Archive for April, 2012

April 26, 2012

Brewing up a disaster – ten lessons learnt on a bad brewday…

Sometimes you just have one of those days. I have to admit to some of it being self-inflicted, as I am a victim of my own disorganisation, but on the other hand I’m disorganised because I haven’t got as much time as I’d like to sort everything out. However, all’s well that ends well, right?

Last Thursday was to be my first brewday using my newly built hot liquor tank. This had already been converted from an old plastic drum, water tested (cold and hot) and the sight tube calibrated, so all good there. It even contained enough water for the brew so I didn’t need to fill it up. Wrong.

#Lesson 1 – if you leave 100 litres water in the tank ready for brewing, make sure the tank is in the right place first…

Ok. Drain, move, refill. Start heating. Get the pump set up ready for filling the mash tun. Relax? Wrong again.

#Lesson 2 – have a spare pump, or at least make sure the one you have is working before you need it.

To be fair, I was setting it up to recirculate water in the HLT in the first instance, so fortunately by the time it suddenly and inexplicably burst back into life the water was only just reaching the strike temperature so no time was lost, however this was only because of…

#Lesson 3 – check how long a large volume of water will take to heat up, and get it warming up early enough (although Lesson 1 becomes even more important now).

In the meantime I was also preparing the ingredients for the mash, and got a harsh reminder of why you have to plan carefully.

#Lesson 4 – keep a decent inventory of your raw materials, weigh out the night before if possible, and only try and brew something you can actually make with what you have!

By this stage I was getting quite resourceful, so it wasn’t too difficult to reformulate the recipe slightly around a few different malts which, I’m sure, will only benefit the end product by introducing even more delicious malt complexity. No really, I’m sure it will. I’m glad I was getting resourceful though, because lesson 4 came back again later when I tried to find the hops I was convinced I had in the freezer.

The mash passed by with little incident, until it came to sparging, when I decided to try (for the first time) fly sparging, ultimately with some success, but not without extensive swearing and general frustration.

#Lesson 5 – test the new setup before the day you use it, and then you’d establish you need a better way to control flow rate through the pump when there is still time to fix the problem.

So there’s a little bit of effort still to be made in order to establish a more workable arrangement for future sparging, although I did at least satisfy myself that this is the way I want my setup to work in the future. Naturally, given the day I was having, I ended up with about the right volume in the boiler but at way too low a gravity. As this is the fourth time this has happened, and all from this one sack of malt, I have concluded that I have a very poor batch and shall have to get some more in to replace it.  In the end I had to extend the boil for a while to try and get closer to the target, but it was still quite a way short.

On several occasions throughout the mash and boil the disorganised chaos that forms my brewing space just kept on taunting me.

#Lesson 6 – have somewhere to keep everything, and then keep it there – don’t leave thermometers etc lying around because you’ll spend ages searching for them each time. This may require actually finishing off those cupboards and worktops so that they can actually be used for putting things in!

In parallel to the boil I had decided to heat up some more water to clean through the pump and chiller, and once again I set the pump up to recirculate the water round. 50l of hot water should do the trick, I can leave that and come back in a bit, can’t I?

#Lesson 7 – if you’re going to leave a hose unattended, make sure it can’t fall out of where you’ve left it. Coming back to find just 30l water in the tank and the hose trailing on the floor doesn’t improve your day.

After all that, while it wasn’t exactly plain sailing, the remaining problems were mostly minor. The yeast kicked in eventually, but lack of a temperature-controlled space for one of the two FVs is proving an ongoing problem.

#Lesson 8 – get round to building that fermentation cupboard that’s been planned for months!!

All in all though, it was still an enjoyable brewday, despite everything above, and despite all the rain which I haven’t even mentioned! It took longer than expected at least in part due to the problems experienced, and also down to the process of getting used to new equipment, larger brew lengths etc. However, I have two FVs containing a liquid that is gradually turning into something that resembles beer, so fingers crossed the outcome will be well worth it. Not long to wait now – the yeast I’ve used has been a slow performer for me (this is the third attempt with similar results each time) but with a good rousing tonight I’d hope that by the end of the weekend it’ll be ready to go into cask and the first sample will have been tasted.  All that then leads me to are the final lessons…

#Lesson 9 – find the time to finish building this bigger brewery (larger mash tun next) and get on with brewing some hopefully fantastic beers!

#Lesson 10 – whatever happens, enjoy it! Brewing beer is great! (honest)

Here’s to the next, almost certainly much more successful brewday.

