Shakespeare’s Beer

I think it may finally be summer. It’s consistently warm, we’ve seen a few vicious thunderstorms already, and the evenings are long and light. If you’re looking for something to do on these warm summer nights, we’re hosting the Humber River Shakespeare Co. on July 16, 2014, for a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Black Creek takes on a special beauty in the evenings; the setting goes with Shakespeare like…well, an India Pale Ale and a hot day!

Speaking of beer (as we do here on the Growler), you can try some of our heritage-inspired beer in the Pavilion before the show and during intermission. A summer night, Shakespeare, and beer…sounds like a trifecta to me!


And Shakespeare himself has some connections to beer. In England, the Assize of Bread and Ale was passed ca. 1267—it regulated the price, weight, and quality of bread and beer, tying the price to the market value of corn. Not corn like maize, remember—in Britain, corn refers to cereal grains: wheat, barley, oats, etc. To ensure that brewers and alehouses were abiding by the Assize, a special job was created: that of the “ale-conner,” or “ale-taster.” They travelled around, checking prices and testing the quality of the ingredients used. A very trying, wearying job, to be sure—but one which was in fact held by Shakespeare’s own father. John Shakespeare was an ale-taster for Stratford during Shakespeare’s childhood, so we can assume that young Will knew a thing or two about brewers!

But what was the beer like in Shakespeare’s day? Generally speaking, due to the malts used, it was likely fairly dark and sweet, and not as heavily hopped as beers today. In the Elizabethan era, a distinction was still drawn between unhopped “ale” and hopped “beer.” Although dates get a little slippery, it seems that immigrants from the Low Countries were brewing beer with hops in England from the early 1400s, although serious attempts at cultivating English hops didn’t happen until the early 16th century. By Shakespeare’s time, initial English resistance to hops seems to have largely died down, and the distinction between hopped/unhopped brews, while still present, was fading. The term “ale” may have shifted to represent a milder brew, whereas “beer” was bitterer.

Except his beer probably wouldn’t have had such a pronounced head. Whatever. We’ll roll with it!

Certainly, Shakespeare uses both terms in his plays. “Ale” is mentioned some fourteen times, while “beer” gets five mentions, reminding us what an important place beer occupied in the Elizabethans’ general life experience. Interestingly, when Shakespeare mentions beer specifically, he adds a prefix: it’s either “small” or “double” beer. This likely results from the two general classifications of Elizabethan beer: single and double. Logically, double beer was twice as strong as single beer. There was, however, a point at which brewers created a very potent, unauthorized “doble-doble.” Admittedly, this makes me smile.


By the Victorian age, the use of hops was taken for granted and brewers were exploring lighter malts as well. I wonder what Shakespeare might have thought of our historic ales? I like to think that upon tasting our Brown Ale, he would have quoted himself:

“…a quart of ale is a dish for a king.”


PS. If you’re interested learning more about the Humber River Shakespeare Co.’s performance of Romeo and Juliet and/or purchasing tickets, please click here!




Baking Beer Bread!

While I enjoy learning about beer, I can’t actually drink very much at once. This is a slight problem when our growlers are like a bottle of wine; once they’re open, you should drink them within a few days. Earlier this week, I found myself nervously eyeing my growler of ginger beer, well aware that it was slowly losing its flavor.

And so, I combined two of my favourite things (beer and bread) and used up my remaining beer by making a ginger beer bread.

I hoped that beer bread was historic. After all, beer and bread have a long, intertwined history. They are made from largely the same ingredients (grains, yeast, water, herbs/hops, depending on time period – okay, hops are different). Like bread, beer comes from the land, and for Victorians, beer could be an important dietary staple – in fact we recently had an excellent article published about the Black Creek Historic Brewery, centering on just this relationship between beer, food, and agriculture.

Barley growing in the village.
Barley growing in the village.

However, after consulting with our resident expert on historic baking (Amy in the Half Way House—she is incredibly talented and exceedingly knowledgeable) and perusing numerous Victorian cookbooks, I’ve had to conclude that Victorians weren’t really making beer bread. Indeed, they likely would have asked, “Why would I put my beer into bread, when I could just have beer and bread?”

A good question indeed. Today, we have very different ideas of what beer “should” taste like. Pasteurization and refrigeration have made us acutely aware of—and intolerant to—any hint of sourness. So, rather than fretting about “using up” beer before it went oh-so-slightly-off, Victorians would’ve just drunk it.

Oh well. History doesn’t always work the way you want it to.

Nevertheless, beer bread is wonderful. No reason why we can’t enjoy it today!

I used this beer bread recipe from Farm Girl Fare as a base…and then in a truly Victorian manner, I veered off the recipe and went by feel.

Black Creek Beer Bread

– 3ish cups of flour (the “ish” is what makes this recipe)

– 1 Tbsp sugar

– 1 Tbsp baking powder

– Salt to taste (the original recipe calls for 1 teaspoon. I put maybe 1/3, plus some sprinkled on top)

– 1.5ish cups of your favourite Black Creek beer.

  • Heat the oven. I had grown accustomed to baking with a bake-oven, which has three temperatures (quick, moderate, and slow), or with my ancient gas oven, which had two (hot and hotter), so I always guess at temperatures. I now have a less-ancient gas oven, which I put to 420 degrees. That seemed to work.
  • Mix the dry ingredients.
  • Add the beer, a half-cup at a time. Stir in between. You will have to knead it towards the end; the dough will be loose and raggedy-looking, but that is fine.
  • Shape it into a loaf. Again, it is fine if it looks a little rough.
  • Slash the top, so heat can get inside.
  • Bake until done. The crust will be browned and the bottom will sound hollow when tapped. Do make sure it’s baked all the way through; this bread is very, very moist.
Toasted and slathered with butter...
Toasted and slathered with butter…

Best served warm, with butter.

And beer, of course!


New Brew Double Feature: Ginger Beer and Lemon Balm Pale Ale!

It’s a busy week for the Black Creek Historic Brewery! We have not one, but two new beers: one down in the brewery, one in the LCBO. Double the beers means double the fun and history!

Let’s start with our June specialty beer. Just in time for Father’s Day, Ed has made an alcoholic ginger beer.

Ginger beer originally descends from drinks such as mead and metheglin (flavoured mead). These were sweet, honey-based beverages, fermented with yeast and flavoured with a variety of spices, including ginger, cloves, and mace. Early ginger beers were made from water, sugar, and ginger, and fermented with the ginger beer plant. Interestingly, the ginger beer plant wasn’t really a plant at all, but a gelatinous composite of yeast and bacteria! From the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, ginger beers were impressively alcoholic, sometimes reaching 11%.


By the 1850s, however, new laws forced English ginger beer brewers to water their product down to 2% alcohol. It still remained incredibly popular. In 1877, writers John Thomson and Adolphe Smith estimated that some 300,000 gallons of ginger beer were being sold in and around London.

With the rise of imperialism, ginger beer also went global. Soldiers stationed in the Caribbean and Africa were particularly fond of this spicy brew, drinking it to combat homesickness. The ginger was also useful in treating upset stomachs and inflammation – I guess soldiers are more likely to take their medicine if it comes in the form of beer!


Ed’s ginger beer is a really nice amber-coloured ale. It is a malt-oriented beer, so the flavour comes predominately from the grains, rather than the hops. Because this is a fairly light malt, that translates into a subtle sweetness – this isn’t an overly bitter beer. The ginger is definitely noticeable, but mild. The spice grows more pronounced after the first sip; it gives some warmth in the chest! I like it! There’s a moderate finish, too; the light maltiness comes back through the nose at the very end. I think curries and stir-fries would go really well with this beer: foods that are themselves a bit spicy and complex (actually, a ginger-soy pork stir fry, plus this beer…now I’m getting hungry).

Please note: this ginger beer is NOT for the wee ones. It’s still about 5% alcohol!

Our ginger beer will be only available in the Black Creek Historic Brewery. It hits our fridges this weekend, and will last until…well, until we run out.


We also have a new beer in the LCBO! We have done a commercial version of our Lemon Balm PaleAle, which enjoyed consistent popularity down here in the brewery. For those unfamiliar with lemon balm, it’s a bushy herb related to mint that is easily recognizable by the strong lemon smell given off by its crushed leaves. In the past Lemon Balm was considered a healing, soothing plant, and especially effective in relieving pain due to indigestion. Lemon Balm was also used to impart a lemony taste and smell to many beverages and foods.

This is another amber ale, with citrus and mint aromas. It’s a light, refreshing beer: initial herbal notes mellow to pleasant citrus flavours. A light malty finish and tingle on the tongue round things off. That slight bite on the tip of the tongue eases as the beer moves towards the back of the throat. Overall, it’s a great warm-weather beer!

