Sours and Fashion

If something is fashionable, I usually avoid it like the plague. I have to say I don’t think I would have started rock-climbing or brewing 20 years ago if they were as fashionable as they are today; rock-climbing is now full of metrosexuals and wannabe outdoor types and brewing is full of hipsters who are more concerned about the bushiness of their beards or how complex their tattoo sleeves are, rather than the quality of their raw ingredients or the oxygen pickup in package.

That also goes with beer styles. My heart sinks and my brain starts to wander every time a young, enthusiastic craft brewer at an event starts to tell me about their latest crazy Saison or dry hopped Mosaic IPA. I am generally given carte blanche to brew what I like here at Thornbridge, as we think the best recipe for success is to be brewer-led and set the trends rather than follow them.  This year we brewed a Biere de Garde, a beer I was personally really satisfied with and all the brewers thought was something special. However, the first batch didn’t quite sell as quickly as I anticipated, but I am sure if we had called it a Saison, it would have flow out the door, regardless of quality! I thought this was a real shame and wish people would be a little more open minded.

After IPAs and then the Saisons fad, the next big thing amongst the craft fraternity was Sours. There are a broad range of sour beer styles, ranging from incredibly complex, spontaneously fermented Lambics, through to barrel aged beers where a clean beer is inoculated with Brettanomyces and Lactic bacteria and then matured for a period of 12-18 months. Then, on the final end of the spectrum, short of adding pure lactic acid to a beer, there are kettle sours. Kettle sours seem to the beer hot on the lips of hipsters at the moment.  I have tasted numerous kettle sours here and in the US. With a few notable exceptions, I have to say the UK versions I have tasted are appalling. I would describe them mostly as phenolic, wort-infected messes ranging from little to moderate acidity, sometimes made almost palatable with additions of fruit.

sour-candy-1

So, I decided despite sours being all the rage, to give them a bash, as the ones in the US were pretty clean and I thought a well-made ‘simple sour’ could be a good summer drink. On further investigation, it seems the predominate way sours were approached in the UK was to hang a bag of malt in the copper prior to the boil for three days. The flavour defects I was picking up all made sense to me now.  The volume of inoculum produced from simply hanging a bag of malt in the tepid wort would nowhere near be enough to outcompete wort bacteria.

For me, the only way to avoid such off flavours was to propagate a good starter of Lactobacillus brevis to add to the kettle. Seeing as our very good friends from the Wild Beer Co in Somerset seem to specialise in sour beers, we thought it would be a good idea to bring Brett Ellis, their head brewer, up for a couple of days and discuss recipe formulation and process.  With these details decided, the pure culture of Lacto was propagated in good time and added to the base wort.  The next day, I was happy to see the pH of the wort had dropped to 3.6 in less than 14 hours; indeed, if it dropped any further we might have fermentation problems. We then boiled the wort to lock in the sourness and kill off the bacteria and dry hopped in the Hopnik with a moderate amount of Amarillo.  The final beer had a pleasant grapefruit tart character, but was crisp, clean and the dry hopping with Amarillo really complemented the sourness.  Coming from Bakewell, there was only one name we could feasibly call this beer – TART!

I now think we have nailed our process of producing excellent quality kettle sours and as I feel we are pretty much in control of the microbes involved, you can certainly expect different types of sour beers from Thornbridge in the future.  In fact, we made one just yesterday for the US market, this time rather than dry hopping with pellets, we filled the Hopnik with bags and bags of fresh sticky Galaxy hop cones.  This batch is off to America, but we have something very similar on the way for the UK market…

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Hops and Flucloxacillin

F88

Two weeks ago, my two year old son was prescribed a ten day course of antibiotics. The antibiotic in question was the most utterly disgusting, most bitter medicine I have ever had the misfortune of tasting. In fact it made Jaipur X taste positively sweet! No matter what we did to try and disguise it, we found it impossible to get even half a dose down his neck. He would scream, kick, punch and spit the medicine out as if he was fighting for his life every time we tried to administer a dose. I found it pretty distressing and tried to make my excuses not to be around during medicine time. However, I was shocked to come home 5 days later and see him actually willing to suck the antibiotic neat from the syringe as if it was strawberry milkshake!

This started me thinking about hops; in particular how drinkers get desensitised to the bitterness of hops and the hop-centric craft beer wave the UK and the USA continue to ride. I can remember 12 or so years ago when Alistair Hook came back from the States with an American IPA for me to taste. I have to say I was not that impressed, as the rasping bitterness was just way too bitter and I felt I couldn’t taste anything else for the next hour or so. However, a few days later, I was wanting another taste of the beer, and so started my love of extremely hoppy beers! I’d certainty noticed the more I drank heavily hopped IPAs, the less I noticed the bitterness and even wanted to venture onto double IPAs. I noticed the same when I first tried chilli peppers in my teens: at first I found the heat unbearable, but over time I got used to a little more heat and soon everything I cooked had to have Habaneros in the recipe.

