Spruce Beers!

At this time of year, it can be hard to imagine gardens full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Luckily, we have other options: importing and indoor agriculture among them. The Victorians were not so fortunate. Preserving and pickling offered some access to fruits and vegetables through the winter, but malnutrition remained a risk. Those undertaking long ocean voyages were even more at risk—even in fine weather, produce could not be stored on-board for long periods, which could lead to sailors getting scurvy.

Beer to the rescue!

Spruce beer is beer brewed with the needles, shoots, buds, or inner bark of spruce trees. While Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence in the 1530s, the Iroquois shared a scurvy remedy—boiling spruce needles to make a Vitamin C-rich tea. By the 1700s, the British Navy was making an alcoholic version, brewing beer with evergreen needles and shoots.

Explorer James Cook brewed beer during his voyages to New Zealand—indeed, spruce beer was the first beer brewed in New Zealand. However, the ingredients were slightly different. The spruce trees used by Jacques Cartier do not grow in New Zealand. As an alternative, he used manuka and rimu trees, along with molasses to provide a source of fermentable sugar.

James Cook arrives at Queen Charlotte's Sound, New Zealand (courtesy www.britannica.com)

James Cook arrives at Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand (courtesy http://www.britannica.com)


Interestingly, recent scholarship has cast doubt on the efficacy of spruce beer as an antiscorbutic. While spruce does contain Vitamin C, the amounts diminish with fermentation. Anecdotal evidence suggests it offered at least some benefit—not as much as spruce tea, and certainly not as effective as citrus fruits—but enough to slow the progression of scurvy.

Whilst traipsing around the United States, I was fortunate enough to try some spruce beer—and not just any spruce beer, but spruce beer similar to that brewed by Captain Cook. The Wigram Brewing Company is a craft brewery located in Christchurch, NZ: they brewed their first commercial beer in 2001 and officially opened the brewery doors in 2003. (Yes, drinking an NZ beer in the US…long story.) Their James Cook Spruce Beer is a version of Cook’s brew made with rimu and tea tree.

Wigram_James Cook Spruce Beer

It’s a dark coppery colour on the pour, with a busy nose: there’s quite a bit of caramel/sweet aromas, with just a hint of pines. On first taste, the caramels dominate, and the mouthfeel is thick, nearly syrupy on the palate. The pine comes in the aftertaste—a rush of it rising up through the nose. It’s quite different from our Black Creek spruce beer. The pine isn’t quite as intense, and there’s a slight floral quality that I assume comes from the tea tree.

It’s certainly interesting to try beers from across the world—another benefit to living in the 21st century. Well, that and oranges in February. :)


Stay warm,


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THAT Super Bowl Ad: Budweiser 2015

Can we talk about Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad for a minute?

Yes, that Super Bowl ad. See, this one. Right here. It’s only a minute long, so take a quick peek.

Let’s go through it bit by bit.

0:00-0:04: We start out okay. Look, it’s a big brewery! Look, hops! This is a Budweiser commercial; I’m cool with that.

0:04: Then this flashes across the screen: Proudly a macro beer.


For one second, I am intrigued. Is Budweiser stepping back from claiming to be something it’s not? Are they reclaiming a “negative” label in a thoughtful, respectful, and creative way? After all, some people really like macro beers. That’s fine—we’re totally cool with people drinking whatever makes them happy.

0:06: The Clydesdales! I like the Clydesdales. They remind me of Black Creek’s own Clydesdale, Ross. Maybe this is about putting a new spin on macro beers.


0:10: It’s not brewed to be fussed over.


Here is a man drinking beer. The beer is dark, in what appears to be a chalice-style glass, possibly a tulip (hard to tell, with the angle). If this guy is really a beer snob, I hope he’s drinking some variety of Belgian dark ale—it’s often recommended that you serve those in chalices.

More to the point, this man has thick, rimmed glasses, a neat shirt, and a twirly mustache. I think we need a better look at this mustache, actually.

It is pretty glorious...

It is pretty glorious…

This man is a hipster. Alas, hipsters come with a lot of stereotypes, pretentiousness and self-importance among them. “Thus,” Budweiser says, “if you fuss over your beer, you share those characteristics.”

At this point, I’m shaking my head, but sure, there are clichés about beer snobs. Down in the Black Creek Historic Brewery, we try very hard to dispel that image. As anyone who’s had a drink with us knows, we have a strict policy of No Judgement.

