Asking for a slap in the face

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 So the Ceilidh is our last chance to get rid before it goes out of date!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.

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Asking for a slap in the face

Liquoring back

…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.

Liquoring back

The week in the Shed

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.

The week in the Shed

The week in the Shed

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.

The week in the Shed

Cairns

A visit to 6˚North in Edinburgh a few weeks ago turned up a beer I’ve been looking for since it was mentioned in a Facebook post last year: De Ranke XX Bitter. It was like finding the Holy Grail and there it was on tap along with two other De Ranke beers: Guldenberg and their Hop Harvest 2015.

All this reminded me of my attempt to emulate the De Ranke XX with only a couple of details to go on.

Finding it in the pub inspired me to make it again, having tasted the real thing. Here’s a post from then. The only difference looking at the website now, seems to be that De Ranke brew with Hallertauer Mittelfrüh rather than the Hersbrucker I used.

It’s bubbling away nicely in the shed, with heaters on and wrapped in insulation but here’s the story from when I first made it in September 2015.

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It started with a post on Facebook by the magazine my brother Alan works for in Belgium, Belgian Beer and Food about De Ranke and their XX Bitter. In two sentences, the post said enough to make me think that that was a beer I would like to try.

De Ranke’s big hit with everyone is the XX Bitter, made with pilsner malt, Brewers Gold for bitterness and Hallertau for…

Posted by Belgian Beer and Food on Tuesday, 11 August 2015

It looked gorgeous.

I tried a few of the beer shops in the Edinburgh to track down a bottle to taste it but it wasn’t to be found so I decided I’d have to make my own. There was enough information there for the basic characteristics ABV and IBU and I decided that the high level of bitterness from the Brewer’s Gold would need lots of the fruity, floral characteristics of the Hallertau Hersbrucker for balance. So, I starting plugging numbers into Beer Alchemy, my favourite brewing software to work out how much malt and hops would be needed to make a 6.5% beer with the right level of bitterness.

Yeast was more difficult. You get no indication of the yeasts that brewers use. Often they use their own to get something unique so for me it was a case of looking at what was available online and picking something that I thought would be complementary. The only clue was that De Ranke’s aim was to create something along the lines of the big hoppy American IPAs but I decided against an IPA yeast and opted instead for a Belgian Ale Yeast by Mangrove Jack which offered “spicy, fruity and peppery notes”. Sounded promising – a bit of spice to go with the fruit and bitterness.

I have to say it’s turned out extremely well. Hersbrucker is the classic lager hop and there’s so much of it in this beer – 300g added to a 60 litre batch just as the heat is turned off – that it’s like lager with the flavour turned right up. I think the yeast contributes something of a wheat beer taste to it. It might be nothing like De Ranke’s XX and actually I hope it is nothing like it because that means I can claim it as my own. Inspired by a beer I’ve never tasted.

One to make again and I did, although it turned out a little stronger this time.

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Cairns

Cask failure

Morning Steve. First bit of bad news! I can’t get your 1851 to clear. And it went mental when I tapped it!

Not the best text to get on a Sunday morning from the pub landlord. First, no one calls me Steve. More importantly, this hasn’t happened with a cask before. In a way I’m surprised it hasn’t happened. I mean, it’s not so long ago that I found out the difference between a cask and a keg.

Let’s step back a bit and see if we can work out what’s happened here. The 1851 (a nice pale Scottish table beer based on a recipe from Youngers of Edinburgh dating from 1851) was brewed on 5 June and went into the cask on 26 June. I haven’t noted when I moved it into the secondary. Maybe it should have spent longer.

It was primed with 75g of sugar (for a 40l cask) based on the beer priming calculator at Brewer’s Friend (or you could try this one which gives much the same result). It sat in the Shed for a week before being delivered to the pub last Friday (1 July). It was tapped on 9 July. Neither of these is untypical. Actually, until recently I’d been using 150g of sugar but cut back thinking that was too much. Two weeks between casking and tapping is also what usually happens.

So what’s different? I’m guessing the combination of still too much priming sugar, time and the weather. I’ll explain:

  1. A different calculator suggests that the beer already had 1.7 vol of C02 in it. Since casked ale aims for between 1.2 and 1.4, it didn’t need priming at all but by adding sugar, the cask is heading for 2.2 vol.
  2. If 1 is true then adding any sugar means there was too much sugar.
  3. Time and the weather are working together here, I think. The recent warm weather – it’s been 18-20C in the Shed in the daytime and barely dropping at night (it’s still 18.2C at 10.30pm) means that the yeasts have been working more than usual, accelerating the carbonation in the cask.

So, after two weeks we have a big fizzy cask of beer ready to gush when the tap goes in. Maybe I’ll try the next one with no priming at all and see how it goes.

In better news, I’ve been playing with label ideas. I quite like these, with my little drawing of the Ship Inn.

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Cask failure

Transatlantic smoked porter

The great thing about living in a small village is that word travels fast. Having seen the beer in the pub some lovely soul suggested that the inaugural local celebration of all things boatie – the Limekilns River Festival – should have have local beer, rather than the one keg of Belhaven Best normally available at the boat club.

Opportunities like that don’t come along too often and, sensibly, since they were running the event for the first time, the boat club were nervous of ordering too much so I took the chance to make it a low-risk proposition: 300 bottles sale or return. If it went well, we’d all do nicely from the sales. If it went badly, if rain stopped play, I’d have to find space for hundreds of bottles of beer but it wouldn’t go to waste. In the end, there was a great turnout of thirsty sailors – the back-up supply was needed.

One of the beers I brewed for the occasion, to make sure there was something for everyone, was a smoked porter. The recipe comes from The Craft of Stone Brewing (which is a great read) and while it’s a nice beer, it’s not (to me) all that porterish (at least not as nice as Pressure Drop’s Street Porter) and not very smokey. So today I thought I’d have another go at it. I may have overdone it.

First up, smoke. I like smoke. In food and whisky. Yesterday, I made some pastrami according to Tim Hayward’s recipe. Four hours of feeding a smoking pile of apple wood and you know what smoke smells like. That kind of smoke. So Stone’s hint of peated malt (2.5% of the grain bill) was out and in came the German smoked malt, cranked up to 15%.

Stone’s hops are, naturally, all-American: Columbus doing the bittering, with Mt Hood at the end. But, of course, porter hops would be British or European (see Ron Pattinson’s book of Vintage Beer guide, which has a whole chapter on porter), so I kept the Columbus but substituted Fuggles for the Mount Hood.

And coffee. Half a litre of strong black coffee in the boil. Because.

And like the single hop Nelson Sauvin, we’ll see how it goes.

Transatlantic smoked porter