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.

Magic Rock - Un-Human Cannonball

Magic Rock have long been the subject of my main brewery man-crush. They have the best name, the best branding and make some of the best beer so when this year's release of Un-Human Cannonball came out, I had to get a bottle.

MR have a pretty logical way of classifying their pale beers by strength. 5% is Pale Ale, 7% is an IPA, 9% is a Double IPA and 11% is a Triple IPA. Quite neat, really. An 11% ale isn't exactly going to be a mass-appeal drink, so to keep it special, the brewery's triple IPA, Un-Human Cannonball, only gets made once a year using the freshest hops.

It came in a 660ml bottle, costing £12.85, which is a ludicrous amount to spend on a bottle of beer in the cold light of day. Such was the excitement surrounding this year's release though, I had to have a bottle and the price was not a consideration as I simply trust Magic Rock to deliver something worth the money. Such a special beer deserved a special occasion so I waited until Giggsy's first game as manager to crack open this beauty.

The sense of occasion started well before the moment the cap came off. The bottle itself was beautiful, with the Richard Norgate artwork screen printed directly on the glass and the cap being symbolically held in place by a sticker in the shape of a pointing finger wrapped over the top. A nice touch.

My one and only criticism is that the yeast used seems to be so flocculant that it forms really big clumps in the bottle, which just don't settle and stick to the bottom. I stood my bottle in the fridge for 24 hours but it made no difference, the yeast just stubbornly hovered a centimetre above the bottom of the bottle and some inevitably made its way out into the glass.

The beer poured a lovely light amber colour and the carbonation was spot-on, with a fairly vigorous pour releasing all the aromas and resulting in a moderate, velvety head. The first sniff was fantastic, unleashing an all-out assault of hop aroma. I had to have about five big sniffs, it was so good, leading to some funny looks from across the room.

The taste was incredible - I struggle to describe tastes, suffice to say that it was a fantastic onslaught of hops. The most remarkable thing though, was how easy it was to forget that this was an 11% beer, it was so easy drinking. It was clearly a very strong beer, with the warm alcohol sensation never far away, but if asked, I've had said it was 8 or 9%.

I polished the bottle off no problem at all but have to admit that the football was getting a little out of focus by the end of it. Un-Human isn't exactly the sort of beer you'd drink regularly but once a year, it really is a special treat.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Kung Fu Ramone

I was handed this bad boy to sample as an example of the Macclesfield Home Brew club's quality output.

Made with Amarillo and Citra, it's pretty darn good. "Flawless", said Nelly, and while he's being slightly optimistic there, it's certainly one of the finest homebrews I've ever tried - hoppy (but could be more), an excellent nose, and the quintessential citrus notes. 

Excellent work.

The Kernel - Pale ale US366

A delicious, well-made pale ale, this has just enough malt background to be interesting yet is clean enough to showcase the hops. It's quite low in carbonation, meaning you can pour vigorously to release the flavour. The 366 hop is new to me and I was really impressed. Citrus and lychee were in evidence, with a bit of spicy bite too. I may try to get hold of some for a homebrew.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Huddersfield pub crawl

Last Saturday saw a rare treat for me - an actual good old-fashioned pub crawl. Dave (@belmontrivera) and Nige from work are fellow beer geeks and suggested a trip to Huddersfield, where there are meant to be a few good real ale (is that still an acceptable thing to say?) pubs.

There's something quite exciting about catching a train to go boozing in another town, with all day in front of you and no timescale to adhere to. It's the kind of thing I used to do all the time but in the days of jobs and families it now tends to happen very rarely.

We had the pleasure of sharing the journey with the "White Army". I knew it was them, because like Craig David, they liked to sing about themselves quite a lot. All the way to Huddersfield, in fact. I'd never been to Huddersfield before and have to say I was quite impressed with the place. The train station is the focal point of the town, spilling its passengers out into a lovely square.

The White Army took themselves to the Wetherspoons and we went to the HDM bar, as it was only a few hundred yards from the station. It was small and had a weird bar, which was about five foot six high for most of its length, leaving you with your nose at countertop level. There were a few keg beers and a couple of handpulls, with most of the offerings from the HDM brewery. We had a Monkey Loves Hops, which was a fine pale ale, really clean and tidy if a little restrained. It was a lovely session beer but considering the name, my impression was that it could do with more hops.

