Flying solo

If you read my last post you’ll know that I am re-training to become a brewer. The team I’m working with are really supportive, and as part of this set me a two part challenge. This post is about part one…

My challenge was to choose a beer I liked and then seek to make a copy of it using the pilot brew kit. This has an output of around 65 litres / 115 pints. The beer I chose was from Farmyard Ales, a Pale-Ale / East Coast IPA hybrid called ‘Chaff.’ It’s a nicely balanced and fruity beer full of New World hop flavours. As I alluded to before, there’s more to brewing a beer than might first meet the eye. You need to choose:

  • The blend of malts you use.
  • The ABV and thus the quantity of malt.
  • The mineral content of the brewing liquor (water).
  • The types of hops, quantity and times of addition.
  • The yeast type.
  • The fermentation temperature.
  • The SG (sugar level) at which to stop the fermentation.
  • The level of finished carbonation / packaging type.

All of these factors affect the taste and mouthfeel (mostly viscosity) of the finished beer. With a good palate and experience it should be possible to make an educated guess of all of the above with the exception of knowing the yeast strain chosen by the original brewer. So I contacted Steven at Farmyard Ales. He was so helpful, not only did he let me know the yeast type they use he also sent me a copy of the brew sheet (recipe). As I alluded to before, the local brewing community here (and for all I know further afield as well) is really friendly and supportive. Since I want to honour the trust given me in getting sight of the original brew sheet I’ll focus this post on my experience and not share any of the recipe details.

Because this challenge was to help grow my experience I used just the malt and hop types from the brew sheet and set about doing my own design calculations. These I could then check back against the brew sheet to see if they were correct. In comparison to powder science (my penultimate field) the calculations were straight forwards, but for all that the subject is new to me. From what I can see so far, the skill of the brewer is not so much in the science but in combining this with a true feel for good flavour and texture combinations. It’s a little like being a chef, but ideally at the Heston Blumenthal end of the spectrum.

With my brew sheet complete and checked by our lead-brewer I was ready to roll, and on Friday morning started my brew day. The two most important factors in brewing are cleanliness and temperature control so I started my day with…

A good clean of the brew kit.

A good clean of the brew kit.

Mashing in

Mashing in (aided by the lagging I fitted in December, *Blue Peter Badge Pending)

Sparging

Sparging

 

Boiling the wort

Boiling the wort (to extract and isomerise the isohumulone from the bittering hops)

After that I was pleased we had a baby heat exchanger to cool the wort as it transferred into the fermenting pan.  Quick and easily controlled, very much my cup of tea (or should that be pint of ale?)

Fermenting is now taking place in the fabulously Heath Robinson temperature controlled box. A PID controller linked to a cooling coil and an airing cupboard heater all inside a well insulated Eurocrate. Hopefully the fermentation will be complete by Tuesday then it will need conditioning for a week before we can see if I have succeeded with challenge one, watch this space!

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Time for a change…

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I don’t normally talk about my work on this blog, but perhaps that is about to change.  In the past few years I’ve had little passion for what I’ve been doing, even though I’ve worked with very good people and been well paid for doing so. So no reason to share.  Twenty years ago my career started in the lab, and then progressed to the day-to-day technical support of chemical plants. As one progresses, less time is spent hands on and more time is spent behind a desk / PC.

By the end of 2017 I felt I’d been behind a desk for long enough and it was time for a change. I quit my role as R&D Manager and took a year’s sabbatical to rest (I was more than tired, I was burnt out) spent time praying and meditating on the next chapter and enjoyed time with my son in the final year before him starting school.  To cut a long story short I concluded I’d rather be a good and happy husband / father than a well paid and grumpy technical manager.  Further I felt called to be hands-on operating manufacturing plant making a product that society values and where quality was more important than cost.  No part of the chemical industry within commuting distance of home seemed to tick those boxes.  The product which does, I concluded, is decent beer (be that ‘real’ or ‘craft’ ale). Not beer to get drunk on, but to savour and enjoy.

