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

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Black Creek Test Kitchen: Beer-Braised Pork Chops

Hello Beer-Lovers,

And we’re back with another recipe! This one is mostly from Taste of Home, except then I changed it as I am wont to do. While I’m very precise about most things in life, cooking is not one of them.

Anyway.

Beer-Braised Pork Chops: Ingredients

  • Pork Chops
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Oil
  • 3 Tbsp ketchup
  • Scant 1/2 Tbsp white sugar
  • Drizzle molasses
  • 3/4 cup of beer

What beer to use, you ask? Well, pork pairs really nicely with sweet things, so I was thinking a brown ale—caramel/chocolate sweetness. Something like Black Creek Brewery’s Rifleman’s Ration. But alas, my local LCBO’s stock was unhelpful.

Until I spotted the Griffin Maple Butter Tart Ale from Sawdust. I’ve had this beer before: it’s a very mild, very sweet beer. If I recall, my exact thoughts at first tasting were, Well, it tastes like a butter tart, but I’m not sure what that’s meant to accomplish.

 

“But…” quoth I, standing in the LCBO, “I bet it would go well with the pork.”

So I picked up a can, went home, and assembled my ingredients:

 

STEP THE FIRST:

Season pork chops with salt and pepper. Heat up oil in a large skillet and brown meat.

Or if you’re me, forget about the salt and pepper until after the meat is sizzling, and throw them in late, hoping it won’t affect anything (it didn’t).

STEP THE SECOND:

Mix beer, ketchup, sugar, and molasses. Pour over pork chops.

STEP THE THIRD:

Bring liquid to boil and then reduce heat. Cover and simmer until pork chops have reached an internal temperature of 145 F/ 63 C.

This is when I realized two things:

  • This is the first time I have knowingly braised meat: i.e. searing it and then stewing in a covered pot.
  • I have lost my meat thermometer.

So I kind of let the meat do its thing for 30 minutes and then cut the end from one of the chops. It looked done, and nothing happened when I ate it, so off we went:

The sweetness of this particular beer complimented the pork really well. I wasn’t sure how the ketchup would blend, but it gave things a nice savoury edge. There is definitely a buttery character to the beer I used – I’d be interested to see how the recipe works with other styles.

This recipe would work really well with our Brown Ale or Best Bitter: anything sweet, but not overpowering. A delicious summer dish!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

150 Years of Beer Facts

We’re celebrating a very special birthday this weekend! That’s right, Canada’s 150th anniversary is this Saturday! And to celebrate, Black Creek Pioneer Village is putting on one heck of a party!

Whoo!

 

(As a point of interest, it was my birthday yesterday, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Our Canada Day celebrations last from Saturday, July 1st until Monday, July 3rd. On July 1st, 2017— free admission for all! That’s right! Everyone! Marvel at magicians, tumblers, and jugglers, learn what was trending in 1867 (#Spiritualism? #PteriodomaniacLife?), and of course, experience the life as it was on that first day under the Constitution Act.

Learn more about our Canada Day celebrations here!

And of course, the Black Creek Brewery is celebrating as well! Drop by to taste a special birthday brew. Can’t wait until Saturday? Well, in honour of our 150th anniversary, here are 15 Interesting Facts about Beer from the last 150 Years

  1. The first brewery in Canada was Québec City’s La Brasseries due Roy, established in 1668 by New France Intendant Jean Talon.
  2. At the time of Confederation, Toronto had about 300 taverns and a population of ~45,000. That’s nearly 150 people per tavern! Today, Toronto has ~950 bars and a population of 2,615,000. That’s over 2750 people per bar! (It gets a little better when you factor in 6980 establishments recorded by DineSafe as “restaurants” or “cocktail bars”—more like 310 people per “establishment where one could theoretically order a drink”).
  3. Today, the only Canadian-owned major brewery is Moosehead, established in 1867.
  4. Canada’s northernmost microbrewery is NWT Brewing Co., in Yellowknife, NT.
  5. Ontario’s smallest microbrewery is…the Black Creek Brewery!
  6. The 1864 Dunkin Act gave townships in Ontario an option to vote on going dry. Toronto didn’t get around to holding a vote until 1877. It voted to stay wet.
  7. The Canada Malting Silos down by Harbourfront were built in 1928. According to Wikipedia, their “stark functionalism…was an early influence on modernist architecture.”
  8. In 1934, John Sackville Labatt (yes, son of that John Labatt) became an early Canadian kidnapping victim. His kidnappers held him captive for three days, demanding $150,000. They eventually panicked and released him, but sadly, Labatt remained a recluse for the rest of his life.
  9. In the 1880s, a hop picker was paid around 30 cents per box of hops (about 13 lbs of hops). A really good picker could harvest two boxes each day.
  10. Much early planning for the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion was done in John Doel’s brewery.
  11. The first free school in Toronto was built in 1848—by brewer Enoch Turner. You can still visit it today!
  12. At Confederation, roughly 10% of Toronto’s licensed tavern-keepers were female.
  13. The Industry Standard Bottle—also known as the “stubby”—was first adopted in 1962 and finally faded from use in 1984.
  14. There was no real legal drinking age in the 1800s. By the 1960s, it was 21 in Ontario. Then in 1971, it dropped to 18, before settling at 19 years of age in 1979.
  15. From 1867 to now, beer’s main ingredients have not changed: barley, hops, water, and yeast!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

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  

 

 

New Brew: Ginger Beer

Father’s Day weekend is almost here! On June 17th and 18th, you can enjoy a fun-filled weekend of muskets, soldiers, and spies! That’s right: once again, the village will be hosting a Revolutionary War re-enactment!

And as per tradition, Ed has made an alcoholic ginger beer in honour of the event.

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%.

ginger-300x262

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!

(courtesy http://www.warof1812.ca)

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 children. It’s still about 5% alcohol, so save it for the adults!

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.

To Queen and Country!

Katie

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.

https://tce-live2.s3.amazonaws.com/media/media/407f0fe6-9a89-4187-b3af-b6293f8c1155.jpg
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

 

New in the LCBO: Canada 150 Ale!

Hello, beer-lovers!

We’ve brewed up a surprise for you! To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, we are releasing a new beer for the LCBO! The Canada 150 Ale is a special edition of our beloved Best Bitter—a refreshing way to enjoy the sesquicentennial.

If you enjoyed the historic version of this beer down in the Black Creek brewery, you’ll probably be a fan of this ale, too. It pours deep, coppery amber; almost like an autumnal maple leaf. As with all our commercial beers, you can expect some moderate head, too.

The nose is fairly mild with sweet, biscuit-like and malty aromas. Those flavours continue through the first sip and mid-tastes as well. You’ll notice some caramel/toffee notes too, and an earthy hop presence on the finish. It’s a light-bodied, easy-drinking beer: perfect for a summer barbeque, patio session, or as a refresher after time in the sun.

Another cool thing! You’ll notice that we’ve got snazzy new cans. We’re kicking things off with a fantastic Canada 150-themed design—it may have caused some swooning down in the brewery. 😉

Our Canada 150 Best Bitter will be available in the LCBO starting in June. As always, I strongly recommend checking availability on the LCBO website before you head out! Here’s to another 150 years!

To Queen and Country!

Katie