Just putting this here so I can link to it.
It started with a work bonus trip to Shetland to present some results. Since I was flying all that way, it seemed daft to just turn around and head home so having established that there was two breweries in Shetland, I found myself the least salubrious hotel for the night. My quest: to ‘research’ the local beers.
My work is done and I’ve managed to get myself lost but eventually I find my bed for the night in the Lerwick Hotel. It’s not busy.
Hi. I have a reservation.
(Reaches under counter and produces a piece of paper) Mr Hope?
It’s the room nearest the reception desk. I think I might be the only guest.
What I want to do is dump my bag and have a pint. If I sit too long I’m going to fall asleep and the most obvious first stop is the hotel bar but this only reinforces my impression that I’m alone here (apart from the twins). There’s no one in the bar. No one. Not even staff so the tap with Valhalla Brewery’s Simmer Dim goes unmolested. I head out.
First stop: The Lounge, Mounthooly Street. This has been recommended by a Shetland native no less though, to be fair, it wasn’t an unqualified recommendation:
The Lounge Bar on Mounthooly St in Lerwick used to be “THE” place to go at weekends – really busy with live trad music but not so sure these days. It’s probably still the best bet though as Lerwick is not blessed with overly great pubs I’m afraid.
It is, shall we say, a classic pub. Vinyl floor, plywood panelling and bench seats around the walls, dart board. A display of the world’s bank notes behind a bar blocked by a knot of regulars. To one side, under the silent but captioned TV there’s a couple sitting side-by-side, in silence, looking straight ahead. It could be any town. Somewhere in Govan or Springburn. Leith, maybe. The taps are Carling, Tennents, Coors Light. We’re spoiled for the choice of pish lager. Belhaven Best, Guinness. Tartan Special. You can buy every variety of crap lager but local beer on Shetland is as rare as trees. There’s nothing local on tap. Two breweries but just one represented by one bottled beer – Valhalla Auld Rock. It’s nice, dark, malty-sweet. A traditional Scottish heavy but they must still be doing oil-boom pricing – £3.70 a bottle. Oddly, there’s an impressive range of Orkney beers in bottles.
When the Auld Rock is done, I head out and, looking for another pub to continue the quest, I notice Beervana, a modern bottle shop on Lerwick’s main commercial street: Commercial Street. It’s an excellent shop, reminiscent of Edinburgh’s Beer Hive, with the two Shetland breweries well represented and their whole range of Scottish beers given a very prominent display at the front of the shop. Considering most of these beers need to be brought to Shetland, the prices of all the beers are very reasonable. The off-trade in local beers is obviously better than the on-trade since Beervana will be moving to a larger shop soon. The advice for a local pint: try Da Wheel.
So I headed along to Da Wheel. On the way I walked past The Thule. Even though it looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting I could see through the window that it only had the usual kegs of fizz on offer. And, to be honest, it looked pretty unwelcoming. Da Wheel had nothing. But I’m starting to notice a pattern here: empty pubs. A little group of men, already a few pints in, hanging around the bar chatting or playing pool. Maybe I’m just in the twilight zone between Lerwickians (is that the word?) finishing work and going out. Maybe it gets a little livelier later in the evening.
The recommendation in Da Wheel is to try Captain Flint’s at the Market Cross at the other end of Commercial Street. Thankfully, Commercial Street is pretty short so although the drizzle is starting, I get to Captain Flint’s without my hood. It has to be said that Captain Flint’s is a strange place. Themed as a pirate ship with easily the most surly barmaid ever, Flint’s had Lerwick Brewery Azure on cask. Light, hoppy with a Mr Whippy head. A success of sorts, although it’s a little aggressively bitter for my taste but I’m pleased to find it on tap.
With that under my belt, I decided to call it a night. 7.30pm. Back to Beervana for a few beers: Valhalla Simmer Dim, A Valhalla Sjolmet Stout, Lerwick Tushkar and an Orkney Porter. Because I’ve heard good things about it.
