Posts tagged ‘brewery’

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!
January 3, 2013

So long, 2012

Well here we are, at the start of a new year, and for me that also (roughly) marks the start of my second year of this blog. A perfect opportunity perhaps, to take a look back on the past year, and forward to the next.

I actually started this blog on Dec 23rd 2011 with a little pre-Christmas warm up, but blogging proper began in January first with a look at local pubs, and then I asked the question that led to my most popular post (based on number of views, anyway) of the whole year – where is the Birmingham Tap? So, almost a year later, do we have the answer? Well, things have certainly started to change. December saw the long-awaited opening of the new Brewdog bar in Birmingham, which was quite ironic timing for me – two weeks before it opened a change of job caused me to be London-based almost every day and travelling a route that avoids Birmingham, rather then being in London for just part of the week and travelling through New St to get home even on those days. Of course, one of the inspirations for that post was what is perhaps my truest “local” – the Euston Tap, so there’s still a silver lining…

But is Brewdog Birmingham the answer? Well, no, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful by that. Brewdog bars are great, and when I have the chance I’ll be a regular visitor, but they still lack for me the full breadth that places like Euston and Sheffield Taps or the Craft chain provide. So Brewdog is a start, but only that. Fortunately there is more to come! Further new bars are expected to open in the area later this year that should be the perfect compliment to the Brewdog offering and finally bring the breadth of choice that Birmingham hopefully deserves. It has even been hinted at that the operators of the Euston and Sheffield (and other) Taps have been looking for premises. Whether or not there is a “Birmingham Tap”, there should soon be a great range of beer on offer that finally puts Birmingham on a par with other cities.

As I’ve gone through this first year of writing, I’ve perhaps inevitably been trying my hand, and searching our both a style and a purpose in what I write about. Subject matter has included observations on drinking and the bar scene in Birmingham especially, my own brewing endeavours, beer festivals, and various other subjects as they came up. Naturally I hoped that I could look back at the popularity of various posts and determine what worked best for me in order to focus in the future. Well, that didn’t work. My second most popular post was of a completely different subject to the Birmingham Tap – the Saison brewday that recently took place – while in third place was a review of the inaugural Twissup in Birmingham. Three completely different posts on completely different subjects. I guess I’ll have to find other ways of deciding what to focus on in my blogging for the coming year, or just keep up the random approach I’ve had so far…

Going back to that Twissup post, this was a big event in the past year. It brought together a number of bloggers and tweeters in the region, and as a result I’ve got a number of new friends, more than just acquaintances. Saison a’Trois wouldn’t have happened without that initial meeting, and hopefully 2013 will see further developments that can be traced back to that first meeting. Since then, over the Christmas break, the second Birmingham Twissup attracted an even bigger crowd and I’m sure the next one won’t be far away. Twissup wasn’t the only event I attended in the year, and the European Beer Bloggers Convention was another great opportunity to meet more fellow bloggers, drink some great beers, and learn a bit more about this blogging lark.

The autumn saw one of the real highlights of the year drinking-wise with IndyManBeerCon somewhat redefining the beer festival. Is it too soon to be eagerly anticipating this year’s event which will no doubt be bigger and better? Something to aspire to in the Midlands perhaps? We’ll have to see what can be done…

On the home front, brewing progress has finally picked up following a slightly difficult time as new and larger equipment was put together (a task that is far from complete although now advanced enough to be reaping benefits). An exciting possibility of a commercial opportunity arose part way through the year, although all is quiet on that at the moment. It is still potentially on the cards though, and in the meantime I’m focusing on getting the beers I make right, and keeping an eye out for the right opportunities if they should come up.

So that’s the highlights for me. But what of the year to come? Well I have a few plans and ideas. Firstly on the blogging side of things I know I have to get writing more regularly. It has been tricky this year – work often eats up all the available time and the new job gives no respite from that. Although I’ve averaged about two posts every three weeks there have been some big gaps, and even if I don’t write a greater number of posts I’d like to keep more of a steady momentum. I’ve got to keep up with reading other people’s blogs too – there’s been so much good stuff lately and I know I’m missing more than I’m getting to see.

This year the brewing is going to step up a gear too. I think I’m starting to hit my stride now – I just need to get all those irritating little jobs around the place done to make each brewday go that much easier, and now I’ve made the dual steps to fully temperature-controlled fermentation and liquid yeasts I’ll be expanded the beer repertoire accordingly. I’d like to take the opportunity, if opportunities can be found, to get some hands on experience of a commercial brewday (all offers gratefully considered!), but the real challenge I’ve set myself is to get a recipe made commercially, somehow (again all offers considered!) – both of those should give some fantastic experience as well as valuable blogging material!