But this is a Super Bowl ad. Budweiser is defending itself as a macro brewery. I don’t like the stereotype of craft-beer-lovers-as-snobs, because it hurts craft breweries, and I think playing up stereotypes is lazy marketing, but I haven’t popped any veins yet. Mostly, at this point, I’m just wishing we could all leave each other to drink what we like in peace.

0:16: It’s brewed for a crisp, smooth finish.

Exactly. It’s a thirst-quenching beer. That’s fine. Honestly, if people like the taste of Budweiser, then they should drink it. If they’re okay with it, I might recommend a few craft beers they might also like, but I’m never going to judge someone on their beer tastes, or make them try something. Again, that’s not our policy.

Alas, judgement is Budweiser’s policy, but again, it’s a Super Bowl ad. I do understand why a company isn’t saying, “Let’s spend a fortune to tell people to drink whatever they want!”

Unfortunately, it’s about here that logic flies out the window.

0:19: This is the only beer beechwood aged since 1876.


But…I thought we’re not fussing over Budweiser? Why, then, do we care about its beechwood aging? Isn’t that something that (gasp) craft beer lovers might care about?

(My author alter-ego would also like to point out that the phrasing makes it sound like Budweiser has been aging its beers since 1876—as in, for 139 years. That would be quite a beer.)

0:27: It’s brewed for drinking, not dissecting.

Oh, look, more hipsters. You can tell because they are all bespectacled, and they are sharing a flight that arrived on a wooden board with different glassware for each style.

Here, I would like to point out that “drinking” and “dissecting” are not mutually exclusive. Part of the enjoyment of drinking beer (for us, anyway) comes from figuring out what those flavours and aromas are. Admiring the way ruby highlights come through a dark porter is part of the package that makes beer appealing to all the senses. Taking that first sniff is another thing that you can enjoy.

Budweiser is also aware that to distinguish all of these flavours, aromas, and characteristics, you do have to drink the beer, right?

0:28:-0:31: The people who drink our beer….

Are people who are filmed with a blurriness strangely reminiscent of intoxication. Interesting subtext. I kind of prefer the hipsters’ airy, brightly-lit brewpub, myself. Although, I’ve suddenly realized: the only females we’ve seen in this ad are women serving Budweiser. We haven’t seen any girls drinking beer, either. Even the hipsters are all male.


I guess women don’t drink beer? And I guess they don’t hang out with nerdy hipsters, so clearly, you have to go to the blurry bars to find them. I almost typed all that with a straight face, but then I didn’t.

The thought of Budweiser seeing me pour samples in my hoops makes me smile.

0:34: The people who drink our beer like to drink beer.

If I have this right…the ad is saying that the people who fuss over and dissect beer, who pay so much attention to detail, including the proper glassware…don’t like to drink beer.


0:40-0:42 Let them sip their Pumpkin Peach Ale.


I have several things to say about this. First, I feel bad for our poor hipsters. I’d also like to look at the specific word choice of “sip.” Sipping” is restrained. It is controlled. It is quiet. It is deliberate. It also prolongs the time it takes to drink your beverage, which means it takes you feel its effects more slowly. It also means you drink less beer.

Clearly very different from the blurry, raucous bar of a few scenes prior, where partying blokes and lads are buying lots and lots of Budweiser. Also—so, let’s say a guy prefers the airy, brightly-lit brewpub? Does that make him less manly?

No, it means he prefers airy, brightly-lit brewpubs. I shake my head again.

The other hilarious thing about this bit is that Pumpkin Peach Ale actually exists. Elysian Brewery, a craft brewery in Seattle, brews a pumpkin/peach brew called “Gourdgia on My Mind.” To cap it off, Anheuser-Busch is in the process of acquiring Elysian.

So…they just insulted a beer…made by a brewery…that they will soon own….


But wait. Maybe they didn’t know about Elysian’s brew. Maybe they were trying for absurdity and it’s all a coincidence.

So…they don’t know what the brewery they’re acquiring actually brews…


0:43-0:46 We’ll be brewing us some golden suds.


Proper grammar is also for hipsters.

0:58: This Bud’s for you.

For whom, exactly? For the people that already drink Budweiser? I assume so, because I certainly don’t think that they’ve won over any craft beer drinkers with this ad. Which means, essentially, they spent $9 million telling people who already drink their beer…to keep drinking their beer.


After Viewing

At first, I was inclined to approach this ad with our usual no judgement attitude. Some people genuinely like Budweiser, or Coors, or whatever macro beer you care to name. That is fine. Drink what you like, in the most literal sense. But this is where idealism hits reality:

Ideally, we’d all just happily drink the beers that make us happy. Realistically, beer is big business. I will support people’s right to drink whatever they like, but I can disagree with macro-breweries’ interactions with craft breweries: whether through ads like this, buyouts, or sweetheart deals with the LCBO that hamstring smaller brewers.

