| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


From Field to Stein: Ontario's only working historic brewery takes beermaking back to the land

A batch of beer as it's being brewed smells vaguely breadlike, an aromatic cross between yeast and malt that's equal parts sweet and earthy. To take it in reminds a person that beer, like any plant-based comestible, is the final product of a farming process. For city dwellers, that field-to-beer stein connection can be easy to forget. The brewery at the Black Creek Pioneer Village near Jane and Steeles, which is Ontario's only functional historic brewery, aims to help people remember. 

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which has owned and operated the Pioneer Village for over half a century, established the brewery in 2009. The impetus for its establishment was partly to provide the Pioneer Village with an alternate revenue stream (the small batches of beer brewed there get sold to the public), but there were educational motives in play as well. Simply put, beer was once an essential part of community life. 

"It was a basic food source," says TRCA spokesperson Rick Sikorski, who was one of the chief drivers behind the brewery's establishment. "Often it was safer to drink than water. It was nutritious and thought of as being medicinal. Every community in Ontario had a little brewery." 

It's believed that by 1860, there were some 300 breweries across Upper Canada. 

Today, people still of course have a relationship with beer. But the nature of that relationship has changed. Beer has left the realm of necessity and become a nice indulgence. Along the way, people seem to have more or less given up on thinking of beer as a food. A visit to the Pioneer Village's brewery repairs that memory breach. 

"Beer is sort of at the intersection of culture and environment," he says. "The way we grow food has a huge bearing on our sustainability as a community, and the way we eat food says a lot about us as a people. Beer fit that bill nicely." 

When people settled in Ontario, the soil and climate proved hospitable for growing barley and hops—the makings of beer. 

Black Creek Historic Brewery brewmaster Ed Koren has been at the helm of the operation since the beginning.  An avid homebrewer for 20 or so years prior, he came upon Black Creek's call for a brewer at his local brew club and knew it was meant to be. It's Koren who developed the recipes for the four beers the brewery puts out on a regular basis: a stout, a porter, an India pale ale, and a brown ale, all of which would have been found in 1860s Ontario. In the summer, Koren tends to take the stout and porter off the roster and replace them with seasonals—a best bitter or a pale ale, in addition to a specialty beer that he rotates every month. 

"I'd walk through the village garden looking for roots, herbs, fruits and vegetables much like brewers would do in the 19th century, and then throw that into the kettle and make a beer of it," says Koren. These experiments have made for some of the brewery's most popular blends, like the ginger beer he brewed for Father's Day weekend. 

The brewing process hasn't changed much over the centuries. You start out with your malted barley and heat it up to 60-68 degrees celsius with hot water until it becomes sweet wort, then you boil it in a kettle to kill off microorganisms that might be hanging out in the water. Then the hops get added, which gives beer its bitter edge but also, crucially, acts as a natural preservative. From there, the beer gets transferred to a cooling ship and into a barrel, where yeast gets added. After five days of fermentation, the beer is ready. 

"People like to assume there's been a lot of progress [in the way beer is made], but not much has changed," says Jordan St. John, co-author of the book Ontario Beer. St. John credits Black Creek's operation with reminding people that beer is still, ultimately, an agricultural product. 
Most of the beer's ingredients are grown either on the property itself—though the area's wild turkeys have been known to pick at the barley crop—or by small local producers within the region. All revenue goes back into the Pioneer Village and the TRCA's community initiatives all over the GTA. One of these is the Black Creek Community Farm, an urban teaching farm that sits adjacent to the Pioneer Village, managed in partnership with Everdale Farm. Area residents, who grow and harvest food that gets distributed across the community, support the farm.  

"It's an area where a lot of people come from backgrounds where they have a history of growing their own food, and it's also an area where fresh fruits and vegetables aren't always easily available all the time," Sikorski explains. Some of the food grown there finds its way back to the Pioneer Village, and sometimes even to the brewery. 

The brewery, meanwhile, is small but active. May marked a record-breaking month for visitors, who are keen for Koren's rich, unfiltered brews. Aficionados must act fast: capacity limitations mean he can only put out two or three 75-litre batches every week. 

For everyone else, there's the Black Creek beer label available at the LCBO, made by Trafalgar Brewery in Oakville using Koren's recipes. 

"Every year we're getting busier and busier," says Koren. "Once you get hooked on these beers, there's no going back to the regular stuff." 

Kelli Korducki is a writer and reporter based in Toronto.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts