St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: August 2011

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Calling all Brewing Students

I’m going to do something a little odd here and use the blog briefly as a platform for a public service announcement.

I got into the Niagara College Brewmaster program this year, and that’ll be starting up on the 7th of September. Apparently there are going to be 36 students this year. So far, I’ve only met one of them. Sebastian something or other from Flying Monkeys. I don’t recall the last name because at the time I met the fellow, he was serving me a 3300 IBU beer with a very high alcohol content and it was the end of Ontario Craft Beer Week. That means that somewhere out there are 34 slightly inebriated miscreants with nothing better to do with their lives than brew some beer.

Anyway, if it’s anything like last year, there are going to be people commuting from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-lake. That probably means that carpools are a good idea. Not only is it cheaper in terms of mileage, but also better for the environment. Unfortunately, due to the college’s stringent privacy policies, there’s no way of getting a list of who’s going to be in the class of 2013. They’re noted for their almost legendary stringency. My god, are they ever stringent. I talked to a couple of profs about it and they looked as though I had suggested some incredibly devious and unconscionable act. It was almost as though they had misheard “is there a list of students going into the program this fall?” as “I’m just going to go over there, put a puppy in a blender and hit liquefy.”

For that reason, I’m posting this in order to see if we can’t get some kind of organization going. It would be fun to meet up prior to the start of school in Toronto for a late summer afternoon meet and greet style event. Possibly at the Only Café, since it’s inexpensive and has a pretty good selection.

If you’re going into Niagara College’s brewing program this fall, go ahead and contact me by email at or on twitter (@saints_gambit). You might also want to try and get into the facebook group that the school has organized.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: St.John’s Wort/Cheshire Valley Manitou

When I went to middle school, we used to have week long trips to a property that the school owned out near Georgetown, Ontario. They would attempt to teach us important things about biodiversity and the life cycle and nature photography while we squirmed in our seats, happy for once to be out of our uniforms. Whoever had the misfortune of attempting to hold our attention with owl pellets or raccoon tracks had to compete with the all-consuming strategizing that would go on for that evening’s session of capture the flag.

There was one day that I remember in particular, though. It was winter, and for some reason that curriculum had gotten around to living off the land. It was pointed out to us that in a survival situation, there were actually a couple of things that you could make tea out of in order to fend off scurvy. This was before the days of omnipresent references on the internet to the zombie apocalypse, and it was after the fall of the USSR and the end of the cold war. I’m not really sure which Armageddon they were preparing us for. It might have been good old fashioned Canadiana. “Gather round children and learn how Burton Cummings and Alden Nowlan took down Louis Riel and Thomas D’arcy McGee with just a pile of moose dung and a stick of pemmican. Stan Rogers wrote a song about it, while John A. MacDonald slumped in the corner of a sod house.”

This is Sumac. It's ugly and fuzzy and sort of purple. Kind of like Grover.

The two things were, incidentally, spruce needles and staghorn sumac. It turns out that these things were instrumental in getting early settlers through Canadian winters. Cartier’s crew didn’t exactly thrive, but some of them benefited from this knowledge. I remember standing there, with six or seven other bored looking thirteen year olds, as we waited for the ingredients that we had harvested to steep in little metal pots. Mostly, I think, we were willing the stuff to infuse faster so that we could get back to the vitally important business of riding inner tubes down a very steep hill.

Nearly twenty years later, I ended up writing about beer. A couple of years ago, when I was just learning about the various styles available, people started brewing more Saisons in Ontario. Saisons are traditionally Belgian or French, with some minor distinctions between them. I usually claim that they’re Wallonian, but that’s mostly because that’s a pleasing word to say. Go ahead. Try it. Wallonian. The Walloons like a Saison (Almost as much as John A. MacDonald would have).

It struck me at some point when I was learning about Saison and Witbier (and other beers that contain subtle spicing), that it might not be a bad idea to look around and think about what was available as an indigenous ingredient in Ontario. We don’t have a lot of native fruits. Hops were transplants. Sumac, on the other hand is everywhere. It’s a relative of the cashew and the mango that grows from rhizomes (not unlike hops, actually). It’s not only edible, but steeping it in warm water gives off a pleasant bitter lemon and pepper kind of flavour that’s a little like a peppery pink lemonade. If you put it in really hot water, it can get properly tannic properly quickly.  Unpleasantly tannic. They use some varieties to make moroccan leather.

You can't actually buy Sumac. I had to poach Sumac. Sumac scrumping.

