Posts tagged ‘brewing’

March 26, 2014

A matter of taste?

When tasting beer I’ve made myself I find it difficult to have the same detachment that I do when tasting that made by other people.  And rather than being a case of rose-tinted glasses, of failing to find fault in your own work, if anything it’s the opposite.  There’s a streak of perfectionism in there, for sure, but it is more than that.  I can’t make up my mind if it is just being overly critical to compensate the risk of self-congratulation, or if it is just a product of being to close to the whole thing.  I know that when I make a beer I tend to have a perception beforehand of what it will be like, the target I’m aiming for.  Sometimes that target is missed, not always by a long way, but I end up with something that doesn’t match the expectation, and maybe that’s the problem.  Rather than considering a sample on its own merits or at least to a fairly broad expectation of a style, as you would any other beer, maybe the problem is comparing to a perception of precisely what it was meant to be.

It doesn’t help when my own views on which beers I’ve made have been good and which haven’t aren’t echoed by other people – there are beers I’ve been quite unhappy with that have gone down a storm, and others that have been just what I wanted them to be that have been less popular.  It all adds to the sense of doubt in my ability to critically consider my own beer – am I being unfair? Are others just being polite? Do I even know what I’m talking about??

I had a very early sample of my chilli stout yesterday.  This has been brewed, at least in part, for the Northern Craft Brewers competition in Saltaire.  It was the second attempt due to problems with the first batch – some modifications were made and this attempt went much better. OK, it has only been in the bottle for just over a week so it is still young.  It has a couple more weeks to properly condition before it gets to Saltaire, but already the carbonation was getting there so any concerns I had about that aspect can probably be put to one side. Aroma? Hmmm. Not convinced.  Something seems not right to me, or then again does it, I’m just not sure.  I pass it to Lisa.  “Why did you screw your face up?” is her first question.  It smells great apparently.  I’m still unconvinced.  A taste.  Again, not sure.  Slightly oxidised perhaps?  I hope not, Or am I trying to find faults where there are none? 

Certainly it’s drier than I expected.  Rather than a full-bodied, slightly sweet malty chocolate base it is slightly thinner, more subtly chocolate.  It might even be all the better for it.  But the chilli seems absent.  Another sip – larger this time.  The flavours are reinforced but then, too, suddenly there it is.  Not in your face, but a gentle warming at the back of the throat.  The verdict, again, from the other end of the sofa is all positive, but I’m still not convinced.  It isn’t entirely the way I’d envisaged it turning out, but much of that is “different” not “wrong” – and all part of the learning experience.  The chilli doesn’t dominate, just as I’d hoped, but there is a risk that it is lost altogether in early sips.  Might that cause it to give the wrong impression in a competition tasting?  Hopefully not, the flavour should come through in time to make an impression.  So, there’s just that issue of whether there is something wrong with the overall taste, or if it is just me being harsh.  I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks…

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February 23, 2014

Brewday – spicing up a stout

It’s brewday today.  Not as frequent an occurrence as I’d like at the moment.  But I’m on a mission, so the time had to be found.  Actually I’m not even brewing what I had originally got in mind for today.  I should be making an IPA with all English hops for the May meeting of the Midlands Craft Brewers, a motley collection of amateur brewers with which I associate.  But when I last brewed a few weeks ago, well let’s just say it all went a bit pear-shaped.  The end result being that I haven’t ended up with the beer I wanted – quite literally in that the fermentation stopped about half-way through and nothing I tried could get it to do more.  But also in that tasting that half-finished beer, I realised that I hadn’t really achieved the flavours I set out to.  So today I’m having another go.

There’s a slight sense of urgency, because this beer is for entering into a competition – the Northern Craft Brewers annual competition held at Saltaire Brewery.  This is probably the last chance I’ll have to make something in time to enter.  The theme this year is to brew something with an “extra ingredient” – something aside from the usual malt and hops.  I’m going for a stout, flavoured with chocolate and chilli.  There’s also some orange peel in there for added effect.  Last time I tried it there wasn’t enough of any of those flavours, and too much bitterness up front – so this time I’m looking at upping the game a little.  I’m aiming for more of a milk stout base, with lactose adding some sweetness, compared to my previous effort, and as well as adding cocoa nibs and orange peel late in the boil I’ll be looking to add extra once primary fermentation is done along with the chilli which will be in the form of extract to give me an element of control over the strength.

So, the mash is on, the pH is checked (higher than the target but within the acceptable range) and there’s a myriad of jobs waiting for me.  Best get cracking.

