Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Portman Group

The canned version of Tiny Rebel's Cwtch has had a complaint against its branding upheld by the industry watchdog The Portman Group. As is usually the case when things like this happen twitter has been aflutter with people outraged, though over at Boak and Bailey's blog there is a more measured response.

The Portman Group do come across as rather po-faced, but they don't seem to be being vindictive in their judgement. And it's worth bearing in mind that The Portman Group is an industry body, and it's the self regulation of brewers that stops state regulation coming in. I'm not sure what the people howling with outrage think would happen if self regulation collapsed. Do they really think we'd be left alone to get on with things as we fit? As Malatesta put it:
"... these institutions cannot be usefully destroyed without replacing them by something better."
So until such a time someone comes up with a better alternative to The Portman Group I think we just need to suck it up and be grateful it's not state imposed.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Ancient Brews by Patrick McGovern

Patrick McGovern is a biomolecular archaeologist who has been researching ancient beers and brewing beers inspired by them with Dogfish head for many years. His research and details of the beers made are recounted in Ancient brews.

It starts off covering some of the same ground in Uncorking The Past, though this time it's definitely written more with the beer geek in mind. Brewers will be pleased to hear that calcium oxalate plays an important role in the story as an indicator a vessel contained a fermented malt beverages. So next time you're descaling a fermenter think happy thoughts about the historical importance of beer stone.

Each chapter covers a beer from a different time and place, and comes complete with a recipe for the beer and historically appropriate food to go with it. The research is fascinating, but the recipes are a bit of a let down. After using the best modern analytical techniques they could to identify ingredients used to make drinks from residues found at ancient sites they then had to come up with recipes for Dogfish head. Due to legal, commercial and availability reason the recipes are more beers inspired by the research than attempts at genuine recreations. Surprisingly considering how advanced American homebrewing is they all start with a malt extract base too.

So modern malts and hops, as well as modern brewing techniques (e.g. everything is boiled) and pure cultures of yeast strains are all used. I found this a shame as homebrewers don't have the constraints that Dogfish head do so could go further in trying to be historically accurate. As it is you're given information about ancient brews but will have to go a lot further with the materials and methods that would have been used if you want to truly try and recreate something ancient. The book is certainly a big step in that direction though and it's definitely given me a few ideas about things I'd like to try.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Why did no one ever tell me about Wine Rack?

Not since the whole Chiron incident have I felt so much that people are deliberately keeping me in the dark. After having popped to the shops in West Byfleet (walking distance from my mum's house) I went to a cash machine near a shop called Wine Rack. With a name like that it obviously held no interest for me. And saying "wine and spirit specialist" on the sign did nothing to help.

But as I walked past it I noticed it had some beers in the window so thought it worthy of investigation. Once I'd got inside I was delighted to see it was an Aladdin's cave of beers:

They had the new Trappist beer from America, as well as classic Belgian ones like Orval and Westmalle. The American offerings also include beers from Crooked Stave, and there's a fine German selection too. Not to mention the British beers. I can't believe there's such a great range of beers for sale so close to my mum's. Or that no one told me about it. The shop's name doesn't help but surely someone could have told me? Oh well, at least I know now.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

A visit to Dingemans maltings

Dingemans is fairly small compared to some maltings I've been to, but I was delighted to see it had a malt roaster. Steeping, Germination and Kilning vessels can produce white malts (e.g. lager, ale, Vienna and Munich). But if you want to make crystal and roasted malts (e.g. amber, brown, chocolate, black) you need a malt roaster.

The grains are dried before storage and rehydrated in steep tanks. They have six 30 tonne steep tanks and two of 20 tonnes:

They do two steeps: five to six hours wet, eight hours air rest, five to six hours wet, ten hours air rest, before ending with the grains wet. The air rests stop the embryo in the grain, which needs oxygen, to thrive. Chalk is added to the first steep to bring the pH up to 10. The aerate the steeps by pumping compressed air.

They have 50 and 110 tonne Saladin boxes they use as Germination and Kilning vessels. The turners are moved through the grain bed to stop the rootlets tangling.

He was a Kurd you know

Only joking, the malting one was French
They are filled to 80cm deep. Germination is at 15 to 20°C. When kilning they run the turners through the bed five to six  hours into kilning to give good homogeneity. They can go up to 50 EBC colour in the Saladin boxes. They also have 25 tonne kilns for speciality malts.

It was the roasters that impressed me the most though. Having only seen pilot plant sized ones before something with a 20 tonne capacity was in another league. And they emptied it whilst we were watching.

It was pointed out that they can do three very different malts with 150 EBC colour, using the kiln, a crystal malt and a roasted biscuit malt. Which shows some of the limitations of malt analysis. They can make cara or crystal malts with colour of 20-350 EBC, the darkest Special B malt is roasted twice, the last 50 EBC of colour added after the first roasting and cooling.

Annually they produce 30,000 tonnes. 60% of their production is speciality malts, with only 40% white malts.

