Ontario: 1600’s Hudson Bay Company Arctic Ale

image_thumb83So, we are working through the final draft of the history of beer in Ontario and I realize something has been staring me right in the face for quite a while now. Here is the passage in question:

The early ships’ crews considered its beer of great importance and even survival. In 1668-69, the crew of the Nonesuch over wintered on the James Bay coast and reported upon their return:

…they were environed with ice about 6 monethes first halting theire ketch on shore, and building them a house. They carried provisions on shore and brewd Ale and beere and provided against the cold which was their work…

See what I missed that was sitting right before my eyeballs? They brewed ale and beer. The news was reported in issue 408 of The London Gazette, too. Not that they made both ale and beer but that they survived a winter in the Canadian Arctic. The Nonesuch was small and tough, custom picked to both survive the trip to the edge of the known world and be hauled out of the water to avoid the crush of ice. Only 53 feet long, a replica can be found in a museum in Manitoba. Manitoba? Yes, well, after the British Parliament’s Canada (Ontario Boundary) Act of 1889 introduced a boundary that divided the former Rupert’s Land that included the watershed of the big bay, including much of what became Ontario’s north.

Got it? Wonderful. But let’s get back to the point. They made two things to drink. Two fermented beverages. Why? You are stuck in a situation that may as well be the dark side of the moon, you have cleverly brought a survival space pod as well as sufficient supplies (think food in tubes) to make it though the six months of frozen horror… and you make two types of booze? Why the heck do you do that? Well, just a century and a generation before the voyage, the benefits of ale was described in 1542 by the physician Andrew Boorde in his book A Dyetary of Helth. The key was conveniently referenced by Martyn this week: “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke.” Yet he is also the man who wrote:

If it do come by an hurt in the head, there is no remedy but pacience of all partes. If it do come by debilite of the brayne & head, drynke in the mornynge a dyshe of mylke, vse a Sirupe named Sh’upus acetosus de prunis, and vse laxatiue meates, and purgacions, if nede do requyre, and beware of superuflous drynkynge, specially of wyne and stronge ale and beere, and if anye man do perceuye that he is dronke, let hym take a vomite with water and oyle, or with a fether…

….so it is hard to know what to believe. Especially if you remember what Pepys said folk on ships got up to when they were on the ale on April 30th, 1660:

After that on board the Nazeby, where we found my Lord at supper, so I sat down and very pleasant my Lord was with Mr. Creed and Sheply, who he puzzled about finding out the meaning of the three notes which my Lord had cut over the chrystal of his watch. After supper some musique. Then Mr. Sheply, W. Howe and I up to the Lieutenant’s cabin, where we drank, and I and W. Howe were very merry, and among other frolics he pulls out the spigot of the little vessel of ale that was there in the cabin and drew some into his mounteere, and after he had drank, I endeavouring to dash it in his face, he got my velvet studying cap and drew some into mine too, that we made ourselves a great deal of mirth, but spoiled my clothes with the ale that we dashed up and down. After that to bed very late with drink enough in my head.

Is that what they were doing with that ale up there in the Arctic in 1668? My heavens.

Two Wooden English Tankards From The 1500s


A few months ago, I referenced a wooden tankard that had been found on Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, as part of my review of Mitch Steele’s book IPA. I didn’t clue into one aspect of the tankard until I read this story about another similar wooden tankard from the 1500s found last year in the mud of the River Thames as described in this story posted at the Museum of London’s website:

It is comparable in shape to a modern beer mug, however, this tankard holds three pints. Was it used to carry beer from the barrel to the table or, was this someone’s personal beer mug? The quantity of liquid held in the tankard and markings suggesting it once had a lid, may indicate that it once served as a decanter. However, the lack of a spout seems to contradict this theory. The only other items that are contemporary and similar in appearance come from the Mary Rose, although the Mary Rose examples carry 8 pints.

1500stankard2Eight pints!! That is otherwise known as a gallon. Click on the picture to the right for a full version of the Mary Rose tankard.  Notice how it appears to have straps of split branches rather than metal. Notice also how the photo above of the three pint tankard neatly illustrates how the handle shape likely indicates there was a lid just as on the Mary Rose tankard. Otherwise, why does the handle rise up above the rim as it does? Nothing like the well applied use of scientific photography in the cause of drinking vessel description accuracy by Murray Saunders for the Daily Mail and the unnamed photographer in the Wharf article. Perhaps a guild of their own is in order.