January 22, 2014

Not so scary really…

Not scary. True enough. Nerve-wracking though, I’ll stand by that. I look forward, cautiously, to impressions over the coming days and weeks. It’s hard to be a truly fair critic of something you’re at least partly responsible for.

Do I like it? Yes. Would I change it? Yes again (but only really tweaks).  Happy? Well, no, but I can count on the finger of one thumb how many beers I’ve been truly happy with. Like I say, hard to be a fair critic of your own output.

On the other hand, Manchester Beer Fest was a cracking event, despite all the stairs and the trek to the toilets. Intriguing venue.  I wish them luck over the next few days.

January 22, 2014

When did beer festivals get scary?

Beer festivals have never, as a rule, been something that get me nervous. I’ve a strong enough disposition to cope with beards, sandals, entrenched views, and all the other stereotypes that seem to be attached. Ok, Morris Dancers put me a little on edge, but that’s understandable, surely? Last summer’s Birmingham Beer Bash was an exception but having a lot more at stake with that one it was always going to be nerve-wracking. Otherwise, generally, no beer festival would face me.

Today is slightly different. Later today I head up to the Manchester Beer Festival, with more than a little trepidation. I think that is a first for me, so what’s different today.  Well, unless this is the first time you’ve read my blog you probably know I brewed my second collaboration beer at the end of last year, with Offbeat in Crewe. Unlike my first collaboration this one was previously untested. Before we even brewed it Manchester Beer Festival had ordered it. And so that beer is on the bar today. It’ll be the first time I’ve tried it. I have no doubt it’ll be fine – I’m sure it would never have been allowed to leave the brewery if it wasn’t up to scratch – but still, has it worked? Is it what was envisaged? Do people like it? Do I like it?

We’ll know later…

January 2, 2014

Looking backwards, looking forward.

I’ve just been scanning back through my blog posts over the last year, eventually ending up back at the start of January when I reviewed the previous year and set myself some aims for 2013. So, if I had good intentions then what became of them?

Well, I failed on the first count – to write more regularly. Arguably I wrote more frequently, but that was heavily weighted towards a flurry of writing around Birmingham Beer Bash in July. Verdict: must try harder in 2014.

Second up was the plan to read more of what other people out there are writing. Oh dear, definitely not achieved that – just haven’t had the time. Verdict: a downward trend that needs reversing.

Finishing off those little jobs that need doing around the brewery at home? Well, some progress here but it feels like two small steps forward and one big step back each time, so the results haven’t really borne fruit yet.  Verdict: maintain progress and hopefully 2014 will see the improvements start to show.

The final two aims I’ll wrap up as one item – to get some hands-on experience in a commercial brewery, and to get a recipe brewed commercially. Well, I think I can put a big tick against that one. Despite a false start earlier in the year, I’ve ended up with two collaboration brews with real breweries under my belt – firstly with Blackjack and more recently with Offbeat (due out this month, including an appearance at the Manchester Beer Festival). There’s even something already in the pipeline for 2014 with yet another brewery. Verdict: a success to continue building on.

So, not all good, but not all bad either. And against the backdrop of Birmingham Beer Bash, which took up an unbelievable amount of time, I’m reasonably happy overall. The plan for the next year is to try and improve on those things I didn’t really achieve in 2013, and build on the brewing success. Add to that another (hopefully) successful Bash, and throw in some other ideas that aren’t ready for sharing yet, and I reckon there’s a fait challenge for the year ahead.  Lots to do, and we’ll see where we are in another 12 months!

Happy new year…

December 25, 2013

Golden Pints

I’ve not attempted a Golden Pints list before, and within seconds of starting this I’ve realised how difficult it actually is. This has surely been my beeriest year to date and yet I feel in some ways even less able to pick out the highlights. Maybe that’s a good thing – I’ve been simply too immersed in good beer to be able to single out individual experiences as head and shoulders above the rest.

Still, I can try…

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Best UK Cask Beer
Tough one this. There’s been a lot. Not all good of course. But lots and lots of good, and a fair amount of very good. Having recorded most of these on Untappd I thought it would be easy to quickly pull up a list of those I’ve rated highest. But it simply isn’t that easy (hence I won’t be completing the best app category this year!).  Although there’s been loads of brilliant cask ales amongst the mediocre (and a fair few worse than mediocre, to be fair), I’m not sure that any one stands out above all others. If you were to hold me at gunpoint I’d probably say a good pint of Thornbridge Jaipur on cask is still pretty unbeatable – I have certainly had some good pints of it in the past 12 months, and it always a beer I’m happy to return to. There might have been a contender in Magic Rock High Wire, a previous favourite, but as I haven’t come across it on cask this year it doesn’t count. So, I’ll give Jaipur an honourable mention but I don’t think I can declare a winner for sure.

