To Can or not to Can?

To Can or not to Can?

Over the last year or so there has been a lot of hype and excitement around cans in the craft industry in the UK over the last year or so. I noticed this weekend the discussion even reached the mainstream press as well, with two articles being in the broadsheets.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/sep/12/canned-craft-beer-five-best

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/11089605/Does-beer-really-taste-better-out-of-a-bottle.html

I have been asked a couple of times why Thornbridge haven’t got round to putting beer in cans yet.  Over the last year or so within the company we have discussed the option of canning on numerous occasions.  Before making any decisions, I decided to do my research and look at the pros and cons of canning beer. I spoke to numerous breweries in the States who’d been canning craft beer for years and it soon became apparent to me that budget canning lines weren’t the way to go for Thornbridge.

This was a quote from one of the correspondences I had with a well-known craft brewery from the States about a particular small canning line:

‘They have potential to package product well but we found that air driven seamers are not the best way to create a seam. Unfortunately, that’s what you get at that price.  As far as oxygen pick up, low numbers are possible, but that is dependent on the operator more than any of those style of machines. The fob, temperature, speed, pressure, flow, etc must all be closely and regularly monitored to assure decent package.  If I could do it all over, for our first machine I would get the smallest high quality rotary line I could find and go from there’.

These words spoke volumes to me and I told the other directors in the company that we would be better putting our money where our ethics are and ensuring future investments go towards the best bottling line we could afford, to make sure we can package the beer in a format which gave us the freshest tasting beer possible.

As I have mentioned before, exposure to oxygen after primary fermentation must be kept to a bare minimum.  We do everything possible to eliminate oxygen from our processes, particularly during the packaging stage, where oxygen can be introduced easily.  Although the can format is being sold as the best way to eliminate oxygen from the beer after packaging, it is during the packaging process itself that the greatest danger lies.  I am unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen.

It would seem that it is possible to produce good beer on a budget canner, but personally I’m not convinced. Although I am sure we could achieve extra sales and the exposure would be great having beer in can, I feel that on the flip side of the coin, customers drinking oxidised beer from a can would do no favours for our reputation.

So why not just sub-contract?  Many breweries send their beer to a sub-contractor to be canned, but I do not feel that this is the best way forward.  The extra transport involved and the potential for beer to be packaged outside our normal specifications just makes us worry that it will not hit the market in optimal condition.

So, maybe one day in the future we will look into purchasing a decent rotary canning line, but for now I am afraid I have to put the beer first, so forgive us if we stick with the bottle format for the foreseeable future – it hasn’t done us too badly over the years!

 

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Left Field Beer Project

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Following on from the European Series, in 2014 for our limited edition keg range we decided to brew some left field beers to take a break from following style guidelines. In many way these beers were more challenging as myself and the team needed to assign more time to recipe development. All of my brewing team will tell you that I’m very style-oriented and I take some persuading to even put the slightest twist on a classic beer style. I was really pleased that we won the BBC R4 Food and Farming award a few weeks ago for the best drinks producer. I was especially happy because one of the reasons we won the award was our dedication to brewing classic styles, particularly when it goes against the current trend in craft brewing which is to constantly brew something ‘wackier’ than the last brew.

Pete Brown commenting on the judging at Thornbridge said “Every time I go there, there are new surprises, and they had plenty more this time. Thornbridge are exploring the vast library of beer styles that already exist around the world, mastering them in turn. Having made their name with cask ale and then American style craft beers, they’re now exploring classic German styles such as Kolsch and Weizen”

I’m loathe to ruin classic styles with ludicrous twists -. I have to say I am not even a fan of hopfenweisse – for me the key thing about Bavarian Wheat beer is the complex blend of esters and phenols produced during fermentation which should be the star of the show, and excessive bitterness or US hop aroma in this style are a distraction and an unattractive combination. There is a time and a place for experimental beers. I think the key when using novel ingredients is that it’s imperative that they’re used in the right way and complement the other components of the beer. Novel ingredients often only need to be used to the level where they are just perceptible and hint at their presence. So the base beer selected must engage with the novel ingredients and vice versa.

The first left field beers I ever brewed were coffee and chocolate porters, after tasting them in the States over 10 years ago. If you think about a robust porter with moderate hopping levels, this backbone of a beer lends itself to additional chocolate and coffee aromas, the dark malts complementing similar notes in the coffee and chocolate. Lighter beers again with moderate hopping levels, such as a summer ale, lend themselves to more delicate ingredients. Now I know I am leaving myself open to criticism here – summer ales and porters are gorgeous styles in their own right, but they do lend themselves well to experimentation particularly when modified, i.e lowering the bitterness and making sure the hop aroma is more neutral.

