Caleb Gilgan has been the head brewer at Sawdust City Brewery, located in Gravenhurst, Ontario, for a little over a year and a half. We spoke to him about Sawdust City, the craft beer boom in Ontario, and what sets aside the small, independent guys from the big, corporate macrobrewers.
Tell me about how Sawdust City got started.
Sawdust was started in concept by two guys, one of which is Sam Corbeil. He was born and raised in Bracebridge, which is 15 minutes from Gravenhurst. The other guy is Rob Engman. Rob is from Toronto but has been cottaging and visiting Muskoka for the better part of his life and considers it a second home.
Sam went on a Europe-based trip with his wife and some other friends. I think at this point he had started to tire a little with his job in advertising and was maybe feeling like it was time for something else. While travelling through Europe, he started to gain an affection for the beer culture and the craftsmanship that went into it, and upon coming back to Canada decided that was something he really wanted to look into and pursue. He ended up going to a school in Berlin called VLB which has a brewing program. At the time, Niagara College’s brewing program didn’t exist, so the local options were a lot more limited. He could have gone to the states but, like, who doesn’t want to go and live in Berlin for a year?
How did you first meet the guys at Sawdust?
I did the Niagara college program and in between my first and second year, I decided I really wanted to get some practical experience and work with a brewery. I initially had a job lined up with Lake of Bays and then, for some reason or another, that job ended up falling through at the last minute. They referred me to Sam and basically said, “If you’re still hoping to work with a brewery up north, here’s this guy’s contact info.” I called Sam and more or less he said, “Yeah, we can use all the help we can get!”
I spent a couple of months working for Sawdust out of Black Oak. I got to do a lot of the little things and see a lot of interesting stuff about how the new company operates — I got to do a little bit of everything from packaging to delivering. We were our own delivery people, we didn’t have external delivery people or anything, so I spent a lot of time just driving around Toronto delivering kegs to bars and restaurants, as well as a lot of time on the production line and helping out on the brewing side.
I got to see a lot of variety in terms of how an entire production line works, which is great, because that’s exactly what I wanted; to get as much experience in as many ways as possible… even in ways that weren’t glamorous. Like, delivering beer is not glamorous, but now I’m really happy to have some understanding of how that works and the difficulties and the practicalities of it. That was a perfect situation for me.
When I started there, there were about four of us who worked in the back. Now we have eight or nine guys in the back. I’ve been very fortunate with timing and opportunity. I’ve been the head brewer for about a year and half, which has been awesome. I’ve gotten to develop some of my own recipes and brew those and see them from start to finish, which is a really rewarding experience. We’ve grown so much and our distribution has grown so much.
What’s day to day life like at Sawdust? Run me through an average day.
Because we do have beers we produce all the time, we are brewing and packaging almost every day. Now, beyond that, at any given point we might be putting beer into barrels that we’ve just gotten. So, for example, a couple weeks ago we put a bunch of imperial stout into bourbon barrels, or we might be emptying barrels to package the beer. We have about 100 barrels now so we’re always managing those. We’ll taste them periodically and see how they’re developing and decide which ones we want to blend together and if we want to add anything else to them, like if we want to add any spices, fruit or hops to them.
What happens when you or Sam decide that you want to make a new beer. Walk me through that process. Does one of you go to the other and say like “Hey, we should make this!” How does that trial and error process work?
Inspiration for new beers comes from all over the place. It could be that we tried a beer from some other brewery that was just really incredible and inspires us and I want to replicate the flavour, or it could be as simple as a name which inspires an idea. We have a pilot system at Sawdust which is a small little system that can make 50 litres of beer at a time, so sometimes we use that to make a trial recipe. Other times, we’re really confident in an idea and we just go for it in the full scale. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t make changes. We might make one batch of beer and really like it but think it can be even better so we’ll tweak it the next time we brew it. But when we have an idea that we feel good about, we are relatively ballsy in terms of going for it.
What’s a style of beer that you’re interested in brewing right now?
I really love beers that incorporate fruit in a very significant way, so most beers that I either brew on the pilot system or think about brewing, I find myself incorporating fruit into them. I think fruit mimics a lot of the flavours you find in the other ingredients of beer, like in the hops and in the malt. I really like using it as a way to layer that flavour in, especially in the summer. I think it just gives a really nice complexity to beer.
At Sawdust we do tend to brew a lot of somewhat experimental and new contemporary styles, so sometimes I have the urge to do the complete opposite and just brew something really traditional. One of the beers I want to brew when I get a chance is a classic Hefeweizen wheat beer — it’s one of my favourite styles in the summer. I think that, in a lot of ways, to brew those styles is a lot more challenging than to brew something new and experimental, because by the nature of it, something experimental has a lot less expectation loaded into it. You’re not really shooting at a fine target.
In that same vein of discussion, what’s a brewery you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
When we’re looking at breweries that we want to collaborate with, really what we look at most is the people who are brewing the beer. We care less about how big the brewery or their outreach; we don’t necessarily care all that much about if it’s going to benefit our brand or not. Because that’s what it’s all about — working with the people that share those positive ideals that contribute to the positivity in the industry. That, I think, is the number one thing.
That being said, the brewery I’d most want to collaborate with is called Fairweather Brewing Company, and that’s because it was started by two friends of mine who I went to Niagara College with. They just opened about a month ago in Hamilton. They are two awesome guys making really great beer. Just to have the opportunity to work together in an industry that, two and half years ago, we were in school for would be such a symbolic celebration for what we’ve achieved and how cool the industry is.
How has the craft beer industry changed in Ontario over the past decade or so?
At this point, the awareness and the saturation of craft beer in the general public and the approachability of it [has] reached that critical mass where it no longer seems like an exclusive, niche thing that you have to be really into to enjoy. I think sometimes with craft industries, that can become their reputation. Kind of like, “oh, that’s not for every person.” But I think craft beer has reached a point where it isn’t intimidating. The awareness is so broad that a lot more people are not only willing to give it a try, but really interested in actively pursuing it. That’s opened the door massively for those who are interested in brewing and interested in craft beer. And that works both ways. In the last three or four years, tons of breweries have opened by people that are intensely passionate about brewing beer, who might have been home brewing for years, and now, all of the sudden something that once seemed like an impossible pipe dream is super attainable.
There’s always, at least as long as I’ve been involved in the industry, been a conversation about the idea of saturation. The idea of, “Is the market becoming oversaturated?” And, “is this a craft beer bubble that is going to burst?”
But the fact is that at this point, it’s still a rapidly-growing industry and a lot of new breweries still find success. You can have a whole bunch of different business models for craft breweries. You can open something where you intend to brew a couple beers and get them in as many LCBO’s as possible, or you can decide you wanna open a tiny little brewpub in small town Ontario that barely distributes outside of that town, and you become a local institution that is supported locally and has aspirations of staying small and staying local — I think that is kind of the magic of it and the key to its success.
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