New Year, New Beer!

2009 has been an interesting one and a challenging one. Being part of the development, installation and commissioning of a new brewery has been brilliant and I’m sure all of those other brewers that have done the same over the last six months can testify that it’s not easy (I’m talking about you, Dark Star and Marble)!

As of today, we’ve put through 60 brews and we’re all beginning to learn more and more how the brewhouse works, how changes in process are affecting changes in flavour, how we can get our yeast to do what we want it to do. It’s a bit like ice-skating uphill, but hey, we like a challenge.

Lots of beer writers have given their opinions on the best of 2009, but I find it that little bit tougher to do this. For a start, we produce some beers that I think are great and I work and live in a pub that not only does great food and beer, it also had a pretty cool beer festival earlier in the year. I guess you could say my interest is vested and I can’t vote for any of these things. So I’ll keep it short and sweet instead.

Without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite Brewery of the Year has to be Marble in Manchester. I’ve read a few blog comments of late with people moaning that Marble are getting far too much kudos, or that they’ve been doing great beer for years, so why acknowledge them now etc. Whatever!

The Marble team personify the freakin’ awesome new wave of British brewing. You can argue with me that we’re following the Americans, or that the Italians and Australians and Kiwis are also doing great craft beers, but to be honest (and you all know this already), there are probably only a good dozen microbreweries in the country that are pushing the envelope (does the envelope need to be pushed, I hear you cry). Leaping away from the standard 3.5-4.5% cask ale that sells oh-so-well in a pub and tastes nice, but doesn’t flick that ever so important switch. I like this type of beer, but does it make me stand up and go wow? No chance. So instead, I can pop down to the Sheaf View in Heeley and ask for a beer (in the same alcohol range as I mentioned above).

In fact I can ask for a Pint… a Marble Pint (my Cask Beer of the Year). I can taste it and be blown away. I can tell everyone that I know how good it tastes. They can look at my pint of Pint and say it just looks like a standard pale ale. I can give them a good jab in the chops and tell them to stop being so bloody British and try drinking with your nose and mouth instead of your eyes. And I can be amazed and wowed and impressed and know that this country can take a traditional beer style and turn it into something else altogether. The Marble lads love beer. They travel around the globe to beer festivals, to the New World, to the Old World, all to hunt out good beer. And then they make it. That’s why they’re my brewery of the 2009.

Runner up is a bit more difficult. Joint second goes to Dark Star, with Mark Tranter, their head brewer brewing some brilliant beers. You can’t go wrong with Hophead or their American Pale Ale and I’m gutted I didn’t get to try their Saison. The thing I love about Dark Star is that Mark is a purely instinctive brewer. He doesn’t need the flashy Masters degree in brewing or the ten years spent in a macro-brewery learning the technology and science. He just follows his gut and his nose and his palate and does what he does and does if with flair. Leading the way in the revival of cask ale and the plethora of styles that can be brewed? Absolutely!

Also in runner up, which probably is no surprise to you all, is BrewDog. Martin and James are masters at what they do. They have a crack team of staff, a work ethic second to none and the spirit of Scottish invention is as strong in them as it was the guys who invented the telephone, bicycle, television, tyre, raincoat, gas light, steam engine (funny enough, a guy named James Watt…coincidence??), you get my drift. They have shown us that keg and bottle and cask can all showcase great beer and I’m sure this is only the beginning.

My favourite non-UK brewery of the year has to be Odell Brewing. Not only is  IPA absolutely exquisite, the St. Lupulin Ale was also my Bottled Beer of the Year. It screams hops, but it also screams control. It has balance and class and style and is incredibly quaffable. At 6.5% it slides down far too easily and with all of those beautiful pine and citrus and floral characters, it amazes me that it only weighs in at 40 bitterness units. It’s also a seasonal beer, so if you do see it this year, buy loads, you won’t be disappointed. Cheers, Doug. You rock!

A close second for Bottled Beer of the Year has to be Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. An absolutely unique brew, flooding the senses with vanilla and caramel, chocolate and tobacco leaf, raspberry and dark spirits, an unexplainable wood note, all perfumed and smelling of an old hardwood bureau, sun heating it and forcing out those crazy notes of cedar and sandalwood, even some patchouli? It’s 12% and it’s decadent. You’ll open a bottle to share and find yourself hiding in a closet like some weird, beer-geek Gollum, guarding it and obsessing over it. Hunt it out!