Mainly they’re fine. Simmer Dim is pleasant. Tushkar is nice but with a slightly odd aftertaste that I can’t place. The Orkney Porter is stunning, although at 10% and after two films and a long day I’m ready to sleep.
It’s looking grim. Breakfast is served until 9.30am, which seems early for a weekend but I’m up, washed and dressed in plenty of time to take my seat in an otherwise empty dining room. Breakfasted, packed up and checked out and then off to wander looking for Norse myths and viking tat for the weans. The weather never advances beyond little drizzle and having done my wandering and got presents for everyone at home. I decide to give The Thule (The Famous Thule, apparently) a try. It has the distinct advantage of being just opposite the bus stop I need for the airport and it’ll let me put my bag down while I wait for an hour. Opening the door, the place is heavy on the scent of bleach. That, the tiled floor and the industrial steel panelling give a distinct impression of municipal public toilet. Never a good first impression, except in a municipal public toilet. My walk-past last night was right: I have to settle for a pint of Stella. It was that or Best and even in a straight competition between Stella and Best, Best isn’t the best.
Then there was an hour-long bus trip to the airport, listening to the lilting accent, with just enough local words interspersed to make conversations barely understandable. Finally, I find a decent pint. Lerwick IPA. Reminiscent of Sierra Nevada but that’s not a criticism.
In departures there’s bottles. Valhalla Old Scatness, described on the bottle as Light and Smokey and they’re not wrong. It smells like lager and has a light malt taste and quite low bitterness but that only means there’s very little balancing the smokiness. The first mouthful is like a kipper in a glass, although that’s just the initial impression – the first shock of that unexpected level of smoke in a beer so light. Subsequent mouthfuls are more balanced although I’m still asking why I would want a smokey lager. It’s doing neither of the jobs I want in a beer – giving neither the dry, crisp thirst quench of a lager nor the sip-and-think complexity of a stout or porter, where smoke often adds to a mix of malt and other flavours. Do I want another one? No, no thanks. I’m not sure I even want to finish this one.
So that was Shetland and quite a disappointing attempt to sample the local beers. Top impression: Shetland pubs are for serious boozers but maybe I’m seeing them at the wrong time. Shetland beers don’t seem to be getting the support of Shetland’s pubs. Top marks to Beervana for sticking their neck out and opening a craft beer shop. How they assessed the market potential is anyone’s guess but they seem to have called it right and best of luck to them. Craft beer is drunk at home here.
Although he lives just a minute or two away, I only really see Graeme when he’s taking me to the airport or the station, with his unfailingly reliable taxi service. He likes a beer, savours them more than most since his work generally dictates abstinence. So when Graeme asked for the second time whether there was anything new planned for the summer I thought I should give it some thought.
I didn’t really start paying attention to the market for beer as a product (rather than as a commodity I bought and drank) until I started producing it, in my own small way, commercially. The thing that really struck me was how much beer, craft beer in particular, thrives on novelty.* New recipes, special editions, collaborations, cans, new labels, new breweries, reviews, food pairing, all feed what seems like an insatiable need for something new and attention-grabbing. You can’t imagine it these days: a brewer producing their beers and still be making the same ones 200 years later.
(* And I should be clear, when I say novelty, I don’t mean gimmickry. Refreshing your beer line-up or bottle artwork is novelty and no bad thing. Shoving a bottle of beer up a dead stoat’s arse is gimmickry.)
So Graeme’s question seemed to capture the idea that there should be some change in the beers. That products should follow the seasons as people’s thoughts turn from winter to spring and it should be something reflecting that wistful imagination of warm evenings on the patio watching the barbecue lose its glow (even though this is Scotland and that hardly ever happens). Did the line-up of beers that make their way to The Ship need refreshed? Did someone need to retire? We’ll think about that later.
Assuming we’re going to get a summer, what sort of beer does the summer of Graeme’s imagination need? I’m going with:
Pale malt and a little light crystal malt: should give a nice honey colour, with a low mash temperature to maximise the extraction of fermentable sugars. We’re looking for something dry and crisp.
