The Gustaff Beer-Poisoning Case!

Oh, gentle readers, do I have a story for you. It’s a story of attempted murder, an international manhunt, incompetent criminals—and yes, beer.

The year is 1865; the place, Toronto. Alexander McKinnon runs a bookshop. In July, he decides to advertise for an agent, and eventually hires a man named George Gustaff.

So far, so normal. Until you realize that Gustaff and his pal, known only as “Davis” are passing themselves off as doctors and running practices. They’re often seen around town together and known as “Doctors Gustaff and Davis.” Although it seems Davis might be a slightly more legitimate doctor—there is a listing in the 1865 Toronto City Directory under “Physicians/Surgeons” for an Arthur Davis, living at 41 Adelaide St. East. This is right at the corner of Bay and Adelaide, which tallies with a witness statement later on in this story.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, Gustaff and Davis are using their medical reputations to buy drugs without suspicion.

Also, Davis is apparently a doctor specializing in “private diseases.”

Yeah.

*cough*

So in September 1865, Gustaff invites McKinnon to the London Exhibition. McKinnon says no. Then Gustaff invites McKinnon on a fishing trip, suggesting that “[McKinnon] should bring the eatables and he should bring the drink.” McKinnon declines this invite as well.

Fast-forward to October 3rd. Gustaff and Davis go to Brummel’s druggist on King Street East and purchase some Prussic acid. You may know this chemical better as hydrogen cyanide. It is colourless, smells of almonds, and it is extremely poisonous.

And apparently used in nineteenth century medical practice. Gotta love those Victorians!

This neck of the woods: King Street East, ca. 1856. (Courtesy the City of Toronto Archives.)

Acid in hand, the duo go to McKinnon’s office and check out a family Bible. Davis says he’ll have to ask his wife before buying it. Gustaff then tries to purchase a ten-cent bottle of ink with a ten-dollar bill. McKinnon says, “No worries, it’s not worth making that kind of change. Just pay me next time.”

“No, no,” Gustaff answers. “I’ll—uh, I’ll throw this 25c thermometer in, too!”

(I may be paraphrasing.)

Anyway, McKinnon then opens the safe to make change, and Gustaff says, “Whoa! You got a lot of money in there!”

(Still paraphrasing, but seriously, it was like $200 in bills.)

Taking directly from McKinnon’s eventual statement, he then continued, “As you are so flush, you should treat to a bottle of ale.”

McKinnon says sure, so Gustaff runs off and comes back a short time later with a bottle and a tumbler. The bottle’s cork won’t come out, so they break the bottle’s neck (which was a legit method back then), spilling most of the beer on the floor. “Have a glass,” Gustaff says, twirling his mustache diabolically.

(Okay, okay, I don’t know if he had a mustache, but he ought to have.)

“Why bother?” says McKinnon. “There’s hardly any beer left in the bottle now.”

“No, no, I insist.” Mustache-twirling intensifies.

And so the beer is poured. McKinnon wraps a package; Davis tries out their new ink. Eventually, McKinnon takes a mouthful of beer and realizes, “Whoa, this is bitter!”

Not the good kind of bitter, either.

Immediately, he feels dizzy. Suspecting he’s been drugged, he tries to run down the stairs, but collapses insensate at the bottom. Davis and Gustaff clean out the bottle and then pass directly by him, heading off for a celebratory drink at Gregor’s saloon.

It just occurred to me that nowhere does it say whether Gustaff and Davis actually stole the money after poisoning McKinnon, or if they abandoned their mission.

In any case, McKinnon comes to, his stomach burning. Pretty much everyone assumes he’s drunk, but he manages to drag himself to the Sergeant-Major of Police. There, he explains that he’s been drugged with poisoned beer.

Like this guy, but worse!

A manhunt ensues! Davis remains in the city, but Gustaff flees to the United States, apparently leaving luggage and unpaid hotel bills will-nilly behind him. By the end of the year, he’s arrested by J. Eustacio, of the New York Metropolitan Police. And to top it off, Gustaff has been going under the alias Dr. Swift.

Gustaff might itself be an alias. He’s not in any census records.

But wait! This is happening in the US now! To face trial in Canada, he must be extradited back to that country!

“Case under the Extradition Treaty,” The Globe, December 1st, 1865.