We moved on to a HDM Red Saison, which was very good indeed. Zesty and refreshing, with a hint of sour zing to it. I think we may have had something else there but to be honest, I can't remember. I do remember though, that we exhausted the beer list pretty quickly and felt the need to move on.

Next stop was The Grove. Boy, what a pub this place is. It's slightly out of town and the building itself is pretty nondescript; a typical corner boozer. The beer list though, was out of this world and by a country mile the best I've ever seen. The website says there are 18 handpulls and 14 keg lines and I can vouch for this. The range of beer was fantastic too, with everything from pale ales to barley wines on offer.

Being the massive Magic Rock fanboy that I am, I started with a Villainous IPA. Needless to say, it was sensational, with fresh fruity zing almost crackling out of the glass in the way that Magic Rock do so well. It did, however, do that thing where it shares characteristics with other beers from the same brewery, meaning this was unmistakably a Magic Rock beer. I'd previously put the distinctive MR taste down to the use of Golden Promise malt but this is apparently made from Vienna malt, so there goes that theory.

Next up was a cask High Wire, which was really bloody marvellous but not quite as good as it is from keg.

Then it was time for a Jaipur. This was the beer that started my newfound love of ale but in all my travels, I had never once seen any Thornbridge beer on draught in a pub until now. When you live in a small village with only a Robinsons and a Mitchell and Butler pub, then the opportunity to have any decent beer is pretty limited. Add to that the fact that the craft beer bars of Manchester and Macclesfield never seem to stock Thornbridge beer when I've been, and I'd started to think that Jaipur in a pub was just an urban myth but obviously not, and here was the proof:

In bottles, it's extremely impressive, with a hop aroma that stays fresh even after a month or two and is very hard to beat. On cask however, it was more restrained. It was slightly cloudy, which I don't mind at all, but that was in contrast to the bottled version, which is always totally clear. Like the High Wire, it was still a marvellous beer on cask, but (CAMRA members look away now) just not as good as from keg or bottles.

The Kernel Motueka IPAwas next. This was from keg and was bloody brilliant, with the light, lemony hop aromas fizzing out of the glass.

I'm starting to see a pattern emerging now. Keg is simply a better way of serving beer than cask, certainly for hoppy pale ales, which is what I would like to drink most of the time. There.

Having said that, it was time for a change of direction and Dave and I moved onto some more challenging styles. I could not leave without having tried a Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barley wine. I'd seen a video of this fermenting earlier in the year and was keen to try some.

I would usually use "malty" as a pejorative term but in this case it would be an accurate description of a fantastic beer. It was the kind of beer I could imaging drinking on a cold Winter's night, with its cozy warming alcohol kick. For something that was a complete change of style, I really liked it.

There was time for one last beer before we had to reluctantly leave the Grove and I opted for a Thornbridge Imperial Oatmeal Stout, which at 11% was a bit of a beast.

It was everything you would want an imperial stout to be, with a luxurious silky texture and a cacophony of roasted malty flavours. It says a lot about the quality of beer on offer when High Wire, my favourite beer, was probably the least memorable one of the visit. The Grove was truly special and I hope it's not too long before I can go back.

We staggered back across town to The Sportsman. It was really busy and we had to stand up outside. I'll be quite honest and admit that I can't remember what we drank in there but it was perfectly nice. Things were stating to get a bit spinny by then.

The train ride back to Piccadilly was again spent in the delightful company of the White Army. Once back in Manchester, we headed for one last beer at Port Street, where I remember having a Quantum Black IPA. Sadly, the next thing I remember is a train guard waking me up at Crewe Station, before I embarked upon the now customary taxi ride back to Holmes Chapel.

All in all, it was a really nice day. Huddersfield seemed like a decent town and was certainly a splendid venue for a good old drink, with seemingly a pub on every corner. In a rather selfish way, I'm glad that The Grove is slightly out of town though, because that will stop it from being rammed full of punters. Being able to sit down and work through a beer board as extensive as that was a real treat.

Friday, 14 March 2014

LIVE BLOG - The Old Red Cow


Trying a blogging experiment tonight - liveblogging my trip to craft beer Nirvana, the Old Red Cow in Barbican, London.

