Category Archives: Brewing History

The Many Vices of Sir John A. Macdonald

Quick—what’s an interesting fact about Sir John A. Macdonald?

Well—he was Canada’s first Prime Minister.

And he really, really liked his drink.

He’s probably one of Canada’s most famous drunkards, which is a fact that seems to get bandied about a lot. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Sir John A. wasn’t perpetually drunk. No, he went on binges. Sometimes, he was quick, calculating, and stone-cold sober—and sometimes, the Governor-General was writing letters explaining that they weren’t entirely sure where the erstwhile politician was.

There are a few anecdotes that always get retold. In one, Macdonald is notably…ah, “unwell” on the campaign trail (likely a by-election). During the debate, he vomits. When his opponent points this out, he responds, ““I get sick…not because of drink [but because] I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

In June 1866, the Fenian Brotherhood launched an invasion into Canada from Buffalo. The Battle of Ridgeway was the first battle fought on Canadian soil, led by Canadian officers, and also marks the last foreign invasion in Ontario. At the time, Sir John A. was the Minister of Militia and Defence. So of course, news of the attack went straight to him.

And…he was passed out drunk.

Bills failed and languished. Telegrams went unanswered. International relations could be embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst—during the London Conference that sought final British approval before Confederation, Sir John A. nearly set himself and his hotel room on fire when a candle tipped over while he slept.

(In fairness, he might not have been drunk that time—but his fondness for the Athenaeum Club and its libations is well-known.)

The Globe attacked his habit viciously. In fact, one article was so eloquent, I wanted to show a larger extract:

“The truth is that the prime minister has again yielded to the temptation of drink, and has again rendered himself incapable of attending to his duties at a most critical period of affairs. It would almost seem that Sir John A. Macdonald choose those seasons when his vice is calculated to bring the greatest disgrace upon himself and upon the country.

His pitiable condition during the Fenian raid when telegram after telegram was left unanswered because he was in such a state of intoxication that he could not comprehend them, was a matter which would have brought severe retribution upon a Minister in England; his disgraceful condition during the visit of Prince Arthur will long be remembered to the discredit of Canada; and now when every energy should be devoted to the affairs of the North-West…Sir John A. Macdonald again flies to the bottle.

It is really an outrage to the country. The spectacle of the Prime Minister staggering into the refreshment room of the House, and being taken out thence first by one colleague and then by another, or babbling in maudlin intoxication in a hotel bar-room, is a thing to which no other country would submit for an hour. We are not a nation of drunkards, and we have a right to expect that men occupying the most exalted position their country can bestow upon them shall, at least, behave with decorum.”

The Globe: April 30, 1870.

 

The Globe’s editor George Brown was one of Macdonald’s bitterest rivals, which may explain some of the acerbity, but clearly, there was genuine upset at his functional alcoholism. Macdonald himself shrugged off such criticisms: “…the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”

1873 political cartoon. Note the bottle in his back pocket.

Would they, though? The fact that Macdonald managed to accomplish as much as he did in spite of his alcoholism makes one wonder—what if he hadn’t had it? How might Canada look today? Would he have proven a more able leader, or would there simply have been more Pacific Scandals and exclusionary policies towards Asian and Indigenous peoples?

It’s impossible to say, of course. “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” history is probably best left to thought experiments. I’ll end by saying that Macdonald’s second wife Susan Agnes Bernard is largely credited with fighting Macdonald’s demons—biographer Richard J Gwyn claims she literally kept him alive long enough to see the new nation through its formative years.

So—I think John A. has had plenty of glasses raised to him over the years. If you must toast, perhaps consider toasting Susan Bernard.

To Queen, country, and Mrs. Macdonald!

Katie  

 

 

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A Champagne Conference: The Charlottetown Conference, 1864

I was once explaining to some visitors from overseas how Canada became a country. “There was no war, or revolution, or anything like that,” quoth I. “It was more…like when an adult child moves out of the basement, and into their own place.”

I still stand by the gist of that analogy, though of course, it was rather more complicated than that. With the 150th anniversary of Confederation nigh, let’s look at the first step on the road—and of course, it does involve alcohol.

Yay!

So it’s 1864. Organizers are planning the Charlottetown Conference: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island are all sending delegates to discuss the possibility of uniting these three Atlantic colonies into one.

Not so fast!

