New Season, New Saison

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The unpleasant combination of cold and wet weather this winter and the lack of motivation, endemic because of the pandemic, has kept me out of my brew shed since mid December. Now that the sun is showing its face more often and the Spring bulbs have lifted my spirits I decided it was time for a big clean down and to start a couple of brewing projects.

Orkney Gold Clone

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A friend introduced me to the beer of the Swanney Brewery on Orkney. His fiancee is from this island group and he brought me a couple of bottles after a visit in 2019. Early in 2020 I came across a special batch they had made for one of our local beer festivals. I was out with our brewing team seeking inspiration for a flavoursome beer, but without strong citrus notes, as the basis for a VE Day beer. Well COVID-19 put pay to scaling-up that recipe, so I decided to start my 2021 brewing year with this. I reckoned that I make too many pale beers, so I altered the malt bill to aim at amber. Tasting the green beer I’m not confident that 3% Black malt was the best way to achieving this, perhaps I would have been better to use a larger percentage of chocolate malt for the colour?  However, the conditioning (secondary fermentation) stage is great for smoothing out flavours, with strong flavours knocked back, and subtle flavours allowed to shine through, so the true test can only be made in 4-10 days time. I can always try this hop bill with a different malt bill if it isn’t quite what I had in mind, or just aim for gold as per the original.

Subtle Saison

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I’ve come to learn that it’s best to run two brewing projects at the same time, interleaved so I can be working on one, whilst the other has time to condition and also to give me space to think about the outcome of the initial project and not rush into changes. My second project is what I’ve titled ‘A Subtle Saison.’ I really like the flavours which come from Saison yeast as well as the mouthfeel. I had some early successes with strong flavour partners – raspberries in one example and Sorachi Ace hops for the other. The raspberry version was very crushable, but the Sorachi Ace Saison, whilst top notch, was something I loved to drink by the half pint of with meal, but no more – it was not a session ale.

Something inspired me to think that if the spicy notes from the Saison yeast could be partnered with the herbal / floral flavours of a noble hop. I feel that at the right relative levels that this could be a very refreshing session beer sitting on the subtle / interesting boundary. Like lager but with a bit more going on. I’m part of a local home brew club and one of the guys has a lot of yeast knowledge and let me try two of his Saisons from two different yeast strains. I thought the Wyeast 3711 derived brew was very close to what I was looking for. [As an aside, if you want an interesting beer, head to his exciting new shop / bar – Corto – here in Clitheroe.] Before trying this yeast, I knew that I had a few packs of Fermentis BE-134 in the fridge which either needed to be used or sold on. When used at the top of its temperature range, the esters profile from BE-134 was clearly too bold for what I had in mind. But before ordering any 3711 I thought it would be really interesting to see if the BE-134 could give subtle flavours if held at 18 C rather that being allowed to rise to 24 C. One big benefit of my fermenter is that it does allow for careful temperature control and I don’t risk it stalling because it becomes too cold or taking off either. It is ironic that the pilot brew kit that I have at home is rather better than that which we have at work. I guess mine was bought to a design specification rather than to a budget. If you are reading this before the 30th March, you could follow this Saison fermentation in real time thanks to my Tilt.

I’ll report back on the results in a couple of weeks, subscribe if you’d like to be notified of the update…

COVID diaries – Month 5.

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First day of term selfie

It occurred to me last week that it’s August and that we’ve been under the cloud of COVID for five months . It feels like the thick end of a year has passed and I’ve missed it. For us, a few significant steps have been taken towards regular life again in past few weeks. I was called off of furlough in week 21.

Two weeks after that Mrs W’s work rota returned to it’s pre-lockdown pattern again, meaning she is back on call for the first time in five months. She says she prefers working the odd all-nighter to extra time in the day. I fully understand her point of view, but it wouldn’t work so well for me.

