Why Does Craft Beer Hate St. Paddy’s Day?

Eight years on and still we read about the abomination of green beer, the correct spelling of the drunken holiday and holiers than holy insisting Guinness is not what it was. Lecturing. Nothing like keeping it dull, craft. Way to go.

Let’s be honest. It’s a “spring is coming” fest. It’s a “I don’t have to study for final exams quite yet” fest. On the drive in this morning, a lovely sunny morning recovering from the last few days of deep cold and whipping winter storm, I saw two of the local university gits standing at the shoreline,
gazing out upon the head of the St. Lawrence backs to the road wearing matching baseball jerseys, white with green pin stripes. Their jerseys were both numbered “17” and the name above the number was “WASTED” on both. I expect they already were. By noon, they have gathered in herds. Tomorrow I shall rise early, just about when I trust they will be hitting the hay… or the floor… or wherever.

Every seven or sometimes thirteen years, the 17th of March lands on a Friday. You might see ten in a reasonably long life time, fewer in your adult years. One – or two, if you are lucky, at most – during the time of your greatest stupidity as a bar crawler. Short of death or injury, breach of liquor law or crime – is it so bad, craft beer cognoscenti, that the young have their good time? Is it so bad that the beer is green and cheap or that the beards lack moustaches?*

*Well, I never got that facial hair bit but you get my point.

Pity The Canadian Olympian Running Today

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Is there anything sadder than a life’s work geared to one event that gets swept away by another bigger event on short notice? Our national public broadcaster has rightly determined that the last evening of Olympic coverage is going to be restructured and cut in order that we can all watch a live feed of the last concert of the tour by the band The Tragically Hip – because the beloved lead singer with the most Canadian of all names, Gord, is terminally ill. The tour’s final concert being held in the town where I live. The band is from the town where I live. We are expecting over 20,000 extra people to come to our downtown to watch the show on a massive outdoor screen or in one of the bars that will all be simulcasting the TV show. Drinking beer. Lots of beer. Bars will be as packed as for a World Cup final in a football mad land. Rec room beer fridges will be loaded as if the college reunion was on. Because the day is both wonderful and just plain rotten.

The event has taken on a cathartic tone nationally, not so much denying or defying the situation as embracing it in a celebration mixing maturity about mortality with the decision there is nothing else to do but party here in their home town or across the continent’s northwherever we live. Through work I was happily if tangentially involved with small aspects of the preparations but over the last few days I have been wondering what it all means and what the intended collective intoxication, alcoholic or otherwise, says about us all. Roads will be closed. Buses are free and running late into the night to safely accommodate the only response we can offer. Because it’s the natural response to the shock of the unwelcome news.

What are we doing? A joyful wake before the passing? Or just one last chance to be with the band who have helped frame our national character in ways that other countries do not get, whose song “Courage” has become an anthem for facing everything over tears and beers from personal rejection to coping as a nation with the deaths of soldiers in foreign wars. Well, perhaps a few get it, get us. The autonomous city state of Buffalo where Ethan and everyone else at Community Beer Works are paying their respects in fine style, too. Respect.

I hope the overshadowed solo sport Olympian running for Canada far from home understands and fights as hard or harder today.

Who Else Misses Georgian Mass Drinking Events?


A year ago
, we read about certain Georgian era drinking habits of the early decades of the colony of Upper Canada – what is now Ontario. It includes my favorite observations included in Ontario Beer – in fact, one of my favorites in the entire history of drinking in Canada. It is from the events of 12 and, I suppose, 13 August 1827 at Guelph on the celebration of the King’s birthday:

…all sat down and enjoyed a hearty meal. “After the cloth was removed,” toasts were drunk to everybody and every conceivable thing, the liquors, of all imaginable descriptions, being passed round in buckets, from which each man helped himself by means of tin cups, about two hundred of which had been supplied for the occasion… those who remained continued to celebrate the day in an exceedingly hilarious manner, most of them, who had not succumbed to an overpowering somnolency, celebrating the night too, many of them being found next morning reposing on the ground in the market place, in loving proximity to the liquor pails, in which conveniently floated the tin cups…

A particular achievement in Pete Brown’s book on the history of the origins of IPA, the excellent Hops and Glory is how in contextualizing the history of the beer in the history of, you know, history – a rare enough thing in itself – he describes how the Georgians were quite unlike their grand-children, the Victorians. While they were cultural imperialists, they were not exactly racists. Leadership of the East India Company would intermarry into the royal classes of India just as how in mid-1700s upstate New York a man of the status of William Johnsonwould partner with a woman of the status of Molly Brant. We are in a sense as much or more the inheritors of Georgian free-spirited materialism as Victorian clenched paternalism. Maybe. One thing, however, we now definitely miss out on is the Georgian officially sanctioned staggeringly plastered public celebration.

nygaz26may1766strongalepopulace1Consider the celebration described in the newspaper report from 26 May 1766 as set out in the New York Gazette. If you click on the image you will see a bigger image of the first paragraph. A pdf of the whole article is here. A great dinner is described celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act, that most sensible piece of imperial legislation aimed at helping the American colonies pay the cost of their own protection. Ingrates. Anyway, after the dinner twenty-one 
separate toasts were given. No wonder the article begins with the statement that the evening didn’t devolve into the riot and the mob “as is common on such Occasions“! My favorite toast is the fourth one: “may the illustrious house of Hanover preside over the United British Empire to the End of Time.” Not a long time. To the end of time. Such ingrates. The list is important in itself as it arises just before the interests leading to the Revolution are fully severed but what is also interesting is the last bit of the paragraph just below the toasts.

The Cannon belonging to the Province, being placed in the State-House Yard, the Royal Salute was fired on drinking the King, and Seven Guns after every succeeding Toast. The whole concluded in the Evening with Bonfires, Ringing of Bells, and Strong Beer to the Populace, and gave general Satisfaction to every Person concerned…

nygaz12august1751strongagedaleHow was riot avoided? Free smashings of strong beer to the populace? What a time! What a splendid form of government!! And it was not just at state events or events of general public importance. Click on that thumbnail to the left. It’s from the New York Gazette of 12 August 1751 but it describes a celebration of another sort of birthday in England, a twenty-first birthday party held on 25 May that year for the Marquis of Rockingham at Wentworth House in Yorkshire. I grew up in Nova Scotia – first made a British colony just two years before this celebration – where both Rockingham and Wentworth are place names. Look what happens at the party:

Liquors drank that Day were three Hogsheads of Small Beer, 13 Hogsheads of Ale, 20 Hogsheads of Strong Beer, 8 Hogsheads of Punch, and 4 Hogsheads of Port Wine; besides 8 Hogsheads of strong Beer drank the Day following. There were 10,000 Guests in the whole; 3000 of which, or upwards, were entertained in the House; and after they had dined, the Victuals were carried out into the Booths to the Populace who had strong Beer and Ale much as they pleased… The strong Beer was most of it brewed in the Year 1730…

A few years ago, Martyn wrote about these coming of age, twenty-first birthday celebrations and their massive 21 year old beers brewed in the year of a child’s birth to celebrate their future adulthood. In fact when I came across this story I was just going to send it to him… until I read him “there is little or no evidence of 21-year-old ales before the 1770s or 1780s.”* It seems the news of these celebrations at Wentworth House for Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham** might represent a wee advance in brewing history. Maybe. Martyn might already know this. Probably does.

So there you are. Three mass gatherings of Georgians well prepared for and well able to meet the demands of massive public intoxications celebrating joy. I don’t think I could survive even a few hours of it. Damn Victorians.

*Being a wee bugger, I kept it for myself. Well, really, I kept it for this story. I would otherwise have sent it to Martyn, the very best sort of colleague in this beer writing game.
**A man who, if listened to, may have altered history to a greater degree.

