Food by VICE

I Got Buzzed Like Our Forefathers at a Pioneer Reenactment Village

Back in the day, beer was likened to foodstuff and often drunk as a speedy supplement for laborers' daily intake of carbs, sort of like a bread smoothie.

by Aidan Johnston
May 14 2015, 7:00pm

All photos by the author.

If you find yourself donning a pair of suspenders, puffing a pipe, and taking your sweet-ass time to do things in an artisan manner, society has a name for you: hipster. But out in the northern boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area lies a place where the decidedly unhip do things the old-fashioned way just to make ends meet. They're not called hipsters, though—they're pioneers.

The Black Creek Pioneer Village exists as a peripheral memory from elementary school field trips that periodically makes adult Torontonians ask, "Does that place still exist?" Indeed, it does. Today, the Village keeps the party known as the 1860s going, interpreting the lives of early Canadians and hammering the notion of how easy kids have it these days into new generations of ungrateful children. When I was perusing the historic village's website to confirm I wasn't making the whole thing up, I noticed that in recent years they had added a new attraction for all the accompanying parents who are just too old to consider a career as blacksmith or cobbler: a historic brewery.


The Black Creek Historic Brewery opened to the public in 2009, operating out of the basement of the park's old tavern (note: everything there is old) and offers daily tours and tastings. Since I'm not an old timey dude (I fucking love toasters, and everything else that makes life easier) I never thought I'd find myself back there, but then I realized I've justified being in far dodgier places by merely exclaiming, "They have beer!" and thought to myself, Why not tie one on like our forefathers did? It was the right time for me to return back to that simpler time.


I had 45 minutes to explore the village before the tour started, so I poked my head into the saddle shop. Inside, a young man in a stiflingly warm period costume that looked thick enough to throw darts at greeted me and launched into a story about the different kinds of leather goods they make for horses, and old-timey regulations about it being mandatory to have bells on your horse while riding at night.


I got to the brewery at 3 PM for the tasting. The cool basement cellar is dim, drafty, and—most noticeably—empty. The park has just opened again for the season and is slowly dusting off its Victorian hibernation. But Katie, the bar wench (that's what they were called!), awaits me with a welcoming smile and cheerfully accepts my Canadian dollars instead of horse meat or shillings for my admission. Again she is dressed immaculately to period. Katie has been working here for over two years, but boasts decades' worth of knowledge, which she passionately catalogues with historical anecdotes and suds-related revelations on a very unpioneer-like blog.

READ MORE: This Is What 200-Year-Old Beer and Champagne Tastes Like

It's a vivid contrast of old and new down in the grotto: a cash register sits next to a growler, a large jug is used for transporting beer, and a surgeon's warning about drinking while pregnant adorns the same wall as a case of assorted malts. We begin with the Brown Ale, which is unfiltered, unpasteurized, uncarbonated, and unchilled, just like it was back then. All the beers are rather impressively made in small batch by hand and without electricity, replicating the process of shoveling malted barley into a tun keg, fermenting it with the addition of hot water, filtering it through barley husks, then boiling the remaining wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process which contains the sugars that will become alcohol), and adding the hops before it's cooled and combined with yeast, just like they did in the olden days (a very popular term around here).

The flavour is similar to drinking a cask ale: it's mealy, aromatic, and makes you feel like you ought to have put in a hard days of work to really enjoy it. In between sips Katie explains how beer was consumed differently back in the day. Because of its makeup of grains, it was likened to foodstuff, and often drunk as a speedy supplement for laborers' daily intake of carbs. Sort of like a bread smoothie that got you the essential yeast, grains, and water you needed to continue on with the daily struggle of existence. This was all part of a complete 19th-century diet, along with potatoes and offal. As we moved onto the next offering, a stout, I'm regaled with tales about the etymology of the growler. The name is attributed to both the growling of hungry labourer's stomach and the rattling noise it made in its old enamel pail. And there you have it; I'm now officially qualified to be the most annoying know-it-all to sit next to at a bar.

READ MORE: Getting Drunk Like a Medieval Lord Could Help Save the Honeybee

I finish with the IPA, which is traditionally brewed to withstand the heat of its export trips to India. It's citrusy, hoppy, and ideal for long camping trips without refrigeration. Katie uses much more on-brand terms like "apothecral" and "bumper" to describe the beer and this gives the tour the proper Victorian feel that I signed up for.

"The Victorian standard of not drinking was also popular," she explains towards the end of the tasting, referring to respectful and controlled stature that not consuming alcohol used to project. By the time I'm shown the wooden cask collection of the village's brewmaster, I'm fluent in the antiquated medicinal uses of stout, ginger beer, and root beer, the latter of which was used as an aid for gonorrhoea. (I interpreted that as a thinly guised warning about sleeping with people you meet at A&W.) But the main history lesson here is that regardless of era or class, we're are all linked by the common desire to willfully liquify our earnings with malt, wort, hops, and water.

I thank the charming and informative Katie with a $5 tip, which is a lot of money for back then, and head back into the sunshine slightly buzzed. The hot gravel streets are deserted and my first thought is that a Victorian-style taco truck would fucking kill it here. As much as I'd enjoyed the hospitality of the 1860s, I needed to return to my time and face the harsh modern realities of an hour bus ride back home. I probably should've gotten a beer for the bus.