So You Want To Be A Brewer: Beau’s/St.John’s Wort Karma Sumac 2

Toronto Beer Week is fast approaching, and one of the marquee events, if the lineups from last year are to be believed, is the Barrel Bragging Rights afternoon at The Monk’s Table. The fact that it’s as popular as it is has to do with publican Adam Grant’s special genius for promotion. If you manage to include all of the beer writers in Toronto in an event, you can bet that the hype surrounding it is going to be somewhere near all consuming.

The event is Mike Warner’s brainchild, and focuses around getting all of the interested beer writers in Toronto to team up with a brewery in order to make a beer. The winner last year was determined by public voting. This year, there will be a panel of judges involved to make the voting a little more even handed.

Originally, I was of the opinion that, having been to brewing school, I should come up with a recipe and brew it myself, without the assistance of a brewer. The truth of the matter is that I don’t have a brewery, and I’m pretty sure that attempting to serve homebrew at a pub is at least moderately illegal. That would have been bad.

Also, the fun of the thing is getting to hang out with brewers and learn from them. I wanted an excuse to work with a specific stunt brewer that I hadn’t worked with since my first public brew nearly two years ago.

Some say that he ate John Bonham’s heart in order to gain his facility with a snare drum. Some say that he can control the direction of the whirlpool with his mind. All I know is that he’s called The Bartle.

The Bartle, in a rare moment of contemplation.

The difficulty here is that The Bartle is currently a graduate of Niagara College and works at Beau’s. Beau’s is in Vankleek Hill, which is just outside the range of my decrepit Schwinn fixie. Also, there was the problem that the Barrel Bragging Rights uses barrels that are about 38 litres in size. Beau’s doesn’t really have a pilot system. We discussed the brew at the National Capital Craft Beer Week festival last weekend and decided that we would simply do a double brew on a homebrew sized system at the Beau’s brewery.

It was going to be straightforward. It was going to produce the exact amount of beer needed for the event and no more than that. It was going to contain pilsner malt, wheat and Staghorn Sumac. I don’t know if the world is ready for Staghorn Sumac beer, but I see all the Quebec brewers making White Spruce Beers with yeast from the vaults of Jean Talon and I’m darned if I’m going to let them have all the fun with indigenous scurvy fighting ingredients. My entry for this event last year had sumac as well. It was called Manitou and it was brewed with the inestimably talented Paul Dickey. I like Paul so much, I’m throwing in a cheap plug for Cheshire Valley in a post about another brewery.

Spent grain and sumac.

The Bartle is more frenetic than Paul Dickey. The Bartle makes Animal from The Electric Mayhem look like Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

Beau’s seems to have their planning meetings on Fridays. I was getting ready to go down to Vankleek Hill when I received the news that we were not going to be brewing on a homebrew scale after all. Instead, it was going to be 15BBL of beer. Beau’s has undergone some changes recently. They have a new wing with several 240BBL fermenters. There’s a new 60BBL brewhouse that has been installed very recently and which is apparently just getting under way. By the time I arrived, they had done two brews on it. This means that the 15BBL system is more or less their “pilot system” at this point.

The new 240BBL fermenters, which live in their own wing of the building.

15 Barrels is something like 17.5 hectoliters. That’s about 30 58.6 litre kegs of beer (minus QC sampling and general spillage). So far, at this point in the ol’ collaboration regime (which has worked out pretty darned well) I think the total volume that I have brewed is something like 4 hectoliters. If you include the batches I was brewing in a student group at Niagara College, we’re looking at maybe 6 hectoliters. Staghorn Sumac is an ingredient for which there’s no real literature to draw upon, so it’s hard to say how it will work. Also, Beau’s, in their six years of operation, has never lost a batch.

What’s the old punchline? “Bring me my brown trousers?”

Rakau hops going in at the start of the boil.

I was worried until I got to the brewery, at which point it became obvious that everybody was really excited about using Staghorn Sumac as ingredient. Some serious contemplation had gone into what could be done with it to make it really work. It ended up being a more complex beer than I had originally envisioned. There was going to be Belgian yeast. We were going to use Agave Nectar in place of Cane Sugar. New Zealand Rakau hops throughout, with some low alpha Belgian Cascade hops for aroma, eventually reaching around 30 IBU. It’s going to be higher in alcohol than we thought. It’s going to be dry and lemony, because of the puckering sumac tartness. The sample we took from the line for a gravity reading sort of looked like a Hefeweizen with a pinkish tinge around the edges.

As I was raking out the mash tun, I realized that I have no idea what style the beer is actually going to be. Moreover, I don’t care. You can’t go into this kind of experiment paying attention to BJCP categories. Well, you could, but that’s not very much fun. I guess I’d probably lump it in under Belgian Strong Ale if I had to choose a category. The Bartle thinks it’s a Belgian Golden Ale. He might well be right. It will, at the very least, be interesting.

It puts the trub in the bucket!

We played with some creative names, but in the end, we decided on Karma Sumac. It will be available at The Monk’s Table during the Barrel Bragging Rights competition. It will also be available during Toronto Beer Week at any bar crazy enough to take a chance on a Sumac beer. Thanks to the great people at Beau’s for getting excited about what is a potentially insane thing to attempt.

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