Pub of the year is a tough one. I generally just pop downstairs and have a pint at the Coach and Horses. It’s easy and lots of my friends drink there and its minimal effort. I do venture out of course! The Sheffield Tap is great. Has a big range of our beers as well as close to 200 bottled beers and a bunch of cool keg stuff. The Old Poet’s Corner in Ashover is cool, as is the Sheaf View in Heeley. I guess I like pubs that have a large and diverse beer selection and at the same time are comfortable and inviting and a great place to have a chat. Actually, the more that I think about it, I don’t think I can give a pub of the year award! I just didn’t get to enough pubs in 2009…how sad is that!

That’s my relatively succinct summary for 2009. Come on 2010!

Already we’re about to unleash our latest brew into the market. The new site has been dedicated of late to our core beers. The Jaipurs and Kiplings. Wild Swan, Lord Marples. So we thought it would be a good idea to try something different. Not only a different beer, but a different brewing style.  At the Hall brewery, we always did something called a single-step infusion mash, where we mix the milled malted grain and water together at a certain temperature, then leave it to sit and allow the enzymes to assist the breakdown of starch into sugars. At Riverside, we do also do a step infusion mash, but increase the temperature over a period of time. This allows the different enzymes to work at their optimum and assist in the breakdown of sugars and other carbohydrates more effectively than at a single temperature.

This time though, we went for a method more commonly used on the Continent. Back in the day, the malts used by brewers in places like Germany were a lot less modified (modified means that the starch wasn’t as readily available to be attacked by enzymes and broken down into sugars) than malts used in the UK. They developed a system where a part of the mash would be taken away, boiled to aid in the release of starch granules, and to raise the temperature, and then added back to the mash. This would increase the overall mash temperature and allow the enzymes present in the non-boiled mash to attack the starch that had been released by boiling. This system, called Decoction mashing takes a lot longer than our standard system, though it is argued that it can produce slightly different characteristics in the finished beer. Some say that it affects head retention, others say it gives the beer a cleaner flavour, some say it adds a hint of caramel character to the beer, some say it aids fermentation. Whatever it does, it’s worked!

The beer we brewed, called Equinox, (thanks to Mark from for naming this brew on Twitter) is 5.9% and has been brewed with a large amount of Vienna malt, as well as Maris Otter and Amber malts. Hop wise, we went for Warrior, Chinook, Perle, Ahtanum, Magnum and Centennial, so has a bunch of character and bitterness. In fact, here are my tasting notes for it.

Hints of biscuity malt, bananas, oranges, some berry fruit. Clean and crisp in the mouth with more light malt characters coming through. Subtle dryness blends into a rich, lasting bitterness, balanced well by a hint of caramel sweetness. A citrus peel after-bitterness lingers.

We should have a good 100+ casks floating around, so hopefully you see it in a pub near you! Well, by near you I actually mean within a 50 mile radius of our brewery…


You know you love it!

Catherine deftly balances a giant pint glass

Catherine deftly balances a giant pint glass

After a great beer festival earlier in the year at the Coach and Horses in Dronfield, we’ve decided to give it another go, albeit in a very toned down way for New Years Eve.

I’ve been lucky enough to have briefly lived in Scotland, where I began my micro-brewing career at Fyne Ales at the head of Loch Fyne. The beers were fantastic, from their ridiculously drinkable multi-award winning Highlander through to the light, citric twist of Pipers Gold or a relatively new addition to their stable, the awesome Avalanche. They produce, somewhat understated in my opinion, a fantastic range of great, extremely drinkable brews. It was a real shock to the system, having come from a brewery that would brew around 120 000 litres of wort in a day, to land in the middle of a towering glen, using water collected from the local burn and brewing a mere 1640 litres three or four times a week. But under the watchful eye of Malcolm Downie, Fyne brewer if ever there was one, I began to learn the ways of the craft brewery and it was a great opportunity to take what I knew from brewing with the big boys and began the process of sliding it sideways into the exquisite joy that is microbrewing.

While in Scotland I had the chance to try many a fine brew and it has been an annual pilgrimage for myself and Catherine to head up that way to sample a few of the local brews. Whether it be a delicious Black Cuillin up in the Isle of Skye, which now has a couple of breweries, a pint of the good stuff at the Ben Leva Hotel in Drumnadrochit (where I first tasted and fell in love with the joy that is Stornoway black pudding) or sharing a Zephyr with the Brewdog guys up in their brewery in Fraserburgh, it’s always a choice drop. It probably wasn’t until Catherine and I went up to judge in the Beer of Scotland competition last year that we realised how diverse and interesting the craft ale scene is up in the far North. We were hooked! (well, I suppose it could be argued that I already was…)

A little suggestion from Tuggy, the owner of Fyne Ales and a good chat with Malcolm about what beers to get in and the New Years Eve festival was well on it’s way. It’s not going to be a big one like we did in May with marquees and barbecues and bands-a-blaring, but instead we’re aiming for something a little quieter, a bit of live music inside, haggis, neeps and tatties for the hungry amongst us and a great selection of good old hand-crafted ale.