So far, the line for our 2014 range includes Parma Violet Porter, Peanut butter brown ale, Wye Cucumber summer ale and Mint Chocolate stout. The first beer in the range is released is the Parma Violet Porter. I have always thought about brewing this beer as I think the aroma of Parma violets is almost smoky and would certainly complement a darker beer rather than a pale beer. I also tasted a wine years ago in Northern Italy that had prominent Parma violet notes, almost certainly coming from fermentation and it added a really interesting dimension to the wine. Indeed the main component of parma violet flavour is a ketone, organic compounds which are found in beer. So I thought it would be interesting to try and get this kind of aroma in beer, unfortunately I am not a wizard with the ablility to manipulate a beer yeast to spit out Parma violet aromas, so we ended up adding the crushed sweets. However, in our lab I made sure the flavour was just at the perceptible level, so it could almost be a component of the base beer. We’ve now packaged the beer all into kegs so look out for it and tell us what you think!

Cheers

Rob

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World Beer Cup

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It has been over two weeks since I returned from Denver and I am still beaming from winning a Silver medal for Wild Swan at the World Beer Cup.  For me this is THE competition at which to win an award, owing to the level of organisation, the professionalism, the calibre of the judges and the breweries you are up against!  What I really love about it is the beers are judged like-for-like, i.e. if you enter a Summer Ale it will be judged against other Summer Ales.  I was invited to judge again (this being my fourth WBC) and this time I selected categories that I might enter beers into next time around, giving me a feel for what we’ll need to produce to get an award. 

 

It was also great to see a number of other UK breweries pick up awards as well. Camden and Meantime, which I have worked at before, and also Magic Rock and Sharps. I haven’t done the maths yet, but I think that’s a pretty good damn hit rate for the size of the UK. It was also great to catch up with Caolan Vaughan, our former Production Manager and I was stoked to see him pick up an award as well.

 

I am always blown away with the US craft beer scene every time I visit. The enthusiasm they have for beer, the market share they command and the fact they seem to have so much fun making the beer at the same time is an ethos I like to foster at Thornbridge and it’s good to see it on the other side of the world.  

 

I had a chance to visit our friends at Odells and Lefthand it was great to catch up with Doug and Eric. I really cannot believe the level of investment that the likes of Odells and New Belgium have put into their breweries, something that would be tremendous to see in the UK at some point in the future. This was the first time I have been to Colorado and it was great to see breweries making fantastic, innovative beers of quality comparable with the very best of California. Trips like these are good for the brewing soul to help reinvigorate the creative spirit.  All in all it was a very informative trip and it was great to catch up with some old brewing friends and make some new friends too.

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Some Beer Thoughts

New Beers (2) (5)

Waving goodbye to our latest tanker heading to the the USA laden with Jaipur, Halcyon and Medici (our new India Brown Ale), I started thinking about how the American Craft Breweries have influenced the British brewing scene over the last 10 years or so. During my formative years at Meantime Brewery I visited the US numerous times and was blown away by the craft beer scene there. However, some of my favourite beers have come from closer to home and from some of the most distinguished breweries of Europe. Over the last 6 months we have had the chance to brew some of those styles of beer with our European series of beers brewed at The Hall brewery. This series of beers was exclusively in keg format for obvious reasons! Myself and the brewteam were really keen to try our hand at brewing these styles, some of which I’d brewed before, but others that were new to me.

 Brewing keg beers on a relatively simple system certainly presented us with some challenges that would have to be overcome if we were to make a success of the project, and I took it as a personal challenge to make a success of the series. What was key to them was to be as true to the style as possible and approach it with a ‘Best in Class’ mentality. To be honest, looking at the project at the beginning, it seemed a bit like trying to cook a gourmet meal on a camping stove!