Depending on which source you read, a delegation from the Province of Canada more-or-less invited itself…or Governor General Monck did “ask” if they might also attend. In any case, in September 1864, the Canadians duly turned up in PEI—a formidable crew including John A. MacDonald and George Brown from Upper Canada, and George-Étienne Cartier, Alexander Galt, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee representing Lower Canada. Hilariously, the first circus to pass through Charlottetown in twenty years meant that all the hotels were booked and no one was actually working at the wharf. Nevertheless, the Canadians made themselves very cozy aboard their ship.

Province House in Charlottetown, wherein the proceedings proceeded.

Ostensibly, they were there only to observe. However, as the Conference unfolded, they inserted themselves into the discussion more and more, wooing the other delegates and turning the proceedings towards the unification of all the British North American provinces.

So what does this have to do with beer?

Well—politics and alcohol in the 1800s rarely lay far apart. As we saw in the case of the Red Lion Inn and the Upper Canada Rebellion, taverns functioned as political meetings. Groups met, debated, and voted in taverns. Deals were ironed out over drinks; alliances announced and cemented through toasting. Even at modern conferences, business goes down at the bar.

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George Brown: politician, newspaper editor, not a beer fan.

What’s more, the 1860s delegates used this socializing as a means of building relationships—and thus furthering their goal. A general session welcomed the Canadian crew on Friday, September 2nd. On the 3rd, the Canadians reciprocated with a champagne lunch. According to one source I found, they’d brought nearly $13,o00 worth (in today’s money, obviously). As George Brown wrote to his wife:

“Cartier and I made eloquent speeches — of course — and whether as the result of our eloquence or of the goodness of our champagne, the ice became completely broken, [and] the tongues of the delegates wagged merrily…”

(Two things. One: George Brown was a temperance advocate, but one assumes he saw the practicalities of not lecturing about alcohol in that moment. Two: I love the “of course” he inserts in there: so, so very much.)

An article in Brown’s newspaper shows that one conference member took the notion of relation-building to another level:

[He said,] “If any one can show just cause or impediment why these colonies should not be united in matrimonial alliance, let him no express it, or forever after hold his peace.” There was no response. “Then,” said he, “ere my days on earth, which are comparatively few, shall close, I may yet witness the conclusion of the ceremony and hear them pronounced man and wife.” (The Globe, September 16, 1864)

The Conference wrapped up on the 7th, at which point the original plan for a Maritime union had been scrapped in favour of joining with the Province of Canada. The delegates agreed to meet in Québec City the following month, one more ball was held, and then everyone went home.

Group photo taken on the portico. John A is sitting down, near the centre (by his pals Thomas D’Arcy McGee and George-Étienne Cartier. John A looks a little tired.

Historian J.M.S. Careless sums it up perfectly in his biography, Brown of the Globe: “There, in the chief stateroom of the Queen Victoria, amid the wineglasses and cigar smoke, 23 men had warmly agreed to found a new nation. Other states might have a more dramatic start — but few, surely, a more enjoyable one.”

We’ll toast to that!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

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Colonial Williamsburg and Eighteenth Century Beers

What a ride!

Once again, your trusty beer journalist has gone international! Last week, my colleague Blythe and I spent a wonderful few days exploring Colonial Williamsburg. Depicting the city of Williamsburg just prior to the American Revolution, Colonial Williamsburg is one of the largest and oldest living history sites out there. Our time was not nearly long enough, but it was most entertaining and improving…

…and we got to sample some eighteenth century ales!

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We may have taken some home, too…

We’ve discussed Colonial Williamsburg’s brewing on this blog before. Essentially, Colonial Williamsburg does not brew itself—at least, not for public consumption. Rather, they partner with Alewerks Brewing Co, a microbrewery in Williamsburg, VA.

(Colonial Williamsburg is separate from, yet still part of, the actual city of Williamsburg. Imagine dropping Black Creek Pioneer Village where Toronto’s Distillery District currently sits.)

So, Frank Clark, master of historic foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, adapted three eighteenth century ales. The original three beers were the Old Stich (a brown ale), the Dear Old Mum (a golden ale flavoured with coriander and grains of paradise—almost a Belgian Wit), and Wetherburn’s Bristol Ale (a lighter brown ale, a little hoppier). Since then, they’ve added Toby’s Triple Threads (a very nice porter).

Of course, learning about eighteenth century Virginia’s beer scene made me wonder about Toronto’s. What was happening with 1770s Toronto brewing?

