Strange Brew, Look What’s Inside of you
In my last post I described beers served at a temporary English pub, the Lion and the Unicorn, built in October 1969 for “British Week in Canada”, a trade and cultural event.
I mentioned the beers served, bottled beers from the renowned houses Bass, Whitbread, McEwan’s, Mackeson, with three English ciders to boot.
Further investigation shows that another trade event in Toronto featured another English pub – 18 years earlier. 1949 is very early for such a thing in Toronto, and I’m fain to call it the first Canadian showcase of the 20th century British pub.
Certainly, to sample English beer in a “British” pub in Canada in 1949 was a novel experience, barring ex-military who knew pubs in Britain during the war. The pub was an exhibit of a British brewery participating in the Canadian International Trade Fair (CITF), which ran annually from 1948 to the late 1950s (at least).
The CITF was held at Exhibition Grounds in Toronto, the city-owned building and park complex where the Canadian National Exhibition, or “Ex”, is held annually in August. The CITF was an off-season event, held in the spring.
The 1949 edition featured an astonishing “eight-booth” exhibit by Hope & Anchor Breweries of Sheffield, an ambitious regional brewer that saw its future in international expansion. Brian Glover tells Hope & Anchor’s story in his 2009 The Lost Beers and Breweries of Britain, see here. He states Hope & Anchor toured North American business exhibitions in this period to promote its beer for this market.
It had two beers in mind in particular, oyster stout and a honey-based ale, which you see pictured in the 1950s ad above. Both beers were mentioned in Toronto press stories on the replica pub, called Rose and Crown Inn.
A May 25, 1949 Globe and Mail story stated the pub was part of a 15-ton, 80-foot long exhibit, all built in England and shipped here for the fair. It comprised also a Manx cottage with cauldron and spinning wheel, English scenes, and view of Windsor castle. At the pub you could play darts and shove ha-penny. Other than noting oyster stout and honey-based ale were “out of the ordinary” the Globe saw no exotica in the beers sold, or if it did held its counsel out of deference to the British participants.
The New Zealand oyster concentrate discussed by Brian Glover in the history of oyster stout is mentioned by the Globe as well. It’s an ostensibly weird element in those distant pre-craft times, but again was taken in stride, including evidently by the fair-goers. On June 10, 1949 the Globe reported that beer supplies at the Rose and Crown ran out and Hope & Anchor had to fly more in. It noted the bar was one of six on site, another featured Czech beer, probably Pilsner Urquell, which was so popular supplies had to be “rationed”.
A June 6, 1949 story (same paper) is an amusing riff on fair visitors wanting to visit the pub. Interviewing staff at the information counter, the writer relates the queries of John Q public rapid-fire and deadpan style, almost like Monty Python. A harried staffer signalled the takeaway for the reader:
Four out of every five people have wanted to know where that pub is. It is about the only thing we have to know.
Stout and porter by this time had practically died out in Canada, yet oyster stout was lapped up with avidity at the fair, as rich Czech lager. Hope & Anchor marketed its oyster stout across North America. Glover reports it enjoyed c.1952 a cult status in California, which is interesting considering where the roots of modern craft brewing started.
Here you see a 1954 ad in the Times-Union of Albany, NY for over 30 imported beers. Manx oyster stout and the aforesaid mead ale of Hope & Anchor are included. This ad is another example of the early interest in (especially) bottled imported beers. This history played a definite role in the later evolution of craft beer.
On May 25, 1949 the Globe reports that the success of the Rose and Crown here got Hope & Anchor thinking to set up a brewery in Canada to make oyster stout with Canadian oysters, and honey ale with Canadian honey. Brig. Basil Hopkins led the trade mission for Hope & Anchor and announced the hopeful plan to the journalist.
