Hope you’re as excited as I am for another exciting rendition of WOMEN BREWER SPOTLIGHT! In today’s riveting piece, I check in with Catherine St. John (she/her), brewer extraordinaire at Common Good Brewery in Scarborough.
The first time I met Catherine (I think) was at Black Oak about 3 years ago, where she was brewing full-time and we did a collaboration beer there with SOBDL (fun fact: Black Oak was where I first worked full-time in the Ontario craft beer industry).
Since then, she moved East to Common Good where she’s taken on the challenge of brewing not only Common Good brands but a plethora of different brands for contract beer companies across the province.
I respect Catherine’s work ethic, calm energy and her dedication to brewing—a (heavily male-dominated) profession that can be incredibly tiring and stressful. I admittedly didn’t know Catherine very well, so it’s been great to chat with her and get to know her a bit better.
Hope you enjoy the interview! If you have any questions for her, you can connect with her on Instagram @beercatshockey.
What got you interested in brewing?
After I completed my MA in English Lit and realized I did not want to put myself through another 4-10 years of graduate school in order to have an extremely slim chance at employment I’d enjoy, so I took some time to evaluate what I actually wanted to do. A chance visit to the Niagara College Teaching Brewery, with their boasts of 98% of graduates being employed in the field, raised the possibility of a career in beer. I was looking for a job that would be creative, physical, not customer service related, and based in Toronto (a city I love living in), and figured I could pivot my experience homebrewing and passion for craft beer into something at least borderline financially viable with good job security. Seems to have mostly worked out so far.
What is your day-to-day like at Common Good?
I’m the Senior Brewer at the Common Good Brewing Co., so I spend 3-5 days a week running the brewhouse. This keeps me busy for 7-8 hours and results in around 33-35hL of wort. On days when we’re not brewing, I’ll do some cellaring tasks (tank CIP, yeast and fermentation management, scrubbing the floors, etc), do some research, and chat with our head brewer Mike about upcoming projects.
What is something you didn’t realize you would have to do so much of as a brewer?
I was prepared for the physical labour, and the amount of cleaning, and the basic but essential STEM skills required, but I was perhaps naively caught off guard by how frequently I would have to justify my existence as a brewer. I’ve faced scrutiny, questions, a lack of advancement opportunities, and outright incredulity from clients, suppliers, customers, and employers (potential or otherwise) which my male coworkers have not been subjected to. Before entering this industry, I did not realize how frequently I would have to assert my qualifications and right to be here.
I was also wholly unprepared for the fact that my entire body is constantly somewhere on the scale from “damp” to “fully soaked and dripping.” Between sweat, constant humidity, steam, errant bursts from the hoses, rinsing off random caustic splatters and other spills, random drips and leaks, and washing off malt dust or other debris, staying dry is surprisingly impossible. At no point during multiple years of homebrewing or 4 semesters of beer school did anyone warn me that working while constantly wet is apparently a requirement.
If you had more time in the day you would…
As part of my workday, I would love to have the time to develop a robust and ongoing program for further engaging in and supporting social and political causes as a Scarborough institution. The Common Good is one of the only breweries located in this richly diverse part of the GTA, and so we are uniquely positioned to directly make an impact on issues that are important to the members of our community. We’ve done some good work in the past, but I would love to have an official policy in place. If I had more time at the brewery, I would encourage and map out our increased involvement as a supporter of social justice movements and causes.
If I had more time in my personal life, I’d definitely resume (and maybe even complete!) the D&D campaign I participate in that got COVID-postponed. Reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen in far too long would be a priority as well. I’d also love to travel more, and see what breweries outside of Ontario have been up to. Otherwise, I would 100% just spend more time chilling in my backyard with my cats.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
As a recovering academic, I absolutely adore that I get to create a tangible product that is accessible and enjoyable by so many people. I also really enjoy that brewing keeps me active, and that there’s enough day to day variety in tasks and processes to prevent monotony, but also that my work stays at work and my time at home is my own. Further, in my current position at Common Good, my coworkers are absolute delights. We also do some contract brewing, which is always interesting and allows me to experience and learn from recipes developed by other brewers.