For the thirsty… we have beers from Fyne Ales, Harviestoun, Isle of Skye, Orkney, Highland and of course Thornbridge!

I thought I’d add the tasting notes for the beers here, just in case you’re curious… The festival itself runs throughout the week (or until the beer runs out… maybe it will be New Years Eve?), should be a good’n!

From Fyne Ales

Avalanche 4.5% Dry and delicious, this straw coloured golden ale has a fragrant lemon foretaste, and a hint of grapefruit in the finish. Refreshing, delicate, beautifully balanced. Winner of the golden ale section at the World Beer Awards 2009 & bronze medallist at the 2009 International Beer Challenge.

Holly Daze 5% An antidote to Christmas. No fancy spices just a really good stronger ale with a crisp hop flavour and plenty of malt. A refreshing beer to clear the palate.

Maverick 4.2% A fine, robust fruity ale with reddish mahogany colour and warm roasted malt flavours. A full ‘mouth’ taste and fruity hop aromas generate a distinctive character to this beer. 

From Harviestoun Brewery

Bitter & Twisted 4.2% A sharp, blond beer with a superb, fresh hop profile combining aromatic Hallertau Hersbrucker with spicy Challenger. It is finished by late hopping with Styrian Goldings, which gives sharpness like the twist of a lemon. A truly refreshing & strangely moreish beer.

Mr Snowball 4.5% The colour of dark copper with a nose that is hoppy and spicy, a balanced palate and a long, hoppy finish. There are crystal and chocolate malts in this tawny beer – it’s full bodied with a delightful hop character from Challenger and Styrian Goldings.

From Orkney Brewery

Dragon Head 4% Dragonhead is dark, intense & full flavoured, Orkney’s tribute to the Vikings & their cultural legacy in the area. On the nose, there is a smooth roasted malt aroma giving bitter chocolate, dark roasted coffee, and smokey notes balanced by hints of spicy Goldings hops. On the palate, the dark roasted malts combine to give a rich, rounded palate with chocolate, toast & nut flavours with the Goldings featuring again with a hint of spice.

Northern Light 4% On the nose, this straw-coloured beer offers appealing citrus fruits, apricot & hop-resin aromas. These fruits combine on the palate with a delicate malt character to give a hoppy, zesty approachability.

Dark Island 4.6% Hints of bitter chocolate, figs & toffee feature on the nose of this dark beer. These resolve in to a silky smooth, coffee & chocolate flavours, followed by figs, dates, & dried fruits. The aftertaste has a lingering sense of the fruits & hop bitterness.

From Highland Brewing Company

Scapa Special 4.2% Golden & sparkling in the glass, with hints of fruit esters and malt, with light hop notes on the nose. Brewed with Maris otter Pale Ale Malt & a blend of four hops from America, Germany, New Zealand & Slovakia. Each one selected for their spiciness and aroma and all giving that certain something to back up the wholesome maltiness provided by the Maris Otter. Champion Beer of Scotland 2008.

Dark Munro 4% Soft chocolate malt ‘coffee’ notes are evident on the nose with the slightest hint of hop. Depending on at what stage you are drinking this beer, fresh the chocolate malt is crisp and may have a hint of phenols when fresh, when well vented or halfway through a cask, the chocolate is soft & velvety with a perfectly balanced hop and a hint of fruity fermentation esters. Becomes dryer and ever so slightly hoppier as it ages. Champion Beer of Scotland 2007.

From Isle of Skye Brewing Co.

Red Cuillin 4.2% The Skye Brewery’s much-praised flagship ale. Reddish-hued, slightly malty and nutty in character, smooth to the taste. A multi-award-winning ale, named after the well-known hills of the Isle of Skye.

Black Cuillin 4.5% A distinctive dark ale brewed with roast barley and rolled roast Scottish oatmeal, giving an almost stout-like bitterness, smoothed through the addition of pure Scottish heather honey. It is believed that this is the only ale, as distinct from stout, which uses rolled roast oatmeal.

We’ll also be having a good line-up of our beers, namely Ashford, Pearl, Jaipur, Kipling, Lord Marples, Wild Swan, Brother Rabbit, Merrie, Raven, Saint Petersburg and Seaforth. We also might just have something a little special… Early in 2009 we did a couple of collaboration brews with both Dark Star Brewery and Birrificio Italiano. With Dark Star we brewed a fantastic Old Ale which is still happily maturing away in our stainless maturation vessel. We also brewed a Barley Wine with legendary Italian brewers Birrificio Italiano which is now ageing away quietly in a couple of ex-Burgundy and ex-Bordeaux barrels, previously used by Nyetimber (winners of the IWSC trophy for the best worldwide sparkling wine not once, but thrice!).

