If you’ve been to Newfoundland you’ve likely taken note of a fairly strong connection to British and Irish traditions within the province’s music, culture, and perhaps even in its beer. Popular places to grab a pint are regularly decked out in Irish garb – places like Bridie Molloys, The Republic, or Christians to name a few – or, like the famous Duke of Duckworth, more grounded in the British pub experience. But what about Newfoundland beer? In this post, a reappraisal of Webb and Beaumont’s classification of Newfoundland as having weak “British Traditions” in the light of the history of German-Newfoundland brewmasters.
Category Archives: History
The Atlantic Canada Beer Blog is a great resource for keeping up with brewery news, beer releases, and other important information about the brewing scene throughout Atlantic Canada. They recently contacted me to do an interview on both this project and to talk about the current brewing scene in Newfoundland. If you’re interested you should check it out here.
Over the last few weeks I have been doing lots of little pieces of research that I’m working on putting together into posts. Some of the topics I’ve noticed people looking for on the blog, while other’s I just cannot find anywhere else on the Internet. Here are a few of the things that I have in progress right now.
- New Labels! I recently tracked down a Bennett’s Haig Ale label along with others including a Dominion Stout label and a Bennett Brewing matchbook from the 1960s. Expect some high resolution scans. The Haig Ale label is really great.
- There are legal implications around beer brands and branding. They are something breweries own. But when did this ownership transfer to the macros and what brands were important enough to have Canadian copyrights? I’ve got the answer… I just need to write it up!
- Black Horse was brewed in the United States for a long time, for a while under contact from Dawes (see the Dawes brand on the above label?) and later, after a court case, an independent American brand, so there are some Black Horse advertisement from the New York Times and the Washington Post that I’ve got my hands on that I want to post.
- I have six Dominion Ale coasters from the 1970s that I’ve been meeting to digitize. The problem is that they are still in their original cellophane package, so I’ve been having trouble committing to opening it!
- I posted this on the NL Beer History Facebook a while back showing some provisions sent to Newfoundland back in 1702 from the American colonies. It included included around 250 pounds of Hops, likely meaning that beer was being brewed in, rather than imported to, the colony at that time! I have some other academic articles (mostly from people like Peter Pope and John Wicks who have done some historical and archeological work at Ferryland) which discuss early, pre-20th century, brewing in Newfoundland which I am working on putting together into an post.
- I’m working on a very detailed post about the Bennett Brewing Newfoundland Song book collection. This has actually attracted some folklorists from Memorial Newfoundland in the past (though I’m not a big fan of how they’ve approached the subject), so I’m hoping to include some more academic work into the article. I’ve also got some great pictures from the two editions that I’ve got.
So, I have no shortage of work to do! In the next month or so I’m hoping to get posts written up on these topics, so keep checking in with the Newfoundland Beer History project!
A lot of the traffic I get on this blog comes from people looking for an answer to some variety of the question “why does Newfoundland have short neck beer bottles?” It’s a good question, but one for which the internet is not rife with answers.
One of the first things that most people notice when they first come to Newfoundland (or when they first go away) is that Newfoundland beer bottles are a little shorter, just about an inch off the neck, than most beer bottles you’ll find almost anywhere else in North America. Even for big breweries like Labatt and Molson, though the beer inside and the labels are identical, the bottles are different.
The best answer I’ve found to this historical question was published in The Telegram (St. John’s biggest local newspaper) by Russell Wangersky in November of 1999. Wangersky, reporting on a bottle shortage of the bottles in the provence, provides a good bit of insight into why the little bottle, known in the industry as Bob-21, has stuck around in the provence. Wangersky is a better source if you can access newspaper archives, but as googling does not yield his article and most people don’t have easy access to newspaper archives, I’m going to go over the story here.
The short history goes like this. When the industry moved away from stubby bottles in the mid-1980s (due to pressure from more attractive looking long necks from the import and American markets) each brewery was left to its own devices to figure out what kind of bottle they should use. (The rise of the stubby as an industry standard is, in itself, an interesting historical development which is covered well in both Brew North by Ian Coutts and Cheers! A History of Beer in Canada by Nick Pashley.) On the mainland the big three breweries (Carling-O’Keefe, Molson, and Labatt), likely due to the proximity of the more aesthetically pleasing taller bottles coming from American imports like Miller, settled on the long neck (see page 120 of Coutts for more on the American influence).
The story differs on the island in part due to Carling-O’Keefe’s dominance in the market. Having control of the old Bennett brands and the popular Black Horse beer, the interim bottle used by Carling-O’Keefe became standard in Newfoundland. Why? Well, there were simply too many Bob-21 bottles kicking around the provence to warrant the economic cost, which Wangersky quotes to be around $10 million, of switching. That’s largely what keeps the bottle around too, as switching would require the whole old stock of bottles to be trashed rather than be reused some 15 to 20 times as they normally are.
