Death, Mergers, and Extinction: The Storied History of Black Horse Beer Getting Here and Only Here

Deaths, mergers, extinction: The tale of a micro ale turned macro lager exclusive to NL

Of the 5 macrobrewery beers exclusive to our province – India, Black Horse, Dominion Ale, Blue Star, and Jockey Club – Black Horse has the most storied history, and roundabout trip to becoming a beer exclusive to here. The journey involved coming back from death in the 1960s, and surviving national extinction by inhabiting Newfoundland long after it was discontinued across mainland Canada.

Black Horse Was Brewed Out of a Small Brewery in Small Town Quebec

Black Horse started out as a small craft beer out of small town Quebec. It was first brewed all the way back in 1826, in Lachine, and the Black Horse on its logo is the breed (Percheron noir) that was used to run deliveries around that Quebec city at the time.

There was a period in the 1930s when Montreal’s streets had large illuminated commercials for this beloved beer, and one such street was immortalized in a 1937 painting by famed Lithuanian painter Sam Borenstein. The painting now hangs in the National Gallery of Canada.

Black Horse Ale, Notre Dame Street, 1937 hangs in the National gallery of canada
Black Horse Ale, Notre Dame Street, 1937

Business Was Always Booming for Black Horse Ale

The marketing worked: Black Horse Ale was one of the most popular beers in Quebec for decades. Today, in Lachine Museum, there’s a Black Horse Ale exhibit commemorating Dawe’s Heyday and Black Horse’s marketing campaigns.

As far back as the 1860s and 70s, Dawes Brewery was such a big operation they had one facility for roasting grains, two for fermenting the beers, a storehouse, and an icehouse. They even had their own cooperage to make kegs and barrels. There were so many valued employees, Dawes Brewery built them lodgings near their plant.

A Merger to Fight off Molson 

By the early years of the 1900s, many Quebec breweries were spending considerable money on competing with each other, including Dawes, Dow, Boswell, and Molson. So in 1909, over a dozen of them decided to band together and become “National Breweries LTD.” in an attempt to save money by lowering the marketing costs of competing with each other, and, to reduce their production costs.

Molson was asked to join this consortium, but chose not to. Big Quebecois breweries like Dawes, Dow, Ekers, and Boswell now operated as the same mega operation. Sales of Black Horse Ale reached the point of them needing more space to make it, so the Lachine operation was closed and moved to Montreal, where it was biggest plant in the National Breweries consortium.

Black Horse Goes National

As Molson and National Breweries continued to go head to head to rule the beer scene in Quebec, a beer industry giant called Canadian Breweries LTD was born in Ontario in 1930. Fun fact: an executive of Canadian Breweries in the 1930s was the father of Conrad Black.

In 1952, Canadian Breweries bought out National Breweries. So a national brewer, Canadian Breweries, came to own the Black Horse Brand. In time, Canadian Breweries began retiring many of National Breweries’ brands up in Canada, including Black Horse Ale.

How Black Horse Ended up Exclusive to NL 

Through another merger, Canadian Breweries became Carling OKeefe; Toronto-based Carling O’keefe happened to buy Newfoundland-based brewing Bennett Brewing in 1962. (Bennett are the creators of Dominion Ale!), and through Bennett Brewing, they started making and selling Quebec’s Black Horse Beer here.

As Black Horse was phased out of production in mainland Canada, it wasn’t here. We loved it, so, why stop making it here? There was a demand for it, and we all know Newfoundlanders don’t like change, and that’s how Black Horse came to exist here and only here after its extinction up in Canada.

Toronto’s Carling O’Keefe kept on making Black Horse in NL via Bennett Brewing through the 70s and 80s, until Carling O’Keefe and Molson merged to become Molson Breweries Canada in 1989. Molson shut down Bennett Brewery, and started brewing the stuff at their own Molson brewery in St. John’s (on Circular Road).

Molson decided to keep making it here, and only here, and to this day have sunk tens of millions of dollars into advertising it as part of our history. You’ll note that Black Horse still has its own Black Horse cap (all other Molson beers on the island simply say Molson). Apparently, if you take a look at the new label (new as of 2010), the black horse on it has a shadow in the shape of our province on its body.

So It’s Ours Now, Despite Some Knicks in Its Pedigree

At some point in Black Horse’s history, Black Horse ALE became a vaguely labelled Black Horse BEER, and is today a Black Horse LAGER. Undoubtedly, this was an attempt by the big commercial breweries to make all their beers more commercially successful. American-style lager, or lighter “more drinkable” beer, was becoming trendy in North America, so North American macrobreweries like Carling O’Keefe and Molson catered to this trend for the sake of mass appeal and commercial success.

As for the name, one could surmise from older ads (check out the ad below from The Muse in 1972), that it has to do with this beer being “The Thoroughbred,” as marketing material called it. “The product of time, patience, and skill. The best of the breed. Out in front of everyone else. In a class by itself.”

1971 ad in The Muse

But with a strange history of going from being labeled an ale by its initial brewer, to a vague “Black Horse BEER” as some 70s labels called it, to the “premium lager” it is labelled as today, its pedigree has been most certainly altered from a microbrew ale out of Quebec to a macrobrew lager out of Newfoundland. Nonetheless, it remains a top 5 bestselling local beer at the NLC, and, among serious beer snobs, a favourite of NL’s Big Five Macro Exclusives.

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16 Comments

  • My husband James Christopher Dawes is the son of Ormiston James Norman Dawes whose family owned Dawes Black Horse Brewery in Lachine, and his elder brother David Norman Dawes still resides in Knolton, Quebec.

  • Mr. Pelley: My grandfather Guido Nincheri made a series of stained glass windows featuring Dutch people drinking beer. They were part of the residence of the owner. The residence as well as the brewery were
    later destroyed but the windows were saved and today are in Ottawa and in Alberta. Do you know more about the Black Horse Ale and who was the owner? I am searching this in the Guido Nincheri archives to see when they were made. See me on Google. Roger Nincheri

  • I wonder if there is a connection between the hops growing in Turks Gut and Dominion Ale? CF Bennett had the Bennett Brewing Co. and he also had the Turks Gut Mining Company in the 1860’s. The hops has a floral but not overly bitter taste, similar to Dominion Ale.

    • FUN read! Had no idea Black Horse was still going strong in Newfoundland. My dad was a big Dow fan. No doubt liked Black Horse in his younger days. I still see occasionally see the Black Horse logo on beer trays and such at Quebec fleas.

  • Interesting story! We have a lot of black horse memorabilia from Dawes up to Molson. About 15 years ago they did take the black horse off the cap but only a short time. Still remember the day my husband opened his black horse case only to find the generic maple leaf cap on the bottles. Without hestitation he called the company to see if someone was f#%*@ng with his beer. They assured him no it was a cost saving effort and offered a free1/2 doz, he said no just put Eugene(the black horses name) back on the cap. Happy to say they did..lol

  • That explains why one of the old guys I worked with in Quebec during the 1990’s always wanted me to bring back Blackhorse from NL.

  • Most enlightening. I’ve always wondered about the connection between the old Black Horse brewed at the Dawes brewery in Lachine and the present-day Newfoundland version. I live in Lachine and ride my bike past the old Dawes brewery — now a cultural centre, museum (which houses the permanent exhibition about the Dawes brewery, its Percherons and its marketing campaigns) and concert hall — by the St. Lawrence River almost every evening.

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