Tag Archives: history

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.



Filed under beer, journalism

Beaver trapping in Northern Ontario

beaver tail

Stripped of their tail, fur and legs, the six small beaver strung up side-by-side over the open fire look remarkably like the small pig carcasses commonly dissected in high school biology classes.

“They’re done when the blood stops dripping,” says Leonard Naveau, who cooks the meat slowly over four hours, watching as it turns from pink, to deep red, to near black. A retired logger, life-long trapper and former band chief, Leonard is also one the founders of the Mattagami First Nation’s annual Beaver Festival, being held this Saturday April 25th.

Many of the youth in this 450-strong band move away, seeking jobs or better schooling in the nearest cities, Sudbury and Timmins.  Today just 175 members live on the reserve, overlooking the 64-kilometre long Mattagami Lake.

Worried about the declining interest in traditional hunting and trapping among youth on the reserve, Leonard, his partner Linda Penasse, and another couple, Evelyn Boissoneau and the late Willard Harnack, came up with festival six years ago.

But the taste for beaver is highest among the newest residents to the area. The growing community of Polish-Canadians, who left cities like Hamilton and Toronto for the simple life in the nearby railway town of Gogama, are heartily embracing their new digs.  “The Polish women are crazy for beaver,” says Leonard. He expects they’ll be the first in line again this year.

McPhee Lake
On the Beaver Trail

As we zipped over snowmobile trails the sun winked at us through the thick pine, birch and poplar forests, and blinded us as we bounded across wide frozen lakes in search of beaver.

Leonard, his son Larry, and I had left the reserve early that morning. My nerves over snowmobiling for the first time were quickly subsumed by incredulity at the beauty and freedom of driving on the wide-open lakes, their white surfaces sparkling in the late March sun.  I revved harder.

Besides, I knew I was in safe hands.

Leonard spent half the year for the first 17-years of his life, deep in this bush.  The oldest in a family of seven, he was his father’s right-hand man, trapping and hunting for food and fur.  Nearly every family in Mattagami lived that way then, says Leonard.

Today it takes Leonard 40-minutes to get to his family’s trapline on skidoo.  It used to take two days; Leonard snowshoeing miles ahead of their four-dog team, to pack down the deep snow.

But out on the trapline, not much has changed.

Father and son scouted four beaver houses on McPhee Lake the day before, looking for telltale signs of gnawed trees and snow domes on the lake’s edges.

We park the ski-doos about six metres away from the first den, where the ice is still thick.  Leonard bangs a heavy metal bar against the ice listening for hollow sounds.  He hears them near the edges of the rounded den.  He and Larry chop through two sweet spots with axes, ice chunks flying.  Using oversized ladles, they scoop the beaver’s trash out of the fresh holes – dozens of poplar twigs, picked clean of bark.

Leonard Naveau
On thin ice now, each man lies on his stomach peering into his hole, looking for the passageway.  Staring past their reflections in the clear, spring-fed lake they pass a long L-shaped stick between them, poking at the den’s walls until each finds a doorway.

Designed for an instant kill when a beaver, otter or marten swims through and hits the trigger, the jaws of the conibear trap snap around the animal’s neck packing 90 pounds of pressure.  The Naveaus use large metal pliers to spring the traps, mount them to the bottom of long pieces of thin, dead trees, and fix them under water in front of the passageways.

We set nine traps that day.  The next morning we pull a disappointing three beaver from the ice.  Two are adult-sized, their meat too tough for the festival.  Three more traps are set on a nearby lake.

Over the next two days we catch nine beaver.  Leonard and Larry keep the smallest one for roasting, a sickly one is fed to the dog, the large beaver are given to people on the reserve to eat, and six of the best kits are skinned, frozen and stored until the Festival.

Last week, the North Bay Fur Harvester’s truck stopped by the reserve to pick up the Naveaus’ fall and winter pelts – about 30 in all.  The fur truck makes this trip four times a year, stopping for just 15-minutes in small and large communities in a wide loop from North Bay to Fort Frances.

Beaver pelts, if they’re sold at all, are currently fetching about $29 a piece at auction.  Leonard and Larry will be lucky to get $870 for their weeks of work.  North Bay Fur Harvesters is a co-op, trappers only get paid once their furs are sold.  But trappers like Leonard and Larry form the backbone of Canada’s modern-day wild fur trade.

So why do they do it at all?  To maintain their traditional practices, to get outside, and for Leonard who is looking to keep busy during retirement, to keep busy.  Any money they do make will go to spruce up their camp, a wooden cabin near Grassy River where Leonard’s father and grandfather’s traplines sit today, and where they bring their family to relax, fish, hunt and trap.

Eating Beaver
The Festival starts around 10 a.m.  The large, Community Centre hosts skinning and stretching demonstrations and friendly folk man craft, sales and information booths lining the gym.  Local Trapping Councils encourage you to run your hands along their tables full of lynx, marten, wolf, fox, beaver and otter pelts.

A beer garden and hot, fast food will keep you full until the feast.  When the beavers are cooked, usually around 5 p.m., Mattagami residents put out a homemade spread. Turkey, ham, bannock, and salads – lots of salads – are served alongside bite-sized beaver samples.

The houses on Mattagami Reservation tell stories of the lives lived here.  A few mansions perch on the edges of the Lake, bought with money earned in the fly-in mines, like de Beer’s Victor Diamond Mine just south of James Bay in Attawapiskat.  Most houses are modest and well kept, with requisite pick-up trucks and four-wheelers in the driveways.  A few are small and run-down.  One or two have no running water.
Aside from a few elders, you won’t hear much Ojibway spoken.  “I wish I could speak my language fluently,” says Larry, who understands but has trouble conversing in his father’s first language.  A lot has been lost in one generation.  But it’s not yet forgotten.

Last summer, two teenaged boys from the Reserve asked Leonard if he would take them moose hunting.  They took a government-sanctioned week off of school to practice learn from their elder.  Larry’s stepsons and Linda’s grandsons love to fish and hunt.  They like to watch Leonard when he skins.  In May and June, Clara Wesley, an elder from Attawapiskat, will teach moose and deer-hide tanning here, restoring a skill lost to the band.  And by summer’s end, a Trapper’s Museum will house elder’s stories and knowledge about a traditional skill that shaped their community – and the country.

Click here to see a slideshow of my pictures from the trapline.

Mattagami First Nation is 180 km north of Sudbury and 80 km south of Timmins on Highway 144.  Exit on Mattagami First Nation road, it ends at the reserve.

Basic hotels can be found in the nearby town of Gogama.  Stardust Motel is noteworthy for its well-kept 1960s architecture, tel: 1-877-820-4311; Morin’s All Seasons Resort offers full suites complete with kitchens for $105.00/night, tel: 1-888-221-6004.  But the best bet is the newer Lise’s Lakeview Retreat, tel: 705-894-2413.


Filed under Aboriginal, travel