Category Archives: homebrewing

Mini Kegging Our Home Brew

Family Ale home brew from a mini keg.

As our search for the most convenient and reliable method for dispensing home brew continues, we currently find ourselves infatuated with the five litre mini-keg.

Bottles are great, apart from the fact that cleaning and filling enough for a batch takes most of a day, and is beyond tedious. Serious home brewers rave about Cornelius kegs, but every time we read a ‘simple guide’, we find our eyes glazing over: too expensive, too complicated, and with too many dire warnings. Polypins are fine, but we’ve had more than one beer come out of them lifeless (our fault) and there’s no easy way to rectify that after the fact.

Mini-kegs, in theory, offer the best of all those options: bulk-filling, affordability, availability, and control over carbonation.

Mini kegging kit from Brewferm.Our first two attempts at mini-kegging didn’t go well. Even with the drastically reduced priming recommended by the manufacturers, we found the beer so over-gassed that we just got glass after glass of furious foam. This time, though (1938 ‘Family Ale’) we nailed it: we released the pressure from the keg before affixing the tap, and then dosed it with Co2 from a bulb to achieve the right level of carbonation at the point of serving.

We’re not sure we’ve ever seen our home-brew looking as appealing as this did with a stable head and gentle carbonation. (We didn’t aim for ‘fizz’.)

We’ve found that, assuming cleaning and sanitising procedures have been followed, it keeps for weeks in the keg, so there’s no rush to drink the whole lot in one sitting.

We bought our mini-kegging kit (three kegs, gas bulbs, tap) from Brewsmarter via Amazon.co.uk for £70 including delivery.

Watney's Red Barrel (detail from beer mat).

Cloning Watney’s Red

There’s one beer more than any other that we would like to be able to taste for ourselves: Watney’s Red.

We know it was terrible — we don’t doubt what we’ve been told by numerous people who were unlucky enough to taste it, including a former Watney’s PR man — but, like people who flock to watch The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space, we are morbidly curious.

Note that we have specified Watney’s Red, not Watney’s Red Barrel. The latter had a bad reputation, but it was probably the former, launched in 1971, which really brought the wrath of beer geeks and triggered the ‘good beer movement’. It wasn’t merely a rebrand but a complete reformulation, with a nastier, cheaper recipe that produced a yet sweeter, fizzier beer.

We are hoping that, to coincide with our book launch, we can convince someone to brew us a clone, and the marketing people at Aurum Press liked that idea, so fingers crossed. At any rate, we’ll definitely give it a go at home using mini kegs and Co2 bulbs.

But first things first: what was the recipe? Here’s what we know.

  1. A press statement for Red issued in 1971 (according to Roger Protz) described the beer as having a ‘blander taste and a better head’.
  2. In his 1973 book The Beer Drinker’s Companion Frank Baillie described Red as ‘a well balanced keg beer with a burnt malty characteristic’.
  3. From correspondence with one former Watney’s production brewer, we know that Red ‘probably… used raw barley and added enzymes’, unlike Red Barrel.
  4. Dave Line claimed in his book Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy (1978) to have been given full details of many recipes by brewers; he does not give a recipe for Red, but his other Watney’s bitter recipes (for ‘Special’ and Starlight) use Fuggles hops.
  5. In April 1972, Which? magazine gave an original gravity (OG) of 1037.9 and an ABV of 3.67%. The Daily Mirror of 10 July 1972 had 1037.2 and 3.6%. When CAMRA tested it a couple of years later, they got 1037.8 and 3.4%.
  6. Ron Pattinson and Kristen England shared this recipe for Whitbread Tankard from 1971. It was made with around 72% pale malt, 4% crystal malt, 6% ‘torrified barley’, and then a lot of sugar. Can we perhaps assume a vaguely similar malt bill for Red? And similar hopping rates?

Does anyone have any other sources they can point us to?

(And we don’t mean modern home brew recipes based on guesswork, which is in turn based on the memories of a friendly CAMRA member….)

UPDATES 13/3/2014

  • On the advice of Steve ‘The Beer Justice’ Williams, we emailed Dr Kenneth Thomas who looks after the Courage archive where man of Watney’s records ended up. He told us:
[Although] I found extensive records still at the Truman brewery in Brick Lane, and at the former Mann’s brewery in Whitechapel, the former archives of Watney’s had, in the early 1980s, already been deposited on indefinite loan at either the London Metropolitan Archive in Clerkenwell, or at the City of Westminster Record Office in Victoria… So, if any brewing recipes exist for Watney’s Red, they will be somewhere within the collections either at the LMA or Westminster.

  • We also had another look at that 1972 edition of Which? magazine: their tasting panel observed that Tankard was paler and ‘fizzier’ than Red, and Red was by far the darkest of the beers sampled.

