Archive for October, 2013

October 28, 2013

Coming of age, or maybe a tipping point?

I’ve been reasonably critical of Birmingham’s beer scene in the past, and heaven knows I will be again until this truly becomes the second city of beer. But, and this is a big but, things are actually changing. Not phoney changes where promising venues just turn out to be more of the same or only slightly better. Real, genuine, change.

This week is the epitome of that. The annual Birmingham Beer Fest opens its doors once more, nothing new there (although read the programme carefully my friends). But there’s more. This year’s new upstart the Craven Arms compliments the festival with its own beer celebration, while on Friday (and I am gutted that I can’t attend) Brewdog welcome the Beavertown boys who are bringing the beaver home at last.  Meanwhile, tonight, I sit yards from each of them in the newest addition to the landscape, sipping Northern Monk’s imperious stout Strannik *in Birmingham!* at Cherry Reds.

Suddenly, Birmingham seems like it might have finally got the new wonderful world of beer. And got it good. Plus I’ve just highlighted all of that without once mentioning either Birmingham Beer Bash or my own impending beer launch with Blackjack at the Craven Arms on 11th Nov. Oh. Whoops….

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October 21, 2013

Brewday Report: Blackjack/Otherton Phoneticus (Part 2)

So, where did we get up to?  Wort transferred to the copper and heat applied, yes?  Well, this is where it all got a bit hoppy.  Making good use of the time it would take to reach a full boil it was a good moment to start thinking about the next ingredient.  When I made the original version of this beer it had two varieties of hops two times during and once at the end of the boil, and a further two varieties as dry hops following the primary fermentation.  The initial two were Bravo and Delta (US hops used for the Alpha acids – hence the name…) and the dry hops were Amarillo and Cluster.  However, for this version a change was on the cards.  Rob wasn’t able to get any Delta and so we needed to substitute something.  So, faced with a table stacked with a total of seven different hop varieties it was a case of getting in amongst them and comparing aromas, looking for the most suitable alternative while aiming for a similar end result.

I guess this is something I don’t do enough of at home – getting really hands-on with the hops I’m using before they go into the beer, not just sampling the finished product.  Certainly worth spending some more time on I reckon.  It wasn’t a terribly tough choice in the end, the Cascade seemed to fit in much more with the profile I could remember, which is perhaps not surprising given that Cascade features in the parentage of Delta.  So a decision was made, and quantities of each hop were measured out for the three additions – at start of boil, 15 minutes from the end and then finally at flame-out to steep.  Unlike the original this would have the equivalent dry hop addition as part of the steep rather than later in the fermenter but otherwise the quantities were the same, and around 5kg of hops was bagged up ready to go.

By this time the mash tun had cooled and so it was on with digging out the spent grain.  Definitely a bigger task than I’m used to, but at the same time I had expected it to be more of a mission than it turned out to be and I was quite surprised how quickly (relatively speaking) it was done with.

Hop additions came and went, until the clock ticked round and it was time to switch off the gas and add the final hops, the biggest addition by far.  About two-thirds of the total hopping went in now for a few minutes before Rob started whirlpooling the wort ready for transfer.  Apart from the whirlpool the transfer was again comfortingly familiar – the precise form of the equipment being used may have been slightly different but the function was the same – and before long the FV was filling up fast.  The gravity out of the copper was in the right ballpark, with up to 6% ABV on the cards, just like the original.  To achieve that though would require yeast, and a healthy dose of the Blackjack house strain was added to start its work creating the finished product.

Nearly a week on now it has been quite strange having a beer in progress that I haven’t, indeed can’t, go and check on.  Can’t check the temperature of, can’t check gravity, can’t have a sneaky sample.  It’s likely that I won’t know what it is like until the rest of the world gets to try it too.  That day isn’t far away – plans are afoot, but more of that later.  No doubt it will give rise to a third installment of this tale…

October 18, 2013

Brewday Report: Blackjack/Otherton Phoneticus (Part 1)

The most striking thing was just how little difference there really was.  The big tank of hot water, the shiny metal mash tun and the gas-fired boiler were all bigger, obviously, but fundamentally the same three vessels that sit in my own garage and get dragged into place on a brewday.  There was a fair bit of underletting that I could certainly see myself adopting for filling the mash tun at home, to avoid some of the frequent interaction between hot gravity-fed water and human flesh, but that probably means extra piping and another pump, so we’ll put that in the “ponder” box for now.  On the other hand I noted there was no fancy heated recirculation on the mash tun like I have at home, which is to be fair a bit of a luxury item for me.  I admit though I have strange ideas about what constitutes luxury…

When I arrived at the Blackjack brewery the bulk of the malt was sitting ready beside the mash tun, and that’s when it started to sink in just how much bigger this batch would be than the original recipe (about 18 times bigger in fact). I’m used to getting through a full bag of base malt across up to five brewdays, but several full bags were ready to go and once the remainder of pale malt and other additions were weighed out we had another couple of bags to add to them.

