Canadian Beer Is Stronger Than American, Not.


A stock notion, firmly held by most people in the 1970’s-90’s whatever their interest in beer, was that Canadian beer was stronger, or better, than American. Or both. Indeed Americans, famously proud of their country and its multiform achievements, shared the opinion. It was one of the few areas they were willing to concede superiority to their Canuck neighbours.

How did it break down? The idea was that the typical Canadian beer, at 5% alcohol by volume, was stronger than the American beer norm. This was true, but the American standard was actually 4.7 or 4.8% ABV, a negligible difference. The real reason American beer was thought weaker was that its strength, when expressed not by volume of alcohol but by weight, came to 4%. (Alcohol is lighter than water). Even though beer strength wasn’t generally shown on the label stateside, somehow the idea formed that Canadian beer was a point stronger than American.

Also, at the time Canadian beer was thought to have a heavier body and more pronounced taste than American brews. The difference was real and due partly to the fact that a lot Canadian beer then was still ale while most American beer was lager. Second, Canadian ale probably on average used less starch adjunct than American lager. This was certainly so in the period leading up to WW I when much Canadian ale was still all-malt and most American beer, of any style, had 25-30% adjunct. Generally, adjunct beers are lighter in taste than all-malt beers. Canadian beer may have used more hops on average than American beers, another factor.

In a 1976 American book on beer can-collecting the theory was offered that after Prohibition U.S. consumers wanted beer that tasted like the pop they got used to in the 20’s, but Canadians still made good beer because many U.S. brewers left their homeland during Prohibition to take up the mashing fork in Canada! Now there’s an ingenious acknowledgement of Canadian brewing savvy – ¬†the Yanks still come out on top. ūüôā

Be that as it may, all were agreed in the old days that Canuck brews had the edge, e.g., 1970’s beer books, American or Canadian, concur on this one way or another.

Until as late as last year, I still heard an expression of the old idea. It was on a radio show, someone being interviewed mentioned it incidentally. The interviewer, if he/she knew any different, let it pass.

Let’s be clear: the meme is as dead as the dodo in this era of strong and tasty craft brews. Indeed the Americans inaugurated the change in the 70’s via the path-breaking New Albion Brewing Co. and Anchor Brewing,¬†as well as through the considerable achievements of the American Homebrewers Association. Even in the 1980’s and 90’s, Canadian mainstream beer had turned stylistically to lager, or light (in alcohol) beer, and adjunct use wasn’t getting any smaller; the beer traditions of both countries were in fact merging even before craft beer took hold in North America.

Cultural product units, as the sociologists call them, are essential to civilized living. The Canadian beer-is-stronger thing was one of them, a detail, even a standby, of the old North American beer culture. But its time is long past. This post can serve as its memorial.

For those to whom this comes as news, meet the new boss, and it’s not the same as the old boss.


Note re image used: the image is in the public domain, sourced here.


We Put A Scotch Beer To The Test

Having scoped earlier (see also the Addendum) the smoky side of Scotch beer, let’s drink some, shall we? Well I will.

If Ontario isn’t a Scottified outpost, I don’t know what is, so Beau’s 80 Shilling is a good place to start.


There is a fruity yeast background, a biscuit malt taste I recognize from somewhere but can’t place, and a touch of the advertised organic roasted barley. Earthy, slightly drying, not smoky in this case.

A good beer that would be outstanding on cask.

Aye, laddie, ’tis a bonny beer – where’s the whisky?

Scottish Beer and The Smoke Question



There has been some controversy in recent years whether Scottish ales should have a smoky or prominent roasty note. Some people insist they should not. The current edition of the American style guideline BJCP (see p. 25), is an example, repeating for the various categories that a roasty or peat smoke note is inauthentic. It acknowledges (how could it not?) that roasted barley or brown malt can figure in the mashbill but states this is a matter of colour adjustment, and peated malt is excluded from the suggested ingredients. BJCP states if you want to make a smoky Scottish ale, it should be classified in the Classic Styles Smoked Beer section.

The BJCP reflects the current thinking of some that peated or roasted tastes came into Scottish-style beer through an error of thinking Scots brewers must have used peated malt just as Scottish distillers did for their classic malt whiskies.

