Craft Lager versus Industrial Lager

These are two separate blog posts I just realised I forgot to post on here, originally published in the Brewers’ Journal.  Although they are actually two separate blog posts, they tie in quite nicely and emphasise the differences between mass produced lager, where time is money, and a more traditional approach, where flavour comes first.

The Art of Brewing a Helles


If I was to sit down and try articulate what made a world class Helles, I would probably use adjectives such as delicate, soft, deft and rounded. I probably wouldn’t use those words to describe most craft beers and certainly not any mass produced lagers.

Other than buying imported German Helles, it is almost impossible to enjoy a well-crafted, authentic German style example in the UK. Unfortunately, your average drinker really hasn’t been exposed to such a perfectly crafted beer. UK lagers from the big brewers are so far removed from the style it’s an absolute travesty. With frequent visits to Bavaria, when I was a young brewer, and with some help from some amazing brewers in Bavaria, I really got a feel for German brewing traditions and the thought processes behind these beers and I now feel very comfortable brewing almost any German style. Despite brewing an amazing range of forward-thinking ales, Thornbridge didn’t have a ‘Germanic style’ in its core selection. When I took the helm six years ago, I naturally wanted to add lager styles to the already impressive range. Since then, we have brewed a Vienna Lager, Smoked lager, Oktoberfest, Pilsner and numerous Weisse beers. I cannot believe it took me until this year to brew a Helles, the most popular style in Bavaria by far.

I remember years ago an old brewer told me that brewing is all about separation. I don’t think until the last few years as I have grown older it truly made sense to me. When I talk about separation, I’m talking about separation from start to finish.
When we mash in, we are separating the sugars from the malt. That’s not as simple as you might think. We mash in at a specific temperature in order to obtain the right spectrum of sugars, so:

a) We hit the correct final gravity, which will do so much for mouth feel and drinkability;
b) We hit the right original gravity, so the ABV is what we’re aiming for.

Not only is temperature important, but also pH and liquor-to-grist ratio should be correct. It’s also important we mash in as gently as possible, so we don’t cause any unnecessary sheer forces, damaging the husk. Control of all these parameters will prevent us from extracting any undesirable compounds resulting in astringency in the finished beer.
Onto lautering, which is separating the sweet wort we have produced during mashing from the malt. It’s important to have the right bed loading and raking profile, so we produce a relatively bright wort which is free of undesirable compounds, but still has the desired extract. I personally believe that a traditional infusion mash will produce the best quality worts, but careful and controlled lautering can still produce a fantastic quality wort (I would need an entire blog post to put my argument forward!).

There are a whole multitude of reasons why we boil as brewers, but, in terms of separation, we want to separate as much of the trub as possible from the wort that goes into the fermenter and also evaporate undesirable compounds. So a good aggressive boil, with sufficient evaporation, the correct level of copper finings and a well-designed whirlpool ale aid with this process. I personally don’t favour some modern German brewhouses which concentrate on efficiency, where evaporation rates are low and concentrate on only the elimination of DMS as a measure of efficacy. This, in my opinion, results in a distinct flavour profile and a poorer quality wort. I have spoken to other lager brewers who also advocate an aggressive boil throughout and good evaporation; I guess the proof is there to be drunk.

We are so careful to eliminate trub from our lighter German beers. We watch each cast out, to make sure none of the trub from the whirlpool is taken through into the fermenter. Rapid wort chilling also ensures the formation and optimal removal of cold break. We also employ a flotation vessel and trub off the first few mornings of fermentation. I even know of brewers in Bavaria who skim off the hop drive on the initial day of fermentation, as this is supposed to contain astringent compounds, but this is one step too far for us!
There are of course other considerations when making a Helles. The use of German Pilsner malt, the choice of yeast strain, the choice of hops. However, with the quality of raw materials at hand for brewers these days, only a fool could pick badly here! We are well known for using Bamberger Malt for our Germanic styles and the hops we use for Lukas at the moment are Hallertau Tradition, from the Hallertau region of Bavaria.

