Tuesday 21 May 2013

The Pomegranate pLambic Project

Everybody remembers their first sour beer. The special sour face, the disparaging look, the weird funky smell, the puckering as it hits your lips. Some people never get past the first taste - it's just not for them, and I get that. If I was forced to categorise myself as a beer lover I'd go with hophead rather than sourface, but there's no need to ever categorise anything when it comes to beer. I like it all, and I want to brew it all, preferably right now.

Traditional lambic beers are of course spontaneously fermented. Left to the elements in wide shallow fermentors until the wild yeast magically drifts in through the window or peeks hungrily out from its hiding place, dives head first into the cooled wort and gets to work. The process is an evolutionary one that takes months and goes through several phases of fermentation and infection.

Replicating this in a dining room in Hampshire would be a challenge. Fortunately those clever people at Wyeast have harvested and cultivated those weird wild strains and packaged them in convenient pouches, fuelling the dreams of home brewers everywhere that they can initiate the perfect lambic fermentation right there in their dining room (a pseudo lambic, or pLambic). What could be easier right?

Well, I'm not that naive. I don't have to rely on open air fermentation but I do certainly need to provide the right environment to fuel the process. A solid, authentic base beer with some room for the wild stuff to work post primary fermentation, good sanitation, a sensible recipe and of course lots of patience are all important, especially the last one. After some thought and research, I settled on this:

Despite the simple hopping schedule, this will be the most expensive brew I've made to date, so I'm determined to make it work.  Brew day was straightforward and primary fermentation is already underway. This coming weekend I'll be transferring to a carboy, adding the wild yeast and a huge dose of sugary pomegranate juice to fuel the fire. I say fire. It'll be more of a long, slow smoulder for at least the next six months. More and more pomegranate juice will be sacrificed along the way. Watch this space!

Saturday 11 May 2013

Breaking out from Home Brewing

In my 2012 Golden Pints post, I wrote that in 2013 I'd most like to brew on proper big kit, having caught the home brewing bug in a big way last year. A month before writing that, my first ever brew, West Coast IPA, clinched a bronze medal at the London & South East Craft Brewing Competition. The other beer I entered, Nelson Saison, my second brew, scored a respectable 42/60 but was marked down (rightly) for being out of style for a Saison due to the aroma being out of kilter with yeast esters that usually define it. The feedback was great though and this really spurred me on to brew more.

Fast forward six months and the bug shows no signs of going away. I'm enjoying experimenting with different grains, hops and yeast and having the flexibility to brew whatever I fancy drinking. Each brew brings new knowledge and experience, and what I love about this hobby is that I suspect I could still be learning and gaining experience twenty years from now. Every discussion with a fellow home brewer or commercial brewer simply fans the flames and drives me to want to improve.

This got me thinking, can I do this professionally? More on that in future posts. However, today, I got to experience professional brewing first hand. Not just breaking up hops and digging out mash, but thanks to the wonderfully generous and inspiring folks at Weird Beard Brew Co, actually brewing my own recipe on their kit. 

You see, Bryan and Gregg started out as home brewers. They've both been very supportive of my own efforts and I think Gregg has sampled (and in some cases suffered through!) everything I've brewed so far, giving very honest and helpful feedback at every turn. Regular readers will know I've followed and documented their transition from hobbyists to professional brewers very closely. Seeing the plaudits and praise their first commercial brews are getting has really pleased me, because, well, they bloody well deserve it for having the balls, and obviously the talent, to break out from home brewing and risk turning their hobby into a living. 

Now don't get me wrong, I'd have loved nothing more than breaking up hops and digging out mash today. This was different though. We were going to brew 1600 litres of Nelson Saison. The recipe planning we'd done before the brew day made it plainly clear that this was a big commitment financially. The malt, hops (Nelson Sauvin is like gold dust, and priced accordingly) and Saison yeast cost a pretty penny.

Today was a huge learning curve for me right from the outset. We'd discussed the recipe and made some adjustments (not just for quantity, but the hop schedule needed tweaking) in advance of the brew day. The malt sacks were counted out and the water was nearing strike temperature when Gregg asked me what water profile I'd like. "Hmm. No idea!" was my response. In home brewing, if you mess something up, you learn from it and move on. Commercially, the stakes are much higher. The cost of a failed brew can be significant. Gregg enlightened me on suggested water treatments, and we were soon mashing in. 

I learned the hard way that mashing in a 10BBL length brew is quite far removed from using a plastic spoon to swill a few kilos of grain around some hot water in a converted cool box. It was hard work.

Actually, everything today was hard work!

The basic brewing process is the same, no matter what the brew length. In a commercial brewery however, there are all kinds of valves, gadgets and switches to worry about. Brewers have to be mechanics, electrical engineers, DIY gurus, sanitation experts and not to mention natural multi-taskers. I've a lot to learn and this was painfully obvious as we got the brew underway. 

We were soon recirculating the first runnings and the hops were weighed out and separated in to bags for each of the six additions. Around an hour later, the kettle was filled with 1750 litres of wort and the huge kettle elements put to work. Digging out the mash tun was interrupted periodically as a timer told me when to leg it up the ladder with the next hop addition. The wort was smelling better and better with each increasingly bigger bag of Nelson Sauvin thrown into the boil, the last of which, a hefty 1.75Kg, went in at flame out.

The heat exchanger was employed to chill the wort as it transferred across to the fermenter. Gregg expertly tweaked and fiddled with flow rates to ensure the wort was reaching the other end at the optimal temperature. We soon had all 1600 litres of wort transferred across. But the day didn't end there. Brewing at home is a messy task and cleaning out the mash tun and kettle takes a good 20 minutes or so. Cleaning out the mash tun and kettle in a 10BBL brewery takes a lot longer than 20 minutes and makes your back hurt. You have to climb inside things, scrub them, host them down, scrub them again, flush them, rinse them, scrub them again, take them apart, clean the parts, re-assemble the parts, hose them down again and, well you get the picture.

It's bloody hard work.

Did it put me off wanting to brew for a living?


Nelson Saison should be ready in around four weeks. There's lots of it and I really hope it turns out as well as Weird Beard's first few brews have and, most importantly, that they're able to sell it all!

A huge thanks to Bryan and Gregg for giving me the opportunity to collaborate with them on this brew. Look out for the Elusive Brewing name appearing somewhere on the pump clips and labels. What's Elusive Brewing all about you might ask? I hope to answer that soon.