Classic English ale hops: Fuggles and East Kent Goldings described as delicate, minty, grassy, floral, slightly spicy, honey and earthy. Sunny evenings and new-mown grass. I can live with that. To this I’m adding a lager hop, Spalt Select, developed from Hallertauer Mittelfruh. That this hop was reputedly adopted by Anheuser-Busch to replace Spalt Spalter and Tettnang Tettnanger hops in some of their recipes, is a recommendation.
Lager yeast: Mangrove Jack Californian lager yeast works at ale temperatures. I’ve used it successfully in lagers and it’s the staple yeast style for California Common.
As ever, we’ll see how it turns out. In the meantime, here’s some chickens getting stuck into the spent grains.
In 2006, Paul Arden, former creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi and responsible for classic ads for British Airways, Silk Cut and, err, Thatcher, wrote a quirky, fun little book of epigrams about life, work and careers called Whatever you think, think the opposite. I pick it up occasionally when I need a laugh or need a clever quote. Sometimes it gives good advice.
It has good advice about feedback and advice. If you tell me I’ve done something you like, I’ll be pleased. My ego will be buffed up a little and I’ll go away with a spring in my step. This will work even if you’re turning me down. Like the email from the village gala committee telling me that, no, I couldn’t sell them any beer for the upcoming family ceilidh.
You are part of the problem! Because your beer sold so well on Gala Day, we were left with crate loads! So the Ceilidh is our last chance to get rid before it goes out of date! On this occasion, we’ll decline your kind offer because no bugger will buy the standard stuff when yours is on offer!
I couldn’t help but be pleased about that.
So, praise is nice but it doesn’t make you better. No, to get better you need criticism. Not just any old criticism, of course, but constructive feedback that you can learn from. Telling me my beer’s shit doesn’t help because it doesn’t give any clue as to why. I can’t fix it.
Which brings me to Sunday. Greig’s Beer Burps reviewed my Cairns Belgian Pale. It was a good, if mixed, review. He wasn’t raving about it but his observations were fair comment that I can reflect on and do something about. But one line really stood out for me:
I’ve tried a couple of the Brew Shed beers now and on the whole I’ve been quite impressed apart from one of their brews.
Apart from one of their brews? Which one? He kindly stops short of naming and shaming the disappointing brew. Enter Paul Arden. My favourite of his little epigrams is the one advising that you ask for a slap in the face.
The key line is at the the end – the truth hurts but in the long run it’s better than a pat on the back. So in the pursuit of better beer, I asked Greig for a slap in the face, which he kindly did.
It was your Porter which I didn’t think was up to much tho, I felt it was a bit thin and lacked body. There was a slight aftertaste too which didn’t sit well.
This is useful feedback. I can look at my recipe and compare with others – what’s missing that would add body, without changing the taste. I can think it about when the current batch is ready, sitting it alongside some others that I like and some that I haven’t yet tried and seeing how it compares.
…we’ve sold out of your beer. It’s going down very well. Would you be able to do us a repeat of the order?
Sweet, sweet music. And with stocks running a little low, it underlines the need to maximise the efficiency of the time spent in the Shed. It’s not just that it’s wee or that I don’t have much spare time for extra brewing sessions, it’s the straightforward sense of making the most of the time and kit that’s there rather than doing more or spending money on bigger vessels.
This week’s experiment was taken from James Morton’s book Brew where he discusses liquoring back. In essence, you make the wort stronger than you need it to be and then dilute it back to the desired gravity before fermenting. It does two things: it allows you to make sure you hit the target OG for the recipe every time and, more important, allows you to get more out of the kettle. So, this week, instead of making two of my usual 60 litre batches (and spending about 10 hours doing it), I made one 100 litre batch in half the time. The mash quantities and the hops in the boil were calculated for 100 litres but there was only the usual 70 litres went into the kettle. After the boil, there was 65 litres of very strong wort in the kettle, with a gravity of 1068. To bring that down to the target of 1047, 30 litres of boiled water was added from the hot liquor tun and run through the heat exchanger. Think of it as two boils – one of very strong wort and one of water – which make the target strength when the two are mixed.
