Tag Archives: brewing

Christmas cheer, mistletoe and beer

2014 has shot by in a blur and unbelievably, Christmas is almost upon us once again. For us that has meant digging out the box of decorations from under the spare room bed, an almost military-scale operation of trying to plan how we are going to visit all of the family over the holiday and me considering taking out shares in the companies who make cinnamon and ground ginger. It has begun.

What we undoubtedly all need to dissipate the stress of all that shopping, baking, wrapping, cooking, planning and decorating is a nice drink. Christmas tends to be a bit of a boozy free-for-all, with a lot of the drinks usually forgotten at the back of the cabinet making an appearance – when else do you fancy a sherry mid-afternoon?! But somewhere between the champagne over breakfast and the port with your cheese in the evening as you duel over the Monopoly board, beer sometimes gets edged out of the picture.

This is a shame, because there are a huge number of breweries producing seasonal festive beers, many of which would go nicely with your Christmas pudding or a nice chunk of sharp cheddar. ICIP took it upon ourselves to sample a few of these Christmas tipples to give you some ideas.

DSC_0013Fyne Ales – “Nice” (5.2%) and “Naughty” (5.2%)
It was great to see Fyne Ales trying something a little bit different to the usual porters, stouts and barley wines on offer at this time of year, and their white IPA and black ale offer two very different drinking experiences.

We know we’re all beer geeks together here, but for the uninitiated – white IPAs are basically the lovechild of an IPA and a Belgian wit, using a wheat base and sometimes spicing. Nice poured with a light, frothy head and had a crisp, light, lemony nose with an underlying earthy hoppiness. It had an astringent mouthfeel with grapefruit and lemon peel notes (turns out it is brewed with fresh citrus peel, so no surprise there), and has a lingering bitterness which will be thanks to its smack of US hops including Citra, Galaxy and Summit. Interestingly, Mr Pip commented he was picking up an almost pilsner-like flavour, and after some research we discovered that the NZ hop Motueka, which is used in Nice, has Saaz parentage. Not just a pretty face!

On the other end of the spectrum, Naughty poured jet black with a light latte-coloured head. We got a red berry nose, which combined both the sweetness and sourness of fruits like redcurrants, and we also picked up a chocolate note. It was highly carbonated and initially had quite a dry, parching mouthfeel, a real charred punch of all the toasted malts – no less than eight different varieties were used, including black and chocolate malt. There was also a hoppy kick from the Centennial, but this gave way to a smooth chocolatey finish and sweet berry notes to match the aroma. Whilst trying to describe the flavour, Mr Pip started talking about the charred roasted peppers we had for dinner the previous evening. I had started to mock him until we discovered that Naughty has been spiked with ancho chillies. I conceded the rest of the bottle to him after that, as it turns out that anchos are known for having fruity flavour characteristics.  I’d better watch out, or he’ll have me out of a job.

DSC_0066“Holly Daze” (5%)
Fyne Ales call their seasonal dark amber ale, Holly Daze, “the antidote to Christmas”, making a point of not using any festive spicing, but instead focusing on producing “a refreshing beer to clear the palate”.  It pours deep amber with a frothy head and has a malty aroma, with a light stone fruit note and slight caramel sweetness at the back. The flavour is initially quite rich and bready but gives way to a grassy hop bitterness and a clean finish.

DSC_0059Ilkley – Mary Christmas (4.7%)
This blonde ale poured golden with a light frothy head. We got a whiff of nutmeg and cloves on the nose as well as orange peel and some bready, malty notes – a kind of marmalade on toast scenario. It had a relatively high carbonation and a rounded flavour that left a lingering citrus peel bitterness. We also picked up the festive spices again which warmed the back of the throat and also got a hint of tropical fruit, no doubt from the Australian hops used. This married well with the Caribbean rum Ilkley brewed with – a perfect pairing. Light and clean, this was a good foil to the heavier stouts and porters we tried later on.

DSC_0025By The Horns – Jolly’s Revenge (5.5%) 
This poured jet black with a creamy head, and had a complex aroma. We got coffee and caramel, and a hard-to-pin-down spiciness that reminded us of rye bread. There was also a sweetness which was reminiscent of a milk stout. It was bitter on the palate with a charred, toasted malt flavour and a quite a parching, dry mouthfeel which was no doubt the result of the addition of some US hops.

DSC_0031Hogs Back – Advent Ale (4.4%)
This ale poured with a thin head, and had an aroma of red fruit and berries which came across as quite tart – almost like cranberries or raspberries. It had a soft mouthfeel with very light carbonation and tasted quite tangy with a slight sourness that was faintly reminiscent of a fruity lambic. It had a dry finish which gave through to a liquorice sweetness, and perhaps a metallic, molasses note too. We were really impressed by Advent Ale and think this could well be the beer we stick with for most of the big day.

DSC_0035Bath Ales – Festivity (5%)
This poured thick and dark, and had a hint of ruby-red in the glass. We got a hit of rum and raisin on the nose, and also hints of caramel, biscuit and vanilla. It had a drying mouthfeel with a bitter cocoa/chocolately note giving way to charred coffee, courtesy of that roasted choc malt, but the bitterness doesn’t linger. There is a vanilla sweetness right at the finish, too. One of our favourites.