This is a revisionism gone too far. In my own taste experience with numerous classic Scottish ales since the late 1970s, they sometimes taste of cured malt or a tinge of smoky fire. The early American beer writer James Robertson, in 1978 in The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, wrote that McEwan’s Edinburgh Ale had a “roast bacon” taste.

Why would he say that? He had no ax to grind on this issue. He said it because the beer tasted like that. The re-introduced McEwan’s Scotch Ale, which I’ve tasted numerous times, has a similar taste. See for example the reference to “smokey malt” (twice) and “a little bit whisky” in the March 19, 2015¬†review on Beer Advocate,¬†here. ¬†Of course, not all reviews read the same but not all tasters can identify specific traits in beer due to varying experience and different sensitivity levels. If one reads all the reviews since the beer was brought back by current label-owner Wells Young, I think it is quite clear it has the taste in question. Wells Young researched the taste history of the brand before bringing it back. I doubt is in error as to the taste as it’s been at least from the 1970s.

Belhaven’s St. Andrew’s Ale, about 15 years ago, had a similar tangy cured barley note. Earlier reviews on Beer Advocate show this clearly. This review from December 13, 2010 in Britain states:¬†“mildly dirty and peaty note that nears mild elements of smoke”. ¬†The May 28, 2010 review says “peaty smoke”. ¬†Other reviews use the words “touch of smoke”, “peaty”, “earthy”. Belhaven was not a craft brewery but old-established, as the McEwan’s brand is, and wouldn’t have mistaken the taste of Scottish beer.

My own readings in early Scots literature suggest that beer made on the crofts or in similar artisan surroundings had a smoky taste, one admired locally. An example from the later 1600’s ¬†is here, authored by Sir Robert Murray. He wrote in a discussion of Scottish malting that “the best fuel is peat”. Murray was clearly referring to material for ale-brewing in the discussion.

Another example is here, from a book published in 1822 in London but containing letters written in the 1720s ascribed to Edward Burt. He says plain as day that Scottish common ale was smoky from use of peat, turf, or furze to prepare the malt. The way he writes, it is clear that by then English ale did not have the taste – he notes the Scottish taste as something unusual and acquired due to custom.

With the industrialization of brewing in Scotland through the later 1800s, styles more similar to English mild and pale ales emerged, and these beers did not generally exhibit smoky tastes. Earlier, at an artisan stage, they must have, when wood, turf, straw, or fern was used to cure all malts. With the development of coke or smokeless coal, a smoky note in beer would have subsided except partially in the black porter, where the taste was still wanted. I believe that Scots brewers knew or continued the ancestral use of peaty or smoky malt in brewing and some Scottish beer always showed the taste. Michael Jackson in his 1993 Beer Companion noted a “peaty” note in McEwan’s beers from roasted barley and suggested, or I read him that way, it was a traditional taste; this was the same brewery Jim Robertson wrote about in 1978.

As traditional and craft brewers like to highlight older practices, it is no surprise that since the late 70s, both craft and some traditional Scotch ales have a smoky or cured edge. By cured I mean lightly phenolic or earthy/smoky versus the clean, dark caramel taste of a German dunkel, say.

Addendum: In this 1828 text on malting and distilling by a Scot, John McDonald, he describes in Chapter 99 (see pp 119-120) the procedure to prepare malt. While his focus is spirits, he addresses ale as well and describes under the term “beer” the mash extract for both ale and spirit. He specifically mentions “peats” or “peets” as the fuel to make his malt. Particularly for small-scale ale brewing, it is surely evident that¬†c. 1830 some Scottish ale had a peaty reek. ¬†In 1867, in Charles Dickens’ All The Year Round, it was stated that in New York, Scotch ale tasted “disagreeably sweet and smoky”. That brings matters to the last quarter of the 1800s.

All this being so, that some Scottish ale was always given a peaty or smoky snap seems easy to conclude. It might have been done by ensuring some malt was kilned with peat or wood, or in some other way. Even some pale malt may have been prepared for the purpose. And we know that in 1978 Рand after Рsome Scottish ale conveyed to tasters smoky, earthy, peaty and whisky flavours. This spells a pattern.

Note: The image above is in the public domain, as indicated here.