I am and have been most grateful to the folk at the Bowland Brewery who agreed to me having a week’s work-shadowing experience back in Aug-18.  It was a great experience with great people. When I wrote to say thank you I pointed out that I would be happy to carry out relief cover should that ever be required.  I started in the cask filling area some few weeks later and now some five months further on I am still there, covering for long-term sickness. The team is very generous in having allowed me to learn the operation of the main brew kit by working alongside one of the regular brewers once a fortnight since November. I’m still temporary relief cover, but I’m earning whilst I’m learning and getting into the position to be a viable candidate for a permanent time brewing role.

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There is a lot more to brewing than may meet the eye of someone sat at the bar enjoying a pint.  Working towards my IBD General Certificate in Brewing has taught me that. I guess this post is my chance to thank all the people who have made this possible, especially Craig, Scott and Graeme at Bowland.  My thanks also to Brian Yorston, Head Brewer at Thwaites.  The Lancashire brewing community is a really amiable and helpful one (more on that in my next post), a far cry from the corporate ‘dog eat dog’ world which I left.

Inspiring the next generation of cycle tourists – a mini tour to the sea

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I enjoyed a lot of time outdoors as a child, but my wildest camping spot was within feet of my parents caravan and longest bike ride was 10 miles with a break in the middle. I joined the Scouts at 13 and a whole new world opened up to me. So now with my own boy, I am hoping to whet his appetite to the simple pleasures of walking, cycling, canoeing, wild-camping and the like rather earlier in life. I want to prove there is (a better) life beyond the X-Box.

With half term coming up, I muted an idea to Junior (now five) – would he like to cycle to the seaside and take a tent for our accommodation? He was pleasingly enthusiastic about the prospect, so the idea was born. The primary goal of the trip was for it to be fun throughout and to be something he would want to repeat. Thus I planned a route of just 20-23 miles / day which would mean we it would take us a day and a half to get to Knott-End-on-Sea via one of the flattest routes possible in this hilly area.

By taking the same route out and back (which to avoid big hills was itself unavoidable) this meant we could leave all the camping gear in place at the end of day one and travel light on day two. The first day took us from East Lancashire to Garstang and a friendly basic campsite. To keep the weight down we left the stove at home and opted for a pubs for our evening meals, no great hardship. Heading West from here takes you through Chipping if you stick close to the river/s and this proved a great lunch spot with the seats they have outside the church. Mid afternoon saw us arriving in Garstang in time to set up the tent and have a hour in a local playground before seeking out our dinner.

On day two it was just 10 miles of flat riding over the Fylde Plain to Knott End. I chose this as our initial destination because it meant we could catch the passenger ferry over the River Wyre to the better beach and playground at Fleetwood. The ferry only had us and one other passenger, and the pilot volunteered to show Junior the controls and let him rev the engine and sound the horn. Someone was in seventh heaven, a useful reminder to see the pleasure in the simple things of life.

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Once at the coast the drizzle started, but whilst this disappointed me it seemed not to dampen Junior’s spirits. He loves trains and trams so we took the tram for a few stops South and then back again before seeking out the playground which again he loved. The last ferry back was at 1445, and fuelled from a huge hot chocolate mid morning we were happy to wait until we were back in Knott End to get our lunch out of the supermarket. A short ride took us to a steam engine we had seen on the way out. A great lunch spot if you are five.

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Day three saw us pack everything up and trace our route back home. By chance we crossed the river Wyre several times on the route, with it being smaller each time as we headed back closer to it’s source. This fascinated Junior. On our return journey he commented that the bottom of his feet hurt – this I can only assume was because he was pushing so hard on the peddles – certainly I could feel his welcome input on the short steep climbs when I shouted back ‘push hard please.’ He had done just that.   Stopping every 6 miles rather than my normal 10-12 miles worked really well, as did the provision of pressed fruit bars at each break.