DSC_0038St Peter’s – Christmas Ale (7%)
This poured deep amber and unlike a lot of the other festive beers which went in for richer, festive flavours, this had peachy, apricot and even grape notes on the nose. There was a definite estery element there too which translated into a marzipan/cherry pit flavour when we tasted it. It had quite a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and a sharp, herbal hoppy bitterness which almost went through to medicinal towards the end.

DSC_0057Wychwood – Bah Humbug (6%)
This poured without much of a head but had an attractive burnished copper colour when held up to the light. The aroma was unmistakably of British hops – grassy and peppery, with a sour twang – with a slight spicy sweetness at the back and a breadiness from the Maris Otter malt. When we tasted it, it had quite a thin mouthfeel with high carbonation. Initially we got bitter and herbal notes which were almost citrussy or lemony, which gave way to a slight cinnamony warmth towards the finish.

harveyHarvey’s Christmas Ale (7.5%)
We’ve hit barley wine territory – this is serious, after dinner cheeseboard stuff. Harvey’s Christmas Ale poured an incredible tawny colour without a head, clear with a deep reddish hue. We got dried fruit on the nose with a hint of boozy Christmassy spirits such as brandy or rum. It had a smooth, almost oily mouthfeel with a slight, clean carbonation at the finish, and was surprisingly sweet – a treacly, iron-like tang. Despite being very rich it gave away to a dry, parching finish and a lingering bitterness which offset that heaviness. Definitely one for an after-dinner snifter.

DSC_0064Adnams – Tally Ho Ho Ho (7.2%)
Described on the bottle as “an unashamedly strong winter warmer”, we approached this one with caution. It poured deep ruby – an absolutely gorgeous colour – and had a strong aroma of tart green apples and pear drops, with a hint of raisin. The flavour is rich boozy fruitcake with a grassy hop bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of molasses and liquorice. Smooth, velvety mouthfeel with quite a high carbonation – possibly the result of this batch being bottle conditioned with live yeast. We also loved the label, which trades the usual Tally-Ho horse and rider for Santa and Rudolph. A class act.

DSC_0060Brouwerij d’Achouffe – N’Ice Chouffe (10%)
What comes after the after-dinner snifters? A nightcap, perhaps? We’re bringing out the big guns – it wouldn’t be Christmas without some face-meltingly strong Belgian stuff. N’Ice Chouffe poured a chestnutty brown with reddish hue and a creamy head. You get dried fruit and caramel on the nose and perhaps an estery, bubblegummy note at the back. It is highly carbonated with an almost chewy mouthfeel, and has the distinctive Belgian yeast flavour profile; it is rich and boozy, with a balancing sweetness which may be the caramel character of the malt. Has a fresh, clean finish.

DSC_0068Brouwerij Huyghe – Delirium Christmas (10%)
This poured deep amber with a reddish tinge and only a thin head. We got raspberry, cherry and almond on the nose along with a punch of bubblegum and banana ester notes – all very sweet scents. It had quite a high carbonation and, initially, a silky mouthfeel which gave way to a dry finish, although curiously there was no hoppy flavour behind this. It left quite a medicinal, herbal, almost sour taste in the mouth, but this was not unpleasant, and it balanced well with the rich, Belgian yeast and marzipan flavours.

We were hugely impressed by the sheer range of festive beers out there – there is certainly something to cater for everyone’s tastes, whether you like your high-percentage barley wines, spicy porters or even lighter beers. We’d love to hear what you’re planning to crack open over Christmas – do let us know, either in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.

We’d like to take this opportunity to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have a fantastic holiday, and here’s to a healthy, happy 2015 to all of you. Cheers!

– PS

Full disclosure – some of these beers were sent to us as samples, others we bought for ourselves.

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Blame John… and the rest of your marketing department

This morning Melissa Cole drew our attention to this new advertising campaign by Manchester-based brewery, JW Lees.

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Screengrab taken morning of 5/11/14

Where do I begin? The assumption that only men drink beer? That women are shrieking harridans who prevent men from going out for a drink with their friends? Or that men are untrustworthy louts who lie to get their own way? You get the picture.

When I see things like this, I seriously cannot believe that we still live in a world where enough people thought this was a decent enough idea to go ahead with it. The attempt to push it on social media with a hashtag is even more offensive. Let’s spread the casual sexism and give it some real exposure. Fantastic. I know you’ve been around since the early nineteenth century, JW Lees, but what century do you think it is now?!

What baffles me the most about sexism in beer marketing is that breweries continue to alienate potential female customers. Yes, we know that there are a lot of women beer drinkers (and indeed brewers, sommeliers and writers) who will merely roll their eyes at this and move on to their next pint, but I’m not talking about them. Marketing like this solidifies the incorrect stereotype that beer is a man’s drink, and many women will continue to live in ignorance of beer’s fabulousness if we don’t remove barriers to entry. Women bombarded by this kind of bullshit may never build the confidence to go up to the bar and ask for a pint, even if they wanted to.