The purpose of this diary is to ensure that I don’t forget how this period has been and so that in years to come I can look back to what happened and how I felt about it at the time. As I said, I’ve now been back at work for just over three weeks after four months away. It’s the longest intra-job hiatus I’ve ever experienced and whilst initially it was odd to be back in the brewery, the big thing that has hit me is tiredness. Sometime in the four months I’ve been away, someone seems to have worked out how to get more that 9 gallons of beer in a firkin! Surely that must be why they are a lot harder to lift now that they were in March? Jesting aside, brewing is a very physical job and whilst I’ve been lucky to be able to do lots of good hill walking and keep fit, my ability to heft 50 kg casks about has clearly rather reduced due to lack of practice.

Another shock to the system this week was to find that the brewery is cutting back of staffing and four of my colleagues will very sadly be leaving us. I’ve been spared, so it looks like hard work and enthusiasm has carried me through again. In a small close-knit team whoever doesn’t make it through the process will be missed. In this role it’s the quality of the company of my colleagues rather that the technical challenge which is a key pleasures of the role.

At home all the DIY jobs, even those I’ve been putting off for 10 years have been completed and I’ve even added a new alpine crevice garden to the front of the house to hide an ugly manhole cover out front.

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Childcare is another oddity. Clearly it is more difficult, but it looks like Junior’s school are using this opportunity to work reduced hours for reasons which are impossible to link back to COVID itself. So whilst I’m back at work, I’m on short hours. This does help me easy back in however, so there is a silver lining. How the new term, in three weeks, turns out is something we are watching with interest. The gap between the best and poorest performing children will only have widened, with committed parents having covered all of the planned syllabus and more, with those at the other end of the spectrum having done nothing at all. We wait and see if those at the top are left to get bored whilst the focus goes on those who need to catch up, the reverse or a healthy balance.

Roughing it…

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Welcome to Rough Hill, the summit-ette at the Western end of Pendle. At 315 metres it stands some 242 metres short of The Big End but it still has much going for it: a trig point; views down into both the Ribble and Calder Valley’s; it’s far enough, yet not too far from the Nick of Pendle; there is a nice flat grassy area to take a tent and finally it’s somewhere I’d never yet been despite over 75 ascents of Pendle.

DSC_2688Mrs W and Junior joined me on the walk out to see what the excitement was all about and to enjoy the trig point.  I wanted to regain my connection to nature, have some peace and quiet with a beer and a book and chance to enjoy my relatively new ultralight tent and sleeping bag combo. Being able to get all my overnight gear easily into a 35 L day-pack was rather fine.

Once again I found that despite a night time low of 9 C and a good douse of rain that I had no condensation issues in the Enan thanks to just a light breeze. I can also report that a can of Siren-Craft Yulu nicely complimented the view. I think I must try their peachy (pentyl-propanoate producing) yeast with an Earl Grey infusion but swap out the lemon zest for grapefruit. A project for the brew shed.

Moon rising over the Calder valley

Moon rising over the Calder valley

Whilst I woke to a white out, patches of sunshine started to appear in the valleys as I was striking camp giving some lovely highlighted views.  It was a great 12 hours and not really roughing it at all.

Covid Diaries – Weeks 8-12

It seems that at this time people are finding themselves in one of two categories.   Mown out (uber-busy) or bored.  For those of you wishing there was a 25th hour in the day, perhaps you could delegate something to me, for I now find myself in the latter category.  Lancashire have back peddled on allowing primary age children back to school.  This prompted Mrs W and I to investigate the status of key workers wrt schooling a little more closely.  We knew that as an (emergency) vet that she had been upgraded to key worker status, but closer inspection showed that only one parent needed to be a key worker for a child to be allowed school provision.

I really enjoyed the home schooling, but I reckon I had covered more than all his syllabus for Year 1 and that what he was needed more now was social interactions with his peers.  Further I could feel the dark fingers of depression starting to claw and my ankles.  It was time to be proactive for both our sakes.  He is now coming to the end of his first week back at school which he is loving.  I have applied for temporary work in the brewing sector with breweries I expect to be busy brewing for the bottle and can market.  So far two great conversations with brewers who didn’t need another pair of hands and no further replies.  Next week I’ll spread my net a little wider if I need to.