So, for a couple of years, at events when breweries would bring out one-off beers they had made, I would say to them “I have an idea for you: Staghorn Sumac.” No takers. I talked to the Dieu Du Ciel guys. I talked to Steve Beauchesne about it. I may even have mentioned it to Garrett Oliver when he was here in June. Folks mostly didn’t know what I was talking about, and I’d have to explain what it was. And that it had never been used commercially (that anyone was willing to admit, anyway. If it had been used, the results were potentially so bad that no one is willing to own up to it.)

Let’s face it. It’s a hard sell.

The idea didn’t go away, though. I’ve always wanted to do a Staghorn Sumac Saison. Heck, the Quebecers are doing a Spruce Needle beer.It’s just that I’ve never made a Saison. I needed help doing it, and this month I got lucky. Most of the beer writers in Toronto are preparing for an event that’s going to happen during Toronto Beer Week. The upshot is that every beer writer who wanted to participate has been paired with a brewer. I was lucky enough to get Paul Dickey from Cheshire Valley. He’s the kind of guy you want to brew with. He knows his stuff.

Portrait of a Man and his Kettle

I present to you:

St. John’s Wort/Cheshire Valley Manitou

When we started out, we were going to make a Witbier. Unfortunately, the recipe was pretty bad. It turns out the reason that no one uses Bullion Hops is because the blackcurrant flavour you get from them is really harsh. I told Paul I thought that it might sort of work. He was skeptical. So we sat there at Bryden’s, eating chicken wings, until I floated the sumac idea that I’d had kicking around for a while in the back of my head. Astoundingly, I had found someone who wasn’t going to smile and nod quietly at the idea while slowly backing away. It might have been because he still had four wings left.

We developed a new recipe for it (well, mostly Paul developed a new recipe for it) and we had our brew day last night. Mike Lackey from Great Lakes was kind enough to share his Saison yeast with us. Paul took the whole locavore concept I was going for with the sumac to its logical conclusion by sourcing Ontario malt for the majority of the barley. It ended up being a more complex malt bill than I would have designed. I would not have thought to use rye, for instance. It feels like it’s also fairly conservative, which is good. Paul reined in my natural exuberance a little. This is a good thing. The new recipe contains Saaz and Cascade hops, coriander and about a liter of sumac-ade that we had extracted from several bobs worth of berries.

Nearly a litre of sumac-ade. That stuff played hell with the colour of the beer.

I hasten to point out that if this works out we’ll be the first people I’m aware of to have brewed with Staghorn Sumac commercially. Both Paul and myself will look like we always knew that this would work out and we’ll stand there quietly nodding and accepting praise. If, on the other hand, it fails miserably, I’m quick to point out that it was all my idea and that it should in no way tarnish Paul Dickey’s sterling reputation.

You know what? If you’re going to fail, fail big. I get the feeling that if I’m going up against other beer writers and the best brewers in the city, they’re going to have some pretty spectacular collaborations. Despite the fact that I addressed my fellow beer writers as “sucka-ass chumps” in an email during the brew day, these are knowledgeable professionals and talented amateurs. I’m hoping that the combination of Paul’s expertise and my uh… somewhat esoteric ingredient choice will give us the edge.  Either way, I think I’m going to track down the poor fellow who tried to teach me about it all those years ago and foist a bottle off on him.

The dregs. Good name for a band, now that I think of it.

Toronto Festival of Beer/Queer Beer Festival

I won’t lie to you. I was apprehensive about the Queer Beer Festival. This is mostly due to the fact that when I started researching it a couple of months ago, it struck me as something of a cash grab.  Thursday at the TFOB had been VIP night, and had been sparsely attended in previous years compared to the other days of the festival. My initial suspicion was that the Queer Beer Festival was an attempt to build up ticket sales for the Thursday of the TFOB. After all, the LGBT community in Toronto is a huge cash cow for the city during the summer months, especially when you consider the tourism revenue that Toronto Pride generates.

While I can appreciate, from a marketing perspective, that the Queer Beer Festival is a very good idea in that it targets a previously untargeted demographic with a lot of cash, something about it struck me as hinky (possibly the fact that it didn’t occur organically), and I raised my concerns with Les Murray, President of TFOB. He as quick to acknowledge that, yes, it was pretty much the same festival, but that he was not insensitive to the likelihood of criticism on the above basis. He also pointed out that TFOB had worked with leaders in the LGBT community to come up with an ideal festival. The main points were that:

1)      $5.19 of every ticket sold prior to Pride weekend would go to benefit the 519 community centre


2)      “…the Festival should be a stand alone event, this was made clear to us by various members of the community, the rationale being that this is a very proud community and that they take ownership of their own events and embrace them as such.”


3)      Hey. Ace of Base.

