Sunday, 28 October 2012

Brewing at Beau's

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?

Considerately (I'd only flown in the day before) the brewery arranged the brewing at a civilised starting time of 10 AM. On the drive to the brewery, one of its co-owners, Tim Beauchesne, explained its origins. He'd run a leather finishing business in the building until all the work disappeared to the Far East. Wondering what to do next, the idea of starting a brewery popped up over a few beers with his son Steve. The idea took hold and soon became a reality, the old premises being kitted out with a 15-barrel plant.

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.

So I'd realised physically working with oats could be a problem. But I also worried about the chemical side. Would there be enough enzymes to convert the starch? Especially as the grist was only 25% barley, the other 25% being wheat.

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).

With all the heavy work done, we had some time while the enzymes worked their magic (hopefully). Time to sample some Beau's products. I'd already had a couple of pints of their flagship Lug Tread the previous evening, so we popped open some of their other beers. First was a beer I'd dreamed about all summer: Vassar Ale. It's based on a beer of 1808 brewed at the Vassar brewery in Poughkeepsie in New York State. It was brewed from New York- grown barley, malted locally, and a type of Cluster hop, the variety grown in the Northeastern USA in the 19th century.

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.

To my relief an iodine test showed that conversion had taken place. Running off the wort could start. Or at least I prayed it would. I had a nightmare vision of the taps being opened and nothing coming out. Or perhaps a drop a minute. It wasn't like that. Quite. The wort wasn't exactly gushing out and the flow had to be encouraged by underletting and spinning the rakes. Eventually the 60 hl they wanted was run off, but it took 4.5 hours rather than the usual 2.

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.

8 comments:

Martyn Cornell said...

The minty smell would be the thujone in the yarrow (it's in bog myrtle as well, and also in wormwood.) Thujone got a bad rap at the start of the 20th century over claims that it was the chemical that gave absinthe drinkers hallucinations, but recent research suggests that while massive - massive - amounts will give you seizures,there's no real evidence of any great pharmaceutical effect, and the idea that thujone works like cannabinerol is pretty much disproved.

Gary Gillman said...

I have a Portuguese absinthe that has a mainly minty smell and taste, not peppermint but "green mint". Perhaps the thujone explains it. I add a dash to bourbon or straight rye which, along with bitters, makes a Sazerac Cocktail. It's very good.

Gary

Ed said...

I'm planning to make an ale similar to this, though am dithering over the gravity. What did you go for?

Ron Pattinson said...

Ed, 18 Plato.

Martyn Cornell said...

Whatever you do, Ed, don't believe the crap found in far too many places about gruit beers containing both bog myrtle/sweet gale AND marsh rosemary/wild rosemary. They didn't. One or the other, usually the former. Actually, sweet gale makes really great beer, it's the predominant flavour in Williams Brothers' Fraoch and there's a fine Belgian beer called Gageleer that's mke with gale.

Ryan Harmaning said...

Great read - especially about gruit-brewing. What is this Dutch Book of Ancient Gruit recipes? Any chance of others getting up on the site?

Thanks again!
- Ryan

Ron Pattinson said...

Ryan, it doesn't have recipes so much as a grain bill. I suppose I should publish more. Just never quite got around to it.

Oblivious said...

Hi ron

with such recipes how do we allow for the fact that modern malt has much more diastatic power power and unless it was wind dried malt there dry process most likely would have further reduced it conversion power.

On top of that they mostly like would have a contained a multi strain yeast that also contained bacteria. Maybe such beers required a partially converted wort to generate there organoleptic profile

or can modern malts and single yest strain do the same?