I'll be joined on this journey by my old pal Rog. He's not here yet, but he will be soon.

So I've started with a Harvistoun Bitter and Twisted:

It's a very pale blonde beer, and it's bloody good so far - dry, well carbonated, flavoursome - the usual zingy fruity hoppy stuff one's come to expect.

Pub itself is pretty great - rather compact with a fine selection of keg and cask ales alongside lotsa bottles. Hang on, I'll take a pic.

It's a bit trendy. Right, signing off for now...be back later for the next pint.

1839 Actually, the Harviestoun ain't all that. I've had better. 

Roger is late. He's always late. He's got a broken leg, so I assume he's blaming that.

1843 A load of hot, posh girls have arrived and are flirting with me to get the stool I've saved for Roger. My "he's got a broken leg" excuse is holding out well.

One of them is American. Man, she's loud.

1847 Roger has arrived! Have sent him hobbling to the bar. Broken leg or not, he's still LATE.

1853 Roger has finally got the round in:

On the left is a half (sorry) The Wild Beer Co - English Roots, and on the right is Camden Pale Ale. We'll be back with reviews.

1902 OK, so Roger's on the Camden Pale Ale:

His review: "Nice. A bit too hoppy and bittery for me. I'm not very good at beer reviews - tasty and nice?"
I've had a quick swig. He's right; it's REALLY hoppy. I like it.

I'm on the English Roots. Really reminds me of something - very stout-y, with liquorice and caramel tones. I prefer the Camden.


We've gone for halves.

From left to right: Kernel Columbus 5.2%; Bad Seed Saison 6% (£3.50 a half!!); Four Pure Oatmeal Stout 5.1%; Windsor and Eton Repulika (4.8%)

Roger goes first with the Republika. Remember Saffron from Republika? Anyway, he says it's "very crisp - a floral overtone, like toilet cake. But once you're over that, it's alright."

He's right - it's really really flowery. And all I can taste is Harpic. It's weird - kinda chemical - but I quite like it. "Drain cleaner" says Rog. putting me off. It's unusual, but I like it. Back in a min.

1942 Time to move on to the FourPure Oatmeal, after a brief reminisce about Things We Can't Talk About in Public. "There is no light passing through this," says Roger. "It's like Dark Matter." He takes a sip. He looks odd. "It's really rather good for a stout. A bit fizzier than Guinness; creamy".

He's right as well. That's absolutely excellent - so smooth and with a yummy fizz. Top notch.

2002 Rog has been regaling me with tales of his female Nordic colleagues. Am well jell.

Next beer is the Saison "Sweet...6%...I'm getting bubbalicious...don't know if that's good or a bad thing"

This is beer of the day, and at £3.50 a HALF I should think so too. "A serious beer" says Rog.

I have a sniff. Heady stuff. It's like a weissbeer - like a really refined Hoegaarden, certainly in scent, but subtler in flavour. 

The food has arrived!

I'm having bone marrow.God knows why.

2017 The bone marrow was AMAZING.

As is the Saison. Beer of the night so far. Really amazing.

2021 Kernal Columbus next up. Jesus. Really, really good. "Cloudy," says Rog. "But a really nice taste" He's not wrong. Really citrus "very tart" says Rog. Rog is Swiss. He knows tarts. "You could drink a pint of it, but no more" says Swiss Rog. "It's like a glass of Sauvignon Blanc - an aperitif before a nice dinner". I see his point.

2030 Main course has arrived

2052 God those sausages were nice. Now, back to the beer:

From L-R - Windsor & Eton Red Rye (5.8%); Maisel's Weisse (5.2%)l Kernel IPA Amarillo (7,3%); Old Red Cow House Pilsner (4.2%)

We start with the House Pilsner. "That reminds me of Czechoslovakian stag dos. Light, fresh; you could drink loads of it." He's back for more. "You could drink it all day...and then you'll end up in some dirty fanny bar. Or so I've heard"

Yep, he's right - it's fruity, refreshing, easy going down (not like the fanny bar etc), and really rather pleasant. Why aren't all lagers like this? "You could quaff that all day" says Rog, and he's not far wrong.

