Why Beer Matters (well, to me that is…)

Back in January, guru beer writer Pete Brown offered the trip he’d won to Budvar brewery in Czechoslovakia to any budding beer writer that was able to whack down 1500 words on Why Beer Matters.

So, I quickly whacked together a piece on why beer matters to me in a bit of a stream of consciousness way (and in a way that was never going to win an award… I’ll stick to brewing I think!)

The piece below is my own personal account on Why Beer Matters…

It is a hard, steel can with a pull-tab from my childhood. It is what I watched the grown folk around me drink, laughing, barbecuing, tanned limbs and New Zealand sunshine. It is my first sip – metallic, bitter, fizzy, but adult and grown up. The first few beers given to me by trusting parents. Beginnings of laughter and fun with friends around this most social of lubricants. Good times and those not so good.

The first sip of cold lager after walking up a mountain. A swig of dark ale sitting on a beach in summer, driftwood campfire glowing, hair still wet from the last surf. Warmth inside. Warmth outside. My first six pack, all consumed with comrades around.

Blending in at a rugby club, one litre jug of cold draught beer and glass so small your hand almost hides it. Replenishing liquid after a hard game, of course. First pub visit with ID in hand. At last.

Leaving home. Sharing a beer with Dad. Cheers son, good luck. University and a calling. Sciences and biology and bacteria and yeast. Yeast. Flavours and aromas and a love of gastronomy. A melding of technology and art. Fascination.

A hero in the shape of a Professor. A legend from Belgium transported to New Zealand. An inspiration for the path my life was to take. His nose was his tool, instincts honed and palate ready. Teaching the way of beer, the way of brewing, the way of tasting. Epitome of passion now long gone. Rest in Peace, JP.

Fermentation science, flavour chemistry, gowns and caps and suits and furore. Another piece of paper on the mantelpiece. To the pub with the family, with the girlfriend, with mates. Share a beer together. Enjoy the beer, talk about the beer. Follow your nose. Wisps of sadness and end of an era. Profession awaits.

Trainee brewer. Apprentice. Tank scrubbing, toothbrush and caustic in hand. Detail, care, attention, perfection. Laboratory. Microbiology and microscopes. Yeast and agar and bottling and testing. 10am – palate at its best. Tasting beers, conference calls, discussions on flavour and aroma and esters and wild yeast . Fascination.

Brewing and malt. Maltings and grain. Hop farms and bines. Marketing, accounting, sales, engineering. The life of a trainee. The beer, what about the beer. Can I develop a recipe? Laughter. Could we change this? No. Why do we do this? Because. Frustration.

Leaving and sadness and a change in life path. Foreign. A foreigner. The Land of the Morning Calm and beer made with rice. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s not what I want to drink. It’s not what I want to make. Kindergartens and teaching  and Kimchi and seaweed. Three years and a love for a foreign land. Korea. Its food. Its culture. Its people. Student loan gone but something else missing.

Brewing beckons. The great Overseas Experience. The OE. UK. From Thailand and heat and elephants and Singha and mosquitoes. To Scotland. Lochs and laughter and learning anew. Fyne Ales. Microbrewing. Tasting the malt and talking malty talk. Rubbing and sniffing green hop flowers. Heady perfume. Flowers and resin. Pine and mangoes. Blackberries and raspberries and lemons and oranges. Caught by a hop cone. A temporary job over. Must move on.

Up and down a country. From Argyll to Derbyshire to Oxfordshire to Kent. Which brewery should I choose. Can a brewery choose a person? Instincts. Important in brewing. Important for a job?

Thornbridge. A house. Megalithic. Almost foreboding in its angles and corners and rooms and ceilings. A job. Another job. A pub. Coach and Horses. Dronfield. Decisions. Maybe I’ll have a Jaipur while I think it over. A smooth, bittersweet hop slap. My type of beer. Well made, well brewed. This brewery isn’t afraid. Neither am I.

Assistant brewer. Farewell to Mr. Dickie. Scotland beckons. Farewell Scotland for me. Hello again for him. My girl, Catherine. A pub. Now, our house. Brewing by day, pulling pints by night. Tired. Focused. Loving it. Stefano Cossi. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An Italian and a Kiwi were brewing beer in Derbyshire. You’ve heard it.

From assistant to brewer. Crafting beers, challenging and trialling and experimenting and implementation. Our mantra runs true. It’s in our ears and in our blood. Passion, innovation, knowledge. We believe in this. I believe in this. All consuming. Morning, up, brewing. Evening, home, cellar to deal with. Stillages, customers, feedback, chatting, learning. The perfect pint and the quest for this elusive beast. I found it. It slipped. I found it again! Sleep.