The answer is…not much.

Remember, Colonial Williamsburg is set almost a century earlier than Black Creek. While Jean Talon established the first Canadian brewery in 1668, there weren’t many other large breweries until later. In fact, John Molson didn’t set up shop in Montréal until 1786—a good three years after the American Revolutionary War ended.

Map of the Toronto Purchase.

Map of the Toronto Purchase.

But here’s where the histories intersect. After the war finished, newly landed Loyalists were settling on land recognized as belonging to the Indigenous populations. Since Governor-in-Chief Lord Dorchester needed somewhere to put these Loyalists, he began negotiating the Toronto Purchase.

In 1787, the Mississaugas of the New Credit exchanged 250,808 acres of land (most of current Toronto) for various goods and money. However, they understood the deal as not so much purchase as land rental. Thus, the Toronto Purchase was renegotiated in 1805, though a land claim settlement was not reached until 2010.

In any case, the site wasn’t even surveyed for town planning until 1788…which explains the dearth of breweries. I can’t imagine there was much of a market. 😉

So, if there wasn’t much beer scene in 1770s Toronto, what were Williamsburg’s brews like?

They’re not too dissimilar from Black Creek’s, really. Like our summertime Best Bitter, they are brewed with East Kent Golding hops. That said, the hop character is very muted, as per the style of the time. Though all were flavourful and well-balanced, the Triple Thread porter was my favourite, with hints of molasses and licorice.

And of course, the beers were served in stoneware mugs, which I’ve never actually experienced before. I was entirely too excited!

Photo de Katie Bryski.

Thanks, Colonial Williamsburg! We’re sure to return soon!

-Katie

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Joseph Bloore: City-Shaper

If you live in Toronto, you probably divide your universe into “north of Bloor” and “south of Bloor.” If you’ve visited Toronto, Bloor was probably (hopefully?) a landmark around which to orient yourself. In any case, Bloor is one of Toronto’s cardinal points—I think only the West End/East End divide is greater.

But did you know that Bloor Street is named after a brewer?

Well, we are the Black Creek Growler, so you may have had an inkling. 😉

Joseph Bloore. NOT a post-mortem photograph. (courtesy http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca)

Joseph Bloore was born in 1789 in Staffordshire, England. Around 1819, he immigrated to Upper Canada with his wife, Sarah. He didn’t get into the brewing business straightaway, instead opening an inn near the St. Lawrence Market. Located quite close to the St. Lawrence Hall’s current location, the “Farmers’ Arms” was part of the “Devil’s Half-Acre,” so-called for the plethora of inns and taverns ready to service thirsty farmers.

While refreshing themselves at Bloore’s tavern, those farmers likely would’ve been drinking beer brewed by the Helliwell family. They had an off-site shop near the Farmers’ Arms, and the two families seem to have had a close relationship—one of Bloore’s children was named John Helliwell Bloore, while a Helliwell son took the name John Bloore Helliwell. (This happened with Gooderham and Worts’ sons as well—the thought of brewer/distiller buddies in 1800s Toronto is immensely pleasing to me).

In fact, beer historian Jordan St. John wonders if Bloore learned brewing from the Helliwells. While it’s impossible to say for sure, we do know that in 1830, Bloore moved his family north to what’s now Yorkville. At the time, the area was decidedly out of the big city—this was the 1800s equivalent of moving to the suburbs for greener spaces and purer air.

Once settled, Bloore established a brewery in the Rosedale Ravine, not far from today’s Sherbourne subway station. Of course, the landscape was remarkably altered by Bloore—he dammed the river, creating a large pond, and built a sluice to direct water for his brewing.

Joseph Bloore's brewery, painted by R. Baigent , 1865 (www.torontopubliclibrary.ca)

Joseph Bloore’s brewery, painted by R. Baigent , 1865 (www.torontopubliclibrary.ca)

By 1843, he’d made enough money with the brewery to retire and go into land speculation with William Botsford Jarvis (we’re sensing a pattern with Toronto street names, I hope). Jarvis and Bloore established the village of Yorkville, and Bloore spent the rest of his life working to develop the area.

Originally, the concession road running along Yorkville had the rather uninspiring name of “Second Concession Road” (Lot Street – Queen Street, today – was the first). A series of names followed, but eventually, the village settled on Bloor—sans E.

