Category Archives: journalism

Ron Pattinson, beer historian, on the quest to recreate ancient ales


Before I started writing about beer, I wrote a bit about history. As an undergrad and Masters student in Canadian history, I spent weeks in local archives scanning microfiche for clips on dirty hippies, draft dodgers, student protestors, Canadians fighting in Vietnam and vagabonds thumbing it across Canada.

I even made a road trip to the National Archives to access some files, most of which turned out to be useless, although I bet those blackened bits might have been interesting.

So I got all excited when I got to chat with a fellow history hound, primary-source sleuth, just-the-facts-man — Ron Pattinson, author and amateur beer historian for my latest Hopped Up column in The Grid. He devised the recipe for Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company Dubbel Koyt — a medieval Gruit made with  50 per cent oats — it’s on tap at a bunch of Ontario bars until Thursday or later if the keg hasn’t run out.

I read Ron’s blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, from time to time, but even I have to admit, after scanning a few recipes for one particular historical style of beer brewed in a region, in a specific time period, my eyes glaze over a little. (Perhaps that lack of attention to detail is why us beer writers tend piss Pattinson off so much).

But I’m guessing, from spending time deep in the archives, immersed in a subject I was passionate about — that Pattinson’s own eyes probably glaze over a little after a few hours of photographing old brewing records and sifting through dusty files and microfiche. Yet the English-born, Amsterdam-based Pattinson has been at it so long he’s become the guy that the world’s top brewmasters go to when they want advice — or even a recipe — for brewing a historical beer style, or even a defunct beer from their own storied brewery. Most historians never get to see their ancient fascinations in the flesh — or taste them when they’re brought back to life — Pattinson does — and that’s just fascinating. So I’m posting our whole chat here:

How and when did you get into brewery history?

The thing that really started it all off was Porter. I wanted to know what Porter had been — it’s this legendary thing — I bought all these books and read about it and all the information was contradictory. And if you don’t know what sources they’ve used, how do you know whether what they’re saying is right or not? So I had to go to the primary research. I started looking at old brewing records. The London Metro Archives are amazing — it has brewing records from four of the large London breweries, and really long sets for three of them — for Whitbread it has a run of records from 1815 to 1975 — the complete set. I looked at almost all of them, almost every year.

Fullers have let me look at their records, I’ve been to Lees in Manchester, so I try and collect as much stuff as I can. I’m obsessive about all the primary information, I just had someone send me some more brewing records this week.

That is pretty obsessive. I didn’t realize you’d been at this for so long.

Yeah, I joined CAMRA on my 18th birthday in 1974, so I got interested in beer really early on. I bought my first Michael Jackson book and that really inspired me, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I started going around to places that Jackson had visited. He really taught me about whole foreign beer thing and when I moved to Amsterdam in 1988 and started reading in different languages — German and Dutch — I was able to access even more sources.

So, I know you also write beer guides for different countries, which you sell on your website — do you also have a day job?

Yes. Michael Jackson is the only person who’s ever made a full time living as a beer writer and historian. I have a normal job in IT that pays me enough that I can live.


So, last fall Beau’s Brewing asked you to come up with any Gruit recipe you wanted and then flew you in to brew the beer and talk historical brewing at their Oktoberfest. You chose the Dubbel Koyt — why?

They said they wanted something different. And I thought, ‘OK, well what’s the weirdest thing I’ve got? Hey! I’ve got a really dry book about brewing in Holland in industrial Holland and it happens to have some stuff about way the beers were put together in the Middle Ages…’

It was fun choice for two reasons — because I am coming from Holland so it’s nice to have a Dutch recipe, and two, it was a different type of beer. When I started finding out something about beer in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Belgium and Holland, the thing that surprised me was the grains that they made beer out of, and the grain combinations they used — a lot of recipes used 50 percent oats, which is quite odd. I mean you’d just have real trouble brewing with it.

And when we were brewing at Beau’s, some of the things I feared did happen. Plus it was hard work to brew with oatmeal. When I saw what the guys went through to brew it I generally felt really guilty. You should have seen what the mash looked like — a big lump of porridge. They had to poke it with a stick for half an hour to get it all broken up.

And you didn’t have the whole recipe handy, just had the grain bill, correct? So you had to fill in the rest of the pieces? 

Yeah, basically I just knew about the  Dutch way to brew Gruits. All a Gruit means in English is a beer that doesn’t have hops in it — so it was wide open to interpretation and I quite liked that because then you don’t have to worry about what the hopping level was, you can just have the herbs in there instead. It was such an interesting grain combination; it was worth doing the thing because it’s simply a beer that people don’t see nowadays.

So given that room for interpretation, how do you know you’re making a historically accurate example?

Normally I work with recipes where I’ve got the original brewing records, but even when you have those, you don’t have everything in there, so there’s always a bit of interpretation and guesswork because none have every single piece of information to reproduce exactly. Some stuff that isn’t there, so when I do a beer with Pretty Things, me and Dann have discussed beforehand about the beer and I explain about the ingredients and stuff, and we come up with a recipe. Sometimes  recipes can be quite vague about the ingredients — it’ll just say sugar — but I know from other things that I’ve read that it was likely this type of sugar, but it didn’t say that for sure, so you just have to make the best guess that you can…

We’re always very careful to say when you do these historic brews, it’s not a clone of the original beer, we’re trying to make it as true to the original as possible and give you an idea of the kind of beer that was brewed at the time.

It seems like a dream gig for a beer historian to be able to bring historical beers to life with breweries around the world — how did that all start with you, and do you work with breweries often?

It started with Shelton Brothers when I got in touch, and pitched idea, and said would you be interested in re-creating these beers, and I got them brewed for me. That was about six years ago, De Molen did those two beers.

Then the Pretty Things owners, Dann and his wife Martha, were heading back to the States and had unexpected layover in Amsterdam. They asked me down the pub for a drink, we got talking and the whole idea of doing some old recipes came up, so we put this thing together. I work with Fullers as well, they’ve got a series of historic beers, so I’ve worked with the brewers and I looked at the records, and that’s been quite fun. And God knows how many people have brewed the recipes off the blog.

So what does it feel like to taste these Ye Olde recipes that you’ve dug up and brought back to life?

It’s brilliant. It gives me genuine pleasure to drink the beer. And the fact that other people are interested is great and it’s nice that a lot of professional brewers are interested in it. That’s why I don’t brew myself because the professionals can make a much better job of it than me. I’ve made a couple of beers with Pretty Things that I’ve really, really liked so much — drinking them brings it all to life.

After all, it’s a whole lot of work with a lot of fairly boring records and I spend hours and hours and hours stuck in archives, taking photos of stuff… So getting to drink some of the beer makes it all worthwhile.

Living in Amsterdam, I imagine you don’t always get to be there for brew day with your collaborators?

No. In the middle of February I’m going to Boston and I’ll get to see Dann brew for the first time, the chance for once to be there when one of the beer is brewed will be great.

What kind of people read your blog?

Two groups, lots of homebrewers, and quite a few professional brewers as well because they’re interested in the recipe formulation and history, it’s how they’re trained. And just general people who are into beer, not necessarily in the trade.



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TV, beer and Aldo Lanzini

Three of the things I’ve been up to this month.

My fiance, Conor McCreery, a comic book creator and screenwriter, has been appearing on the Charles Adler show as a commentator on all things pop culture. Last week they wanted a female talking head to comment on Bridesmaids, a movie that I love, so I decided to give it a shot.  The day of I got super nervous, forcing Conor to play Adler and throw out all sorts of possible questions, over and over. I went to the studio armed with facts, and then, when we did the interview the questions were mostly personal opinion. No rehearsal on those, and no chance to show off all of my R&D. Once we got going, the nerves subsided (it’s easy to talk to a camera that doesn’t look back at you) and I was surprised by how much fun it all was. Now all I need is my own beer travel show.