Awards and kudos and people chatting. Chatting about beer. At last. Listening to words. Citrus, says one. Biscuity, says another. I like that, she says. Education and understanding and opening doorways. Achievement. Pride. What’s wrong with pride? Stoic in my job and my life and my profession. My vocation.

Living and breathing and sleeping and dreaming beer. Are you a fool? No, this is what I do. I read beer. I taste beer. I talk beer. I think beer. I can’t help it. It has captured me.

A new brewery. Technology and pumps and sensors and a reversion to the wide-eyed days of apprentice-dom. Learning. So much learning. Systems and techniques and processes and training and staff and production and management. It’s all important. It all matters.

Yeast. The same. Water. The same. Malt and hops and brewers. The same. Brewery. Oh, so different. Where are the stone walls, weeping when it rains. Still there. Still brewing. Still experimenting. Now we can clean and keep clean. Brew with exactness. Find those flavours. Preserve those flavours.  Can we master this wild horse. Technology. Break it in. Keep her steady. Amber and gold and brown and black liquids all flow pure and clean and crisp and tasty. So far. So good.

Does beer matter? It does to me. Different for you? A pint at a pub, that’s all it is, no need to dress it up. Not for me, my friends. Not for me.

The fantastically talented Mark Dredge was triumphant in the competition, with Shea Luke as second runner up and John Bidwell as third runner up. John Bidwell’s great piece can be read here. Really looking forward to reading the other two!

Well, time to go and get ready for Chicago, where myself and Stefano are judging in the World Beer Cup, followed by the US Craft Brewers Conference. Please don’t swell too much, my precious liver…

British Guild of Beer Writers Dinner 2009

I don’t know if it’s normal or not for brewers to join the Beer Writer’s Guild, but to be honest, I really enjoy writing about my favourite subject in the world. I began writing when I spent a 3 year stint teaching English in South Korea. Just a monthly article for a local community paper back home highlighting what I was doing over there and how interesting and fascinating the Korean culture and country was. I’ve always enjoyed writing. If I hadn’t followed my other passion, science, at university, I would have definitely studied English.

Before I came to the UK, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Guild of Beer Writers. I had studied for an Institute and Guild of Brewing (now the Institute of Brewing and Distilling) exam whilst a trainee brewer back in NZ and this was my first encounter with the world of Guilds . The Dungeons and Dragons geek in me always thought it was pretty cool that there were still such things as Guilds in the Old World and I half-imagined dudes in hooded cloaks walking through dusty, pillared halls and discussing the Secrets of the Yeast, shifty eyes looking for random assassins from the rival Wine and Whiskey guilds that were bound to attack and steal secrets aplenty. It’s always good to have an imagination.

So there I was, attending my first ever Guild dinner as a fully fledged member. Simon, Alex and I arrived at the venue and began chatting to the myriad of familiar faces that had already gathered in the reception area. There was a fantastic selection of welcome drinks. Offerings from Brains (SA, SA Gold, Dark and the Rev. James), Caledonian (Deuchars IPA, 80/-, Flying Dutchman, Double Dark), Molson Coors (Blue Moon, Grolsch Weizen, Worthington White Shield, Zatec), Shepherd Neame (Bishops Finger, Spitfire, Whitstable Bay) and Well’s and Young’s (Bombardier, Young’s Special London Ale, Young’s Bitter). But I also noticed that one of my favourite lagers, Budvar had a stand. We made a bee-line for the fridge, sampling a few of the nibbles on the way. Tuna Nicoise tartlets, Maki rolls, Pear and Stilton on crumpets, Lamb kofta… yum! The Budvar lager was a great first beer, quenching the palate perfectly and easily blending into the Budvar Dark that followed, all cappuccino and hints of sweetness.

We caught up with Alastair Hook from Meantime Brewery, who excitedly told us of his new brewery expansion and briefly chatted to Sean Franklin from the esteemed Roosters Brewery and Alastair Gilmour, beer writer extraordinaire, resplendent in his tartan tie.

