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.

The Best Christmas Present For Ontario Ever?

I hadn’t thought of an attack on Ontario’s beer retailing weirdness from the Federal level but that may be just what is lining up for 2014:

A spokesperson for the Competition Bureau confirmed Friday that it’s “currently examining the differences between the beer industries in Ontario and Quebec and exploring the effect that these differences have on competition in each province….” “The bureau chose to focus on the beer industry as there have been a number of conflicting reports as to why the price of beer varies between Ontario and Quebec,” Phil Norris, a spokesperson for the Competiton Bureau, said via email. Sources told Global News Beer Store officials and others have been interviewed by the bureau. Regulators were “collecting information from industry participants,” Norris said.

Collecting information? I suppose if the mandate is limited to assessing a nutty regulatory system’s effect on pricing one must make a study of the obvious. As Jordan has detailed, the pricing arguments may not be all they appear but for me that is not the point. I have no interest in limiting my choice when it comes to my shopping whether for beer, cheese, shoes or books or anything. I buy at least half my beer ever the course of the year in Quebec or the USA. I’ve gotten the occasional wee lectures from overly eager border guards telling me I should not buy in the States but, really, when you allow yourself to take consumer product advice with folk with sidearms where are we?

I am happy to pay full freight. I am happy to declare purchases at the border, support local and support actual well crafted just about anything. But, when it is all boiled down, what I am most happy with is the idea of reducing the intermediaries. I prefer two parties to a transaction, the maker and me. Add a third as retailer and I am not upset but getting into wholesaler, bonding firms, distributors, importers and clearance certificate issuing laboratories and you start seeing not only why a simple product like beer is over priced but over wrought. As in what hath this system wrought?

At the moment – as it has since 1927 in Ontario – it hath wrought market constriction to the point one cannot be sure of value or even preference. We get what we are given and are expected to line up and praise the short shelves of selected goods. No thanks. I’ll continue to take much of my money elsewhere until that changes. If that takes a prosecution of the provincially regulated monopoly by Federal officials, so be it.

1749 Quebec Drinks Advice From Pehr Kalm

image56Home alone on a sick day, what else better to do but catch up with my old pal Pehr Kalm on his travels 264 years ago. Working on the Ontario beer history book in recent days, I am looking for references to brewing in New France to seek if I can established what might have been going on around here before it was even Upper Canada. See, what is now Ontario has been many things in the past, bits and pieces of many empires. Beer and other drinks hitch a ride with most of them. And until 1791, southern Ontario was part of the British colonial Province of Quebec and, before 1758-60, part of New France.

And we have some really swell tidbits of information. On 15 August 1749, Swedish botanist and diarist Pehr Kalm was at a reception for the newly arrived Governor General of New France, the Marquis de la Jonquiere, where he reports the “entertainment lasted very long and was as elegant as the occasion required.” All the greatest and the good of the colony were there but you get the sense that it was a wee bit laddish as this is the main topic he records of the conversation:

Many of the gentlemen, present at the entertainment, asserted that the following expedient had been successfully employed to keep wine, beer, and water, cool during the summer. The wine, or other liquor, is bottled; the bottles are well corked, hung up in the air, and wrapped in wet clouts. This cools the wine in the bottles, notwithstanding it was quite warm before. After a little while the clouts are again made wet, with the coldest water that is to be had, and this is always continued. The wine, or other liquor, in the bottles is then always colder than the water with which the clouts are made wet. And though the bottles should be hung up in the sunshine, the above way of proceeding will always have the same effect.

I need to try that one. We have to remember that Kalm was not an idle wanderer. As the Borgstates, he “was commissioned by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to travel to the North American colonies and to bring back seeds and plants that might be useful to agriculture.” So, he is a scientist on the lookout for things… stuff… doings and goings-on.

He describes a pretty rich diet amongst the elite. Brandy, coffee and chocolate for breakfast. Red claret and spruce beer are in much use at the noontime dinner and again at supper at seven in the evening. He notes that people store their beer in their ice cellars beneath their houses to keep it cool in the summer and notes that it is customary to put ice in drinks to keep them cool. It is likely that the beer is spruce beer as “they make a kind of spruce beer of the top of the white fir” which is seldom taken by people of quality. He also notes that it is “not yet customary here to brew beer of malt” and also “nor do they sow much barley, except for the use of cattle.”

This last bit is interesting as one hundred years before the Jesuit records clearly show efforts to create local brewing capacity as part of the earlier economy of the colony. Kalm, however, describes a wealthier and less self-sufficient colony in the late 1740s at least among the elite. There is no longer a press so all books are imported from France. Large sums are spent on boat loads of wine. Cider and beer are so 1630s it would appear.

What does that mean for Ontario? Well, likely the forts by the end of the French empire were supplied with casks of wine rather than malt made beer. Yet, in the last quarter of the 1600s, that was not necessarily the case. When the likes of Lasalle and Frontenac ruled the spot where the Great Lakes meets the St. Lawrence River… who knows?