But what of the brewery? On Bloore’s retirement, it was taken over by a man named John Rose. He operated it until 1864—two years after Bloore’s death. In this article on Bloor Street’s history, historian/heritage advocate Stephen Otto says, “…anybody looking for the location of Bloor’s brewery today can practically stand on Sherbourne Bridge and drop a penny.”

So the next time you’re strolling along Bloor Street, raise a glass to Joseph Bloore. The brewery may be gone, but his name and contributions remain!

-Katie

 

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From the Vaults: Wassail, Wassail!

In this occasional series, we delve into our archives to bring you some of our favourite posts. Here’s a look at the tradition of wassailing!

Here we come a-wassailing,

Among the leaves so green…

Alcohol and winter celebrations have a long and intertwined history. This is particularly true when you start looking at the old tradition of wassailing. “The Wassail Song” is one of my favourites anyway – but you can imagine how my ears prick up when we get to this verse:

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring,

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

The better we shall sing…

So what is wassailing, exactly? The word can refer either to a custom of drinking someone’s health and/or going from home to home singing, or to the drink itself. A “wassail” drink is often mulled cider, wine, or beer. A specific type of wassail called “lambs’ wool” was frequently used: this was dark ale, whipped into a froth, spiced and decorated with roasted apples. The admittedly peculiar name may arise either from the appearance of the froth, or from a corruption of the Irish celebration “La Mas Ubhal.”

An earthenware wassail bowl from the late 1600s. (Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum)

An earthenware wassail bowl from the late 1600s. (Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum)

Looking at “wassail” as a verb, there are a few different types. For instance, wassailing can refer specifically to a custom of blessing apple and other fruit trees.

In England’s West Country, usually on Twelfth Night (January 5th), or Old Twelfth Night (January 17th), people carried mulled cider and/or spiced ale to apple and cider trees. Cider-soaked cakes were laid at the trees’ roots, and more cider splashed on the tree itself. Guns fired into the branches, pots and pans were banged together—the commotion was meant to frighten away evil spirits. At the same time, wassail songs were sung, encouraging good spirits to protect the trees and ensure their fertility for the next year.

For it’s our Wassail, jolly Wassail,

Joy come to our jolly Wassail,

How well may they bloom, how may they bear,

That we may have apples and cider next year.

– Apple Tree Wassail

Wassailing can also refer to passing around a common cup or bowl, called a “Loving Cup.” The tradition of passing around a common drink and toasting good health dates back centuries in English history; there is even a reference to wassailing in Beowulf! The term “wassail” itself comes from the Old English phrase “Waes hael!” or, “To your health!” The traditional response to this was, naturally, “Drinc hael!” or, “Drink your health!” It’s interesting to see alcohol consistently used to seal off deals, oaths, and wishes—perhaps a remnant of the practice of pouring libations to the gods?

Bryng us in good ale, and bryng us in good ale;

   For owr blyssyd lady sak, bryng us in good ale.

Bryne us in no browne bred, for that is made of brane,

Nor bryng us in no whyt bred, for theriun is no game.

           But bryng us in good ale.

Bryng us in no befe, for ther is many bonys,

But bryng us in good ale, for that goth downe at onys;

           But bryng us in good ale.

– Bryng us in no Browne Bred (Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols Now First Printed, From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century, 1847)

Finally, wassailing can also refer to the practice of going around to people’s houses with a wassail bowl and a song. The group would sing and bless the house in exchange for money and more alcohol—this tends to be the version of wassailing in many of the songs with which we’re familiar today. Interestingly, there was a concern in the early decades of the nineteenth century that the old wassail songs and carols were dying out, prompting a concerted effort to record tunes and lyrics (much like Thomas Wright did, just above!). We have much to thank those Victorian writers for!

wassailing2

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,

Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown…

– Gloucestershire Wassail

Wassailing also gave rise to carolling: travelling around to sing to people’s homes, but without the involvement of alcohol. We’ve kept this tradition at Black Creek, with our own wandering carollers during our Christmas by Lamplight! Feel free to join in the singing—perhaps after a visit to the brewery for some “Waes hael!’ (Hey, with the bitter orange peel and coriander, our Winter Warmer actually makes a decent wassail!)

Drinc hael!

Katie

PS.  A wassailing song in full:

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From the Vault: Brewing in Victorian Ontario

Hello, Beer-Lovers!

