In the 19th century, recruits in the British army were promised six pints of beer a day.
The slaves who built the pyramids in Egypt were compensated (somewhat) with beer.
To survive the frequent outbreaks of cholera over the centuries, adults and children avoided water and drank beer.
Yes, beer has played a serious role in history. But in the case of a Toronto walking tour, beer is used to lighten the subject – to make history better.
An Urban Adventure in Toronto
Inspired by my Urban Adventures in St. Petersburg and Moscow and supported by the Urban Adventures team, I decided to explore my own city in the way that I explored those far away in Russia. There were three tours to choose from but seeing the route and liking history, I decided on the Beer Makes History Better tour.
Subterranean Lessons in Beer
We met – two staycationers from just north of Toronto, our tour guide Jason and I – in front of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hockey. Beer. The connection of beer to this city was already made.
We headed east.
At Front and Church streets, below street level is C’est What, a bar that offers a lengthy beer list in a cosy atmosphere with bare brick walls and low ceilings. There, Jason led us in a discussion about the history of beer. I knew nothing at the beginning. I now know that:
- There are beer geeks – those who make consuming really good beer their hobby.
- Hop Heads- those who like really bitter beer.
- That there are only four basic ingredients in beer: malt, hops, water and yeast.
- There is a rating system for beers called the IBU, which stands for International Bitter Unit. 15-30 is light and 50+ is very bitter.
- Cream ales are a blend of ales and lagers.
- IPAs or Indian Pale Ales resulted from the British Army trying to provide those 6 pints a day to their soldiers stationed in India. Distance and climate resulted in the invention of IPA.
- Cask beer has a lower CO2 levels and therefore doesn’t fill you us as quickly.
And I learned that there are beer blends. I tried blending the two beers you see above with only moderate success.
On to the St. Lawrence Market
Just outside C’est What we stopped to see the Gooderham Flat Iron building (1891) which while not as tall as the one in New York City, preceded it by 10 years. The Gooderhams went from being a mill family to being distillers and having Al Capone amongst their clients. It’s not exactly a beer story but it has a connection. You see, while there was prohibition in Canada as well as the US, it was never illegal to make alcoholic beverages in Canada – it was only illegal to sell them. Hence, Canada was the supplier for Capone and others. And home brew continued to be an option for Canadians.
Further along Front Street we came to the St. Lawrence Market, rated the #1 Food Market by National Geographic Traveler. It’s a landmark building and has a history of the area in photographs just inside the entrance. Not exactly about beer but it’s a stop not to be missed.
This is not the Betty Ford Clinic
The next major stop on our tour was Betty’s, a local watering hole also recognized for its amazing selection of beer on tap. Now this is interesting… not always called Betty’s, the bar was once called The Betty Ford but a partner break-up and a word in the ear of the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) person landed a cease and desist letter in the hands of the remaining owner. The bar became known as Betty’s thereafter. But I digress, the tour is about the history of Toronto and beer.
It was while trying more beers at Betty’s that Jason really went into the history of prohibition in Ontario, which lasted eleven long years. He explained the way in which prohibition started and ended with Ontarians easing into public drinking with decorum, and how the legacy of prohibition resulted in the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
Our final stop on the beer tour.
The tour wound up at one of my favorite areas of Toronto – the Distillery District. This is where Gooderham and Worts distilled their whiskey. Today it’s a cobblestoned area of boutiques, restaurants,art galleries, a saki bar, chocolate maker, the SoulPepper Theatre Company and the Mill St. Brewing Company – our final stop on the tour.
The tour that Jason gave was about beer and well, it wasn’t. Beer was the theme that wove in and out of a general discussion about the history of Toronto. A discussion that did not speak in absolutes – something that drives me crazy on tours – but presented many perspectives on the why and the impact of a specific aspect of Toronto’s social history. I learned lots about the city I’ve lived in for 25 years that I never knew before. It was well worth the afternoon.