Epic Thornbridge Stout

After a wee hiatus I’m back again to finish regaling (or boring, the terms are interchangeable) the world about the fantastic New Zealand craft brewing scene. My beer tour of New Zealand near an end, it was time to hit Auckland and jump back into a brewery to take part in New Zealand’s first ever international collaboration brew!

Some of you may recall this time last year, Luke Nicholas from Epic Brewing was over brewing his brilliant Epic Pale Ale at Everards as part of the JD Wetherspoons International Real Ale Festival. I’d never met Luke, though heard and read a load online about his positive impact on the NZ craft beer scene, his unwavering devotion to education about beer and his sheer, unrivalled enthusiasm. Coupled with the fact that when I tried his beers I was blown away by how good they were, there was no choice but to ask him if he was keen to do a collaboration, which I wrote about here.

So now it was my turn! After regular email, twitter and phone contact over half a year, we’d managed to come up with a recipe we were both pleased with. Luke had never brewed an Epic Stout before, us Thornbridgers were relatively deft at dark beers (I can say that, it’s my blog…) and Luke was also really keen to have a play with some UK hops.

The decision was made to go with the brilliantly aromatic Target hops that we’d showcased in our Halcyon Green Hop Harvest beers in 2009 and 201o, as well as Bramling Cross, the key hop in our Hopton. Considering Bramling Cross had been tough to get a couple of years back, it’s great to see it back on the market and as brewers, it’s a case of use it or lose it. The world doesn’t need any more of these great hop varieties to disappear into nonexistence. So with the orange marmalade, yellow stone fruit and pineapple characters of Target coupled with the slightly earthy, citrus-dusted and berry-smacked delights of Bramling Cross, we had the makings of a beer!

Epic Thornbridge Stout - the pre-label (Photo: Jed Soane)

Luke weaved his malty magic and a backbone of British Maris Otter was accompanied by copious amounts of Munich malt to add a layer of caramel (and sometimes even strawberry-like) intensity and this was also joined by a good whack of brown malt. Brown malt is something we’ve played around a bit with at Thornbridge, noticeably in Bracia but also in our raspberry infused porter, Katipo. It gives the beer quite a bit of astringency, a tarry, almost charred treacle note and a hint of dryness. It is the maturation of beer with brown malt that is interesting to me. As the beer develops over a period of months, the brown malt character softens. There is less of that burnt acridity but no loss in the fantastic flavours that it provides. It softens and improves and is a great addition to any dark beer that is to undergo extended tank or bottle maturation (the longer the better, I reckon!). The brown malt was joined by the full, rounded flavours that CaraMunich give, the soft, colour-rich CaraFa, Pale Chocolate for a hint of chocolatey goodness, Dark Crystal for that toasted nut and dried fruit character and some Roast Barley for a touch more dryness and burnt coffee edge.

Our final recipe tweaks done a couple of days before, we were ready to rock! I arrived in Auckland the night before, checked in to the hotel and had a sleepless night. I was transported back to childhood, that Christmas Eve feeling when you can’t get to sleep, eyes wide open, ear canals stretched for the jingle of the reindeer’s bell. My alarm was set for before 6 as it was an early start. Why were the digits on the alarm clock changing so slowly? I went through the recipe in my head. The usual doubt and worries that accompany a new brew rang loudly. Was the malt bill okay? Would that much dark malt overwhelm the hop character we were trying to acheive? How much dry hopping did we want to do? Should we have got some other British varieties to include? How many times before had I lay in the dark and thought about these types of things…

Don’t be afraid of the dark…

The day dawned, fresh and sunny, I went outside and waited for Luke to pick me up. “Sorry, dude, running a bit late,” was the text. So I waited. Luke arrived, fully amped. “Dude! Had an EPIC night, hardly any sleep,” he said as I jumped into the car. He didn’t look like he’s only had a couple of hours sleep, Luke always emanates an almost impish exuberance (they don’t call him the Impish Brewer for nothing, I guess) and I was about to find out why! Luke had been at a Faith No More concert the night before, the same band that came to fruition with an amazing song called, funnily enough, Epic. Luke had sussed some Epic brews out for the band, got backstage and been drinking with Faith No More all night! Lucky bugger! I forgave him for being late.

