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

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  

 

 

We’re (Almost) Back!

Greetings, Beer-Lovers!

This is just a quick note to remind you all that Black Creek Pioneer Village’s 2017 season begins on Saturday, April 29th, 2017. It’s Canada’s 150th birthday, and we are ready to party like it’s 1867!

Check out the Black Creek website for a whole slew of special events happening this year, and make sure to see our Canada Day event details on Facebook! And of course, we’ll have new programming and activities rolling out throughout the season!

Photo de Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Did someone say, “Historic trades and activities, History Actors, musicians, animals, Discovery Stations, Pioneer Day Camps, and more?” I’m pretty sure someone said ALL of that! 😉

Down in the brewery, Ed has also been preparing. I won’t give too much away right now, but rest assured  – we’ve got the sesquicentennial well in hand!

And if your stocks of historic beer are a little low after the long winter – well, you can always swing by the brewery to pick up more historic brew. Ed will be back brewing on weekends, so feel free to come say, “Hi!”

Getting excited? So are we – so until Saturday, here are some pictures we love.

Coming through the hop garden one summer morning.

 

Our beautiful mill…
Photo de Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Our campers having fun!

 

Hard at work!

 

Our lambs are skipping!

 

And of course…

To Queen and Country!

Katie

Hot Punch: A Victorian Recipe

It’s November now. Here in the Black Creek Brewery, we’re convinced that we were sampling our summer pale ales and best bitters just…what, two weeks ago? But no, autumn is starting to wane further into winter…

We saw frost on the Grain Barn's roof!
We saw frost on the Grain Barn’s roof!

Which means that it’s getting cold outside. A nice rounded stout or porter usually pairs well with these chilly nights, but sometimes, you want something with a little more punch.

Ah, Mrs. Beeton... (courtesy National Portrait Gallery; www.npg.org.uk)
Ah, Mrs. Beeton…
(courtesy National Portrait Gallery; http://www.npg.org.uk)

In fact, sometimes you want a punch – a hot punch! I went to the ever-reliable Mrs. Beeton to find out more about this warming beverage. In her Book of Household Management, she had this to say:

Punch is a beverage made of various spirituous liquors or wine, hot water, the acid juice of fruits, and sugar. It is considered to be very intoxicating; but this is probably because the spirit, being partly sheathed by the mucilaginous juice and the sugar, its strength does not appear to the taste so great as it really is.

So as always, drink responsibly.

Now, onto the recipe!

  • ½ pint rum
  • ½ pint brandy
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 large lemon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 pint of boiling water

“Rub the sugar over the lemon until it has absorbed all the yellow part of the skin, then put the sugar into a punchbowl; add the lemon-juice (free from pips), and mix these two ingredients well together. Pour over them the boiling water, stir well together, add the rum, brandy, and nutmeg; mix it thoroughly, and the punch will be ready to serve. It is very important in making good punch that all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated; and, to insure success, the process of mixing must be diligently attended to.”

If you’re thinking, “This is basically a hot toddy, isn’t it?” you’re right! Hot toddies are typically made with whisky, but it’s the same general idea—in fact, Mrs. Beeton notes that the Scots usually substituted whisky in their punch “…and then its insidious properties are more than usually felt.”

Now, if you’re wondering whether a hot toddy will cure a cold…well, I’m afraid there is no science to back it up. That said, warm liquids, spices, and honey can do wonders for a sore throat—as my partner-in-crime Blythe and I discovered when we tested another Victorian recipe! (You can catch that episode of Blythe Tries on the Black Creek page this Tuesday!)

Does it work? Find out on Tuesday!
Does it work? Find out on Tuesday!

No matter what you’re drinking, stay warm out there! And come pay us a visit in the brewery soon!

-Katie

Specialty Brew: Ginger Beer

Currently in our fridges at the Black Creek Brewery: Brown Ale, India Pale Ale, Best Bitter, and Pale Ale. And of course, our June specialty beer is the Ginger Beer!

That comes out Father’s Day weekend. It is one of my very favourites, so I am excited! It’s also a beer with an interesting history…

Ginger also appears in many 19th century beer recipes!
Ginger also appears in many 19th century beer recipes!