Onto fermentation – I know, from experience, when I lowered what would be considered a relatively cool fermentation temperature from 12C to 9C across the board for my lager styles, the improvement in perception of softness was significant. Low fermentation temperature reduce the already low ester formation and result in a much cleaner, more delicate beer. What is absolutely essential though, is getting a solid fermentation at these low temperatures, as a sluggish formation could do more damage than good.
After the primary fermentation we lager our Helles for five weeks. During this process the yeast slowly metabolises by-products, which were produced during the fermentation, and utilises any remaining gravity. Prolonged lagering essentially smooths out any rough edges and creates a much more delicate product. I have read many times that prolonged lagering is not strictly necessary, but the proof is well and truly in the pudding here. I defy anyone to show me a Helles which is lagered for a minimum amount of time which can complete with a world class Helles. We also make sure we only carbonate naturally by krausening each batch. This takes some jiggery-pokery with the brewing schedule sometimes, but ensures a much finer carbon dioxide bubble, which breaks out of solution much more slowly when compared to forced carbonation.

Probably the most obvious example of separation is producing a bright beer, using either filtration or centrifugation. This style is most commonly enjoyed sparklingly bright. Not only is this demanded from an aesthetical point of view, but also yeast masks flavour and alters the mouth feel (try drinking a ‘Kristal Weisse’ next to a normal Weisse beer). I know there is a trend amongst a section of the craft brewing fraternity for cloudy beer, but I’m not convinced it’s cloudy for the right reasons. I would advocate a tank beer if the yeast count was tightly controlled and supply chain could guarantee the product was drunk fresh. We might still brew a ‘Keller’ version of our Helles at some point in future, but I still need my arm twisting a little bit tighter…

The correct water profile is also very important. I remember brewing with relatively hard water and after tasting a lager in Bamberg, which used an RO plant to produce soft water, invested in a RO plant straight away. Our brewing liquor in Bakewell is (thankfully) naturally very soft. What difference does soft water bring to the table? The best way I can describe it is that a lager goes from being 2D to 3D!

One other final point is the overall structure of the beer, to me this is of fundamental importance. When I first set out to brew a Helles, I rounded up samples of some the best around and measured the final gravity and bitterness. The relationship between final gravity and bitterness ensures supreme drinkability. We monitor every batch extremely closely to make sure they are in specification. If we are slightly out, we hold back and blend with another batch to correct it.

So, I hope you see what I mean about how important separation is when brewing this style, as faults will stick out like a sore thumb and ruin the desired soft palate. There is a reason why Helles is so popular in Germany and that is because of its supreme drinkability and thirst -quenching attributes. They might not be as fashionable as hazy DIPAs at the moment, but I know what I’d be prefer to be drinking when the mercury hits 30C.

Why the Big Boys Need Craft Beer


I was always well aware that the big brewers were pretty efficient at producing beer as cost effectively as possible, with the accountants ruling the roost, not the brewers.  However, it wasn’t until a few months ago when I got chatting to a friend who did a stint for one of the ‘big boys’ did I realise how efficient they were.

Here is an extract from the e-mail:  I have omitted the name of the two brands:

“We produced ‘X’ and ‘Y’, but ‘Y’ was definitely the more extreme ‘macrobrew’ of the two. The malt bill was about 25% syrup and only 75% malt. The rest of the wort production process was fairly normal (we did also use alpha-acid extract in the kettle, but only about 10% of the hops used were extract, and I don’t find that too out of the ordinary). We tried to ferment it in less than 100 hours, but we looked at hours, gravity/AE, and total VKD count before calling fermentation done. Once the beer was between a certain AE and the total VKD was below 100ppm, we crashed the temperature, regardless of whether it was still fermenting (usually it wasn’t, in fact many times we crashed a batch because it had gone above our 120 hour maximum fermentation time).

 Once a batch had hit 2 deg. C, we centrifuged it and sent it to a maturation vessel. During this transfer we would add two things: first was a tetra- and hexa-iso-alpha-acid extract blend to bring the bitterness in spec (the kettle hop dosings were purposefully low, so we could add the extract and get the correct bitterness every time); and secondly, we would add ‘recovered beer’, which was beer that was filtered from the bottoms of the maturation vessels, pasteurised and then re-injected into subsequent batches; ‘Y’ could be up to 20% recovered beer, ‘X’ could be up to 5% (but recovered beer was a blend of those two brands – all of the bottoms were collected together in a series of tanks and it didn’t matter which brand they were, the mixtures were injected into either beer).

