What goes into the creation of a beer?
I’ll be honest. I’ve read a few random things in my time about producing new beers, my favourite a rating on our Belgian Dubbel style ale that we called Handel. One of the Ratebeer clan (Ratebeer is a website where people give their descriptions and ratings of different beers) described it as such… “Some brown malts were brewed with some Belgian yeast and some hops were thrown in without any genuine conception of how the finished beer would taste”. This actually made me laugh out loud! I won’t make any assumptions about how much this guy knows about brewing (although it seems he’s already decided how we make beer), but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Using this example, Handel was actually based on a tried and true homebrew recipe from a young American homebrewer, Leah Handel, who had come over to learn about microbrewing with us and with Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield. Her homebrew beer was tasted by Dave Wickett of Kelham Island when he was with Garrett Oliver, the esteemed Brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery in the US. They thought it was great, thus she came over, learnt a bit about commercial brewing and gave us the chance to brew her beer on a large scale. We used a similar combination of malts as her recipe, as well as hops that we hand selected (well, nose selected actually… Brewers Gold, Hersbrucker, Vanguard and Pioneer) and to stick to its Belgian roots, we even made our own Belgian Candied Sugar in the Thornbridge Kitchen (one of the advantages of one of our brewers, Matt, having been a chef).
We then used the same strain of Trappist Ale yeast that had been used by Leah, but instead of allowing the intensely complex aromatics that some of the Belgian yeast can give to a beer, we made a decision to use a blend of this yeast with our own Thornbridge strain… something we had done successfully before. The beer fermented down, and then was matured for 4 or so months before being racked into cask.
So yeah, I guess you could say we actually did have some type of thoughts about how the beer would taste! I’m all for people rating beer and letting us know whether they love or hate it, but if you are going to make comments like that, I think facts are pretty important!
This brings me to me next story of beer creation!
We’re really lucky to have great locals at our pub. Around Christmas this year, they brought the staff in all manner of sweets and chocolates and lovely Christmas cards. It was great! Best of all was that I’d steal a chocolate every now and then and I managed to steal a small Terry’s Chocolate Orange segment. I’ve had lots of different orange and chocolate combinations before, but this was really nice. A whack of sweetness, some smooth creaminess, a small hint of bitter from the dark chocolate and a perfumed orange character. Could I recreate this as a beer?
I thought and I thought and realised that the best way to do it would be as a mild. Where to next? I researched into mild production and found out some interesting facts, particularly pertaining to the strengths of milds in the past! Just over a hundred years ago, milds were weighing in at 6 and 7 % and used as many hops (in kilograms per barrel) as we do now in Jaipur!!! And these were the mild beers! (Remember, that mild refers to ale that was hopped in a lesser quantity than other beers such as bitters, pale ales etc.)
I went into our malt store and got a load of different malts and put them into glasses. I crunched through them all, sniffed them and finally decided on a combination of pale ale malt, mild ale malt and a few different roasted, specialty malts. I wanted something that tasted like chocolate… lots of warm cocoa character, a bit of dusty astringency and a load of smoothness. The malts finally decided upon, the next stage was water profile. Milds were big in the Midlands and also down South, where the water was ideal for Porter, Stout and generally dark beer production. London’s water profile is quite high in carbonates, which work wonders with dark, roasted malts and mellows out their astringency. Here at Thornbridge, we’re quite lucky and have very soft water. It means when it comes to developing and brewing different styles of beer we can alter the water chemistry by adding different amounts of brewing salts… gypsum, sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate. The more balanced London water was the decision… I didn’t want the drier character that the Dublin water profile gives to its dark beers.
Brew day was upon us and again a decision was made based on the type of fermentability and residual mouthfeel we wanted in the finished beer. Because we do single-step infusion mashing in our brewhouse, we went for a slightly higher than usual mash temperature to allow a little more non-fermentable carbohydrate to come through. Molecules from the grains called glucans help with the viscosity and mouthfeel of a beer so I wanted to retain some of these. Coupled with the fullness that some roasted malts can give, it should work perfectly!
Hop o’ clock! Saaz and Sorachi were chosen… for one I didn’t want a load of bitterness, this was a mild and for once wasn’t about the hops… something of a rarity for us at Thornbridge! But I couldn’t resist, so the aromatic Sorachi Ace, with it’s wonderful over-ripe orange and coconut characters still managed to make the cut.
I also happen to like layers of flavour in a beer and think that complexity can come from using ingredients other that water, yeast, malt and hops. This is where one of the local Peak District chocolatiers comes in! CocoaDance, my favourite chocolate-makers, do fairs and farmers markets around Derbyshire and have sold some of their fantastic chocolates to many a prestigious store! I was most impressed when I came to the Thornbridge fair a few months back and found that Dave Golubows, the chocolatier, had made a chocolate truffle using Jaipur IPA for the fondant filling. It was great!
Myself, Stefano, our head brewer, and Rob Wainwright, our chocolate-loving chef from the Coach and Horses went out to visit CocoaDance in the beautiful Castleton, right at the base of the behemoth that is Mam Tor. His quaint little factory is great and he talked us through the chocolate-making process with a passion and excitement that reminded me so much about us talking of beer. I asked him all that I could and queried him on my concept… that I wanted to make a beer that tasted like a chocolate orange, yet something that was drinkable. We had used Seville orange zest in one of our beers before, but I was worried about its bitterness. He suggested one of his favourite dark chocolate matches, mandarin peel. I tried some and was impressed by the punch of citrus oils, the spicy, peppery, almost woody characters and the light but zingy orange bitterness. I was sold!
So in went some mandarin peel and a hint of star anise just to add a little extra warmth and liquorice nose.
The beer fermented down to 3.5% AbV and now it was time to add some chocolate. I’d had the chance to talk to a few brewers that have used chocolate in its various guises before. Some brewers go for a chocolate essence, which I’m not too keen on… I’d rather something a bit more natural. Cocoa powder and chocolate itself has been known to cause all sorts of problems clogging up filters during the wort boiling and I didn’t want any chocolate that was filled with milk fats or vegetable oils that could affect head retention. The only way forward was with true cocoa beans. We ordered a small sample of cacao nibs (the broken up beans that chocolate is made from) and aged one of our stouts, Saint Petersburg on them to see what sort of character they would give the beer. Wow! It was choco-alcoholic heaven! Decision made, we transferred the finished mild on to the organic cacao nibs that I sourced from Supernutrients and now we wait…
I’ve already christened the beer CocoaDance, it already tasted chocolaty and citrusy before the maturation on chocolate, so I can’t wait to taste it over the coming days as it waltzes on to be my dream beer.