 The first issue we had is the infusion mash system itself – being unable to temperature step the mash and not being able to ‘mash out’ (raising the mash temperature to prevent any further saccharification). It was difficult to gauge accurately our desired final attenuations. We needed to select styles that suited themselves to this system; heavily hopped beers such as IPAs are a no-go, because invariably unreacted polyphenols pass through into the final product. Although the beer may seem reasonably bright on packaging, within a month or so, a heavy hop haze would be present in the beer as we had no way of filtering the beer, instead relying on natural sedimentation to achieve the clarity and final yeast count that we wanted. The fermentation vessels at the Hall also presented a challenge as we had to carbonate the beer using the carbon dioxide solely produced during fermentations with no opportunity to ‘trim’. Luckily, we’ve become well practised at this

 The beer styles we decided to brew included a Belgian Blonde, Weizenbock, Berliner Weisse, Biere de Garde and a Saison. All these beers required the selection of a specific yeast, so we obtained these from both White Labs in San Diego and some from our brewing friends in Europe, propagating them at our Riverside brewery laboratory. Yeast selection, pitching rate and fermentation temperature were central to the success of these beers, so these were factors that we obsessed about to ensure the correct flavour profile and balance that would make them enjoyable

 Overall, we were very happy with the results, getting the attenuation limits that we wanted (so important for balance) and we felt we had got them all true to style – where a native drinker would think the brew came from their  homeland. As you know we have already brewed and bottled the Weizen Doppelbock, now called Otto,  at Riverside and in the coming months we hope to brew and bottle the Biere de Garde too as we were so pleased with it .   In 2014 we have decided to embark on another keg project at the Hall, however the next series will be known as the ‘left field’ project . I’ll tell you all about that when I get back from the World Beer Cup in the States

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A Busy Start to the Year

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Myself and the team have been really busy so far in 2014 and worked really hard to get three more of our existing beers into bottle and also squeezed in the brewing and bottling of a brand new beer very close to mine and also my brew team’s hearts!

I heard a great quote recently that said “tradition is about handing on the flame not looking back into the ashes” – I like to think this reflects the way we make beer here at Thornbridge. A good example of this is with our Double Scotch - yes a traditional beer style – Scotch Ale – but one that can be produced today in an exciting way that reflects the past but isn’t hindered by it. So with the Thornbridge take on this I have produced a beer that is a true expression of maltiness, full bodied, with a smooth alcoholic warmth and a deliciously moreish residual caramel sweetness. Hops need to play a balancing act rather than being at the forefront, and so this is what I aimed for. To add complexity, I chose to have a percentage of the beer barrel aged in Auchentoshan whisky barrels.  But the key for me was to get just the right level of whisky and wood character expressed in harmony  –  this is a beer after all not a spirit and the complex balance of aromas  and tastes, whilst a challenge, I like to think has been achieved in a perfect blend. I hope you enjoy it as much as the team and I had fun brewing it.

To start with Colorado Red, a beer we first brewed with Doug Odell from Odell Brewing Company, is back by popular demand and for the first time in bottle. A Red ale at 5.9% abv and just the right amount of bitterness to balance the malt sweetness. The reason we think this beer works so well is the complex blend of juicy British malts with a combination of several English hop varieties. I defy anyone to tell me that British hops are not as good as American hops when used in the correct way. I feel that this is the definitive English Hopped Red ale produced in this country.

We also felt Sequoia, our American Amber would work really well in bottle format and we managed to squeeze it into the bottling schedule. This beer uses hops from Australia, England and America to get the right hop flavours of citrus and pine and tastes really fresh and lively with the additional level of carbonation.

Our third new bottled beer is Beadeca’s Well (the orginal name for Bakewell), a recipe one of our young brewers, Ben Wood developed with a guiding hand! This beer is a satisfying blend of roasted malts like Chocolate and Brown, with just the right hint of smoke from Bamberg Beechwood smoked malt. The flavour intensity of smoked malt is highly variable and experience of use is required to get the right level of smokiness; we feel in Beadeca’s Well we have this just right.

Last year at the Hall Brewery we decided to brew a Weizenbock as part of our European series. My team and I absolutely loved it and we decided to brew an entire batch for bottle at the Riverside brewery. Classic in formulation and using a Bavarian strain of yeast, we employed all of the secrets of the Bavarians to maximise the flavour compounds which epitomise this very special style. It’s a real celebratory beer and also best drunk as fresh as possible. The beer named  Otto is now available in bottle – let us know what you think.

I’d also like to let you know we have another batch of Bayern, our German Pilsener currently at 4°C where it’ll stay for the next few weeks. We were delighted with the reception of this beer and have decided to also get this beer into bottle as soon as it has finished maturation.

We look forward to letting you know more about our future brews including a very special collaboration with our friend Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery which is currently only known as ‘Operation Serpent’. All I can tell you at this point is I have a 150 ex-Bourbon casks currently swelling in our new purpose built barrel store…

I’m off to judge at the Beer World Cup in Colorado a couple of weeks, we’re hoping for a couple of medals and to get some inspiration from our friends in the States.

Cheers,

Rob

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