Home Brew Social

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

Last Friday, we took a train up to Truro and paid £5 each to spend the evening hanging out with other home brewers at an event organised by the Beer Cellar.

In what must be going on for ten years of making beer at home, we have never once taken the step of meeting up with other amateur brewers, though we’ve often thought about it. What held us back was the assumption that we would find a room full of blokes twenty years older than us, who knew more than us, and would want to make sure we knew it.

Approaching the Hub Boat — a half-renovated restaurant-cum-party barge moored on Lemon Quay in the centre of Truro — we were relieved to observe through the brightly illuminated picture windows that we wouldn’t be the youngest in attendance, and that the crowd was, though mostly male, not exclusively so.

Inside, we found two demonstrations by Granite Rock underway — mashing and brewing from extract — and a table full of bottles of home brew, to which we added the only brew we have ready(ish) to drink: a Belgian-style Tripel fermented with dried Witbier yeast procured as a back-up when a ‘proper’ yeast starter failed.

Joe from Penpont, the local brewery with connections to the Beer Cellar, was on hand to dish out samples of his ‘An Howl’, with and without dry-hopping, which helped loosen everyone up. Initial awkwardness passed fairly quickly, and we found ourselves talking hops, yeast and sparging techniques with other people who don’t think those are tragically boring topics for conversation.

Our beer was received politely but without enthusiasm by our fellow brewers, most of whom seemed to think it was a bit strong, but ‘interesting’. (Not very nice.) It isn’t, to be fair, our best effort. For our part, we were thankfully able to tell people to their faces without lying that we liked their beers. The best was probably a BrewDog Hardcore IPA clone which was exactly like Hardcore IPA.

One person probed for more detailed feedback, which we gave him, and then regretted, but then what’s the point in fibbing or being fibbed to?

As the evening went on, we identified a few sub-groups. Some were serious enough to have printed labels and a ‘brand’, and clearly intended to go pro at some point, while others had never brewed anything before and wanted to size up the hobby. In the middle were a bunch of keen amateurs like us.

Our favourite attendees, though, were the baby-faced contingent from Falmouth University’s nascent home brewing society. They’d made a technically very decent honey beer and seemed hungry for knowledge.

We’ll definitely go again, hopefully with more and better beer to share, and fewer social anxieties.

The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer

Detail from the Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer by Ron Pattinson.

Forced into the confines of a book less than 200 pages long, Ron Pattinson’s knowledge of historic brewing seems more impressive than ever.

Cover of the Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage BeerBy his own frequent admission, Pattinson tends to be digressive and expansive on his blog: a single point can spread out across multiple blog posts packed with anecdotes, tables of figures, and rants on the side. It can be tremendously interesting and entertaining, but also, at times, hard to follow if you’re only there for the hard facts.

Either through self-discipline or thanks to the guiding hand of a stern editor, in The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer, he finds a new, clearer voice. Swathes of brewing history are summed up almost in bullet point form, and no worse for it:

Let’s get this straight before we go any further. I don’t believe the story that porter was an attempt to re-create a mix of three different draft beers called “three threads”. No source for the first half of the eighteenth century confirm the tale, and the main piece of evidence used to support the theory was written the best part of a century later.

Right, got it!

The history of hops in British brewing is summarised in three crystal clear pages; malt, in all its complexity, in four. The various types of fermenting vessel, from Burton Union to Yorkshire Square, in a little over two. If you need more detail and references, it’s there online, but this will be more than enough for most people, at least to begin with.

There are also nuggets of trivia that, though we’re sure he has mentioned them before on his blog, have chance to stand out in this more economical style. We hadn’t realised that rice was frequently used in North German beer before 1906, for example.

The recipes, which are the real point of the book, are divided by style (porter, stout, IPA, and so on) and ordered chronologically within each section. Even those who don’t brew at home ought to appreciate the opportunity to see the evolution of each style, their alcoholic strength and ingredients changing from year to year as a result of fashion, economics and war, as explained in pithy notes. Individual beers, such as Truman’s Runner, are present in multiple versions, decades apart, which ought to make for some fascinating ‘vertical tasting’ sessions.

They are written in a simple, clear format, and simplified to avoid four-hour boils and complicated mashing, sparging and gyling routines, though the information is there for those who wish to go ‘all in’.

There is also some guess work. Relying almost entirely on original brewing records, Pattinson has had to make assumptions about hop varieties, alpha acids, the darkness of certain malts, and the identity of proprietary brewing sugars. His guesses, though, are better than most people’s facts, and certainly better than nothing.