Next up is Kernel IPA Amarillo. At 7.3% it's quite punchy. As I might be once I've had some. Rog goes first. Long silence. "Yeah...it's er...lip-cursingly sharp. You can tell it's 7%. I'd rather drink that than Special Brew" Praise indeed.

It's really rather cloudy...like it has a urinary infection.

Zing! It's SO strong and hoppy...a tonne of citrus in your face. I can see why they only sell it by half. Sheesh.

"I love Hanwell" says Rog. Strange - the suburb of Ealing doesn't normally attract much attention.

2127 Just swapped hilarious stories about something I can't talk about (but Nelly's mum might know).

Next up is Maisel's Weiss Beer. "A common misconception is that this is white beer. It's not - it's wheat beer". I'm so proud. Roger's turning into a beer snob. "It's actually really nice. I should fucking hope so, it's £5.10 a pint"

Smells like Hoegaarden. It's really, really nice - like liquefied Milky Bars. God it's good.

2142 A long discussion about children, beer, wine and utter filth while we finish the Weiss.

Next up is Windsor & Eton Red Rye. The first cask beer of the night - properly red.

Roger is deep in thought after his first taste. Meanwhile my typiing appears to be more error-strewn thatn  noramal. 

Get the fuck on with it.

"It's very pleasant" he finalises. "It's the kind of beer you have when you've had six pints already, and just want to sit in a leather armchair. It's not challenging. Just...nice. Really uncomplicated"

He's right to a certain extent. It's ok...slightly...er, I can't name the taste, so I ask Roger. "It tastes of beer" he says. "Does it NEED to taste of anything?" No, no it doesn't.

I think it tastes like a sandwich Greggs used to make - a red Thai chicken - before some carcinogenic scandal stopped production. This may just be because it's red. 

Point is, it's fine, but compared to it's predecessors, it's dull.

"We've had some very nice beers tonight. Then again at that price it should be"

2203 Right then. We've got to go home (it's a long way).

Roger's beer of the night: the Oatmeal Stout. Mine was the Kernal Columbus IPA.

Despite my typing, I'm a bit pissed.

So is Rog.


Thursday, 20 February 2014

Brewdog 5am Saint at the Beer House, Waterloo

I've always found Brewdog's "punk brewers" schtick a bit annoying to be honest - I don't doubt that the world of ale needs livening up, but their crass publicity campaigns and "gritty urban" approach just gets my goat. This has always led to an unnatural bias against their products - I don't like the company, I steadfastly refuse to like their product. Silly, I know.

Yesterday I was facing a train delay at Waterloo and took the opportunity to pop into the Beer House, the new underground pub on the revamped station concourse. It claimed a broad range of beers - in truth, I saw Abbott on the pumps and shivered with fear - but then noticed 5am Saint on the tap and thought I'd give it a go.

Well. I'm an idiot. This is one of the best pints I've ever had. Hoppy, bitter, citrus with caramel undertones - tasty in ways my limited vocabulary cannot quite describe - it was unbelievably good. This is the best pint I've had this year and quite frankly I think I'll struggle to challenge that in the next 10 months. Tonight I walked past the bar on my way home from work - as I do every night - and had to focus really, really hard not to go and have another one. As I will every night from now on.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Little homebrew improvements

This is just a quick post to record a few small but important upgrades I made recently to my brew equipment.

The first was a temperature controller I made a few weeks ago. It's absolutely critical to producing good beer, to maintain the temperature at the right level throughout fermentation. Yeast hates variations in temperature.

Up until now, I'd been putting the fermentation vessels into a small room and relying on keeping the air temperature as constant as possible. I'd done this by turning fan heaters on and off and opening and closing doors and windows. It was as hit-and-miss as it sounds.

I decided to sort it out and made an electronic temperature control unit, copying this design. The unit is based around this little device, which I bought off Ebay:

The screen displays the temperature of the fermenting beer, via a temperature probe mounted in the wall of the tank. You simply set the desired temperature and when it gets too cold it switches on a heating circuit and when it gets too hot it switches on a cooling circuit. It's currently cool enough to operate only the heating circuit and rely on the ambient room temperature to do the cooling.

This is my current fermentation set-up, with the FV on the left. It's wrapped in a foam jacket, to regulate the temperature losses and is sat on a 40W electric heating mat. The heat mat is plugged into the heating circuit on the controller, which is the grey box to the right. The clear vessel in the middle is being purged with CO2, ready for use as a conditioning tank later on.

