Tuesday 30 September 2014

Thornbridge Competition

After driving to Bakewell and dropping off my Vienna IPA entry into the National Home Brew Challenge, I figured that most likely it would be the last I'd hear about it. Being a rookie home brewer, only in my wildest dreams did I harbour thoughts of actually winning.

Obviously I'd tried the beer before entering - it was clean and tidy, I was happy with it and in all honesty, I had felt that it may do okay. I always believed though, that there was bound to be a few absolutely stand-out entries and that one of these would inevitably triumph.

It came as a bit of a surprise then, to find a missed call and voicemail from Thornbridge's Alex Buchanan one day in mid-August, asking if I could call him back. It could only really be one thing, so I shakily dialled and spoke to Alex, who said that after much deliberation, my beer had come out on top!

Since recovering from the initial shock, it's been a fantastic experience to be involved in helping Thornbridge's brewers scale up the recipe and make the beer. I discussed the recipe via email with Rob Lovatt and visited in early September for the brew day.

Receiving my certificate and cheque

The kit at Thornbridge is bigger and more automated than in other microbreweries I've helped out at. They have a 30 barrel plant with separate mash and lauter tuns, a copper and a Rolek Hopnik.  Add 18 conical fermenters and it's quite a setup. The brewers were unfailingly friendly and helpful and it was good to put faces to names. James Buchanan took me off for a tour round the old brewery and the grounds of Thornbridge Hall, including the statue of Flora, a photo of which adorns every bottle.

Walking under some of the fvs
Flora, Roman goddess of flowers

The grain is delivered to silos in bulk so only the speciality malts and the hops are handled manually. All the vessels have clean-in-place (CIP) systems so this frees up the brewers, allowing them to focus on measuring and monitoring rather than wearing themselves out shovelling used grain around and cleaning up.

The whole process is managed from a pc in an air-conditioned brewing control room. On its monitor, this shows a schematic of the brewhouse with quantities, temperatures and other critical information displayed alongside each vessel. A click of the mouse is all it takes to start each part of the brewing process. Behind the control room is a laboratory, where the brewers take samples to be analysed at certain points in the brew.

Will Inman checks the pitching rate of a batch of Halcyon

Every brew gets tested for limit of attenuation, dissolved oxygen, pitching rate and a host of other variables and it's this culture of constant quality monitoring that in my opinion sets Thornbridge apart from most other UK micros.

Rob stuck to my recipe as closely as he could, making changes where necessary to allow for their different kit. A small bittering charge of T90 pellets was added to the copper at the start of the boil and a 6 grams per litre (30kg) charge of Columbus, Citra and Ahtanum was put into the Hopnik. This is a vessel through which the hot wort is circulated after the boil is finished. It's the most efficient way of getting the volatile hop flavours and aromas into the beer and much of the bitterness is derived here as well.

Once brewed, the beer was left to ferment for a week and condition for a further two then I visited again later in September to see it being bottled. The beer tasted fantastic - a flavoursome, amber-coloured IPA with the big Columbus and Ahtanum aromas particularly evident. I've recently developed a bit of an obsession with looking at the best before dates on beer so it was a privilege to sample some within minutes of it being bottled.

I could tell it was the same recipe as my home brew but as I expected, Thornbridge's superior processes and their attention to detail had taken it to the next level. There were a few little things I would have changed about my brew and Thornbridge had done it. This was the beer I was trying to make - ten thousand bottles of it!

That just over two months after driving to Bakewell with my entry, I'll be able to go into Waitrose and buy a bottle of the beer with my name on the label, made to my recipe, is pretty amazing. I hope the beer is well-received by the Waitrose customers and I'd like to extend my thanks to all involved in organising and running the competition.

Having a well-earned beer back home

Monday 8 September 2014

Brew 18 - Divine Hammer

10.5% Triple IPA

Brew date 28/7/14

This was my first attempt at making a really high strength beer and it was a special request, with the finished result destined for my mate Nick's 40th birthday weekend.

I wanted to make a big double or triple IPA, with multiple dry-hop additions and dextrose in the boil, to boost the ABV while keep the body light. I called the beer "Divine Hammer" after the song of the same name by excellent 90's band The Breeders.

With the strength so high, it was always going to be a bit of a step into the unknown so I wasn't going to get too precious about hitting numbers spot on. The starting point was simply to make an educated guess about the maximum amount of grain I could fit in my mash tun. I'd used 7 kilos before and there was some room left, so I guesstimated at 8.5 kg being the limit.