Thanks to Richard Rees for the pictures

Friday, 24 November 2017

Searching for clarity on unfined beers

At this year's Woking beer festival a number of unfined cask beers were available. Though some impressive claims have been made for the improvements in flavour that come from not adding finings to beer I'm rather dubious about them. As far as I know there's only been one paper published which compared the taste of fined to unfined beer and it found no difference. That's not to say there isn't any effect, but I suspect it's a minor one. To investigate this further I took the opportunity to do some more research.

The first beer I tried was certainly hazy enough that in normal circumstances I'd be eyeing it suspiciously.

There were no problems with the taste though. It wasn't outstanding, but there weren't any off flavours either. Another beer in the popular pale and hoppy style.

Much to my surprise the next one was crystal clear:

Some darker malts were used in the making of it but there was not the slightest hint of haze. Unfortunately it was a bit flat. Now I don't know it this was due to how the beer left the brewery or how the cask was handled at the festival. But I couldn't help but wonder if with an unfined beer this clear the yeast count was too low to get a secondary fermentation in the cask.

The last one I tried was a deliberately murky saison from a local brewery:

I've tried this one from the bottle with and without the yeast and I had to admit it tasted better with. It was also great in the cask and had plenty of condition.

So a bit of a mixed bag from this investigation. Not fining may improve some beers, it may make some worse, or it may make little difference. As ever more research is needed.

Friday, 17 November 2017

CAMRA and cask beer quality

A hardy perennial in the world of beer is people saying that CAMRA should focus on cask beer quality. The owner of Magic Rock brewery is the latest pushing this line in a Morning Advertiser article.

He bemoans the cask beer "discount culture" but is it really the place of a consumer organisation to try and raise prices? He also talks of cask breathers, which might help in some places, but old cask beer kept under a CO2 blanket is unlikely to be as good as fresh cask beer managed traditionally.

So what exactly can a beer consumer organisation do to promote beer quality? I doubt CAMRA members marching up to publicans and telling them where they are going wrong with their beer would go down well. And anyway isn't something like beer quality best dealt with by the industry, not consumers? Perhaps there could be an industry body to assess and accredit cask beer quality in pubs.

Oh, hang on.

However, perhaps CAMRA members could give scores for the quality of beer in pubs and maybe register it online.

Oh, hang on.

CAMRA members could then select pubs that sell the best beer, and the national orgaisation could then publish some sort of guide to where you can drink the best beer.

Oh, hang on

As cask beer is something really only found in pubs maybe CAMRA should campaign to promote and protect pubs.

Oh, hang on.

Perhaps CAMRA branches could run competitions at their festivals for the best beers in various categories, and on a national level overall champions could then be declared.

Oh, hang on.

I suppose CAMRA could get its publishing arm to produce a guide to how to look after cask beer.

Oh, hang on.

Come to think of it, although talk of CAMRA and beer quality does crop up regularly I'm not convinced there's much more they could be doing.

Monday, 13 November 2017

A visit to Westmalle brewery

I've read an awful lot of brewing text books and technical articles. I've also been to an awful lot of breweries. And I have to say the way things are done in breweries rarely matches with how things are written in text books. There are inevitably compromises that have to be made in production to ensure that beer can be made in the amounts needed and with the staff available. But not at Westmalle. The Trappist monks that have overall control of the brewery clearly don't skimp on investment and there was mightily impressed equipment, and an equally impressive commitment to quality from the staff.

The new brewhouse was shiny and automated:

They have a brew length of 200hl and brew four times a day, Monday to Thursday. They use three types of malt and six varieties of whole hops with some CO2 extract for bittering. An interesting point was made that it's easier to assess whole hops for disease compared to pellets. About 10% sugar is used and three hop additions are made during the boil. Three beers are made: Dubbel, Tripel, and Extra at 4.8% which is made for the monks. Triple now accounts for 70% of the 130,000hl produced annually. 

The brewhouse has an MCV and lauter tun. They also have an energy storage tank and a pre-run vessel and the wort is heated to 97°C before entering one of the two copper. Evaporation is 7%. As they use whole hops they also have a hopback.

The old brewhouse was also shiny but less automated:

The wort is aerated to saturation and the 400hl cyclindro-conical fermentation vessels are not too high so ester formation is not inhibited. The beer ferments down to 1004 and it is increased by sugar addition to 1008.5 on bottling. The beer is slowly clarified in 800hl maturation tanks: five weeks in vertical tanks or three weeks in horizontals. After maturation the beer is centrifuged and then re-seeded with the same strain of top cropping yeast.

We got to drink some beer from the FV which I have to say was rather good.

We were also offered the chance to have a drink of the yeast. I declined though others were braver:

Note this is George drinking the yeast, not the beer
 The bottling line dates from 2007 and runs at 45,000 bottles per hour.

The carbonation is 4g/l on bottling, which rises to 8.5g/l after 18-21 days of conditioning at 22°C in a warehouse where 50% humidity is maintained.

There was beer and cheese laid on after the tour:

So I had to try the Extra:

And the dubble. Oh yeah, and more of the tripel too.

Thanks to Richard Rees and Toni Ryman for the pictures