This was the first long journey we’d done with his new tag-along and I can say we were both impressed with it. My primary reason for choosing the Burley Piccolo was that it is the lightest tag-along on the market (apart from it’s sister model the Kazoo). Also, uniquely, it has gears which Junior soon got the hang of; meaning he could contribute more and do so more easily on the climbs. In typical American style it warns you to go no faster than 15 mph for fear of anything up to and including death! It’s not limited to this speed in truth, but the gearing does not allow him to pedal above 15 mph. However if the road means I’m able to go at 15 mph with a 26 kg load behind me then at that point I guess I don’t need help! As Newton would remind us, you only need to put in major effort when you are accelerating (or fighting the acceleration due to gravity when going up a hill).

Junior said he wants to go again – on that basis alone the trip was a success. I enjoyed his joy at simple things too and some father and son time with pie, chips and a pint in the pub. (Just a half for Junior of course…)

Junior’s new wheels

Well, in truth it’s just one wheel on a tag-along.  He’s gone from a seat to a saddle and lost 4 kg in weight at the same time.  Also, to aid with those Lancashire hills, he’s now got gears!  The Weehoo was great, especially for when we rode across France but now he’s bigger the Piccolo should be a lot easier.  He can get on and off without help for example.

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Weehoo Turbo (now for sale)

Piccolo Tag-along first ride

Burley Piccolo – first test ride

We hope to go for our first micro-tour, complete with tent, in October when Mrs W is away visiting a friend.  To make it more fun I’ve fitted a cycle computer with a rear wheel sensor so Junior can know how fast he’s going and how far he’s gone.   The hope is that this has the same motivating effect that his step counter does on a family walk.  Let’s hope too that I can maintain the fitness I built for, and on, my Welsh C2C – I think I’ll need it!

Welsh C2C Cycle Tour

The inspiration for this ride was the Wales in a Day Sportive / Challenge ride. I modified the route a little to take in Builth Wells, which was the town Mrs W was working in when I first met her. This took the total distance up to 210 miles. For me it was not the distance which was the challenge, because I covered the route over 4 ½ days rather than one, it was the 4500 m of height gain. In summary, it was a fabulous route but I’ve no idea how anyone has the combination of speed and stamina to do it all in less than 24 hours.

Day 1 – Chepstow to Gospel Pass :: 43 miles

There did not seem to be an iconic start point for the route, and the most convenient place I could find to start was a Tesco Car Park!

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I delayed the start of the day until the heavy rain had passed and I had only drizzle to contend with, I thus started at 1100. By 1145 the drizzle had stopped and the sun became increasingly evident through the afternoon. The highlight of the day (as expected) was cycling along the Llanthony Valley, flanked by the Black Mountains, and then up Gospel Pass. Just before the big climb I took the opportunity to get a pint of knee oil from the slightly tired looking but very friendly and welcoming Half Moon Inn.  At this point I shared the climb with a retired group of cyclists who passed me each time I stopped for a breather and vice versa. Both in theory and in practice this was the toughest individual climb of the ride. The Sportive runs North to South, I was doing the route in reverse as this seemed to make a lot more sense after looking at the elevation profile. Furthermore that normally puts the wind at your back.

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It was very satisfying to reach the top and once through the saddle the views were extremely rewarding. For me this was to be the end of my day because I had the pleasure of Mrs W and Junior as my support crew in our VW camper who joined me at the car park just below the top.   We’ve stayed in some great wild-camping spots in the past but this surpassed them all.

Day 2 – Gospel Pass to Builth Wells :: 41 miles

Day 2 covered the heart of Mid-Wales and was, despite never reaching great altitudes, the hardest day of the tour. The reward was the scenery and the weather. The day started with a two mile descent to the river Wye.

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The rolling hills of this area are beautiful and covered with quiet roads. Perfect cycling country in many ways but unrelenting ascent and decent. The highlight was the section from Painscastle to Hundred House which reminded me of the hill above Llanddewi i Cwn where my wife-to-be first taught me to ride a horse.  I had hoped to reach Llandrindod Wells by lunchtime, but just two miles out I found that my tank was empty and I simply could not pedal another revolution without stopping for food. I was peddling up yet another hill, saw that it was due to get steeper, saw a lovely view over my right shoulder and simply stopped to sit in a gateway by the road.

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Not a bad lunch spot

Lunch was the equivalent of getting £10 of fuel from an expensive petrol station, just enough to get you to somewhere you are happy to really fill up. I knew there was a great chippy in Llandod and headed there for a second lunch! Now with a full tank I discovered that Mrs W and Junior were enjoying some Fine Dining in the Tesco car park just 0.2 miles from my chippy, so a peddled to join them, say hello and help them eat their strawberries. In distance I was now ¾ of the way through my day (perhaps that’s why I ended up with an empty tank at lunch time?) and the rest of the ride was sadly unremarkable but did lead me to Builth Wells, a welcome pint of knee oil and dinner with some old friends.

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Welsh Black – in the home-town of the Royal Welsh Show

Day 3 – Llandrindod Wells to Bryn Penarth (Nr. Llanfair Caereinion) :: 37 miles

The forecast was for rain for most of the morning and my route looked fairly flat, so I opted to join the family at Mrs W’s old church in Llandod and then fit my shorter (37 mile) day into the afternoon. New Life Church had grown and moved to a new building. Ironically they had converted offices in a former Methodist church back into a church once again. After a quick lunch I set off along the A438 which was to be over half my route today. I was glad it was a Sunday and thus the traffic light. I’d like to say I planned it this way but…  Whilst this section was mostly scenically unspectacular I did enjoy being on shallow gradients and being able to enjoy to get my head down and cycle at a very good speed for the 26 miles to Newtown. I am getting on really well with my new handlebars (link to blog), the aptly titled Crazy Bars from Velo Orange. On the front ‘aero’ position you can be both comfortable and use the combined power of your legs and arms. Both comfortable and very satisfying. This has proved an excellent change which has worked out just as I had hoped. 20 miles out of Llandod there was a beautiful sweeping descent with a truly fabulous view of the low ground stretching to Newtown (on Severn) and the rolling hills beyond.

I can only describe Newtown as an ugly town in a beautiful area. It has suffered from a major expansion in the late 60’s, that low-point of domestic architecture. After a rest stop it was a steep climb out of the Severn Valley and less than an hour to that night’s campsite. We had this view to ourselves.

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Day 4 – Bryn Penarth to Bala :: 41 miles

A gentle morning, through attractively names places such as Llanfihangel brought me to Lake Vyrnwy. Built as a reservoir to serve the people of Liverpool the dam is a wonderful example of Victorian utility architecture. Not only does it serve it’s purpose but it does so with beauty. Today when we build such things the design is purely based on function and a two year payback. The Victorians took pride in what they built. It’s worth remembering that it is down to the positive attitude of the Victorians that we have sewer systems and railways that still serve us to today.

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I decided to supplement my lunch with a hot baguette from the café next to the dam. You never know how this will turn out. What I’d say is that next time I’d try the Old Barn Café around the corner. However I had a nice rest and hid from a shower before setting off along the lake. You don’t get to see much of the lake because of the trees on the shoreline, but the draw-off house is amazing.

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Five miles of level riding meant my legs were warm and ready for the climb out of the valley. It’s an odd road which combines steep sections with gentle gradients in between which enable you to recover. If you decide to pedal this route take heart, the climb gets much easier after the first half mile. The first two steep sections made me fear it would be a killer climb, but with this part behind me it was wholly reasonable and allowed me to enjoy the woods I was passing through, a stream next to the road and then the heather and views higher up. Having got to the top I can say it was a lovely climb overall. At the top you officially enter the Snowdonia National Park and are afforded with a glorious heather clad valley to enjoy. A pleasure for the eyes and a rest for the legs.