I came up with a simple recipe: 8200g of low colour Maris Otter and 300g of Caramalt (that's 3.3%). I added 700g of brewing sugar to the boil, to make 9.2kg of fermentables.

The mash tun looked like this:

Pretty full. It was all dribbling over the edge at the beginning so I'm satisfied I've found the limit. I did the usual big 0 min addition and 60 minute bittering addition to make up the IBUs. The bittering addition was really big: 314g of Cascade, Columbus and Citra, using up a few bag ends along the way. Added to the kettle, it looked like this:

I stirred it in and let it all stand for 20 minutes before turning the cold tap on for the cooling coil. The OG was 1.088 and I used 3 packets of US-05 yeast for the fermentation. That's still probably nowhere near enough but it's what I had and this brew was also an exercise in using up some old ingredients.

Hop schedule

The fermentation went ok, if maybe a bit slow, taking about 10 days to bottom out at 1.008. This was much lower than I'd been expecting, giving 10.5% ABV. In hindsight, I think I got carried away with the dextrose in the boil, resulting in wort which was a bit too racy.

I'd figured that this beer would be made or broken by what happened after fermentation finished, with good dry-hopping technique being really important. I did two separate additions, all T90 pellets, with the first being 100g of Columbus and 100g Citra into the primary FV and the second 100g of Citra and 100g Ahtanum into a secondary vessel after doing a transfer.

I cold-crashed in the second vessel and didn't add finings as I wanted to retain every last bit of flavour. The beer tasted brilliant at this point; like an orgy of hops.

Unfortunately, it went a little wrong from then on. I transferred into an open bucket for bottling, adding enough priming sugar to get 2.4 - 2.5 vols of carbonation. However, the tap got clogged up with hops and after trying in vain to find another way, I ended up having no choice but to blow down the tube to clear the blockage if I was going to get the beer out. The bottling went fine but I tasted a bit of the beer at the end and sadly it was already a bit tired and oxidised; definitely not as good as it had been a day or two before.

Fast forward two weeks and there was no sign of any carbonation. I emailed Dom Driscoll from Thornbridge and he confirmed my fears that 10.5% ABV is just a bit too big an ask for tired US-05 to bottle-condition. He suggested opening the bottles and dropping some fresh champagne yeast in each one.

I'm a bit annoyed with myself for not seeing the problem coming but as they say, you live and learn. I'll do the champagne yeast thing but I'm already itching to just re-do the brew with the schoolboy errors ironed out.

For the record, next time I would:

  • Aim at a little lower ABV, say 9%, for the next one
  • Use less dextrose in the boil
  • Use wet yeast - a big dose of WLP001
  • Do all the dry-hopping in primary
  • Be more careful not to oxidise the beer during transfers
  • Possibly re-seed with fresh yeast before bottling

In hindsight it was probably a bit ambitious to try and make a beer over 10% this early in my home brewing career and I've learnt that it's definitely not the sort of brew you can just do on a whim, with loads of careful planning needed if you want the best results. There is certainly a lot to catch you out when venturing into this territory and the one thing that stands head and shoulders above the rest is the importance of dissolved oxygen control. It's always important to minimise O2 takeup after fermentation is complete but these super-hoppy beers really show you up if you don't.

This is one area where a homebrewer has a serious disadvantage over a professional. It's so much harder to keep oxygen out of a small batch than a big batch because the small batch just has a higher surface area-to-volume ratio. There are steps, such as purging tanks with CO2, that can be taken to help minimise the problem but it'll always be a struggle.

There is one key advantage a homebrewer does have over his or her professional counterpart though: we don't have to make a profit. This beer had a stupid amount of hops in it: 21g/l in dry-hopping and 12g/l in the late kettle addition. Sadly though, if the technique isn't spot on, the amount of hops counts for nowt.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Mind your IBUs

This is just a quick note to explain what an IBU is and how to work out how many of them your homebrew's got. It's also the 100th post on this blog. What a milestone!

IBU stands for International Bittering Units and the bitterness of a beer can be quantified and expressed in IBUs. One IBU is the same as one milligram of isomerised alpha acid per litre of beer.

The proper way to work out the bitterness of a beer is by analysing a sample in a laboratory but if, like me, you don't have a spectrophotometer, then you can make do with using a figure calculated from the hop additions.

It's convenient to use brewing software that does this for you but it's just as easy to work it out for yourself. Here's how:

Each hop addition adds bitterness to the beer and the bitterness from all the additions can simply be added together to give the total bitterness. To work out how much bitterness any given hop addition provides, you just do the following:
  1. Multiply the grams added by the alpha acid percentage of the hop. This gives you a total amount of alpha acid available from that addition. (in grams)
  2. Multiply this by the utilisation rate, which is the percentage that gets isomerised. I use 26% for 60 minute additions and 5% for 0 minute additions. This gives you a total amount of isomerised alpha acid. (still in grams)
  3. Multiply this figure by 1000 to get milligrams and divide by the batch size to get a per litre figure. This is now your IBU figure for that particular addition.
For example, if you add 15g of a 12%aa hop at 60 minutes, then you get:
  1. 12% of 15g is 1.8g
  2. 26% of 1.8g is 0.468g
  3. 0.468g x 1000 / 26l = 18 mg/l or 18 IBUs.
Repeat for each hop addition and add them all together to get the total. This could get pretty tedious so instead of doing the sums each time, I've put it all in a spreadsheet which works it out automatically. All I have to do is alter the alpha acid percentages and the weights. The beauty of this is that you can fiddle around with your own utilisation rates.

A few brewers, such as Marble, are starting to cut out the middle hop additions and add the majority of the hops at flameout, making up any remaining bitterness with a small addition at the start of the boil.

According to the Tinseth numbers, which most of the brewing software use as default, flameout additions don't contribute any bitterness. In reality this isn't the case though. I've spoken to one brewer, who does have a spectrophotometer, who says they get 10-14% utilisation from flameout hops. Another pro brewer suggested 4-5% is a good ballpark figure to use. I suspect that for normal homebrew kit, with a 15-20 minute hop stand, a figure somewhere in between is going to be right.

It's important to remember that the utilisation percentages are approximate and will vary a lot depending on the kit you use but the above figures are good enough to get started. If you're adding a big flameout addition and are using a generic brewing calculator to work out the IBUs, then be careful, because the chances are your beer could end up more bitter than expected.

 The only way the flameout hops add no significant bitterness is if you cool the wort down to below 80C before adding them, which means little isomerisation takes place. This is what some brewers do, with great success. It's just another way of doing things but as ever, it's probably best to get brewing and see what works for you.

Brew 17 - Vienna IPA

5.9% IPA

Brew date 27/6/14

This was my entry for The Great British Homebrew Challenge 2014, a competition run jointly by Thornbridge Brewery and Waitrose. The winning entry would see their recipe scaled up and brewed by Thornbridge and stocked in Waitrose stores nationwide. Quite a prize!

The first major hurdle with competitions is deciding what to enter, so I thought hard about what kind of beer might have a chance of success. I figured the beer would have to appeal to a wide cross-section of drinkers and therefore be commercially attractive. So no rhubarb and marmite-infused saisons then. I thought it should also be at least a bit different to any of Thornbridge's current offerings.

I narrowed it down to two possibles that appealed to me; a Belgian golden ale or an IPA made with Vienna malt. As I had never used Belgian yeast before, I opted for the Vienna IPA as a safe choice because I could just use WLP001 yeast and hopefully hit the numbers pretty well.

I wanted to make it quite full-bodied, not too dry and quite dark in colour for an IPA, with a complex flavour so I added a bit of biscuit malt and some caramalt. I decided upon using Columbus, Citra and Ahtanum hops as I thought they would create a good range of taste and aroma, from dank through to floral. A pale ale water profile was used, high in sulphates to keep the bitterness from becoming too harsh.

Again, I went for just three hop additions; at 60 minutes, 0 minutes and a dry hop. The bittering addition was a small amount of Columbus and the big 0 minute addition was 1/3 Columbus and 2/3 Citra, providing about 60% of the IBUs.

I'd been a bit disappointed not to hit the numbers very well when making my last beer, so I put some considerable effort into researching brewhouse efficiency and attenuation rates and such things. It turned out that to end up with a 5.9% ABV beer I would need to collect 32 litres of wort with a pre-boil gravity of 1.046. There should then be 26 litres left in the kettle after the boil is complete, with an original gravity (OG) of 1.057. This should then ferment down to 1.012, giving a 5.9% beer. Quite a tall order!

Happily, this brew behaved itself impeccably and hit every number spot on. Seeing the hydrometer bobbing about at 1.057 after hours of toil was a very nice sight. The pH of the mash was even 5.2, exactly as it should be. It was as though the stars had aligned and everything fell into place.

I bottled with 100g of dextrose, enough to get a carbonation of about 2.4 vols. After two weeks it was lovely and fizzy and tasting delicious. This beer definitely has the best hop aroma out of any I've made, with the Ahtanum quite prominent. The Columbus and the Citra seem to play very nicely together as well. I'm really pleased with how it turned out and hopefully the judges think so too. Fingers crossed!

