St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Category Archives: Bar Volo

Two historical beers you should try at Cask Days

Cask Days is this weekend and for Toronto beer drinkers, that’s an event that is more or less Christmas. This year’s specialties are from California, with nearly 40 beers to choose from. There are also 22 beers from England. As if that were somehow not enough, there are 22 ciders on offer. Also, nearly 250 other beers. It’s the 10th anniversary and they’re going big. There’s not any point in planning for the event at this point. The best you can do is bring about a hundred bucks in cash for food and snacks and pace yourself.

I am pleased to say that I have beers on offer at Cask Days. I make up approximately 2/339ths of the selection, or just over one half of one percent of the beer to be served. Both of the beers that I’ll be serving on Saturday have historical precedent, which befits the recent level of activity over here at St. John’s Wort. As you may know, I’ve written two books this year. It should have been obvious given the links to those books directly to the right of this article and the sheer amount of publicity I’ve been trying to get out for them. They are Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay and Lost Breweries of Toronto. I wrote the first one with Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog. The second one was my first solo book.

Both of them are relevant to the beers on offer on at Cask Days.

The first beer was brewed with Jason Tremblay from Shacklands and is called Rouille after Fort Rouille in Toronto. You may have been to the Toronto Festival of Beer and posed on top of the cannon. (Yes, it’s funny. It looks like you have a giant cannon for a penis.) What you didn’t know is that that cannon represents the placement of a French fort and trading settlement from the 1750’s.

Spruce Beer was a fundamental part of the growth of Upper Canada. Even in a place without citrus, you are usually able to grow food that contains vitamin C. That doesn’t work very well in Toronto in the winter. We know that Fort York imported real beer from Kingston, being as it was from a later era. Fort Rouille probably made some manner of Spruce Beer.

The verifiable historical recipes for Spruce Beer are just awful. The purpose of spruce beer was not to taste good. It was to hydrate you in a way that would prevent you from having to drink the water and contracting Giardia, a parasite which will cause the contents of your digestive tract to seek escape in as violent and explosive a manner as possible. Spruce Beer would also prevent you from getting scurvy and having your teeth fall out. If Spruce could prevent those two horrible things from happening, you’d gladly suck on a branch.

Traditionally, the recipe for Spruce Beer contained five quarts of molasses per 36 Gallon Barrel. Having done the calculation, I can tell you that it would have barely been alcoholic. If you were extremely lucky and you had an active yeast strain that would chew through fermentables, you might have gotten 1.5% alcohol out of that.

We decided not to make that beer. We decided instead to go with a historically inspired Spruce Beer. We used mostly Maris Otter and a small amount of Wheat in addition to the traditional Molasses. We used Spruce Extract, since neither of us are mighty woodsmen and tips were out of season. Since Jason seems to have a solid grip on the funky stuff, we used nearly a gallon of lactobacillus culture in the boil and used two yeast strains in fermentation, finishing it with Brettanomyces. It’s not your great great great great great grandfather’s spruce beer, is what I’m saying to you.

The second beer on offer is called Helliwell 1832 and it’s a collaboration between myself and Jon Downing from Niagara College. You’ll notice, if you’re observant, that it’s not listed on the Cask Days list. All I know is that it has been delivered to Cask Days. I imagine that it will be available (although, apologies are probably necessary to Tomas Morana for being a logistical omnishambles.)

The Helliwell Brewery was located at Todmorden Mill. I have been given an idea of where we’ll be serving the beers in the Brickworks and I can tell you that we’ll be approximately 385 meters and 182 years from where this beer was brewed. I managed to piece together a large amount of information from the Helliwell Diaries about their brewery and the kind of beer that they would have made.08051

It was difficult because they used an outdated standard of measurement called the Dring and Fage Saccharometer that didn’t use Brix or Plato or even Specific Gravity. It used something called Beer Gravity which represents pounds of extract per barrel. We know they were using it because William Helliwell went to the manufacturer when he was in London in 1832. Using google image search I was able to find a photograph of the slide rule they used for calculation as part of the Saccharometer’s set and found out that the beer would have been somewhere around 9.0%. It’s a sort of unaged Barley Wine. The Helliwells were from Yorkshire, so they didn’t trifle with wheat in the grist.

The Helliwells brought in barley to their own maltings (part of which I’m told still stands, across the river from the brickworks) and kilned it themselves. During the 1820’s and 1830’s they owned nearly a thousand acres and were clearing wood from it to make properties in the area north of the Danforth saleable. They actually had a hop yard on the Don River’s flood plain that I’ve estimated at being about 8-10 acres based on the number of poles they commissioned for it.

I assume that they were using that wood to fire the kiln and we’ve accounted for that with just enough smoked malt to give it a kiss. I also know that the open fermenters that they were using were simply converted puncheons (although he did not adopt this strategy until later) and that being made of wood they would have taken on some souring bacteria. We have lowered the PH of the beer with a hint of acidulated malt. We used Brown Malt and some dark Crystal to replicate the crispy burnt edges you’d get from a single inconsistently kilned malt. We used Golding hops because that’s about the only English variety that existed at the time.

I don’t claim that Helliwell 1832 is an exact replica of the beer that would have been produced in the Don Valley. It’s as close as we’re ever going to get, though, and it’s definitely worth a try. I’ll be pouring both beers myself on Saturday during the day. Stop by and chat. It will also be the first time that Lost Breweries of Toronto will be available for purchase by the public.

Amsterdam Tap Takeover @ Bar Volo

I want to point something out to you, and it will seem obvious in retrospect: Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery is running a tap takeover at Bar Volo on February 2nd. It sold out completely in about 4 hours. The first rating on Boneshaker IPA on is May 2010. That was the first beer they produced that you could point to and say “Oh hey. That’s not Amsterdam Blonde at all.”

This means that in the span of about 33 months, Amsterdam brewery has gotten to the point where they feel comfortable releasing 32 beers to the public at the same time. That’s about a beer a month. Many of these beers are aged in wine or bourbon barrels and will have been sitting there for quite a while. This all happened at the same time that they were moving their brewery across the city.

It’s not exactly like the organization has done a 180. They still produce a whole lot of Amsterdam Blonde, which is… y’know… wet. That’s ok. People like liquids.

The Amsterdam retail store, viewed from the Brewhouse.

The Amsterdam retail store, viewed from the Brewhouse.

Possibly, it’s because of the changes that have been taking place over there that I tend to criticize one man more frequently than anyone else in the Ontario brewing scene. His name is Iain McOustra. He works for Amsterdam as Head Brewer and he has been experimenting with varying beer styles for a while now. One time, I suggested that he danced on the head of a pin, trying to satisfy the tastes of Toronto beer drinkers. I may have suggested that he did it in a tutu. I am still sorry for putting that image in your head, because even two years on, no one needs that.

I digress.

His methods are a little odd. If you look at the way that pilot brews and the development of differing styles works in Ontario, it’s easy to see some examples of systematic progress. I mean, we didn’t get Great Lakes Karma Citra without Mike Lackey brewing literally dozens of batches of different IPAs in a sort of research capacity. I think that Iain’s approach is a little more scattershot, but this is probably because he gets excited about so many different ideas. I’m not saying there’s not progression, but it doesn’t always end up being in a consistent direction.

Most of your Amsterdam one-off beers are coming out of this system these days. It's an improvement over the Keggles they started out with.

Most of your Amsterdam one-off beers are coming out of this system these days. It’s an improvement over the Keggles they started out with.

I haven’t ever really publicly criticized the stuff he’s done. I’ll mostly just give him feedback to his face. Now, to be fair, I’ve never intentionally downrated anything that he has done just to annoy him. When he has done well, I’ve told him so. When he has not done as well as he hoped, I have periodically embellished slightly after his first burst of profanity, because he’s just so easy to rile up.

It’ll sometimes go like this, as it did in 2011:

J: I really don’t like this Hulk Hogan thing. Is it a Kolsch? It’s a little catty.

IM: What? MotherF***er? That S**t is the bomb.

J: No, man. It tastes like an ocelot peed next to it and the pee seeped in there.

The point is this: I have, for the last… let’s say year or so, given Iain a batting average for his beers at any single event.  At the 2011 Movember Bash, he hit about .400. This is not bad if you’re Ted Williams. It meant that about 2 of 5 brews that he made for the occasion were good. Good is maybe underselling it. The thing is that if you’re going to have your own event, if you know you’re going to be serving beer to people, you want to do the best you can. Experimental brews have the potential to bring your average down. Nature of the beast. You aren’t going to come out a hero the first time all the time.

Then there was a night at Volo when he had a few beers on. Night Train, I think the specialty was called. That was an .800 night. 4/5. The man did good. People liked this. It was a funkifized brown ale on a wine barrel tip. I liked it. Hell, I told him so.

At the Hart House festival, there was Sleeping Giant Barley Wine, which made really solid use of the barrel character. At Cask Days this year, everything the man touched turned to gold. Full City Tempest? A proper coffee Imperial Stout as good as anything in that style that has been brewed in this province?

The special event space is packed full of barrels. I guess if you own that many barrels, you gotta stash 'em somewhere. Green Flash does the same thing.

The special event space is packed full of barrels. I guess if you own that many barrels, you gotta stash ’em somewhere. Green Flash does the same thing.

Between all of this stuff, I was down at Amsterdam periodically, to fill up a ridiculous wooden keg or on a beer tour of Toronto when Iain was dodging the host and I didn’t really want to pretend I didn’t know about how lager was made. He showed me something in a Golden Ale in a Pinot barrel. I might have been the first to taste that one. It was, at that point, mellow and a skooch mango-y. I still gave him a going over for “what market is there for this and who’s going to drink it?”

So when the Amsterdam night at Volo sold completely out in about four hours, I wasn’t all that surprised that there was a market. The only problem is that there are 32 taps. That’s a lot of taps. There will be misses. No one bats a thousand. It just doesn’t happen. Name a brewery that does everything perfectly. Go on. Do it. You can’t. I’d say a .500 performance would be a good deal on 32 taps.

Here is Iain McOustra looking respectable. He does not like having his photo taken, even when he is wearing a jacket.

Here is Iain McOustra looking respectable. He does not like having his photo taken, even when he is wearing a jacket.

Either way, this is something of a landmark in terms of Amsterdam’s development, in the dichotomy between the easily approachable, slightly pedestrian fare in their core lineup and the new, exciting, more sophisticated stuff of the last three years. Will Iain McOustra be able to bring the recent standard of quality one-offs to bare on the new brewpub? Will they finally scrap the KLB zombie brands? Will Jamie Mistry show up wearing his Lederhosen?

The answer to all these questions is “probably.”

Edit: Some readers seem to be of the opinion that I am somehow anti-McOustra. This is not the case. I am very much pro-McOustra, even if I needle him periodically. He gives as good as he gets. The point of the article here is to showcase the fact that his development as a brewer has been interesting to watch and is more and more frequently resulting in excellent one-off beers. While I have made it clear that 16/32 really good beers would be a respectable outing for a tap takeover of this magnitude, I have little doubt that he’ll surpass that mark, especially when you take the collaborations into account. That said, I don’t think anyone is going to completely dominate on 32 taps. To ascribe that likelihood to any brewer would be to engender potential disappointment. If you try to do a difficult thing well, you will sometimes fail.

Beer And Food Tuesday: Carbonara Alla Morana

For those of you that have just joined the craft beer scene in the last couple of years, it’s worth pointing out that Bar Volo wasn’t always a beer bar with a light menu. At one point in the late 80’s, it was an Italian restaurant. After a while it became an Italian restaurant with beer. It further evolved into a beer bar with Italian food. Then came the nanobrewery and, with kitchen space at a premium, an expanding audience and wait times for food frequently outstripping forty minutes (about two pints, for those of you who tell time by pints), it became Bar Volo as it currently stands.

They changed with the times, somewhat to the chagrin of the regulars. Roger Pettet would sometimes ask me if I could write a blog piece about how the bar was changing, probably with the aim of stopping it from changing overmuch. The problem is that with Bar Volo being a leader in craft beer in Ontario, change was inevitable. It was not a bad thing, necessarily. People seem much happier getting fed quickly. So it goes.

The only issue that I had with the change is that Volo was responsible for a truly great pasta dish in their Carbonara. Periodically, when people wax nostalgic, the Carbonara comes up as one of the only examples of something they wish could come back. (The Puttanesca is also mentioned, as is the Pepperonata (at least by me)).

This is what Carbonara looked like when Volo used to cook it.

One day a couple of weeks ago, I realized that I could rectify that problem for people who missed the Carbonara. Since the Moranas aren’t using it anymore, they were pretty quick to supply me with it. I had tried to get the recipe previously, but it had been a long night and I discovered, after having it explained to me at great length, that I had no idea how the sound recorder on my Blackberry worked.

I emailed Ralph and he gave me the recipe, which I now impart to you:

Two Stages :
1. In a stainless steel bowl add
2 egg yolk
T parmigiana cheese
T Italian parsley
tsp salt
tsp pepper
tsp mixed dried herbs – basil & oregano
Pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
4T of 35% cream – (I just drizzle the cream in. You do not want too much because this is a dryer version of the Carbonara)
Add al dente spaghetti noodles (portion for one person)
Whisk all the ingredients.
Put aside until needed.

2. Heat a pan on medium low heat.
Add half of red onion medium thin slices.
Within 3 minutes add 2 diced smoked bacon.
When the onion and bacon are 3/4 of the way cooked raise the temperature to medium and add the mixture in the bowl.
Toss until all the ingredients are mix.
At this point I add a pinch of salt, pepper from a pepper mill and I grade ricotta salata cheese( asiago also works). I usually add about 2T of cheese and 2 diced fresh sage leaves.
Taste ( add more salt or pepper if needed)
Pasta is ready pending on how you like it. i like it on the crisp side.
I also like to add pancetta on top of the pasta.

I should point out that there are three things you need to know here.

My version doesn’t look nearly as good, but I don’t have a white plate or a DSLR Camera or any ability to plate food in an aesthetically pleasing way or the inclination to do so when I’m just ripping hungry and want to get to it already. Jeez.

1)      Since you’ve tempered the egg yolks with cream and the other ingredients prior to adding them to the pasta, you’re probably not going to scramble them. This is good news. It is still worth removing the pan from the heat to be safe.

2)      While ½ a red onion seems like a whole big bunch of red onion, it’s actually more or less right as long as you don’t choose the biggest one in the display.

3)      This is a restaurant size portion. At home, this could probably feed two, since it’s quite rich and very filling. I am slipping into food coma territory at the moment.

But what to drink?

Things people have sent me. I’m not sure where the one on the right came from, actually.

Well, people send me things. The fridge is so full that baking soda has developed agoraphobia.


When the folks at Creemore sent this stuff over, I was more excited about the Hops and Bolts. Call me a skeptic, but I haven’t really liked much of the Granville Island stuff I’ve tried. The Pale Ale is lodged squarely in the 80’s. The Hefeweizen is fair to middling.

The Lion’s Winter Ale is surprising in that it contents itself with a healthy bill of dark malts, a relatively creamy texture and a strong hit of vanilla. It is actually mildly reminiscent of Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque. I was a little shocked that the pairing works here. The sweetness of the malt and the vanilla actually play with the caramelization that the onions have gone through and there’s enough carbonation to lift the fat off the palate and refresh for the next bite. Oddly enough, the texture is the big thing. It’s creamy enough to play to the sauce while stripping it off your tongue.

I shouldn’t be surprised given that the Granvillers provided this recipe for pairing.


It is always good to choose appropriate glassware. In this case, I’ve chosen branding over propriety.

As I think we’re all aware, Cameron’s RPA is one of the better IPAs available in Ontario at the moment. It’s going into year round production soon. It has five malts, seven hop varieties and at least one hand picked variety of water. It’s delicious. It may not have a whole lot of noticeable rye character, but who cares when the overall product is this good? Caramel Malt and Pine and Citrus and Tropical Fruit and Joy.

It paired terribly. The hops just blew the Carbonara out of the damn water. It’s too big. It’s too bitter. It somehow fails to cut the fat in the cream sauce and the bitterness coats the tongue. If there was a single ingredient it might have had some interplay with it was the oregano. Not enough.

Don’t get me wrong. Love the beer, but this application was a loser. It was a bad choice on my part.


I was dreading this one.

Ralph suggested a smoked beer. I haven’t ever really liked this beer, but it was the smoked beer that I had on hand. Sometimes I’ll use it to braise a pork shoulder.

