I have a small wine-tasting glass sitting in front of me. In it is a light copper-orange liquid. A small gathering of tiny white bubbles huddled off to one side. I smell it. Big perfume hit. A little caramel and toffee, like one of those hard chocolate-coated caramels from the chocolate selection box. Fruitiness begins to come forward. Light, estery pear-drop notes, some prunes and figs soaked in sherry, a hint of ripe, green apples, not too much though.
I take a sip and wonder what the yeast have been doing over the last 20 months. Subtle toffee and fruits meld together in my mouth, I get the faintest savoury autolysed note balanced by a lovely sweetness and a bitterness that tickles the roof of my mouth. A lovely subtle warmth follows. So clean and made for slowly sipping.
This is our Coalition Ale that was brewed back on the 25th February 2009 with the amazing Mark Tranter from Dark Star Brewing in Sussex. It’s hopefully sitting around 7.3-7.4% at the moment and is going through a slow steady refermentation process in the brewery changing rooms. We would have usually put it in our warm store, but this is being refurbished to allow us to use it as a dual warm and cool store. Needs must!
We put our heads together many moons back and decided we’d do our own version of an Old Ale. We threw ideas back and forth, looking at various hops, what type of beer we wanted to brew, and whether we wanted to do anything interesting post-fermentation. We thought of various concepts including aging on sour cherries and even doing an Orval-style Styrian Goldings dry-hopping followed by a Brettanomyces bottle refermentation.
A recipe finally agreed on, Mark came up from Dark Star and the brewday commenced! We mashed together the finest Maris Otter Pale Ale malt with a small portion of Crystal malt and a very low liquor treatment profile consisting of a dash here and there of calcium, chloride, sulphate, sodium and bicarbonate ions. We were going to be aging this baby for a while and new that mellowing of palate, through bitterness and through softening of any astringency, would occur over time. To aid the fermentability we also used a small portion of Demerara sugar which was added throughout the runoff from mash tun to copper every 6 minutes. Let’s call it the continuous sugaring technique. We were hoping some of the rich, brown sugar-esque creaminess would find it’s way into the beer.
We used Atlas, Aurora and Liberty to hop the Coalition Ale and made a decision that if this was to be a beer made by Thornbridge and Dark Star, that we wouldn’t be shy. Again, this was a tough decision. We didn’t know how kind time would be on the hop profile, but we did want there to be a ghost of bitterness left in the final beer. I’m actually sitting here now looking at the brewsheet. It’s great to look back on our records and read the small notes Stef and I have made throughout the fermentation. I mention the delicious fruity character at the beginning of fermentation, backed up by Stef a few days later taling of peaches, fruit and raisins. After 5 days we chilled the beer down and transferred it to a maturation vessel where it sat doing it’s thing for 20 or so months.
Coalition Ale is now in a bottle below my feet. This is what it looks like as the little yeasties weave their magic.
I’m not likely to be in the UK when it’s released, but hopefully we’ll put it out to sale at two years old. An Old Ale not just by name!
We had a load of fun with Mark, so it would have been rude not to head down to Dark Star and complete the collaboration circle. I was lucky enough (well, when I say lucky, I mean I put my name forward and closed the ballot before anyone else could) to get down South via a speedy train trip after the British Guild of Beer Writers Style Seminar. Welcomed by MarkStar at the train station, it would have been rude for us not to head to the Evening Star for a quiet beer with Matt and Karen Wickham, publicans extraordinaire! The Dark Star beers were tasting cracking, but it was the American Pale Ale that I was most interested in. We had decided to Kiwi this recipe up a bit. Instead of the usual Chinook, Centennial, Cascade combo, I thought it was time to introduce Mark to the joys of New Zealand hops.
Pacifica (formerly Pacific Hallertau), the incredibly aromatic and alpha-acid filled Pacific Gem and the resinous, lime-juice and peppery Southern Cross were chosen as replacements for the American hops and we decided to go a step further and use a portion of CaraFa. This is a really interesting roasted malt. It is de-husked and gives a lovely deep-brown hue to the beer without contributing the characteristic roastiness that other dark malts provide. It is CaraFa that has aided and abbeted the style known as Black IPA or India Black Ale or whatever else you want to call it.
I find this type of beer fascinating. By nature we tend to eat and drink with our eyes. It is not until you get the chance to be involved with a sensory evaluation complete with red lights and black drinking glasses that you realise how important your eyes are when it comes to flavour perception. Sight can trick us and make us think strange thoughts and taste and smell unusual things. It has even been known to fool the unsuspecting pubgoer who awakes in the morning to find a naked, scary troll in their bed… a troll that was ludicrously beautiful/handsome after a mere six pints the night before. Never trust sight…
If you take a big, hoppy beer… generally something the average person imagines to be a pale beer and twist around it’s colour, straight away people think it’s going to taste roasty or like coffee or chocolate or be extremely strong and rich. When JK first came up with Raven, the Black IPA we brew at Thornbridge, I’d often ask customers to close their eyes and give them a sample of the beer at the Coach. “Pale and Hoppy”, would be the general consensus and the surprise when they saw the beer was always great. I really think brews like this are a great way to educate people. They teach us that all is not what it seems in the world of brewing. A dark beer doesn’t have to taste big and roasty and malty!
With this in mind, we kicked off the brew, mashing in at around 68-69°C and transferring the mash straight to lauter tun. The smell was fantastic with the Maris Otter, Caragold, Munich and CaraFa filling the brewhouse with a incredibly rich maltiness, all HobKnobs and Digestive biscuits and other fine McVities products.
We eagerly waited time for runoff, glasses poised under the sample valve to taste the first runnings. Deep black and as malty as the aroma suggested, we were two happy brewers!
A change in the late hopping regime was made to really bring out the intensity of the Kiwi hops and the final wort was wonderfully bitter and rich, with wisps of spice and tropical fruits. We were stoked! Matt and Karen from the Evening Star had also come along to help out and ably assisted by Dark Star Brewer, George Juniper we found some time to sample a few of the Dark Star beers in tank and cask.
The still fermenting American Pale Ale blew me away with it’s intense elderflower and passionfruit aromas but it was Mark’s new Green Hop beer that really blew my mind. Target was chosen as the freshly picked hop to season this Simcoe-fuelled beer with and it definitely delivered with it’s heady mix of pineapple, pine and orange peel. Even the tank and fittings that Mark had designed to help capture the green-hop character looked like something from a Mad Max movie…
The intensity of the Green Hop still on my lips, we headed into the cellar and popped open a cask of Mark’s Triple. Originally formulated as a Belgian-style IPA and fermented with Ardennes yeast, this beer is hugely hopped with big American beasts… Warrior and Columbus being among them. But it it the yeast that has the starring role in this beer. Even straight from cask, the head was rich and tight and foamy, peaks and troughs like an Arctic landscape, it had me smacking my lips in anticipation. The mouth was smooth and creamy and built to an intense, yet integrated bitterness, the hop flavours melding perfectly with the Belgian yeast character. This was heaven and proof that Dark Star are one of the best practitioners when it comes to translating different beer styles to the cask.
The next step for Mark is to dry-hop the beer and we decided on Southern Cross and Nelson Sauvin to do what they do best.
The brew has been christened ThornStar (no, not Porn Star) and I can’t wait to try it! Keep an eye out at places like the Sheffield Tap and the Coach and Horses and any of those fantastic drinking establishments in Sussex that stock Dark Star beers!