Ginger ale derives from ginger beer, which is itself descended from drinks such as mead and metheglin. These were sweet, honey-based beverages, fermented with yeast and flavoured with a variety of spices, including ginger, cloves, mace. Ginger beer was 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 symbiotic composite of yeast and bacteria! From the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, ginger beers were impressively alcoholic, sometimes reaching 11%.

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.

So, what’s the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale? Easy: ginger beer is brewed, ginger ale is carbonated water flavoured with ginger. With some exceptions, ginger beer tends to be spicier, with a more pronounced ginger taste and cloudier appearance, while ginger ale is lighter in taste and colour.

(Courtesy http://www.digitaldeliftp.com )

Although ginger ale was reputedly invented in Ireland, Canada has a role to play in ginger ale’s history. In 1890, University of Toronto alumnus and pharmacist John McLaughlin opened a carbonated water plant in Toronto by Old City Hall. By adding various fruit juices, he developed sodas to sell to pharmacies. His Belfast Style Ginger Ale was one notable example, and by 1904, he had refined the recipe into a lighter, sharper version he called “Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Our Ginger Beer is an amber ale with a lovely burnished orange hue. In addition to the gingery heat, you might also get a bit of sweetness – Ed’s added some molasses this year to bring that ginger taste out even more.

This one, specific Ginger Beer is mine, though.
This one, specific Ginger Beer is mine, though.

It will be available starting this Father’s Day weekend until it’s all gone. Do remember, it’s also our Battle of Black Creek Revolutionary War Re-Enactment this weekend! In between hunting the Yankee spy and following the battle, you can swing by the brewery and pick up a ginger beer of your very own. 😉

 

-Katie

The Thompsons of Half Way House

Down here in the Black Creek Historic Brewery, we’re occasionally asked who owned and operated the brewery back in the 1860s. It’s a segue for a really cool conversation, because the brewery only dates back to 2009 – the entire basement of the Half Way House was put in after the building was moved from Scarborough to its present location at Black Creek.

The Half Way House, in its original location at Kingston Rd and Midland Ave. ca. 1912. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.
The Half Way House, in its original location at Kingston Rd and Midland Ave. ca. 1912. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

So – no one was operating the brewery in the 1860s. But the Half Way House was alive and kicking! It was built around 1847/48, owned and operated by Alexander Thompson and his wife, Mary (née McClure).

Alexander had married into a big family: the Half Way House sits in the centre of four farms. Three of them belong to Mary’s siblings and one to an uncle. What’s more: those four farms were originally one parcel of land belonging to her great-grandmother, Sarah Ashbridge.

(If you’re wondering, “As in, Ashbridge’s Bay?” you’re absolutely correct!)

Everything the light touches...I mean, everything within that rectangle belongs to the Ashbridge/McClure family.
Everything the light touches…I mean, everything within that rectangle belongs to the Ashbridge/McClure family.

In many ways, it’s a similar story to our Stong family here at Black Creek: a large family that proceeded to marry most of their neighbours, creating a dynastic look to certain areas. Interestingly, Mary was Alex’s second wife: he had been married to another relative of hers, but she passed away quite young. Contrary to certain legends, Mary was quite aware of this first marriage (she acted as a witness!), and remarrying another family member following a spouse’s death was not terribly uncommon .

So while Alexander is hard to track down prior to his marriages, it seems the McClure family absorbed him quite nicely. In fact, the Half Way House is built on a sliver of land carved out from William Hale’s farm, and Alex also has a bit of land on the corner of Isaac Ashbridge’s property!

F.F. Passmore did many sketches and surveys of Scarborough in the 1860s. The Half Way House is visible at right (north is down). Courtesy the City of Toronto Archives.
F.F. Passmore did many sketches and surveys of Scarborough in the 1860s. The Half Way House is visible at right (north is down). Courtesy the City of Toronto Archives.

Now, in addition to being a tavern-keeper, Alexander pops up in Victorian classifieds as an auctioneer, and the Scarborough Town Council Minutes as a pathmaster (he would’ve helped look after the road). There’s some evidence he may have been a postmaster as well. With all these other occupations, you may be wondering how he found time to work at the Half Way House!

