Things I Learnt This Weekend

I like yeast. I also have a soft spot for Lactobacillus. With this in mind, a few weeks back I decided to make the leap and advance my ridiculously rudimentary baking skills with the preparation of a wild yeast sourdough starter.

I used the amazing tool that is the internet and searched out a bunch of recipes for basic sourdough starters. I then transmogrified said recipes, decided that I knew best and whatever educated decisions I made would be worthwhile, had a great time telling Catherine that with Microbiology and Food Science degrees under my belt this would be a cakewalk (perhaps I punned it up and even said bakewalk) and began.

A blend of whole wheat flour, plain flour and a scattering of millet was hopefully going to provide the wild yeast and bacteria that I was to need for this to work. I threw caution to the wind and added a dash of cider vinegar (oh, how swashbuckler-like I can sometimes be) to slightly lower the pH of the water and grain mixture and then decided that a pinch of mixed Lactobacillus culture from a yoghurt-making sachet I had in the fridge would definitely help with sourdough action. I fed it daily, talked to it on occasion and even jumbled together a few songs on the guitar… Bake Me Up Before You Go Go, All My Oven, Po Atarau (Now Is The Flour)…

At day eight, I had a nice, slightly alcoholic, slightly fruity smelling doughy concoction that I successfully made my first ever Whole Wheat Sourdough Loaf with. I was impressed, patted myself on the back with flour and dough encrusted hands and began to think of all the interesting loaves I could make in the future.

Stop me if you've heard this one... A buckwheat loaf, a whole wheat loaf and a sourdough starter walk into a bar...

This weekend, I decided to make a Buckwheat Loaf with the starter. Buckwheat is interesting in that is free of gluten, meaning that I was likely to end up with a loaf that was more like a rock than anything else. Gluten is important in baking due to its elastic nature. When dough is kneaded, it acts like a big net, trapping the granules of starch and little pockets of carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, giving bread it’s nice soft, chewy texture. I cheated a little and used some whole wheat flour as well. I didn’t want something that could have been used as a projectile by some Middle Ages siege engine to take down castle walls.

This is where I come to the most interesting thing I learnt this weekend. When at Thornbridge, we brewed a beer called Bracia using Chestnut Honey sourced from Italy. Chestnut Honey has a very unique character. It borders on medicinal, is bitter and sweet and wholesome and has a fragrance that I can only really describe as smelling like Chestnut Honey. I’ve had a go before and come up with descriptors like “window putty” (which I found out gets its aroma from linseed oil), woody or musky, but have never been able to hit the nail on the head.

Bracia as it used to look...

Bracia smells like Buckwheat bread! As a brewer and beer judge, I spend a load of time smelling and eating as many random things as I can. It’s a great way to build up a repertoire of descriptors for describing a beer. Bracia had always stumped me, but now I can say it smells like buckwheat, window putty/linseed oil and woody, musky honey.

The snazzy new Bracia label!

That’s what I learnt this weekend! You know you wanted to know that…

New Brewery, New Beer Geek!

It doesn’t just take a great, new brewery to brew good beer, it also takes great people. Thornbridge has always been about employing people that can bring something to the table and help us progress as much as we can to make great beer, both quality wise and flavour wise. This is why we have such a diverse brewing team… a couple of Food Science graduates, a Heriot-Watt brew school graduate, an ex-chef, a champion home-brewer. And now we’ve decided to go a step further and hire a doctor!

With a couple of Englishman and a couple of Kiwis, Stef, our solo Italian was far outnumbered in this league of nations, so we’ve decided to take another Italian on board! Some of you may recall Andrea Pausler (originally from Spilimbergo in North-Eastern Italy), who has just finished his PhD on the effects of bottle conditioning in the production of craft lager beers at Udine University in Italy. Andrea had previously joined us in 2008 for a few months to get some hands-on brewery experience while completing his thesis. He was instrumental in setting up our original Thornbridge laboratory and showed the commitment and passion that makes us who we are.

The Second Italian!

The Second Italian!

A keen sportsman, Andrea is right into running, skiing and football and more importantly is a massive rock fan, so will fit in perfectly to the team, what with Matt’s Foo Fighters obsession, JK’s unnatural love of Iron Maiden, Dave’s fist-punching Ramones, my dark, melodic Tool and the funk-rock of Stef’s Red Hot Chili Peppers, I’m sure he’ll be air-guitaring with the best of us!

Recently, Andrea has been brewing throughout Italy and conducting research and analysis in the university’s pilot brewhouse. Along with JK, myself and Stef, he will be heading up our laboratory as well as bringing some fantastic Italian flair to the beer as we show him the ropes and teach him about our style of brewing. Most importantly, Andrea will lead our bottling operation and bring a wealth of knowledge with regards to the extension of our bottle-refermented range.

In terms of beer styles, Andrea is really passionate about all of the great top-fermented British and American beers but finds the bottom-fermented Czech lagers to be the best (after all of the brilliant Italian craft beers, I am sure!). This sounds great to us, as we’d love to brew an amazing Pilsener here at Thornbridge some day! I know that when Stef went to Italy for a visit, he and Andrea brewed a lager jam-packed with Nelson Sauvin hops at the brewpub where Andrea was working. Apparently it was awesome!

After just winning three medals in the International Beer Challenge (Gold for Kipling in the Ale section, Gold for Bracia in the Speciality section and Silver for Saint Petersburg in the Stouts), which you can check out here, I’m sure a bottle-conditioning expert is definitely going to come in handy!!

As well as that, we think it’s pretty cool that we now have a Brew Doctor on the team!!

You can also check out an abstract (that I found in the MBAA Quarterly) from some of his research below!!