My first two beer columns have been published in the Grid, and I have plans for more.  There is so much happening in craft and commercial brewing, so lots to talk about. The best part of this new gig has been how welcoming the beer community is — experts, writers and brewers all love what they do and don’t mind sharing their intel. In my latest column, on Barley’s Angels, I looked at women in the craft brewing industry and discovered that the act of making beer is totally girly. Unfortunately I couldn’t squeeze this fascinating history into the column, so I’m sharing it here:

Women parted ways with beer around the industrial revolution, when brewing ale, once the sole responsibility of the female, was moved into factories and drinking shifted from the home to the male-dominated pub. It’s a travesty, because beer is utterly feminine. High status females were the brewsters of chica in pre-Inca and Incan cities high up in the Andes, of Hekt in ancient Egypt, and in charge of the prestigious brewing trade in Babylon and Sumeria (modern day Iraq). Beer deities were always goddesses, never gods. Even the hyper-masculine Vikings favoured brewsters — Norse society law dictated that only women could own brewhouse equipment. Today, things are different. A 2004 Health Canada survey found that a quarter of men ages 19 to 50 drink beer, compared to eight percent of women, and men guzzle, consuming about 80 percent of all beer.

Anthropologist Alan Eames uncovered the female-dominated history of brewing — and more evidence is being unearthed every few years, like a recent discovery that high-ranking females were the brewmasters in pre-Incan societies.

Finally, I just finished up a piece for ELLE’s September issue exploring a fashion and pop culture trend — it was fun to research, and I’ll remain mum about what it is until publication, but I had the pleasure of discovering the work of Italian artist Aldo Lanzini.  His crocheted masks are mesmerizing and all about the construction of identity.

Check out this profile by Crane TV:

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Royal Ontario Museum Sleepover — a scary experience

Taking my 4-year-old nephew to the Royal Ontario Museum’s dinosaur-themed sleepover seemed like the perfect plan to win me the Favourite Auntie Award.  Not so, it turns out, if your nephew has an unnatural fear of just about every animal (dead or alive).

Still, we survived.  You can read the article I wrote about it here. Hot tip: Bring or make a fast friend the same age as your niece/nephew, and suddenly the “I want to go home to Mommy’s” dissapear.  It’s magic.  For more photos from the night, check out my ever evolving flickr page.

For those of you into such things, this event occurred about a year ago — but I just stumbled upon the article and thought I’d post it.

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Work, work, work

That’s what 2011 has been all about for me so far.  Well, that and a big fat engagement ring. (Yeah!)

But seriously, apart from shoving the gold and emerald band on my fat knuckle (thanks recreational basketball) I’ve hardly felt time to breathe work wise. So I’ve retired all of my public relations work to focus on writing and editing (almost) full time.

I’m just finishing up my first feature for Reader’s Digest (it’s a meaty story, and I can’t wait to get my edits back as I think I did a kick ass job, fingers crossed). I wrote a service piece for them earlier this year on Allergies, which opened the door to the editors taking my feature idea. In December, I landed my very first profile in a national magazine — it was on Lynda Powless, the editor and publisher of Turtle Island NewsMore nominated it for Best Profile for this year’s National Magazine Awards, which made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I also acted as a judge for those awards – in the always glamorous and exciting “How To” category.  There were over 50 pieces to read, from How to Make a Wreathe to How to Stalk a Deer.  As a new editor, (I started as Managing Editor at Precedent last June), I found the discussion with the other judges highly instructive — my opinions were sometimes wildly variant from theirs, and I even admitted that I was wrong on some fronts — but not all.

On the non-work front, I’ve been taking a photography class through the Native Women’s Resource Centre — as a Board Member it’s given me a chance to spend time with the women who use the centre everyday — and get to know my new Panasonic DMC LX5.  I love you camera. I love you. We were tasked with a photo essay, so I chose the Business of Weddings, documenting visits to three wedding venues in one morning. You can see those pictures, and more on my Flickr page.

And now the second big season of my walking tour company — Walk T.O. — is ramping up. And it’s a busy one.  We’ve hired four new guides (all amazing teachers, eco-geeks, artists and/or a combination of all three) and we’re in training mode. Today and tomorrow we have 300 students from North Toronto Collegiate on our Toronto the Green Tour — that’s the entire section of Grade 9 Geography.  And it takes a lot of energy to keep one step ahead of them. One thing to be thankful for: the weather forecast was wrong today, no thunderstorms, just light rain.