Speculation goes on that these large vessels may have been used as jugs but I wonder. Not only is there no spout, obviously a known technology in those times but it presumes very odd handling of the beer. Barrel to jug to mug. Why not just barrel to mug? B => M is better than B => J => M technology as it needs no staff person as middleman. No waiter. Why wouldn’t these sailors just be lined up daily and given their full gallon, the measure for consumption throughout day? It’s not like they are sitting in a pub as they drank the stuff. Besides, ship’s beer was weak. And anyway, serving jugs had a different shape.

The State Of English Fuel And Malt In 1593-ish

tudorbeer1Ah, the 1500s. Remember them? They were great. Jeff’s comments yesterday got me thinking about causes for changes like the introduction of coke in the early 1600s and its application in malting at mid-century. See, there is this idea that goes well beyond brewing history that somehow folk in the past were dim and ate poorly that casts a shadow on the idea that coke was introduced to make pale malt and while Jeff didn’t speak to that, the temptation to reverse the clock and make chronology run backwards can be seen at play. I don’t believe any of it. For the most part, folk didn’t sit around glum at the state of their technology wishing for a better tomorrow. They were pretty much as clever as we are just that they operated within a construct of technology and knowledge that differed from us. No? Well, just don’t be thinking what the future will make of us, then.

What was the English speaking beery world like over four centuries ago? In his “Dietary” of 1542, Andrew Boorde made himself clear about what he considered was the best ale:

“Ale is made of malte and water; and they the which do put any other thynge to ale than is rehersed, except yest, barm, or goddesgood doth sophysicat there ale. Ale for an Englysshe man is a naturall drinke. Ale muste have these properties, it muste be fresshe and cleare, it must not be ropy, nor smoky, nor it must have no wefte nor tayle. Ale shulde not be dronke under .V. dayes olde. Barly malte maketh better ale than Oten malte or any other corne doth…

Not smoky. Interesting. In the latter 1500s we are still in the world of beer and ale with beer being very much the newcomer on the block. In the 1550s, beer is a manly burly drink while ale is for the ladies and young. By 1577, it is described as being for the old and ill.¹ Malt markets were part of the weekly cycle of life. In York:

…the 16th century the malt market was held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, near St. Martin’s Church in Coney Street; the hours of sale to citizens and foreigners were regulated and a bell rung to announce its opening. It was permissible for malt to be brought into the city on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays if it had already been sold.

Note that it is a market for sales to citizens by maltsters coming into that city. In Elizabethan England was less than five million and Stratford upon Avon had just about about 1,500 inhabitants. A report in the town’s records by Shakespeare’s local pal still living there, Richard Quyney, gives a contemporary picture of the important role of malt: “Auncient in thys trade of malteinge & have [sic] ever served to Burmingham from whence, Walles, Sallopp, Stafforde, Chess. & Lanke allso are served.” Stratford is a regional malt hub with an extended reach. Quyney also noted a downside of this community asset:

….houses made to noe other use then maltinge’ and complains that the town is “deceived by reson of contreye malte kylnes wch make ther owne Benifytt in malting ther Barley att home, wch usuallie was Brought to be solde att or m’kett & ther made & converted to malte.” A survey taken in 1598, a year of high prices and great distress, shows that 75 persons, probably a third of the more substantial householders in the borough, had stores of malt on their premises, amounting in all to 696 quarters, while 30 of them had also 65 quarters of grain of various kinds…. Of the malt returned in the survey of 1598 rather less than two-thirds is classed as townsmen’s malt; the remainder, 250 quarters, is strangers’ malt.

The “strangers” storing their malt included many leading citizens from the neighbouring region. In a time of famine, this stockpiling in Stratford was not welcome and a resident of Stratford invited the Earl of Essex, a favorite of the Queen, to come to the town and restore commercial order by having the maltsters hanged “on gibbetts att their owne dores.”² Sounds like speculation going on. Why? In that same decade, use of malt for home use is being restricted due to a lucrative market export market for English beer having been established.³ There is now a developing opportunity for making money in brewing and malting at a scale.

In addition to pressure from investors and speculators, there was something of a crisis in malt and fuel supplies as far back as the mid-1500s:

…the forests around York had greatly diminished and receded. Chiefly for this reason the malt kilns were in 1549 closed for two years and a survey of disforestation for eight miles around was instituted. At this time, too, the commons included the dearness of fuel in their bill of grievances and the M.P.s were asked to seek a commission from the king to check disforestation.