 Maturation was at -1 deg C and had a minimum of 5 days in residence.  After that time it was filtered. At this point the ‘Y’ was at about 8%-9% abv and the ‘X’ was at about 6.5%-7.5%. During my time there, we filtered them at this higher alcohol content and used (really cool and impressive!) blenders that would dilute a beer with de-aerated water and carbonate it as it was sent from the bright tank to packaging. These blenders measured AE, abv and carbonation and was able to keep the beer in a series of specifications as it was blended at a rate of 150 hectolitres per hour (so around 300 hectolitres an hour of diluted ‘Y’). The ‘Y’ was blended with de-aerated water to 4% and ‘X’ was diluted down to 5%, so the ‘Y’ was cut oftentimes by more than half, whereas the ‘X’ was only diluted by about 25%.

 One of the issues with high gravity brewing, which I remember from my classes at Brewing school was that high gravity brewing results in decreased head formation and retention, hexa-iso-alpha-acids increases head formation and retention (tetra- do as well, but to a lesser degree). Tetra- and hexa-iso-alpha-acids are also light-struck resistant, so it limited skunking (although our facility only did cans and kegs). In fact, before I left,  we had developed ‘Z’, which is exactly the same as regular ‘Y’, just blended to 4.5% or 5% instead of 4%, but also brewed almost entirely with a tetra- and hexa- blend.

Now, you don’t need to be Master Brewer to realise the timeframe and practices they are employing are not exactly going to result in the crème de la crème of beers.

Big brewers are under the cosh when it comes to their market share. The Brewers Association in the US claim that craft beers sales equate to a whopping 12.5% of the market share: and personally I think it’s only going in that direction in the UK too.  The big brewers are actually running out of ammunition when it comes to trying to halt the relentless thirst for craft beer. Despite them discounting heavily and trying to price craft beers out of the market place, the consumer still demands craft products. I believe this situation is here to stay and think any new bar or pub opening now with only the usual suspects on the bar would be doomed to fail. So, they have resorted to buying out major craft brands: Lagunitas, Ballast Point, Goose island in the US, Meantime and Camden in the UK to name but a few.

I think gone are the days where big brewers would buy out a brewery and gradually phase out the brands they purchased, purely to cull the competition. The big brewers realise the public are tired of mass-produced, ubiquitous yellow beer and if they paid such large sums for these breweries and then ditched the brands, another up and coming craft brewer would only replace them. I would suggest that the big brewers intend to leave the craft beers they have bought relatively untouched in terms of raw ingredients and processes. Would it really be in their interest to rip out the heart of these beers and brew them as they brew their major existing brands, which have been haemorrhaging market share?

It’s not all one way traffic though. To give credit where credit is due, the majority of craft brewers will never be able to compete with the big boys when it comes to consistency. I know from speaking to numerous landlords, bar managers and beer distributors that they are more often than not let down with the consistency and quality of craft beer, particularly when it comes to carbonation and clarity.

Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint and opt for a safer bet at the bar or bottle shop and go for an established craft beer or a decent German beer.  Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers. In addition, some newer craft breweries are concentrating heavily on marketing without paying the same attention to the quality of their beer something they could probably learn from the big boys.  So, for the customer it can only be good news when and if the big brewers continue to run the breweries they have purchased the way they were before and beer quality is maintained and widely available.

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World Beer Cup Awards

I have just returned from the World Beer Cup in Philly with my best haul of awards there to date as a head brewer and I still cannot still quite believe I pulled it off.   We won the Gold with ‘Love among the Ruins’ and Silver for ‘Days of Creation’ in the barrel aged sour beer category.  These are two iterations of the same project; our barrel aged sours.  A friend of mine, Alex Troncoso, founder of the new Lost and Grounded brewery in Bristol, sent me a message after the win: “What an amazing achievement! It is not an easy competition to win a medal, this is simply phenomenal!”

For me, this pretty much sums it up. This is my fifth time judging at the WBC and the overall quality and number of applicants has increased dramatically.  When I first started judging in the first round, it wasn’t unusual to be able to kick out at least a third of the entries because of faults. This year, whilst judging American sours, I remember sitting there being incredibly impressed by the quality of the beers and thinking that we would be very lucky to win anything.

photo 3 (2)

Rewind back 5 years ago.  Myself and Caolan Vaughan (now head brewer at Stone and Wood in Australia), who was my right hand man at the time, were busy trying to ramp up production and implement stringent QA systems to a good team who were not used to that way of working.  Going into any brewery and increasing production and changing the working culture can be challenging to say the least!  So, in order to relieve the stress and inject even more creativity, we decided, as a pet project, to do some barrel ageing in a small room at Thornbridge Hall.  Caolan wanted to go down the route of big dark beer in wood.  This resulted in the Heather Honey Stout – and an Imperial Oatmeal Stout –  I fancied trying my hands at American-style sour beers, as I had always loved the Lambic and Oud Bruin styles, but was particularity impressed when I tasted Russian River’s sour beers.  The balance and complexity of these beers was simply sublime.