Best UK Keg Beer
There are again quite a few to choose from. Everything I’ve had on keg from Wild Beer for example – Modus Operandi, Ninkasi, and Schnoodlepip all spring to mind. Beers from Weird Beard and Siren have stood out too. Harbour’s Pale Ales, and those of the Kernel, are also up there. What would I put above all else? I’m going to have to go for Wild Beer, who’s name immediately puts a smile on my face when I see it on a bar, and I’d have to plump for their flagship Modus Operandi.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I’d have to say it’s one of two here for me. Wild Beer Ninkasi or Kernel 1890 Export Stout. Both are beers I keep returning to, which to me illustrates the point.  I might have to call this one a draw.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Only really one contender for me. De Molen Rasputin which I had on keg at the Birmingham Beer Bash. Decadent and glorious. Loads of others that came close, the most memorable runner-up being Black Malts and Body Salts by To Ol – possibly at least in part because at IndyMan this marked a downward spiral towards higher strength beers and consequently is the last beer I can reliably recall from that day…

Best Collaboration Brew
A number of categories here have me divided – I can come up with a best in terms of the quality of the beer itself or best in terms of the experience I had with it. This is one of those categories. I’ve drunk a number of different collaborations this year but one was an experience like none other – my own collaboration with Blackjack Beers, an American Pale Ale called Phoneticus. As my first commercial effort it was an unrivalled experience. But honestly, the best collaboration beer I’ve had this year? It’s up there, but there are many others. Juggler by Magic Rock / To Ol, or the latter’s Buxton collaboration Carnage are both beers I enjoyed greatly. Wild Beer’s Schnoodlepip (which quickly became an adjective for brilliance at the Birmingham Beer Bash), and another from Magic Rock – Salty Kiss, these stood out. There were yet others, but favourite of all for me was the Weird Beard / Northern Monk Bad Habit.

Best Overall Beer
Really? No, sorry, just can’t do it. I think there’s too much a case of “the right beer at the right time” to say that in a fair fight any one would win.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
As I started writing this at the beginning of December a late entry in this category popped up when I saw a picture of the new range of bottles from Liverpool Craft. They’ve taken the fairly simple theme of their existing branding and developed it further to apply to a great set of bottle labels. At the same time I continue to love the raw simplicity of the Kernel brand, and Wild Beer’s printed bottles have a feel of quality oozing from then (although as a recycler of such bottles for my own beers at home I find it a pain not having a label you can just remove!). Another honourable mention goes to Magic Rock whose branding continues to catch the eye – there’s no doubt whose bottles they are on the shelf without having to go anywhere near to read the labels. And that’s the thing – your pumpclips and labels have to draw the customer to the beer, and all those mentioned above do that incredibly well. My winner? I think I’ll give it to Liverpool Craft.

Best UK Brewery
For consistency, quality, variety, innovation, and for simply being a jolly fine bunch of people too, it’s a clear winner for me. Not a brewery I’ve named as a clear winner in any specific beer category (although there was a late honourable mention for the cask beer), but probably the one where I’d be most happy to walk into a pub and see no-one else’s beers along a very long bar. Thornbridge it is.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
As I’ve pondered over the past few weeks two names keep popping back into my mind. Siren, and Weird Beard. Another draw. Honourable mention for Northern Monk too. Though I begin to doubt myself and wonder if they are all 2013 startups…

Pub/Bar of the Year
For me, one place stands out clearly as the pub of my year.  Back at the start of 2013 a rather run-down, tired and uninspiring pub just the wrong side of Birmingham’s inner ring road got a new lease of life. More than just a lick of paint, the sensitive refurbishment returned a bit of glory to what is an attractive building, and the arrival of Chris and Sharon Sherratt made more than a modest difference behind the bar. Over the course of a year the Craven Arms has become a proper local for me, despite me living 30 miles away and not even working in the next-door Mailbox any more. It’s about a sense of belonging, being able to walk in after however long it’s been and feel you’ve come back to “your” local. And a cracking selection of beers guaranteed. I don’t think I’ve ever found a pub I’ve become so familiar with before, and so this is my clear winner.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
As long as reopening under new ownership and new management counts, then my answer has to be as above.