Incidental 1930s Brewing Letterhead Images

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Now there’s a sexy title for a blog post. A real whooah-ish search engine optimization blog post title. Letterhead Pr0n. I should have paid more attention to the lighting when I was at the archives last week with Jordan in Ottawa. But, still, these are pretty sweet. It is amazing how elaborate the Taylor and Bates letterhead is. Rich old guys in suits drinking beer and having the time of their lives because they own a brewery and a radio station.

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When Did I Last Shop At The Beer Store?

I won’t have to worry about this for a while:

To get a sense of how much the lack of competition affects beer prices, Sen compared pre-tax beer prices in Ontario and Quebec. The price of a 24-pack (the average of several brands such as Molson Canadian or Bud Light) came to about $26 in Quebec grocery stores, and about $36 at the Ontario Beer Store. Sen estimated that the extra money, about $700 million, “is going directly from consumer pockets to a consortium with majority ownership by foreign-based firms.” (The Beer Store disputes those numbers, saying Sen compared pre-tax to post-tax prices, ignored commodity tax differences and used a small sample.)

What can you say when your face numbers like that. Anything I have to say is framed by the fact that it really doesn’t affect me. I buy good beer at the LCBO, in a pub, from the brewery or on jaunts into nearby northern NY or Quebec. The Beer Store, even with its generalist’s name, has found itself in the position where its stock is specialized, limited to those beers that don’t really qualify as craft or for the most part all that interesting. When you think about it, the good beer buyer in Ontario is really well served by this physical retail reality, the separation of macro beer from the better stuff.

And I will really not be able to concern myself as it’s time to drive the family from brewpub to micro brewery to good beer store in a random selection of US states for a while. What should I get that’s new in Maine? What’s the best place to eat with the family near Fenway? Do any brewpubs offer mini putt? These are the questions for the next wee while. Ontario’s macro retail off shore monopolists? What are they to me?

Ontario: When Was The First Beer Downed Here?

A puzzle. As has been noted, Jordan and I have accepted the offer to co-write a book on beer and brewing through Ontario history. It is part of the series put out by The History Press series on regional brewing histories. Which leads to lots of questions. Like… how does one write a history? But that is a big question. A more specific question is what was the first beer consumed in what is now Ontario. One candidate is the beer found in the hold by the mutineers of Henry Hudson’s ship in 1610 who set poor Captain Hank and a few others adrift in James Bay and then set to ripping the Discovery apart as recounted in 1625 by one sailor who was present:

…there were some of them that plyed their worke, as if the Ship had beene entred by force, and they had free leaue to pillage, breaking vp Chests, and rifling all places… In the Hold they found one of the vessels of meale whole, and the other halfe spent, for wee had but two; wee found alſo two firkins of Butter, some twentie seuen piece of Porke, halfe a bushell of Pease, but in the Masters Cabbin we found two hundred of bisket Cakes, a pecke of Meale,of Beere to the quantitie of a Butt, one with another.

The trouble is that while it is clear that the mutiny was in James Bay but not clear that the mutineers drained the beer at or near the western half of the bay’s shore line that later becomes Ontario as opposed to Quebec. They do keep the eastern shore in sight on the way home after they abandon Hudson and the others left to their own devices. But that was after they gunned the beer. Where did they do that? Such problems I have. Well, not the sorts of problems these lads me but, you know, modern problems.

Quebec: Retirements And Consolidation At McAuslan

If I have a favorite beer at a favorite pub, it’s a pint of McAuslan Oatmeal Stout at the Kingston Brewing Company. It does not hurt that the place is a block from my work. But news has thrown a pebble at my world just now, placing that pleasure at perhaps some risk:

After a quarter century in the business, the husband-and-wife team behind the McAuslan Brewing company has sold their company to another Montreal-based microbrewer, RJ Brewers. Peter McAuslan, who founded the company with his wife Ellen Bounsall in 1988, told CJAD News it was just the right time for the two of them to get out. “When one starts a business, you always have a sort of an end point in mind,” McAuslan said. “Both of us over the last ten years said, ‘well, there’s going to come a point where we’re going to want to sell out and take advantage of the work that we’ve done.”

Risk you say? Don’t get me wrong. I have had RJ’s Belle Gueule and it has its worthy place. But successors rarely maintain the particularity of a beer even if quality generally is maintained. Different equipment, hands on the knobs, water tables or yeast strain races? You’re never sure about these things. With luck, I’ll stand corrected this time and that wee note of licorice will be there along the twiggy hops for years to come. Good news for the team of McAuslen and Bounsall certainly and perhaps part of an era we’ll be entering where many such just rewards are gotten by many more retiring first wave microbrewers.

But, really, it’s not like I drank the beer because of them. I drink it because of it. And I hope it has many more years ahead of it.

Beau’s Thursday Night Tasting In the Backyard

A fun way to spend the evening. Beau’s had their quarterly business meetings in town and they all came over for a few hours of opening bottles – including the father, son and a sizable host. We nine started well with two saisons and biere de garde: Hennepin, Jack D’or and 3 Monts. Batch 10 from Pretty Things was much better than the more recent bacth 13. Lesson: let it sit.