After a little finagling (the American judge wasn’t wholly convinced of the legal authority of the first batch of papers), Gustaff is extradited on February 6th, 1866. He’s first arraigned on March 22nd, 1866, but two witnesses don’t show (of course), so the trial is postponed until April.

And then –

Oh, and then –

Like, people are pretty sure he did it. Apparently, he went around to several people in the weeks before the poisoning, boasting that if he killed a certain man, he’d get $200. He also bragged about possessing a certain acid, “…one drop of which would kill a dog or cat; two drops, a man.” AND he talked about his failed attempts to lure McKinnon on a fishing trip.

He’s not really very good at this.

Plus, Robert Johnson, barkeeper at Gregor’s saloon, testifies that at 2:00 the afternoon of the attempted murder, Gustaff bought a bottle of ale “tightly corked, without either foil or wire.” (At that time, it was common for beer bottles to have a wire hood to help hold the cork in place, similar to what you see on champagne bottles today. In this specific incident, it’s a historical detail that makes me entirely too happy.) At the same time, he bought a glass tumbler.

Corked ale bottle from Black Creek’s collection. Note the “blob top,” very characteristic for bottles of this time period.

Suspicious much?

So the trial doesn’t really focus on whether he put something in McKinnon’s beer, but rather, what that something was. If it was really hydrogen cyanide, the defense asked, wouldn’t McKinnon have smelled it as soon as he raised the glass to his lips? And if Gustaff really put a full drachm (roughly a teaspoonful) in McKinnon’s beer, wouldn’t that mouthful have proved fatal?

The beer’s alcohol might have impeded the poison’s efficacy, the prosecution argued. Same for the apple McKinnon had eaten shortly before. You know what they say: an apple a day keeps false, murdering doctors away. Or something like that.

Anyway, to the surprise of exactly no one, Gustaff is found guilty and summarily sent to Kingston Pentitentiary.

“York and Peel Assizes,” The Globe, May 1st, 1866.

“It was a thing almost to make one shudder,” writes the Globe, “that they [Gustaff and Davis] came to McKinnon’s to purchase a family Bible, in view of their subsequent proceedings.”

And that, my friends, is such a Victorian response that my vision just turned sepia.

We are quite amused.

So there you have it: a case of attempted murder in 1860s Toronto that centered on a glass of beer. To embark on such crime, Gustaff must have been an… (wait for it, wait for it) Extra-Special Bitter.

BAM.

On a slightly more serious note, this thrilling tale marks my final entry for the Black Creek Growler. Since 2013, it has been a wild ride. We’ve had some good ales, shared some good tales, and I’ve loved every sip of history. Thanks for everything, beer-lovers. You’ve been wonderful companions on this journey.

Also, the specialty brew for December is our Winter Warmer (amber ale, coriander and orange peel notes), and the brewery closes until spring on December 23rd, 2017.

All my best to you. Now, all together, one last time:

To Queen and Country!

– Katie

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The Most Interesting Man in the World

Over the years, we have covered many interesting historical personalities on this blog: from the indomitable Susannah Oland to the lyrical John Ross Robertson. But, oh, readers: I have found the most interesting beer-related man in the world. And his name is—Jerry Thomas.

Jeremiah P. Thomas was born in Sacket’s Harbor, New York in 1830. He learned bartending as a young man—and then took off to the west coast to join the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). There, he continued bartending while searching for gold, and eventually returned back east to New York City. There, he opened his own bar under PT Barnum’s American Museum. Because of course he did.

But even that was not cool enough. Thomas then hit the road, working as head bartender at hotels across the United States and Europe. As he travelled, he developed a distinctly flashy style: pulling tricks and juggling while making his drinks. In fact, his signature drink—the Blue Blazer—was a hot toddy set aflame, and then tossed from cup to cup to create  “a blazing stream of liquid fire.”

Jerry Thomas demonstrating his famous Blue Blazer.
“How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion” New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers, 1862. pg. 77.

But wait, there’s more!

He travelled with solid silver bar tools. He wore jewellery as ostentatious as his showmanship.

At one point, he made more money each week than the Vice-President of the United States.

He returned to New York City and in 1866 (so, right at our time period), opened his own bar again. But we’re not done. His favourite things included kid gloves, a gold Parisian watch, and collecting art.

And there’s still more.

Dear readers-

Dear readers, in the 1870s this man was president of The Gourd Club, for he had produced its largest specimen.