The landscape of Canadian brewing might have changed considerably had it happened and succeeded, and if the Rose and Crown Inn moved to the business centre to feature good beer. Maybe by the 1960s a vibrant craft industry would have emerged, Henninger of Frankfurt would have been received with open arms (vs. the later 10 years of indifferent success), and we would date modern beer writing to the early 1960s, or even 1950s, instead of the mid-1970s.
Toronto showed, back in the supposed days of early post-war rectitude, that it could party with the best of them – with discrimination. It showed it again in 1969 when 50,000 bottles of characterful British beer sold out in 10 days at British Week in Canada.
But a regionally-based brewing system with complex regulation, steady consolidation and cost-cutting, and probably too the Korean War (1950-1953), checked a potential beer revival. A consolation is it all did happen, finally, starting from about 1985.
The Globe reported on June 7, 1950 that the pub was still on the fairgrounds, now surplus to requirements and seeking a buyer. According to this account, the pub was a replica of the bar at the Barrel Inn, Derbyshire, a storied English hostelry. It came complete with crossed battle-axes over mantle, pewter candlestick holders, oaken chairs and bar, and much else – everything except, said the writer, an Ontario Liquor Control Board license…
The brewery thought a well-heeled Canadian might like it for a basement bar or “rumpus room”. What happened to it, we wonder… Maybe it remains in the nether regions of a Rosedale or Forest Hill mansion. For all I know it could be 1000 yards from where I write (outside the precincts of either district, I might add).
The full story of oyster stout is beyond our scope here, but we summarize below our view of the history.
- 1700s-early 1800s, practice spreads of adding crushed oyster shells to vats of porter to head off acidity. The shells’ carbonate content neutralizes acetic acid. Little or no fishy taste is imparted.
- Due to this connection of the oyster to stout, people think it natural for porter to be consumed with oysters, so the pairing emerges about the same period. In other words, we don’t see that oyster and stout are a natural gastronomic combination.
- 1930s in New Zealand, an idea emerges to add an oyster concentrate to porter or stout, hence providing the pairing in one go. This has nothing to do with oyster shells being used to control sourness in beer. As the pairing of beer with oyster was long a custom by then, adding the concentrate was essentially a food processing development.
- The concentrate idea, as chronicled by Glover and the late, game-changing Michael Jackson, migrates to Britain by 1938-1939. Hammerton in London, Young’s in Portsmouth, and other brewers take it up. The war interferes.
- Sheffield’s Hope & Anchor, via its Castletown unit on Isle of Man purchased 1947, releases oyster stout 1948. Distribution extended to in North America, 1950s.
- Michael Jackson described oyster stout, wreathing his trademark romantic spell, see e.g., (1988) The New World Guide to Beer, (1993) Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (Glover appears to rely on the latter in part), and this 1995 article on the still-extant Jackson website.
- Oyster stout becomes a staple U.S. craft offering, and re-establishes in Britain via that channel and Jackson. E.g., Marston of Burton issues one, sans addition of bivalve.*
- Oyster stout again becomes known in Toronto, via modern craft beer. In the Globe and Mail on August 14, 1999 Steve Beaumont described an early collaboration between Durham Brewing Co. and Rodney’s Oyster Bar for an oyster stout featured at a local oyster festival.
- The 1999 Rodney’s Oyster Stout came 50 years after the (presumed) first appearance of oyster stout in Ontario.
- Today numerous Ontario brewers offer an oyster stout off and on. Producers have included the Perth, Durham, Amsterdam, and Barley Days Breweries.
Note re images: the first image above was sourced from an eBay listing, here. The second was sourced from the archived news story of Fulton Newspapers, linked in the text. The third was sourced from a free page viewing of newspapers.com, from a July 5, 1950 advertisement in the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica, see here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*The idea here, and other oyster porter or stout that does not contain oyster, is that the beer is meant as particularly suitable to accompany a plate of oysters, so fair enough. After all too, the beer taste is the main thing and even where oyster is used, one doesn’t want a marked taste of Neptune in the beer. A good oyster stout was never fishy, it seems.