Category Archives: homebrewing

On Judging

London Amateur Brewers competition.

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.

Barley illustration.

Subtle Variety = Texture

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.

Flat green vs. 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?

Watney’s Recipe Clues

Among the many treasures in the archive at the St Austell Brewery is a small notebook which contains more information about Watney’s beer than any source we’ve yet come across.

At some point in the 1960s, a Watney’s man left Mortlake in South London and took a job in Cornwall. He brought his day-to-day working notebook with him.

Its blue cover is grubby and scuffed, and much of the contents is mundane — cleaning formulas, notes on the prices of steel wool, and so on. Among the gems, however, is this table of information on the fermentables used in Watney’s full range c.1965:

Watneys brewery notebook.

Click to enlarge.

(We say c.1965 because (a) the only date recorded anywhere is October 1963 but (b) there is also a reference to Worthington E, launched which was pushed after 1967.)

We think those beers across the top are (updated 08/05/2014 — see comments):

  • Sto. = Stout
  • IPA
  • RBA = Red Barrel Ale (bottled Red Barrel)
  • RBK = Red Barrel K——-? (kegged Red Barrel)
  • Watneys Special Bitter/I——Special Bitter (perhaps branded for a brewery they’d taken over?)
  • WPA = Watney’s Pale Ale (bottled beer)
  • BA/XX — Brown Ale/Mild (pitch black…?)
  • Lager

If we’re right, then, first up, what we’ve been told about Red Barrel (as opposed to Red) would seem to be correct — it wasn’t full of ‘chemicals’ or ‘enzymes’, being made with c.90 per cent pale malt with a bit of invert sugar and a small amount of malt extract (EDME). It doesn’t even have any ‘flaked maize’ in it.

EDME description from notebook.

We don’t know what ‘DEM’ is — another form of ‘dried extract malt’, perhaps? CSI might be ‘candy syrup’, but that’s just a guess.

We don’t know about hop varieties or hopping rates so there isn’t quite enough information here to construct a recipe for 1965 Mortlake Red Barrel, but grist and approximate colour in Lovibond is more than we’ve had before.

Given the number of Watney’s men who went on to found their own breweries (Bill Urquhart at Litchborough, John Gilbert at Hop Back) there might well be lots of notebooks like this knocking about in attics across the country.

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.