Things got a little wobbly with three Quebec takes on Belgian white beer. We thought RJ’s Coup de Grisou was fine and a good value beer. And Barbier from L’Ilse D’Orleans was not well understood given its level of rich maltiness. But Blanche from Charlevoix was a revelation in nasal interaction with beer. Freesia. Fabulous.

Three more bottles were opened. Trade Winds Tripel from the Bruery was a bit muddled with a nice aroma. Too much of the malt ball for the style or maybe just our level of interest given the other choices. Next, the Poperings Hommel Ale, as always, was amazing. The greatest pale ale in the history of the planet? Could be.

Then the taxi was called for the eight to be off. It was time. The mosquitoes had begun to bite. Just time to open a quart of Drie Fontienen’s Oude Gueze, one of the few beer that could follow a Poperings. Like any divider of people, some were not with it. They got the first taxi. The rest of use stood on the driveway, waiting on the warm quiet summer night sipping. Then the taxi and then they were off and away.

Grill, Shed, Steak, Rain, Bieres de Garde And Saisons

The trouble with charcoal grilling is that when the rain comes you can’t turn it off. Propane, on the other hand, has a nice dial that has a “0” setting. But there is the garden shed and, when it rains and you have visitors, it can turn out to be a delightful place to while away a late afternoon hour reading last week’s newspapers in the recycling bin, listening to AM radio and comparing a few examples of bieres de garde and saisons.

We opened the Ch’ti Blonde from Brasserie Castelain à Bénifontaine first, a gold ale called a saison (though French not Belgian) by the BAers but a biere de garde by Phil Markowski in his book Farmhouse Ales under a white mouse head that resolved to a froth and rim. It was the favorite of the set with cream malted milk, pear juice and nutty grain. Very soft water. I actually wrote “limpid cream of what graininess” but I am a little embarrassed by that pencil scribble. It gets a fairly poor rating from the BAers but maybe that is because they were not in a shed when they tried it. Castelain’s Blond (no “e”) Biere de Garde was drier but still creamy fruity, not far off the greatest example of a Canadian export ale. Light sultana rather than pear. Also dry in the sense of bread crusty rather than astringency. Lighter gold than the Ch’ti but, again, the rich firm egg white mousse head and far more BAers approve. By this time the shed dwellers had decided that steak could in fact be finger food and also that these ales were an excellent pairing with chunks of rib and New York strip. The Jenlain Ambree by Brasserie Duyck was another level of richness altogether, the colour of a chunk of deep smoked Baltic amber, the richest lacing I have ever seen left on a glass. Hazelnut and raisin, brown sugar and black current with a hint of tobacco. Lately I have been thinking that amber ales are the one style that could quietly slip away and never be missed. Placing this in the glass in the hand in the shed as the rain thumped on the roof and steak was eaten was an instructive treat as to what ambers can be, though 6% of BAers hesitate to be so enthusiastic.

I think this is the worst photo I have ever posted so I will keep it tiny unless you choose to click on it for the full effect. Apparently there is a limit to the beery photographic arts and I have made it my own. The 3 Monts to the left was picked up at Marche Jovi in nearby Quebec for a stunningly low price of under six bucks. Plenty of malteser and pale malt graininess with yellow plum and apple fruitiness, straw gold with more of the thick rich head, cream in the yeast. The water was not as soft was either beer from Castelain but all BAers love it. By Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre who also made this biere nouvelle. To the right, the Fantome Winter was one of the stranger beers I have ever had and, frankly, a disappointment. All I could taste was radish, sharp and vegetative, over and all around the insufficient malt. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that was likely quite an aged beer as the happy BAers explain. Neither the cork or even label, with its unmarked best before portion, give a hint as to the year but that is all right as I suspect I will consider this just a lesson learned even though I generally love Fantome.

By this time there were stars and a breeze as the cold front finished moving through.

Beer Hunting in Michigan and Quebec

I have a couple of big trips coming up in October. Circumstances place me to the west in London, Ontario relieved of duties before noon on a Friday which means I have an hour to head further west still to the border at Sarnia and the afternoon to shop in Michigan. Having been there before, I have a sense of what I am looking for: something wet hopped, a case of Two Hearted Ale…as well as a little Bud American Ale…just to see. I don’t think I’ll make it as far as Jolly Pumpkin but Ron has given me the name of some of his most north-easterly clients so with any luck I will land some anyway.

The next weekend, however, sends me far east through largely uncharted territory as I head to a small IT/brainiac conference called Zap Your Pram in PEI. I will try to stop in a few government stores out east but on the way back on Sunday, I hope to hit a beer store or two in Quebec City like Le Monde des Bieres or Dépanneur de la Rive. I want to get my hands on some Dieu du Ciel for sure but, as John Rubin mentions in today’s Toronto Star, there are plenty of Quebec-made brews we never hear about in English-speaking Canada. The same is true of any regional brews due to our wacko inter-provincial trade restrictions but Quebecers, arguably, have a taste for a broader range of flavours than the rest of we Canucks and it shows in their brews. So maybe I’ll grab something from Microbrasserie Charlevoix or Hopfenstark, both unknowns to me but well regarded by the BAers.

Any hints before I undertake the 4,000 km two-part tour?