That’s it. That’s the story. I’ll admit, it’s not very romantic or exciting! The name Bob-21 doesn’t even have a very interesting story. Wangersky explains, “No one seems to know for sure how the Bob-21 got its handle, except that Carling-O’Keefe picked it.”
The bottle might not have a great backstory, but the cultural value of the little guy stands for more than the odd economic lock-in that keeps it in circulation. Everyone hears the stories of a Newfoundlander hitting the clubs in Toronto for the first time, only to chip their front teeth on those longer-than-expected necks. There is something very tacit about the cute little bottles that makes them feel, well, homey somehow. Anyway, Internet, there is the answer to the question. I’d love to hear about what folks think about the Newfoundland Short Neck bottles, so do leave a comment or pop me an e-mail if you’ve got any strong feelings towards the little Bob-21 bottle.
For more information see Russell Wangersky “Calling all empties: Breweries short on bottles asking beer drinkers to turn them in” The Telegram, November 12, 1999, p. 27.
A strange thing happened to Black Horse over the years. Most people in the United States and Canada who remember the brand (from anytime before the mid-1970s) will remember the beer as an ale. The picture I use on the main page, a Canadian Dow’s label from 1972, plainly states “Black Horse Ale.”
But there is somethings fishy with the Newfoundland product: it was rebranded to “Black Horse Beer” and made into a lager. This is pretty much the trend in North American beer at the time, everyone was mimicking the lighter tastes of American Beer and the big three Canadian brands wanted to follow suit. (See Ian Coutts, Brew North: How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada, Greystone, 2010, for a well researched and beautifully illustrated overview.)
When did Black Horse Ale and Black Horse Beer (the lager) part ways? Well, for sometime both must have existed. Check out this full page advertisement for Black Horse from a 1971 issue of the MUSE (the student newspaper for Memorial University of Newfoundland):
It’s a great advertisement, not only because it’s full of great copy about Black Horse, but also because it gives us a close up of the label. It still says it’s brewed by Bennett Brewing, which at the time was under the ownership of Canadian Breweries Limited (who gained control over the prestigious Black Horse brand after their 1952 purchase of National Breweries – which they renamed Dow Breweries). In all other ways the label is identical to the Canadian Black Horse Ale label.
I wonder if the flavour of the two beers were similar and if the brewing of ales and lagers was starting to converge (ales becoming more watery and lagers becoming more bland) so that all beer just tasted like “beer.” Either way, the Newfoundland Black Horse, since at least the early 1970’s, has been a lager. While now it’s marketed as a “premium lager,” its interesting to think how far it’s come from it’s ale heritage. Thoroughbred? I think not.
In 1985 the three major breweries in Newfoundland, Labatt, Carling O’Keefe, and Molson, stopped producing beer. For most of the year, from April until mid-November, there was no commercial beer produced in Newfoundland. Those who lived through the beer strike seem to remember it as a shared trauma or as what the poet and storyteller Ben Ploughman called a collective “hangover,” but for many of us from a younger generation these stories are not at all clear.1
The story of the 1985 beer strike lives on in local legend, but there isn’t really any clear account of what actually happened in 1985. I’ve heard the basic chronology from my father: the breweries went on strike, the liquor board imported American beer – which everyone hated – and, once the strike was resolved, all the American beer was discounted to a ludicrous degree. This isn’t actually too far from what happened, however, I’d like to iron our a few details.
The strike started at the Labatt brewery where unionized workers, protesting the introduction of aluminum cans which they felt threatened their job security, went on strike on April 1.2 The following day O’Keefe and Molson locked out their workers (O’Keefe had about 70 and Molson had about 60) in accordance with an agreement between the three breweries. So, because of this agreement, workers at all three major Newfoundland breweries were either locked out or officially on strike by April 2, 1985.
The other unions, the ones who were locked out due to covert corporate agreements, were actively frustrated by this action. Kevin Walsh, the president of Local 354 of the United Brewery, Flour, Cereal, Softdrink and Distillery Workers union, took part in an occupation of the Carling O’Keefe plant in downtown St. John’s in early May. He stated, upset at the lack of official reasoning for the lockout, ”We want to sit down at the negotiating table and work out an agreement.”3 The cause of the strike was not simply a union issue, it had to do with the limited competition in the Newfoundland brewery market and corporate solidarity.
By May many local pubs and taverns were running low on beer supplies. Steve Sparkes, the president of Hospitality Newfoundland, told the Globe and Mail on May 11 that within ” maybe 12 or 14 days… every bar will be out of beer,” and that “[p]eople just haven’t switched to liquor as we had hoped.”4 The solution to the beer shortage was one which many Newfoundlander’s came to abhor: importing larger quantities of American beer.
