I’ve always been intrigued by history. How people lived, evolved, and created things that we now take for granted. Life must have been gruelling and much tougher compared to our electrified, air-conditioned, mass consuming lifestyles of the 21st century. In the northwest corner of the Greater Toronto Area is Black Creek Pioneer Village. A settlement that dates back to the early 1800’s. Life was much slower and more dependent on animals to for usable energy, and running water to power mills to grind grain. It was a time when all the technical inventions we have enjoyed over the last century just didn’t exist yet.
Black Creek Historic Village has recreated an 1860’s type brewery on the premises to help educate us on what life was like back then. I’ve had the pleasure of sampling their wonderful Porter and Pale Ale (some of my personal favourites) from the LCBO, which is what re-sparked my interest in the village.The beers that are found at the LCBO aren’t actually brewed at the historic brewery itself as it would be impossible to supply the demand as well as meet the strict quality control standards of the LCBO. Trafalger Brewing Co. company in Oakville and Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery in Barrie are contracted to produce the beers according to the same recipes Ed uses at the historic brewery. Black Creek offers tours on the weekends that take you through the social and historical implications of brewing in the early 19th century as well as a working mill and the cooperage. As a special addition, you can sign up to ‘apprentice’ for a day with the brewmaster, where you get to wear ‘historically appropriate’ attire, and learn the process of brewing beer in the 1800’s.
Although the brewing process is essentially the same, the equipment has changed tremendously. There would have been no electricity, no propane or natural gas, no stainless steel fermenting tanks with glycol cooled aging vessels, no pumps, chillers or plate filters, and no bottling equipment. Everything had to be done by hand and was used to supply the local town folk with some source of barley enjoyment.
The Toronto Region and Conservation Authority (TRCA) who oversees Black Creek Pioneer Village usually only allow 1 apprentice per day, but they were kind enough to allow myself and my brewing partner Eric to take part in the experience. It was a great day of beer and brewing history.
We arrived at 9:30am and were given our ‘costumes’. We then were introduced to brewmaster Ed Koren who is an award-winning homebrewer in his own right with over 150 all grain batches under his belt. He has been chosen by Black Creek to oversee the brewery’s operation and to recreate the techniques and equipment that would have been used in 19th century Ontario. Ed is a wealth of brewing knowledge and we were never short of good conversation. You can check out his own beer blog called Beer Shack.
Ed chose to have us brew his Porter recipe and had the grains pre-milled when we arrived. He also had his strike water heating in the very cool looking copper kettle. Ed has gone to great lengths to try to be as authentic as possible. He’s even included in every recipe a touch of wheat as it would have inevitably ended up in the mash as the village mill would have also been used for milling wheat for baking. There are still a few tweaks to be made, but he has done a fantastic job. There are hops growing on the property and the hope is to grow a rare 4 row barley on the property as well that will be used as the basis of the grist. Malting will be also be done on site. This will make Black Creek the first 100% ‘locally’ sourced brewery in Ontario, if not North America. Talk about environmentally sustainable. One thing that he’s decided might be a little too much work is using wood to heat the kettle. He uses natural gas instead as it is much easier to control. (If you think that’s not good enough, then maybe you can apply to the brewery to be the person who cuts all the firewood by hand and stokes the fire! ha,ha!) Everything we did was transferred by hand in buckets. When he’s implemented the final tweaks, The Black Creek historic Brewery will be the first brewery that can say their beers are truly “hand crafted” despite the many modern marketing claims of others.
One thing I was particularly looking forward to was using a cool ship for cooling the boiled wort. It consisted of a flattened copper sheet atop the frame that holds the 8 oak barrels used to ferment and serve the ales. Copper is very anti-bacterial by nature, therefore it is perfect for brewing applications. There were some copper cooling pipes in the cool ship which I questioned Ed on, but he informed me that copper would have been widely used at this time and the brewery would have typically been located near a source of running water that could be diverted into the pipes. Brewing would have generally been done in the fall after the harvest through to the spring as it would have been too hot to brew in the summer anyways, so the water would have been cool enough to help out in the chilling process.
It was pretty neat to dump each bucket by hand into the ‘hopback’ which collects the whole leaf hops and filters the trub from the wort. (the brewery is in the process of building some authentic wooden buckets, but it’s proving difficult to make one that doesn’t leak!)
The room immediately filled up with steam from the hopped wort, it was pretty wonderful.
From the cooling ship, the wort was diverted down a wooden trough that can be positioned to empty into any 1 of 8 oak barrels that are used for fermenting and serving.
From then on, we just added our yeast and bunged up the barrel to let it ferment. These ales are not what you would be used to from today’s modern breweries. There is barely any carbonation and the oak barrels give them a flavour similar to what you’d expect in a wine. Ed generally brews a Brown Ale, a Porter, a Stout and an India Pale Ale, with a few specialty beers for different occasions. My favourite was the IPA, but that’s just my preferred style. Included in our visit was a complimentary 2L growler of our choice which I’m looking forward to enjoying. Thanks to Ed, Andrew, and Wendy at Black Creek Historic Brewery for a wonderful experience!!
If you’d like to sign up for the apprenticeship you can contact the TRCA here.