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It was then pretty much downhill all the way into Bala. A very memorable day with the perfect balance of challenge, easier sections (to get the miles in) and views. I stumbled into Mrs W in Bala buying Welsh Cakes, which were promised once I’d completed the last three miles to our campsite. Quiet, level, tree lined and friendly, I’d highly recommend the Tyn Cornel campsite.

Day 5 – Bala to Caernarfon (51 miles)

What I expected to be the most difficult day, physically, turned out to be modest in comparison with Day 2. In short I would rate it as one of the top five days riding I’ve ever known in the UK, and top ten anywhere in Europe! Whilst I’d like to say that the cloud was ‘just kissing the top of the peaks’ as you’ll see below, it was more of a full on embrace!

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Whilst the climbs over three passes took me to good heights (around 500 m each time) the gradients were kind. The scenery is what I always dream of cycling though. Narrow roads in good condition bisecting a wild empty landscape. It was a breezy day which offered a tailwind for an hour, before a combination and it and my route found it in my face. I normally stop for a short break every 10 miles, but had to cover 15 miles before I found anywhere which constituted shelter. A small copse of trees next to the road. A small amount more climbing took me to the hills above Penmancho and then sweeping down into Cwm Penmacho and the village itself.

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With only myself for company I toyed with renaming it Pen-Macho – for you would have to be a real man to climb the route in reverse. Once again I was glad to have reviewed the elevation profile and ridden the route South to North. It was then only a short distance to the A5 and the Conwy Falls Café. Now this is a café I’d heartily recommend. For £8 I had a giant fish finger sandwich, salad, chips and a pot of Earl Grey. All this lounging in a sofa, the ideal cycling lunch stop.

The next section along the A5 had little to recommend it, but was an unavoidable and essential link to Capel Curig. Once well outside Betwys Coed the mountainscape came back into view. Turning off onto the A4086 was a blessing and took me down a gorgeous valley with the Glyders to my right and Pen-Y-Pass and Snowdon in front of me (the latter hiding its modesty in the cloud).

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It was an easy ride despite the headwind, and whilst rain threatened it never actually fell. Then came Pen-Y-Pass which was neither steep nor felt as high as I imagined and I was soon at the top and having fond memories of the times I’ve climbed Snowdon.

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Again I was greeted with a beautiful gulley descent, but with something of a mean headwind at the top. Having to peddle to may headway downhill never seems fair. I, however, didn’t mind, as I now had just 12 miles left to complete my Welsh C2C and from what I could see it was very nearly downhill all the way. As I lost altitude I also lost the wind and could enjoy sweeping down the river valley towards the coast. Upon my approach to Caernarfon the castle was clear to see and for a cyclist it was far better to navigate by eye that follow the signs which take you via a short section of elevated dual carriageway. Awaiting me in the car park was my support crew, enjoying tea and biscuits in the van.

I’d crossed Wales and achieved 4500 m of height gain with only one hill (end of Day 3) beating me. I simply cannot imagine how people could ride the whole route in 20 hours. I had underestimated my fitness (how often can you say that!) and think I could have done the route in three days. It is certainly a route I’d recommend and I certainly plan to go back and repeat day five at some point in the future, ideally when the cloud is restraining itself from embracing the mountain tops. I can see a long weekend in Snowdonia coming up in 2019 if my support crew are willing.

My/our day ended well, catching crabs with Junior off of the quay, followed by dinner in the only Italian restaurant* I’ve ever know to offer the option of gluten free pasta which was great news for me, less so for the clams in my sauce.

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*Villa Marina

Junior Engineer

Having had his first dabble with ‘Big Boy Lego’ a fortnight ago we bought him a Creator kit. When I opened the box I wondered if I’d been a bit over ambitious on his behalf, a 9+ kit for someone only almost five. Well, five sessions later he finished it, a solo building effort, albeit with a consulting engineer asking the occasional, ‘Are you sure that goes on that way around? ‘ Well done Junior.