White Label Ale

The Headcutter home brewery has some awesome new reading material: Lost Breweries of Toronto by Jordan St. John. Chapters 16 and 17 of this book describe two defunct breweries that were once owned by the Davies family: the Don Brewery and the Dominion Brewery. Both breweries were located near Queen and River, with the Don Brewery located on the east side of River and the Dominion Brewery located on the west side (at Queen and Sumach). The Headcutter home brewery is sandwiched right between these two locations, on Wascana Avenue.

Lost Breweries of Toronto describes one of the beers brewed at the Dominion Brewery: White Label Ale. It is an IPA that was awarded a gold medal at an international competition in 1885. Apparently Robert Davies (the owner of the Dominion Brewery) was so proud of the accomplishment that he used an image of the certificate of award as the label for the beer and changed its name to “White Label Ale”.

Anyway, I think it would be fun to bring the White Label Ale back to life.

The Concept

Here are the guiding principles that I will use to make this beer.

  1. My beer will not be a historical recreation of the White Label Ale. In other words, I will not try to make the beer taste like it might have tasted in 1885. Instead, I will make a White Label Ale as I think it would be brewed today (i.e., using the ingredients and procedures available to modern brewers). Having said that, I aim to make a beer that is similar to the original White Label Ale. Think of it like this: if Robert Davies rose from the dead and walked into a modern brewery, how would he go about making the White Label Ale that won the gold medal back in 1885?
  2. According to Lost Breweries of Toronto Robert Davies wanted to be known for making the best beers in the world (hence the prominently displayed certificate of award on the White Label Ale). I’ll take this at face value and assume that the beer should be made with quality ingredients with a view to making the best tasting beer.
  3. Lost Breweries of Toronto also includes a description of the Dominion Brewery at the time when it was purchased by a British consortium in 1889. The brewery was described as “a model brewery that would stand comparison with the best in any land”. I’ll take this to mean that the Dominion Brewery adopted modern brewing technologies as they became available. For example, I’ll assume that the Dominion Brewery took advantage of then-modern science relating to water (i.e., that water could be treated with salts to change the character of the beer). I’ll extend this principle to yeast and assume that Robert Davies would happily take advantage of the modern brewer’s bounty of pure yeast strains.

Some General Parameters

Lost Breweries of Toronto provides a few details about the White Label Ale that I will use to create my beer:

  1. White Label Ale was an IPA.
  2. The ABV was 6.5%.
  3. The beer was brewed with “Kent” hops.
  4. The beer was in the style of a Bass IPA. Indeed, the neck label for the White Label Ale specifically states that it won the gold medal competing “against Bass & other celebrated English brewers”. I’ll take this to mean that the White Label Ale was similar to the contemporary English IPAs and especially Bass (but better than those other beers and therefore worthy of a gold medal).

The above points are helpful but leave a few details that still need to be filled in. For this I will rely on Mitch Steele’s IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. This book has a couple of chapters dedicated to brewing a “Burton IPA” such as the Bass IPA that Robert Davies defeated in 1885.

Here are some general points from IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale that I will use to develop the recipe for my White Label Ale:

  1. Burton IPAs were dry and had a light body (which apparently made them the doctor recommended beer for diabetics and people suffering from other disorders).
  2. The Burton water was (obviously) important. Burton is well-known for having very mineral-rich water.
  3. Only a single type of malt was used to make a Burton IPA. It was known as “extra pale” or “white” malt, and was kilned to 1.5 degrees L. Brewers wanted to produce IPAs that were as pale as possible. Modern pilsner malt is very similar to the white malt historically used to brew Burton IPAs.
  4. East Kent Golding hops were considered the “best” hops for a Burton IPA. About 2/3 of the hops were added at the start of the boil and the rest were added midway through or toward the end. Also, Burton IPAs were dry-hopped in the cask.
  5. Research done in the late 1800s and early 1900s suggests that Burton brewers were using mixed yeast strains (perhaps up to 14 different strains). Research also suggests the presence of Brettanomyces in the Bass cultures.
  6. The IBU:GU ratio of early Burton IPAs was about 1:1, but bitterness was reduced 10-15% for domestic versions that were not exported to India. However, hopping rates declined over the course of the 1800s (along with a drop in original gravity).

There are other aspects of brewing in the 1800s that I will not attempt to recreate with my White Label Ale. For example, I don’t intend to use any wooden casks in the making of this beer and I’m not going to age my IPA for 9 months prior to drinking it (on the cask point, I note that the type of wood used for casks was selected on the basis that it would contribute as little character as possible to the beer).

The Concept Applied

Taking the parameters set out above, here’s what I’ve come up with for my first attempt at the White Label Ale:

ABV: 6.5%     IBUs: 55     OG: 1.065     FG: 1.016

Pilsner Malt 100%
65 C 90 Min
UK Golding 60 Min
UK Golding (1.75 g/L) 10 Min
UK Golding (1.75 g/L) Dry-Hop
WLP-023 20 C
Sugar 2.4

Recipe Notes

  1. The mash will be a 90 minute mash given the somewhat low mash temperature (which is aimed at creating a highly fermentable wort).
  2. The boil will be 90 minutes (always a good idea when using pilsner malt).
  3. The hop rate of 1.75 g/L for the 10 minute addition should roughly preserve the 2/3 to 1/3 hopping ratio described by Mitch Steele (although the final amount of boil hops will be determined after I know the AA% of the EKG hops – the goal will be to achieve 55 IBUs).
  4. WLP-023 is the “Burton” yeast sold by White Labs. Modern brewers have the luxury of using pure strains and (as I mentioned above) I’m going to assume that Robert Davies would happily take advantage of this development.
  5. I will add gypsum to the brewing water, of course.


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