How can you not love being a brewer. Or working for Thornbridge. Why the hell am I leaving!
Jim and Simon, the Thornbridge directors kindly gave me permission to head off on a couple of trips to brew up some fun collaboration beers with two of my favourite UK breweries. The Dark Star mash-up (see what I did there!) was great fun (I almost wrote tun instead of fun then… oh, how you’ll miss me) and I am assured the beer is as awesome as Mark and I anticipated. My brewing life in the UK wouldn’t have come full-circle unless I got a brew in at Fyne Ales though, so a few phone calls and emails later, the seed of a beer began to develop.
When I arrived fresh-faced and eager to leap into the craft brewing scene back in 2006, I got my first interview with Tuggy and Jonny Delap up in Cairndow, Scotland. Fyne Ales is located at the head of Loch Fyne, an unbelievably picturesque sea loch, complete with jumping wild salmon and roaring stags. It was amazing, but unfortunately the brewer job had already gone to ex-Oakham Ales brewer and hop ninja, Wil Wood. Definitely a good decision over a young Kiwi fella with only big brewery experience.
I ended up at Fyne Ales for two and a half months, staying with the DeLap family and learning the ins and outs of cask ale and craft beer. It was a revelation and set me on a path that was to bring me to Thornbridge just a few months later. I still pinch myself when I think about how lucky I’ve been to work where I have. I think that to make great beer, there has to be great people involved. Jonny and Tuggy at Fyne Ales and Jim and Si at Thornbridge are testament to that.
I had a chat to incumbent Fyne Ales brewer and workhorse Malcolm Downie about doing a brew together and bringing my amazing brewing experience in the UK full circle and we were good to go! A chat with Head Brewer, Wil Wood later and a Black IPA was in the making!
If you ever get the chance to get up to Loch Fyne, be prepared for some of the most amazing scenery you’ll ever see. Towering highlands and deep, rugged valleys. Then of course, there’s the beer! The deliciously hoppy, slightly malty Highlander, the intensely aromatic, pale Avalanche, the Amarillo- packed Vital Spark, every beer’s a winner!
The brew day dawned and I found myself getting up at Tuggy’s place, warming my hands on the Aga and heading over the road to the brewery. Wil had already started mashing in, the familiar sweet-Horlicks aroma of Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter malt filling the brewhouse. Initially we were thinking of a 5.5% Black IPA, but in the end it ended around 5.9%, I reckon that’s a pretty good number as well! The mash tun was pretty much filled to the brim and it was a bit of a wait as those enzymes we all know and love got to work chopping up the long-chain jumble of carbohydrates into simple sugars. Our yeast were going to be happy!
Meanwhile, hops were discussed. Wil is a massive fan of the German Perle hop… it just so happened that we love it at Thornbridge as well and use this is in brews such as Lord Marples, Merrie, even our Pilsener! The decision was made to use Perle and the floral/spicy/resinous Centennial in bittering and follow through with a heady mix of Centennial, Citra and Amarillo for aroma. The plan was also to dry-hop the beer.
We also made a decision to have a bit of a play with some mash-hopping. “Why would you want to throw perfectly good Centennial hops in the mash!” I here some of you ask. There are a couple of theories at play regarding this. One is based on improved lautering/filtration and wort run-off… something that wouldn’t benefit us with just throwing the hops on the top of the mash. Another theory is based on stabilisation of hop volatiles. It is postulated that at the lower mash pH, hop oils will be slightly protected or bind with other wort constituents to result in a more smooth, clean hop profile and bitterness. Either way, it was a bit of fun, the brewhouse smelt amazing and I reckon it will have done more good than harm!
The next ingredient is very much a novel one for me. When we decided to do a big hoppy beer, we initially discussed a crossover between Avalanche and Jaipur. WIl though, had played around with a PureMalt extract called RB when at Oakham and mentioned that you got an incredibly black beer with little impact on flavour. I’ve spoken about beer education before with regards to big, hoppy beers that have little roast character and how they can really open peoples eyes with regards to the types of beer they usually drink, so this was to be another fun experiment. Sure, we can’t turn lead into gold, but this is definitely our twist on Alchemy 🙂
Wil poured the RB extract into the underback. The extract itself comes from the finest Simpsons Malt. It is malted as per usual, then PureMalt mill it to a flour, mash as per usual in a mash filter, boil, ferment, clarify and then evaporate the excess liquid off. What you end up with was once an unhopped beer! It is then heat treated for sterility leaving a thick, black almost molasses-like liquid that has the faintest whafts of roast barley and mild coffee with an unmistakable molasses and liquorice note. It’s all very subtle and most interestingly, has hardly any sweetness at all. It tasted good enough to put on a sandwich!
Sparge complete, it was time to boil and add hops, something I hadn’t done for a long time at Fyne Ales, that’s for sure! Probably the coolest part of the day was cleaning out the mash tun. In fact, as you can see below, not much has changed! (Well maybe the hair cut, the extra stone or so of weight, the grey hairs and a few more wrinkles…)
Casting kicked off, with the oily-black wort making its way to fermenter. The aroma was fantastic, the last massive charge of US hops had worked perfectly, in fact I would have eaten the Citra hops raw if they weren’t needed in the brew, freakin love those flowers!
Another amazing brew (to be dubbed Fyne Bridge Black IPA of course) was complete, life was great and it was a fitting end to my time over here. Thanks Fyne Ales and Tuggy for everything. Malc, Wil and the team are gonna keep brewing cracking beers… In fact, a little birdy told me to keep an eye out for their Sublime Stout, it’s, well… sublime!