Some Classic Lagers Revisited

A fine beer, i) is made from traditional ingredients and not heavily processed, and ii) has an excellent flavour. Craft productions do not occupy all the space here. Blonde lager made by old-established companies can be superlative too. European lagers in particular have set the pace for quality since pale lager took root in Pilsen, Czech Republic in 1842. But you have to get the right beers, and at their best.

In the early days of the craft brewing era, some names in Europe were highly reputed for lager. The most famous was and still is Pilsner Urquell. Another was Grolsch from Holland, which had a top reputation for its all-malt recipe and lack of any form of pasteurization.

Another beer well-reputed was Stiegl Gold of Salzburg, Austria.

Recently I had these in a flight – a serving of about 4 oz each – at the Loose Moose downtown in Toronto. ¬†Unlike on most previous occasions when tasting these anywhere, each was nigh on perfect. This means: the beer was well-brewed, it was very fresh, and served in very clean glassware. ¬†It may sound odd to say that brands such as these made for generations can be brewed differently or taste different but I’m convinced this can occur. Brewing processes change, sometimes subtly but they do, ingredients certainly change especially the availability of some hops, and of course the age of a particular barrel and how it was treated before beer hits your glass can vary quite a bit.

Sometimes conditions contrive to make the perfect taste though, as the other day at Loose Moose.

The Grolsch had no grassy skunky notes. I’ve often noticed this taste before, and I don’t think it comes (usually) from the green bottle as I’ve noticed it in the canned version too. I believe it is a dimethyl sulfide note (DMS), that typical boiled onion taste so many Euro lagers have, and which many people like evidently. I am hoping either that the draft is made a little differently than the bottled stuff or the lab people at SAB Miller are seeking to rub out the taste. ¬†(If they are, keep going team, you’re on the right track). The result was a dryish, clean malty taste with some good neutral-type hops underneath in support. Not a strong taste but a good one. I’d rather have a fine but restrained taste than bags of flavours which don’t cohere or taste right.

Stiegl was more hoppy and a little heavier in body with a fine apple note from the yeast surely. It was spicy in the best German way but with no DMS, no chemical/chlorine taste as numerous other German imports seem to have, perhaps from overage or deterioration to heat.

The Urquell was winy-like, with an insistent hop presence and the slight rye bread note the beer usually has. But the balance and freshness were better than I’ve had from cans or bottles recently, and well, it’s just the right taste. It reminded me of very fresh Urquell in NYC where the turnover is high and after all NYC is the first landing in from the Atlantic. (Still, it can be indifferent in New York too).

When European lager is as good as these, it easily matches the best top-fermentation beers of England or Belgium, and now too North America which does a good turn in pale ale and India pales.

But rare is the opportunity, in my experience, to taste each of these at their very best. It’s nice when it all comes together. For the student of the beer palate, small differences can make all the difference…

Stray Thoughts As The Year Closes

Some unconnected thoughts that nonetheless encapsulate in toto my specific approach to beer, pubs and other things bibulous.

First, I note with bemusement the febrile rivers of bandwidth still being devoted to big brewery takeovers of craft operations. The angst seems always present even when the opposite posture is proferred.

I was there at the beginning and can say the goal was to get good beer. Many large or old-established regional breweries then, especially in England, Belgium and Germany, made great beer. Guinness (bottled) was great then. No one was concerned as such with how large a brewery was. No one would suggest, say, that Courage Directors or Ind Coope’s Burton Ale were anything but world-league beers. The problem was that breweries in North America had consolidated to the point where light-bodied beer was a firmly-held mantra, culmination of a decades-long process.

The small is beautiful mantra came later as a spin-off from the beer revival movement. While valid unto itself, it was never the only model for good beer, nor could this really be possible as new entrants often lack the skills and palate experience to make fine beer.

Tempus fugit and with it, the tastes and assumptions of a previous generation…

The widespread availability of fine beer in a range of styles has now been fully addressed since 1980. This was due to the landmark efforts of Michael Jackson, Ken Grossman, Fritz Maytag, Charlie Papazian, Bert Grant, John Sleeman, and many others. In a word, they made large brewers take notice.¬†The growing tide finally convinced the megas they were behind the times, to the point some well-known small breweries are being bought up; that’s good. (And it’s not entirely a new phenomenon either, it started almost as soon as the craft breweries did. Its acceleration simply speaks to the slow but certain acceptance of quality beer by the market at large, or enough of it to make a difference).