Ben Ploughman, in his poem “The Beer Strike of ’85,” calls the beer alternatives provided by the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation (NLC), canned beers like Lone Star, Old Milwaukee and Pabts Blue Ribbon, “American froth.” He laments that beers, even Canadian and Dutch ones, like Heineken, Mooshead, and Schooner, just could not “satisfy the thirst / That had plagued this Newfoundland.” Nothing it seems, was as good as Dominion or Blue, his preferred two brands. (I’m uncertain if “blue” is referring to Blue Star or Labatt Blue, but, given the nationalistic context, it would likely be Blue Star.)
In the first four months of the strike/lockout overall beer sales dipped 20 per cent from the previous year and the NLC imported “36 million bottles or cans of beer from the United States and 8.4 million cans or bottles from Europe.”5 Newfoundland was not the only provence struggling with brewing industry labour problems in 1985. There was also a lockout of Ontario’s three major breweries in March of 1985 because of similar union fears that cans would both displace workers and allow for greater beer mobility and centralization.6 These fears of greater brewery centralization also appeared in the Newfoundland strike. Fraser March, president of the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees, stated in a 1985 press conference that: “I believe that the brewing industry has a secret agenda in this province and that secret agenda is to pull all breweries out of Newfoundland and have beer brewed in large regional breweries, one in Halifax and one in Montreal for sure, and have all beer sold in nonreturnable cans.”7
The portability of cans seemed to offer a greater ability for breweries to centralize and streamline their production. Because cans could be shipped long distances, unions feared that breweries would move out of a small, regional production model and towards a larger centralized one. In many cases this seems to have happened in the years since 1985, however, notably Labatt and Molson both still operate breweries in Newfoundland and still mostly use the regional Newfoundland semi-short-neck bottles.
Aside from impacting our ideas of canned beer, the strike also raises an interesting point about beer brewing in Newfoundland. Ploughman, in his poem about the strike, writes: “And such the likes were never seen / Of homebrew that was brewed, / From herring barrels and plastics pails / So thick as Irish stew.” It’s interesting to think about what a beer strike and an influx of cheep, poorly received American beer did for the homebrewing movement in Newfoundland. It’s also interesting to think about how almost a year of American imports might have shaped Newfoundland beer tastes, which still tend to favour lighter beers.
The strike/lockout ended in November when the union and Labatt came to an agreement after a 22 hour bargaining season.8 Beer sales had plummeted 15% over the previous year – a drop of almost $15 million dollars. The remaining American beer was discounted to, according to Ploughman, nine-sixty, but apparently sales were still slow. Ploughman continues:
Now what was the government to do
With thousands of leftover froth,
It was decided to hit rock bottom
Six dollars for the rest of the lot.
So us Newfies gave in once more
One final crack at those can of beer,
It was cheeper than a pepsi or coke
We called it `hangover beer of the year.’
The beer strike/lockout of 1985 is an important historical event in the history of Newfoundland. It deals with corporate collusion and market control in the beer industry, union responses to changing labour practices and technologies, beer preferences and brand loyalties, and perhaps even played a part in the growth of a homebrewing tradition in Newfoundland. For those of us too young to remember the strike, let’s be thankful that there are more local options now than ever before and hope that a drought of local beer in Newfoundland will never happen again.
1 Ben J. Ploughman, Born and Bred on `The Rock’: Original Newfoundland Stories, Recitations and Poetry (Creative Publishers, 1988).
2 “Across Canada: Lounge Owners Seek More Beer,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 1985.
3 “Brewery Workers Impatient,” The Globe and Mail, May 3, 1985.
4 “Across Canada: Newfoundland taverns are running short of beer,” The Globe and Mail, May 11, 1985.
5 “Breweries deny union charges,” The Globe and Mail, August 27, 1985.
6 “Beer flow should resume Monday,” The Globe and Mail, March 16, 1985.
7 “Breweries deny union charges,” opt. cit..
8 “Contract ends Newfoundland beer strike,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 15, 1985.
This is a research blog so I ought to include a summary of some of the topics in Newfoundland’s brewing history I am looking for information about or in the process of researching.
- The strike of 1986, where the local breweries were shut down for several months causing the import of numerous low-end American brands (Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon)
- Dominion Ale / Bennett Brewing’s Newfoundland Songbook
- Other breweries and microbrews. In particular the brewing done at the Duke of Duckworth and the reports of Brewing at Fog City in the Avalon Mall
- Bison Brewing in Stephenville
- The homebrew culture in Newfoundland, particularly the story of the homebrew supply shop Brewery Lane
- Newfoundland Prohibition
- Details on the takeovers by Molson, Carling, and Labatt
- More general detail on the key historical breweries (who worked their, etc.)
Any topics you think I’ve missed? Have any information about these topics? Let me know!
Today, a few more advertisements of beers by the Newfoundland Brewery Limited, India Beer and India Pale Ale.