Two different things: the drinkers and the business. At the end of the day, though, this ad gives an awful lot of exposure and attention to craft beers—ironic, considering that it was supposed to be about Budweiser.

And now…I think there’s a honey-ginger winter warmer in my fridge that needs dissecting. ;)



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No Barley? No Problem! Gluten-Free Beers

Whilst roaming Maine, writing things and trying beers, I noticed an interesting-looking brew. A gluten-free beer, made from sorghum. “How cool!” said I, and made a mental note to try it later. Alas, I never got the chance.


It was this beer, incidentally.

It was this beer, incidentally.

But it did get me thinking about gluten-free beers and their place in history. As you no doubt know, beer is made from four ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. Unfortunately for those with celiac disease or other gluten intolerances, barley contains gluten: a protein which causes pain and discomfort in those who cannot properly digest it.

And so, people with gluten intolerance should not drink our beer at Black Creek. However the main chemical reaction in brewing is the conversion of sugar (derived from the barley) to alcohol by yeast. So really, to make beer, you need hops, yeast, water, and [insert source of fermentable sugar here].

Which means that you can, theoretically, make beer from other types of grains: sorghum, rice, millet, and corn. While some might quibble over whether a barley-free beer is really beer, these grains would create an alcoholic, gluten-free beverage. Indeed, some home brewing kits include a sweet sorghum syrup instead of malt—I could find very little information on whether sorghum is malted, but the commercially-produced syrup also includes unfermentable sugars and amino acids as yeast nutrients.

But what about the Victorians? Did they have gluten-free beers?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Not that Victorians would have thought of it as “gluten-free beer.” It was just beer made without barley. And why would one make beer without barley?

It’s cheaper. Remember, to make alcohol, the yeast really just needs fermentable sugar. Molasses was frequently used as a substitute or supplement to barley malt:

“Hop Beer”

“…a handful of hops, a pailful of water and half a pint of molasses make a good spruce beer. Spruce mixed with hops is pleasanter than hops alone.” (Mrs. Child, Mrs. Child’s the American Frugal Housewife, 1859)

At least you like spruce, Mrs. Child…

“Jumble Beer”

“Take 2 spoonfuls of ground Ginger, and 1 pint of molasses, to 2 ½ pails of water; first mix the ingredients with a little water warmed, especially in cold weather; then add the whole compliment of water and shake it very briskly, and in about 6 or 8 hours it will be sufficiently fermented.” (Samuel Curtis, A Valuable Collection of Recipes, Medical and Miscellaneous. Useful in Families and Valuable to Every Description of Persons, 1819)

I have my doubts about how alcoholic this one would be. Here’s another beer from Samuel Curtis, called, appropriately enough, “Another beer.”

“Another beer”

“Boil 1 ounce of hops, 1 ounce of pounded ginger, and 4 pounds of treacle, in 2 gallons of water; when at the temperature of new milk, add Yeast to ferment it in the manner of malt liquor. This is reported to be wholesome and agreeable, and it not only cheaper, but will keep much longer than common beer.”

Sometimes, Victorians even used acorns!

“Cheap Beer”

“Steep a quantity of acorns in water for 15 or 20 days, renewing the water 4 or five times. Transfer them to a cask and add a handful of hops; fill up the casks with water, and lightly cover, not stop, the bunghole, as there is an escape of gas. In 15 or 20 days, the beer is fit for use…” (S.S. Schoff and B.S. Caswell, The People’s Own Book of Recipes; and Information for the Million, 1867)

At least they’re honest with the name… showing again, that while we look for barley alternatives for health reasons, Victorians would have been doing so in the name of frugality and thrift. Although I do wonder if an acorn beer was worth the savings… ;)



Child, Lydia Maria Frances. The American Frugal Housewife. New York: Samuel S. & William Wood, 1838.

Curtis, Samuel. A Valuable Collection of Recipes, Medical and Miscellaneous. Useful in Families and Valuable to Every Description of Persons. Amherst: Elijah Mansue, 1819.

Schoff, S.S. and B.S. Caswell. The People’s Own Book of Recipes; and Information for the Million. Kenosha, Wis. Schoff and Winegar, 1867.

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Stuck on Stouts

I am definitely a creature built for warmer climes. And yet, for some reason, here I remain in Canada. As winter wears on, I’m finding myself drawn increasingly to malt-oriented beers, particularly stouts. Thanks to a generous friend, I have another beer book in my library. So  I’ve been curled up with my stouts, reading about stouts. What could be more wonderful (or meta) than that?


The beer library grows...

The beer library grows…

The stout, as it happens, has a history nearly as impenetrable as its colour. Say the word “stout” today, and most people immediately think Guinness. While Guinness is certainly one of the better known stouts, it isn’t the only—nor what it was it even necessarily the first.

See, the really fun thing about beer history is that specific terms mean different things at different times. References to “stout beers” actually appear in the historical record around 1677, but these aren’t the stouts with which we’re familiar. Rather, at this point, “stout” simply designated a strong beer. Thus, it was entirely possible to have a “pale stout,” which seems like an oxymoron today.

The stout we know and love today is closely intertwined with the development of the porter. The history of the porter could be an entire blog post all on its own, so to keep things simple: by the 1700s, the porter had become popular throughout London as a more-aged, slightly stronger style of beer. In 1778, a certain Irishman jumped on the bandwagon. You may have heard of him—Arthur Guinness?

So maybe we saw that one coming…

It actually took Guinness a while to turn his attention to porters. He started brewing in the 1750s, taking over a family-run brewery in the town of Leixlip, County Kildare, Ireland. He’d relocated to Dublin by the end of the decade, where he signed a 9000-year lease, paying £40 (about $75) yearly. Not too shabby. He brewed several different styles, but by the end of the 1700s, he was focusing almost exclusively on the porter. Guinness’s porters came in varying strengths, so he commonly referred to them with names like “plain porter,” “stout porter,” and even “double stout porter.”

All of this begs the question: when did porters and stouts diverge into different styles? Well, according to some, they never really did: they’re just two variations on the same style of beer.

But if you really want to distinguish them…there are a few handy historical benchmarks. In 1817, a man named Daniel Wheeler invented a process of kilning barley at a temperature so high, the grain carbonizes, thus creating a very, very dark malt. How dark? Dark enough that even a small amount added to the grain bill results in an almost completely-black beer. This was, of course, the Black Patent Malt, and it allowed for the very dark beers that we know today.

Other people point to 1820, the year in which Guinness changed the name of his Extra Stout Porter to the Extra Stout. But given that he was still advertising “Stout Porters” in 1836, I’m unconvinced. Honestly, like many developments in early brewery history, I’m not sure that there was any single watershed moment—more like, small changes over time added up to create the stout as a distinguishable style, albeit one still very closely linked to the porter.

In any case, most “stouts” from the late 1700s-early 1800s are what we would consider Irish or “dry stouts,” so called for the drying sensation they impart on the finish. This resulted from a small addition (no more than 10% of the malt used) of barely that was roasted, but unmalted—this left flavours similar to dark roasted coffee or dark chocolate. There are, of course, other styles of stouts. Oatmeal stouts are richer and fuller due to the addition of oatmeal to the grain bill. Milk Stouts, as we know well here at Black Creek, are sweet and silky from added lactose. Imperial stouts were originally brewed for export to the Russian imperial court, and they are stout stouts indeed, running up to 10% ABV. You can even have potato stouts! (I’m looking forward to seeing that one again, incidentally.)


As to the adage that a stout is a “meal in a glass”…well, remember that down in the historic brewery, our stout only runs about 4.5% ABV, and calorically speaking, stouts just aren’t significantly heavier. So, even post-holidays, you should be fine to enjoy one every now and then.

Especially if it’s accompanied by a good book.



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Maine Musings

Hello, beer-lovers!

I hope that you are enjoying your winter! As I occasionally do over Black Creek’s off-season, I’ve fled south to the United States, specifically to Maine. So sure, I’m in the south (relative to Toronto, anyway), but it’s even colder here.

Considering its tempestuous temperance history (the 1851 “Maine Law” made Maine the first completely dry state), it’s both delightful and surprising to find that twenty-first century Maine has a vibrant craft brewing scene, much of it centred around the city of Portland. According to 2013 figures from the Brewers’ Association, there are 47 breweries in Maine. That same year, beer sales in Maine trumped blueberry sales. Which perhaps sounds odd, until you realize just what a big deal blueberries are down here.

Seriously, they're everywhere.

Seriously, they’re everywhere.

It’s a collaborative, community-minded beer scene as well. Starting in 1986, Maine’s brewpubs and craft breweries united to form the Maine Brewers’ Guild. An active player in Maine tourism, the guild organizes beer festivals, lectures, even a brand-new beer school. Plus, a significant number of the beers I’ve seen down here source their ingredients locally, with Maine-grown hops and barley.

Community, enthusiasm, and local ingredients: no wonder the beer here is so good. Maybe it’s the “New England Vacationland” feeling down here, but it makes me wonder if other parts of the craft brewing industry might learn something from this approach. I ran across an article recently which prompted a lot of discussion: the author argued that a trend towards excessively hoppy beers was ruining craft brewing.

You can read that article here. I had a number of problems with it, starting and ending with the judgmental tone (“Do friends let friends drink only pilsners?” Really?), and including the general omission of the very fine alternatives on the market. If anything, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of porters and stouts lately (granted, it’s winter, but still). The author surmises that hops mask off-flavours and flaws in the beer, their variety allows for extra experimentation, and it’s an easy way to differentiate craft beer from macrobrews.

Hops, hops, hops...

Hops, hops, hops…

Well, you can experiment with malt and yeasts as well, as we’ve seen done down here at Black Creek, and honestly, I think almost any craft ale is immediately distinguishable from a macrobrew at first sniff, hop-oriented or not.

I wonder if early craft beers were abundantly hopped because hops are easy to take to extremes. If you’re competing in a crowded marketplace, it’s perhaps more difficult to notice and market a beer that’s maltier, or yeastier. We like “-ers” when we compete. And hops are distinctive; they can’t really be mistaken for anything else. They hit the palate right away. And they linger on the palate too: that’s why we always serve our IPA last.

So you make a beer that’s hoppier than the next guy’s. You make a beer that’s more alcoholic, because we want the bang for our buck, right? And suddenly, you have a beer that’s hoppier and more alcoholic, so it’s probably an…


This is theorizing, anyway. But from my research (cursory as it regrettably is) I don’t see that spirit of competition here in Maine. I see a group of brewers who don’t necessarily want to be better than the other guy. I see a brewing community in which each brewery wants to make the best product it can.

There is a difference here, one as rich and satisfying as chocolate malt.


PS. A look at what I’ve been drinking this week (not shown: D.L. Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale- really nice amber).

Scottish Ale (Gritty's)

Scottish Ale (Gritty’s)

Coal Porter (Atlantic Brewing Co.)

Coal Porter (Atlantic Brewing Co.)

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Happy 2015!

From all of us, to all of you, Happy New Year from the Black Creek Historic Brewery!


Know what’s fun for the New Year? Resolutions. This year, I’m resolving to expand my palate: I’ve spent a good amount of time with American, Canadian, and British ales. There’s a whole world of beer out there, and I’m looking forward to trying more! Especially those witbiers.

Which should help me with my second resolution: achieving my very own Artisan’s badge on Untappd. Though, honestly, I’m only 13 beers away, so the Master’s badge (tasting 200 different brews) is probably the one to aim for!

What are your resolutions for this year?

Have a safe, responsible, and Happy New Year!



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Last Call!

My dear friends,

Remember how, way back on May 1st, I said that there were so many amazing things to cram into eight months, I wasn’t sure how we would ever reach the end of the season?

Well, here we are.

Another season has passed, and we are into our last few days of 2014. And what a season it was!

We started the dog days of summer with a new brew: a sweet and spicy Ginger Beer. Then we toasted Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers as we hosted the Humber River Shakespeare company on our own Town Hall Green. The hops were harvested and ghostly tales consumed alongside historic ales. We said, “Cheese!” and “Cheers!” and warmed ourselves with Ed’s delightfully citrusy Winter Warmer. You toured with us, sampled with us, and some of you even made beer with us.

Yes, another wonderful season. But what now?

The historic brewery will be closed from December 24th to May 1st, but you will still find our beer in the LCBO. In fact, our LCBO gift pack is in select stores now, featuring our Rifleman’s Ration, Pale Ale, Porter, and a new beer – the Brilliant. Clearer and more effervescent than one usually expects for our time period, the Brilliant is a light, slightly sweet, and oh-so-quaffable brew. Lightly toasted malts blend well with a dry finish.


And I’ll still be here, writing away! While I hope for a wee rest with my wee heavies the rest of this month, you can expect more of the usual social history and beer geekery in the New Year. With several trips to the US planned, I’ll once again be resuming my role as travelling beer journalist, reporting on brews and breweries stateside.

Thanks again, all of you who came down to our historic brewery to chat, to taste, and to cheer. Have a safe and happy holiday season and we’ll see you in 2015!

To Queen and Country!

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