There are two mantras which I have when it comes to barrel aged beer:

  1. The beer should be better than when it went into the barrel.

With barrel aged beers and in particular attempts at sours, this is obviously not always the case and consumers are expected to pay a high price for the resultant ‘beer’.

  1. We shouldn’t ask our customers to pay for our mistakes.

When I discussed the sour beers with my boss, we agreed that if we weren’t 100% happy about the final beer, we would ditch it, because I didn’t want anything sub-standard going out into trade.  Give me the remit of producing a Wit beer, Weiss beer, Stout, Dunkel, Double IPA etc and I pretty much have it dialed in on the first brew. However, with barrel aged sour beers, I was extremely apprehensive of getting it right and more than aware I might make mess of it.

Over the next five years I produced three batches in all, including the winning beers.  Batch 1, which we brewed and matured at the Hall, was packaged into 500ml bottles and labelled as ‘Sour Brown’.  This beer was really well received and went down brilliantly.  No-one else in the UK had really produced a successful American-style Sour Brown and it was a real leap forward.  But personally, I felt there was scope for improvement, as by the time we had bottled it, I had learnt a huge amount about the process.  Each time I learnt something new and changed something, I wrote it down, whether it be the EBU, the storage temperature, the timing and pitching rates of the bacteria and wild yeasts, how often we topped up the barrels, how much fruit, what type of fruit, how much residual extract to leave, the humidity of the room…the list of details that affect the final product is endless.  Records for making barrel aged beers are so important as you don’t really get to know what the effect was of a subtle change until up to a year later, so we were fastidious about this.

I think what was really key though was the blending.  Prior to packaging, we did numerous blends to get it right. There were some barrels which were really funky and I think on their own, they would have been picked out as having faults and only desirable by the real sour connoisseur.  However, blended back, they really gave the overall beer an edge; they were like the magic dust sprinkled over the blend!  We also blended back some barrels from the second batch which were a bit less sour, which reigned in the final blend and improved drinkability.  It would be wrong to think I achieved this all by reading books and trial and error.   I also had a lot of communication with Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River, who really helped me out with so many of the questions I had.  I think anyone who has had the pleasure of his company, or even just tasted his sour beer range, can vouch for the fact he is an inspiration.

Back to the World Beer Cup.  After three days of judging, I decided to move on to check out Sierra Nevada’s new brewing facility, which was simply out of this world in every respect.  To get back from Asheville, it was two flights back to NYC and I didn’t really want to travel back for the awards ceremony in Philly. Although I was hopeful we had maybe won an award, I didn’t really hold out too much hope owing to the sheer volume and quality of competition.  I think there were entries from 1907 breweries from 55 countries this year and in the barrel aged sour beer category there were something like 120 entries.  So to actually get the call from my old mate Caolan, while sat in the airport waiting to return to England, that we had won gold and silver in one of the toughest categories, just blew me away!  I did have an inkling it was a good beer and sent a few bottles to friends a month before, who were all pretty damn good brewers, but had heard nothing back, so I was assuming that they were being polite by not saying anything!  I also had a visiting Lambic blender comment when tasting one of the barrels that he thought the beer had gone too acetic.  Although he didn’t brew a Flanders style, it still sowed a seed of doubt in my mind.

It’s pretty common as a craft brewer gets bigger and more successful that a certain crowd can criticise you for being no longer being craft or that your beers weren’t what they were.  So you must forgive me for having a little chuckle to myself, knowing we cleaned up in the probably the hottest beer category for hipsters!   We sold out of the first small bottling run of both beers with most going overseas, but we have bottled more of the same batches now so you can get your hands on it very soon.

barrel room


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The Beauty of Cask Beer



When I moved to Thornbridge, I hadn’t really had any real experience of producing cask beer. I came from a brewing background of mainly Germanic styles, which were filtered, carbonated and packaged in keg or bottle format. I naively thought that producing cask beer would be a doddle compared with the challenges of filtration, or the trials and tribulations of running a bottling line day in day out. One has to remember that at Thornbridge, we produce many beers in both casks and bottle format. It quickly became apparent to me that I needed a different approach for producing the same beer in cask and keg. After a few months, I thought it was best to minimise the hard lessons I would learn from experience and I decided to visit masters of the art – John Keeling and Derek Prentice at Fullers.