Eventually we were called into the dining area where we were welcomed by the Guild Chairman, Tim Hampson and introduced to the menu by yet another esteemed beer journalist, Adrian Tierney-Jones and the Hilton London Tower Bridge’s Head Chef, Christian Honor.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the tables were all named after hops, and we sat at Perle. As I type, we have a fantastic Dry-Hopped Light Ale sitting in one of our conditioning tanks that we thought would be a fantastic tribute to European hops. At 3.3% AbV, it sits at the more challenging end of the spectrum in terms of creating a beer with a lot of flavour. We used Vienna malt as our base malt instead of the usual Maris Otter pale ale and also went for dextrin and caramalt to give a bit of a nutty, biscuit flavour and a little body. Hop-wise, it was all about Saaz, Tettnang and Santiam. “Santiam?” I hear you all cry? Well, its parentage is mostly European (Tettnang and Hallertau Mittelfruh) with a hint of the US, so we thought it was close enough. As well as using first wort hopping (that’s adding the first load of hops into the copper as you begin running off the wort from the mash) we also dry-hopped in the fermenter with the wonderfully fragrant Perle and again in the conditioning tank with Celeia from Slovenia. The Perle from this season is so good, that I thought we should really honour this beer and named it Pearl (we had also previously done a similar ale at 2.7% with the brilliant German noble hop, Saphir… yep, we called that Sapphire). So to cut a long story short, sitting at the Perle table was quite fitting.

The meal began with a Black Shetland mussel and Margate clam chowder with chilli. Creamy and decadent with some delightful edible garnishes, this worked brilliantly with the Meantime Pilsener it was matched with. The Pilsener come across with touches of bready malt and a lovely noble, slightly grassy hop aroma. The bitterness was crisp and clean and a brilliant cleanser after each mouthfeel of silky soup.

Smoked venison with goat’s cheese on a fig and apple juice terrine was next. Cylindrical like some type of meat-lovers Sushi roll, each mouthful was heavenly. The creamy goat’s cheese saturated the tongue with fats and oils and softened the beautiful, thinly sliced venison that surrounded it. Small cubes of beetroot held hands with the venison, that slightly earthy flavour from both combining wonderfully, eagerly balanced by the slightly tart-sweet combination of apple juice and red wine vinegar.  But it was the beer that brought it all together. Duchesse De Bourgogne by the Verhaeghe brewery in West Flanders is an exquisite example of the sour red-brown beers that the Belgians do so well. Hints of soft acidity, balsamic-soaked cherries, a background of oak and even a touch of fig that works perfectly with the terrine upon which the venison roll rested. Everyone needs to taste food like this with beer like this. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e.

Our main was a slow braised rabbit leg in a roasted rabbit saddle on a white bean puree and with good old chunky chips. As great as the chips were, they could have easily been left off as the rabbit was great on its own. Not as gamey as some wild rabbit I have eaten, but wonderfully moist and tender with hints of both chicken and pork in its full flavour. This was matched with Ringwood Old Thumper. This was the first time I had tried this beer and I have to admit, I think I need to try it on cask. There was a touch of ketone, almost acetone-like and the alcoholic character (it weighs in at 5.6%) was quite dominant. There was some dry fruit there which had the potential to work well with the rabbit, but for me the rawness pushed this away from being a great match. I think on paper, this would have been bang on, but it just wasn’t quite right. That and I’m very diplomatic 🙂

The cheese course was next and it was already going to be tough to fit it all in. Luckily, for every course we were sharing four bottles of beer between ten people, which meant we were having just enough of each beer to allow us to have a great beer-food experience without bloating ourselves with excess liquid. A whole baked camembert with soused (pickled) black grapes and nice crisp breadsticks married perfectly with a 2005 Fuller’s Vintage Ale. The beer was full of fig and green sultana with just the tiniest hint of Brettanomyces (which was hotly debated by James McRorie of the Durden Beer Circle who insisted it was a character that came from some old speciality malts). No matter, the match was fantastic, all warm, creamy, luscious cheese and lashings of fruit (yeah, I loved Enid Blyton as a kid). Yet another reason to shake John Keeling from Fullers’ hand every time you see him!

Last but not least, even though my tight-fitting suit pants popped a few stitches in protest, was an incredibly rich chocolate tower with walnuts, Tonka beans and heavenly caramel with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’d never heard of Tonka beans before (though had played with Tonka trucks as a child… does that count?) and upon researching found that they often have vanilla and almond like aromas. Would love to play around with these in a brew but apparently they have quite a bit of coumarin in them and in large doses this can affect the liver and act as an anti-coagulant. Funnily enough, this compound is also present in the herb Woodruff, which we grow at Thornbridge and has a wonderful almond aroma. Woodruff was traditionally used in brewing and is still added in syrup form to the sour Berliner Weisse beers. The desert was incredible, though I just couldn’t finish it. The beer that was matched with this was Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter, an incredible beer. Its nose smacked of lemon-sherbert balls covered in milk chocolate, it was light, yet rich in the mouth and I was really looking forward to tasting it with the dessert. But the dessert was just a bit too chocolaty (if that is possible), a bit too rich and the beer suffered slightly. It didn’t help that I stuffed excessively large helpings into my mouth… maybe if I’d had smaller tastings, it would have allowed the beer to come through a lot better. I would have loved to see this rich treat matched with the intense Harveys Imperial Stout, which isn’t loved by all, but is definitely an intensely flavoured beer that may have matched this lush dessert. It would have also been fitting considering Miles Jenner took out the Guild Brewer of the Year award this year.