I also came to the conclusion that my boiler wasn't quite getting hot enough to produce a proper rolling boil. It was always a bit weedy really, so I wrapped a bit of foam around it to reduce heat loss through the sides. This worked brilliantly and meant that I had a nice vigorous boil.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Beavertown - Black Betty

I do like a nice black IPA and that's exactly what this is. It was quite light on the carbonation though. There was just enough but if I was being super-critical, I'd have liked a touch more. The aroma was delicious, with citra leading the way. It's probably the nicest nose I've come across in a black IPA.

The taste was delicious too. I'd say liquorice was quite a predominant flavour but to be fair, it was quite complex and there was plenty going on, with a nice, balanced amount of everything.

One thing I noticed was how smooth it was, with really fine bubbles like you get in cask beer. I'm not sure how they get that to happen in bottled beer but it was very nice.

This made me want to brew another batch of black IPA. Black Betty is an extremely good example of the style and I'll keep it in mind during my next brew.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Northern Monk - Strannik

At the moment, Mrs Nelly and I are renovating a house. This is great, except for the regular visits to furniture shops. Last weekend saw a visit to Arighi Bianchi in Macclesfield, to look at sofas we can't afford. This had two main redeeming features - firstly, it's better than going to Ikea and secondly, it was only a short walk to Brewtique, a specialist beer shop which opened last year.

Brewtique was quite posh really, with a stone floor and nice shelving. Some considerable effort had clearly gone into fitting it out. The selection was just right too, with a wide range of craft beers available to suit every pocket. I picked out one I'd been wanting to try for a while - Strannik by Northern Monk.

At 9%, Strannik is a mighty, robust imperial stout. It's made with various types of roasted malt and brown sugar, to ramp up the ABV. I'll be quite honest and admit that my knowledge of stouts isn't particularly extensive. I'd certainly never had one quite like this before.

The taste is a full-on assault, with the rich roasted flavours leaping out at you. It seemed that if you thought about it enough, just about every flavour was there. Coffee, chocolate and liquorice all made an appearance, I'm sure.

Mrs Nelly had a sip and said, "It's like Marmite." "Oh, you mean you either love it or hate it?" I replied. "No, I mean it's actually like Marmite", she said. I took another sip and could see what she meant.

Overall, I did love it, although Strannik is a beer you'd keep on the top shelf and treat yourself to on special occasions. I may well get another few bottles and do just that.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Pressure Drop - Bosko IPA

This had a really nice aroma, which I had as Amarillo, although I may be wrong. It was a very nice 6.5% ale and the carbonation was just right. The main thing that struck me though, was that the colour was too dark for an IPA, which is what it is described as. As far as I'm concerned an IPA should be fairly pale but this was a kind of dark amber colour. Still, it was very nice.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Brewdog - Hardcore Imperial IPA

The loudmouthed Scots do cop a bit of flack in craft brewing circles. Some criticism is deserved but some is rather unfairly directed, in my opinion. Frankly, I'm not too interested in the politics but one thing's for sure, Brewdog still know how to make cracking beer.

Hardcore IPA is proof of that and at 9.2%, it's a bloody brilliant. It's the kind of beer that makes you go "oof!" when you take the first gulp. It's big all round. A monster IPA with a great hop profile and that lovely, warming alcohol feeling that only comes from high ABV beers.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Kernel - Amarillo Pale Ale

This was really good. Not an in-your-face hop bomb or anything, but well-made and balanced. I love Amarillo and with this 5.6% pale, The Kernel have showcased the hop in a subtle way.

A Dent in a beery universe

The end of January saw our annual beer-tasting/fell-walking trip to the sweet village of Dent, confusingly in Cumbria despite being in the Yorkshire Dales, and home to at least two breweries (and, perhaps more importantly, our friend's mum's spare house).

For me, it's a long old journey up there on the train, although a spectacular one on the Settle-Carlisle railway. I stopped off at Leeds for an hour en route and thought I should take my first pint of the weekend at the legendary Scarborough Hotel at the station. I chose a Huna Red from the Stubby Republic brewery in Dorset - thought it sounded interesting.

