Q&A: Michael Vandervoort (Toronto, ON)

Michael Vandervoort’s saison took second place in the final round for the American Homebrewer’s Association’s National Homebrew Competition (NHC) in Providence, RI this year. There were 253 saison entries this year.

CHA: Congrats! How did you find out your saison placed seconnd in NHC? And how did you feel about it?

Thank you very much! I was relaxing at the cottage when my phone started going off. I had completely forgot when they were announcing the results. Our GTA Brews president Eric [Cousineau] was at the awards along with a few other members and friends. I think they were even more excited than I was! I was just in shock. It’s the first time anyone in our club had medaled in the competition. I had to read the messages a few times. When there are over 250 entries in a single category, and they are from the top amateur brewers in the world, you don’t get your hopes up too much. This award is special and one I am very proud of. 

CHA: How did you get into homebrewing? 

I actually started brewing as a means of therapy for my job. I’m a police officer in Toronto. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot. I use to have a hard time dealing with and processing these events. Then I discovered brewing and it became my escape. It refreshes me, clears my mind and allows me to explore my creative side. I can’t picture my life without it. I know my family and friends can’t either. They wouldn’t get all the free beer!

CHA: Tell me more about the saison you brewed. Have you brewed it before? And why a saison? 

The blueprint for this recipe is actually from a very skilled brewer in our club, Shane Martin. He was nice enough to share it with me. Another great reason to join a homebrew club! I took that base recipe and made a few tweaks to suit my tastes and brewing techniques. Shane’s recipe inspired me to use a local Escarpment Labs yeast that I would not have thought to use, as well as an interesting hop combination for a saison. Part of the yeast strain is actually cultivated from an Ontario strawberry. They are doing innovative work at Escarpment Labs. The hops used are not your traditional saison hops. For this take on a saison, I used Citra, Mosaic, and Mandarina Bavaria. It’s an IPA hop combo! Most would read this recipe and discard it. I’m sure glad I didn’t!

This was my first time brewing this recipe and I thought it was a great beer. The beer had a unique “it” factor. I had a friend Dave Cole, who is a BJCP judge, try it. He liked it so off it went. I didn’t enter it with any expectations to win but for feedback and curiosity, given it was such a different take on a saison. Turns out it was not just Shane, Dave and I who liked it! 

CHA: What’s your competition history like? How have you done for other competitions previously and have you entered into NHC before?

I’ve been competing for the last couple years in the Canadian Brewer of the Year Circuit and a few US competitions. I like to enter a variety of competitions to hit as many regional palates as possible. Different areas of the United States and Canada have different tastes. This was my first time entering the NHC. My wake up call for how good the competition was in the NHC was when my Eisbock scored a 45.5 [out of 50] and didn’t place in the regionals. They only take the top three in the category to move on to the finals. With 13 regional sites, that means in the finals you are up agains 39 other beers that already medaled in their region! 

I’ve done fairly well in competitions so I can’t complain. I’ve won Toronto Brewer of the Year in 2017 and 2018, 2017 Henderson Cup, medals in the Indiana State Fair, Oregon State Fair, Pennsylvania, and across Canada.  

CHA: What is your favourite thing about homebrewing? 

It has to be the people you meet and the passion and creativity you get from them. I’m part of a great club, GTA Brews. We meet once a month and I get to mingle with other passionate brewers. I had no idea there were so many brewers out there. They push and encourage me to be the best brewer I can be. The creativity in homebrewing is mind blowing. A beer is really like a blank canvas. At meetings you get to try so many unique creations. When we are passing around beers, at first you hear, “Why would you put that in a beer?” The brewer would say, “Why not?” Then you would try the beer and go, “Why didn’t I think of that! This is amazing!”

Going to a meeting really gets the passion bubbling in your veins. But it’s not just meetings. It’s the entire home brewing scene. I first walked into my local home brew store, Brew North, not knowing a thing. Over the years, the owner Nick [Zubacs] has been amazing by educating me on all the varieties of malts, hops and yeast. He will even open the store for me when I’m in a jam. Has anyone ever broken their yeast starter on a brew day? He has gone from an owner of a store I shop at to a friend. That’s what this scene is all about. It’s great to be part of a community and I owe my success as a brewer to it. I’m just a by-product of those around me and hope I can give back as much as I have received. 

CHA: What is your advice to brewing a great saison? 

I have brewed quite a few saisons over the years. I’ve used multiple malt, hop and yeast combinations. It’s important to try different ingredients in a style. When you start home brewing and you don’t have temperature control, saisons are one of the best to brew. They are very temperature forgiving.  It’s a fun style that has a range of  regional styles, strength levels and flavours. A brewer can have a lot of fun and creativity with the style so it’s a great beer to play around with.

My advice would be to try as many saisons as you can. There are a ton of different takes on this style. Pick things out of the saisons you like. For example, if you really like the aroma of one saison, but the colour of another, the yeast profile of yet another, and the alcohol level of…. you get the point. Bring those together. You don’t have to simply brew a copy of a beer you like. Make it your own. Then tinker with the recipe a little at a time. Too much and you won’t know what changed what. Eventually you will come up with your own unique saison. When you give someone a beer you created and mastered, it’s a satisfying moment. Brewing is all about creativity, passion and having fun. 

If you have any questions, feel free to message me via Instagram and follow what I’m up to @mosaiccitybrewing.

Michael Vandervoort’s Saison recipe

Kathy Yan Li is a director of the Canadian Homebrewers Association, and lives in Shilo, MB with her husband and dog Barkley. She is always looking for Canadian homebrewing and brewing content, so feel free to get in touch with her with ideas and suggestions.

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