There is every reason to think big brewers will continue the quality standards the small units bought out made their reputation on. Except for the Bud Light type of beer, and also certain imports such as Corona and Heineken which have an inherent status in the eyes of many, the future is in full-flavoured beers. Big brewers know this. We’ve won, and if any doubt persists, there are lots of existing and upcoming breweries to keep the big fellas honest. If they change Goose Island IPA, say or Mill St Tankhouse Ale, lots of hungry breweries will take up the slack.

The issue is done as dinner as far as I’m concerned, and I hope the beer press leaves it alone except to note clinically the further buy-outs as they occur.

Best beers of 2015? For me, Germany’s DAB Dark with its velvet, molasses-like palate, very stable in the can and showing the true qualities of Bavarian dark lager albeit from Dortmund.¬†In Toronto: Amsterdam Brewery’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale, which used fresh (unkilned) hops from an Ontario farm. The vivid qualities of these hops surely evoke the kind of beer made in the distant era when hop culture and processing were a local, non-standardized business. I must also mention Bellwood’s Cat Lady IPA, which I discussed in posting a few months ago. In New York, the collaboration brewing of Tres Equis by Threes Brewing and Other Half set a new standard for a broadly Czech-type pale lager as far as I’m concerned. And I must say my re-acquaintance with the venerable Molson Stock Ale was pleasing. It has a full flavour with an insistent hop quality I can only call “nervous”, in the sense that is used to describe certain French white wines. (See the definition of nervous in wine-speak here for those not familiar with the term).

Most interesting Toronto beer bar? As always, Bar Volo due to its ever-changing and imaginative selection and sympa service as well as its connections to the ineffable Cask Days. Other bars appreciated were Dora Keogh, the Wallace, the Granite, the Wheatsheaf, and Cork’s Wine and Beer Bar (Laird St. location). Each offered something different, not least a personal touch from the owners or staff.

When a dram of whiskey is wanted, this year Tennessee’s Jack Daniel Single Barrel impressed a lot. There is an ever-increasing range too of excellent Canadian whiskies, tangy with the mint or spice of rye grain sheathed in sweet barrel gums. Alberta Springs Dark Horse, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye and Gooderham & Worts Four Grain would surely rank in most peoples’ top 10.

In wine, Ontario Niagara sparklers are surely at a peak of quality, especially Tawse’s and 13th Street’s, also Henry of Pelham’s and in general riesling from that area. A number of¬†assemblages of reds put together by skilled craftsmen/vintners in the VQA genre made a statement too. ¬†And did you see I didn’t mention icewine…?

We live in the best of all possible times for quality beer, wine and spirits in Ontario – it will only get better.





The Wheatsheaf – A Toronto Classic










The Wheatsheaf, a downtown pub (really tavern), has operated in the same location with the same name since about 1850!  In other cities, that fact would be lionized with perhaps the inevitable gentrification that happens to storied old haunts. Not in Toronto: the Wheatsheaf wears its history and venerability with nonchalance and remains pretty much the place it always was, a Toronto beverage room where all are welcome, old-timers, young condo-dwellers, hipsters, those who count pennies to make the price of a pint, businesspeople out for a quick lunch, everyone.

It other words it does what a good bar should do: sup and feed at a reasonable cost, in interesting surroundings.

The beer culture in Toronto, focused as it has been (understandably) on beer itself, overlooks the Wheatsheaf. No doubt this is due to its largely macro beer choice, mostly Molson Coors beers. But the pub is a spacious and comfortable place, full of those long wooden tables and chunky “banker’s” chairs that contrive to be comfortable even though they don’t look it.

There is always a food special on, and if they play music on the sound system I didn’t hear it (there are TVs here and there but they don’t seem to obtrude).

The waiters are efficient, no-nonsense but friendly. If you ask about the tunnel supposedly buried underground leading to Fort York they will give you their version of the tale.

You can get Mill St Tankhouse Ale, Steamwhistle lager and Creemore there, so while not the summum of the beerological arts, there is brew sufficient to placate the fastidious taster.

And you know what? You can get Molson Stock Ale there on draft, which is entirely appropriate to the history of the place. ¬†Molson used to have a brewery on the lakefront nearby, on Lakeshore Boulevard, and I’ll bet plenty of Stock Ale was dispensed from the Wheatsheaf in the heyday of that 1950’s artifact (now dismantled).











Doug Taylor, a Toronto historian, wrote a good¬†summary of the pub’s history with some interesting details on architecture,¬†here.

Want to go old-school in Hogtown including old-school Canuck beer? Visit the Wheatsheaf, order a pint of Molson Stock and some wings or a burger with back bacon, and you’re good. Or I am.


Note re images: the images used were sourced from the Internet and indicated as in public domain.

Brown Ale Considered


Alan in Holland suggested I write some thoughts on brown ale, a category he always found somewhat unclear. His perception actually accords with the beer’s place in brewing and beer history. Although if you look closely enough, the general pattern emerges.

First (in Britain’s primal communities) there was ale – fermented barley malt, probably not boiled, no hops, although sometimes flavoured with herbs or spices. A sweetish, bready drink (probably), with little shelf-life.

Later came beer proper, inherited from Holland and the other Low Countries when the Dutch and Flemings migrated to Suffolk and other eastern parts, mid-1500’s. This was an infusion of malted barley, and sometimes other grains, boiled with the resinous flowers of the hop vine and then fermented. Beer kept better than ale due to the preservative and ascorbic qualities of the hop. For a long time, ale and beer co-existed although in time even ale used hops, but less than for beer.

For colour, ale was generally light-coloured, beer was darker and approaching to black in the case of porter and stout. Porter and stout were always beers, not ales although both are top-fermented vs. the sedimentary fermentation of lager.

However, this scheme was never airtight. 1700’s brewing manuals give recipes for both pale and brown season beers – beers laid down to mature and protected by their higher content of hops. Conversely, there are Georgian recipes for common – not 1800’s – pale ale and brown ones, including a strong ale called “stitch”, probably linked to the expression to be stitched up, still understood in Britain.

Thus, by the 1700’s, both beer and ale could be brown or pale or indeed amber. The really important distinction was in terms of hop levels. For much of the 1800’s, beer was well-understood: it was a decidedly bitter drink of porter, stout, or India Pale Ale – confusingly, IPA was beer not ale despite the moniker. True ale could be mild (new) or aged and if aged it had more hops than mild ale, but all things equal ale was on the sweet or at least non-bitter side. ¬†An ale meant for keeping (aging) always had less hops than a beer of the same strength, approximately half according to the researches of beer historian Ron Pattinson.

Today, most beer in my opinion is actually ale except for the most bitter examples of IPA and stout, and the reason is that hop levels today are far lower than in the 1800’s. In effect ale and beer have merged and you can have colours of each in any hue and of any strength. Nonetheless the old distinction lingers in that England’s “pint of mild” where you can still get it is almost always less bitter than a brewery’s “pint of bitter” aka pale ale aka India Pale Ale, the meanings are synonymous.

Brown ale seems to have declined by the end of the 1700’s, as porter and stout rose in appreciation that is. This was probably due to the more complex palate and evolved flavour of the black beers. The odd brown ale was still made though through the 1800’s, and the type resurged in the 1900’s, generally as a bottled beer. Newcastle Brown Ale is or was famous as a brown ale type, and there were sweeter ones such as Mann’s Brown Ale, still made I believe.¬†I would think 1700’s brown ale had a somewhat smoky taste due to being made, as porter was, from all-brown malt then. 20th century brown ale does not have that taste.¬†The keynote signature is a caramel mildness, but each brewer had/has his own take. Today craft brewers make all manner of browns so that stylistically it is impossible to classify them easily.

If one can generalize at all, brown ales are usually not highly hopped, and in this sense reflect the lesser-hopped quality ale had traditionally. History’s hand can be seen at work, albeit one must peer to discern the outline and with the benefit of some historical study.

A Canadian Straight Wheat Whiskey – Like A Fine Malt


This was released a couple of years back as part of a series of straight whiskeys, they are sourced by all available information from Alberta Distillers in Alberta, Canada. The straight rye was the first at 10 years old, then a barley and wheat version. I think a 12 year old version of the rye has appeared now too. These are a merchant’s bottling and initially were sold only in the U.S. but are now available in parts of Canada. Alberta Distillers is owned by Beam Suntory which owns the Canadian Club brand.

