rock” in the 1940s: mellowed in natural wood of immemorial use, light-coloured (isn’t Champagne?) and not bitter, yet of full body. This was all-malt beer, too, as I have shown before.

It was made the old way, and also the new way. It tasted traditional, but was better than ever – the perfect beer for 1940 – or 2021, I daresay.

Black Horse Beer Today

The Black Horse in Newfoundland today is Black Horse Beer, not Black Horse Ale. The change is documented in advertising dating at least to the 1970s. I am not clear when exactly it occurred, perhaps with the first brews at Bennett Brewery in St. John’s after the sale.

The only place in Canada today where Black Horse is available is, to my knowledge, Newfoundland.* This is the current label, via Molson-Coors’ site:

 

 

The Percheron-looking horse harks back to early Dawes Brewery artwork for the brand, when the beer was an ale. It is not an ale today. A story for another time.

*And Labrador, its associated territory.

 

 

 

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