Beer and Art: The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Nosing around the Met‘s digitized collection a bit more, I came across “The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1565. Not hard as it was on the front page. I have posted a few times about paintings by his son, the imaginatively named Pieter Bruegel the Younger, over the years but this one struck me as perhaps illustrating a few things worth thinking about.

Look at the scale of the people compared to the height of the grain. One of the characteristics of Battledore barley two hundred years later in Britain was that it had a short stalk. It could survive hail or wind better than other varieties but didn’t provide all that useful straw that we learned about in relation to beer in New York before the switch to barley from wheat. The stalk was in itself important to the community as a multi-purpose material for mattress stuffing to looser wheat mash spargings. In “The Harvesters” the stalks are tall and entire stooks* are taken from the field with care. The stooks are strong enough to serve as a bench for the workers having their meal.

Harvest time is big stuff. The image is a narrative of agricultural economy in the Renaissance. If you click on the image at the met site, you can zoom in quite closely. Look at how the topography is used to illustrate the economic activity. The field being harvested is on the top of a hill. Scythed and stooked, it is carried one by one to the bottom of the hill where it is loaded on a cart and carried away. There are three communities in the painting. The hilltop has a church to the upper left seen through the trees. Down below there is a manor of some sort where some are swimming while others are killing a tied up goose as a blood sport. In the far distance, there is a coastal town with ships in the harbour. Is one point of the painting’s structure that the grain gets exported?  Or is beer made from the grain getting shipped out?  I should cross reference the painting with Unger.

Where is this place? The blurb attached to the image by the Met says:

Bruegel’s series is a watershed in the history of western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and the unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

But is this really a local scene or an imaginary one? Where is it? Bruegel lived in coastal Antwerp, Belgium a city of about 100,000 at the time and the richest in Europe. He was born in the river town of Breda, another community now in the Netherlands but then also in the Duchy of Brabant. Perhaps one of those two centres is in the background.  Could you find the field and stand where the artist stood?

But what about the beer? As one commentator notes, the scene is about producing and consuming. Or – if you are the goose – producing, torturing then consuming. The workers are eating bread and cheese as well as pears that one guy is shaking from the tree to the upper right. And they are drinking. A central character is a man carrying two large jugs up the path. Another man in the circle having a meal drinks directly from a jug. A fourth jug with what looks like a loaf of bread on top sits in the uncut wheat to the lower left.

We are told by Markowski that saison and biere de garde were brewed for centuries in the Low Countries and northern France to attract and retain workers. Farmhouse beers. The scene in “The Harvesters” is smack-dab in the middle of that culture, in the saison zone that included Brabant. Unger explains that particularly in the sixteenth century, tax records indicate a wide number of names for various grades of beer: “… dun and scheynbier and volksbier and scharbier and scherbier all turn up. No matter the name, it was always cheap.”** Was that what was in the jugs? We can’t reach back to ask those in the picture what they called their drink or even if it was in fact beer. But it could be and, frankly, likely was so… it is what it was. Day drinking 1565.

*I use the SW Ontario usage, spelling and pronunciation of the in-laws.
**at page 129.

‘Tis The Time Of The Canadian Goat

image193Is it just me or does the expression on Beau’s Hogan’s Goat bear a slight resemblance to the brewery’s co-founder Tim Beauchesne? A sample arrived a few days ago and, while I am pretty sure I have had the beer before, “spiced” beer of any sort is not something I hunt out. Same with weizenbocks like the sample of Burly Goat sent by British Columbia’s Granville Island Brewing. Yet, given how often I am wrong, I really should check in on my prejudices. Besides, Tim-Goat is giving me a mean death stare from that label. Better do something.

Hogan’s Goat pours a bright caramel under a slightly orange cream head. The almond malty aroma leans slightly to gingersnap. A very pleasant first foamy gulp: rich nutty malt with a late showing of herbal hops. Sweet with nods in the malt to apple, raisin and even old fashioned brandy butter sauce. What spicing there is gets neatly placed. The overall effect is a bit barley candy, a bit herbal lozenge and more than that in beer. You particularly notice the orange peel when you burp. At 6.9%, strong but not over the top. BAers have the love.

Burly Goat is a beer in the style of Aventinus and a respectable homage. It has that spiced weizen yeast in common with its mentor and displays how wheat, when stronger, starts to move from simply grassiness to something itself rustic and spiced in the way that rye is. It has that beefy gravel hue that would be a turn off in any other sort of beer. Green grass, marigold, pumpernickel, a bit of almond in a drying brew. Herbal leathery aromas. You could soak a pork shoulder in this very nicely. Just one rating by a happy BAer.

What did I learn? I was reminded that I like beers like this and that domestic craft can make them with verve. Or is it panache?

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?

What’s With The Boxes For Cutting Straw?

Again with Lord Selkirk’s diary of 1803-04, I noticed one thing on page 114 that sorta suck out. In his description of the set up of the kiln, there is a particular notation: “…small portable boxes for cutting straw are made for $9…” What the heck is that about? What is the function of the box? Why do you need a number of them? And what is the function of the straw?

Here is a very detailed discussion of the straw or chaff cutter. In that discussion, the tool is shown as going back centuries. The function of the cutter was to make the straw digestible by cutting it into small enough lengths to be mixed with the feed of a horse. And in this case, Selkirk’s note follows a reference to a horse run mill to grind the malt. So it could be just that.

But there are two other uses for straw in this brewery. One was expressly mentioned the other day. Mr Grieve the brewer mixed straw into his mash to keep the wheat from gumming things up. Torrified or popped wheat can be used for that today. Cutting the straw would make sense to ensure it was evenly distributed through out the mash. Straw can be a multi-purpose resource in what I am starting to call if only to myself “vernacular” brewing. Brewing with the locally available resources. If, out of that, you make a unique beer maybe that is an “indigenous” form of beer.