With important household repairs and upgrades behind me I was still in need of a project.  So I set about ridding the lawn of moss and dandelions.  And that sound you can hear…   …that’s the sound of the bottle of a barrel being scraped!  Anyway, we have a lush, almost weed free lawn as a result.  However, for those who would seek to criticise my reduction in biodiversity I would point them to our herb garden which seems a veritable Mecca to local honey bees.

In week 9 Mrs W had a dry cough for 24 hours so went to the local COVID drive through centre for a test.  Thankfully this came back negative.

I’ve stepped up my brewing at home in the last two weeks which has been good.  On Saturday my second Bx 23 Grapefruit & Hibiscusattempt at Hibiscus and Grapefruit Ale will have conditioned enough to try.  This is an exciting project because whilst version one did not hit my ‘design spec.’ both myself, my tasting panel and the neighbours all liked it very much.  And the colour was to die for, or should that be ‘to dye for?’

Right now some session “Isolation Pale Ale” is just finishing its primary fermentation.

More interesting still has been a commission from a friend / former colleague to brew a beer for their wedding.  They liked my idea of combining aspects of their character, background and tastes to produce something which should reflect something of both of them. It could be fruitful if I could think of a way of making such projects commercially viable rather than just fun because then I could make some income from something very creatively enjoyable.  For now, in this season of house arrest I am delighted to have a fun challenge to work on.  Design one is ready on paper, awaiting some speciality malt to arrive in the next couple of days, then ready to brew next week.  I hope it does not seek combine too many flavours and become confused.  If it does I know the first thing I’d drop, so I have a plan B.  This is what I always enjoyed about developing chemical processes, that ideas beget ideas.

So as we wait for the pubs to open, and with it the opportunity for me to return to my missed routine of work and banter with the other brewers / dray-men if you have a beer design commission in mind, drop me a line and I can give you a quote.

Hibiscus & Grapefruit Pale Ale

Today’s experimental brew (version 2, more grapefruit and less hibiscus to try for a better balance). Ready from the 21st June. Version 1 was well received by my tasting panel but was not exactly what I was looking for. Hopefully this will be a lot closer. Inspired by T2’s French Earl Grey Tea.

It will be interesting to see what colour this comes out as, version one was amazing…

Amazing Pink Beer

Hibiscus & Grapefruit Pale Ale – Version 1

The COVID Diaries (Weeks 3 & 4)

Here in rural Lancashire we are still a couple of weeks (decades?) behind London & Birmingham so we’ve not seen the direct impact of COVID-19 as yet, but the indirect impact on day-to-day life is now with us just the same as the rest of the UK.  Without doubt it is strange, but after two weeks under house arrest the ‘new normal’ is getting to be fairly well bedded in.

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How to light a campfire, a great way to also teach the fire triangle and an introduction to combustion chemistry.

Home Schooling turns out to be a much better experience than I expected. With Junior being six I guess I have it easy.  He doesn’t have exams ahead of him and is missing his friends more than it matters that he missing his formal education.  I am finding that a project based approach, akin to the  Montessori  approach is working well for both of us.  Each week we have a project, or two, which acts as the framework for discovery and learning the skills needed to carry it out (maths, science, dexterity) and record it (maths, English).

We have been blessed with great weather thus far meaning that bike rides (twin solo, or with the tag-along) have been possible and have been a little longer than most folks 20 minute walks.  However around here it’s easy to self isolate on the back roads.

I am delighted that I was able to restock my (mini) alpine garden before house arrest too, and am starting to see the results of old and new.