I don’t know if it’s ingredient creep, but the smoked malt doesn’t seem as pronounced as it once did. Probably, a slight whiff of smoke in Imperial Stouts is acclimatizing me. What it manages to do very nicely is accentuate the bacon and the smoke there, and in turn the salt content. There’s enough malt character to hold its own against the onions.

While it worked nicely as a pairing, I still didn’t quite manage to finish the bottle, although I admit that in the proper culinary application, this works. It’s just that I wouldn’t drink it without food.


Oddly, the winner here in terms of pairing was Granville Island Lions Winter Ale. The shocking thing is that it might work even better if you throw a pinch of nutmeg at the cream sauce. I’ve seen that in some carbonara recipes.

Also, we learned that it is good to be friends with Ralph Morana. He’s the Godfather of the Ontario Craft Beer Scene. If you go against the Morana family, you might wake up with the neck of a bottle of Rolling Rock next to you.



So You Want To Be A Brewer: The Inevitability of Crushing Defeat At The Hands Of Mike Lackey

At some point in the middle of the last month, probably during a week when there were midterm exams, I was surprised by an email about the Ontario IPA Challenge. I knew it was coming up, but usually Volo sort of organizes their events independently and it seemed a little too early in the process for them to be sending an email to me, even as a save the date sort of thing for the judging. I was part of the panel of judges last year for the event, so I figured that’s probably what it was and assumed that I didn’t need to look at it immediately and went back to pretending to learn more about centrifugal pumps and turbulent flow than I was actually managing to do.

As it turns out, I was actually being invited to compete independently in the Ontario IPA Challenge as a brewer. This was not, as you may assume, a situation for that called for unalloyed joy.  There are a lot of things to take in to account in a situation like this one:

First of all, I’m not really a brewer. I’m a beer writer who’s a bit of a dilettante brewer on the side, sometimes, when I have a good idea and I’m pretty sure I can make a drinkable beer out of it. I’ve done two semesters of brewing school at Niagara College (initially pretty dashed well and then subsequently less well as I realized that taking on writing a book and 20 hours of commuting a week were mutually exclusive goals that only a madman would actually attempt. I mean, sometimes I require sleep.) and I’ve got about five collaborative brews under my belt.

Secondly, sometimes my beer actually turns out alright. Usually, when this happens I give credit to whomever I’m brewing with, whether it’s Paul Dickey or Mike Lackey or Jason Tremblay or Jon Hodd. The fact that not one of them has been a complete stinker is testament to the talent of these guys who are kind enough to let me borrow their brewing systems and make sure I don’t do anything really stupid. Probably, though, I can afford by now to take a little bit of credit for one thing: my beers have not actually killed anyone. Sometimes people even like them.

Thirdly, there is just no way that I was ever going to win the Ontario IPA Challenge. I was relatively sure that if I could get time on a system somewhere in Toronto and actually manage to brew a beer, it would probably end up being palatable. It might even make it to the second round, depending on the way the first leg of the contest was drawn up. Beyond that, probably not so much, especially since Mike Lackey continues in his seemingly endless path of IPA dominance.

Mike Lackey, as you’ll recall from previous years at the IPA challenge, has a reputation approximately the size of mechagodzilla. He had the top two beers in 2010. Karma Citra won last year, but I’m relatively sure that it crushed the competition by a wide margin and made grown people weep with its beauty. No one felt bad about losing to that beer. I’ve had that beer on tap since then, and honestly, I cannot envision a situation in which anyone will ever beat Mike Lackey in this challenge again unless he takes some ludicrous risks. Possibly, if someone shaves his beard, he will, like Samson, lose his powers.

It’s for that reason that I decided to just relax and have fun with the thing. Since I usually find a concept for a beer that I like and work backwards from that, I thought that it would be fun to work the other way, and I was obliged by my fellow Niagara College student Austin Roach. Austin is from an engineering background and a pretty analytical guy. I like working with him because we’re from more or less the same place geographically (East York) and we have a pretty similar sense of humour (huge nerds). When we talked about the recipe for the thing, he had just a bunch of ideas he wanted to try and I agreed with all of them.

For instance, you can’t win the Ontario IPA challenge by emulating the West Coast IPA style anymore. Great Lakes has that covered. What you could do is emulate the water in Chico, California. We like the hop presence of Sierra Nevada beers and suspect it has something to do with the water profile. He wanted to play with the myrcene and humulene that would come out during the boil in various different types of hops. Those are both hop oils. My favorite hop oil is Linalool because it sounds like something you’d name a Fairy Princess.

What? It does.

We have used a pretty odd assortment of hops in our entry for the Ontario IPA Challenge, including a couple that were completely off my radar for this kind of thing. I think the only one I’ve used before is Galaxy, which made an appearance in the Gin and Juice beer I did at Volo last month. We’ve got some Galena and First Gold and Bullion in there as well. We have not done a test batch. We are making it up as we go along, footloose and fancy free. This is really about playing with the way these hops express their character, rather than some esoteric conceit that I’ve come up with. (I know! Let’s make a welsh mild that utilizes Peruvian maca root espresso and then find some tenuous connection between Wales and the Andes. I’ve got it! Double “L”. Llama Milld. Brilliant!)

Paul Dickey receives our thanks for letting us brew on his system at Black Oak. He’s a most gracious host, and I’ve only had to write a Standard Operating Procedure for his pilot system in exchange for the time. That’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me.

We’re referring to the collaboration as St. Roach. It will be available at the 4th annual Ontario Cask IPA Challenge. All I can promise you is that we enjoyed making it and that it should be substantially different than the other entries while still falling within the BJCP American IPA definition.