To recap:

Virtuoso bartender, fashionista, and gourd enthusiast.

At this point, I think his legacy is probably pretty self-evident, but let’s go into it anyway. Among all these other highlights, Thomas was the first to put forth the notion of bartender as creative professional: he is the original bartender personality. His book, How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862) was the first book on mixing drinks published in the United States.  It’s no wonder the foreword to his book says, “His very name is synonymous in the lexicon of mixed drinks with all that is rare and original.” For indeed, he was one of the cornerstones of the mixed-drink culture we still see today.

And he’s really, really cool.

Some recipes!

Ale Punch

A quart of mild ale, a glass of white wine, one of brandy, one of capillaire [syrup flavoured with orange flowers or fruit], the juice of a lemon, a roll of the peel pared thin, nutmeg grated on the top, and a bit of toasted bread.

 

Ale Sangaree

(Use large bar glass)

1 teaspoonful of sugar, dissolved in a tablespoonful of water.

Fill the tumbler with ale, and grate nutmeg on top.

 

Porter Cup

Mix in a tankard or covered jug a bottle of porter, and an equal quantity of table-ale; pour in a glass of brandy, a dessert-spoonful of syrup of ginger, add three or four lumps of sugar, and half a nutmeg grated; cover it down, and expose it to the cold for half an hour; just before sending it to the table, stir in a teaspoonful of carbonate of soda. Add the fresh-cut rind of a cucumber.

 

Arf and Arf

(use large bar glass)

In London this drink is made by mixing half porter and half ale, in America it is made by mixing half new and half old ale.

All recipes from How to Mix Drinks1862. Check it out, maybe you’ll find a new favourite!

-Katie

The Not-So-Humble Hop

It’s mid-September, which means our hops have just passed their peak season. The ripening of our hop flowers is an annual sign that summer is ending, and Ed’s Wet-Hop Ale is just around the corner. Of course, we mostly know hops for their role in flavouring and preserving beer, but Victorians had many other uses for this feisty little plant!

Ed picking hops!

To start, Victorians often wrote about hops’ soporific qualities; many remedy compilations suggest stuffing one’s pillow with hops as a sleep aid. According to The Family Physician (1865), hops are especially useful when “…for any reason the use of opium is considered objectionable.” (The Family Physician, p. 829). All of the calming benefits, none of the narcotic drawbacks! (I bet it smelled pretty strong, though.)

The New Family Herbal goes a step further. If you really want a good night’s sleep, it suggests a teaspoonful of a tincture of hops…made from “six or seven ounces of Hops in two pints of proof spirits” (The New Family Herbal, p. 139). I’m not sure the hops were entirely responsible for any drowsiness!

But this particular manual lists many more uses for hops: in addition to helping you sleep and making beer taste great, apparently taking powdered hop seed could destroy worms. Hops heated in a flannel bag were touted as a cure for toothache. They also claimed that decoctions of hops cured ulcers, cleansed the blood (thus healing scabs, ringworms, and other ailments), eased jaundice, and even “…destroy[ed] the heat of the liver and stomach” (ibid).

Not to be outdone, The Hop Farmer: or, a Complete Account of Hop Culture (1838) adds animals to the species reaping hops’ benefits. In addition to using hops to cure rheumatism, this book suggests using decoctions of hops to strengthen cattle against severe weather!

From “The Hop Farmer: or, a Complete Account of Hop Culture,” by E.J. Lance (1838).

This all sounds great, but what does 21st-century science say on the matter?

No clinical studies have been done to evaluate hops’ medical benefits. That said, it looks like hops do help with insomnia, anxiety, tension, and irritability. There is also some evidence that they can help with indigestion and poor appetite. And of course, hops’ bitter acids have some antimicrobial qualities – that’s why they preserve beer!

So the next time you drink a hoppy IPA – or try one of the many fine Wet Hop Ales coming out from Ontario craft breweries – you know hops aren’t all bitterness and acid. Well – biologically, they are. But metaphorically, they’re a little sweet as well.

-Katie

 

Susannah Oland: Brewmistress

This week, we are spotlighting one of Canada’s formidable female brewers: Susannah Oland. Today, you might recognize her beer under the name Moosehead!

Susannah Oland. Image from Moosehead.ca

But let’s go back: way back. In 1865, Susannah emigrated from England to Canada with her husband John and their nine children. Upon arriving in Nova Scotia, John worked for the railway, while Susannah minded their children and brewed her signature Brown October Ale in the backyard. Impressed by her brew, friends encouraged the Olands to go into business, and by 1867, John and Susannah had established The Army and Navy Brewery. Situated on twelve acres in Turtle Cove, on the east side of the Halifax harbour, they ran a brisk business – local soldiers and sailors proved dependable customers, with a definite taste for Susannah’s ale!

However, tragedy struck just three years later. In 1870, John died in a riding accident, leaving Susannah to raise their children alone. Financial difficulties left her no choice but to sell the majority of shares in The Army and Navy Brewery, thus losing control temporarily. However, Susannah possessed both determination and solid business sense. Upon receiving an inheritance from a family member in 1877, she returned to the beer world by forming a brewery of her own: S. Oland, Sons and Co. (the use of her initial was another canny business move – she wanted to hide the fact that a woman ran the brewery!).

1871 census. Notice that Susannah is listed as “Widowed,” and it’s her sons who are “Brewers.”

 

1881 census: much the same story.

 

As a complete sidebar, it looks like her son John got into a spot of trouble: he voted in his deceased father’s place during a local (and hotly contested) election…but he was, unfortunately, underage at the time of voting (check out the 1871 census: he wouldn’t have been 21 at the time). However, it seems that nothing came of it.

A close local election was held in Halifax (“The Globe,” Nov 11, 1870).

 

Uh-oh… (“The Globe,” Feb 22, 1871).

 

You don’t HAVE to divulge your vote (revolutionary, I know), unless there’s an ethical question surrounding it. Young Oland’s standing firm (“The Globe,” Mar 8, 1871).

 

Yep, they’re letting it slide. From my wide-ranging perusals of “The Globe,” the sanctimonious tone is typical (“The Globe,” Mar 8, 1871).

Besides John’s voting issues, the Olands’ brewery survived two fires, and by the time Susannah died in 1886, her sons had become proficient brewers in their own right. After her death, her sons John Jr., Conrad, and George took over the brewery, renaming it the Maritime Malting and Brewing Co. It was not the last time the name would be changed, nor the last tragedy. The brewery survived the Halifax Explosion in 1917, Prohibition, and two World Wars, adopting several new monikers along the way. It finally became Moosehead Breweries Ltd in 1947, after the popularity of its Moosehead Pale Ale.

Through it all, the Oland family remained; they’re currently on their sixth generation! Where Sleeman, Molson, Labatt, and the others have passed into international partnership, Moosehead alone remains wholly Canadian. A fitting legacy for a fine brewmistress!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

“They Drank Beer Because the Water Wasn’t Safe” …OR DID THEY?!

Beer-Lovers, let’s have a chat.

When I was in the Black Creek Brewery, I often received the question, “Did Victorians drink beer because the water was unsafe?” I’d like to spend some time answering that question.

The short answer is, “In Toronto, the water was often unsafe, but that didn’t actually link to beer consumption very much.”

Let’s start at the beginning.

Toronto, 1850s-1860s. Yes, indeed, the water is not terribly safe to drink. Until the 1870s, the drinking water supply was handled by private companies. As you can imagine, they were mostly concerned with profits, and so sometimes let matters of safety slide. Most drinking water came from private wells, which was fine unless they got contaminated. Animals were slaughtered throughout the city streets, and their offal tossed in the sewers. Animals’ manure ended up in the sewers as well. So did untreated human waste. And where did these sewers empty?

Into the bay.

Toronto, 1851. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

An article from The Globe, simply entitled, “The Cholera,” describes Toronto’s water situation thusly:

“The water used in Toronto is a byword through the Province. Thick and cloudy with feculence, it is unfit for human use until purified. No one who can possibly afford it should be without a filter to strain the impurities they are compelled to drink. Crystal clearness instead of yellow decoction of dead plants and animals, must be a blessing to any one”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Well, then.

So, yes. In 1860s Toronto, the water was not always safe to drink.

However.

Remember that germ theory was still developing at this time. In England, Dr. John Snow had established a connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1848, but his work wasn’t entirely accepted until later in the century. Louis Pasteur’s experiments in killing bacteria through heat (i.e. pasteurization) didn’t get rolling until the early 1860s. Obviously, Victorians linked filth and sickness. They knew the water wasn’t safe. They likely didn’t entirely realize the mechanism of why.

In fact, The Globe provides helpful tips on cholera prevention:

“Make a city clean; purge it from every foul smell, bury its reeking corruption, cleanse its drains permit no stagnant cess-pools; make it in fact what decency and common comfort demand, and cholera will pass along our streets harmless…”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Get rid of the ick; you won’t get sick!

An 1866 article is still preoccupied with the water quality—it suggests that allowing a more abundant supply might help flush the city’s pipes and keep everything cleaner. However, it also has good advice for disinfecting water.

Namely, these include solutions of hypochlorite of soda, lime, and “Condy’s fluid” (solution of alkaline manganates and permanganates—you could drink it, or use it like Windex!). These solutions could be poured into cess-pools and chamber-pots. Cooking/drinking water ought to be filtered through charcoal; you could burn a little wood in your hearth at night to encourage air flow.

Still sick? Placing iodine in a box or “in the ornamental cases on the mantle or shelf of a room” was thought to disinfect it. They suggest taking 8-10 grains of sulphite of magnesia when cholera is rampant. And most importantly, protecting one’s self from waterborne diseases by practicing “perfect sobriety” and avoiding all employments which “exhaust nervous energy.”

In other words…no one is suggesting an alternative to water. They’re trying to find ways to make it as safe as possible. In fact, the exhortation for sobriety (immorality = disease, obviously) directly contradicts any notion of drinking beer in place of water.

Indeed, there are calls from this time period for more drinking water. See these letters to the Editor talking about the joys of public drinking fountains—so people can have an alternative to beer.

The Globe, July 6, 1863

 

The Globe, October 24, 1862

 

Look, beer tastes nice. It has calories. Small beer gives a mild buzz (which Victorians assumed was a stimulant effect). Given the choice—without my modern knowledge of health and the effects of alcohol—I’d probably choose the beer too.

So the water in mid-Victorian Toronto wasn’t always safe. But the response does not seem to have been, “Break out the beer.” Rather, the city seems to have reacted by trying to make the water supply safer. Their beer consumptions seems driven by reasons other than health concerns. As they say in the sciences, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

To Queen and Country!

Katie

QUIZ: What Beer Time Period Are You?

Hello Beer-Lovers,

As some may recall, I took a number of online beer knowledge tests a while back. While that was thoroughly enjoyable, I wanted to try my hand at making a beer test of my own. But this one is more about testing personality. And it’s entirely for fun.

So, without further ado:

What Beer Time Period Are You?

1. Who do you expect to brew your beer?

a) Priestesses

b) Monks or alewives

c) Plucky tradesmen

d) Macrobreweries or hip entrepreneurs

2. What are the dominant flavours in your beer?

a) Figs, dates, honey…

b) Smoky malt, supplemented with herbs like bog myrtle, rosemary, and sweet yarrow

c) Richly roasted malts: caramels, coffees, burnt grain

d) Depends. Sometimes intensely vibrant pine/citrus (Pacific Northwest hops, natch); sometimes Thai basil; sometimes boozy bourbon and vanilla. My palate cannot be constrained.

3. What do you drink your beer from?

a) Clay vessels, with a straw for getting past the floating grain husks

b) Probably a shallow wooden bowl or cup.

c) Pewter/stoneware mugs, though those brown glass bottles are pretty fancy.

d) A bottle, a can, or a clear glass appropriate to the style.

4. Who drinks beer?

a) Everyone.

b) Everyone.

c) Almost everyone (small beer for women and children)

d) A wide-cross section of society, assuming they’ve reached legal drinking age.

5. What is your view on hops?

a) What?

b) Why use hops when you can use gruit??

c) They’re great for shipping beer to the colonies!

d) Used appropriately, they’re great, but over-hopped beers are getting a little passé, IMHO.

6. What’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to beer?

a) Choking on a barley husk.

b) When you’re trying to roast your malt over an open fire, and it heats unevenly so half is burnt and half is barely singed.

c) When Temperance advocates try to guilt you about it—beer isn’t whisky, you know?

d) When your favourite microbrewery gets acquired by a huge conglomerate and the quality tanks.

7. And finally, your favourite thing about beer?

a) It’s a divine gift from the gods, forming the basis of our civilization.

b) When you’re doing a bread-and-water fast, beer totally counts (grains, water, yeast, amirite?)

c) It’s a fortifying, nutritious drink with pleasurable side-effects.

d) There is endless opportunity for creativity and fine craft, and it’s fun to try new styles with friends.