I have since learnt to recalibrate my palate in terms of chilli and hops. Let’s drop the chilli peppers at this point and concentrate on the hops. I think the craft drinker, particularly those relatively new to craft beer, can often be too obsessed with hops and bitterness in general. There are loads of other styles out there where hops take a seat at the back. Take Vienna lager, which is all about the Munich malt, the subtleties of a Helles which has been lagered for 6 weeks, or the unique flavours French yeast strains bring to a Bière de Garde. There are fascinating flavours here that need to be appreciated which are just as worthy of adoration as EBUs. In fact, I feel hops are often used to cover up poor brewing practices up and/or downstream.

A few months ago I sat down to write the recipe for our 10% Jaipur. When you brew a new beer, particularly a big beer with such a high charge of malt, it’s difficult to predict on the nose where the beer will finish up. That’s why with a new beer I often brew it in two batches and blend back. For the first batch I was aiming for 75-80 EBU and actually ended up with 65 EBU! This was despite reducing the predicted hop utilisation significantly to compensate for the increase in gravity. We measure the EBUs of every batch we brew here, but I know loads of breweries who don’t, and if they aren’t I am thinking their beers might not be as bitter as you might expect. In fact I know a few brewers who tell the customers it has a high EBU, but target a lower EBU as it makes for a better more balanced beer.

I suppose what I am getting at is while hops are indeed a magical and compelling aspect of brewing, I do hope that brewers and customers try and look outside hops and bitterness when it comes to deciding on what beer to brew or drink. There are such a plethora of styles to explore in the world of beer that it’s a shame to see people chasing EBUs, when they could be discovering new flavours and facets of beer that don’t have hops at the forefront, but are in balance with the rest of the beer, such as their first bottle of Orval, a Rodenbach Grand Cru or a Maß of perfectly lagered, crisp, bready Schönramer Hell.

So, is it time to recalibrate your palate?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Looking back at 2014, looking forward to 2015

It doesn’t seem that long ago I was asked to write a quick review of 2013, but it’s that time of year again when I look back on what we’ve been up to and let you know some of what next year has in store.

p01ydnvw

Alex, Simon, myself and Jim accepting the BBC’s Food and Farming award for best drinks producer 2014

It’s been another marvellous year to be part of Thornbridge, particularly with plenty more awards coming our way.  It started in February with 4 medals at the Dublin Craft Beer Cup.  April gave us a silver medal for Wild Swan at the World Beer Cup, while our Kölsch won a gold medal at the International Beer Challenge and yet again picked up ‘World’s Best Kölsch’ at the World Beer Awards.  June saw us win the Best Drinks Producer Award 2014 at the BBC Food and Farming Awards, which was a great award to win as it recognised Thornbridge’s ethos as well as the beer.  However, in September, we were particularly pleased to win ‘Beer of the Festival’ at a reinvigorated Sheffield CAMRA Beer Festival.  Some ‘Great Taste’ triple stars for Jaipur and our Weizenbock, Otto, round off what has been another amazing annual haul of awards of which we can all be very proud.

This year has seen an expansion of our barrel ageing projects. Our first batch of Sour Brown was 18 nervous months in the making up at the hall brewery. We were delighted with how it came out, but we only made a small amount and due to interest sold very quickly, so we decided to brew a large batch at the Riverside brewery. There are currently 40 barrels of Sour Brown maturing away with our house blend of lactic/pediococcus and brett culture. We predict it’ll be another six months until we can consider packaging this and then only if we’re happy with the flavour profile. However, having learnt a lot from the first batch and on tasting the second batch, we’re confident this beer will be fantastic and we’re looking forward to sharing it with you all.

Following on from the Sour Brown, we have also embarked on a significant project with our friends at Brooklyn brewery. We’ve very much kept this one under our hat (well not completely: 120 bourbon barrels raises a few questions during brewery tours!) as it’s something of a novel concept which has taken some thought and planning to make work. photo 3 (2)Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn’s Brewmaster and I were put in touch with Tom Oliver at Oliver’s Cider and Perry, who produces some of the most complex and beautiful ciders and perries in the country, relying on natural yeast and bacteria present on the fruit for fermentation. Throughout the last year, Tom has been posting us the lees from his fermentations for us to use…in a beer! I will explain more about this in a separate blog post, but we’re confident ‘Project Serpent’ will be something special.

With so many barrels (over 200 at the last count) requiring warmer than normal maturation temperatures and ever more interesting projects on the horizon, this year coming we will have a barrel room purpose built which will keep our ‘wild’ casks at an optimum temperature all year round and help us towards greater consistency of the process.

One of the great things about Thornbridge is the fact we’re known for being strong advocates of keg beer, but we make proper cask conditioned beer too, and always have done. This year we’ve moved back to a traditional fruity British strain from Yorkshire to really perfect our cask beer range. As a huge fan of cask in general, particularly beers like Harvey’s Best and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, I feel that the subtleties which contribute to fantastic English cask beer are often overlooked and misunderstood by the new wave of brewers in the UK obsessed only with hops. With our second house strain now happily bedded in to complement our American ale strain, I feel as happy with our cask beers now as much as I do about our bottle and keg range.