A handful of recipes don’t, frankly, sound very appetising, and are really only of academic interest: the final porters from before the style became extinct in the mid-20th century, for example, are weak (less than 3% ABV) and filled with oats and sugars. (Or perhaps we’re wrong and the watery-weak porter is a lost classic. We will, of course, have to find out for ourselves at some point.)

Those committed to the modern-style of ‘craft’ brewing might find these recipes of limited use. Not one features hops added late in the boil for the purposes of creating aroma, even though many feature huge amounts of hops in total. Almost all of them use sugar, which ‘craft’ brewers seem to find a bit of a turn off. Some might make good bases for experimental recipes, though, especially the strong ales.

The spiral binding inside a hard folder-like cover seems an odd choice at first, but actually makes complete sense in practical terms: it lies perfectly flat, which will be great when we need it open in front of us for reference on brewday.

One small complaint: the vintage labels that decorate the pages, while lovely to look at, rarely correspond to the recipe below, which can make browsing the book something of a pat-your-head-rub-your-tummy exercise.

This is not yet another beginners guide with the same old basic recipes, but a Level 2: Intermediate text, and that’s exactly what we would like to see more of. For writers and publishers, that might be a problem — the market for general guides is potentially bigger, if more competitive — but if beer writing is going to grow up, it needs to get beyond the superficial.

We were sent a review copy. The RRP is £17.99 and it is available from AmazonWaterstones, and as a Kindle ebook.

UPDATE 27/02/2014: we didn’t realise that Quayside, who published this book, are a sister company to Aurum, who are publishing ours. They are, so we’re disclosing the relationship here.

Starkey, Knight & Ford Family Ale, 1938

Detail from Starkey, Knight and Ford brewing log, 1938.

We’ve been meaning for some time to formulate a recipe for mild based on the 1938 Starkey, Knight & Ford brewing log we photographed at the Somerset local history archive.

The recipe is below, but getting there proved rather frustrating.

SK&F Brown Ale label, 1948.1. Which one was the mild?

We spent a little while working on something we thought was logged as ‘M3′ only to realise, with help from a few people on Twitter, that it was actually ‘MS’ — Milk Stout. (The inclusion of lactose ought to have been a give away. D’oh!)

Based on the ingredients, another called something like ‘JA’ looked more likely. That some of each batch was also bottled as ‘brown ale’ made us feel more certain.

Then we worked out that it was actually ‘FA’ (stupid old-fashioned handwriting…) which probably stands for ‘family ale’ – not exactly mild, but close enough.

2. Ingredient puzzles

Proprietary brewing sugars — grrr! How are we supposed to know what ‘MC’ is? Our best guess is that it’s some kind of caramel… or is it ‘maltose caramel’? Or ‘mild caramel’? Or something completely different? For the purpose of our recipe, we assumed it was a dark sugar with some fermentability, which got us to the correct original gravity (1036). We’ll probably use something similar to Invert No. 4.

The original recipe used some ‘Oregon’ hops: we’ll try to get hold of Cluster, but, for the small amount used, Cascade will probably do the job.

3. Too bitter?

With around 1lb of hops per barrel, this beer seemed to be too hoppy ‘for the style’, but there are milds in Ron and Kristen’s 1909 Style Guide (notably Fuller’s X ale) which appear similarly heavily hopped.

* * *

So, with those caveats, and with questions and corrections very much welcome, here’s what we’ll be brewing next time we fire up the kettle.

Recipe: SK&F ‘FA’/Brown Ale

Recipe Details

Batch Size Boil Time IBU SRM Est. OG Est. FG ABV
23 L 105 min 33 IBU 12 EBC 1.036 SG 1.009 SG 3.5 %

Fermentables

Name Amount %
British pale malt 1.5 kg 46.61
Six-row US pale malt 0.8 kg 24.86
Crystal malt (120L) 0.07 kg 2.18
Flaked Maize 0.5 kg 15.54
Invert Sugar No 3. 0.3 kg 9.32
"MC" (dark sugar, some fermentables?) 0.024 kg 0.75
Caramel 0.024 kg 0.75

Hops

Name Amount Time Use Form Alpha %
'Oregon hops' (Cluster, or substitute with Cascade) 9 g 90 min Boil Leaf 4.3
Kent Goldings 33 g 90 min Boil Leaf 4.5
Styrian Golding 9 g 90 min Boil Leaf 3.5
Kent Goldings 11 g 30 min Boil Leaf 4.5
Notes
  • Assumes efficiency of c.85%.
  • We don’t know much about Starkey, Knight & Ford’s yeast so we’re going to use whichever standard British ale yeast we have at hand.
  • Though this was brewed in Tiverton, we do know that the sister brewery in Bridgwater used water blended with stuff from a well at Taunton which was harder than anything from Burton.