It’ll be tough to deliver on the challenges I’ve set myself, but it should be fun trying. Hopefully at least some of you will drop by to keep an eye on progress, and thanks for reading during this past year. Here’s to a fabulous 2013!

November 28, 2012

Saison a Trois – the brewday report

I’d be surprised if anyone reading this wasn’t already well aware of what a fabulously sociable thing beer is (notwithstanding all those of us who quite enjoy a solo pint, as The Session a few months back proved!).  Equally it is often remarked that the brewing industry is a pretty friendly world and that seems to be backed up by the various collaborations that seem to be getting more popular these days.  So when an idea began to form (over a few beers, obviously) that myself, @MarbleTim and @ckdsaddlers could brew up a collaboration of our own, well it seemed perfect.

Of course, being a drunken idea, it was never going to be a simple affair.  By the time we parted that evening we’d already settled upon a strong dark saison, which was to be aged in a wooden cask with a helping hand from a little Brettanomyces.  A few days later and we’d added a fruity secondary fermentation on blackberries into the mix and from that point on we never looked back.

It wasn’t without its difficulties though.  For starters we didn’t actually have a wooden cask, and it quickly became apparent that the only way we were going to get one small enough to be any use was to buy new – a second-hand wine or whisky barrel would have added flavour and complexity but at 55 gallons the size just isn’t practical.  Eventually a nice new chestnut (less intensely woody than oak apparently) 30l cask was sourced and so we were well on track.  But to fill a 30l cask you need at least 30l of beer.  Actually you need more, as even over the course of a few months aging there’ll be evaporation – the whisky distiller’s angels’ share – and we really need to top that back up.  And it felt wrong not to have something to bottle when the main batch went into the cask, so we could get an earlier idea of how it would turn out while we were waiting for the aged version to be ready. 

So the target was 50l.  Not a problem in theory, given that I’d already got the makings of a 100l brewery in progress.  But that is the key point – in progress.  Not finished.  Still, nothing like a bit of incentive to get on with a job.  A 60l fermenter complete with a cooling coil, was quickly ready but the real challenge was the mash tun.  There was always the option of mashing twice in my tiny (by comparison) original mash tun, but this wasn’t an ideal solution and even with two mashes it was going to be a tight fit to get enough wort to end up with 50l strong enough to ferment out to around 7% ABV.  Having decided that the only solution was to crack on and get the new mash tun finished, and realising that I needed to get off the fence and either make the last bits I needed or get them bought, I finally put my hand in my pocket and, despite some hiccups along the way, am glad I did.  The insulation may have still been a work in progress on the morning of the brewday, but it did the job and a last minute reconfiguration of the plumbing work didn’t hurt either.  There may have been more satisfaction about making every last bit of it myself, but if I’m really honest, in 12 months time I’d probably still be waiting to get around to it and instead I can now get on with brewing instead.  Or rather, focus on finishing off all the other jobs that are still outstanding…

So, finally, as a result of that slightly drunken conversation back in July, on a cold and frosty morning last weekend we finally got to turn our plans into reality.  By half past 9 the liquor tank was warming up nicely as Chris and Tim turned up raring to go, and so we quickly got underway.

Our planning over the previous months had seen the theme of “three” firmly embedding itself, not least in the chosen name of our brew, “Saison a Trois” (which should explain the regular appearance of that hashtag on Twitter recently!) and so we started off with preparing our grist made up of three different types of grain – barley, wheat and spelt, and before long were mashing in the largest grain bill that the Otherton brewery has faced to date.  The mash was deliberately on the cool side to get a higher than normal level of fermentables – we wanted this to finish on the dry side, while the spelt will hopefully give an increased perception of body to avoid it being too thin. 

The grain bill...

The grain bill…

Mashing in

The start of the sparge saw the christening of the new sparge arm (see my previous post on that subject) which I’m pleased to report was a definite success, and before long we were collecting a lovely dark wort into the copper ready for the boil.


Sparging – or as Chris put it: “swirly thing alert”

By this stage it was becoming apparent that, unlike some of my recent solo efforts, this was going to be a well organised brewday and we were able to relax with some tastings of the last two Otherton efforts – including a porter straight from the fermenter which needed to be emptied before the saison could go in – as well as some bottled treats that Chris and Tim brought along for the occasion.