Also, expect to see St.John’s Wort Llama Milld on tap somewhere just as soon as I can convince someone that a Peruvian maca root espresso Welsh Mild is a good idea.

Beer 4 Boobs

One of the problems with writing a national column has to do with the fact that it becomes pretty difficult to justify reporting on events that are purely local. Sometimes, I’ll see upcoming events that I want to plug, but it’s just not feasible due either to timeline constraints or due to the size of the audience that the information is relevant to. Take, for example, the Beer4Boobs event that’s going on at Bar Volo on Sunday, March 25th. It’s on Sunday, which is the day the column runs, so reporting on it does no good whatsoever. Capacity for the event is maybe 250 people over the course of the entire day, and promoting it Sunday morning is only going to be useful to people who live in Toronto, and probably the majority of them will have heard about it by then.

The thing is that it’s an interesting event and a good cause. It’s a lineup of beers made by very talented female brewers. All of the beers are one offs, and there are at least seven of them on offer. Admission to the event is twenty bucks, and there’s going to be a raffle with some very nice prizes available. All proceeds go to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. It’s an idea for an event that came from California and which is spreading across North America.

The brewers include a couple of students from Niagara College Teaching Brewery: Kellye Robertson and Jennifer Nadwodny. I got to try their beer the other day as it was being kegged, since I was standing around in the Niagara College brewery, learning stuff. It is apparently called Cocoa Inferno. I think that it would probably be bad form to talk about the beers before the day, but if their beer is any indicator of the amount of creativity that has gone into the process, this is going to be a good event.

Additionally, I should point out that I really like Freya’s Tears as a name for a beer. I don’t know who came up with that name, but well done, mystery brewer! I look forward to trying it, since I feel like there’s a conceptual element behind it and I enjoy that kind of thing.

So, follow the hashtag #Beer4Boobs on Twitter! Like them on facebook! Show up at the event and support a worthy cause! Drink a delicious beer and help people not get cancer! Buy a whole bunch of raffle tickets and you might even win a bunch of high quality swag!

I appreciate that that’s not a very long post, and that it’s not a very funny post, but sometimes it’s just about getting the word out.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: House Ales/St.John’s Wort Gin and Juice IPA

Before I started writing about beer, I worked a job at a publishing company. It was not a particularly fulfilling job, but one of the perks that it had was location. It was located right down the street from Bar Volo. I suppose that at this point, I’ve probably been going to Volo off and on for about five years, and it’s amazing to see how much the place has changed in that time. They’ve started an import agency with Keep6imports. Their annual Cask Days event has become large enough that it now has to be held at an alternate site. They’ve even branded their on-site nanobrewery as House Ales.

Consider for a moment that this is a pub that has evolved to the point where it requires four websites to keep everyone up to date with their activities. When I started going there, they barely had one.

If you're waiting outside of a bar at 7:00 AM, and you're sober, people look at you funny.

I don’t know if it’s because I was a regular there for a long time, but every beer that I’ve brewed as a collaboration has somehow ended up on tap at Volo. There were the Lazarus Breakfast Stout and Imperial Element, which were collaborations with Mike Lackey at Great Lakes. There was the Manitou Sumac Saison, which was a collaboration with Paul Dickey.

It’s kind of a kick having your beer served at the best beer bar in the country. That’s what Volo is, according to ratebeer. For some brewers, I suspect that being on tap at Volo is just another day at the office. After all, when you’re producing thousands of hectoliters a year, it must be pretty hard to get excited about where it’s going to be served. At that point, the main priority has to be moving a lot of whatever that beer is. In my case, since the biggest batch I’ve managed so far is something like a hundred litres, it’s exciting.

I still can't believe anyone's crazy enough to entrust me with electrical equipment.

I was at Volo on the first brew day with the Blichmann system, and I’ve watched them develop as a brewery. Some of the beers have been really good and some of them have been less good. It’s like that when you’re experimenting with small batch recipes, especially during the first year. They’ve now gotten to the point where they’ve got a couple of brewers in Jason Tremblay and Jon Hodd.

The thing that I like most about House Ales is that there’s some conceptual continuity. I suspect that the Hip-Hop series of beers that they’ve done is mostly there because of Tomas and Giulian Morana’s tastes in music. It doesn’t seem like Ralph would have come up with RUN E.S.B. or NOTORIOUS I.P.A.

I’m very lucky because I don’t currently have any constraints to my creative process in terms of brewing. For that reason, I get to come up with an idea for a beer and then make it work. It doesn’t have to be marketable, since there’s not going to be a lot of it. It just has to be tasty.

First wort hopping. For that extra.. uh.. thing.

In this case, I knew that I wanted to design something that related to the Hip-Hop series that House Ales does. I figure that if you’re going to play on someone else’s turf, you ought at least to follow their rules. I also knew that rather than just giving the beer a Hip-Hop pun as a name, I wanted to come up with something that was conceptually valid and would carry through into the flavour. As it turns out there aren’t a whole lot of ways you can go conceptually.

I suppose that you could probably make a beer with just a whole lot of a really resin-y Simcoe hops for that authentic bong rip flavour and call it The Chronic. I don’t know. My lack of fluency in the genre really limited my ability to play. Eventually I settled on Gin and Juice for two reasons

1)      Because I like G-funk.

2)      It was pretty much the only thing I could think of that would translate.

I figured that if you’re going to make a beer called Gin and Juice, both of those elements need to be right up front. You’re going to need a lot of citrus and tropical fruit flavours out of the hops, which more or less means  that you have to use a lot of late additions for aroma. The most fruit flavour I’d seen out of a hop recently was from Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy, so the recipe initially called for those, with some cascade for citrus specifically. While we had to alter the ingredients on the brew day, Jason Tremblay had some really good ideas for substitutions.