The crisis of English deforestation led to a search for fuel alternatives and the main alternative was coal. The timber crisis was most acute in England from about 1570 to 1630 during which making coke from coal was invented. The vast majority¹¹ of coal, however, was not appropriate for malting. Unlike the best malt from wood kilns, coal would be worse than smoky, it would be fouled. Which, when you have a population needing beer as well as new speculating investors wanting beer to export is not good.

So where does that get us? To a world around 1600 where traditional pale malt making continues using diminishing resources including wood but also wheat-straw, rye-straw, barley-straw or oaten-straw… and, if it is all you have, dried ferns. In 1642, an entire contemporarylifetime later, coke – only conceived of as a product derived from coal in 1603 – is first used to make pale malt without the traditional bio-mass. Was it actually due to the need to “invent” smoke-free pale ale? Not really. But greater volumes of pale ale would have become available. Was it due to the opportunity to invest in brewing to maximize the export opportunity as part of a larger reordering of society and resources? Probably. Tensions from the middling gentry, the rise of non-conformity, English colonization of America and trade with other parts of the world took all off at this same time, creating the world we live in today. But, really, the shift to malting with coke occurred because there was no choice. The forests and other sources of bio-mass were disappearing fast.

¹See A History of Beer and Brewing by Ian S. Hornsy, (RSC, 2003) at page 353.
² See Shakespeare’s Professional Career by Peter Thomson, page 10.
³ See Honsey at page 351. Also there were objections to the number of malt-kilns in York according to “The Tudor economy and pauperism“, footnote 31 at British History Online: “Richard Layton told Cromwell in 1540 that the demand for malt played into the hands of corn regraters and also caused every idle knave in York to get an alehouse, so impairing honest trade.” A regrater was a middleman, a retailer, a taker of a slice.
¹¹In the late 1880s, a grade of Welsh coal was called “best malting coal” due to it having less than 1% sulphur, 0% arsenic and very low ash. One business listing from 1881 from a Swansea merchant claims: Carvill Bros. (& importers), 34 Merchants quay, Drysdale G.A. (best malting coal as supplied to many of the largest maltsters, brewers and distillers in the kingdom. Prices quoted delivered in truck loads to any railway station in England, also f. o. b. at Swansea, or delivered to any port, including cost, freight, and insurance ; exporter of best lime burning & hop drying anthracite coal) ­ Address, Mailing Coal Offices, Swansea.

My Most Interesting Discovered Drinky Thing Of 2011


This has been a year that I have thought about history a bit more than others. Canadian history for the most part. We make great mistakes in considering our own time on this land. We dismiss the First Nations. We pretend that Canada began when the current constitution was signed in 1867. But Canada has been populated for thousands of years and Europeans have been nibbling at the edges for the best part of a millennium. Vikings lived in northern Newfoundland back then. In 1674, the Hudson’s Bay Company was importing malt and hops into the Arctic. But this year I came across another couple of fact that I found most interesting in this report. It’s in the bibliography:

ROSS, L. (1980) – 16th-Century Spanish Basque Coopering Technology: A Report of the Staved Containers Found in 1978-1979 on the Wreck of the Whaling Galleon San Juan, Sunk in Red Bay, Labrador, 1565. Manuscript Report Series.Ottawa. 408.

See that? 1565. And the other thing? Staved containers. I have found West Country seasonal fishermen recorded as importing malt as part of their seasonal businesses packing salt cod for the Iberian market in the 1630s. How far before that did the practice occur? Peter E. Pope in his book Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century explains that there was a regular practice of travel each spring from Elizabethan England to what is now eastern Canada for this fishing trade. It is inconceivable that these men in the 1500s did not ship malt, too. That they did not pack drinks in casks for the voyage here and back, too.

But where are the records? Where are the records for Albany ale for that matter like Taylor’s brewing books? Or early Ontario beer? That’s the thing. The records. In overseeing the OCB wiki, it has already become a little bit of a jostle over which record is the one to be trusted. Yet there is the tantalizing possibility that in the later half of the 1500s on cool spring days on the Newfoundland shore, men made beer for themselves many decades before the first beer was thought made in this country. There is a phrase for those whose families went on in places like Ferryland to shift to year round residence: masterless men. Don’t you think they might have made themselves a little beer?