My cynicism thus allayed, I headed on down to the Queer Beer Festival. I like it when people are aware of the criticisms that will be leveled at them. It means that they’ve applied some consideration to the problem.

I can tell you right now that aside from the go-go dancers, it was pretty much exactly the same as the Toronto Festival of Beer. Same products on offer, same exhibitors, same steam whistle six pack hats firmly affixed to heads. If anything, the Queer Beer Festival allowed people a certain amount of freedom in advertising their goods and services. For instance, this sign at the meatball tent:

I guess if I worked at a meatball stand, I would make jokes too.

People have complained in previous years about the frat boy contingent that heads out to the TFOB. I believe that last year I suggested that I had heard it referred to as a “gong show” and a “drunk tank.” Well, yes. It is a bit of both of those things, but that’s mainly because of the pricing structure. Tickets to get into the TFOB are relatively expensive at $38.50 (unless you’re some kind of big shot media guy). It’s no wonder that people try and get the most of out it, especially when you consider that a token for a four ounce sample is a dollar. The impetus is to purchase 20 tokens for 20 bucks, and then attempt to use all of them. That’s about four pints of beer, which is sort of a reasonable amount for a Friday night out, but is also an amount that has more weight when you’re walking around out in the sun surrounded by people who are similarly inebriated.

It's good to see that the friendly giant's miniature furniture business is doing so well.

That said, Thursday was pretty sparsely populated and I didn’t see any evidence of anyone doing anything really stupid. I mean, sure there were some pretty ridiculous hats, but that’s not a criticism I can reasonably level at anyone, especially when you consider that during the latter portion of the evening I was wearing an Elephant Hat that was fashioned out of Steam Whistle boxes, crowned with a set of foam rubber Moosehead antlers.

"The main obligation is to amuse yourself." - S.J. Perelman

I don’t know if you’ve ever worn an exceptionally stupid elephant hat. I have. I can tell you that it’s a great way to meet people, although they do try to feed you peanuts and periodically you feel like pointing out that you’re not an animal. People come up to you and want their pictures taken with you, which sort of beggars belief. Periodically, people will want to compare hats.

In terms of beer, I’m not sure that I saw anything really interesting at this year’s TFOB. There was an OCB collaboration tent, that featured four brews that had been put together by paired breweries. Of those, I thought that the Amsterdam/Great Lakes collaboration was probably the most solid, although just for promotional purposes, I liked the Beau’s/Black Oak Lugnut (half lug tread/half nut brown) for the obvious advantage in name.

There were some interesting beers at Great Lakes Caskapalooza, although only one of them had been tapped when I visited them. I tried the Miami Weiss on cask, and I feel like this batch might be a little too hoppy, since I wasn’t getting anything else from it. You know it’s been tweaked a little when you don’t register mouthfeel because of the bitterness. Nice event area, though, and you have to admire the willingness to set up a DJ and scantily clad male dancers for the Queer Beer Festival.

At the very least, we answered the age old question: "Who wears short shorts?"

One of the most serious criticisms that I hear leveled at the TFOB is that it’s a showcase for macrobrew products. I’m not sure that I see how I can take that criticism seriously anymore, given that the OCB booths are all in the centre of the venue, directly in front of the stage. You pretty much have to walk through them to get anywhere. I mean, sure, Budweiser has their giant custom bus/bar area and the north boundary of the event is lined with macrobrews, but that’s sort of fine. They require more space because of their expensive booths, so they get put on the outskirts of the area. I didn’t see any of them doing a huge amount of business, although that may have changed on subsequent festival days.

"You take a block from the bottom and you put it on top." Probably easier said than done after 20 tokens.

It didn’t really matter anyway, since all of the booths cleared out as soon as Ace of Base hit the stage. I don’t think it was the original lineup. The singers, I think, would probably not have developed the ability to walk by the time the group’s first single hit in 1993. They did a pretty good job, considering.

I suspect that most people actually came out to see Ace of Base, rather than for the purpose of attending a beer festival. If there was a graph of the amount of beer sold during their set, I suspect that it might actually contain negative numbers. Also, nearly half the people attending the festival seemingly cleared out immediately after the set.

So, what have we learned?

1)      People who were not old enough to really remember them from their first run inexplicably love Ace of Base.

2)      Criticisms of the TFOB being solely a showcase for macro products are probably no longer entirely accurate.

3)      It is nearly freaking impossible to hail a cab in a stupid looking elephant hat. I mean, people wave at you from cars, forcing you to utter sentences like “What’s the matter? Never seen a man in an elephant hat before?”

"Wait. I've been wearing this thing? Jesus!"