I #BlameJohn, and whoever else came up with this shit idea.

– PS

I’m alright, Jack: ICIP’s favourite pumpkin beers for Halloween

I freaking love Halloween. Probably because, as a kid, it was the night in the year I was allowed to watch grown-up horror movies (well, Hammer’s Dracula and The Devil Rides Out) on repeat.

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Spin on a decade or so (sob), and my love for Halloween has manifest as a disproportionate love for oft-maligned pumpkin flavoured beer.

Unlike the ubiquitous pumpkin spiced latte, which is an abomination unto caffeine, bastardising yummy coffee flavours with syrup and (probably) nuclear goo, brewing good pumpkin beer takes skill. Malt and hops and spices have to work together to showcase the admittedly pretty uninteresting gourd.

This year PSB, long a phenomena in the US, seems to have kicked off (finally) in this country, with a number of breweries launching their contenders with boozy, fancy-dress bashes, attended by a disproportionate number of people dressed as Jedi. So with no further ado…

ICIP’s top tips for Halloween tipple (sorry):

Beavertown, Stingy Jack, 7.2% abv

IMG_20141022_205650With its layers of spicy cinnamon and sweet booziness, I’d marry Stingy Jack if I could. It’s also haunted, or cursed, or something, because it causes rows among my housemates the likes of which I have never seen, even with other beers this (comparatively) strong. Downfalls this year include the price – a hefty £6-6.50 for 660ml, and the fact that you can only buy it in 660ml bottles. That renders the 7%ish beer more a solid weekend drink and less some funky pumpkin spice for a schoolnight. That said, I’ve never, ever got halfway through a bottle and wished it was over.

Camden Town Brewery, Pumpkin Spiced Lager, 5.2% abv

IMG_20141030_191217Delicious. I’m not normally a lager drinker, and was blown away by how well the format suited pumpkin spice. Without the sweet richness of an ale, the cinamonny-nutmeg-ginger goodness has a chance to shine. For me, it redeemed lager, which I normally find a bit bland (I KNOW I KNOW, I’M SORRY). Light and deeply drinkable.

 

Brewdog, PumpkinHead, 5.1% abv

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Testament to the deliciousness of PumpkinHead is the fact that I drank four bottles of it in a row during a recent houseparty, and clearly enjoyed them too much to take any arty photographs. Instead here is me dressed as a pumpkin, holding a bottle in an unflattering photograph.

Spicey without the cloying sweetness of some pumpkin beers, this is a great session drink (look how happy I am!) It’s fresher and a bit more citrus-y, but still plenty of pumpkin and spice on the nose, and a satisfying caramel pour to match with your pumpkin wig.

Elysian Brewery, Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, 5.9% abv

IMG_20141030_201738Regular readers (well, anyone who read the last post) will know that I ransacked London for this beer, which is currently on at Wetherspoons as part of their International Ale Festival. And it was worth it, particularly at a hangover-triggering £3.20 per pint. Thick, sweet mouthfeel with a boozy lingering spicey taste, my sense from speaking to ‘spoons staff is that this will roll out properly over the Halloween weekend. Snap it up while it lasts.

London Fields Brewery, Pumpkin Ale, 6% abv & Gyle 666, 5.6% abv

IMG-20141031-WA0006Less pumpkin, more Terry’s Chocolate Orange, for some reason, in LFB’s lovely pumpkin beer. Yummy and boozy, if you get it at source it’s available on cask and keg. We tried both (of course); kegged is lighter, so you get more of the toffee-chocolate, casked is a fuller, traditional pumpkiny mouthfeel. Gyle 666 is an outrageously spicy brown ale, rich and nutty with a strong (and I mean strong!) chilli kick.

Wychwood, Pumpking, 3.8% abv

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I went off Wychwood after some questionable merchandising, then stumbled across this in my local Budgens (never seen it anywhere else). Yes, it’s much lighter than some of it’s stronger rivals, but it’s a really decent cheap alternative if you want something seasonal that won’t leave you under the table. A ruby ale, it doesn’t exactly reek of pumpkin spice, but it pours a tasty, earth-y, apricot glass.

Anchor, BigLeaf Maple Autumn Red, 6% abv

download_20141030_112027“Give me something I wouldn’t pick for myself”, I said to @dwylth, resident beergenius at Bottledog Kings X. He knows that I most enjoy things that taste of 1) hops, 2) hops, 3) coffee flavoured hops and 4) alcohol, so I was intrigued when he passed me an apparently maple syrup flavoured beer from a brewery that I normally associate with American pales. And it was in a small bottle (although this could be a perspective thing given it was sat in a basket alongside Stingy Jack). But oh, man, it was good. I’ve tried to avoid using the word caramel elsewhere in this roundup, because all caramel pales to insignificance next to this beer. Floral and undeniably maple-y, this is a lovely seasonal red ale if you get sick of all the spice.

– ED

How should CAMRA campaign? Group responds in ‘sexist leaflet’ row

  • Organisation offers apology over leaflets some deemed sexist and says it wants to work with young members on new campaign.