Mmm… What I Need Is A Big Bowl Of Thick Beer!

flemish1I knew this. I think I knew this anyway:

“This process is much like how you would do in a fourth-grade germination science project, where the grains would be soaked in water for about 24 hours, drained and then laid between sheets of cloth until they sprouted,” said Amanda Mummert, an anthropology graduate student helping Armelagos with his research. After germination, the grains were dried and then milled into a flour used to make bread. Streptomyces bacteria most likely entered the beer-making process either during the storage or drying of the grain or when the bread dough was left to rise. Nubian brewers would take the dough and bake it until it developed a tough crust, but retained an almost raw center. The bread was broken into a vat containing tea made from the unmilled grains. The mixture was then fermented, turning it into beer. The final product didn’t look much like the pint of amber you sip at your local watering hole. “When we talk about this ancient Egyptian beer, we’re not talking about Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Armelagos said. “What we’re talking about is a kind of cereal gruel.”

I knew that. Not that bacteria stuff. No, not that. Forget all that medical properties stuff. Look at that word “gruel”! I think there was reference to the thickness of 1500s gruel beer back in Martyn’s Beer: The Story of The Pint which I am surprised to now read that I blogged about seven and a half years ago. There is stuff in Hornsey about beer as gruel as well. Boozy porridge. So, how is it when we are presented with these supposedly authentic ancient beers, well, they pours like water or least an IPA?

More to the point, don’t you want to try some breakfast gruel beer? Couldn’t we make it like it was enjoyed back then? Not the contemporary southern African version for 12 to 20 but the big vat whole dang community serving sized pot o’ Quaker Oats meets Budweiser. If we look again at “Village Kermis With Theater and Procession” by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (discussed in in 2007 in terms of the pub game in the lower left) we see in the lower center the making of a big mess of something being sucked back by the crowd, right across the street from the joint I’d guess was the tavern. Have a look at the painting Bruegel maybe ripped off and the detail is even better. I am not suggesting we need to get all deep about this stuff but does anyone do a village kermis with gruel booze anymore – other than, say, in rural Romanian where I am pretty sure I will never find myself? Would people folk to such a legitimate recreation as much as for another thinly veiled faux stab at brand buffing? Apparently the children’s games scholars are already at it.

Book Review: A History of Brewing in Holland 900 – 1900

hbhI started reading my copy of A History of Brewing in Holland 900-1900: Economy, Technology and the State by UBC professor Richard W. Unger, published in 2001. Careful readers will recall that I had ached after this book ever since I reviewed his 2004 publication Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance but was a bit depressed about the sticker price of this one. Divine (or at least professorial) intervention, however, landed me the prize of a review copy.

I am only about 70 pages in – up to the 1400s – and am fascinated all over again by the precision and detail of the research yet also by how readable Unger makes understanding his work. So far, in a nutshell, he has taken medieval tax and shipping records and then traces how the semi-autonomous cities and towns within and neighbouring the Low Countries produced traded and consumed beer. He shows how Holland’s success in leveraging the new fangled hop that arrived from the south-eastern North Sea shipping trade in the 1300s led to the replacement of gruit as a flavouring in beer, triggered a shift in taxation and public regulation while expanding commerce through the ability of hops to stabilize the beer to allow it travel farther while maintaining its good condition. This portion of the book mirrors some of what was included more detail in his other book – for example, how taxes were based first on granting a monopoly to supplying an ingredient (ie counts farming to local towns the right to control the gruit trade) then on the production of beer (excise tax based on production provided more than 50% of Lieden’s revenue in the early 1400s) then on control of shipping of beer (through tolls, holding periods for trans-shipped casks and special import duties). The general information on the medieval economy is also interesting – like the fact that the Black Plague led to the marketplace for labour after it passed through as the survivors could decide what to do with their skills and thereby their lives.

I will add to this post as I move through the book but, again, I am struck how I would love to find a current text of this detailed quality in relation to the economics of English, American or any other region’s brewing but, other than Hornsey’s more scientific and encyclopedic A History of Beer and Brewing, know of none.

Book Review: A History of Beer and Brewing, Ian S. Hornsey

I have been working thought my review copy of this 632 page paperback published by the Royal Society of Chemistry for the best part of a month now. It is fascinating. Likely the best book on beer I have ever read. Clear, comprehensive and incredibly well-researched, this book contextualized beer and related beverages in the cultural and scientific world contemporary to any given era from pre-historic cave dwellers to the modern era and CAMRA. Yes, insert your joke of convenience now…

It is this latter aspect, the context, that really is a treat. As we learn how beer and brewing evolved, we also learn about about such things as potting techniques, movements of peoples across continents as well as how scientific advances such as in the Enlightenment came about. I had no idea that Ancient Egypt was pretty much a society on the bottle all of the time or that the Stuarts in the 1600s were the originators of much of the alcohol related law that still exists today – including taxing drinking as a mechanism for reducing drunkenness…outside of the Egyptian-esque Court of King James I, that is.