We arrived at Steam Brewery, and I met brewmaster, Shane Morley, a brilliant brewer who manages a vast array of beers and beverages, no mean feat for such a small brewteam. We finalised the recipe, altered the salt profile slightly and began mashing in!  The brewery itself has been cobbled together from a mish mash of old dairy vessels and brewing equipment and like most breweries, is a marvel of engineering. Steel, pipes and steam, pumps and cyberpunk imaginings coupled with that rich, biscuity, malty aroma… William Gibson discovers brewing… now there’s a novel…

Luke and I checking out the mash (Photo: Jed Soane)

Mash in, we turned our minds to the avenue of brand new medium toast American Oak barrels. They had just arrived from Napa Valley in the US and were ripe for filling with Luke’s ridiculously hoppy Epic Armageddon IPA. First up, the Steam Brewing lads drained the fermenter cone of dry hops. Now, I like to think we use quite a liberal amount of hops at Thornbridge, albeit more on the hot side than in dry-hopping, but the hop slurry that erupted from the base of the vessel seemed to go on forever! Luke just grinned… of course he did…

If you could smell the aroma coming from these barrels... was soooo good (Photo: Jed Soane)

Oak casks filled, I showed Luke the correct way to put a bung in (didn’t want him whacking it with a mallet, getting full rebound and smashing himself in the face did I… well, not unless a video camera was ready…) and the beginnings of another beer, Oak aged Armageddon IPA, were complete. The great thing about being there for the inaugural filling was the fact that half of our Epic Thornbridge Stout was also destined for these casks. Can’t wait to try that one!

Discussing the intricacies of crappy wort run-off with Shane (Photo: Jed Soane)

Lautering began, but with a few difficulties as the mash stuck slightly, restricting runoff. Shane did a few tweaks but was worried that the extra calcium carbonate we had added to the mash hadn’t dissolved properly (further research indicates it’s pretty much insoluble in water). Gypsum and baking soda all the way I reckon! The reason we’re keen for some carbonate or bicarbonate ions is that some of the compounds that result from the kilning of darker malts can be quite acidic. Carbonate ions are alkaline and help to mellow this character.

I managed to stay right up until the end of the boil, with the wort tasting fantastically rich. Nutty, sweet and chocolatey with just the right balance of acidity and hop character. I’d had a brilliant day with the Epic and Steam crew, the Epic Thornbridge Stout was bang on target. Already I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a bottle of New Zealand’s first ever international collaboration brew, I was stoked to be part of it!

Shane working hard, Luke and I sampling harder! (Photo: Jed Soane)

A few months later I found myself in Chicago, having been invited to judge in the incredible World Beer Cup. Luke was also there with his judging hat on and he’d even managed to bring a pre-release bottle of our Epic Thornbridge Stout. It finished bang on at 6.8% AbV and a well rounded 54 IBU. I tasted it and was instantly impressed by the smoothness. The hand bottle conditioning was slightly overcarbonated, but the potential was there. Wafts of chocolate malt goodness, great body and drinkability and that charred dry brown malt character. It needed longer though, another month or so maturation, even a couple of months in the bottle and it would be spot on. I’m hoping like hell that Luke has saved me a couple of bottles! Stan Heironymus wrote a post about the tasting here.

The inaugural ETS pouring (Alex Barlow from All Beer is very excited!) (Photo: The lovely Melissa Cole)

Luke wasn’t afraid of the dark… neither should you be! 


We did our very first official beer launch last night at the White Horse in Parsons Green. The legendary Yorkshire chef, Brian Turner was really keen to work with us and develop a range of beers that work well with food, especially that brilliant British classic, the pie. Brian actually only had his first taste of alcohol at 26 and has been a wonderful supporter of wine and food over his career as a chef. He told us all a story about how his father was a great lover of cask ale. He would go into the pub with the Turner clan, get a pint poured and wait until it was ready, order all of the drinks for the family (whilst drinking his pint) then right at the end order himself another pint… bloody good system I reckon! Brian is on a bit of a journey of discovery with cask ale, hence his keenness to get into the world of beer and food matching.