See that slick of oil? Yeah, that might have some hops in there.

The Gin part is a bit trickier. Since gin gets most of its flavour from juniper berries, that’s pretty much what you’re going to have to use in order to get that flavour. I suppose that you could probably throw them in as an aroma component around five minutes from the end of the boil, and that would definitely give you some flavour. The problem is knowing how much flavour it might give you. In a batch of about 85 liters, how much juniper do you want to use? Also, how are the juniper berries going to interact with the hops? Once it’s in there, you can’t take it out. In the end, we decided that it would be better to go with putting the berries in the secondary fermenter.

I don’t know exactly what it’s going to taste like, but it’s sure as heck going to be interesting. Probably it will be on tap at Volo towards the end of March. Thanks go to Ralph Morana for letting me use his equipment and Jason Tremblay for making sure I didn’t set anything on fire.

Cask Days @ Hart House

In Ralph Morana’s ever expanding quest to take over the beer world, Cask Days 2011 has to be seen as a massive success. That being said, it wasn’t without gambles. Any time you move a beer festival to an outdoor location, you face a number of variables that are beyond your control. The truth is that it all came together perfectly this year.

One of the things I use to gauge the success of a cask festival is how the English ex-pats think of it. These are people, after all, who get back across the pond periodically to enjoy real ale festivals that are generally much larger than those we have in Canada. This year Cask Days actually managed to put blissful looks on their faces, and I talked to three or four ex-pats who lauded the thing as being a “proper festival.”

There were a number of things that helped to pull this off. The first is the setting. Hart House lends an air of sophistication to a beer festival. People tend to behave themselves when you put them in a massive university courtyard in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily do in other places. Perhaps it was the imposing nature of the structure or the nearly surreal carillon ringing from the bell tower that had this calming effect. At least during the first session, no one got out of hand.

The bells! The bells!

One of the key ingredients in this success was the massive variety of beer on offer. There were 82 separate casks, which is amazing when you consider the genesis of the event. When I started going to Cask Days four years ago, there might have been something like 40, and they would all have been from Ontario. The fact that this event has expanded to include BC, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and England is no small feat. Think about the amount of organization that it must take to get that many brewers on the phone, let alone to get them to ship casks of their beer out to coincide with the last week in October. Astounding.

Should have sent a poet.

The other thing that worked to everyone’s benefit was the fact that it was cold. It was, for me anyway, just about the right temperature to be serving cask ale at. I know that some folks seem to like it at eight or nine degrees Celsius, but I prefer it at around six, chill haze be damned. It’s going to warm up in your hands anyway, so I feel like having the flavours open up in front of you is a good thing.

George Eagleson: Urban Cowboy

People dressed up for the weather, in windbreakers and parkas and a surprising number of cowboy hats. Many people fought to find a place on the north side of the quad so that they could stand in the sun and warm up. This is just enough adversity to create a shared experience. It’s not so much adversity that it becomes the focal point of the day. It would be hard, for example to properly enjoy cask ale in a lifeboat after listening to the band play Nearer My God To Thee while this ship goes down. It would, however, create a sense of community, at least until the cannibalism set in.

Local Hat Enthusiast Greg Earp

The branding on all of the material involved with the festival was excellent, and most of the credit for this goes to Tomas Morana, who has become something of a savant in terms of graphic design. At some point before the festival, he took the time to design tokens with the event logo on them. These are so vastly an improvement on having paper tickets in your pocket that I don’t know where to begin. In the old days, they used to issue strips of paper with little dotted lines on them so you knew where to tear the tickets. Try finding a single ticket in one of your many pockets after you’ve sampled 14 quarter pints of beer. The tokens are a stroke of genius.

I wasn't going to include this picture, but I did because of tokenism.

Perhaps most impressive was the fact that I didn’t end up drain pouring a single beer. In previous years there have always been one or two beers that I tried that I couldn’t get through despite the fact that the sample might have been five ounces. The leap in quality is tremendous. The brewers are now taking this seriously, and by trial and error over the course of the last seven years most of them have learned how to properly cask beers.

Somehow, both the Central City Red Racer Citra Pale Ale and the Storm Fresh Hop IPA survived the voyage from BC and were excellent. One would have thought that the Trois Mousquetaires Barrel Aged Baltic Porter would have stolen the show in the Quebec tent, but Dunham’s Oak Aged Cranberry Ale was magnificent; tart, with that hint of wood that aids the mouthfeel. I suspect that it may have been bolstered by a touch of wild yeast. All I know is that Dunham clearly bears watching.

Gordo thought he got out of frame. Gordo was wrong.

Niagara College put forth a good effort, and our booth was manned by Gord Slater, who is pictured here in a very dapper hat which was provided by Don Cherry’s Burlington Glamour line of couture (there is the distinct possibility I will be expelled for this joke). The Bultersberg Barley Wine was very good and I feel as though the other beers benefitted from dry hopping. Niagara students Austin Roach and Andrew Bartle collaborated with Volo’s House Ales to create Gold Dust, which was a solid attempt at an American style Porter.

Ontario actually measured up to the other provinces. Mike Lackey from Great Lakes created a 100% Brett IPA which I imagine will take the best name prize: Fangboner. Yes, it’s a silly name. Try saying it aloud in a high pitched voice, or singing it to the tune of goldfinger. It also created an awkward situation when you were being served by one of the girls manning the booth. “Excuse me young lady, could I trouble you for a Fangboner? What’s that? No, just a quarter pint Fangboner. This is the Fangboner? Great. Here’s your token. Fangboner.”

