Dundurn Castle Brewery

By Craig Pinhey

Luckily for us in the Golden Horseshoe, Winter tends to come later than sooner, but that means we get two months of rain and slush instead of snow. A mixed blessing of sorts, but we get used to it. Blessing came in a different form for beer lovers in Hamilton this month, as the Dundurn Castle hosted a "Beer History Night" on Friday the 13th.

Thirty odd people gathered on this cool Fall night for a tribute to beer and particularly Ontario Beer history. Curator and host Bill Nesbitt greeted us and ushered us upstairs above the Coach House Restaurant, the Castle's historic eating establishment. The upstairs has been fixed up with wooden beams to create a lovely loft area, perfect for special dinners, weddings, beer tastings and the like.

Dundurn Castle was built in the 1830's by Sir Allan MacNab and is still in operation. The building is surrounded by beautiful grounds and other historic buildings, including the arena for cock fighting! Most importantly though, it features a historic brewery in the basement.

Earlier this summer, as part of my duty as President of CABA (Canadian Amateur Brewer's Association), I had the pleasure of dressing in mid 1800's costume and helping Bill to brew in this interesting setting. After consulting Butler's diaries for period recipes and applying my homebrewer's instincts, I came up with a recipe to brew a strong English Ale in the spirit of the mid 1800's. The recipe consisted of mainly pale malt, with additions of crystal and chocolate malt to estimate the dark beers brewed in those days. Hops were chosen to give adequate bitterness to last those long hot humid summers, and the hops (from an old strain) grown in the Castle garden were employed as fresh picked flowers for hop flavour and aroma.

Historic equipment in the brewery includes a wooden mash tun, a copper grain filter, an iron boiling kettle, wooden paddle, and a wooden fermenter. Cheating included using a propane burner (the fireplace is no longer operational in the brewery) and using glass fermenters to avoid the bacterial contamination deep set in the infrequently used wooden fermenter. Sulphur sticks were used to sterilize the wood. We used no temperature measuring devices, using the 'ouch!' technique for determining appropriate mashing and sparging temperatures. Bill seemed very good at determining when the water was 'stinging hot', indicating to the average Butler that it is time to add grain.

After a slow sparge and long wait to boil, we were on our way. The brew was completed in around 6 hours, with an additional waiting period for the wort to cool to adequate pitching temperature. The yeast used was a locally obtained culture of Conner's Ale yeast. This lively yeast produces a very fruity and very English tasting ale. The fact that the yeast we used came directly from a 'just fermented' beer allowed for a very short lag time and very active ferment. The beer started at just over S.G. 1080 and finished around 1012-1015. This means that we got a strong ale - possibly an Old Ale or Barley Wine - from the first runnings, with an IBU around 40-50. The second runnings produced a 1050 ale with much less hops - what they would call a 'small beer' in the 1800's, served to the staff as part of their wages and not meant for keeping a long time. Yes - our small beer was rather large, but I'll put that down to being too conservative on the grain bill. They used to give the small beer to the kids as well, but I wouldn't recommend this one, although I'm sure they'd like it.

With Bill's expertise in the Castle's system, we produced a damn fine beer!

The dinner at the castle consisted of period courses, starting with an oyster cream soup, very light and tasty - oysters were a delicacy reserved for the rich in those days. The second course was a venison pasty - absolutely delicious with my Conner's Ale that I was sipping. Third course was ham baked in hay, which was cooked in Conner's Best Bitter, and was happy for it. The tender ham reeked of good beer, and went nicely with a side of Conner's Bitter. Dessert was a decadent chocolate cake which I didn't need. If only Brick still brewed Conner's Stout, that would have washed this cake down nicely.

Brick Brewery was nice enough to sponsor this event, which explains the Conner's references above. On speaking to the Brick Rep's at the dinner, I learned that they may indeed bring back the Stout, which I think is great, as I much prefer their full bodied style to the lighter stout imports like Guinness and Murphys.

Dinner was followed by a tour of the aforementioned brewery and a tasting of both the small beer and strong ale. The small beer was a bit flat due to undercarbonation but was a very nice subtley malty beer, very lightly hopped with a nice grainy aftertaste. The folks seemed to like it. The strong ale was dark amber in colour, intensely fruity on pouring, and tasted very strong and sweet, with a nice bitterness to balance. I found it akin to a sweeter version of a U.S. West Coast IPA, if you can imagine them brewed with non-citrusy hops. So, my guess is this beer is not a far off rendition of an 1800's strong ale. One guest commented that it tasted almost like a Belgian Abbey beer. Of course that indicates perhaps some affect other that the Conner's so we'll just ignore that. Most of the guests told me they loved it.

The Brewery tour and tasting was followed by a talk from Ian Bowering, our foremost Beer Historian. As usual, Ian entertained the crowd with his accurate, though often hilarious, recounting of the development of the North American and particularly Hamilton beer scene. I for one am glad to know that the Pilgrim's landed because they were out of beer!

Ian also led the crowd through a tasting of Brick's beers, including Brick Premium Lager, Conner's Ale, Conner's Bitter, Celis Wit, and Algonguin Black & Tan. He pointed out, correctly I think, that Celis might be best indicative of historic beer, since it is brewed with alternatives to hops. However, he also pointed out that Conner's Ale and Bitter do a good job of keeping the old English Ale style alive and well in the New World. Personally, I love all of these beers except the bland Black & Tan.

All in all a great evening of beer and food. Thanks to Bill Nesbitt of Dundurn Castle, the Coach House Staff, Ian Bowering, CABA and the Brick Brewery. Also thanks to Si Cowe of Lakeside Brewery and Wine in Toronto for consulting and help with ingredients. Dundurn Castle is located at York Boulevard in Hamiton, Ontario, L8R 3H1. Call 905 546 2872 for reservations at the Coach House.

®Craig Pinhey 1999 All Rights Reserved

Craig Pinhey