Death by Small Beer? (A History Mystery)

It all started with this photo:

Embedded image permalink

My boss sent it to me, adding, “…read as much of the small print as possible.” 

Luckily for my eyes, the full text is available elsewhere:

In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of

a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12 May 1764. Aged 26 Years.

In grateful remembrance of whose universal good will towards his Comrades, this Stone is placed here at their expence, as a small testimony of their regard and concern.

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,

Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall

And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all. 

What? How did the beer kill him? Did it have something to do with the temperature, or was it the “small” (low-alcohol) nature of the beer? Your trusty beer journalist cannot resist a history mystery like this, so of course I’ve spent the last three days digging. What killed Thomas Thetcher?

Let’s look at three possibilities: food/beer poisoning, mould, and contaminated serving vessels.


Food/Beer Poisoning

Is it possible that Thetcher’s beer was contaminated? My first instinct was to say, “No, in the 1700s, beer was likely safer than water.” After all, boiling the wort kills most bacteria, hops have some antibacterial properties, and fermentation drops the pH to a level where most bacteria can’t survive. One exception is the bacterium Acetobacter, which can survive well under 5.0 pH—beer tends to be around 4 pH, unfermented beer around 5.1-5.4.


I like malt vinegar. I don’t like these. (courtesy

But all Acetobacter does is convert the alcohol in beer into vinegar. Drinking vinegar wouldn’t have killed Thetcher, and anyway, he would’ve noticed the taste at the first sip.

A few other strains of lactic acid bacteria can survive in beer, but again, they just produce off-tastes and odours.

I did wonder if the “small” nature of the beer might have allowed for something else to take hold. What if this beer was low enough in alcohol that other bacteria could survive? Maybe this is what the militia meant when they declared drink Strong or none at all?

However, the boiling process still poses serious problems for bacteria. Let’s look at the most commonly troublesome ones:

E. Coli (courtesy

Salmonella generally grows from 7-48 degrees Celsius, with optimum pH around 6.5-7.5. Between the rolling boil and acidic nature of even unfermented beer, it would die.

E. coli? More acid resistant, but can grow to 49 degrees Celsius. It would die.

Listeria? Optimum growth temperatures range from 4-37 degrees Celsius. It would also die (surprise!).

So…it seems that the small beer would leave the brew-kettle free of bacteria, which means Thetcher didn’t die from a bacterial infection.

But what happens after the beer leaves the brew-kettle?



I got really excited when I discovered that Britain experienced very wet summers from 1763-1772. Probably too excited, but that’s all right.

You see, mould likes damp conditions. Mould also likes wood. Guess what’s made of wood?


Casks are made of wood!
Casks are made of wood!

So, imagine our small beer arrives from the brew-kettle nice and sterile, and goes into the casks. The mould-contaminated casks. Not being a microbiologist, I wonder if the relatively low-alcohol environment of a small beer might have allowed for some mould growth.

Penicillium mould can grow in and through the joints and bung holes of wooden barrels, infecting the beer inside. It’s usually not dangerous if you’re healthy—unless Thetcher had a penicillin allergy? (I assume he would immediately taste it, but maybe it was really hot and he was really thirsty.)

Looking earlier in the brewing process, Fusarium is another fungus that infects cereal crops, including barley. Moreover, Fusarium makes a fun little mycotoxin called Deoxynivalenol (DON). The fungus itself is killed when the malt is kilned, but the toxin it produces can survive malting, kilning, boiling, and fermentation.

Barley infected with Fusarium – see the black spots? (courtesy

I got really excited again…but it turns out that DON is more dangerous for livestock eating contaminated feed than it is for humans drinking contaminated beer. Short-term, humans may experience some nausea, headache, and fever after eating infected grains, but the long-term health effects of drinking beer made from Fusarium-infected barley have yet to be determined.

So, Thetcher likely didn’t die from Fusarium either.


Contaminated Serving Vessels 

One more theory.

In pubs today, it is actually really important that draught beer lines are kept clean. Yes, you can get foodborne illness from beer. Dirty pipes accumulate yeasts, bacteria, and moulds that may well survive the trip from your beer glass to your digestive tract.

I suspect that early beer engines (invented in the late 1600s) were difficult to clean.


Likewise, we have a sanitizing dishwasher. Thetcher’s local watering hole didn’t. Perhaps the issue was not the beer, but rather the manner in which it was served—perhaps a mug wasn’t washed, or a mug held E.coli-infected water and then Thetcher’s small beer.

Cross-contamination and subsequent foodborne illness seems plausible to me.


So what killed Thomas Thetcher? 

Ultimately, we’ll never know. It’s just as likely that he caught a completely unrelated fever and died, leaving his compatriots to unjustly malign small beer.

But if we’re speculating…

I would speculate cross-contamination of serving vessels. Think of it this way: alcohol “kills bacteria,” but would you keep drinking your sample if I tossed a piece of raw chicken in there?

I thought not. Now imagine that instead of drinking a 5% beer, you have a 1-2% small beer.

It’d still require a huge amount of bad luck, but not an impossible amount.

Otherwise…this is even less likely, but the damp conditions that characterized the 1760s may have led to increased mould growth on the beer casks. If that mould included Penicillium, if it got into the beer, and if Thetcher was unlucky enough to have a severe penicillin allergy…well, it’d be hugely unfortunate, but not totally impossible.

And with that ringing endorsement, we have not solved this history mystery to my satisfaction…but we’ve learned that beer is remarkably resistant to pathogens!


Further Reading/Sources

deLange, A.J. “Understanding pH and its Application in Small-Scale Brewing,” More Beer, July 18, 2013, accessed April 22, 2014.

Donaldson, Michael. “A kick in the guts,”, September 15, 2013, accessed April 23, 2014.

Doyle, M. Ellin. “Fusarium Mycotoxins,” Food Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, December 1997, accessed April 22, 2014.

Jones, Kendall. “The Elephant in the Room: Dirty Draft Beer Lines,”  Washington Beer Blog, August 22, 2012, accessed April 23, 2014.

Pambianchi, Daniel. “Keeping it Clean,” Brew Your Own: The How-To Homebrew Beer Magazine, Jan/Feb 2008, accessed April 22, 2014.

Sobrova, Pavlina, et. al. “Deoxynivalenol and its toxicity,” Interdisciplinary Toxicology 3:3 (Sept 2010): 94-99, accessed April 22, 2014, doi: 10.2478/v10102-010-0019-x

n.d. “1750-1799,” Meteorology at West Moors. accessed April 22, 2014.


Tasting Beer: A Guide for the Perplexed

Not long to go, now! The first day of our 2014 season will be Thursday, May 1st—exactly two weeks from today. We’re very excited to return the brewery and get back to our usual schedules of sampling, touring, and talking about beer.

One of the things I love about the brewery is how many different people come through our doors. We meet everyone from staunchly devoted beer lovers to people who are genuinely interested in beer—they’re just new to the concept of really tasting it.

There is a difference between tasting beer and drinking it. For myself, I spent years claiming not to like beer. Part of the problem was that I’d never had good beer. I’d also never learned to taste it properly.

Everyone starts somewhere! If you’re thinking of visiting us for the first time this season (or if you’d like a refresher after our long, cruel winter), here’s a handy guide to get you started!


Step 1: Appearance

First impressions count for a lot, and sight is an important part of the overall sampling experience. Pour your beer into a clear glass (at the brewery, we’ll do this for you). Take a good look at it. Hold it to the light.

Just look: you can see the bar rail through the glass!

What colour is it? Pale gold, copper, pitch-black? Can you see through it?

Look at the clarity: can you see my smiling face through the glass, or is it clouded? Hint: our beers tend towards cloudiness because they’re unfiltered—and the further down in the growler your sample was, the cloudier it will be!

Our naturally carbonated beers don’t have much head, but make sure you note it in modern beers!

Step 2: Swirl

You’ve seen people swirling wine glasses before, right? Same idea: swirling the beer around your glass releases aromas and nuances you wouldn’t catch otherwise. Just a few gentle swirls will do it, and don’t worry about looking pretentious: this is exactly the behaviour we encourage.

Step 3: Smell

Our senses of taste and smell are closely linked. Don’t be afraid: give your beer a good sniff. How intense is the smell? What aromas do you notice?

More malt-oriented aromas? (Grains, nuts, chocolate, coffee, caramel, toastiness, sweetness)

More hop-oriented? (Citrus (often grapefruit for us, particularly in our IPA), earthiness, resins, pine, floral and/or spicy aromas)

Step 4: Sip

And now, it’s time to taste the b—do not chug it! Slow down and enjoy your drink. We’re friendly people, I promise. Take a small sip, but don’t swallow it right away.

Start with the beer on the tip of your tongue and move it slowly through your mouth. Different flavours will trigger taste buds in different regions of the tongue, so enjoy the different sensations as your beer travels over the tongue.


In tasting notes, I frequently mention “mouthfeel.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this term refers to the way the beer feels in one’s mouth: that is, its weight and texture. Is it thin and sharp? Smooth and rounded? Does it feel heavy or light?

If you’d like to be really thorough, some people suggest exhaling while tasting; this is called “retro-olfaction.” Essentially, beer is warmed by being in your mouth, which causes more aromas to travel through your nasal cavities. It’s a different way to experience the beer’s aromas than the preliminary sniffing.

Got all that? Good—swirl the beer around your mouth once, letting it touch every part of your tongue, cheeks, and palate.

And swallow.

Step 5: Finish

We’re not done yet! The finish is highly important. Swallowing lets the very back of the tongue and throat experience the beer. How does the flavour change?

As well, note any flavours that linger after the beer has left your mouth. Are they bitter and/or floral (more hoppy), or more rich and grainy (leaning towards malts)? How intense are they?

Oh, that Chocolate Stout...
Oh, that Chocolate Stout…

Give it an extra second—sometimes, you might be surprised by how long the finish lasts. For me, sampling BadWolf Brewery’s stout epitomized the necessity of waiting. I’d swallowed my beer, and I thought the finish was over—only to have another surge of chocolate flavour catch me completely off-guard.

Take a moment to let all these impressions settle.

Now, the most important question of all…

Do you want to keep drinking this beer?

See you soon, beer-lovers!


A Mammoth Brewery and Pioneer Beer: Thomas Davies

Today, we begin the first in a series exploring some of the brewers on the nineteenth century Toronto beer scene. First up is Thomas Davies Jr., proprietor of the Don Brewery.

I was combing through archives, reading issues of The Toronto World dating from the 1880s. Occasionally, I spotted a few adverts for breweries, including this one:


(advert from The Toronto World, Aug 31, 1881)
(advert from The Toronto World, Aug 31, 1881)

Pioneer Beer? My interest was piqued, and a short time later, I stumbled across this nugget:

On Saturday morning a number of men employed by the Telegraph co. in cutting the tops of the trees which interfered with their wires, commenced operations on a fine row of poplars in front of the Dominion brewery. They were quickly ordered to desist by Mr Davies. Not obeying, the foreman followed by a number of brewery men appeared. The men seized their axes, and it was thought for a moment that an encounter would ensue. The matter was finally compromised by telegraph men agreeing to trim the trees.

(The Toronto World: Monday, October 30, 1882, p. 04)

The image of telegraph maintenance men having a stand-off with brewery workers, waving axes around, was too vivid for me to pass up. I delved into the newspaper archives in earnest now—and caught a vibrant glimpse of the Toronto beer scene, ca. 1881.

To start with, the Mr. Davies who faced down the Telegraph workers was not the same Thomas Davies who produced “pioneer beer” in his “mammoth new brewery.” Disappointing, but that’s the way history goes, sometimes.

They were, however, brothers, sons of Thomas Davies Sr, also a brewer. In 1848 Davies-the-Elder leased the Don Brewery from William and Robert Parks and operated it with Thomas-Davies-the-Younger. After Davies-the-Elder died, Thomas Davies-the-Younger was joined by his brother Robert.

At this point, I yielded to every historian’s instinct.

I checked the census.

The Davies family first shows up in the 1861 census; 55-year-old Thomas Davies Sr is listed as a brewer residing in Toronto. He was born in England; his wife Fidelia, in Ireland. All the children (including 16-year-old Thomas Jr and 12-year-old Robert) are listed as being born in Canada, and they’ve got five horses, fives pigs, and one cow.

Censuses are fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) because they offer a snapshot every ten years. There is a sense of “dropping in” on these families, watching kids appear, marry, grow up…but sometimes the picture feels incomplete.

Thomas Davies Sr. is not listed on the 1871 census; he died in 1869. By this point, Thomas Jr (26) and Robert (22) are both listed as brewers. Since Thomas Jr. was born in 1845, it seems the conventional story is correct—he operated the Don Brewery with his father (not straight away, though—he would’ve been three!), and Robert likely joined him at 20, when their father died.

Let’s jump ahead ten years:

In 1881, Thomas Davies Jr. was doing very well for himself. His brother Robert had left by this point to establish the Dominion Brewery, but business at the Don was booming. This is when that advert for the MAMMOTH NEW BREWERY appeared in the Toronto World. In that same year, the following news snippet also appeared:


Attention is directed to the advertisement of the pioneer lager beer brewers, Messrs Thos. Davies & Co., whose enterprise has been met with such recognition that they have been compelled to build a mammoth new brewery to enable them to supply their numerous customers throughout the Dominion with ales, porter and lager beer. Arrangements have been made to continue brewing in the old brewery until the new one is completed, so that no interruption will be occasioned to the business. They have contracted with Messrs. Booth and Son for the largest amount of copper work that is to be found in any brewery in Canada or United States. Quite a large quantity of machinery not procurable in Canada is being imported from the United States. Some idea of the extent of Messrs. Thos. Davies and Co.’s new brewery may be had from the fact that it will require the annual products of about 10,000 acres of farm land to keep them supplied with barley and hops. The firm yesterday shipped another carload of lager beer, ales, and porter to Winnipeg, being the third shipment made within a short time. The brewery premises occupy about seven acres, and the water supply is obtained from the city water works.

(The Toronto World: Wednesday, August 24, 1881, p. 01)

Very impressive stuff! Davies Jr. was clearly ambitious—I’ll admit to feeling a weird sense of vicarious pride that a Toronto brewer was expanding so much, and sending so much product that far afield.

Don Brewery 1877
Don Brewery 1877

And this is where I like censuses. Newspaper articles are great for tracking businesses and political/social trends, but the census offers a glimpse into the personal lives of past Canadians.

In 1881, Thomas Davies was 36 years old. He was married to a 27-year-old woman named Margaret (she’s also listed as Canadian, though both her parents were Scottish) and they have two sons: 2-year-old Thomas A., and 2-month-old Arthur H. Imagine, all that work happening at the brewery, with a new baby at home!

His mother Fidelia was also still alive at this point, evidently living quite close by and listed as a Methodist.

Robert was also doing well! (The Toronto World: May 14, 1887, p. 07)
Robert was also doing well! (The Toronto World: May 14, 1887, p. 07)

Another ten years on, and Davies is suddenly listed as a Presbyterian—interesting, given Margaret’s Scottish background. Two more sons have joined the family: 9-year-old Franklin, and 6-month-old Gordon.

I read somewhere that Joseph Davies was another brother...I found him on the 1881 census as being 43 years old (7 years older than Thomas), but he doesn't appear in original 1861 census with the rest of the family...but he did name one of his daughters "Fedelia," which does imply a family connection (Thomas Davies's mother was named Fidelia. It's not exactly a common name).
I read somewhere that Joseph Davies was another brother…I found him on the 1881 census as being 43 years old (7 years older than Thomas), but he doesn’t appear in original 1861 census with the rest of the family…but he did name one of his daughters “Fedelia,” which does imply a family connection (Thomas Davies’s mother was named Fidelia. It’s not exactly a common name).

By 1901, though, the picture has changed quite dramatically: Davies is no longer a brewer, but a broker. His son Thomas is a student at the age of 22, which suggests he went to university; Arthur is a clerk; 19-year-old Franklin is also a broker, suggesting he’s joined his father in business; and 11-year-old Gordon is still in school.

The fact that Davies left brewing puzzled me, but the fact that Thomas III was in school at 22 suggested they were doing rather well. But then, I found (on our own website, no less), that the Don Brewery was purchased by the London & Colonial Financial Company in 1889 for $1,200,000.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Inevitably, tracking people through the census hits a sad end. Or a frustrating one. Often, both. People die, or simply disappear from the record. The 1911 census shows no signs of the Davies family, either in Ontario or the rest of the country (though I’m very lucky that I could track Thomas from 1861-1901). Thomas was 66, so he may or may not have still been alive. But as there is no sign of the boys either, I wonder if they moved out of country. The sale of the brewery would have yielded a significant amount of money for the time; I hope they retired somewhere nice.

The humanity that can come from old records is really pretty amazing. From some newspapers and census records, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of Thomas: from the boy who joined his father, through to the man who sold the brewery and moved into brokerage.

Not bad. Not bad at all.


Cooling Off: Or, Wort is Cool(ed)

It is still cold here in Toronto. As I am not a cold-weather creature, this does not make me happy. However, I did wonder if it would have made nineteenth-century brewers happy—would the extra-long winter have meant an extra-long brewing season for them?

You see, for small, rural brewers, brewing tended to be more of a seasonal activity. This was mostly because you have to cool wort before adding the yeast. After all, when the wort comes out of the brew-kettle it is boiling. Yeast is a living organism. If you chuck it into boiling hot wort, it won’t be living much longer, which means that it will not be fermenting anything terribly effectively.

All of which to say: brewers needed some way of cooling the wort. In the first half of the nineteenth century, they used coolers. W. Stewart describes them as “floors of wood, surrounded with a wooden ledge, placed in the most airy and exposed situation in the brewery…in large breweries, they are of an enormous extent” (Stewart, 63).