Producing so many beers, it’s difficult to think which has been our favourite to make this year.  Indeed, I am often asked by other head brewers how we manage to brew such a diverse range of beers and keep the quality and consistency that we do. I think the answer lies in a very strong QA system and a great, long-standing team of excellent brewers who are genuinely passionate about the beers we brew.  Anyway, I was somewhat hesitant when we began the left field project beers as I was worried they’d be perceived as a novelty. However, with careful planning and plenty of lab trials we managed to produce a cracking range of beers and received tremendous feedback for our efforts. In fact, Charlie Brown, our Peanut Butter Brown Ale was probably our fasted selling beer ever and the 5000 litres we made had left the premises in less than a week!

20141216_170514_resized_2

Some of our new 100 hl tanks awaiting shipping.

To be fair none of our beers stay in stock very long and despite our best efforts it is a constant frustration to never have enough beer for all our customers. However, we have embarked on a carefully planned expansion with Musk Engineering, a UK-based firm who have recently completed projects for our friends at Hall and Woodhouse Brewery and also Fyne Ales in Scotland. In Early January we will have 6 new 100 hectolitre cylindro-conical vessels arriving, then a month later we will be modifying our automated brewhouse and rewriting the software to enable us to mash in more frequently. This first stage of expansion will allow us to increase production while not compromising on quality in any way. This means more staff and we’ve already employed a new brewer and more brewery operatives to spread the load and I must say they’ve fitted in nicely.

Before I get back to work I’d like to tell you about a few beers we’ll be making next year. We’ll be brewing a Smoked Bock in the Bamberg style using 100% Beechwood smoked malt. We’ll also be bottling our Chocolate Porter, Cocoa Wonderland, a beer we made for Sheffield Beer Festival that won Beer of the Festival and subsequently wowed the crowds everywhere it made an appearance on cask. We have a new sour beer on the way; a blonde ale made with botanicals, around 6.5% abv and aged in Tequila casks. I suppose the last thing I should tell you about is Jaipur ‘X’…2015 marks 10 incredible years of Thornbridge Brewery, and the first thing we will be doing to celebrate is brewing our most famous beer, Jaipur, as a triple IPA to 10% abv. This will be available in the New Year in kegs and bottles and marks the first of some great surprises we have in store to mark our first decade as a brewery.

May I wish you all a magical and peaceful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

English Imperial IPA

Just in case we weren’t busy enough with the run-up to the festive season, I was asked to produce a new beer for release in time for Christmas.  My team and I had a discussion and, after a bit of debate, we decided on an English Imperial IPA.  I’ve had the idea to do one for a while, and when Eric and his team from Left Hand Brewing came to visit us earlier this year, he brought a bottle of his 400 Pound Monkey EIPA.  Not only did it taste great, but proved the idea was viable.  Obviously US hops are very much the fashion these days, indeed we acortinire known for using a substantial number ourselves! But I’ve always felt that English hops, when used correctly, can easily give the US hops a run for their money, and an English Imperial IPA felt like enough of a new challenge for us to get right.

The base of the beer was similar to our Halcyon – however, we wanted a bit more maltiness in this beer, so to bring the colour up slightly so we used a touch of British Munich and Crystal in with our house base malt, our Low Colour Maris Otter.  Having such great British malt available to us is a real advantage and is something UK brewers should be extremely proud to work with.

It was important we picked the right British hops for the job with this beer; not only would they have to provide a pleasant and robust bitterness, we also wanted the aroma to really shine through.  I’ve always been very fond of Challenger, and after chatting with our hop merchants, selected Challenger to be the single hop we would use for this beer.  Often single-hop brews can be a bit one dimensional but we felt there were enough other components of the beer, such as the bready maltiness and the yeast flavours, to make this hop’s flavour profile work perfectly on its own.  Essentially we have created the perfect showcase for a Great British hop!  I would describe Challenger’s hop flavour as a having a smooth, floral character but used in the quantities we have in this beer, I get loads of ripe oranges and citrus too, and definitely enough pungency to provide that all-important hop-hit.

We selected our classic English yeast strain to provide its signature fruity complexity, something that a traditional modern IPA American strain simply cannot do. Again, the fashion these days is to use an American strain to allow the hops to shine through, but we wanted the beer to be more interesting than a standard modern IPA, and our English yeast strain allowed exactly that.  However, left to its own devices, it would struggle to attenuate the beer to where we wanted it to finish, leaving us with a touch more sweetness than we would have liked. So we essentially dual-pitched it with an American strain, which is a more aggressive attenuator, to finish the job and leave us with a beer with the desired level of dryness that we wanted.

So, by combining the very best of English ingredients and taking a little inspiration from the Americans, we feel we have created something a little special just in time for everyone to drink it on the bar at Christmas.  Be careful though, as it weighs in at 7.4%…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Left Field Beer Project

Image

 

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

World Beer Cup

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment