Two historical beers you should try at Cask Days 3


Cask Days is this weekend and for Toronto beer drinkers, that’s an event that is more or less Christmas. This year’s specialties are from California, with nearly 40 beers to choose from. There are also 22 beers from England. As if that were somehow not enough, there are 22 ciders on offer. Also, nearly 250 other beers. It’s the 10th anniversary and they’re going big. There’s not any point in planning for the event at this point. The best you can do is bring about a hundred bucks in cash for food and snacks and pace yourself.

I am pleased to say that I have beers on offer at Cask Days. I make up approximately 2/339ths of the selection, or just over one half of one percent of the beer to be served. Both of the beers that I’ll be serving on Saturday have historical precedent, which befits the recent level of activity over here at St. John’s Wort. As you may know, I’ve written two books this year. It should have been obvious given the links to those books directly to the right of this article and the sheer amount of publicity I’ve been trying to get out for them. They are Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay and Lost Breweries of Toronto. I wrote the first one with Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog. The second one was my first solo book.

Both of them are relevant to the beers on offer on at Cask Days.

The first beer was brewed with Jason Tremblay from Shacklands and is called Rouille after Fort Rouille in Toronto. You may have been to the Toronto Festival of Beer and posed on top of the cannon. (Yes, it’s funny. It looks like you have a giant cannon for a penis.) What you didn’t know is that that cannon represents the placement of a French fort and trading settlement from the 1750’s.

Spruce Beer was a fundamental part of the growth of Upper Canada. Even in a place without citrus, you are usually able to grow food that contains vitamin C. That doesn’t work very well in Toronto in the winter. We know that Fort York imported real beer from Kingston, being as it was from a later era. Fort Rouille probably made some manner of Spruce Beer.

The verifiable historical recipes for Spruce Beer are just awful. The purpose of spruce beer was not to taste good. It was to hydrate you in a way that would prevent you from having to drink the water and contracting Giardia, a parasite which will cause the contents of your digestive tract to seek escape in as violent and explosive a manner as possible. Spruce Beer would also prevent you from getting scurvy and having your teeth fall out. If Spruce could prevent those two horrible things from happening, you’d gladly suck on a branch.

Traditionally, the recipe for Spruce Beer contained five quarts of molasses per 36 Gallon Barrel. Having done the calculation, I can tell you that it would have barely been alcoholic. If you were extremely lucky and you had an active yeast strain that would chew through fermentables, you might have gotten 1.5% alcohol out of that.

We decided not to make that beer. We decided instead to go with a historically inspired Spruce Beer. We used mostly Maris Otter and a small amount of Wheat in addition to the traditional Molasses. We used Spruce Extract, since neither of us are mighty woodsmen and tips were out of season. Since Jason seems to have a solid grip on the funky stuff, we used nearly a gallon of lactobacillus culture in the boil and used two yeast strains in fermentation, finishing it with Brettanomyces. It’s not your great great great great great grandfather’s spruce beer, is what I’m saying to you.

The second beer on offer is called Helliwell 1832 and it’s a collaboration between myself and Jon Downing from Niagara College. You’ll notice, if you’re observant, that it’s not listed on the Cask Days list. All I know is that it has been delivered to Cask Days. I imagine that it will be available (although, apologies are probably necessary to Tomas Morana for being a logistical omnishambles.)

The Helliwell Brewery was located at Todmorden Mill. I have been given an idea of where we’ll be serving the beers in the Brickworks and I can tell you that we’ll be approximately 385 meters and 182 years from where this beer was brewed. I managed to piece together a large amount of information from the Helliwell Diaries about their brewery and the kind of beer that they would have made.08051

It was difficult because they used an outdated standard of measurement called the Dring and Fage Saccharometer that didn’t use Brix or Plato or even Specific Gravity. It used something called Beer Gravity which represents pounds of extract per barrel. We know they were using it because William Helliwell went to the manufacturer when he was in London in 1832. Using google image search I was able to find a photograph of the slide rule they used for calculation as part of the Saccharometer’s set and found out that the beer would have been somewhere around 9.0%. It’s a sort of unaged Barley Wine. The Helliwells were from Yorkshire, so they didn’t trifle with wheat in the grist.

The Helliwells brought in barley to their own maltings (part of which I’m told still stands, across the river from the brickworks) and kilned it themselves. During the 1820’s and 1830’s they owned nearly a thousand acres and were clearing wood from it to make properties in the area north of the Danforth saleable. They actually had a hop yard on the Don River’s flood plain that I’ve estimated at being about 8-10 acres based on the number of poles they commissioned for it.

I assume that they were using that wood to fire the kiln and we’ve accounted for that with just enough smoked malt to give it a kiss. I also know that the open fermenters that they were using were simply converted puncheons (although he did not adopt this strategy until later) and that being made of wood they would have taken on some souring bacteria. We have lowered the PH of the beer with a hint of acidulated malt. We used Brown Malt and some dark Crystal to replicate the crispy burnt edges you’d get from a single inconsistently kilned malt. We used Golding hops because that’s about the only English variety that existed at the time.

I don’t claim that Helliwell 1832 is an exact replica of the beer that would have been produced in the Don Valley. It’s as close as we’re ever going to get, though, and it’s definitely worth a try. I’ll be pouring both beers myself on Saturday during the day. Stop by and chat. It will also be the first time that Lost Breweries of Toronto will be available for purchase by the public.


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3 thoughts on “Two historical beers you should try at Cask Days

  • Mike

    Fascinating. Did you replicate the brewtoad recipe as well? Or just goldings and no fuggles? Any mention of hopping schedule in the old text? The 10 minute and 0 minute additions in the 1-barrel Brewtoad batch I took to be a 21st century addition, no?

    • Mike

      sorry meant to say “cluster” not fuggles. I’ve recently recreated some historic beers from Washington, DC, circa 1812 and it’s a great (though often perplexing) way to recreate recipes that are otherwise lost to history. I wish we could try your recreation down here!

    • admin Post author

      That’s about right, actually. Fuggles didn’t really exist as an identifiable strain until the 1850’s. The Cluster hops are the closest approximation to a north american strain from the time that I could lay hands on. There is an Ontario strain from the 19th century called Bertwell, but despite the good work done by horticulturalists and enthusiasts, they’re muddy and vegetal. I don’t care for them. There was no mention of a hopping schedule, but it would have been one of two varieties.

      There’s an interesting balance you work with in replication. It’s hard to tell exactly what to do because you don’t want to brew something completely foreign to a modern audience. Theoretically, the hops should be up front and they should be whole leaf. The Helliwells had a brewery with a straw lined underback that would catch the hops. Sort of filtration of trub on a budget. I felt like it was a fair amount smoother than another beer of the era might have been because of the modern brewing practices.