Edit: They did think so! 

Brew 15 - Propaganda (2)

6.3% Black IPA

Brewday 11/5/14

A bit of a belated post here. Just continuing the theme of writing up notes on my last few brews, to get up to date. It's fair to say that my most successful brew up until this point had been Propaganda, my black IPA, so I decided to have a crack at another one.

I tweeted that I was trying to plan a black IPA and didn't know whether to use any crystal malt. I received a few replies and among the people responding was James Kemp, or JK, formerly of Fullers, Thornbridge and Buxton breweries, who knows a thing or two about black IPAs to say the least.

The answer to my question by the way, was yes. About 5% crystal malt will help to darken the colour a bit, limiting the amount of Carafa III needed and would also help to support the massive dry-hopping needed. JK also very helpfully supplied me with some further advice regarding water manipulation and hop schedules. Thanks mate!

The grain bill I ended up with looked like this:

Maris Otter 5000g (69.4%), Munich 1000g 13.9%), Crystal 120EBC 350g (4.9%), Carafa Special III 325g (4.5%), Chocolate Malt 175g (2.4%), Wheat Malt 350g (4.9%)
The important thing was to use about 5% medium crystal and to limit the Carafa to the 4.5% region, to minimise the roasted flavours. I didn't add the Carafa at the end but instead mixed the whole lot in together. 


I decided to use a single hop, Citra, with a single bittering addition of 28g at 60 minutes and a flameout addition of 175g. JK said that the 0 minute additions do add bitterness and suggested using 4-5% utilisation when working it out. With such a large amount being used, the effect is substantial and with this brew, over half the bitterness is added after flameout.

Unfortunately, when took a gravity reading, it was only 1.060. I'd been hoping to make a beer nearer the 7% mark, so it was nowhere near. In hindsight, all I could think of was that I'd not broken up the grain properly when mashing in and had left some doughballs behind. I went and bought a big stainless mash paddle for next time.

I carried on and the ferment finished at 1.012, making the finished beer 6.3%. I dry hopped with 200g of Citra pellets, which makes a rate of about 9grams per litre.

I had been gradually cutting down on the carbonation over the last few brews but probably went too far with this one and should have gone for a bit more. It eventually got to the point where it was just about carbed enough but the beer still needed swirling round in the glass to get a decent head. I'd try to get it a bit fizzier next time.

Overall, I was pleased with the end result, which was definitely black and had a really good hop aroma. I'd use some other hops next time, probably Columbus, Citra and Nelson and of course try to iron out some of the little mistakes I made. As always, I learnt a lot though, which is the main thing!

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Brew 16 - The Beer That Went Clear

5.0% American Pale Ale

Brewday 31 May 2014

There were a lot of firsts in the making of this beer. It was the first time I'd cold crashed with a fridge, the first time I'd fined with gelatin and the first time I'd done proper water manipulation. I obtained a set of mini-scales to weigh the salts on, as can be seen below:

There was no special plan for the beer, it was just an exercise in trying out some new techniques more than anything, so I decided a 5.0% pale ale would be just fine for this.

Grain Amt (g) Amt (%)
Maris Otter Low Colour 4600 92.0
Caramalt 250 5.0
0 0.0
0 0.0
0 0.0
0 0.0
Torrified Wheat 150 3.0
Total 5000

Time 60 10 0 Dry Total
Hops Citra Citra Citra T90
Alpha (%) 14.0 14.0 12.8
Amount (g) 7 125 125 257.0
Amt / L 0.3 0.0 5.0 5.4
Total AA (g) 0.98 0 17.5
Gravity 1.052 1.052
Utilisation 0.26 0.05 0
IBU (mg/L) 10.2 0.0 35.0 0.0 45.2

Sorry for the poor layout. The recipe is copied from the spreadsheet I use. I'll try to find a better way of displaying them in the future. The lower table shows three hop additions; 7g at 60 mins, 125g at 0 mins and a 125g dry hop.

The last few beers had had a fair bit of "craft haze" about them so I paid a lot of attention to technique during this brew, with the aim of trying to get it clearer. I recirculated the first runnings for longer and went out and bought a second-hand fridge off ebay halfway through, which was useful as I could now cold-crash properly. This, combined with using gelatin as a fining agent, worked wonders and resulted in the clearest beer I'd ever made.

Unfermented wort

Before cold crash
After cold crash
I took a case along to my mate Dan's 40th birthday party, where it went down very well. Having a dedicated brew fridge is really useful and I now don't know how I managed without one for so long!

Open for business...