"Hey, what can we call this beer? It needs to be wholesome enough to play in Peoria....I've got it. Fangboner."

Cameron’s continues to do interesting things. Apparently their There Is No Dana, Only Zuur Sour is the result of months of barrel aging. It was tasty. The only legitimate criticism I have for it is that the beer is that it didn’t really peak at any point on the palate; one flavour all the way through. Good beer, though and it gets high marks on the Venkman Quotient.

Don't open the tap all the way. Important safety tip, Egon.

Best of all though was Sawdust City’s I Swear, Sugarpants, It Was Your Idea. I didn’t think much of Sawdust City’s first offering. I think the ingredient from every province thing they did with Great Weiss North was gimmicky and a little busy on the palate. I don’t think anyone knew enough of the ingredients to be able to pick them out. This, on the other hand, was marvelous. It’s a brown ale with coffee malt and lactose brewed with a sort of garam masala chai steep that was added as a flavour addition at the end of the boil. It tasted like a chai latte. I don’t actually like chai, and this was excellent. More than that, it was exciting. I don’t know exactly how he pulled it off and made the flavours work together, but he did.

Looking at this picture, I'm seriously considering taking bets on whether Sam Corbeil owns a waterbed and attends key parties.

This was the best Cask Days event ever. Make no mistake, it will probably be even better next year. I have only two regrets:

1)      We trampled the Hart House quad’s lawn pretty badly. Some landscaper is going to be pissed.

2)      Instead of sampling more beers, at some point I decided to use four tokens to buy a pint of Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque on cask.

Actually, that second one probably isn’t a regret.


Cask Days 2010 – IT BEGINS!

It’s the end of October, and while for your average pub-goer it’s an excuse to scrape together a last minute costume (“I’m a psychopath. We look just like everybody else.”) for beer nerds it can mean only one thing: Bar Volo’s Cask Days.

This is going to be sixth annual Cask Days, and I feel like this is as good an opportunity as any to talk a little bit about the history of the thing.

It started out fairly innocuously: A relatively small number of casks on Volo’s Yonge street patio. Over the years it has snowballed. Two years ago, it was a weekend long festival and they had something like fifty casks and I recall one of the highlights being a jury-rigged Randall made out of a cafetiere. Last year they had “Cask Week” which featured a selection of English style cask beer during the week, before launching into the main event. People camped out. I know of at least one Liverpudlian who managed to attend nearly every one of the eight sessions. People making decisions like “I know. I’ll drink a whole pint of Peche Mortel. Well, when am I ever going to get this chance again?” and then promptly falling asleep on their feet.

This year it has expanded even further. It was “CASK MONTH” and a steady stream of Moranas have been pouring cask across the province from Van Kleek Hill to Cambridge. This included the decision to pour English style cask all throughout the week prior to the main event. Cask Days is now mobile. If my projections are correct, next year, even if you live in Moosonee, you’re probably still going to be able to enjoy cask beers thanks to the efforts of Ralph Morana.

So come on down to Crazy Ralph's House of Cask!

I worry about Ralph’s mental state sometimes. He takes a huge amount of pride in his pub, as well he should. It’s a fine place to enjoy a couple of beers. It’s just that as CASK MONTH has progressed, I have noticed a thousand yard stare developing and I wonder whether he has an ulterior motive. He has had sleepless nights putting this together and I begin to suspect this is all part of a larger plan to annex Scarborough and rename it The Independent Republic of Caskylvania. At the very least, there’s the possibility that he might start using casks as a weapon a la Donkey Kong. All I’m saying is that if this trend goes unchecked we may discover that the Mayan 2012 prediction actually references the beginning of CASK MILLENIUM.

I kid.

The main benefit of Cask Days to your average beer nerd is that there are always things that you’ve never tried before. It’s also a good opportunity to re-evaluate breweries that you may have discounted in the past. Every brewer and their dog creates new and interesting beers for the general public to try. It’s a good indicator of which breweries are paying attention. Some of the established ones will release special dry-hopped versions of their staples. Some breweries that you have long since discounted as being uninteresting will attempt to change your mind. Generally, the people who have innovated continue to do so with potentially devastating results. Also, this will be the first year where Volo’s house cask is on offer. You don’t want to miss out on this.


1) The event is traditionally cash only. Bring money. Lots of money. Sample tickets are usually ten for twenty bucks and the regular casks are usually about two tickets for a half pint.

2) The premium casks imported from Quebec might be four tickets for a half pint.

3) Yes, that’s expensive. You know what, though? It’s worth it. Think of the effort that goes into this thing. Do you want to try getting a cask of Hopfenstark beer through the LCBO? No? Then shut up about it already.


The best part about Cask Days is wandering around and trying stuff that looks interesting. Sure,you may regret ordering the “Jack and Coke” ale or the “Peanut Butter and Jelly” ale, but this is not a time for planning meticulously. If you don’t like it, you can pour it out and move on. They have conveniently located potted plants for just such an emergency (also rinse stations).

I won’t tell you what you should try. It removes the fun from it entirely.

I will, however, tell you what I’m looking forward to:

–          Amsterdam CJM Royal Brown Ale. They’ve been going through some changes over at Amsterdam, and they’re now doing interesting things. This will be a chance to see whether it’s paying off.

–          Dry Hopped Trois Mousquetaires Baltic Porter. Best Baltic Porter in Canada. Now with extra hops!

–          Great Lakes Triple IPA! Maybe! I talked to Mike Lackey about it the other day. He’s conscientious enough to send something else if it’s not up to his exacting standards.