Without wanting to get too technical in this blog, the main things I found were key to making the best cask beer were:

– There is an optimum amount of yeast required to help the matrix form for beer to drop bright in the cask with the finings and the yeast count need to be as homogenous as possible throughout the beer. The approach to filtered beer is get the yeast count as low as possible prior to hitting the filter, if there is too low a yeast count in the cask it can result in beer which doesn’t drop bright.
– With bottle or keg beer, I always like to have a fair bit of residual gravity which works well with the carbonation. However if you have too much residual extract with cask beer, it can taste ‘fat’ and chewy in the mouth and it loses it drinkability. For example, we brew Jaipur in bottle with 0.5 plato more residual extract than cask. It’s a bit of a pain, adjusting the mash temp for every brew, but definitely worth it.
– The yeast we use for bottled beer is WLP 001 (supposedly the Sierra Nevada strain), which works great and produces a kind of ‘blank slate’ for the hops to shine. However, this yeast doesn’t suit cask beer in my opinion and results in beer with less character.  Investing in a traditional Yorkshire cask strain definitely gives a greater depth of flavour to our cask beers. Again, it’s another inconvenience, managing yet another yeast strain in the brewery, but something that we’re well used to now.
– Another well known cask brewer once told me that 90% of cask producers ferment their beer out completely, as this means it’s much easier for the pub manager to handle in the cellar. However, I feel that fermentable residual extract is absolutely vital to producing the best possible cask beer. You only need to look at the reputation Timothy Taylor’s have for quality and the stories of our lively their casks can be to realise this.

Cask beer, to me, is a quintessentially British phenomenon and something we should be really proud of as a brewing nation. I’m disheartened to read that some of the new ‘craft’ brewers on the block have decided to either drop cask beer from their range, or even decided to not produce it in the first place. Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if we were only producing keg and bottle, but I feel by not producing cask beer it would be disrespectful to our roots and initial success as a brewery. Last Christmas, a friend asked me what beers I had enjoyed over Chirstmas and he was surprised to hear I had spent a good few days enjoying several pints of Timmy Taylor’s Landlord from cask, in the local village pub, next to an open fire. I said to him ‘my friend, this is a good a drinking experience as you will ever get!’. I know, as do all of my brewers, that cask beer when brewed and cellared well, is simply unbeatable and the drinkability is untouchable.

A significant figure in US brewing wrote this to me in a e-mail recently:

‘In the US, the UK isn’t “sexy” right now – it’s not perceived as loud, young, local, new and different enough. No one talks about the GBBF here at all – it’s all about Copenhagen, etc. The best you can do, really, is to be the best version of yourself’.

I know what a difficult market the US is to crack, particularly when you’re up against the literally thousands of different IPAs now produced in the USA. Cask beer seems to attract a premium over there, which is the opposite of here in the UK. Despite this, I can’t remember a single story of anyone really enjoying cask beer in the States. Wouldn’t we better trying export cask to the US? Now getting it over there and tasting fresh is another story….


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Brewery News 2016



Given it’s the beginning of the year, I thought it was an opportune moment to let you know what myself and the rest of the brewing team are hoping to achieve in 2016.

Arguably the most significant event of this year will be the installation and commissioning of a brand new KHS Filler. It has been a long process and I have spent many an hour sat round a table persuading my fellow directors that this was the right decision.

The decision making process began early last year. We had numerous options on the table, including a cheaper machine, a less dramatic jump in capacity of the new filler and the most contentious option, which was purchasing a canning line instead.

In terms of the canning option, I have had even good friends in the industry question if this was the right decision to make.

I have written on canning lines previously and I have not changed my view. In fact, listening to this recent podcast with Dan Gordon, a Brewmaster who opened his first brewpub in 1987, and Charlie Bamforth, arguably the most well-known of brewing’s Professors, has only compounded my view: (from 1 hr 40 onwards):

Here is the transcript of what was said on the subject of canning lines:

Dan Gordon: Oxygen is super critical. We measure oxygen content during bottling and anything over 25ppb we consider unacceptable. What’s interesting is the movement in the craft sector towards cans. Theoretically for quality and environmental stability, in terms of light getting through, oxygen is the worst enemy we have and the best can filler cannot get values that are less than double that of a bottler.