The Lemon Balm Pale Ale is available now in the LCBO. As always, it’s a good idea to check the LCBO website beforehand, just to make sure your local store has it!

Sun, porch, and beer. What more does one need?
Sun, porch, and beer. What more does one need?

Between these two new beers, it’s looking like a great weekend indeed!


Rossin House: or, Toronto Gets Fancy

The who’s who of mid-1800s Toronto is feeling quite familiar to me. Names and relationships gel together a little more with every book and article. Reading old newspapers and tracking stories is kind of like catching up on 160-year-old gossip, or feeling acquainted with neighbours who have long since moved out.

But there was one name that kept popping up: Rossin House. It bugged me (possibly because a good friend wrote a book which featured a major character called the Rossin…but that’s a story for another time). More than that, though, pictures of Rossin House suggested something unique: a very different hotel from Toronto’s other inns and taverns. As inevitably happens, curiosity got the better of me and I started digging.

As it turns out, Rossin House was unlike anything Toronto had seen before. Through the first half of the nineteenth century, inns and taverns were pretty much the same thing. There was a place to drink, somewhere to eat, and beds to sleep in. Sure, the food could be questionable at best (pork for all three meals must eventually grow old) and the rooms overcrowded and vermin-ridden, but there was beer.


"Village Tavern," John Lewis Krimmel (1814-1815) Courtesy:
“Village Tavern,” John Lewis Krimmel (1814-1815)

Of course, that grim picture was mostly to be found in the backwoods, early in the history of Upper Canada. Our own Half Way House is a good example of your standard, reputable inn. Taproom, parlour, dining room, bedrooms, and ballroom. Done—a fascinating mix of public and private space under one roof.


Rossin House heralded a new breed of palatial hotels. In 1855, Charles and Marcus Rossin purchased property on King St from the Chewett family and held a competition to design a new hotel. The lucky winner was one “Mr. Otis,” from Buffalo. According to an 1883 advertisement, the five-storey structure was “the largest hotel in Ontario, only two blocks from Union Station, corner King and York streets, best situation in Toronto…” and boasted approximately 220 rooms for travellers, plus numerous reading rooms, parlours, and dining hall. And of course, as we read in Mr. Alfred Sylvester’s Sketches of Toronto, there was “a very extensive bar-room with billiard table beneath.”


Now, this is pretty flash! (via Wikimedia Commons)
Now, this is pretty flash! (via Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, it also made extensive use of cast iron—a first for Toronto buildings—and used its ground floor as a space for shops.

Rossin House interests me because it marks a shift in the conceptualization of inns. Smaller inns like our Half Way House were important social hubs within the community—you didn’t necessarily need to be an overnight boarder to socialize in the taproom or parlour. They were public spaces, communal spaces. The term public house really gets to the heart of the matter.

Rossin House strikes me as more similar to our modern-day hotels. Considering the notion of public vs. private space, our hotels seem to have become increasingly private in nature. While one may certainly eat at a hotel restaurant without staying overnight, we don’t tend to socialize in hotels as we do in pubs. The main clientele of a modern hotel is not a cohort of local regulars dropping in for an evening of entertainment. Rather, the modern hotel’s main clientele is transitory: travellers from outside the community.


And indeed, at Rossin House, the focus was very much on the traveller. That same 1883 advertisement claimed that Rossin House’s many amenities made it “…specially attractive to the travelling public.” Likewise, Rossin House itself published its ownTravelers’ Guide for the City of Toronto.” Again, hotels were increasingly occupying a new space within the community; Rossin House was clearly trying to appeal to tourists and newcomers to the city. More specifically, though, Rossin House was trying to appeal to tourists with money to spare.


After all, its sheer size and grandeur represented an opulence that had been lacking in Toronto hostelry. Once regarded as one of the finest North American hotels outside of New York, Rossin House hosted Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra. In the 1850s, Toronto was coming into its own. Rossin House thus represented another ticked-off-box on the list of What Makes A Proper City: a really swank hotel.

Unfortunately, Rossin House suffered its share of problems: fire, changing ownership, debt (that newfangled Royal York Hotel snapped a lot of business), and eventually, demolition in 1969.


The southeast corner of King and York: where Rossin House once stood.
The southeast corner of King and York: where Rossin House once stood.

Like much of Toronto history, Rossin House has faded from sight. Thank goodness for old archives, photos, and curiosity!