The beer drinkers’ club CAMRA has apologised for any offence caused by recruitment leaflets it circulated to universities, which featured images of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

More: Read our original story on the leaflets

Keith Spencer, CAMRA’s Director of Membership, said that the leaflets had been withdrawn. “CAMRA’s recent young membership campaign has been met with both positive and negative feedback since its launch a few weeks ago. However, as a number of people have informed us they find the imagery sexist and are offended by this campaign, CAMRA has decided to withdraw this material from circulation.

“CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused”

The campaign was discussed with young marketing professionals within CAMRA’s Young Membership Marketing Group, which is made up of men and women, and they supported this creative. However, CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused,” he said. “Now that CAMRA has decided to remove this campaign, it will work with CAMRA’s young membership to create a new campaign. If any CAMRA members would like to feed ideas into this campaign then please email marketing@camra.org.uk

– ED

Brewhouse, in the middle of our street

We get it ripped out of us here in Islington. People make fun of our biodegradable yoga mats, our bespoke tofu and our eco-friendly soap nuts. Yes, we love our green initiatives as much as we love our hummus. So where better to open up a pub where the booze travels beer-millimetres, instead of beer miles, from tank to tankard?

In fact – why not open two?

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That’s exactly what Simon Bunn and Kris Gumbrell, the team who pioneered street-level brewing at The Lamb in Chiswick and The Botanist in Kew, intend to do. They opened London’s first Brewhouse pub at the Angel this week, with a second planned for Upper Street, about a ten minute walk away, in 2015.

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ICIP is used to our craft bars being stuffed into tiny converted local boozers, so we were blown away, when we visited Brew House in Angel on its pre-opening opening night, by the sheer size of the joint. So blown away, in fact, that the magnificently conceived interior gave us pause: was there something of the chain about this enormous craft bar? Don’t get us wrong, we loved the atmosphere, but was it a bit too themed? Quaint, reclaimed and bespoke: diners and drinkers can huddle into street-level wooden booths or perch around enormous tables. “Tables” doesn’t do them justice: the enormous, circular tabletops are actually glass-topped wedges of hops and barley. Staring down at them through your crystal-clear pint, you could hardly get closer to the roots of your drink.

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Except you can: because look up, and you’re seated in the middle of the magic. Right in the brewery. Like its predecessors in Portsmouth and Dorchester, the Brew House’s core range of original beers are all brewed in open view – and this is what takes it above and beyond your average well-funded craft initiative.

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Having your kit bang in the middle of the bar is a lovely concept  – and, as we found out in conversation with head brewer Pete Hughes, it’s much more than just decoration. Here, Pete brews Brew House Islington’s core beers on site, often at night, three times a week.

And what a core range.

Arc Angel, a 3.6% English bitter, poured a mouth-puckering pint that mellowed into a British classic. Dominated by (we think!) Goldings and Fuggle hops, it would sit well alongside anything from the Fullers range. “A nice dad beer”, ICIP decided.

Myddleton, a 4.5% blonde IMG_20141002_211739ale, with its bright white, lasting head and sweet, banana-and-clove aroma, was a lovely Belgian-style brew.

Spandau B, the pub’s 4% session IPA, was so popular it ran out by 9’o’clock. One of our favourites, its floral, Mosaic and Amarillo dry-hop packed more punch than we expected from its (relatively) low ABV.

Watchmaker‘s deep caramel colour gave it away as a deliciously easy-drinking amber ale; this strong, 5.5% bitter was smooth, well-balanced and surprisingly sweet.

Finally ICIP was a huge fan of Black Swan, a black IPA, with mouthfuls of roasted nuts and enough fizz not to taste overwhelmingly chocolate-y or smooth.

(The menu promises a couple more that we didn’t get to try – Britton, a 5% American brown, and Chaplin, a 6% IPA.)

These were early days for Brew House: while this, the core range, will remain mostly the same, two of the pub’s eight taps will be dedicated to seasonal and special beers when it opens to the public. At the moment these include Suffragette Ninja (this could become ICIP’s signature beer), a 4% milk stout, a spicy winter beer called Vlad and a smoked porter. The Angel pub will continue to be dedicated to cask beers – its sister on Upper Street will handle the kegged side of business.

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“They gave me complete freedom,” says brewer Pete Hughes, of the core range. A man who has literally just landed his dream job, he dreams big: of pressurised vats to brew lager in, of specialised and novelty brews. Which is what you want in a head-brewer, really. Chairman of the London Home Brewers, Pete worked in construction and brewed at home before a friend suggested he apply for the Brew House gig.

IMG_20141002_204003“Really I’m just a home-brewer who’s been allowed an outlet for my hobby,” he tells us.

And what an outlet: “If we wanted to brew something crazy we’d do it,” he promises, when I wonder if the range might include some riskier numbers. “They’re [owners Simon and Kris] more adventurous than I am. I’ve had some impractical requests!”

The beers are totally handmade, he explains, making the set up much closer to homebrewing. This is something Brew House looks set to capitalise on: for £99 you can buy a Brewing Experience Day, which includes a crack at the various pieces of kit, a tasting, lunch and a 5litre keg to take home, and for an undisclosed sum you can commission your very own beer.

“This can be as diverse and darlingly difference as chamomile flowers, lavender or even horseradish,” the press release promises. But don’t get too nuts because the minimum buy is 750 pints, and even ICIP isn’t sure it could get through 750 pints of horseradish beer.

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ICIP walked in ever-so-slightly worried and walked out converted. Our corner of north London is stuffed with great craft beer pubs, and normal pubs, and we wondered where this would fit in.

Lovely beer-loving Brew House spokeswoman Su-Lin Ong painted us an attractive picture of an Islington crawl, taking in the Hops and Glory, the Earl of Essex, the two Brew Houses and the local branch of Craft.

Even the ladies' loos were a beery work of art.

Even the ladies’ loos were a beery work of art

We might not survive that, but we’ll certainly be back to the Angel brewpub. Yes, it has all the trimmings: good food (high on the manifesto), acres of space and a well-thought out theme. But more importantly, at its heart is a passionate home brewer. And he won’t even be working behind the scenes – he, his brew kit and his beers, take centre stage.

Brew House Islington opened on Monday 6 October. You can find it next to Angel tube, on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street.

– ED

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Reap what you sow – return to Stocks Farm

DSC_0111We can scarcely believe it’s been five months since we last visited Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to learn all about hops. Back then there was still a slight chill in the air, the apple trees in the orchards were mostly bare and the hop plants were tiny green shoots not even a foot high.

What a transformation.

The dark green of the apple trees are punctuated with thousands upon thousands of shiny red apples. In the distance, against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills, the hop yards are flourishing, the plants towering above the ground and creating shaded, almost mysterious passageways between the poles. The ground is littered with the lime green of stray hop flowers, and the air is pungent with that distinctive zing of grass, pine and tart fruits.

DSC_0104A decent crowd of interested locals of all ages has gathered in front of the beautiful farm house and old hop kiln to be greeted by Ali and Richard Capper, who have thrown their farm open to visitors for their first open day to increase awareness of the British hop industry. The afternoon kicks off with an introduction by Ali about the 200 years of hop-growing history on the farm and some basics about hops and their usage. We head off through the apple orchards – stopping to enjoy a Gala straight off the tree, which is just amazing – and come to the low trellis hop yards.

DSC_0187These are unique to the UK and a recent innovation designed to save labour on both tending for and harvesting the hops, as we reported earlier in the year. Down the hill, a large red machine is chugging through the rows. “The machine is picking both hop and leaf, and it’s being conveyed into a trailer in the row beside it,” says Ali. “The harvester is actually based on a blackcurrant picker.” Richard points out that the harvester is only used for one week a year, during which time it “has its guts thrashed out”. There is certainly a bustling atmosphere on the farm – you can feel the frenzy of activity. “People say ‘I’d like to grow some hops; it can’t be that difficult’,” he says, “and actually, the growing part isn’t that difficult, it’s the harvesting and drying that provides the challenges. All the hop growers in the area are picking at the same time, so there’s no spare capacity to loan out.”

Passing through the low trellis hops we come to the more recognisable tall hop yards with their tunnels of pendulous green flowers. Ali passes around some fresh flowers for the visitors to break open and sniff, taking in all those intoxicating aromas. There is something quite humbling about standing beneath these vast, lush plants, and you really feel a sense of the centuries of heritage and tradition of British hop growing.

DSC_0165“The life of a hop plant is indefinite,” Richard tells us. “I know of hop yards that are nearly 100 years old. Usually it’s when a market changes that cause you to dig them out and change the varieties.” Stocks Farm grows several types of hop, including newcomers like Endeavour, and more traditional varieties. “We have a contract with Fullers for all of our Target hops,” says Richard. “Because they are such a reputable brewery, others will follow their lead and that helps us keep some of the older varieties alive.”

DSC_0190We finally reach the bottom of the hill where we are about to meet the hop picking machine. When we visited the old hop kiln back in April, Ali showed us an original old-fashioned hop press, manufactured at the Bruff in Suckley. In the 1960s the same manufacturer made the hop picking machines which have since been exported all over the world, and Stocks Farm keeps it local by still using theirs today. “We love the Bruff because it’s a gentle way of picking the hops,” says Ali. “We decided to reinvest in it. Although it’s antiquated and old, it works! Basically, it’s a series of rollers, belts and blowing air, and it’s all about separating a heavier hop from a lighter leaf.”

We pass the unloading trailers and enter the huge barn which houses the Bruff. The noise is deafening as the machine chugs away, the hops being ferried up and down and around the vast space in a blur of conveyer belts, lifts and cogs. It’s like something out of Willie Wonka’s laboratory, but with hops.

DSC_0230 DSC_0235 DSC_0236 DSC_0261We follow the little flowers’ progress around the room until we climb the stairs up to the kilning area. Here workers are sliding enormous flat baskets of hops into giant furnaces, while huge piles of dried hops loom in the background. “The dry hops are tipped into piles to condition them for 24 hours,” explains Richard. “This allows them to take a bit of moisture back in, so they don’t go to dust. The challenge for the driers is to get the moisture just right: too wet and they get packed like a compost heap, too dry they could combust and you’d lose the whole kiln.”