I tried the barley version earlier and thought it was just so-so but the wheat one is very good. Reviews online seemed a little tepid, questioning why the whisky is so light-coloured for its 12 years in new charred oak, and noting the lightness of palate.

The colour is down in my view to the colder Canadian climate, in comparison to that of Kentucky and Tennessee. A colder climate results in less intensive “cycling” – the movement of whisky into the barrel frame as heat rises and back into the barrel as temperature drops. This means less tannins and wood sugars get into the whiskey as compared to a hotter-climate whisky. Some warehouses are artificially heated but even so my experience is cold-climate whiskeys are different than the classic Kentucky straights, you get a more restrained palate which isn’t bad or good as such, it’s different.

The flavour of this straight wheat is excellent, winy and with an unmistakable waxy note that shows distillation at a low proof: a copper pot still is used in this case. Distillation at low proof, in the range, that is, historically used to distill brandy, tequila, the original style of rum and Scots and Irish barley-derived whiskeys, results in the true whiskey taste, modified to be sure by long aging. Whiskies which are distilled to a proof at or close to that which produces the vodka-like grain neutral spirits are a later development from better distilling technology Рbetter from a throughput and cost point of view  Рbut they never deliver on their own a classic whiskey taste. They find their best use in blending though.

The Masterson’s needs a touch of water, at bottling proof the texture isn’t quite right. A little water makes the spirit glycerine smooth and it slides down easily while disclosing fine taste. You can almost smell the wheat too, and the connection to Maker’s Mark, say, is quite evident if you discount for the Kentucky climate, and the corn. This product reminded me of some Scots malts aged in well-used casks, the ones that have a “white wine” look and taste. A good example is here, Old Malt Cask’s Bladnoch at 15 years old.¬†Viewed in this light, much of the online critiques of the Masterson’s wheat lose any force. In other words, the product should not be compared even implicitly to a Kentucky bourbon or straight rye.



Jack Daniel Single Barrel Delivers The (Brown) Goods


Jack Daniel’s in recent years, the famed Tennessee Whiskey that is bourbon-like but eschews the word bourbon, has gotten better. It went through a period until about seven or eight years ago when the whiskey seemed unbalanced with an acerbic banana/acetone flavour. This is all in the past now and I think it is simply the result of better batch preparation: the mingling of the barrels seems to get more attention.

Regular Jack Daniel is on the sweet side, sometimes still with a banana or other yellow fruit note, but the whisky, even at the current 40% ABV (save special releases) is almost always very sound, whiskey which can stand up and then some to the Kentucky bourbon. Indeed today when long-aged bourbon is at a premium, Jack even at its 4-5 years of age is a good value.

But where things really ramp up at the House of Jack is the single barrel version. 10 years ago or so these were higher-alcohol versions of regular Jack and while selected from one barrel, as today, they didn’t offer anything really different. That was then. In the last few years, the single barrels show a demonstrably higher quality, or in my opinion they do. Each bottling, too, is different: some more woody, some more sweet or ashy, some with the trademark Bananas Foster note, and some with no banana esters at all.

This reflects the peculiarities of each barrel and its position on the rack in the warehouse. The weather too each year is different. In the result, the “honey barrels” as they are called, aged in the top (hotter) portion of the warehouse, each end by being a different “vintage”.

The one pictured above, bottled in August of this year, is a virtually perfect Jack. It is viscous, slightly sweet, with a minty/fudge/campfire flavour. Very smooth on the tongue too for something almost half ethanol alcohol.

A fine malt, fine Canadian and fine American whiskey are typically quite different. Jack is a pure American expression of the whiskey-maker’s art. You can see behind it the British influences which the Scots and Scots-Irish brought to Appalachia and environs. I think the charred barrel smoky notes may have been intended to replicate Islay and Ulster whisky of the 1700’s which used peated malt. The grain bill of an American straight – generally corn, rye, barley malt – is kind of like an Irish single pot still approach in that a good part of the mash derives from unmalted grains.

But no Irish whiskey, no Scots malt, tastes anything like a honeyed, slightly charcoal and wintergreen shot of American whiskey. The warm climates of Kentucky and Tennessee have something to do with that. And the Tennessee straight style adds that week of percolation through a stack of maple charcoal before the “white dog” (new whiskey) is barrelled for aging. The maple charcoal treatment, a vestige of a 19th century whiskey “cleansing” process, adds the final fillip to the legend that is Jack.