And you know what? Interesting it was. Fruity and flowery - I've written "hibiscus" here, which sounds remarkably poncey - but sweet and hoppy, albeit a little flat and with a short ending. The Scarborough Hotel is a Victorian style traditional boozer - all wood carvings and ornate decoration - and on a Friday afternoon full of the 50+ ale drinking clientele, many sporting superb beards.

I got back on the train and headed for Dent. A couple of hours later I was sat in the George and Dragon awaiting my first sip of Dent Aviator, the local brew.
Well. "Yuck" was my first reaction. I've had Aviator regularly and it's generally been ok, but this was absolutely vile. Horrendously malty with a sour, ropey aftertaste; I could barely finish it (I did, obvs). Not sure whether it's the brewery at fault or the pub, which with every passing year seems to diminish. Next I tried a Dent Porter, just to see if I'd been unlucky. Now I like a good porter but this was not a good porter - my tasting notes say "sour, minging, I feel ill".

At this point we sacked off the George and Dragon as a bad lot and headed across the road to the Sun Inn. What a revelation! The pub looks unchanged since about 1880 (this is a good thing, of course) with a roaring fire and people with beards (that was just the women, etc) - and a range of ales. First up was Kirby Lonsdale Tiffin Gold. Maybe it was just the bad beer in the G&D, but this was superb - blonde, hoppy, tonnes of lemon zest and grapefruit - delicious. Let's be honest here - it was a summer ale and we were quaffing it in a storm in January, but what the hell - it was lovely.

After a few pints of that we headed home and Nelly cracked out a crate of his homebrew. First up for me was Mandrake. It's a black ale with, um, a mango flavour. Now I like mango and I like ale, so this seemed a good combination - but perhaps on the back of six pints previously and a long day I just found this hard work. It was good, sure, but personally I found it hard going.

However, I'm no quitter, and so I headed back to the box and pulled out a Kiwi, a 5.4% New Zealand Pale Ale. Now we're talking! This is the real deal - a fruity, hoppy, well carbonated pale ale. I really enjoyed this one and not only stuck to it for the rest of the night (until I hit the Glenmorangie) but a couple of bottles even found their way up the mountain the next day. 
This was one of Nelly's entries in the Craft Beer Co Homebrew awards. It didn't win, but I'm intrigued to see what the feedback is. It's superb, and you'd be delighted if you were served this in a pub.

Our long walk ended in the nearby (er, by car, not by foot) market town of Sedbergh. This Pennine metropolis is stuffed full of posh kids from the nearby public school stiffly entertaining visiting parents in sterile caf├ęs, but we were looking for the Perfect Post-Walk Pub - roaring fire, amazing beer, you get the picture.

We ended up in the Red Lion. Despite its age and external appearance, it certainly wasn't welcoming - we walked in, dripping wet, to be told they were shutting soon so don't get comfortable. We had some beer - it was good, but I don't know what it was (perhaps Jennings?) - then again anything would've tasted good after a 12km walk in a howling gale and driving rain. It was by the by, as they kicked us out after two pints...at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. Why, you fools, why?? Oh, and the tacky topless postcards behind the bar need to be sent back to the 70s. Grow up.

Anyway. We were sent to find a pub called the Dalesman. This was a complete change - really stunningly decorated inside to an extreme high-quality - but they wouldn't light the wood-burning stove for us. Miserable sods. They had their own beer - cunningly named Dalesman Ale - and it was sodding awful; Dan had a sample, pulled a face, and ordered a Guinness. The landlady looked most affronted and pointed out that "it's marvellous stuff, that; bloody lovely". I felt guilty and ordered a pint. Piss. Overly malty and beyond redemption. We left. They weren't sad to see us go.

Next stop was the Bull Hotel. Sadly the bar area is done out like a hotel lobby, eg wide drafty spaces and uncomfortable tables. It's all a little tired. On the plus side - Timothy Taylor Landlord! Like an old lover it grasped me in its creamy arms and we danced away the dampness of the afternoon. I haven't had Landlord for ages and this was really, really good - sweet, golden, hoppy, silky-smooth. Finally some joy on a dismal day.

After that it was back to the house (via Cumbria's grumpiest cab driver) for curry and a big fight over the remaining bottles of Kiwi, before slumping in front of the fire and sleeping it all off. Marvellous.