A Week Off In April To Get Things Done

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It’s either a sign of a well organized life or one with not enough in it. The spring holiday to get the taxes done, straighten out the gardening, fix the step and have some naps. And opening week baseball. Maybe some first round playoff hockey, too. The one thing I am not doing is writing a book. This time last year I was in the middle of writing three books each of which has turned out to be, err, cult classics. Happy readers. Low sellers. Good reviews. Niche huggers. I should have known. Beer writers are either fat or thin. Both from the same cause – anxtity yips. Told a pal once his mistake was doing for a job what I do for a hobby. Beer may still pay for itself. It just doesn’t take me all that far anymore when it does. That’s fine. Been since 2010 that the prospect of a truly idle summer lay before me. I was reading about brainy books back then five years ago today. Probably gave me ideas. Planting some carrot and lettuce seeds will help with that. Tiny seeds in the cold early spring soil don’t give you ideas. Just salad.

Notes On Turning Into A Book Fair Carny, Etc

nowayI had not expected to make myself into a book fair carny but forty-five quiet minutes into the four hour book booth manning at last weekend’s NY State Brewers Association Festival I looked at Craig and said something to the effect of “we better think of something quick or we are going to hate each other around three hours from now.” It’s not that the fest wasn’t swell so much as it was a beer fest, not a book fest. So… I stood up and began to shout “GETCHA BEER BOOKS… GETCHA BEER BOOK HERE!!!” until I was quite hoarse. Sales picked up rapidly. And they continued to pick up as folk drank more beer. So, two tips for the beer book selling public for the price of this one post: (i) act like an idiot and (ii) act like an idiot in front of folks getting drunk. Which leads me to a few other thoughts:

=> “To grangerize: to illustrate with material taken from other published sources, such as by clipping them out for one’s own use.” Isn’t this what beer blogging really is?
=> Thirty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents!?!? I am sure some young aspiring consulting craft beer mixed revenue dreamer has a grab bag of cliches by which such things are justified but… thirty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents!?!? Seen at the Cicero, NY Wegman’s grocery store.
=> Chad was more sensible. He had some beer, too. I just shouted a lot.
=> I consider the fear of sweetness and the denigration of crystal malt to be hallmarksof this era which shall be mocked in the new future after the paradigm collapses. But I can say that about a lot of things.
=> I have no idea about how many pubs or taverns represents a crawl but some people have very fixed ideas. Having done one, as one must, by taxi in Toronto in the last year I would accept a walking four-stop crawl in two small neighbouring villages myself.
=> Words that beer bloggers might have recently chosen not to use: intended, unravelling, instantly.
=> My answer? Use the machines – whether you own them or not? You’re a “brewery” while the others can use “brewing” or “beer company” or something else.

There. Monday notes. It’s thawing out there. We are a long way from warm but the dripping roof has created the driveway trickle which leads to the gurgling roadside drain.

Certain Georgian Drinking Habits In Pre-Reform Upper Canada

lbotAs a careful reader of this blog may have picked up, I have a certain preference for the pre-lager pre-Victorian world of British Empire beer – if only because it’s so widely ignored. As beer writers and nano brewers are now painfully aware, too many claims against too little content makes for thin rewards. Always best to specialize where no generalists have yet trod as far as I’m concerned. In our book Ontario Beer, Jordan and I came across many such areas of unexplored history – much to our surprise. Turned out that no only had the province’s brewing history been little explored but there was no set of competing books, no library shelf filled with books even on the topic of this colony and province’s general history. A shame. But a gap we were happy to take some small steps to help fill.

Through our research, one thing I really came to understand was how what is now Ontario not only has a Victorian past but also Georgian, Stuart and even Baroque ones. One favorite book I came across was The Annals of the Town of Guelph, 1827-1877 by Charles Acton Burrows. In that book there are a few passages, one of which I mentioned here, that describe the pre-lager pre-Victorian drinking habits on the Upper Canadian frontier. Here is a more complete description of the events of 12 August 1827 at Guelph:

