A cheerful band of drinkers, together we all stand, Maybe a bit unsteady, with tankards in the hand. ’Prentices or Craft Brothers, we have our little joke, We are always drinking, but the Publicans go broke!
The final stanza of ‘The Ballad of Boozeldon’ which opens the 1967 home brewing manual Brewing Better Beers by Ken Shales.
…we’re much harsher in our judgements of ‘craft beer’… we’ve also learned our own limits, and come to respect really expert brewers all the more.
A couple of years on, that’s truer than ever: we resent paying for beers that are no better than we could turn out ourselves and, unfortunately, quite often find ourselves saying of beers we’ve paid several quid for, “Ugh! If we’d brewed this, we’d have written off as a failed batch.”
Has it made us like beers we didn’t like before? Actually, yes — we were baffled by saison until we read Phil Markowski’s book Farmhouse Ales, at which point it snapped into focus: it’s all about the subtly funky, distinctive yeast. We’ve since brewed several batches which have not only been among the best beer we’ve ever produced but have also helped us understand and appreciate commercial examples.
In fact, more generally, one of the great benefits of home brewing has been getting to know different yeast strains, and coming to appreciate its contribution in a world where hops hog all the attention. We’re much more sensitive to yeast character, or its absence, than we ever were before.
For our first attempt to extract a home brewing recipe from the Kegronomicon we’ve gone for the original Red Barrel, Watney’s Keg (RBWK) as it was in around 1966.
There’s a huge amount of technical information in the documents that won’t be of much practical use to home brewers, and which we barely understand, so we’ve concentrated on the key parameters which should enable you to get vaguely close if you plug them into your own brewing software and/or process.
In general, though, the emphasis throughout is on absolute cleanliness: contact with oxygen should be minimised at every stage; and everything should be kept completely, obsessively sterile.
And if you happen to have a bloody big industrial filtering and pasteurising facility, use it — that’s probably the biggest influence on how this beer would have tasted at the time.
Our primary source for vital statistics was a memo dated 26 August 1966, from F.W. Dickens of the Red Barrel & Draught Beer Department, Mortlake, providing a single handy summary of revised targets for colour, OG, IBU and carbonation.
When the London Amateur Brewers (LAB) asked if we would be interested in joining the judges for their recent regional home brewing competition, we jumped at the chance.
Like most people, we’ve observed the results of judged competitions with bemusement in the past: “How did that win!?” Although we knew it wouldn’t be on the scale of CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain we thought it might give us some insight into how such decisions get made.
Arriving at Beavertown’s new Tottenham Hale brewery at 8:45 am on a Saturday, the first thing that struck us was how reliant it all is on good will — on unpaid volunteers with the necessary skills giving up half their weekend. (Our only qualification for judging beer is enthusiasm which is why we were each paired with someone more experienced who had achieved some level of BJCP accreditation.)
Ah, yes — the BJCP. Judging a competition with something like 150 entries without using some kind of rules, however arbitrary, would be impossible. The BJCP system breaks those entries down into categories and provides rigid style definitions: they say Cream Ale ought to have ‘sparkling clarity’, for example, so even if your attempt tastes incredible, it will lose points if it is hazy and has lumps floating in it.
In fact, some beers which didn’t really taste all that great scored reasonably well because they were clear, correctly conditioned, and formed and retained a decent head. Flavour isn’t everything, at least not in this context.
The emphasis on ‘style’ works reasonably well with fairly common types of beer such as bitter or IPA. The judges had lots of experience drinking commercial examples and knew what to expect. ‘California Common’, on the other hand, presents more of a challenge, as does ‘Festbier’, only a handful of which are ever found on sale in the UK, and usually past their best — judges were largely reliant on the written descriptions from the BJCP to decide if a beer was ‘correct’.
There was also a sense that some entrants struggled to find a category for their beer and, shoe-horning it into the closest fit, found themselves docked points for not being ‘true to style’. Others seemed to have attempted one style but accidentally brewed another (e.g. it had gone sour, or turned out darker than expected) and were trying it on.
All in all, the BJCP system rewards conformity and ‘cloning’ while punishing creativity.
Now, let’s be clear: the judges try their absolute best, within the rules they’ve signed up to, to make sure great beers get the recognition they deserve. There was lots of agonising and soul-searching, with arbitration from stewards and senior judges, and we heard variations on “I’d drink that all day if I could, but it’s not a [STYLE]” throughout the day. But final decisions in each category were made by re-tasting the top scorers and ranking them without close reference to style guidelines: which one really was best?
The toughest part, arguably, is completing feedback forms for each beer. If the comments aren’t honest, then what’s the point? But if they’re too blunt, then they might be discouraging, and the LAB don’t want to put people off brewing or competing in future. Generally, it was possible to say, even where a beer scored poorly, that it was a problem with ‘trueness to style’ rather than poor brewing technique. There was, however, no nice way to say, “This beer made me retch and forced me to spit it into a bucket.”
Some good beers no doubt got knocked out, just as some good teams have been knocked out of the World Cup, but those that made it to the final judging table for ‘Best of Show’ were undoubtedly deserving. Here, a couple of category winners simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny: the best saison was better than the best lager, in absolute terms, for example. The overall winner, after much impassioned argument and careful consideration, was a flawless black IPA with commercial potential.
On balance, we might enter a BJCP-rules competition if we thought we’d brewed a particularly good example of a standard style, but not if we’d brewed anything remotely unusual.
And, from now on, we’ll certainly have a little more sympathy with the judges at national and international competitions.
We’ve noticed a distinctly improved malt character in the last two pale ales we’ve brewed at home, and think we know why.
Even though their grain bills consisted entirely of pale malt, for purely pragmatic reasons (using up ‘bag ends’) we used a mix of different varieties, from different sources, which we suspect has provided a subtle background texture.
We’re not talking about using different types of malt, e.g. crystal, chocolate, wheat or Munich, but multiple malts in the same category.
We’ve heard of brewers mixing malt from different suppliers to even out inconsistencies, i.e. if Bloggs Malting Ltd can’t deliver Maris Otter this month, it won’t be missed because it only makes up 10 per cent of the total. But that must also improve the complexity of the beer, even if only in the most subtle way.
One of those music analogies everyone loves: a key secret in the Beatles’ sound is double tracking. John Lennon’s vocals in particular were usually made up of at least two separate recordings played in sync so that his voice sounded ‘thicker’. If you’re not interested in recording technology, you probably won’t spot it, but it certainly makes a difference.
And another for those who prefer to use their peepers rather than their lugholes: there’s green, and there’s textured green.
The appeal of texture is why Instagram is so popular, and why people spend so much time using Photoshop to make things look as if they were printed on sugar paper using a 1920s press.
So, our hypothesis is that a ‘pale and hoppy’ ale made with 40 per cent Bloggs’s Maris Otter, 40 per cent Dibble’s Maris Otter and 20 per cent Grubb’s Optic will taste more interesting than a beer with a grist comprising 100 per cent of any of those malts.
Can any other brewers (home or otherwise) confirm or deny?