Posts tagged ‘ale’

June 1, 2012

Penkridge Beer Fest is upon us!

It’s the Jubilee weekend, and from this evening three pubs in Penkridge are holding a beer festival.  You may already have heard me banging on about it, for which I make no apologies.  This is a big thing for me – if it goes well it will be the start of something.  Hopefully an annual event will come out of it which can only get bigger and better in future years.  With nine pubs in total in the village, there’s plenty of room for it to expand, and the interest in beer that it generates could be the catalyst for a growth in the variety and quality of beer available in our area, and that has got to be a good thing.

Of course, if it doesn’t do so well, then it’s likely that it won’t be repeated, not for some time anyway, so we have to hope that attendance is good, the beers all get polished off and everyone has a good time.  If you’re local, or passing though, why not pop down and give us your support.

Until I get there myself I can’t confirm all the final arrangements, or the beer lists (trying to get a list of beers from a landlord makes herding cats look like One Man And His Dog!).  The Littleton Arms will have about 10 beers available over the weekend – these will be served through the three handpulls on the bar so will rotate just as quickly as they can be finished.  The range includes a couple from Titanic, several from Slaters, and some other guests.  The Horse & Jockey is also serving about 10 beers plus 2 ciders, and there should be at least 5 on at a time, possibly more – plans to serve from a marquee were dependent on the weather and I’ll know later which way that decision went!  Finally the Bridgehouse are providing a selection from Thwaites and Holdens in particular.  As soon as I can establish the beer lists I’ll make them available via this blog and / or Twitter.

There’s lots more planned over the weekend in these pubs and elsewhere in the village (see www.penkridgebeerfestival.org.uk for details of events in the pubs and a link to details of other village events). If you’re about drop by, say hi, have a beer (or three) and whatever you’re doing for the next few days, enjoy the weekend!

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May 4, 2012

#TheSession63 – The Beer Moment

In this month’s session Pete Brown invites us to consider “The Beer Moment” and what it means to us.  In keeping with his appeal for us to switch off and float downstream, my mind immediately latched onto the word “moment” and it took me straight back to A-level physics.  In between setting things on fire, putting scary quantities of electrical current through them, and generally avoiding anything too mentally strenuous, there were actually a few things that stuck, and “moment” was one of them.  Rather than thinking about a moment as a point in time, my mind turned to its meaning as a force causing movement around a turning point.  Or, I suppose, a tipping point.

In the context of the beer scene in Birmingham (which is, by a small margin over Stoke, my nearest major city, and at least sometimes my work location too) much has been written already this year about how we lag behind other major (though generally smaller) cities in terms of the beer revolution.  There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, with the opening of the Post Office Vaults just before Christmas, and plans for Brewdog to open up in the city later in the year.  Interest in great beer is growing, or rather it is becoming more vocal, and surely there are exciting times ahead.

So, for me, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of Birmingham’s “moment”, both in the sense of it being a time where something is happening, and (back to the physics here) a powerful turning force, creating change in the drinking scene in the second city. 

As mentioned above, at the end of 2011 the Post Office Vaults came onto the scene, and that has been a breath of fresh air (figuratively at least, being a somewhat subterranean venue!) with a rapid expansion in the range of foreign bottled beers alongside a good selection of British ales.  Almost every time I go in the place is busy, and there is a buzz there that is great to see.  A buzz that is fuelled by the great beers that are available, and it is fantastic to see just how popular so much of the wide variety of styles and flavours is becoming.  Clearly the demand is there for exciting beers of all types.

Then a few weeks ago Twissup hit Birmingham, and a number of the more vocal enthusiasts for Birmingham’s beer scene got together and enjoyed a few hours of extremely responsible drinking, mostly meeting up for the first time with people with whom we’d all been communicating via Twitter for a while, and forming stronger relationships as a result.  It may have been the first of its kind here in Birmingham, but it certainly won’t be the last.  You can read more about that in recent posts on the subject, from both myself and Danny Brown.

And the future, well, it is fairly well known that Brewdog have been looking at a venue in central Birmingham to open up another in their rapidly expanded chain of bars, and word on the street is that all being well later this summer we’ll be seeing that venue opening up.  That can only be a good catalyst for further growth and expansion in the variety and quality of beer available in Birmingham.  I welcome their arrival and the challenges they will present to the local beer scene, although its location pretty much right on my direct walking route from the office to the station will be its own personal challenge to me, and a temptation I shall enjoy giving in to.

Three individual moments in time there, two past and one future, all contributing to the growing force for change that I think will finally see 2012 being Birmingham’s “Beer Moment”.  Returning once more to the physics, a moment is a force, and the more force applied the greater the change.  Come and be a part of that change; come and be a part of the moment. Let’s turn a moment into momentum.