Sensory comparison of the same lager beer stabilized through two
different techniques: Pasteurization and bottle conditioning

ANDREA PAVSLER (1), Stefano Buaitti (1), Matteo Milan (1)
(1) Department of Food Science, University of Udine, Udine, Italy
The shelf life of beer is one of the major concern for brewers and, as is
known, it is obtained through the pasteurization process. Nevertheless to
preserve the “handmade” characteristics of a product, the shelf-life can be
improved by bottle conditioning without heat treatment of beer. Industrial
lager beers, generally characterized by low alcohol (between 4 and 5% by
vol.) and extract content, after filtration, are pasteurized to obtain biological
stability. Bottle conditioning is a technique generally used to produce
top fermentation beers with an alcohol content higher than 6% by volume.
To evaluate the effect of bottle conditioning on sensory quality of a lager,
a bottom fermentation beer (pasteurized) has been compared to the same
beer bottle conditioned with different yeasts. A pasteurized lager (sample
P) and five bottle conditioned lagers (not pasteurized) with four yeast
strains were tasted after 10 months. As is known after this time, sometimes
even earlier, beers can show staling problems affecting shelf life. All
tasted beers came from the same starting batch (SB) of filtered and not
pasteurized lager; sample P was obtained from SB after pasteurization
processing (21 PU, Pasteurization Units) while bottle conditioned beers
were added with sucrose to have a final carbon dioxide content of 4.5 g/L
and an amount of yeast to obtain a viability equal to 5 × 104 CFU/mL. All
samples were stored at 20°C. The samples of bottle conditioned beer were
kept at 23°C for the first month to allow the yeast to ferment the added
sugar. A sensory test of all beers was carried out by a trained panel of
13 assessors; each sample were randomly tasted at the 10th month, and
aroma and taste were evaluated considering several aspects using a rating
test. Results showed that bottle conditioned beers were appreciated as
much as pasteurized ones and, some of them, even more. Possibly due to
its reducing power and oxygen scavenger effect, yeast acts as a protection
against the off-flavor development mainly related to staling taste. Results
showed that bottle conditioning can be an interesting and valid system
even for bottom fermentation beer in order to obtain a stable and distinct
product according the yeast strain used.

Hops, Glory and Beers of the World

With all of the challenges that come with being a brewer, there’s also the fun stuff! Last Wednesday saw myself, Simon, Alex and Stuart Ross (Head Brewer of Crown Brewery at the Hillsborough Hotel) head down to Burton upon Trent to meet up with everyone’s favourite beer writer, Pete Brown at the launch of his new book.

As it’s summer and Sheffield is just a stone’s throw away, it is inevitable that it was going to rain. And rain it did, not being one to dodge the odd cliché, the heavens did open! In fact, I found later that we got a month’s worth of rain in 12 hours!

We made it to the fabulous Coopers Tavern, one of the coolest pubs I have ever been in. A stone’s throw from Coors Brewery, this unassuming pub opened up into a couple of front rooms and right at the very back, through a narrow door, was the tiny bar. Sitting behind it were a row of casks, all on gravity and jacketed up, making it as authentic an ale boozer that an innocent Kiwi like myself has been.

The reason for the visit was to go and see Pete Brown unveil his cool new book, Hops and Glory which I think you should all buy here. Pete was in fine form as always, and we also got to try the fascinating Calcutta IPA that had been his constant companion throughout the journey. Okay, so it wasn’t the actual beer that had crossed the equator a couple of times, but it was from the same brew that Pete and highly awarded Worthington’s White Shield brewer, Steve Wellington had brewed. We also got to try a cask version of Worthington’s White Shield, which was great. Nice and fruity with a solid malt base and a great amount of body.

Pete and Si share a laugh... or was it just for the camera...

Pete and Si share a laugh... or was it just for the camera...

I guess the Coopers being the pub that it is, I got chatting to the ladies behind the bar about Thornbridge beers, which they said sold really well. Always great news for a brewer to hear! Later in the evening, she came up to me and said I meet like to meet a group of home brewers that come in bimonthly to compare their beers. The crazy thing was that they were all comparing their clone brews of Thornbridge Jaipur! They’d based their recipes on the Bombay IPA clone recipe that Sara Carter had won the UK Craft Brewing Association Overall Champion Award with! I tasted a few of their attempts and was really impressed. I was stoked that people liked our beer enough to want to have a go at brewing it.

We finished up and hit the trains, only to be delayed as it had been raining. One thing I’ll never understand is that in the country that most people associate rain with, that when it rains, everything stops working! The tracks looked like rivers, but we eventually made it back to the Coach and Horses, had a couple of pints of Thornbridge beer and finished the evening with some Lost Abbey Inferno and Judgment Day and a Port Brewing Green Hop IPA… the latter a fitting finish to the evening, even if reading Hops and Glory at that stage was a little out of the question.


Friday saw myself and fellow Thornbridgers, Dave and JK head down to Birmingham NEC to the Beers of the World Live which coincided with the BBC Summer Good Food Show. We arrived a bit early and I parted ways with the guys as I was judging at the World Beer Awards. This is the third year in a row that I’ve judged in this and I absolutely love it. It’s fantastic to be able to sit around with your peers and analyse a few brews with like-minded people. It’s also great to test out your palate against other trained brewers and 99% of the time we all seem to come to the same conclusion. We tried a few interesting beers, a few great beers and a few that weren’t so good and were potentially infected, which was a shame.

Afterwards we walked around the stalls, all offering samples of the beers that had been entered into the awards, as well as a large selection of local and imported brews from breweries as diverse as Rogue, Samuel Adams and Redoak. Beers of the day were Rogue XS: Imperial Porter and Thornbridge Bracia (yeah, okay I’m biased).

Was a great day out and good training for next year’s World Beer Cup that Stef and I are judging in. Can’t wait!

Blog at