It was now the month of August, and the 12th being the king’s birthday, and also the anniversary of the formation of the Canada Company, he determined to celebrate it by a general holiday and public dinner….On the Monday morning the town was in a state of the greatest excitement, it being determined to roast an ox whole on the market place, and have a right jovial time generally, in which they appear to have succeeded. Early in the morning four huge posts, which remained as a memento for many years, were let into the ground, from which, by means of logging chains, the carcase was suspended, an immense log fire being kindled on each side. While the ox was roasting a large number of guests, who had been specially invited by Mr. Galt to take part in the festivities… When dinner time had arrived the roasted ox was carried into the market house, and placed upon a strong table, where it was carved ,and the guests, to the number of about two hundred, enjoyed a right royal feast… the first thing to be done to lend an air of refinement to the meal, was to provide forks, which each man did for himself, by going to the lumber pile and selecting or cutting a suitable stick, whitling a fork out of it with his jack knife, which indispensable article every man of course had with him, and with which he afterwards cut up his beef. Plates being somewhat scarce, and the few possessed in the town being far too valuable to risk at such a gathering, each selected as clean a shingle as possible, from the pile, which remained after the market house roof had been finished, and with keen appetites all sat down and enjoyed a hearty meal. “After the cloth was removed,” toasts were drunk to everybody and every conceivable thing, the liquors, of all imaginable descriptions, being passed round in buckets, from which each man helped himself by means of tin cups, about two hundred of which had been supplied for the occasion…

…those who remained continued to celebrate the day in an exceedingly hilarious manner, most of them, who had not succumbed to an overpowering somnolency, celebrating the night too, many of them being found next morning reposing on the ground in the market place, in loving proximity to the liquor pails, in which conveniently floated the tin cups. This celebration was taken hold of by the fault finders, not on account of the quantity of liquor consumed, for that was a mere trifle in those days, and an indispensable adjunct to such an occasion, but because they asserted that the health of Sir Peregrine Maitland, the Lieutenant Governor, had been omitted from the list of toasts.

And here is another from the celebration of the laying of the foundation of the community’s first school house:

A few fights brought the public proceedings to a close, when the elite adjourned to the Priory, where a dinner on a somewhat grand scale had been prepared. Mr. Galt presided, the vice chair being filled by Dr. Dunlop, and about eighty guests being present. What followed the removal of the cloth it is not necessary particularly to describe, but

“The nicht giew on wi sangs an clatter,
“An* aye the ale was growing better,”

As the “wee sma hours” approached some of the guests grew a little pugnacious, and Thomas Brown, the father of Miss Letitia, acting as constable pro tem, was called on to quell the disturbance, and in his attempts to restore peace had his hand badly cut by a carving knife in the hands of one of the rioters. He was consequently disabled from working for some time, and was therefore appointed to the honorable position of “grog boss” among the Company’s workmen, the duties of which he filled to the entire satisfaction of the men.

Such times. Such foreign times. Dr. William “Tiger” Dunlop is among my favorite early Ontarians. He was born in my father’s home city of Greenock so I was raised on stories of his life… or at least I was in the room when things were stated even if I only paid half the attention I should have. In 1827-28 when the stories above unfolded, Dr. Dunlop is in his third year as a senior official of the Canada Company. John Galt is the enterprise’s founder, corporate secretary and first superintendent. When these men were carving farming settlements out of the forest which had fed the Ojibwe who had lived there, here was a great deal of strong drink in Upper Canada – including a wide range of ales if you could get your hands on them. As we noted in the book, the roads were bad and beer was heavy. Much of it was strong. Thirty years later, in 1858, courts ruled in nearby New York that lager was not intoxicating because of its lack of a strength. Which means what came before most likely was quite intoxicating.

All of which is presented to you in response to one point Jordan made in relation to his recent and by all accounts excellent recreation of an 1832 mild ale from Helliwell‘s, a brewery located in what is now Toronto. In his weekly article, Jordan also states that the function of the 9.1% beer was its caloric strength and

it explained why Helliwell only ever mentions having “a glass of beer” in his diaries. Two of them would put your lights out.