First runnings

First runnings into the copper

Hop addition


The boil came and went without incident, three hop additions of Bramling Cross to maintain the theme, and before long we were chilling and transferring, and then it was time to pitch the first of the yeasts that will play a part in making this beer.  Allegedly the strain of yeast used in Saison DuPont, or at least the main one of the blend, we had settled for WLP565, and a healthy starter was pitched following transfer.  Two days later and this was already fermented down to half the starting gravity, and another day on it has passed 75% attenuation while still looking lively.  With this yeast strain supposedly favouring warmer temperatures the normal rule book was thrown out and gradually the temperature is being allowed to rise up by a couple of degrees a day, towards a maximum of 32C targeted by the end of the week – fingers crossed this really does work the way it is supposed to, because it feels very unnatural letting the yeast get so warm!


The yeast starter (split between demijohn and flask) alongside a better known example of its heritage.


So that’s it for now, until the target gravity (tests have indicated this should go down to 1006 in primary fermentation) is reached and it can be racked off onto the blackberries for a couple more weeks where it should pick up some fruity flavours and an interesting tinge of colour.  Then it is into the cask for a few months for the majority, where the second yeast addition comes courtesy of a couple of bottles of Orval – a handy way to get a little Brett into the cask and an enjoyable task to empty the majority of the bottles out first.  Tough work, but someone has to do it.

The cask!

Bend from the knees…Fortunately this lifting technique was only demonstrated while the cask was empty!

That cask is currently sitting (almost) ready to go, filled with water to allow the wood to swell and seal.  After an initial bout of incontinence mostly caused by an ill-fitting bung, all is holding well and so we are, quite literally, holding water. 

The final stage, once the beer has aged sufficiently (and I guess there’ll need to be some regular sampling, just to make sure…) will be the final bottling – anything left over when the cask is filled up will go straight to this step too – with a suitable third yeast addition to get them nicely carbonated.  We’re thinking a champagne yeast would suit the style and strength well and some sturdy bottles with cork and cage will provide a nice finishing touch.  Watch out for these next summer, just in time for saison season, when hopefully I can provide an update on what it tastes like and whether all the effort was worthwhile!

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September 27, 2012

The eternal upgrade…

It wasn’t planned to be like this.  Just a little bit of fun I thought.  Make some beer, it might even be drinkable.  Of course I wouldn’t be content just throwing some kits together, been there, done that, back in my university days.  No, I need to go full out, do it “properly”.  So I did.  And it was drinkable.  Very much so.  With only limited time available I couldn’t really brew enough.

I know, I thought.  I could expand this.  Make bigger batches, so for pretty much the same amount of time brewing I could get maybe twice as much beer.  I reckon there are a few improvements to make too that will speed things up.  I forget how long ago I decided all this, because it seems like forever that I’ve been working on this expansion plan.  But maybe, just maybe, the end is in sight.*

Having decided to scale up I (sensibly?) chose to set the capacity higher than I need, to prevent having to go through another expansion later (yes, in hindsight, definitely a sensible decision!), while being flexible enough to use at maybe half of capacity quite comfortably.  OK, I thought.  Break it down into simple steps.  One thing at a time, introduce the new equipment into the existing setup item by item, keeping the capability to brew so it won’t matter if it doesn’t all happen at once – after all, time is limited.

I wanted to start with the chiller.  Cooling the boiled wort in the existing copper** took an age, and was a clear candidate for making more efficient.  The problem was there was no way I’d be able to connect any sort of “in line” chiller to the outlet.  There was nothing else for it – the new copper had to come first.  I didn’t realise at the time that this sort of knock-on effect would become a common theme.  So, I got a nice big vessel for the new copper.  A few bits of plumbing, new tools (again, this became a common theme – every job brings with it a new piece of equipment necessary to complete the work), a few peripherals including a mighty gas burner, and hey presto, a nice big boil capacity of 100l+.

Having done this the chiller was now essential rather than desirable, as the old one wouldn’t fit in the new boiler.  So before I could brew anything using this brand new copper that had taken up the available brewing time for the past couple of months I had to make that too.  The first attempt was a bit disasterous but it eventually got there with the Mark II.  At last I could brew again.  Ahhh……

I’m still happy that fitting a sight glass to the copper was the right idea – it gives a good indication of level and I can read the volume off easily.  But at the point the copper was first brought into use with the rest of the existing kit I discovered that the volume at which the liquid first comes into sight is just a little greater volume than I can squeeze out of the current mash tun!  That volume is fine for the finished setup, I won’t be going lower than that, but it means there’s a lot of guesswork in the meantime and the existing mash tun and hot liquor tank (HLT) would have to be stretched to capacity.  Of course that means the output is more than previously, so the fermentation vessels would have to be stretched somewhat too.

Next on the list was the HLT.  In hindsight this should have come first but no matter.  Another of those knock-on effects came into play though.  No point having a nice big HLT unless I had something to stand it on.  Fortunately I decided to put some effort into the design of the stand because once I’d committed to building this it would drive the shape of the rest of the brewery, and space is at a premium.  A van-load of steel later, and after a session with a powerful saw (fortunately borrowed rather than purchased) and a couple of false starts, the nice new stand was in place.  The HLT conversion was relatively easy using the experience, and some of the surplus parts, I’d got from building the copper, and so relatively quickly it took its place on the upper level of the stand.  I say relatively quickly, but by now we were months on from the original decision to start this upgrade.  This wasn’t helped by the increasingly obvious need to fit out the whole space and with a few cupboards acquired second-hand, this work had to slot in around the brewery build too.  All the while, the few brews that could be squeezed in had to take place in the middle of a worksite, which was (and still is) trying to say the least.

Two main jobs remained – the mash tun, and the fermenters.  The latter would be easy to convert – just a tap to be added – but the problem was the bigger barrels wouldn’t fit into my crude temperature-controlled space.  And there was little point scaling up the mash tun until I had a big enough fermenter to transfer into.  Nothing for it then, a new temperature-controlled cupboard needed to come first.  Space was a problem now, so another delivery of some steel and another loan of the saw dealt with that.  The base of a nice new double cupboard was then topped with a wooden frame, insulated, and to date one of the doors has been fitted.  The other side will have to wait, but it isn’t a priorty anymore. 

Now the electronics side of things kicked in.  Lots of research and planning, several tactical purchases, more research and rethinking, more purchases, and finally I reach the point with a fancy little box of electrical wizardry that should, subject to a thorough test in the next week or so, allow me to keep the fermentation at the right temperature, and cool down to very low levels to improve the output and expand the brewing styles  I can dabble in.

So, finally, that leaves the mash tun.  I bought the vessel for this months and months ago, but it has just been sitting there getting in the way ever since while I sorted all the other jobs out.  All the fittings were bought ages ago too, and finally (with yet another new tool purchase) I managed to get the drain hole drilled out ready to fit it all together.  All it needs now is a bit of time to fit everything, seal joints etc.  Oh. And it needs a false bottom.  I’ve been dithering about this for months.  I know what I need to do, it’s just a question of doing it.  Buy an expensive piece of perforated steel, tools to cut it, various fittings, and put the effort in.  Finally, I’ve come to a conclusion though.  Cheat.  Get someone else to do it, because by the time I’ve paid for everything I need it isn’t going to work out much cheaper struggling to do it myself.  I can even get a better spec (thicker steel primarily) that way.  So, one false bottom finally ordered and the mash tun can be brought into use.  Except I planned it with a recirculation system which will help to keep the temperature constant and even allow stepping up of temperatures semi-automatically.  Overkill?  Maybe, but it is what I decided on.  So, back to the electronics, another raid on eBay, and subject to postage times from China for a few key bits, another fancy gizmo will be concocted to control the mash temperature.

So then we’re finished.  Potentially in the next few weeks.  Certainly ready for a big brewday in November.

Well, I say finished.  There’s a sparge arm needed.  And the pipework from copper to chiller to fermenter needs sorting out properly.  As does the plumbing supply into the building.  And the fitting of the sink.  And the permanent electrics.  And the other half of the fermenting cupboard.

And when I’ve done all that I’m sure there’ll be some other jobs that need doing…

Even so, it is quite exciting to be within sight of getting all the main jobs out of the way and to soon be able to spend a bit more time brewing and a lot less time building things.  It’s been much more than 12 months in the making, so far, and I’ve a new-found appreciation of all the different skills you need in order to make the capability to make beer, and I can’t wait to start using it properly.  Hopefully just in time for it to become the pilot plant for a slightly larger setup, but that’s another story of which more another time!

Having started this blog with the intention of recording progress on the brewery I thought it was about time I stopped getting sidetracked with other beer-related issues and actually wrote about the brewery for once.  So there you are, you now know as much as me about it!  Hopefully the next update will be rather sooner, and will be a positive report on the first “full” use of the new kit.  Fingers crossed…

* Strictly speaking, the end will never be in sight.  I quickly learnt that there’s always one more change, one more improvement, no matter how finished you thought you were!

** That’s the boiler, if you didn’t already know that

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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.

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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?

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