So, I got almost the same volume of beer for half the time. Of course, you can do the same thing after fermentation. If you fermented the strong wort, you’d have a beer of about 7%, which could be diluted with water down to the target ABV. Discussed here.
The prospect of a complete tap takeover in The Ship means a little boost to production so that there’s three different casks ready to go in mid-January. I know, I think this every time I write something like this, if this were a proper brewery, the idea that having three casks ready on the same day would need any shift in production would be laughable. But it’s just a wee shed and it all needs to be fitted around the day job and home life.
Anyway, a double batch of 1851 on Friday and extra batch of Ramsay Lane and a Sandilands doubler this Friday will see me right. That gives them all at least two weeks fermenting, two weeks clearing and a week in the pub settling in their casks with the dry hops.
Other than that it’s just been the normal routine of cleaning stuff and moving beers around – some to casks for the pub, cleaning their tanks, and move another beer off the yeast into the clean tanks to clear. But in the moving around you get a wee sample of what’s coming up so I’m looking forward to the Belgian pale ale – Cairns – that got mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It’s finished fermenting at 6.9% so I need to decide whether to keep it at that or bring it down to something less potent 5.5% or 6%. It’s partly about the taste and partly economics. Strong beers cost more to produce and you pay more duty and this one costs about 50% more to make than my usual beers. Can I sell it for 50% more? If I can’t then I’m better off making session beers.
The single hop IPA made with Simcoe is also tasting nice although it really needs its dry hops added. That one’s a more sensible 5%.
Finally, the latest batch of the Pilsner got its first outing at the pre-Christmas get togethers of a friend. Tasty and nicely fizzy but the head is still fading away quite quickly.
It’s turning into a second job this little brewery, not that I’m complaining. It’s full of lovely feedback even when people are telling you they didn’t like a beer, although more commonly they’re telling you they do. This week I’ve bottled a little batch of the coffee smoked porter, which, last time, started off pretty unpalatably harsh and bitter, although after conditioning in the bottle for about 6 weeks, had settled into something very pleasant. Adds weight to the rule of thumb that a beer should condition for a week for each 1% of ABV. This batch, I’ve dialled back the amount of smokey Rauch malt since my local taster found it too smokey. Unbalanced. So, keep tweaking.
Friday’s brewing was a remake of the single hop Nelson Sauvin that I made back in July. This time, it was made with Simcoe and I dialled the ABV back from last time’s 6.5% to a more session-friendly 5%. But otherwise the same, especially toasting the flaked barley, which smelled fantastic when I took it out of the oven and was still smelling good when the spent grains were delivered to Woodlea Stables: some to feed the chickens and some to add texture and a nice malt flavour to bread.
Of course, there were chores. Brewing is mainly a sequence of small tasks – moving beer off the yeast from primary to secondary where it can sit clearing for a couple of weeks, cleaning tanks, surfaces, the kettle. Some major cleaning of the plate chiller, which I’ve let get gummed up with crap. I know what the problem is but not so much how to solve it. It’s little bits of hop and protein debris building up as boiling wort gets circulated through the chiller to first, sterilise it and then to bring the temperature down below 80C for the final hop addition. I can’t see a way to avoid this stuff getting sent through the chiller so, it’s been two days of soaking in various solutions of caustic soda and/or active oxygen, which has cleared out loads of the junk. Thankfully, it’s not caused any problems and I’ll just need to be more systematic about thoroughly cleaning it in future.
And finally, delivered stocks of bottles to The Corner Shop in Crossgates, the Dalgety Bay Sailing Club and The Ship Inn. Shifted nearly 500 bottles in the last two weeks so I’ll need to ramp up production again to rebuild the stock.