The pies themselves were awesome! We had two on offer, a succulent Steak and Mushroom and a ridiculously tender Steak and Thornbridge Ale number, perfectly crafted by Dunkleys and a hit with the chefs that turned up. Antonio Carluccio of the legendary Neal Street restaurant and Master of the Fungus was really impressed by the pies and didn’t mind the beer either! I’m also pretty sure Ainsley Harriot walked away with a couple for the trek home as well!

Doing my bit for Movember... can't beat Brian though!

As per usual, it all comes down to ingredients. Although usually frowned upon in these days of nutritive awareness, the pastry for the pies was made with good old lard. Both my and Cat’s grandparents grew up on lard (or dripping) on bread and if you’ve ever tasted it, you’ll know how good it is. In fact, I’ve even read here and there that lard has less cholesterol and saturated fat than butter. Shock, horror! I’m sure the nutritionists of the world will tell you it is all bad, but then again, I’ve been reading a book called Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (which you should all read) and my pessimism with the world of science reporting in the media has grown exponentially!

The beer in question is Brian Turner Amber Ale at 4.2%. This beer has been in a constant state of flux since we first started developing it and has gone through a series of hop and malt combinations until I think we have it just about right. As a brewer, I suppose it’s a good idea to mention how most beers that come out are a work in progress. A beer begins with a concept inspired by a number of things: a beer that we have tasted, a strange beery dream, an ingredient we have found and love, an intuitive flavour experiment or some random combination of the above!

We have released this beer under different guises over the last 6 months and kept tweaking as we’ve gone with the beer being based on good ol’ Maris Otter pale ale malt, a ridiculously generous helping of Vienna malt and the wonderfully nutty and slightly coffee-esque Amber malt. We didn’t want to do a standard pale ale dominated by hop characters. It was more about developing a beer that would work well with a few different types of food, generally nice hearty winter dishes.

I think that can be a bit of a problem with Thornbridge. Some people tend to expect all of our beers to be jam-packed with loads of hop notes, yet sometimes it’s great fun for us to play around with drinkable, balanced beers that highlight both malt and hop characters. That’s what Amber Ale is about. Earlier in the year we visited Charles Faram, our fantastic hop supplier and we nosed a brilliant English hop called Bramling Cross. The best sample of this came from an esteemed hop grower by the name of Tony Redsall (you can listen to him on the BBC here) and we earmarked this as a hop we wanted to use. We made use of it in a beer named Hopton, then a beer for the Wetherspoons Real Ale festival called Pioneer and finally it became part of Brian’s first beer.

The hop itself is wonderfully fragrant. It has hints of citrus, more English than American (even though Bramling Cross is a relatively new English variety, established in the 1920s as a cross with a Manitoban wild hop) as well as berries and generally gives the beer a nice, soft fruity character. Most people speak about Bramling Cross giving a blackcurrant or ribes aroma to beer, though in the last three years, I have yet to pick this up in the samples I have nosed.

So we had a hop to showcase, yet we were also thinking about a food match. Vienna malt helps to give a bit of sweetness and a hint of biscuit to the beer. Couple that with Amber malt (we originally played around with different Crystal malts in the Hopton and Pioneer) and it gives hints of toasted rye and digestive biscuit as well as a wonderful dry character. It is this dryness that I really like. It helps to pick up the bitter finish and cleanse the mouth and it is this that makes it match so well with the pie. The subtle malty characters blend perfectly with the hint of glaze on the pie lid, push through and swirl together with the velvety gravy and then on the swallow, you get a wonderful and simple cleansing of the palate. The beer itself is good as a pint. Every swallow left my mouth tingling with a pleasant bitterness, warming ever so slightly and the dryness made the next sip inviting.

I was happy and so were these guys!

Antonio, Brian and Ainsley... loving the beers!

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