And, of course I couldn’t leave this today without saying, may the fourth be with you…

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

Twissup!

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.

March 19, 2012

A brewing dilemma… or a no-brainer opportunity?

I’m in a little bit of a quandary.  I guess I’m being given the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is on the one hand, and being asked to sell my soul on the other.  But before I tell you about that I need to go over the background…

Just (I suspect, anyway) like many other people who write blogs about beer, and about the countless other subjects that drive people to share their thoughts in this way, I have a full time day job that pays the bills.  Once upon a time, if memory serves correctly, it represented the career in Engineering that I at least once wanted, and I was maybe even lucky in that I genuinely enjoyed what I had chosen to do for five days a week, fifty or so weeks a year, and have been doing now for some 15 years – sadly that is less the case now though.  I do still realise how lucky I am in that it pays me well enough to allow me to indulge my interests outside of work though.  If circumstances were different I might be happy to jack it all in to pursue something much more rewarding to me personally, but I’m not quite in that position just yet.

When I’m not working (and assuming my boss isn’t reading this, then sometimes when I am too!), however, my thoughts turn to those other interests.  Mostly to beer (my 3-year-old daughter frequently asks me if I’m “thinking about beer again” which is a running joke in our family, but is also usually pretty close to the mark!).  And what a wonderful thing it is to be interested in, to be passionate about.  But when I started this blog it wasn’t actually with the primary intention to be writing about drinking beer in the way that I have so far – that’s just what my thoughts and beer-related activities have led to recently.  The real purpose behind this blog was to try and document a journey into a different aspect of enjoying beer – brewing it, firstly as an amateur, and then, hopefully, eventually, as a professional.

So what of that journey?  Well progress is slow.  I expected that, but even so, it is slower than I thought.  The opposing claims of full time work, and a full time family, leave precious little spare capacity for getting out there and brewing, and in the time that can be set aside to brewing I have to make a further choice – get on with making beer, or spend the time building up the newer, larger, more reliable brewery that I’ve been working on for the past 6 months or more.  The latter doesn’t directly help develop my brewing skills (though it is starting to improve various aspects of my brews), it doesn’t help me work on the recipes that I want to try and refine, and it doesn’t provide me with my own stock of beer that I can enjoy drinking.  On the other hand, if I spend all my time making beer as best I can with the hotchpotch of equipment that I currently have to use, constantly trying to work around the debris of the new build, the longer term aim remains a distant dream.

I didn’t entirely help myself by coming up with a smart idea for our local pubs to put on a beer festival as part of the village Jubilee celebrations in June.  Not because it isn’t (at least in my opinion, anyway) a great idea, but because it means a lot of things for me to organise in order to make it happen that I’d naively expected to get some support in.  In hindsight that was a predictable outcome!  For the next ten weeks or so I have to pull out all the stops in order to make that thing actually happen – rallying the landlords who have agreed to take part (herding cats now seems trivial by comparison!), finding advertisers / sponsors, producing copy for the booklet, getting the word out.

But that will all be over in a few weeks, and I can concentrate again on my own beery pursuits.  And there’s been an unexpected side-benefit of all this, which is where my issue, the real subject of this post, lies.  Through getting involved with local pubs, I’ve met a few local publicans.  One of these has his own aspirations to turn his pub into a brewpub, and having got wind of my own plans, has proposed a collaboration.  This is, of course, very exciting, especially as a taster of my recent beers hasn’t seemed to put him off.  Instead of just cobbling together a 0.5 BBL brewery in my spare time, brewing up my own recipes in fairly short volumes and selling the odd barrel here and there in order to cover my costs, I could instead be looking at operating on anything between 2.5 BBL and 10 BBL, with a guaranteed outlet for a reasonable quantity of beer and enough capacity to supply other pubs and beer festivals in the local area.  For the time being this would have to be a part-time venture – I can’t afford to throw in the well-paid job just yet and put my house, my family’s wellbeing all on the line, just to pursue a passion. I have to give up a lot of free time at weekends, and evenings, but it will result in more time brewing than I get now.  As part of a longer-term plan it probably isn’t too bad a sacrifice as long as I can still balance it up with sufficient family time.

However, to do all this the focus shifts from being a one-man operation with no real ties, to being the partner in an enterprise that has different priorities.  To keep a pub stocked with its core beers means brewing primarily those same two or three beers on a regular basis.  Yes, there’s scope for seasonals, festival specials, trial brews, but only brewing part time keeps this quite limited.  I can no doubt set up a small pilot plant alongside the main kit, so every time I’m brewing I can also churn out a new recipe before risking the full brewery capacity on an experiment.  But I certainly won’t have the freedom to brew whatever I want, whenever I want, every time I fire the equipment up.

It seems to me too that the target audience probably changes a little with the increase in output – the odd barrel of something different and unique usually goes down well at festivals and in the odd pub with an appetite for interesting beers, but when “one-offs” are produced in batches of the order of 10, 20, or even 40 firkins at a time then a good portion of these will clearly need to be sold through the parent pub, and others that may be prepared to take on the beer.  That means it has to be acceptable to the landlord (and major partner in the brewery) and of course to the regular clients on whom he depends to keep his pub business afloat.  And for all the excitement and passion for big hoppy flavours, high-strength artisan beers, obscure, exciting and challenging beer styles, and so on, amongst a proportion of the beer drinkers in this country (I know that many readers of this blog will identify themselves with this group) there is also a probably much larger range of drinkers who are, to be fair, still the lifeblood of many pubs up and down the country.  People to whom that pub is their local.  People whose tastes might be (perhaps unfairly) criticised by some as conservative, but yet they are still often absolutely essential to a pub’s survival, especially in a village location where there is otherwise relatively little incentive for beer tourism footfall.  If the locals who turn up every day aren’t interested in what lies outside the core range, then there will only be a limited market for the specials that represent, to me as a brewer, the more interesting things to produce.  Obviously that core range doesn’t have to be bland and uninteresting, but it has to appeal to those to whom the pub is relying on for its existence.  Over time a successful venture will see changes – success with the basics provides a great platform to experiment more, and a successful brewpub would hopefully start drawing in more custom that will provide an outlet for a greater range of more adventurous beers over time.  There’s a bit of a catch-22 though – if you don’t have the exciting beers to offer then the new customers aren’t drawn in, but if you don’t look after the core clientele, then there is no business left to draw new customers into.

Of course, I could choose to stick to the solo approach, and eventually jump through all the hoops I need to in order to continue making what I believe is great beer on a very small scale, and to sell the odd cask here and there.  It is quite likely that it wouldn’t ever be more than some sort of personal “vanity” brewery, and realistically it will take me a lot of time to get to that stage on my own, but I would remain my own master and no-one would need to tell me what to brew.  Even then though, there is only so much I can drink myself and if the surplus can’t be sold then there is no point in brewing it.

On the other hand I could accept that an opportunity exists to do so much more, but I would need to be able to compromise for a while and focus in the first instance on what satisfies that core range of drinkers, while doing so with enough commitment to good beer that I avoid being labelled as a brewer of bland and uninteresting beers.  Maybe that is actually the whole challenge of brewing.  Bland and uninteresting certainly isn’t what I set out to brew for myself and it isn’t what will keep my passion for brewing alive and healthy.  And there are enough great small (and not so small) brewers out there that are producing exciting beers that appeal to an increasingly wide range of drinkers to see that it can be done.

There’s a balance to be had, its just a question of finding the right way to reach that balance.  It seems to me that taking the opportunity by the scruff of the neck ought to be a no-brainer, but then again, is it really that simple?

February 7, 2012

Small beginnings…

I thought it would make a nice change to have a positive slant for my next post and fortunately I think I can do just that.  Just a few weeks ago I was bemoaning the lack of decent drinking opportunities in a village with more than its fair share of pubs, and the difficulties in getting more than a passing interest from most of the landlords in doing something about it.

This week I can turn that all around and announce with some confidence the 1st Penkridge Beer Festival.  Taking place from the 2nd to the 5th June 2012, it is part of the celebrations associated with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, in conjunction with a number of other events around the village over the course of the weekend.  Each participating pub will have an extended range of beers available over the weekend, and while there are no listings available yet I am hopeful that at least some of those beers will be slightly more unusual than the normal offerings.

At present three pubs are confirmed as taking part, and several more are interested in joining in.  So 6-8 pubs in total, all being well, and all within short walking distance of each other.  Of course, this doesn’t mean Penkridge is suddenly going to become the beer capital of the midlands by any means, but a concerted effort to get some different beers on the bars and attract beer lovers from far and wide has got to be a positive start.  A successful event has every chance of becoming a regular one, and success will almost certainly build the confidence to expand the beer repertoire in the future. 

In my travels around the village pubs trying to get this off the ground over the last couple of weeks I have noticed some other improvements in prospects for good beer, which will no doubt be the subject of a future post or two.  New tenants at one pub have plans to reintroduce guest ales alongside the two current staples which are, admittedly, popular with the regulars and so will remain for the foreseeable future, but at least they are making moves to branch out with new handpulls due to be fitted in the near future.  At another the exciting new developments are still fairly well under wraps, but I can promise that as soon as details are available I’ll be passing on the information sharpish!

All small beginnings… but promising ones, and a marked improvement from my post only a few weeks ago.

Maybe I can look forward to seeing some of you at the Penkridge Beer Festival in June!!