What is the WORST part of your job?
For me, the worst part of being a brewer is seeing and experiencing exhausting amounts of sexism and other forms of discrimination within our industry, and being faced with ignorance, indifference, or denial from many individuals and institutions who have the power and privilege to help us try to rectify these problems.
Any personal and/or professional goals for 2021?
On a professional level, I’m excited to continue working with the team here at Common Good to expand our offerings and keep improving existing products. I’m always looking to increase the scope of my skill set, and we’ve got a lot of things in the works that’ll help me further develop and diversify my beverage production abilities. As I mentioned above, I’d also love to increase our engagement with local BIPOC, LBGTQ2S+, and feminist organizations.
Personally, I am so so excited to finally be able to properly explore all the great bars and restaurants in my neighbourhood—my partner and I moved into our current place in March 2020 and haven’t had a chance to become regulars at any of our locals. I’m also already making plans for next summer’s vegetable garden (an ongoing project) and how to improve it over this year’s.
For women and folks looking to get into brewing, what advice can you give?
For people who are looking to open their own brewery and act as the head brewer, I would strongly recommend working at at least one existing brewery prior. Homebrewing experience is great and valuable, but a lot of it doesn’t scale up and there are many aspects of running a commercial brewery that it doesn’t cover. You’ll save yourself and your staff a tonne of headaches if you get in some reps with a full scale production brewery before trying it yourself.
For those looking to become brewers, I’d mention that starting in an introductory position (such as packaging, FOH, or sales) can be a viable way of starting a career, provided you’re willing to self-advocate. Many breweries are happy to train and promote staff who express an interesting in advancing. On the other hand, I can say from personal experience that it can be quite beneficial to switch companies if it becomes clear there is no room for you to advance or learn further, and that there is a great deal of knowledge to be gained by working for several different breweries and seeing a variety of systems and processes. And as far as a brewing education goes, it’s a good way to network but certainly not essential to becoming a great brewer.
In general, like any industry, try to work for companies that value you and treat you with respect, don’t be afraid to speak up for yourselves or others, and hold underperforming employers accountable in whatever ways you’re able.
For women, or other minorities, be prepared to have to work harder and be more knowledgeable than your cis hetero white male peers. Try to find the people and spaces that welcome you, support you, and make you feel safe. I’d also encourage women to join the Pink Boots Society, which is a valuable resource both practically and ideologically.
After a long day at the brewery, what style of beer do you typically reach for?
Something low ABV and probably dry-ish. Lighter-bodied lagers, malty or otherwise, pale ales, or session IPAs are definitely go-to styles for me.
Do you listen to music or podcasts while you’re working? If so, what are you into right now?
I always have my earbuds on me, if only to act as earplugs when needed, but I do sometimes get to use them to listen to things as well. Right now I’m in a Grateful Dead phase, thanks in part to my coworker Graeme soundtracking the commute when I’m lucky enough to hitch a ride with him, and thanks in part to stumbling across The War on Drugs’ excellent cover of Touch of Grey. I’ve also been spending time with the recent releases from Flying Lotus, Vince Staples, Iceage, Burial, Tyler the Creator, Cold Cave, The Mountain Goats, and Doja Cat, among assorted others.
As far as podcasts go, as a pretty serious hockey fan I fairly frequently listen to The Athletic Hockey Show, 31 Thoughts, The Hockey PDOcast, Puck Soup, Too Many Men, and The Leaf Report. Outside of hockey, it gets a bit random. I’ve been binging You’re Wrong About, and also have time for American Hysteria, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Blank Check, Welcome to Nightvale, You’re Dead to Me, and every once in a while I’ll dip into the archives of Toronto’s own Somebody Date Us.