The history of alcohol in Lacombe

Alcohol has been part of human culture since its euphoric properties were first experienced.


Alcohol has been part of human culture since its euphoric properties were first experienced.

That occasion was no doubt an accident but the propensity of alcohol to induce visions, and the simplistic interpretation of those visions as spiritual guidance, led to its adoption for that purpose by many different cultures.

It is still used for that purpose by some segments of some cultures. However, in ‘advanced’ societies it is more commonly employed in gatherings or celebrations as exemplified by the ‘wassail’ songs of Christmas.

The wassail beverage may be ‘Adam’s ale’ for abstainers; for others it is almost exclusively the product of fermentation of products as widely varied as mares milk (‘Kumys’ or ‘Airag’) in Mongolia, agave (tequila and mescal) in Mexico, sugar cane (rum) in the Caribbean, rice (sake) in the Orient or fruits and cereal grains (whisky) in Europe and America.

In the song “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” the drink was cider, and the singers would wander through the apple orchard, bowl of apple cider in hand, blessing the trees and exhorting them to even greater production.

Earlier in days of the Norse the drink was mead, the product of fermented honey. There is archeological evidence honey was part of the earliest known fermentation, roughly 11,000 years ago, while written references to mead date back about 4,000 years.

The first opportunity to explore this product in Central Alberta came in 1913 when apiculture was added to the role of the Lacombe Experiment Station.

Bill Cranna was an early beekeeper. Bees were overwintered in 1914 (in the basement of the new office building) and by 1918 there were seven colonies with average yields ranging up to 120 lbs per hive.

The enterprise expanded and by 1930 and 40 hives were overwintered successfully.

The best production year was 1934 with an average of 217 lbs produced from 34 hives. The record for a single hive was 348 lbs.

The storage of quantities of honey was required to provide food for the overwintering colonies. On one occasion the honey fermented – a serendipitous accident — and the beekeeper in testing the product before use discovered it had unexpected ‘cares be gone’ properties.

A product of such excellence could not be kept secret and as demand grew he had to investigate techniques for initiating and managing the fermentation process. Needless to say there were many fellow employees who applauded and enjoyed his efforts but records for the station revealed this experiment was never covered by a duly authorized project.

Indeed it appeared that the station boss, an abstainer, was kept in ignorance of the whole affair.

When this beekeeper retired he took his recipe with him. His successor Joe Lahiff did not savour this product until two years later when he discovered two well-aged bottles while cleaning out the bee house.

Only after sampling the contents did he appreciate the great expectations that had accompanied his initial employment. Apiculture was discontinued in 1939.

Local beekeepers viewed that as a retrograde step but none lamented its passing more than those who had savoured the product that had helped to lighten the winter months.

Memories of this episode encouraged the lads employed in the dairy barn in 1948 to explore the feasibility of producing corn ‘likker’. They had not failed to notice the fragrant aromas wafting from the corn silage as it was fed during the winter. By springtime the residue that remained at the bottom of the empty silo smelled particularly enticing.

Perhaps if filtered and distilled that residue might be akin to the rum produced from sugar cane? To test the theory a filter in the form of an unglazed Medalta clay crock was sealed and placed at the bottom of the silo prior to filling the following June.

Enthusiasm for this project dwindled over winter but the jug was heavy when retrieved 11 months later.

The aroma met expectations but, alas, the promoters of the project had left for greener pastures and there were no volunteers to sample the contents. Shortly thereafter all temptation to repeat the experiment was removed by the change in research focus from dairy to beef cattle and the dairy barn was demolished in 1949.