New Brew: Thomas Benson’s Olde Ale

Hello, beer lovers!

Remember how a few weeks ago, I mentioned that Ed was pondering a very special beer here at the Black Creek Historic Brewery? Well… we were both so excited by it, that he went ahead and brewed it!

To recap: a few years back, MPP Kevin Flynn gave us a historic beer recipe, written by Thomas Benson sometime between 1827-1837. We were thrilled to return to it! For my part, it was fascinating to watch Ed work with this historic recipe…and to see and taste the finished product.

As per Thomas Benson’s recipe, Ed used cinnamon, licorice root, and capsaicin (cayenne pepper) to flavour the beer, along with a healthy dose of molasses. (Molasses adds extra sweetness, and also gives the yeast more to work with.)

Some ingredients...
Some ingredients…

According to Ed, capsaicin was used to give the impression that the beer was stronger than it was. Before the industrial revolution, beers were typically served at strengths of “mild” and “old” or “strong.” “Mild” beers cost publicans less to buy from the brewers. So, it was common for tavern-keepers to buy mild beer cheaply, and then age it to “old” beer to turn a profit. Similarly, a bit of strong or stock ale might be added to a mild beer to give it a stronger taste—and thus justifying an increased price! In some cases, capsaicin might have been used in a similar way to create a stronger flavour.

The Olde Ale pours a deep, burnished orange/dark amber. Molasses and caramel notes come through on the nose, and the sweetness carries through on the initial sip. This beer has a nice weight, and the mouthfeel starts quite smoothly—but the spices add a nice tingle as the beer moves over the tongue. There are definitely cinnamon notes, but the cayenne is the real player here. Its heat hit most at the back of the throat and tongue.

Recipe from the diary of Thomas Benson, part of the Benson family fonds at the Archives of Ontario
Recipe from the diary of Thomas Benson, part of the Benson family fonds at the Archives of Ontario

I am notorious for my love of spicy things, so I was all over this. That being said, I found the sweetness of the malt and molasses really calmed and balanced the spice here. As well, licorice root has a coating effect, which also tempered the intensity. Expect a long, long finish—but honestly, the cayenne heat just made me want to have another sip. This is a great beer for hot weather—definitely one to sip on the patio, maybe with some barbeque or pulled pork. Again, thinking sweetness to balance the heat!

Of course, my favourite part of the Olde Ale is its historicity. Not only has it been made with historic methods, it was sourced from a historic document. I wonder what Thomas Benson would make of it?

And what will you make of it? Well, you can drop by this weekend and try some for yourself. After all this is probably the closest you can get to drinking 1800s beer!

See you in the brewery!


The Most Important Microbe in Half Way House

Recently, a young visitor followed his parents into the historic brewery. He stopped suddenly, sniffed, and exclaimed, “It smells like bread!”

Our young visitor was quite right! After all, bread and beer share many ingredients: water, grains, and yeast. Of course, the process of baking and brewing is quite different (just ask our interpreters upstairs in the Half Way House kitchen), but the action of yeast lies at the heart of both.

There is yeast in these casks! Yeast and fermenting wort!


The same species of yeast is used for both brewing and baking: Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The name itself is Latinized Greek – saccharo derives from the word for “sugar,” and myces, “fungus.” Cerevisiae means “beer.” So…Saccharomyces cerevisiae literally means “Beer Sugar-Fungus.” Unappealing name? Absolutely.

Accurate? Surprisingly so!

You see, at the most basic level, yeast metabolizes sugar (glucose, maltose, or trehalose) and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. It is a living organism – we sometimes refer to S. cerevisiae as being a “top-fermenting yeast” because its surface is hydrophobic: it avoids liquids if possible. Thus, the yeast organism clings to the carbon dioxide bubbles it produces and floats to the top of the cask.

S. cerevisiae likes dark fruits very much. In fact, it’s part of that white, dusty film you see on plums and grapes! This becomes particularly interesting when we consider very, very early beers: qi from the Yellow River Valley was a mixture of honey, barley, rice, and grapes, while beers from Egypt and Mesopotamia often contained dates, figs, grapes, or plums. The yeast clinging to these fruits’ skins was most likely instrumental in fermenting the beers!

In the 1600s, a Dutch tradesman and lens-crafter named Anton von Leeuwenhoek (LAY-when-hook) observed yeast for the first time, as globules floating in liquid. He didn’t realize that the yeast was alive, though: he thought the globules were grain particles floating in the wort. Through the 1600 and 1700s, then, people were well aware of yeast’s existence and role in fermentation; they just thought that it was a chemical agent, rather than a biological one.

Louis Pasteur (WikiMedia Commons)
Louis Pasteur (WikiMedia Commons)

However, a major paradigm shift occurred in the 1835, when French inventor Charles Cagniard de la Tour observed yeast budding and multiplying during fermentation. The yeast was a living microorganism! Twenty years later, chemist Louis Pasteur demonstrated that fermentation and yeast multiplication occur hand-in-hand. Moreover, he demonstrated that certain microorganisms, yeast among them, are capable of living without oxygen, and that only certain microorganisms can convert sugars into alcohol – fermentation is a biological process, not a chemical one.

By our time period here at Black Creek, Pasteur was deep into his publications on fermentation, beginning with  “Mémoire sur la fermentation alcoolique” in 1857.

Interestingly, the other strain of yeast commonly used in brewing – bottom-fermenting or lager yeast – is named after Pasteur. Saccharomyces pastorianus received its name in 1870. This yeast is commonly called Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (yes, as in that Carlsberg), but this is technically invalid as S. pastorianus was first.

For a tiny microorganism, yeast packs a powerful punch! Between the brewery and the kitchen, it is the most important microbe in Half Way House. 🙂


New Brew: Apricot Ale

Image by Fir0002
Image by Fir0002

It’s time for our first specialty brew of the season! Down here in the Black Creek Historic Brewery, Ed has been busily crafting an Apricot Ale – a light, fruity beer to kick off the Victoria Day Weekend. It also ties in nicely with our Pirates and Princesses event May 16th-18th.  Pirates, of course, require ale, and the apricot’s delicate sweetness and beautiful golden colour definitely puts one in mind of royalty!

The beer is golden too, with hints of apricot in the flavour and aroma.  There’s a bready malt taste too, and it’s fairly lightly hopped. This ale is light-to-medium-bodied, perfect for an afternoon on the patio. It hits our fridges this weekend, and there it will remain until it’s all been sampled and purchased.

Victorians liked their apricots too! For them, it was a late summer dessert. In her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton says:

The apricot is indigenous to the plains of Armenia, but is now cultivated in almost every climate, temperate or tropical. There are several varieties. The skin of this fruit has a perfumed flavour, highly esteemed. A good apricot, when perfectly ripe, is an excellent fruit. It has been somewhat condemned for its laxative qualities, but this has possibly arisen from the fruit having been eaten unripe, or in too great excess. Delicate persons should not eat the apricot uncooked, without a liberal allowance of powdered sugar. The apricot makes excellent jam and marmalade, and there are several foreign preparations of it which are considered great luxuries

She also gives a recipe for an apricot pudding that sounds both a) achievable, and b) delicious. Very important considerations indeed!

INGREDIENTS – 12 large apricots, 3/4 pint of bread crumbs, 1 pint of milk, 3 oz. of pounded sugar, the yolks of 4 eggs, 1 glass of sherry.

Mode.—Make the milk boiling hot, and pour it on to the bread crumbs; when half cold, add the sugar, the well-whisked yolks of the eggs, and the sherry. Divide the apricots in half, scald them until they are soft, and break them up with a spoon, adding a few of the kernels, which should be well pounded in a mortar; then mix the fruit and other ingredients together, put a border of paste round the dish, fill with the mixture, and bake the pudding from 1/2 to 3/4 hour.

If you want to try this at home, be aware that Victorians rarely gave specific cooking temperatures, as they assumed you’d either be using a wood-fired oven…or, you obviously know what temperature to bake puddings at, because you’ve been doing this your whole life, right? 😉

In any case, I looked up modern recipes to compare, and my best advice is to bake it around 325 F and check it at 25 minutes. If anyone tries it, let us know!

Especially if you swap the glass of sherry for a glass of the Apricot Ale…


Back to Benson: Re-Examining an Old Recipe

I missed Ed over the winter. Now that the Black Creek Historic Brewery has opened its doors for the 2015 season, we’re back to giving tours, leading samples…and sharing our knowledge with each other.

“Hey, Katie,” Ed said, early one morning as I was opening our POS system, “can you go back into the blog archives? We posted a historic recipe a few years ago. I want to take a look at it.”

“Sure thing!”

I’ve only been writing this blog for two years, so it was fun to dip back into posts past. In short order, I found the article Ed wanted. In early 2013, Andrew Morrison, an archive at the Archives of Ontario, sent our Special Events coordinator a recipe he’d found in a notebook belonging to Thomas Benson—a prominent businessman in Upper Canada, and the first Mayor of Peterborough.

Recipe from the diary of Thomas Benson, part of the Benson family fonds at the Archives of Ontario
Recipe from the diary of Thomas Benson, part of the Benson family fonds at the Archives of Ontario

The notebook dates from somewhere between 1827-1837, though there’s no exact date on the recipe itself. It’s fascinating! Period recipes are a great way to infer brewing methods from the 1800s…and this recipe has some intriguing ingredients, too.

To Brew Five Gallons Strong Beer

Take Three ounces Hops, and rub them well into a close vessel sprinkling on them, when rubbed, about a teaspoon-full of salt – then pour on boiling water sufficient to saturate them and cover close.

Boil two and a half gallons water, dash the boil with cold water and suffer it to cool down to 180° Faht. Pour it into your Mash-tub. Mash it well till the malt is thoroughly wetted, and allow it to stand close covered about two hours, then run the liquor off into a vessel prepared to receive it – having first of all placed a whisk of clean hay or straw over the hole in your mash-tub to preven the malt running off with the liquor. If at first the liquor should run off thick or discoloured pour back until it runs clear.

Mash the second time with the same quantity of water at 190°, and let it stand covered two hours. Get up your first wort into the boiler and add the Hops, a quarter of a pound of liquorice root (previously bruised) 1/4 [illegible] 1/4 ounce Capsicum, a bit of Cinnamon, and three ounces Treacle. Boil smartly for an hour, then run off into a cooler, carefully straining out the hops to be boiled in the second wort, which must also be boiled an hour. Observe that your malt must not stand dry between the mashings but must be Kept constantly moist by ladling the liquor over it.

Run off the second liquor into the Cooler, and cool down as quickly as possible to 65°. then run it into the tun as quick as you can so that it shall suffer no diminuation of heat, and add sufficient yeast to cause fermentation. Let it work till it comes to a good deep head and has attenuated about 8°, then cleanse it by adding about a quarter ounce of ginger and rousing it well. The liquor is now fit for putting into the Keg, which must be done carefully. The Keg must be quite full to let the yeast work over, adding fresh liquor too Keep it full till it has done working. then bung it up close but take care to watch it well lest it should begin to work again and burst the Keg, which may be prevented by easing the keg.

The only thing that now remains is to fine the beer. Finings are made by dissolving Isingladd in Stale Beer till it acquire a thin gluey consistence like size. the beer in which the ising-glass is dissolved must be quite stale and very clear. Add a sufficient quantity of this to clear your beer a gill will sometimes be sufficient but it may require more.


“Does he mean capsaicin?” Ed wondered, when I returned to the brewery with my findings.


“I wonder what that would taste like—maybe like a chili beer?”




When I had a bit more time, I examined scanned copies of the original recipe to see if we were missing anything. Benson actually wrote “capsicum,” which today, refers to mild bell peppers, but can also refer to spicy chili peppers. So it seems we were right—it looks like a very early version of a chili beer. The cinnamon and ginger would also bump the heat factor up.


“But molasses? Licorice root?”


Molasses features in a lot of early Canadian beer recipes. It’s sugar, so it ferments out easily. Essentially, it supplements the malt, giving the yeast a little more to work with. Licorice root has a very sweet taste and also coats the throat—it can be used as a remedy for sore throat. So, my guess is that it’s there to balance out the heat from the spices.


Ginger also appears in many 19th century beer recipes...
Ginger also appears in many 19th century beer recipes…

Benson’s recipe doesn’t mention what to use in the grain bill. Today, chili beers are often light-coloured ales, or occasionally lagers. Certainly, I think that the capsicum, ginger, and cinnamon would get lost in a heavier, darker beer. Something along the lines of a pale ale makes sense. Not an IPA, though—with the extra hops and alcohol, I suspect there’d be too much going on. But maybe a base similar to that of our Ginger Beer…


In any case, it sounds like it would be an interesting summer brew: something to get the sweat glands revving and cut through the stickiness of our muggy Toronto afternoons. Ed’s pondering this, I can tell. We shall see where it leads!


In the meantime, check out the original posting here!