DSC_0311DSC_0306On the way back downstairs we pass enormous hessian sacks which are stacked up to the ceiling. “The hops are a huge volume, they’re all air, so in order to pack them we need to press them,” Richard tells us. “We create 85kg packs, and when we’ve made the bale, we probe it to check the moisture. Every hop dries a different way, for example the Sovereign we’re doing now, are a light, fluffy cone, which will dry quite quickly. Some years, we’ll need 3 presses to get 85kg, last year because of the weather, they weighed heavy and we only needed two presses.”

DSC_0287As we leave the barn and begin the walk back up the hill, Richard reflects: “all of this kit is used just five weeks a year, and in that time we burn about £25-30k of diesel to dry the hops. Which is quite irritating because as soon as the brewer gets them he throws them in water again!”

As we enjoy tea and cake (apple, of course) on the lawn in front of the farmhouse, we look out across the valley and at the sea of green hop yards below us. It has been fascinating to be able to follow the journey of these hops from shoot to bale, and in doing so we think we have begun to understand the passion felt by the British hop farmers for the heritage and preservation of the industry. We certainly have a much greater appreciation for those British hop names when we read them on a bottle label or pump clip.

On our return journey we once again pass through picturesque Ledbury for a return trip to the Once Upon a Tree Three Counties Cider Shop we pick up, amongst other goodies, some hopped cider by Oliver’s. This, my friends, could be a dangerous new chapter…

– PS

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Malt: getting the grist

The Reinheitsgebot would have you believe that the raw ingredients needed to brew beer are very simple. On paper, it’s just water, barley, and hops (and yeast, they begrudgingly conceded in 1993). Basic raw materials transformed through the magical process of brewing into our beloved tipple of choice. Or so it seems.

After ICIP’s trip to Stocks Farm in April, we learned that the humble hop is anything but simple. There were lupulin glands, alpha acids and myrcene levels to learn about, extensive scientific breeding programmes being developed and multi-million pound hop picking machines chugging away beyond the hop yards. We were amazed by our own ignorance about what we thought was a simple component of the brewing process, and it made us wonder where else our knowledge fell short.

Enter the Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB), who kindly organised for us to tour Bairds Malt plant in Witham, Essex. This is the largest plant under the Bairds umbrella, producing nearly 50m tonnes of malt a year, mostly buying in barley from the “granary of England”, East Anglia. We meet with MAGB’s Executive Director Colin West, who is going to be our teacher and tour guide for the day. It soon becomes apparent that we have a lot to learn.

DSC_0002Giving us a bit of a background to the UK malt industry, Colin explains that we’re pretty unique for having the two big markets of beer and whisky: “whisky around the rest of the world is usually made from other things, whereas Scotch legally has to be made of malted barley, so it’s an important market.” Malting has historically been an active and productive industry in the UK, and the MAGB itself is around 180 years old. “When it was founded, every village and every town would have had a maltings or two, and the 1,800 members were only a fraction of the malting industry in the UK at the time,” says Colin. “There was a malt tax in place and the government were imposing more and more regulations, causing disruption to the production process, and the maltsters were pretty aggravated about this. It took them a while, but they managed to get rid of the malt tax by the early 1880s.”

While we are aware of the decline in British hop farming over the years, we are still surprised to hear that despite the recent beer boom, the malting industry has not grown in recent years. “The maltings sector in the UK is almost exactly the same size as when I joined the industry in 1976,” says Colin. “I remember in those days we grew 10m tonnes of barley in the UK, and 2m tonnes went for malting and the rest went for animal feed. Now we grow about 6m tonnes, 2m still goes for malting and a smaller amount goes to animal feed because they use wheat for that more now. There’s been rationalisation: smaller plants have closed, we’ve got fewer companies than we used to have, and we just haven’t expanded.”

But in the same way that Germany and the US have overtaken us in hop-growing, our continental cousins have been expanding rapidly in the grain business. “The two largest malting companies in the world are now French: over the last 40 years the French have grown between ten- and twenty-fold,” says Colin. “A lot of the grain trade marketing in France was run by farmer’s cooperatives, which were strong through CAP after the common market was formed in the 1950s. They realised that milling wheat into flour or malting barley were ways of adding value to the grain, so they took a long-term view and invested in malting capacity. They own companies all over the world now. I don’t think we could grow quite that big, but it’s a bit of an oddity that we’re exactly the same size after all this time.”

DSC_0003This seems strange when the brewing scene at least appears to be booming globally, but according to Colin total beer consumption is falling despite the proliferation of new breweries. And while cask ale is the winner – growing from 9% to 12% of the market – it’s the big name lagers that are noticing the drop off. He also points out “in some markets they use other materials. As an example, Budweiser in the states has 40% rice in it. Once you’ve got that rice in, and you’re a brand the consumer knows, you don’t change it back at that point. At that point, the customers know what they want.”

