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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.