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Church life has changed again.  My ‘live streamed’ drumming to an empty church  was not only the first but probably the last time this will happen.  Since then church buildings have themselves been closed and now our church, amongst many others, is streaming sections of each service from different members homes.  All credit to the people organising this at St James who are doing a grand job.  Canned music didn’t work as well as it might last week, the difference between performance (what you can get from YouTube et al) and leading a congregation, albeit virtually, is actually very significant.  For Easter we had a multitrack of keys, guitar and vocal, complete with video, from two different homes.  Much better. Next week there should be drums as well.  This afternoon I laid down four drumming tracks for someone to mix into next weeks multitrack song recordings.  I’m feeling the benefit of having an electronic kit.  Whilst it’s perfectly technically feasible to mike-up every drum and cymbal, it’s neither easy nor cheap to achieve this.  I can mix my drums within the Roland ‘brain’ and output the drumming track straight to a .wav file on a memory stick.  In theory this is a perfect recording. I can even choose my ambience!

Home Multitrack Recording setup

I’ve found some voluntary work on the day I’m not home schooling and it’s good both to be busy and to be ‘doing my bit’ for the community.  Finally, the wheat malt I ordered has arrived and I have been able to set up my home office and do some informal development work.  I cannot sell the results as I am on furlough, and then there is also the small issue of being unlicensed.  However, it’ll keep my tasting panel happy and keep my brain and taste buds ticking over.

Isolation Pale Ale

Brewing an IPA – Isolation Pale Ale!

Cheers!

A Pennine Perambulation – Walking & Wild Camping in the Cheviots

Part of the pleasure of a walking tour is the planning stage. Staring at maps and day dreaming, looking for wild/camping spots.  This October my idea was to walk the Western section of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. The section I loved most when I walked the whole route back in, ahem, 1993.  My planning had yielded a route which would take me close to a pub each night so I didn’t need to carry cooking gear and could enjoy the interplay of the physical and zymological landscape of Cumbria. Akin to my walk in early September. I enjoyed the planning so much that was reminded of another idea I’d had which was to walk the very Northern section of the Pennine Way which traces the Border Ridge between the Cheviots and Scotland’s Roxburghshire. As the time for my walk approached I thought it would be wise to keep an open mind which route I did and base it on the better weather. Perhaps unsurprisingly the East won and my planned walk across Cumbria actually started at Byrness in Northumberland.

Cheviot Route Map

It was a three hour drive to the start, so I planned a ¾ day of just ten miles to get me started. It was very much a ‘walk in’ but whilst the scenery was only secondary to getting to my ‘real start point’ the cloudscape proved a highlight of the day, along with the pleasure of being out in the wild again and away from ‘civilisation’.

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The wind built as the day went on, so camping on top of Windy Gyle seemed unwise. As an aside, a Gyle is the traditional name for a ‘batch’ in the brewing industry. The source of this word seems uncertain. Some link it back the French for ‘to ferment’ whilst others link it to the Gallic for bog!  Having now visited Windy Gyle the both the idea of a ‘Windy Bog’ or a ‘Fermenting Wind’ seem appropriate, you make your choice… As a brewer I’d say the wind was as vigorous as the fermentation of a Saison, so I opted for the best, yet modest, shelter I could find on the col between Mozie’s Law and Windy Gyle before it got dark. The sun set as I pitched my tent, but 11 miles and 420 m was not a bad achievement in an autumn afternoon with full kit.

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I work up in cloud and the gratitude of being in a Hilleberg when I recalled the tent being pushed flat onto my face in the night because of the strength of the wind. After striking camp, Peak One was the aforementioned Windy Gyle.

Honestly that is what is behind the cloud in shown in the photo. I continued along the ridge in the cloud, but was delighted when it lifted just before 1100. The views were their own reward, I’ll let the pictures tell their own story.  It was then decision time, my plan was to spend one of my four nights in a lowland campsite. Would that be Yetholm (the end of the Pennine Way) or Wooler?

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A combination of the weather and practicality led to me choosing Wooler, so one hour into my transition to the St Cuthbert’s Way I started to look for a wild camping spot. I had already salvaged some water from a sheep trough supply and I found a flat grassy spot in the lea of am old dry stone sheep ‘stell’ or shelter. Dinner with a view. (Day 2 – 16 miles)

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As an aside on the subject of dinner, because I was carrying all my food for four days I wanted something light, flavoursome and suitably calorific. All my memories of dehydrated meals were all poor ones, both the taste and the after effects! I figured this opinion might well now be well over 20 years out of date so I shook the internet to see what fell out. A number of reviews spoke well of ‘Food on the Move’ dehydrated food pouches. I opted for the larger expedition size. I cannot eat regular pasta or cous-cous (due to the Fructans within them) so I opted for three rice based options. The two curry’s where excellent. The risotto was rather herb heavy for my taste, but it filled me up; I’d certainly use their curry options again.  For those travelling light it’s also great to be able to east straight from the packet – no washing up, and thus a few less things to carry.