Speaking of the awards, was absolutely awesome to see the omni-enthusiastic Mark Dredge from the acclaimed Pencil and Spoon blog pick up the New Media award and Ben McFarland win the Beer and Food Writing Award with his fantastic World’s Best Beers: 1000 Unmissable Brews from Portland to Prague. I think this is one of the best presented beer tomes around and the section from El Bulli is brilliant! Was great to see another new blogger, Dave Bailey, pick up an award for his brilliant Woolpack Dave blog about life brewing and running a pub. A great social commentary on life surrounded by beer and one I can relate to very easily.

Pete Brown picked up the Budvar John White Travel Bursary and the coveted Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award as Beer Writer of the Year. Completely deserved in my opinion, what with his epic journey and the resultant Hops and Glory (which you should all buy for your beer loving Dad’s this year for Christmas) on the history of India Pale Ale.

It was also great to see Alastair Gilmour and Jeff Evans get awarded. Jeff contributes a plethora of information, both in books and on the internet and I love Alastair’s writing style – it’s very user friendly, factual and a pleasure to read.

All in all, it was a great night and I’d recommend you all start tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard or scribbling frantically on random pieces of A4 paper, join the Guild, don some robes and start whispering to each other while reading ancient leather-bound books about the secrets of fermentology…

Couple o’ Awards

Been far too blimmin’ long between posts to be honest. Might be something to do with the madness of commissioning a new brewery. Maybe, just maybe.

Thornbridge Riverside Brewery is up and running (and you can read about the opening day on Mark Dredge’s blog). In fact, as I type this now, I can hear our awesome external calandria thermosiphon boiler drawing hot Saint Petersburg wort through it in preparation for a good blast of delicious light muscovado sugar. Believe it or not, this delicious brew isn’t even going to be served at a pub near you. In fact the whole shipment is destined for Christmas Puddings!! How’s that for an ingredient!!

Today is our 15th brew on the new plant and I’m manning the helm without Stef, who is taking a well-deserved break in Italy. However, I have our newest recruit, JK ably assisting me and Matt and Dave are working hard at the Hall Brewery brewing a Wild Swan and racking Kipling.

So far, things have been all about learning, learning and more learning and with our centrifuge commissioned just last week, the next job is the commissioning of our bottling line!

Other cool happenings over the last couple of months have included two medals at the Great British Beer Festival. Kipling, our 5.2% South Pacific Pale Ale picked up a Silver in the Strong Bitter section (which Jaipur won last year) and Lord Marples (at 4.0%) picked up a Bronze in the Best Bitter section. We were absolutely stoked with the awards, especially considering it’s the first award that Marples has ever won!! Both of these beers have been labours of love and we have all been working hard on getting them just right over the last couple of years, so are like proud parents!

Just as exciting is the World Beer Award that we picked up with our bottle refermented Halcyon Green Hop Vintage 2008. This won the World’s Best Harvest Ale at this years competition (and before you ask, no, I wasn’t judging in that category) and Bracia, our Chestnut Honey infused Dark Ale got a Highly Commended in the World’s Best Spiced Beer category. Quite happy it wasn’t put into the Honey Beer category as we would have been up against Jeff Rosenmeier’s Lovibonds Gold Reserve Wheat Wine, which is a brilliant drop.

The Halcyon Green Hop Vintage 2009 will hopefully be completed in the coming months. We have already brewed the beer and are waiting for a massive shipment of fresh hops that we can age it on ready for bottling. I can’t give you any dates though, as we have to get the bottling line working before then!

Also, for anyone out there that’s after a great book, I can throughly recommend Ben Mcfarland’s World’s Best Beers. I just got it online and it’s fantastic (yeah, yeah, Thornbridge made it in there…). Brilliant, perfect and nonrepetitive descriptions of some amazing beers, great format, wonderful photos and some cool guest articles. I especially liked the breakdown of beer and food matching by the experts at El Bulli, really interesting to get the world’s greatest to give their views.

Anyway, back to the brew, almost time for the wort to weave it’s way through the massive pile of hops that are sitting in the hopback, thieved of all their precious jewels of lupulin. I promise some videos and photos will be here soon!

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