Anyway, words can’t do it justice, but we have to try. A few drops of Jack SB make the words flow better, I declare.

Spiced Beef for Christmas


In Britain in past centuries, a special dish was reserved for this season: a cured and spiced round, leg, or brisket of beef. It was usually prepared in manor houses or prosperous farms. The great culinary author Elizabeth David devoted almost three pages to it in her classic book Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970).

She explained that the dish was largely forgotten in postwar London. Intent on reviving interest in the old specialty, in 1958 she informed “Mr. Ducat”, “master-butcher and creator of the famous French boucherie at Harrod’s”, that she intended to publish a recipe for it in the Christmas Vogue.

In response, he offered to make the dish for the Christmas trade at Harrod’s Food Halls. So he did, with her help, and an immediate success it was. By 1970 Harrod’s was selling thousands of pounds of spiced beef each year.

Once cooked, the spiced beef is scarlet, similar to corned or salt beef in this respect. It is best prepared in a large “joint”, as the British would say. Not less than 20 bovine lbs were deployed in the old days. Spiced beef was typically a set piece among festive dishes that might include roast goose with chestnut stuffing, roast turkey, sirloin of beef, baked apple, mince pudding or pie, and baked ham.

Elizabeth David’s encomium on the dish showed her deep interest and respect for the traditional foods of Britain.¬†She stated that the beef must be dry-cured, not brined, and that the character is vitally affected as a result. She specified, too, placing the meat in dry pickle for upwards of one month.

She held that properly prepared, spiced beef gave some indication of the food eaten by Britons centuries ago, at least those who could afford the best to gladden the season.

Spiced beef may be viewed as a kind of a vintage ham, a dish of the piquant and the salt. Not for every day, but few things are, anyway. This is what the cooked result looks like, neatly trimmed for plating:




When I moved to Toronto 30 years ago a few small butchers still offered it at Christmas. Often a full leg or other joint would be displayed in the window labeled “Christmas beef” or “spiced beef”. Seeing this, I wondered what the taste could possibly be.

I’m from a tradition that takes pride in its corned beef and pastrami – we know from corned beef, you might say. I knew of Irish or London salt silverside, often boiled with cabbage or carrots, but Davidian spiced beef seemed a thing apart.

I mustered the courage to buy it and was intrigued with the taste: spicy, salty, with hints of clove, nutmeg, and other scents of No√ęl. The taste was unique in my experience. Good ham is the closest analogy but the beef taste, married to the confectionary spicing, set it apart. It was both similar and dissimilar to Jewish corned beef when served cold.

As the years went by these small butchers mostly disappeared. Of the one or two that continue, or the odd revivalist, I hope they offer still the dish.

But as Elizabeth David explains, anyone up for it can make it at home. She is specific on instructions. Writes she, “On no account should anyone allow themselves to be persuaded that dry-spiced beef should be boiled or simmered on top of the stove”. Yes Ma’am.

She advises a simple accompaniment: sliced tomato and cucumber, or an avocado salad. These work perfectly of course. A couple of years ago when shopping in the larder that is Summerhill Market in Rosedale, Toronto I noticed a sign in the glassed deli counter: “Spiced beef, only at Christmas”.

I thought, that’s what the little stores up on Yonge Street used to offer, what Elizabeth David memorialized in her book. Summerhill Market has kept it going, perhaps for a few tenacious old customers, or maybe just from sheer habit.

Buying some, I thought the taste excellent, similar to what David described. The ingredients they use are in the label below (and the slices above, from the same package).




A few slices with good whole-grain bread, mustard, and a salad makes a satisfying meal of a late-autumn or winter evening. With sparkling wine or good ale you’re in clover, of a fashion. Tea goes well too, Indian tea by my lights.

Salt advisory: these old foods of pre-refrigeration days can be fearsomely high in sodium minerals, once prized for their preservative power. Spiced beef is not for those shy of the saline hit. Still, just a few slices satisfy, so all told the salt taken in is not excessive. Eaten, too, with vegetables and good bread it makes a reasonable meal we think and certainly one of historical interest.