RESULTS

Mostly A’s:

You are Mesopotamian/Sumerian Brewing! Starting from around 3500 BCE, your beer is a gift from the gods. As such, most of your beer is brewed by priestesses—particularly of the goddess Ninkasi. Thick and porridge-like, your beer is flavoured with honey and fruits, and drunk through straws!

 

Mostly B’s:

You are Medieval Brewing! Your beer is still largely a cottage industry: for the most part, it’s made by women, though plenty of monasteries have gotten into the act, too. The spent grains get filtered out, so your beer isn’t nearly as thick as it was millennia ago. Some Germanic countries are using hops to flavour their beer, but gruit—a mix of different herbs—is your beer’s defining feature!

 

Mostly C’s:

You are Victorian Brewing! You’re quite content to use hops—you know that they help prevent beer spoiling, which is useful in the interconnected trade network developing across the globe. Some of your most popular styles include brown ales and porters, though pale ales are gaining traction. Beer is still an important part of people’s daily diet…though Temperance advocates are starting promoting abstinence from alcohol.

 

Mostly D’s:

You are Modern Brewing! You have so much variety in your beers! Proliferating craft breweries are keen to explore unique flavour profiles and take risks, focusing on quality ingredients and top-notch craft. People of all backgrounds enjoy your beers (assuming they’re of legal drinking age) and with new microbreweries opening constantly, it’s a safe bet they’ll never get bored.

Tasting at Pen Druid, in Sperryville, VA.

 

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

Victorian Root Beer

In the past, I was occasionally asked if common drinks like “root beer” and “ginger ale” were ever alcoholic—this question usually arose when Ed rolled out our Ginger Beer in June. The short answer is…yes! Several popular modern sodas like root beer, ginger ale, and birch beer (okay, maybe that one’s less common) had their origins in Victorian beers!

Since we’ve talked about ginger ale a while back, I wanted to explore root beer a little.

Root beer is a beverage traditionally made with sassafras roots and/or sarsaparilla as its main flavouring agent. The Indigenous populations of North America were making sassafras-based beverages long before European contact, using it to treat various ailments from wounds to fevers. Unsurprisingly, then, when “root beer” began to be sold through the mid-nineteenth century, it was touted as a healthful drink.

The sassafras tree grows from southern Ontario right to the southern United States! (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

(Point of interest: sassafras does contain an oil called safrole that can lead to liver damage and cancer. It’s been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration since 1960—root beer today is sometimes made with sassafras extract that’s had the safrole removed, but more commonly with extracts from wintergreen and black birch bark.)

Pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires was the first person to make a commercial brand of root beer—though being a teetotaller, he really would’ve preferred to call it “root tea.” And he wouldn’t have been far off the mark, either—though root beer can be fermented, most traditional recipes barely get to 2% ABV. However, when he debuted his drink at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, he wanted to attract customers among the local coal miners.

Thus, with (I’m sure) some regret, he sold his product as “root beer.” But not to worry—I’m equally sure he would’ve been cheered by a proliferation of non-alcoholic root beers. Indeed, they were very popular during the United States’ Prohibition years.

Poking around, I did find a recipe for traditional root beer in a lovely book called A Thousand and One Receipts Useful to Families (1883).

Looking this over, it’s not surprising root beer had such a low alcohol content. Remember, alcohol is what happens when yeast metabolizes fermentable sugars. With only a little bran (hard to break down) and molasses, there’s just not much to work with in this recipe!

But I was intrigued by a) the lack of sassafras, and b) the mention of “Indigenous bitters.” A little more digging unearthed this advertisement in the May 2, 1890 edition of The Québec Daily Telegraph.

Given the description of “a combination…of a large number of roots and barks,” and the assertion that “INDIGENOUS BITTERS never fail to afford prompt relief, and most frequently a perfect cure,” I think we’ve found our star player! Clearly, this was another incarnation of root beer as a health drink.

(I was also delighted to see that—sure enough—these “Indigenous bitters” are sold in “25cts boxes only.” Just like the recipe says!)

Obviously, root beer today is very different—in ingredients, method, and purpose. But as you raise a frosty mug, you can contemplate its Victorian predecessors!

To Queen and Country!

Katie