This is such an expansive work that it is really hard to write a review of this length. It has a certain scale others I have read do not. For example, Hornsey describes 15 different peoples between the Israelites and the Celts over almost 50 pages to trace the likely route of beer making from its birthplace in Egypt and Babylon to north-eastern Europe and Britain at the time of Christ. In addition to such anthropology, there is plenty of archaeobotany where the stuff in the pot found in the grave or the newly uncovered early medieval basement as well as review of primary documentary sources going back to the beginning of writing. Also, this is a peer-reviewed sort of scientific text which both adds to its trustworthy completeness compared to some of the recent pop histories on beer as well as to its practical status as a benchmark against which other histories are measured. For the casual reader, it should serve as either a dispute settler in itself or at least as a pointer, though its extensive bibliography, to most solutions to the questions that can arise between nerds.

I may think of more to add later as I get through the last third of the book but I can leave it here by saying this is the best history I have encountered to date.

Reason #17 As To Why We Need Sponsorships


This is what I am talking about. I would love to get a copy of this book but – wow! – one hundred and fifty-four clams. Don’t get me wrong. A History of Brewing in Holland 900-1900: Economy, Technology and the State by Richard W. Unger (2001) would fit very nicely beside his next following text Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance reviewed back here with great gusto. In have a review request in to the publisher in Holland but am not holding my breath given that it is five years old. Yet access to this sort of research is vital to the workings of A Good Beer Blog.

So should you see an ad pop up sometime, this is why. Just saying.

Book Review: Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

ungerFinding this, for the beer nerd who also likes book with footnotes, is something of a moment, a wee glimpse of nirvana. The author, Richard W. Unger, is a professor of the history of the medieval period from the University of British Columbia who has also written texts about shipping and brewing from the perspective of pre-1800 Holland. Serious writing about a topic that deserves a serious approach.

What can I say about this? First, it cost me 75 bucks at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. Like any academic text with a short run and a limited market, it is not a cheap book. And, if you do not think you are going to find something interesting in the discussion of the effects of 15th century taxation policy on North Sea coastal trade, well, maybe this is not going to be the book for you. But if the idea of a seventeen and a half page bibliography of source material on medieval brewing – not to mention thirty-nine pages of endnotes – is your type of reading, well this is the book for your next holiday weekend.

Really, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is not so much about beer as the effect of the hop on trade in beer which caused the first industrial revolution in beer through the southern North Sea trade routes from roughly 1350 to 1550 – the second being triggered by the porter boom of roughly 1760 to 1840. The main concept is quite simple actually. Hops preserved beer. Once beer is preservable and can last more than a few days, long enough to be moved, then it will be moved and sold for a premium price as a luxury item. After it comes to be understood, it will then be copied as a local product which over time drives out the previous locally made unhopped ale. Later, it loses out to the next following luxury items as well as a general economic downturn both of which conspire to lowers its central role in the economy.

Unger traces the development of trade in beer largely with a focus on the Low Countries through analysis of tax records, municipal by-laws, guild creation, shipping records and other evidences of the huge role beer played in medieval society. He does so aware of the vastly different context in which beer is places in contemporary culture. This the first paragraph of the book’s preface illustrates that distinction neatly:

The mention of the history of beer always brings a laugh or at the very least a snicker. The histoty of beer for most people is not a serious topic of study. It seems to them frivolous and hardly worth more than a few diverting minutes of anyone’s time. Beer, after all, is a drink for leisure, for young people, generally men, and associated with sports and student life. That perception of beer is a case of historical myopia, of an inability of many people at the beginning of the twenty-first century to convince of a world different from their own. The prevailing presentism makes it difficult for many to comprehend a world where beer was a necessity, a part of everyday life, a drink for everyone of any age or status, a beverage for all times of the day from breakfast to dinner and into the evening.

Not to worry that you will not appreciate how this detailed focus on a relatively short period as Unger leads you into the medieval with a description of fermented drinks of preceeding periods and also carries on after the main discussion showing how innovations in the gin and wine trades as well as the tropical beverages of tea, coffee and cocoa replaced beer in may social settings and therefore in the economy.

I may add a bit to this later but suffice it to say if you enjoy a good read about the history of beer and have read more popular histories like Beer: The Story of the Pint or Man Walks into a Pub, I would say it is time to take on this more purely academic text.