–          Trafalgar Bert Well Pale Ale will be the absolute last chance I’m ever going to give Trafalgar and if it isn’t any good I am going to rain down fire and brimstone upon them with such intensity that it will raise the temperature of the blogosphere by several dozen degrees. They are already on double secret probation for Korruptor and I for one have very little difficulty seeing the benefit of hastening along Ontario beer Darwinism.

–          Stuff from Quebec! Cuda! Pionniere! Greg!

This is going to be an interesting couple of days.

Bar Volo – Your Friendly Neighborhood Nanobrewery

Bar Volo has acquired quite a reputation for itself. Between the annual Cask Days festival, the rotating tap selection and continued importation of rare and interesting bottles, it has managed to rank 61st in Beer Traveler Magazine’s 150 Perfect Places to Have A Beer. I can tell you right now that they’re going to rank higher next time around. Today, at about 10:30AM, Bar Volo started on the road to becoming a functioning brew pub.

Over the last year or so there has been a lot of speculation amongst visitors about the timeline that this process was on. After all, the pilot brewing system has been sitting idle for what seems like a tantalizingly long time. Ralph Morana, the owner and now head brewer, had to make sure to conform to licensing requirements before it was possible to brew on premises. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to make sure that he had the expertise to do justice to his vision of creating quality cask ales. Ralph has recently returned from three months of intensive training at Brewlab in Sunderland, UK. While he certainly possesses the technical expertise to be able to create his own products, he has wisely enlisted consultants in the form of the Biergotter Home Brew club in order to take advantage of their experience and manpower. You don’t want to try moving a 100 litre brew kettle by yourself. We’ve all seen that public service announcement.

Biergotter consists of Russ Burdick and Eric Ecclestone. For the last six years, they’ve been creating high quality beers with a DIY ethos. Their Hopocalypse and Hopocalypse Redux are legendary amongst Toronto cask ale fans. These beers topped out at over 100 IBU three years before American style IPAs caught on in Ontario. The boys haven’t been resting on their laurels, either. This year they submitted five beers to homebrewing competitions and four of them won

Eric Ecclestone: Local Badass

Eric Ecclestone: Local Badass

medals. They won the American Ale category at the Great Canadian Homebrew Comptetition. Last year they produced 195 gallons of beer. This is not some fly by night operation. These are journeymen. When asked why Ralph had chosen them, Eric responded, “Because we’re the best. Put that in your blag, St.John.” This collaboration has been a long time coming and Eric went on to explain that they’d been looking for a project to work on together for three years.

I’m mostly familiar with Russ and Eric from time spent with them at beer festivals and nights at the pub, meaning that this was one of the first times I’ve seen either of them without a pint glass in their hand. Imagine my surprise upon walking into Volo this morning to find sober people with wrenches, sealing tape, clipboards and yeast slurry laid out in an organized manner. At the time I arrived, Ralph and Russ were hunched over their laptops planning out the brew day and making recipe adjustments. Ralph was decked out in his Brewlab shirt and reading glasses. Russ stared fervently at his Promash software. It was clearly business time.

Today was a first attempt at using the equipment that Ralph purchased last year. While there was a certain amount of time spent on trying to figure out exactly how all the pieces fit together, the most impressive thing about the collaboration is the adjustment of styles that took place during the brew run. Biergotter’s setup is almost entirely manual. If things need to be moved, there’s going to be some heavy labour involved. The pilot system at Volo is a three tiered system designed to allow for a certain amount of stability and automation. A typical brew day for Biergotter takes between six and seven hours, but the technological advances of the pilot system allowed for a significant reduction in the amount of time expended. In terms of the experience he gained at Brewlab which dealt mostly with British Ales, Ralph benefited from Biergotter’s technical expertise with other styles; skimming excess proteins from the brew kettle and adjustments to hopping levels based on Original Gravity, for instance.

Ralph and consultants

Look at all this professionalism.

This is a move that makes a great deal of sense for Bar Volo when you stop to think about it objectively. Because of their reputation for having high quality cask ales available the majority of the time, this will allow them to ensure that there is a constant supply of fresh and interesting products available. The ability to customize recipes and experiment with various styles of cask beer will also ensure continuing innovation and promote discourse about the possibilities of nanobrewing as a viable enterprise in Ontario. The cost of materials for nanobrewing is a great deal lower than the cost of bringing in a cask or keg from another brewery. The system is capable of producing nearly 100 liters of beer which, if you take the inevitable spillage during production into account, should result in four 20 liter pins. It gives Ralph and his consultants from Biergotter carte blanche to experiment, given that if a batch doesn’t work out the financial loss is manageable. It also means that the same quality control measures can be performed from batch to batch and there’s no chance of damage to the beer in transit. When the plans for the system are complete, it will include a fermentation room in the basement regulated to 20 degrees Celsius which will allow for optimal conditioning.

Emptying the Mash Tun

Russ provides stability while Ralph empties the Mash Tun

While it remains to be seen exactly what will result from today’s experimentation, it’s clear to me that there are great things in the works. Tomas Morana let it slip that future plans involve scheduling a lineup of consultants to provide Ralph with their expertise and provide Toronto beer nerds with delightful collaborative brews. There’s even the possibility that they might let Julian near the thing (sometime before he turns thirty).

It’s early days to claim that this is going to be a gamechanger in Ontario. It does provide a framework for people trying to experiment with nanobrewing, and that is useful information to have as the industry continues to expand. This is going to be a success for Bar Volo and for Biergotter. While this brew run may be more about working out the kinks in the system than anything else, there’s always the possibility that you could be enjoying the Saison they brewed today on the patio in a couple of weeks. Coming up to the boil