Okay, it's been a very long time since the last post here - ever since we discovered that Untappd is a much better way of sharing beer reviews in fact. Still, I haven't been updating the homebrew posts either, which is remiss of me.

From now on, this blog will mainly be a log of my home brewing journey and general musings on the subject. I've updated the pages at the top of the blog to reflect this.

The lack of posts doesn't mean I haven't been brewing - far from it. Well, actually Ruth and I have been renovating an old house so that takes up most of our time. I've still been managing to do at least one brew a month though, so not too bad.

Thursday 29 May 2014

Beer reviews

Hey all

We're moving our reviews of commercial beers to Untappd - get in touch if you want to read them there. 

This blog will now be focused on home brewing and the eternal quest for the perfect pub...

Thursday 8 May 2014

9 Squirrels Brewing - ABC1

I was handed this at a recent Macclesfield Homebrew Club meeting by Chris from 9 Squirrels Brewing. Thanks Chris - much appreciated!

ABC1 is a 6.4% IPA, made with Columbus, Simcoe, 366 and Cascade. Chris suggested leaving it a bit longer but I'm not very good at not drinking beer and anyway the label said it was bottled on 14th April, which means it had had over 3 weeks to condition. More than enough, I figured, so I popped it in the fridge.

As ever, my rubbish photo makes the beer look darker than it actually was. I'd say it was a mid-amber colour; perfectly acceptable but if I was being very picky, I'd have liked it to be slightly paler. That's just my preference, though. The carbonation was spot on, with a tilted pour creating a nice finger of head.

I'm not very good at identifying specific hops, so can't comment on the aroma beyond saying it was hoppy, with obviously American notes. That's a good thing, by the way.

There was plenty of citrus and pine flavour and this was basically a damn fine homebrew. At one point, I thought there might be some very minor fermentation-related ester flavours hiding in among the hops but I seem to have a habit of actively looking for these as my own homebrewing has tuned me into them.

There was plenty of body and it wasn't too dry, with a decent degree of malt sweetness on hand to balance out the hop bitterness.

All in all, this was a top brew. Nice work.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Homebrew 13 - Low ABV Pale

Brewday - 13/04/14

Boy Racer - 2.8% ABV Pale Ale

With a window of brewing opportunity presenting itself at fairly short notice, I had a look through my ingredients box and decided to do something I'd been meaning to do for a while and try my hand at a low alcohol beer. 

After a bit of calculation, the measly collection of grain and hops I had left appeared to lend itself quite well to this beer. All I needed was some yeast so I decided to use liquid yeast for the first time, seeing as how it was a bit of an experimental brew anyway. I got some White Labs WLP001.

The grain bill was mostly Maris and lager malt. I decided to use 5% torrified wheat for head retention and a bit of Munich and Crystal for flavour. The colour would have been so light with this, that I had to add 20g of chocolate malt to get the colour to hit 7 SRM, which is the kind of area I was looking for.

Grain Bill Type Amt (g) Amt (%)
Maris Otter 2095 58.2
Lager Malt 1024 28.4
Crystal 101 2.8
Torry Wheat 180 5.0
Munich Malt 180 5.0
Chocolate Malt 20 0.6
Total 3600

These low ABV beers require mashing at a high temperature for a short amount of time, to limit the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars, thus retaining body in the beer. I decided to mash at 71C for 60 minutes although in hindsight, 45 minutes would probably have done it.

I dumped a kettle of boiling water into the mash tun at the end, to try to stop the enzymes and sparged with 80C water until 32L had been collected. The OG was 1.032, which considering I was trying to make a 3.4% beer, was a little less than I had been expecting.

I used Northern Brewer, Target and Amarillo hops for no other reason than they were what I already had. I wanted to make it quite bitter and hoppy so went for 50 IBU, with decent late additions and 100g in dry hop.

After 2 weeks, the FG never made it past 1.011, which gives a strength of about 2.8% ABV, much less than I had been expecting. It's a good job I hadn't been trying to make a 2.8% beer really, as it'd have ended up as utter dishwater. This beer was a bit of a journey into the unknown but given that a short, hot mash would create less fermentable sugar, I suppose it shouldn't come as too big a surprise.

I eventually filled 37 bottles, priming with 99g of dextrose, which should give carbonation of around 2.1 volumes. Looking forward to the verdict in a few weeks.

The verdict:
Horrible! The beer looked okay, was nicely carbonated and didn't have any off-tastes but was simply not a very nice recipe. The Northern Brewer was vile and the small amount of chocolate malt seemed to have the effect of making it taste, well, like watery, weak chocolate.