The darks arts of beer brewery turn out to be quite the art form, a million miles away from hillbilly moonshine with the added bonus of not making you go blind.
One day I will be asked: what did you do in the recession daddy? Get on your bike? Sell the Big Issue? Spend all day on the Guardian’s Comment is Free section?
No, I shall answer, I brewed my own beer — even though past history shows that while I’m rather good at consuming and writing about the stuff, I’m not so good at producing Cuvee Tierney-Jones. Previous efforts at home brewing have resulted in a) brown ale that was so rubbish I used it to wash my Aladdin Sane feather cut with b) bitter so insipid that the dog turned its nose up at a bowl of it though my brother enjoyed a glass or two. But then in those days his idea of the perfect pint was Castlemaine XXX or a can of Fosters. Finally there was the cack-handed attempt at a barley wine so solid that I could have worn it as a coat.
That was a few years back and occasionally I have thought of brewing again, following the efforts of American home brewers and producing some weird and wonderful stuff — anyone for a white pepper wheat beer? But then, like an old girlfriend walking around the corner and reminding you why it all went wrong, one look at those brewing kits with their tins of sticky malt extract and crumbly powdery yeast soon put a dampener on any home brewing enthusiasm.
There was the cack-handed attempt at a barley wine so solid that I could have worn it as a coat.
However, there’s another option. I write about beer and pubs and occasionally get offered the chance to play with real live brewing kit with real live brewers — now that is a different kettle of fish, so to speak. Count me in. So son, this is what I did in the recession.
One day last week I found myself in an industrial unit on the outskirts of Pontypridd, Tom Jones’ home town — he was a hard nut I was told in the pub the previous night, lived up there on the other side of the valley, what we might call a problem family nowadays, allegedly. To Otley Brewery I went, a modish, innovative brewery, who think nothing of putting rosemary in their beer (fans of Richard Keys and Andy Gray: note the lower case, we are talking about the herb that features on Sunday’s roast lamb) or making an 8% golden ale that is pure sunlight in a glass and drinks like lemonade; they invited me to come up with the recipe for a brew and then collaborate with them on some grown up kit.
Being a fan of Belgian beer I suggested a variation on the theme of a Wallonian saison, a hoppy, pale beer with a dry flinty finish that often features spices in the mix (we may laugh about the Belgians’ lack of historical heroes but they don’t half have some potent brews). And Otley, being the sort of brewery that like to do things with a twist, suggested upping the stakes by making a dark saison (imagine someone suggesting a pale Guinness, that’s how world-turned-upside-down the idea was). So a dark saison it was.
If you think that brewing is all about pushing a button and ticking a clipboard then you’ve spent too long a time drinking Stella (incidentally the bestselling Welsh beer in the UK — work that one out). Brewing in the breweries in which I visit is about working out the recipe, loading the mash tun with bags of malted barley and other grains, sticking your nose into bags of hops (some of them pungent variations on a grapefruit theme, which sounds like the sort of perfume the ideal woman should wear), hanging around waiting for the boil and then adding the yeast for fermentation. Oh and there’s getting in the mash tun with a spade and digging out the used grain.
If you think that brewing is all about pushing a button and ticking a clipboard then you’ve spent too long a time drinking Stella
Brewing is like cooking, you choose your ingredients and away you go. For the grain bill I picked lager malt (a lightly kilned barley), Munich malt, black malt (this produces a dark colour but without the roastiness), crystal malt (for sweetness), caragold and malted wheat (this helps to produce the head). The grains were all mixed together with hot water (the mash) and left for an hour or so — bit like making a pot of tea. Then it went to the copper for the boil where hops were added (bit like adding herbs to your cooking).
First in was the classic English variety Goldings (think orange marmalade) for bitterness, and then at the end of the boil for maximum aroma a couple of cracking varieties from Japan and the US: Sorachi Ace and Columbus, both of which feature a Carman Miranda hatful of fantastic tropical fruit aromas. We were aiming for 50 IBUs (IBUs means international bittering units, the higher the score the more hoppy and bitter a beer is — Budweiser weighs in at about 12 apparently, which says it all) — this would mean a big waft of tropical fruit on the nose, a Tysonesque biff to the mouth feel and also a striking Bob Crowe of a bitter finish that would hopefully encourage people to have another swig. We also added black pepper and dried Curacao orange peel for that authentic TinTin Belgian feel.
Now it’s sitting in the fermenting vessel, the yeast doing its business, snacking on the malt sugars and producing carbon dioxide and alcohol — it should be racked into cask in a couple of weeks and ready to drink. At the moment we don’t have a name, Saison Noir, Saison Cymru, Saison de Pont perhaps. If anyone has any ideas please let me know. I am so looking forward to trying this beer — who knows I might even start brewing at home…
Click here for more Life stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook