I'm just back from a short(-ish) trip to Canada. Officially I was there for two reasons: to brew a beer with Beau's Brewery and to give a talk at their Oktoberfest. Unofficially I was there to drink beer, meet people and have a whole load of fun. Beer and friends - who can pass that up?
Their main product, Lug Tread, is a pale, top-fermenting beer in the style of a Kölsch. It soon caught on and the brewery's main problem was working out how to brew enough to keep up with demand. Soon they had to brew 24 hours a day, 7 days a week just to keep up. A new 60-barrel kit, installed just a few weeks ago, allows them to brew at a slightly less frenetic pace and has more than doubled their capacity to more than 50,000 hl. A very respectable size for a brewery founded fewer than 10 years ago.
I started feeling guilty just about as soon as I entered the brewhouse. You see I'd come up with the recipe. It's from a Dutch book about Gruit, which handily supplies the grists insisted on by the authorities in various Dutch towns. To maintain a certain level of quality, brewers had to use specific quantities of grain to brew a certain quantity of beer. I chose Dubbel Koyt of 1515 from the town of Zutphen. It looked pretty interesting. An unhopped beer, brewed from three grains.
The grains were the source of my guilt. Because oats made up half of the grain bill. Oats, you know, the stuff you make porridge with. Not exactly the perfect ingredient to work with as a brewer. Porridge is most definitely not what you want to make when mashing. The idea is to get liquid and grain separate, not combined in a big sticky mass.
Even that wasn't the final guilt source. I was that when I climbed to the brewing stage and struggled past the bags of oats that almost filled it. They'd all had to be carried up by hand and would need to be tipped into the mash tun manually, too. Ninety 50 pound bags.
Luckily there were two brewers to share all the humping and dumping, Matt and Andrew. When they started adding the oats to the hot water in the mash tun, it really did smell like breakfast time. "Where's the honey?" someone quipped. They also threw in a couple of bags of rice hulls to try and keep the mash a bit less porridgey in texture.
When all the grains were in the turn and the rakes moving, it looked like my worst fears had been realised. Big clumps had formed that the rakes were just pushing in front of them and weren't breaking up. It was time for some proper physical work, poor Kevin having stab the clumps with a long rake for 40 minutes or so to get a reasonably smooth consistency to the mash. It reminded me of the pre-industrial way of brewing, where workers had to mix the water and grain using mashing paddles (they often turn up in brewers coats of arms and logos).
Vassar Ale is a pale, cloudy yellow, with a delightful tropical fruit aroma. A flavour that continues in the mouth, along with a firm bitterness that just lasts and lasts. A beer that throws itself down your throat like a Session Ale, despite its ABV of over 6%. Really lovely stuff. So lovely I lugged a bottle of it back all the way across the Atlantic.
The tasting didn't stop there. A bottle of Bog Water was opened. Behind the slightly unappealing name is a well constructed Gruit that was in surprisingly good nick considering its age. Without the protection of hops, you don't expect a beer to keep it together for more than 12 months. A very appropriate beer to try, seeing as we were also brewing a Gruit. To be honest, I was relieved that they had experience of brewing with bog myrtle. I wouldn't have had the faintest idea of how much to use.
That was the next task. Finalising the recipe with brewer Matthew O’Hara. We’d discussed the recipe by email, but still had a few little details to iron out, like the yeast strain and the herb additions. Matthew made tea with the bog myrtle and yarrow that we'd be adding in the boil instead of hops. I had no idea what to expect from either and was impressed by the complex herbal bitterness of the former and the menthol-like undertone of the latter. About 2 parts bog myrtle to yarrow seemed to work best.
That left plenty of time for the next job: bagging up the herbs. They couldn't be added loose to the boil, as that would just clog the kettle that's only designed to take pelletised hops, not bits of twig and leaf.
I was surprised when the boil finally got going by the smell. Despite the absence of hops, it smelled very much like a normal boil. Until you stuck your head in the manhole and breathed in the herbally goodness. As the yarrow was very aromatic, some was held back for a later addition. The equivalent of an aroma hop addition. Weird, but fascinating, too.
Breweries are such fun places to hang around in. But this one in particular, full of friendly people only too happy to shoot the breeze with me about anything and everything beer-related.
Brewing done, Steve Beauchesne appeared to whisk a group of us off to a local pub for some Lug Tread and a bite to eat. The beer talk continued long into the night, lubricated by good beer and good company. A great day that I won't be forgetting any time soon.
Disclosure time: Beau's paid for my travelling expenses.
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