But there is another possibility. Or is it an additional one? Maybe he was kilning with the straw. Attentive readers will recall the fern ale post of the fall of 2011. In that discussion, we see that in the 1600s and 1700s, while coke was growing as a kilning fuel for large operations, straw was still a reliable fuel to make the palest and least smokey malt. Good wheat straw, when used with skill, made the sweetest pale malt. Notice, too, that Grieve is kilning his malt in a place and at a scale where other desirable fuels are unlikely to be as readily and cheaply available. Wheat was the monoculture crop, the gold standard for sale and even export. There may have been plenty of wheat straw sitting around as the district filled with settling farmers. If so and as the beer had a high proportion of wheat, these strong ales of his my well have been quite pale despite their frontier origin.

Just a thought. Could be tasty stuff.

Ontario: Weissbier, Denison’s Brewing, Toronto

Brewed since 1990, this wheat beer is one of the best arguments against worrying at all about tenancy forms of brewing in principle. While one might unkindly point out the web 1.0 nature of the brewer’s web presence, it does give you what you need to know and, more to the point, sets the tone. Fairly focused small batch niche brewing at a high standard for the best part of the craft beer revolution. Quite Toronto-centric in business terms, the stuff never gets out here much, here in the rude and rustic hinterlands 200 km to the east. I get there so rarely but did share part of an evening with the brewer, Michael Hancock back in 2009. I recall him complaining or at least explaining the trials of keeping on top of quality control whether in the then new can or as served from taps watched by the eyes of others.

What about the beer? Deft as much as anything. Even from the can, creamy wheat. Then there’s banana, a bit of white pepper and a bit less clove than the other guys. Clouded gold under whipped egg white froth and foamy rim. Leans slightly towards coconut creamy aroma. Lightly soured and spiced in the finish. An insane $2.70 a can, probably the best value in Ontario beer. Would a younger brewer would ruin this with a tiny fleck of shrubbery root or the bark of a tree? It needs none of it. Not so much a vestige of brewing past as a reminder of the days of easy adulteration by adjunct or showboating by faddish hop.

Oddly, the BAers tell you how the RBers rate it #1 then rate it not as highly.

Albany Ale: In 1670 The Best Ale Was Wheat Ale

You ever wonder why the reference you find after two and a half years took two and a half years to find? Look at this:

Their best Liquors are Fiall, Passado, and Madera Wines, the former are sweetish, the latter a palish Claret, very spritely and generous, two shillings a Bottle; their best Ale is made of Wheat Malt, brought from Sopus and Albany about threescore Miles from New-York by water; Syder twelve shillings the barrel; their quaffing liquorsare Rum-Punch and Brandy-punch, not compounded and adulterated as in England, but pure water and pure Nants.

This is a description of the drinking habits of the Dutch population of the Hudson Valley of New York from page 35 of a journal published in 1670. It was written by Daniel Denton and was called A Brief Description of New York: formerly called New Netherlands, with the places thereunto adjoining. So in addition to the 1649 legal ordinance barring brewing with wheat during a crop collapse and the 1749 reference by a traveling scientist to the malting of wheat, we have not only confirmation that wheat ale was brewed but it was the best to be had. The description by Denton is particularly trustworthy as it is incidental to other cultural references about the Dutch, particularly about their smoking and drinking habits. There is another reference to beer in his writing, too, that is quite revealing. It sits in this passage about the freedoms being enjoyed in the newish New York:

Here those which Fortune hath frowned upon in England, to deny them an inheritance amongst their brethren, or such as by their utmost labors can scarcely procure a living—I say such may procure here inheritances of lands and possessions, stock themselves with all sorts of cattle, enjoy the benefit of them whilst they live, and leave them to the benefit of their children when they die. Here you need not trouble the shambles for meat, nor bakers and brewers for beer and bread, nor run to a linen-draper for a supply, every one making their own linen and a great part of their woolen cloth for their ordinary wearing.

There you go. Freedom loving prosperous newly absorbed New Yorkers making their own wheat ale and bread from good malt grown around Albany over 100 years before the American Revolution.

So who is going to brew some up? Are there any mid-1600 Dutch guides to household management that include brewing techniques?

Wisconsin: Wisconsin Belgian Red, New Glarus Brewing, New Glarus

Is that not the most repetitive title to a post yet? I wonder if New Glarus is in New Glarus County…or maybe Wisconsin county. Anyway, this is simply an incredible beer. Stan and Daria brought it to us when they visited this summer. Once upon a time, I had a small old farmhouse and it was near a small cottage owned by another branch of the family. We had pin cherries, black cherries and choke (or is it choak?) cherries as well as juneberries and other bush fruit we planted over the years. Small bush fruit in the cherry family is the best – all relating to but not being defined by that toothpaste, cough drop or pie filling flavour that gets associated with the word “cherry” these days. This beer reminds me of the complexity of those natural flavours.

The beer is pie in a glass. Insanely fresh tart cherry backed by a cream of wheat richness. It pours cloudy reddish amber, like lightly oxidized fruit. Snow white froth and foam on top. Bright and cheery from the effervescent carbonation. Meaty fruit in the mouth with tangy acidity and that aroma which evokes the whole of the plant, the twigginess, the almondy scent you get when you peel new bark. It’s almost ammonia sharp but not. Is that brett? It is like with Orval, that dry lavender aspect. Is this a creation of hopping that moves the cherry from meaty and sweet to something more like scent of an orchard? Dandy. Not quite sour but in the neighbourhood. Makes me want to plan a trip to the other end of the Great Lakes.

I threw a couple of these ounces into twice as much a Burton Bridge porter just to see. Good but something of a waste. BAers love it. Is this the best fruit beer ever?