Beer Festival of the Year
Another category where the element of experience interferes with the more subjective view. There can’t be many who read this who don’t know of my involvement as part of the team behind Birmingham Beer Bash. Naturally for me that was the festival of the year. It has to be. Not because of the sheer self-promotion of that, but because it was a truly incredible experience to bring that event to life, to build a festival that was how we wanted it to be. And, to be fair, moat people thought it was a pretty good effort. Was it better than the other festivals? No. Were any of them better than the Bash? No, actually. The real winner here for me is the whole range of modern, progressive beer festivals, in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London, that can’t quite be compared like-for-like because they are all different. United through their independence, and their sometimes radical approach. Here’s to those new wave beer festivals!

Supermarket of the Year
I have a rather grudging relationship with supermarkets. I’d rather buy from local independents but realistically that isn’t possible for everything and so there is a dependency on the supermarkets for some things. Beer isn’t one of those, and I generally find supermarket beer selections rather depressing. If I was selecting this category based on best selection for me I’d go with Waitrose because a) they have more beers that interest me than the other stores, and b) because they are slightly too far away to be a regular shopping trip and infrequent visits mean the selection always feels a bit fresher. However, I’m not going to award this category on the basis of which supermarket serves me best, but the one I feel has done most for promoting beer in general – that goes to Sainsbury’s, thanks to their Great British Beer Hunt which is probably the most positive promotion of beer from any supermarket.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Having no truly local independent in my corner of the land (for now, anyway) Stirchley Wines is my usual go-to retailer as they are most easily accessible for me and have a range that more than satisfies my needs. They face a stiff challenge from neighbours Cotteridge who I get to much less often but who always manage to provide some different options when I do – between these two retailers the south part of Birmingham has seen fantastic development in the quality of beer choice available and have done great things to help move forward the local beer scene. However, I can also head north for bottled inspiration now, and visits to Beer Dock in Crewe have started to feature in my occasional visits to that town. They’ve made the bottled beer shop slightly sexier, and added value with the ability to drink in (from bottles, keg or cask) and adding meet the brewer events to the repertoire. Quite a debut for them, so they get my vote this year.

Best Beer Blog or Website
I enjoy reading so many blogs but rarely get enough time to do most justice. Winner for me in this category is the one I can’t stop myself constantly dipping into. Ron Pattinson’s Shut Up About Barclay Perkins is an absolute treasure trove that keeps on drawing me in again and again.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
I enjoy the tweets of many, and it feels unfair to single one out. I can get round that, if stretched, by sort of picking two – Boak and Bailey have probably given me the most beer-related Twitter interest this year and so I’d plump for them as my winner.  Special mentions also to Phil Hardy, who used his beer tweet powers for good rather than evil when he arranged the reportedly excellent Macclesfield Twissup, and to Nate Dawg for his unrivalled services to swearing.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
This year has seen the pairing of beer and food become a much more dominant theme. I’m not going to try and pick out a single match that stands above the rest. For me the winner is simply beer, paired with food.

Inevitably the list above overlooks plenty of great breweries, people, and events, but like anyone else there’s only so much one person can experience in a mere 12 months. There are beers I’ve not had chance to try this year that might have changed the list dramatically, and there are people I’ve met or even worked with who are probably just as deserving of a mention as anyone else, but I couldn’t quite find the right reasoning while compiling these Golden Pints. To all in the wonderful beer community, thanks for being part of 2013, and I look forward to what the next year brings.

November 15, 2013

What Otherton did next…

I didn’t really put much thought into what would come next. But having made a beer commercially and seen it on the bar, watched people enjoying it, what then? I can’t just head back to the brewery to make (and sell) more, however much that’s what I’d like to do. If brewing is your living then that’s exactly what needs to be done, of course, but for me the day job is still there, needing to be done so the bills can be paid.

While sampling Phoneticus in Birmingham’s Craven Arms the thoughts were that maybe managing to produce a second beer in a few months’ time at best. It seemed reasonable, and pragmatic, and allowed time to test something out on a small scale before risking a larger version.

In the meantime there’s lots of experimental brewing to do at home. Starting with a focus on the “mental” part, rather than the “experi”, and an ambitiously mighty imperial stout, brewed with saison yeast, and due to be barrel aged for 12 months. Then some playing around with English hops on top of the Phoneticus grain bill . Then… Then…

Oh wait. Opportunity knocks, and suddenly there’s a new chance. A new chance that needs a new recipe. No time to brew a small batch and get a feel for it, this time it needs to be the real deal without a practice run. A quick discussion sets out the basic aim, and after a few hours sleep a bit more of a plan is formed. It’s a bit different, but that is all part of the plan. There’ll be tweaks and adaptations, certainly, but it is a goer. Brew 2 is coming. Due out in January*. Watch out for it. More details soon.

* and in breaking news, it’s already pre-selling, for a fairly high profile appearance. No pressure then…

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!