The maltings industry is having to adapt to accommodate the new breed of microbrewery, putting in packaging lines to produce 25kg sacks of product rather than sending off 29 ton lorries, and installing mills to provide grist for breweries who cannot mill their own malt. “What Bairds has done recently is set up an autonomous subsidiary, Brewers Select, which mills separately in order to service the craft market. It doesn’t change the way anyone services the big market, they just have to service the smaller guys too,” says Colin.

WIthout further ado, we’re thrown into the science bit. Colin starts us off with Beer 101: at the brewery, enzymes in the malt break down the starches into sugars, which the yeast uses to make booze. The barley’s job is to provide nutrients for fermentation. The reason we malt the barley is that in it’s raw state it doesn’t have the enzymes it needs.

We move on to a very complicated cross-section of a barley grain. This is a seed, and there is an embryo of a new barley plant inside as well as the endosperm, which is a food store which will feed the plant until it has leaves and can get energy from the sun.

In short, and avoiding a lot of jargon – the energy in the endosperm is mostly starch contained in rigid cell chambers. When the seed germinates the embryo sends out a signal asking to be fed, and enzymes are produced which break down the cell walls to release the starch and begin to convert the starch into sugar. This has to be kept in check because the maltster wants to deliver these starches and enzymes to the brewer, so the process cannot be allowed to go too far. This is why although you may see rootlets on barley when it is being malted, you never see any shoots. Indeed, in ye olde times the maltsters would sometimes judge whether the malt was ready by breaking open the grain and seeing how far the shoot had grown inside before making an appearance.

DSC_0017Basic knowledge acquired, we don hi-vis vests and hard hats and intrepidly set off to follow the grain’s journey around the site. We begin at the barley intake, where they do quality control on the incoming lorry-loads of barley. Gatekeeper Maggie explains: “I use an automated scoop to take a representative sample. I can check some things visually – I want to make sure it’s the right  variety and I want to make sure I’ve got malting barley and not another type of grain. I also look for a fungus called ergot, which is hallucinogenic, so we don’t want to see any of that in the barley!” She gleefully shows us a little pot of the offending substance, conspiratorially adding: “this is our personal supply!”

“If you see one piece of ergot you’ve got to reject the whole truck,” says Colin. “The maltsters have rejected about one load in 150.” This isn’t the only instant rejection, as Maggie explains: “There are insects that would damage the grain by eating away at the embryo inside, like weevils. which are tiny. If I find any one of those – alive, dead or a body part – it’s an instant reject. All would suggest there had been an infestation somewhere along the line.”

After this initial inspection, things get more technical, and Maggie has a proper mini lab in her office. “I look for moisture and nitrogen levels using the infrared machine. There’s also a machine which gives us a breakdown of how many whole corns, broken corns and extraneous material like husks there are. If it falls outside the parameters we take a bit of a claim against the cost, but if it’s way off, we start rejecting the lorries.” And there’s more… “That is a grain stain machine – we cut a corn in half to reveal the embryo and the machine stains it bright red. As it degrades or starts to grow, it becomes paler to the point of being white. If it’s white, it’s dead, so if you haven’t got a red embryo, we can’t do the malting process. We look for a 98% parameter on that and we reject on anything less.” It’s beginning to sound like some sort of barley X-Factor. “It is frustrating, and ultimately it’s the final customer, the beer drinker, that’s paying the extra transport cost for the rejected load,” says Maggie. “So if we can work with the merchants and farmers to make sure everything’s accepted, that suits us. It keeps the maltsters’ costs down which helps when the breweries are negotiating to get the malt price down. But we could be losing half of what comes in, we just happen to be extremely good at it!”

DSC_0009As we move towards the huge conical steepers, Colin points out Bairds’ water recycling plant. Bairds is only the second maltings site in the country to recycle its water. There have been problems with attempts to do this in the past with remnants of materials in the water used for steeping which meant that it could not be reused, but treatments have been developed to solve this issue. “The expectation is that processing waste water will become more expensive in the future,” says Colin, “so this will make a huge difference. All maltings use fresh, drinking quality water for the steeping. At Bairds they also use a barley washer to pre-steep and to get dust off the grain.”

It can take almost two hours to transfer a batch of grain into the giant steeping conicals. Bairds has six of these, each holding 35 tonnes of barley. The reason the capacity is split is to help spread the hydrostatic pressure on the grains more evenly to encourage it all to accept moisture and germinate. “Each batch is four thousand million grains of barley and the aim is to make sure each grain sees the same conditions as the next,” says Colin. “It’s impossible… but you try your best!”

DSC_0033When the barley goes into the steeper, it is usually at about 12% moisture. It is then covered in water, drained and covered again, and in between these wet periods it also has ‘air rests’ where it is allowed to breathe, absorb some of the moisture and begin its biochemical processes. Air is also bubbled through the water for a few minutes every half hour while the grain is steeping to keep it aerated. “When the maltster takes the batch out to steep, he’s looking to raise the moisture content to about 45%, that persuades the embryo that it’s been rained on and that it’s time to grow into a baby plant,” says Colin. This process takes two days. “By the end of those two days, the respiration rate has gone up quite a bit and each grain is generating heat from its own metabolism,” says Colin. “In bulk that’s quite a lot of heat, so it’s important the maltster can move that into an environment where he can accurately control the temperature.”