The idea behind a cooler is to spread the wort out very thinly over a wide surface area in order to let the heat dissipate. That’s why coolers can be so expansive—they’re usually only 2-4 inches deep, so they need to be quite wide to contain a large volume of beer.

Our cooling ship, located on top of the casks - so, a slightly different set-up than the larger breweries.  (Courtesy
Our cooling ship, located on top of the casks – so, a slightly different set-up than the larger breweries.

So, no problem, right? Run the beer into the cooler and wait.

Not quite.

Beer fresh out of the brew-kettle is extremely vulnerable to contamination. Remember, it’s been at a rolling boil for a significant amount of time (usually an hour, for us), which means that it’s been rendered more-or-less sterile. The longer the wort is left out in the open, the more likely it is to be infected by airborne pathogens or wild yeast. Brewer Thomas Hitchcock also worries about the “acidifying” of the wort through the absorption of excess oxygen, which apparently “takes place most rapidly in warm weather” (Hitchcock, 31).

Modern-day breweries have heat exchangers which can cool the wort very quickly. Victorian brewing guides recommend getting it down to anywhere from 11-20 degrees Celsius. From boiling, that’s quite a drop, especially in the summer—without air conditioning to help.

So how did they do it?

Some brewers avoided summer brewing altogether. According to A Practical Treatise on Brewing (1835), by William Chadwick, “…in hot weather, brewing is a critical operation, and private families should refrain from brewing in summer if possible…no prudent person would willingly brew when the temperature of the air is as high as 60 degrees” (Chadwick, 43-44). In the winter, however, it would be easy to open a window (Stewart does recommend letting a fresh air current pass over the wort) and let that chill Canadian winter help with the cooling.

But for large commercial brewers, sitting out the summer months entirely wasn’t always an option.

Stewart’s brewing guide addresses the conundrum of summer brewing:

When the brewery is obliged to make ale in warm summer weather, it is material to reduce the temperature as low as possible. In such cases great advantage would attend cooling the wort in coolers without any roof or covering whatever, but quite open to the sky; because in clear nights, the wort might be cooled in this way, eight or ten degrees lower than the temperature of the atmosphere… (Stewart, 66-67)

The idea seems to be that the wort would radiate the heat out into the night:

We have no doubt that it might be put in practice with advantage in hot climates; at that, by means of it, good ale or porter might be manufactured in the East and West Indies. Such a manufacture, if successful, would be particularly relished in India… (67)

Of course, this was only a theoretical model. There were other options. While Chadwick urges private families to avoid warm-weather brewing, he notes that the commercial brewer generally “…also has a command of cold spring water, that can he convey through pipes, so contrived to branch in various directions amongst the worts, that they are cooled down to the required temperature in a very short time” (42).

Which is one reason why breweries were often located near streams. It’s pretty similar to what we do at Black Creek: we have pipes branching through our cooling ship, although we use Toronto tap water.

Bloor, Joseph, brewery, n. of Bloor St. E., between Mount Pleasant Rd. & Sherbourne St.
Joseph Bloore’s brewery, located on the stream running through the Rosedale ravine. (courtesy


By the century’s later decades, cooling had become more reliable. E.R. Southby’s A Systematic Handbook of Practical Brewing dates from 1885, and mentions refrigerators. Don’t get too excited—they weren’t fridges, but rather, three distinct set-ups:

  • Wort flows in a body over pipes placed horizontally.
  • Wort flows in a film over pipes placed vertically.


  • Wort flows through pipes surrounded by cool water.

Southby favours the vertical model, particularly recommending the Riley or Ashby models—reminding us that brewing was becoming increasingly industrialized. The old coolers were still used to aerate the wort—but rather than the old wooden models, cast iron or copper (like ours!) were preferred, as they were easier to clean and didn’t rot. Still, cooling was increasingly based on the principle of heat exchange, much as it is today.

So, would a small, country, one-man brewing operation enjoy this cold snap?

But I’m still looking forward to May and warmer weather!

– Katie


Chadwick, William. A Practical Treatise on Brewing. London: Whittaker and Co., 1835.

Hitchcock, Thomas. A Practical Treatise on Brewing. London: R. Boyd, 1842.

Southby, E.R. A Systematic Handbook of Practical Brewing: Including a Full Description of the Buildings, Plant, Materials and Process Required for Brewing All Descriptions of Beer. London: E.R. Southby, 1885.

Stewart, W. Brewing and Distillation, with Practical Instructions for Brewing Porter and Ales According to the English and Scottish Methods. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1849.