Well…while Alexander got the tavern license every year, Mary probably had the main hand in the day-to-day running. Thinking about taverns as a whole, there’s quite a bit of domestic work. Besides, Alexander dies in 1867, whereupon Mary immediately starts getting the license herself, and running the inn until her own death in 1872. The fact that she was able to take the reins so seamlessly suggests that she knew what she was doing!

If you’re keen to learn more about the Thompson family, drop by one of our History Actors performances. You can see yours truly portraying Delilah Thompson – Mary and Alex’s teenage daughter. Blythe and I have been working very hard on new pieces and programs for summer, and we’re excited to share them!

IMG_3848
And remember: kids get in free this summer, Monday through Friday!

See you in the village!
Katie

“Death in the Pot” – Beer Adulteration in the 1800s

Here at the Black Creek Historic Brewery, our standard roster of beers is made from four ingredients: malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. That’s it, as per tradition, the 1516 Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) and several British Acts of Parliament. (Some of our specialty brews are different—but hey, they’re specialty brews for a reason!)

Frontispiece of Frederick Accum's treatise on the adulteration of food. Found on Archive.org!
Frontispiece of Frederick Accum’s treatise on the adulteration of food. Found on Archive.org!

In the 1800s, however, things could be less cut-and-dried. Adulteration of food and beverage ran rampant in an era before modern regulations, and beer was no exception. I found two treatises from the 1820s bemoaning impurities in their flour, their tea, and their beer. These writers identified some main reasons for adulterating ales:

Increasing intoxicating effects

Basically, the alcohol content is beer is determined by the sugar content (yeast metabolize sugar to alcohol), which is in turn dependent on the proportion of malt you’ve used. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the price of malt spiked. Some brewers, therefore, found other ways to add some “cheer” to your cup.

Opium, poppy extract, and tobacco could all be added to beer to make it feel like you were getting drunk more quickly. More common was cocculus indicus: the fruit of the Indian berry plant: a potent narcotic.

Increasing bitterness

Say you’re a little short on hops. What else can you use? Bitter herbs and plants like aloes, wormwood, horehound, bitter oranges, and quassia (a flowering tree) could all be used to mimic hops’ particular astringency. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with flavouring your beer with herbs—medieval gruit beers took a combination of rosemary, bog myrtle, and sweet rosemary. However, hops contain oils that act as preservatives. Beers made without them simply don’t keep as long.

Colouring dark beers

In the 1820s, brewers were making porters from a blend of brown and pale malts. As mentioned, the Napoleonic Wars increased barley prices—and brewers discovered they could make more wort from pale malts. However, customers expected porters to be dark, and the pale malts weren’t cutting it.

So instead, brewers boiled down sugar to a black colour. Once added to the wort, it would darken it. Burnt treacle and sugar also mimicked the roasted tastes and sweeter finish of a porter. Sugar and molasses could also add fermentable sugars if your grain bill was lacking.

“Aging” beers

In the early modern period through the early 1800s, it was common for brewers to make two types of beer: aged (or “stale”) beer and mild beers. Aged/old beers had a sharper taste, whereas mild beers were…well, milder and a bit sweeter. In taverns, it was quite common to order and serve a mixture of both, but sometimes, unscrupulous brewers and tavernkeepers added a shot of old ales to mild ones in order to “age” them. Apparently, combining assorted dregs and leftovers into a single cask wasn’t unheard of, either!

Now, adulteration was generally slammed as a means of cutting corners and saving costs. But looking to early-nineteenth century Ontario, I wonder if adulteration sometimes resulted from necessity or desperation. Adding molasses when you didn’t have enough barley would result in a higher-alcohol beer, and additives like capsicum might well have helped liven taste when brewing ingredients were scarce (both molasses and capsicum/cayenne were ingredients in Thomas Benson’s ale, incidentally—he seemed unbothered).

While I certainly don’t want opium or tobacco in my beer, I’m all right with a bit of ginger. Maybe even treacle, depending on the style. Then and now, transparency about brewing method and ingredients is the key. 🙂

-Katie