Host: Really?

Dan Gordon: Yeah. You can’t vacuum a can.

Host: Oh, I see.

Dan Gordon: It’s one of those things they call the crafty brewing sector. They’re going for image and not on quality as if it were really driven by quality there wouldn’t be any craft beer in cans.

Charles Bamforth: No-ones saying oxygen can get into a can, the original level is higher but it wont pick up over time

Host: So what surprises me about this is that the big brewers seem to be dedicated to quality, so i’m surprised that cans are their vessel of choice.

Dan Gordon: The sales and marketing department drive the package. Not the brewers. You can buy a very cheap canning line cheaper than a very cheap bottling line.

Host: You know this is different to what all our other guests come in and say?

Dan Gordon: It’s just fact. We’ve analysed lots of beers that come into our place for trouble shooting and the main problem is always oxidation. If you spend 3 million dollars on a canning line then yeah, you’re going to have a pretty damn good product. But it’s not going to be as good as a 3 million dollar bottling line.

Host: You’re saying they can’t get to the 25ppb level in a can?

Dan Gordon: No how, no way.

So while cans are fashionable and are easy to carry around, we have to do what is best for our beer, which is why we have decided to invest in the KHS Filler.

It is the Rolls-Royce of bottling lines; its technology will enable us to achieve extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen in the bottle, it will future proof the growth of the brewery and will prove to be an extremely robust piece of kit with greatly reduced downtime. The bottom line is that we are putting our beer first.

One thing we don’t do here is grow exponentially and then allow the beer quality catch up, so although we plan to install even more fermentation and maturation vessels this year, we will be able to keep up the consistency and quality for which we are known, and our famous maturation times will not be affected.

Recently we have been experimenting with dry-hopping schedules and temperatures and are looking into the use of improved separation techniques to complement the centrifuge. Hopefully this will lead to even tastier, more stable beer than we already have.

Looking ahead to new releases, you may have heard rumours of Project Serpent… a few years ago, we embarked on a large project with Brooklyn brewery with the aim of producing a totally unique and novel beer.

After months of hard work, this beer has finally been packaged and all our hard work has finally come to fruition. Rather than go into all the details on this blog, here is a link to an article written about Serpent:

As hard as it is to try not to produce more beers, we invariable end up with more! Although we have brewed lots of German styles already, my brewing team have all caught the bug for these beers and have all made pilgrimages to Bavaria in the last couple of years.


So in tank at the moment, sleeping the long sleep of the righteous, is our Helles, a style myself and Dominic have been wanting to make for a long time. Despite this being harder to sell than trendy hoppy or sour styles, I love this kind of beer and so we brewed it anyway. And no, we won’t be dry hopping it with Citra!

Speaking of fashionable hops, with the arrival of several tonnes of Mosaic from the US, we will be making a new double IPA, despite already having Halcyon in our stable. Regarding its recipe and production process, I won’t copy any text or graphs out of books to bore you with on this blog, but I am pretty sure the hopheads are going to approve. So basically with the Helles, we’ve brewed a beer for myself and with the Mosaic IIPA, one for the hopheads!

It’s been a while since we made a new strong dark beer, something I feel we’re pretty good at, so we’ve re-brewed the extremely popular Raspberry Imperial Stout and also come up with a new one. Some time ago, Will, one of our brewers here, came to me with a beer he had brewed on the pilot kit; a bourbon oak-aged vanilla stout.

Normally I am not a fan of dark beers, but this was simply delicious, so we decided to make a couple of big batches of it. This will be bottled next week and I’m sure fans of strong dark beers will love it.

Moving back to the brewing team, last year we added two new faces: Chris Lewington from Daleside Brewery and Sam Russell, who joined us from York brewery.

Bearing in mind we’re a much larger operation these days and there is absolutely no room for errors here, as the consequences are far more costly in terms of beer loss and monetary value, the lads have proved themselves already to be brewers of the highest calibre and they have fitted in extremely well into the tight-knit brewing team we have here.

So going forward into what will be an extremely busy year in terms of production, I am confident we will be making the best beer in the country.

Hopefully soon I can grab a spare half hour and write some more about our expanding barrel ageing programme, but for now I’d better get back to work.


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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.


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…

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Hops and Flucloxacillin


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?

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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.


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!


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.

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