This week, it’s another special look through our archives. I’ve been enjoying learning new things myself, so here is a great post from my lovely predecessor, Karell. She has some great facts and figures on the business side of 1860s brewing! Enjoy!

Katie 

Just thought I’d share a few interesting facts and figures about the business of brewing beer in Ontario in 1866 and 1867!

Despard Brewery, Picton – Late 19th Century

Did you know….

  • In 1866 there were 118 commercial breweries in operation in Canada West.
  • William Street Brewery introduced a locally designed and built mechanical refrigeration unit into their brewery in 1866!
  • Copeland’s Steam Brewery was producing 7000 gallons of ale a week and malting 20 000 bushels of barley a season in 1866.
  • O’Keefe’s Brewery introduced a locally designed and built steam engine and boiler into their brewery in 1866.  By 1867 their 25 horsepower engine was capable of turning out a staggering 2000 gallons of beer a day.  This is equivalent to running a brewery off a large ride-on lawn mower!
  • O’Keefe’s Brewery was importing Bavarian, Belgian, Mid Keat, Worcester and Wisconsin hops for various brews.
  • There were four ale bottling plants in Toronto by 1867.  Independent of the breweries, these include Malcolm Morrison’s Beer Bottling Establishment, and businesses operated by James Leask, Thomas Rutlege, and R.D. Congden.

Some neat facts to share at your next pub trivia night, courtesy of Black Creek Brewery!

PS. Our Pumpkin Ale is coming soon, I promise (and it’s already available in the LCBO)! Watch this space for updates and tasting notes! – Katie 

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Dark Beers and Iron

We’re well into fall now, which means that porters and stouts have triumphantly returned to the Black Creek Brewery. Ed’s been working hard on batches of dark beer for the cooler months. Porters and stouts are a personal favourite of mine—but did you know that they also have more iron content than paler beers?

A 2011 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture tested 40 beers from all over the world. The researchers found that darker beers had the most free iron content: 121 parts per billion, compared to 92 ppb for pale ales, and 63 ppb for non-alcoholic beers. The study speculated the dark beers’ higher iron content could be related to the malts and/or hops used. This article I found says:

However, pale beer production includes a filtering stage in which diatomaceous earth is used. This sedimentary rock is a porous material with micro-algae used to lighten the beer; it traps the iron, causing its concentrations to decrease.

I’m not sure I agree with this.

Diatomaceous earth is the fossilized remains of diatoms: a form of hard-shelled algae. It works to filter particles from beer (among other things, including fish tanks and swimming pools). However, modern dark beers undergo the same filtering process: it doesn’t matter what colour your beer is, you’re still going to have yeast sediment and hop residue. So linking iron content to filtration process simply doesn’t make sense…

…especially when you look back to the 1800s. Modern-looking beer filtration doesn’t come about until the late nineteenth century. The first diatomaceous earth filter for brewing wasn’t used until 1930, and it didn’t really become prevalent until after WWII. In the 1800s, filtration was pretty well limited to simple hop backs (ours is lined with cheese cloth!) to strain out the hops, and finings like Irish moss and isinglass, which would at least help free-floating particles settle to the vessels’ bottom.

And yet—

And yet, there seems to be a sense among Victorian brewers that porters and stouts are somehow more hale and hearty. “Porter is recommended by medical men to their poor convalescent patients,” writes William Little Tizard, in his treatise on brewing. He goes on to argue that paler beer is easier on patients’ stomachs, but it’s a good indication that darker beers were considered beneficial for the weak and run-down.

Mmmm....stout.

Mmmm….stout.

But why?

Part of me would wonder if it’s a trick of the taste buds. Porters and stouts have a higher proportion of more darkly-roasted barley. The longer you kiln barley, the more chocolate/coffee-like flavours it develops. Simply put: it tastes stronger. This is why people brace themselves for Irish dry stouts, even though they’re usually under 5% ABV.

Except that modern study shows there is quantitatively more iron. So I wonder instead if a longer kilning period somehow makes the iron in barley more available for absorption (and there is a surprisingly high level of iron in barley—3.6 mg per 100g,  higher than spinach at 2.7 mg/100 g!). From what I can tell, iron content in hops is negligible, and pale beers tend to have more hops anyway…

In any case: whether kilning affects available iron or no, if we feel the darker beers are more fortifying, that might be enough. Maybe share a growler with your friends, and see what you think.

Katie

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