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…

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

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.

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!

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.

Nathan Scott Weston – welcome to our world!

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When you are ten days old, many of the things you do will still be ‘firsts’.  Today we went for a walk in the delightful Hodder Valley with a stop in the Hark to Bounty Public House in Slaidburn, his first visit to a pub.  A pint of Theakson’s for me, and a pint of Mrs W’s best Gold Top for wee Nathan.  Whilst we still need more sleep per night than we are getting, the glorious Lancashire sunshine drew us out to enjoy the fresh air a wonderful views.

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