April 23, 2012


Last Saturday I managed to attend the Twissup event in Birmingham, and I have to say I’m glad I did.  This wasn’t the first ever Twissup, but it was certainly the first one in the Birmingham area, and provided the slightly daunting opportunity of meeting up with a number of other beer bloggers and enthusiasts from around the area.  As the day drew closer there was a looking like about 8-10 likely attendees, some of whom I’d interacting with in the past via blogs and tweets.  But I’d never met any of the group before.

Being quite good at turning up at anything late I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on the train I planned to catch, which would get me into New St with about 10-15 minutes to get down to the first venue, the Lamp in Digbeth.  In fact, from the messages passing around Twitter it began to look like almost everyone else was running late and when I walked into the pub a few minutes past the 4pm start time I didn’t know who, if anyone, would be in there.

As it happened the Lamp was quite busy.  A few small groups of 2 or 3 who I felt could all be safely pigeon-holed as highly improbably bloggers.  A couple of chaps at a table looked more likely, but also seemed just slightly too comfortable to be waiting for a stream of strangers to trickle in.  Next to them, a-ha, one bloke by himself, late thirties perhaps, engrossed in his phone.  Seems a good candidate.  But strange to have chosen a table where at most three of us would have squeezed round, let alone the larger group we were expecting.  A took over the tables in the window where there was more room, and resorted to my own phone to see if anyone was tweeting that they had also arrived.

A few moments later, Danny (@dannybrown76) did just that, and replying with my location soon found myself meeting the person who must have quite literally followed me into the bar.  Over the course of the next hour, more trickled in – Carl (@carldurose), Shaun (@19irishdragon), Roberto (@robertorossuk), Tim (@marbletim) and Chris (@ckdsaddlers).  Finally it was possible to put faces to the names, and to realise that actually all these mysterious “e-people” with whom I’ve been building up an online rapport, are actually just everyday real people too, just like me.  Conversation flowed, and so did the beers, and by the time we moved off through the rain to the Anchor a few minutes walk away it was much more like meeting up with old friends rather than new ones.

At the Anchor the beer choices expanded on the limited range at the Lamp, and the group expanded too with the addition of David (@mrdavidj) and (I eventually found out – missing out on the introductions at the time!) Stewart (@therealstwebert).  A couple of hours passed surprisingly quickly, and we were off again, in the dry this time, to the Post Office Vaults.  By now we were all getting well into our stride and the extensive range in the fridges behind the bar bore the brunt of it.  I think it would also be fair to say that as a group we’d gelled pretty well by this stage.

I’d love to offer a detailed write-up of all the beers I, and others, drank throughout the day, but to be perfectly honest, my recollection is a little hazy, especially for the later ones.  I could do some forensic analysis of the tweets that appeared over the course of twissup, but for me, this was about more than the beer.  It was about making a human connection in a virtual world, and for me that was achieved very successfully.  Judging by the tweets amongst the group on Sunday I’m not the only one and so I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last time that this group meets up, along with anyone else who wants to join us next time.

Roll on Birmingham Twissup 2!

P.S. apologies if there was anyone present who I’ve missed out in this roll call – no-one is knowingly excluded…

April 10, 2012

Missing the obvious?

Last week I was lucky enough to have a family holiday on the Isle of Wight. While it was snowing back home in Staffordshire I was a mere 200 miles away, in the same country, paddling in the sea. While there I enjoyed plenty of local produce, not least a stunning meal at the pub in the village where I stayed and locally caught fish bought and cooked within hours. But it was a visit to a supermarket that made one of the most thought-provoking moments for me.  I’d already had ample opportunity to sample the local ales from bottle and cask and while none of it set the world alight it was all perfectly fine, and I continued to seek out different brews from the island’s three brewers. But an enforced trip to one of the larger supermarkets yielded nothing new in the local beers. Actually there was nothing local at all, from a major store on an island of 150 square miles that is home to three breweries. In fact the most appealing bottled ale was from, of all places, back home in Staffordshire!  Beer that, if at home, I’d have shunned in favour of something (arguably) more interesting from further afield.
And that is exactly the point that made me think again about my whole approach to buying beer. I go out seeking new and interesting beer from around the country and the world, and sometimes bemoan the lack of adventurous retailers in my own vicinity. But I go a relatively short way across the country and it is the local beer I’m seeking out. And enjoying for what it is. Even more bizarrely I’m all for my locally-grown vegetables and locally-reared meat at home, but don’t apply the same logic to my beer-buying.
I clearly need to apply the “holiday mentality” even when at home and make sure I am fully familiar with what my local breweries have to offer. Does it mean I’m going to stop buying exciting beer from around the world? No, of course not. But it does mean I’m going to be a bit more careful about overlooking the beers that are quite literally on my doorstep.