We were brewing Phoneticus, an American Pale Ale recipe I made earlier this year at home, and inevitably it would need to be adjusted to adapt to a different brewkit and the availability of certain ingredients.  Some careful substitution was all it took though, with an eye to matching the colour, flavours and gravity of the original.  Initial indications were good – the colour and gravity matched well and as far as I could tell so did the flavour of the finished wort, but it will be the final product that really confirms if we’ve got it right.

Mashing-in was much more a two-man operation than at home; I always find I need two pairs of hands but rarely have the space (or assistance) necessary.  This is where I think the underletting would help me, so tipping in grain and stirring the mixture aren’t hindered by moving the filling hose around and dodging the hot liquor.

Once that was done it was a case of waiting.  The time flies when brewing at home because there are a thousand little jobs that I can be doing.  Fixing this, cleaning that, moving things around aimlessly, usual brewday stuff.  In someone else’s brewery it’s different.  They might have their own odd jobs but as a visitor there’s not a lot you can do.  Still, 90 minutes eventually passed and we were ready to transfer to the copper.  Again, the process was little different to what I’m used to, just bigger, and, naturally, taking slightly longer to move several hundred litres where I have just 60 to deal with.  As the level of the wort rose above the heater we fired up the copper and once full, left it to reach the boil while we sorted out the hops…

[to be continued]

Huge thanks go to Rob at Blackjack for allowing me to come and fit my own beer into his brewing schedule and take up one of his fermenters for a few days!

October 14, 2013

Going cuckoo

When I set myself the target, at the start of this year, not only to get some experience of brewing in a commercial setting but also to produce a commercial brew of my own, I didn’t expect it was going to be a trivial task.  Within just a few weeks, however, the excitement was already mounting when I got an offer to do just that.  It was therefore one of the big disappointments (for me) of the Birmingham Beer Bash when that beer was not available as planned, due to the brewery’s decision to sell-up days before I went to brew with them. 

After the time spent planning and preparing it was quite a setback, and with the all-important beer festival on the horizon, opportunity to get things back on track looked slim.  But, one conversation at the Beer Bash changed all that, and now I find myself just over a day away from a visit to Blackjack in Manchester, to brew a version of the American Pale Ale that I created at the start of the year and had a great result with at the Saltaire competition in April.

So, last-minute disasters permitting, it looks like a reality, and in a few weeks you might just be lucky(*) enough to sample Otherton’s first foray into the commercial beer world.  Watch this space for the brewday report, and let me know what you think if you get to try it later in the year!

(*) assuming all goes to plan!
October 12, 2013

Thinking through the process

Last weekend I finally got to break a brewing dry spell and make enough space amongst the clutter left over from Birmingham Beer Bash to get a brew on. As has been typical of my last few brews various stages of the process involved last minute tinkering and modifcation of the still-evolving kit, and the inevitable hiccups minor and not-so-minor (full jug of yeast knocked to the floor just before pitching for example…).

This got me thinking, most particularly about “process”. Regardless of the art / craft of brewing that sits hand-in-hand with the underlying science (and depending on the setup, engineering too), brewing is very much a process industry, and in the home environment there is no reason for the same not to apply. Having a stable and consistent process should make for a happier brewday. Less time flapping over forgotten ingredients or things not being in the right place at the right time; much more time just enjoying the activity, improving things rather than just fixing them, and perhaps even sampling the fruits of previous labours.

Things go wrong from time to time at every brewery, and I’ll bet that most times this will be caused by something distracting from the usual process. Brewing at home somewhat less regularly it is harder to get the process embedded as second nature, especially when parts of the brewing kit are changing from brew to brew as is the case for me.

So I’m resolving to get better organised. Get my process sorted, and hopefully get a smoother brewday next time. I just need to work out what that process is…