The forecast for day three was rain from 1300. I could easily get to Wooler in this time (8 miles, 240 m) and hoped to find a pub with an open fire and read my book for the afternoon. St Cuthbert’s Way was really pleasant, and a contrast from the high fells. It was mostly double track which let me to wonder, did ‘Berty ride a quad bike?  Sadly Wooler proved a disappointment. It has three pubs, The Angel is only for generic lager drinkers, The Black Bull with it’s sign saying “Open all day” was closed and as I approached the Anchor I was met by someone being physically thrown from the establishment. I took that as a poor sign.  Luckily the local Co-op was well stocked with craft cans, so I filled my pockets and headed back to the tent to sit out the rain in comfort. No open fire, but at least I had good beer (Vocation, Adnams [Dry-hopped Lager], Brewdog) and a good book.

Day four (14 miles, 1200 m) was to be my big day in terms of assent as it involved climbing over The Cheviot back to the Border Ridge / Pennine Way. It was a great walk-in through deserted grouse moor. I passed the spot where I might have wild camped

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Should you ever want a spot to camp in this area, give Wooler a body swerve and go to NT 958 257. It has everything, shelter, flat grass, solitude and a fast flowing stream.

From here it was an upward plod until reaching the summit of The Cheviot, where I found a dusting of snow.

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There’s something very satisfying about backpacking to the snow line, even if I wasn’t really equipped to sleep in comfort at this temperature / altitude. Another 1.5 miles and I rejoined my outbound route but now in glorious sunshine. This time I could fully appreciate the viewed I’d hope to see on my way out. They were just as I’d hoped.

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Up here in the fells with my kit on my back I felt like I was in my 20’s again. My new career keeps me as fit as I’ve ever been. The differences are much better hill-wisdom, allowing for safe, comfortable and stunning wild camping at altitude and the benefits of the kit that I’ve been able to afford to buy over the years. I’m part way through a book by Johann Hari on managing depression without medication. One thing he points to is seek intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals. That is, goals which are the end in themselves, not a route to an end. Doing something you simply love, rather than aspiring to money, status other other paths which you use these to get something you think you’ll love. The former, he proposes, sustainably satisfies. The latter are quests which never really end. The sheer love of being in the splendid isolation of beautiful fell country is certainly a great intrinsic goal for me, and that made possible by a job I love in itself not for what it pays (not a great deal) or the status it affords (I’m no rock star). These are truths I never learnt as a child, I guess they are not what the consumerist world wants you to know, but ones I plan to pass onto Junior.

The rough plan was to walk back to Mozie’s Law and camp where I had on the first night. This time however I arrived with more time to pick a pitch. Again it was rather windy but with more time to review my options I found a narrow pitch just 100 metres from the original which was nicely sheltered as well as affording great views to enjoy whilst I boiled water for a brew. This had proved the finest day of this mini-tour and it was wonderful to see the sun go down from 550 metres in splendid isolation, albeit a herald of a very cold night. Whilst it’s true that I slept in all my clothes, hat and all, I was very impressed with the capability of my +5 C rated summer sleeping bag, a Lamina 35.

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With just 11 miles to do on my final day I allowed the sun to wake me.

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And whilst it’s true that this was now just a ‘walk out’ rather than any kind of highlight, everything tends to look better in the sunshine.

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Well most things anyway…

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Next time I’ll have the courage to head out for five days totally in the wild, with decent dehydrated food and iodate tablets to make the river water safe, what’s not to like?

Hop Doctor’ing

Brewing is like cooking is like chemistry.

First you need to accumulate a large body of information and only then can have the knowledge of the elements to which you can then apply principles to acheive the change / end point / effect which you are seeking. The benefit with brewing is that you can make something palatable within a few weeks, this is less true in the chemistry lab! At the end of 2018 I explored a changing career from chemistry to brewing. I was given the opportunity to assist in the operation of a local midi-brewery and within a few weeks I truly caught the bug. The fully fledged brewers I worked with were overflowing with enthusiasm for beer and have been teaching me the wide variety of what is possible when starting from just malt, hops yeast and water.

In April I was excited to be offered and accepted a permanent position at the brewery. So as I said to a friend the other day, I now have the task of gaining a lifetimes experience in less than half a lifetime. How to do this? Perhaps I could seek to gain a brewing degree, but these days that costs a minimum of £27,000. Or I could listen carefully to my colleagues, attend local ‘Meet the Brewer’ events, read widely and take what I learn and then try it out myself at home. This is the approach I am seeking to take by equipping myself with my own 25 L Pico Brewery.

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With this kit I can start from the same ingredient base as a commercial brewery and in fact have more flexibility with process variables than even the modern 5000 L brewery which is my four-day-a-week workplace. I wrote before about solo brewing at the 100 L scale and the great feedback I got for Chiff Chaff.

Our head brewer suggested to me that the place to start would be to pick a simple recipe and seek to make it three times to get familiar with my kit and to prove I could make a good beer by design and not by accident. The proof for this coming from the consistency between these three batches. As before I sought to opt a style I like, that being the ‘middle runnings’ beer which was common when breweries had only three offering. Best Bitter, ‘The Middle One’ and ‘Old Fall-e-over-water’. My inspiration came from Theakston’s XB and Wye Valley’s Butty Bach. Something low on bitterness, high on malt and easy drinking at around 4.5% ABV.

For me to have my own pilot plant in my workshop is the realisation of what I thought an impossible dream. All stainless steel so it’s easy to sanitise and will not transfer flavours from one batch to the next. Good temperature control of course, and my little extravagance, an in-situ densitometer for the fermenter (FV). This is now available to the amateur brewer in the form of the Tilt. Having used it in two fermentations I am already very impressed. Using an old tablet I have been able collect the Bluetooth transmitted data from the Tilt and not only display locally but also export to a Google Sheet in the Cloud.

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This will help me to understand the fermentation profile of different batches, and ultimately of different yeasts and also to be able to track progress even when I’m not at home. As yet I cannot control the FV remotely, but an add on for my fermenter can be purchased.

My combi mash-tun / wort boiler is a Grainfather chosen because of it’s batch size flexibility. I want to be able to run as low as 10 L batches when I’m experimenting.

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Conditioning at controlled temperature in a Corny Keg

The idea is not to make a lot of volume, but instead a high amount of variety as this is what will drive my learning. I’m pleased also to be pulling together an enthusiastic tasting panel who got their samples of my first brew, “Xb, Nobel but not Inert’ this week. The initial feedback has been very positive, perhaps I can be a Hop Doctor after all?

#chiffchaff – update

dsc_0215My first ‘all grain’ (i.e. designed and made from raw ingredients) is now mature and ready to drink.  There was a delay because my first attempt failed due to a problem with the fermentation being slow to kick off.  However, this proved a valuable lesson in how to best operate the pilot scale brew kit and with this knowledge behind me attempt two was a complete success.  My NEIPA hybrid* “#chiffchaff” is now ready and is due to be served on the bar at Holmes Mill Beer Hall in the near future.  A firm date has yet to be agreed but may be at the next ‘Meet the Brewer’ event scheduled for later in March.  There are only 9 gallons, so don’t delay.

The aim was to match another commercial beer and thus the project has fully met it’s brief.   An all grain brew at the pilot scale takes similar dexterity to a multistage organometallic synthesis, so suffice it to say I am very pleased.  I know what I’m drinking with dinner tonight!

*designed to contain suspended yeast and thus cloudy.