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!




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