I managed to put aside a small pin (4.5 gallon cask) that contains some of the unoaked barley wine and a little of the old ale, so fingers crossed it makes an appearance sometime in the first week of January. Yummy!

A Bit of Beer Geekery and the New Brewery

A while between blogs I know, but has been all go here at Thornbridge! May was a mega-busy month with Stef and I heading to Italy to go finalise the process flow and associated bits and pieces for the new brewery. Everyone at the pub I live above (The Coach and Horses in Dronfield) pulled out the classic “Sure it’s a work trip” lines, but alas, it was. We spent a solid four days in a small boardroom perusing a giant process flow diagram and painstakingly went through each inch of potential pipework and each potential process, whether it be the CIP (Clean In Place) for the Mash Mixer right through to where gas lines would be placed. We then began going through all of the software and automation, which is going to make the brewery state-of-the-art and allow us to produce some fantastic beers. We did get to eat fantastic Italian food, visit a couple of awesome brewpubs (Birrificio Barchessa Di Villa Pola and La Gastaldia) and drink some great Italian craft beers (the future Mecca of craft brewing I reckon) and a few bottles of delicious Prosecco as well!

But back to the brewery… Stef has been doing a massive amount of research over the last 18 months to ensure that we get a brewery that allows us to continue brewing beers like we do now, but also to give us flexibility to branch out into other styles.

I always find it kind of strange that when people here we are upgrading, the first thing they say is that our beer won’t taste the same, or that when such-and-such a brewery upscaled their beer tasted rubbish. The other is usually related to the perception of real ale… will it still be traditional ale, etcetera, etcetera. We’re ridiculously passionate about what we do here. We don’t cut corners and we strive for perfection in every beer that we brew. So, for the record, this stance isn’t going to change. Just because we now have something with a few more buttons, a lot more stainless steel, some programmable logic control and valves that will automatically open instead of us running from one side of the brewery to the other to do it manually, it doesn’t mean our beer will become crap.

In fact, we’re convinced our beer will become even better! By brewing larger batches of 30 barrels/50 hectolitres, this will straight away reduce the potential for batch variation that is inevitable in a smaller plant. You have to remember there are four of us that brew here at Thornbridge and we all have tiny discrepancies in how we do things. These have the potential to change the character of the beer, though the changes are so slight that it is impossible for the consumer to pick these up in a pint at the pub. This is because there are so many other factors involved in the flavour and aroma of the pint when it gets into your glass. How long has the cask been in the cellar. What temperature is the cellar. Has the publican cleaned his lines recently. Is the glass clean. How long has the cask been opened for. Is the publican’s cellar clean. What type of glass are you drinking it out of. Has it been through a sparkler. What have you eaten prior to the pint. Do you drink coffee. Are you a smoker. You get my drift. All of these factors and more have a lot more of an impact on the beer than what occurs in the brewery.

Saying that though, we’re all about continuous improvement and quality control. From receipt of hops and malt, right through to our oxygenation rate and knowing the pitching rate for our yeast within 10 000 cells per mL of wort that’s what we do and the new brewery will enable us to be even more precise.

A key part of the new site will be our laboratory and in particular, sensory evaluation. The plan is to build a tasting room which will allow us to do blind tasting of all our products at various stages of their shelf life. In fact, our newest employee, James Kemp (JK) was chosen because of his experience setting up tastings at Fullers and working in their laboratory. He also won three of the five major awards at the New Zealand Homebrew Championship last year. Again, we’re all about passion and knowledge and hopefully he’ll add a bit of both to the mix! JK is also going to be a regular behind the bar at our pub, The Coach and Horses, in Dronfield, where his education will continue as he pulls some great Thornbridge pints!

We’re yet to decide what type of sensory evaluation we’ll do, but more than likely it will involve tasting fresh cask and bottled beers and then trying them at intervals to assess their shelf life. Another interesting approach is to do accelerated shelf life tests, where the bottled beers are incubated at elevated temperatures for a set amount of time and then tasted for any off characters. This then gives us the chance to verify that the bottled beer we send out will be okay up to its best before date and give us an excuse to taste lots of beer!

I’m currently putting together my first video of the Birth of a Brewery… as amateur as it is… so everyone can see what our new baby looks like. So watch this space… I promise the videos will get better as I get more organised!

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