This marks the beginning of the second stage – germination. “In the germination vessel, the whole point is to keep in at a constant temperature,” says Colin. “If it was left in a steaming heap, it would go well above 60°C. So we both blow air through to keep the temperature down but we also keep up humidity so that it doesn’t dry out. The aim is to make the air 100% humid.”

DSC_0057Traditionally the malt would be spread in a thin layer on the floor and raked over by hand. Today the grain is still turned, two or three times a day, but it’s now done mechanically by a boom that sweeps around the circular vessel. “The goal is to make it flat,” Colin points out. “The resistance at 1m is different from that at 1.1m so you’ll get more air coming up and it’ll affect the grain differently. Obviously, as all the grain moves around, it’ll average out over the 4 days it’s in here.

From around of 3 days onwards, the rootlets realise there’s no extra nutrients out there, so they start thinking about withering.”

During the four days of germination the enzymes are produced, the cell walls begin to break down, and the malster has to stop the process at the right time. “There’s not much the maltster can do during this process to see how it’s going, so he’s relying on experience,” says Colin. “They are constantly testing the end product in the lab, so they can tweak the next batch to correct anything that didn’t go as well last time.”

DSC_0060Using a long cup on a pole, Colin fishes out some grains from both the two- and four-day-old batches of germinating barley. “If you pinch off the end of the corn to get rid of the embryo, then squeeze out the contents and rub it between your fingers, you can feel the texture,” he says, passing us a four-day-old grain. The contents comes out like toothpaste. “That’s perfect. That means the protein and cell wall are gone and what is left is pure starch.” We repeat the process on the younger grains, and the contents are much firmer. “It’s coming on, it’s just not quite as smooth. The maltster will do maybe six to ten corns from different places to get an idea,” Colin explains.

The final stage is kilning, which stops the germinating process. “We started with 210 tonnes of barley, we added 80-90 tonnes of water, and then in the kiln we’ll drive off the added water but also bring down the moisture content from 12% to 5%, so we’re evaporating around 100 tonnes of water!” says Colin as we enter the sweltering kiln. “It has to be a gentle drying process because the enzymes are temperature sensitive, even more so when there’s a lot of water around.”

DSC_0073Below the drying grain is a chamber about 6ft high which helps balance the pressure: “what you don’t want is the grain nearest the fan to get more airflow, so if the fan blows into a big area it equalises the pressure across the bed so the air comes up evenly,” says Colin. “So you start between 50-65°C, and because moisture is evaporating the grain is cooler than that, around 25°C. After about 12 hours of blowing the air through, the temperature in the grain starts to increase, but because the moisture has reduced to about 15%, the enzymes are more stable, so it’s safe to bring up the temperature.” Coloured malts can be made in the same kiln by upping the heat, and the maltster ends up with a grain with a moisture content of about 4-5%.

At this stage the little rootlets (or ‘culm’) on the grains drop off, and they are collected to be sold for animal feed. Astonishingly, they contain more protein than the original raw barley, and this is all extra income for the maltsters – very important given the huge outlay in energy costs. “Traditionally, everything was manual,” says Colin. “Shoveling, barrows, raking, water it with cans, feel it by hand… but now you could run this whole site with just a few people. It used to be labour was the second highest cost after barley, but now energy is far higher. It’s mostly heat, but it’s also electricity on driving the fans.”

DSC_0086The final stage of the malt’s journey is the roasting plant. “At Witham they have a roasting plant so they can roast in much smaller batches than in the kiln. That takes 210 tonnes of barley whereas the roaster takes just two.” Each type of malt gets a different treatment in the machines, which are based on the same technology used for roasting coffee. “You take white malt and then take the temperature up to about 180°C for brown malt and 220-230°C for chocolate and black malts. This makes it very dark and bitter,” explains Colin. “Colour is the critical control, and the guys here have got decades of experience. They take samples; and at the end of a darker roast they’ll be doing that every few minutes because the end point is critical. They’ll grind some into a flour and compare them against standardised samples which have been tested in the lab.”

The oddball is crystal malt, which is treated a bit differently. “You take green malt, direct from germination, and raise the temperature up to 65°C, which is the equivalent of the brewer mashing it. Each grain is its own mini mash vessel – it’s got a moisture, enzymes and starch in there, so when the enzymes break the starch down so you end up with a liquid package. It’s like liquid caramel inside. The temperature is increased up to about 130°C and the moisture is driven off, and that’s what gives you the lovely toffee character of the crystal malt.”

Our heads spinning from our quickfire introduction to the world of malting (and the ever pervading scent which is making us crave Horlicks and Maltesers), we remove our hard hats and decamp to The White Hart in Witham to enjoy malt in its most delicious form – a pint.

Just as after our hop farm visit, we’re amazed at how much history, technology and science has gone into this basic building block of our favourite drink. We’re glad we took the time to expand our knowledge – the next time we visit a brewery and they casually make reference to their mash tun, we’ll understand exactly what’s going on in there, why, and what all the work that had already gone into those little grains.

Now, someone, please… get me those Maltesers.

-PS

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