This my only quibble. While Helliwell the brewer may have liked a glass and the calories were important, I am pretty sure that what we now consider intemperate drinking was common and socially acceptable – even perhaps socially required and welcomed. Soon, the scales would tilt as the new settlers become established and by the 1850s are creating a middle class with its new values and interest in spawning reforms. Temperance starts to become a measure of one’s virtue. But even at the highest levels it is many decades before that is the new normal. Even in the mid-1860s, Canada’s founder Sir. John A. Macdonald, whose law career began in the last Georgian years, led a debate on constitutional changes needed to bring Confederation into being while being “on a spree” and “half drunk” as well as “quite drunk with potations of ale.” It is hard to imagine a century and a half later. It is probably good that it is hard to imagine. But there is every reason to understand that a fair share of those who created this create land were half schgoggled from what can only be considered wild-eyed barrel draining a significant part of the time.

Thank God for the temperance movement. It saved us all from our forefathers’ ways. Jordan has more of the story in his new book Lost Breweries of Toronto. You really need the whole set, right?

Considering The Role Of Ale On This Canada Day

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Nine years ago, back around those heady days of political blogging, I wrote a series of posts on a fictitious Atlantic Canadian separation movement focused on a mde-up new capital called Tantrama City. One post set out details of the Canada Day celebrations under the new governmental order and featured the photo of Neil and Larry above. I have no idea who these guys are but I love it. It may be the most Canadian image I have ever seen. The nutty bow ties in the national colours, Neil’s boring earnest shirt and Larry drinking a Bud. And the fact they don’t give a crap and are just having a good time.

Is there a Peru Day or a Norway Day? Canada Day is such a politely bland concept but, this being a confederation with lingering prickly regional identities, it suits us. We are the country that cancels recreations of historic events. Why recall past unhappinesses? What we remember in particular is the formation of one semi-autonomous colony out of three in 1867 (or was it four… Canada was sort of split into Canada East and Canada West but had formerly been separately Lower Canada and Upper Canada from 1791 to 1841), two of the invitee colonies not joining in until six (PEI) and eighty-two (Newfoundland) years later. My particular part of the nation remembers the events with mixed emotions.

So, on this we day celebrate the fourth version of Canada after the one that was otherwise a bit chunk of New France up to 1760, then the one with the Upper and the Lower, then the one that didn’t work from 1841 to 1867. And maybe the one from 1763 to 1791, too. OK, maybe this is the fifth Canada. Most of all we recall the man who is attributed with bringing the four colonies together, Sir John A MacDonald. Larry and Neil might well have been making a joke or two about him – as the founder of a large part (but not all) of our current constitutional structure (yes, it is a bit messy) was a bit of a drinker. A bit of one. Consider this description of one of the planning sessions from the pre-Confederation years:

“…The Council was summoned for twelve and shortly after that we were all assembled but John A. We waited for him till one – till half past one – till two – and then Galt sent off to his house specially for him. Answer – will be here immediately. Waited till half past two – no appearance. Waited till three and shortly after, John A. entered bearing symptoms of having been on a spree. He was half drunk. Lunch is always on the side table, and he soon applied himself to it – and before we had well entered on the important business before us he was quite drunk with potations of ale.” But, after two and a half hours of debate, the wound up their discussions of the constitutional changes and agreed on the course to be followed…”

So, we are a nation imagined and brought into being by a drunk. That is the story we are told. Historian Ged Martin in 2006 published this detailed study of the record of Macdonald’s drinking patterns which both confirms the fantastic level of consumption, his personal struggles as well as the possible causes. It is a very sympathetic piece. If they read it, I am sure Larry and Neil would like him more… and raise another beer to the nation imagined mid-spree thanks to potations of ale. They’d probably raise an American one come to think of it. But only if it was the nearest one. We are not that fussy.

May Two-Four And Our Well-Wishing To The Crown

bobdoug1Even though it is just the 17th of May, this weekend is nicknamed May Two-Four. It is Canada’s non-much-observed celebration of the lass who was Queen Victoria. Monday is still called Victoria Day. It also has a quiet subtext of somehow being the celebration of the present Queen’s birthday. If those are the dimming antecedents, the once glowing purposes of the day – they are doubly wrong. Our current absentee monarch was born on an April 21st. Vicky was born in May 24th but, as you may note, that is not today’s date.