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No such thing as freedom of the press in Indian country

Lynda Powless now has ready access to the local police force -- but that wasn't always the case. When she first started her newspaper, police, not used to press coverage, tried to block her from taking photos and reporting on their investigations

On May 11, 1993, in a conference room of the Radisson Hotel in London, Ontario, Lynda Powless stood before the two men and one woman who were heading up the biggest ever public inquiry into the injustices facing Native people in Canada.  Powless, a Mohawk reporter for the CBC, was there to talk about media.

The stout, boisterous brunette was characteristically blunt.  “There is no such thing as freedom of the press in Indian country,” she told the Royal Commission of Aboriginal People.

In August, when I interviewed Powless for a profile that is in this month’s More magazine, she said that her 17-year-old statement still holds true.

If non-Aboriginal journalists try to get information from the band council that should be publicly accessible, Ottawa will tell you that it belongs to the band.  “I’ve had to resort to the fact that I’m a band member to get basic information, like the annual audit,” she says, “that shouldn’t happen.”

But Powless also wonders why journalists are still going to jail in Canada over freedom of information. “Press rights should be enshrined in this country, as they are in the U.S,” she says.

Powless and her oldest son, James, TIN's photographer covering a smoke factory investigation

One year after the RCAP testimony, Powless started Turtle Island News, an independent weekly newspaper on Six Nations. I saw her speak at an awards event in Toronto two years ago, and was taken in by her story: A single mom moves back to her reserve (the most populous and one of the wealthiest in Canada) to raise three sons and start a newspaper.  Her muckracking turns nearly everyone in the 15,000 strong community – apart from her sister and few close friends – into an enemy.  Not an easy path to walk, but Powless chose it.

Today, there are maybe two independent national newspapers focusing on Aboriginal issues – Powless’s amoung them – but independent, community newspapers on reserves are almost non-existent.  The profile focuses on Powless’s determination to run an independent newspaper on a native reserve in Canada.  The stonewalling and isolation she suffers is one big reason why most reserves don’t have a free, local press.

Does it matter?  Sure some community papers are nothing more than vanity presses, but the majority report transparently on important, local government decisions.  And at a basic level, how are you supposed to cast an informed vote if you don’t know what’s going on?

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Canada’s oldest industry gets hip

After three days spent trapping beaver on icy lakes, north of Sudbury, and not one, but two years visiting the North Bay Fur Harvester’s Annual Convention, I think I have a handle on the modern day fur trade here in Canader.  Its peopled by colourful, smart and passionate folk – and it was a treat to write about them for this month’s Walrus magazine.

I collected loads of great sound material and I am working on turning it into a radio documentary for doc north — a film festival focusing on northern Canadian stories.  The festival is new and its organizers said they’d be happy to consider a radio doc — if it is accepted it means another trip to North Bay this April!  You can take the girl out of Terrace Bay, but you can’t take Terrace Bay…

A lot of the research I did ended up on the cutting room floor… but I hope to parlay it into a bigger project one day.

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Mike Holmes, sex researchers & St Clair West

It’s great when articles you filed back in May finally come to fruition.

Last spring, contractors across the country kindly answered my very basic questions about building closets, knocking out walls, and all things hot water tanks (winning hed: Go Tankless) for two service features I wrote for Mike Holmes’s magazine, on newstands now.  I also wracked my Dad’s construction brain for the basics.  He was delighted to help.  In three years of journalism, my parents have never been more excited over any gig I’ve had.  What I learned working for this magazine: everyone loves Holmes.

I also interviewed longtime residents of St. Clair West – one even took me on a bike tour in the rain – to find out all about the neighbourhood for this month’s Toronto Life. Sadly, my juicy, gossipy tidbits got cut — if they’re not posted online next month, I’ll share them here.

I also chatted with ten leading sex researchers, wizards, therapists and teachers across Canada and the U.S. who swear that pilates, eating liver and watching porn designed for ladies will up women’s libidos.  That should be in the October issue of Glow.

Finally, a story I’ve been thinking over and working on for a (sadly long) two years is in October’s Walrus.  It’s about the fur trade, told from a visit to the North Bay Fur Harvester’s 19th annual convention this April.   I love this story – and hope you will all read it.

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