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

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