And yet this is the weekend of May Two-Four. Not next weekend which contains the twenty-fourth day of May. This one. Why? Because a two-four is the name of a cardboard case of 24 bottles of beer. Twenty-four 12 ounce bottles is that unit that is beyond personal consumption. It implies either sharing or duration. A long warm weekend is apt for both. And gardening and fireworks. Because we have no real remaining cultural focus on this long weekend, unlike any other long Canadian weekend, we are now free to create our own. So we think about drink in itself. We just enjoy ourselves.

It was not always so. In the course of co-writing one book on the history of beer in Ontario and another on Albany, I have written about three drink laced celebrations of the Monarch’s birthday in 1755, 1776 and 1828. As I mentioned the other week, Sir William Johnson supplied the Royal loyal allies of the monarchy, the Mohawk nation of central New York, with beer during the Seven Years War – aka the French and Indian War. One of those deliveries, as noted at page 572, was on June 4, 1755 when he obtained two barrels of beer from Hendrik Fry for the Mohawk at Conajoharee to drink to toast the birthday of George III. As I wrote a year ago, Craig and I located the scene of the drunken tavern brawl 21 years later in Albany which finally ripped that city’s Tories and Patriots apart triggered by overly vigorous toasting to the King. Perhaps my favorite Royal birthday celebration in British North American happened about half a century later. As you will see in Ontario Beer, at a celebration of the King George IV’s birthday hosted by the Canada Company on 12 August 1828, 200 settlers gathered at what is now Guelph when it was at the point where the forest met the clearing of fields. A whole ox was roasted held over the fire with logging chains. As there were few utensils, most of it was eat off of wooden shingle plates with a stick for a fork. After the eating was done:

…toasts were drunk to everybody and every conceivable thing, the liquors of all imaginable descriptions being passed round in buckets from which each man helped himself by means of tin cups…

It is recorded that many were found the next morning reposing on the ground in the marketplace “in loving proximity to the liquor pails.”

Now, I am not suggesting we take our Canadian admiration of the Crown to that point. But… it is a proud tradition. It brought together peoples as loyal allies, insulted our treacherous enemies and celebrated the new frontier in our new homeland. If I had my druthers, that would be what we celebrate today. Not so much the Crown or a particular monarch but the loyal pioneers who defended the cause and created the nation. And drank like idiots as they did and because they did. Because we are like that.

I Have No Irish In Me And Don’t Drink On Sundays

This is a difficult date on the calendar for me. Like in many places, the Irish, lapsed or otherwise, and their fellow travelers in small town eastern Ontario have gathered and tightly packed themselves into traditional bars like the Douglas Tavern or the Tweedsmuir drinking macro lager dyed green and/or Guinness and/or whatever else is going. But I am not of them. Scots me. These celebrations can get quite elaborate and have been mentioned in our national Parliament. They seem to rival the… err… passion seen in the larger urban St. Paddy’s events in US centers like Syracuse where it lasts so long it forms its own season. The day seems to serve the need for a New Year’s Eve party ten weeks after that hammering of the brain cells – and one with less of the pretense, more of the getting pickled for being legitimately pickled sake.

I say legitimately as these descendants of the Irish in this part of North America embrace themselves and the generations before them through this ritual. Me? It’s been tea and water for me today. A Saturday even. I am being sensible, see. Sensible. Four years ago, I called for the embracing of March 17th by the fans of good beer. Things may have changed. From the Twitter feeds and Google news items floating by good beer fans seem to be rejecting rejection. And some craft brewers are getting into the day. Beaus, as Bryan recently noted, has a seasonal beer out now called Strong Patrick. Are there others? Why not? If ever there was a reason to brew a seasonal beer it is in response to a season focused on beer. One problem, however, is that craft beer has somewhat abandoned standard Irish stout. As Andy noted last fall, it was the least competitive category at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival. Imperial Irish reds are all very fine in their way but why not make an Irish dry stout for when the Irish are dry? I might even join in.