Session #132: Home Brewing Conversations

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

This is our contribution to the monthly exercise in collective beer blogging which this time is hosted by Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site who asks us to reflect on home brewing.

We winced a bit at this one. Over the years we’ve written about why we love home brewing, why we stopped home brewing, and why we started again. But we haven’t brewed in ages, or felt the urgent drive to do so. Jon has prompted us to interrogate ourselves.

Question One: Why is the home brewing kit still in the attic six months after we moved to Bristol?

There are positive reasons. We’re in a new part of the world with limited time off work which we want to spend exploring, not watching a pot that never boils. We’ve been busy ticking pubs and getting to know the local breweries. And (this may or may not be positive depending on whether you believe it is the job of beer bloggers to sacrifice their health in the War on Prohibition) we don’t drink as much as we used to — we only need so much beer!

But there’s at least one poor excuse: we’re still sulking because the last few beers we made were duds. We read the books, we bought the apps, we procured the fanciest ingredients from the Malt Miller, and we sanitised everything within half a mile of our house. Twice. After all that, the beer was still basically crap — a bit rough, a bit acidic, a waste of time and money.

Homebrewing yeast, book, notes and bottle.

Question Two: So why bring the brewing kit at all?

We had limited space in the removals van and got rid of lots of stuff, including about 150 books, but for some reason we kept the boiler, the mash tun, and the thousand bits of easily lost copper and plastic. Clearly there is unfinished business. The itch lingers.

It might never get used again — there’s hardly a house in Britain that doesn’t have a load of dusty home-brew kit in the back of a cupboard — but it’s good to know it’s there.

If we find a particularly interesting recipe in the archives we can at least make a stab at brewing some version of it. (Our last really successful beer was a 19th century Whitbread pale ale from Ron Pattinson’s marvellous book which turned out funky and fascinating.) If we wake up one Saturday morning with the urge to brew we could be filling a fermenting vessel by teatime. (Bristol has actual bricks-and-mortar home-brewing shops.) And we sometimes daydream about using it to make some mad, strong, beastie-riddled keeping beer for mixing with stuff from the supermarket as we’ve done with Orval in the past.

Or maybe it’s just sentiment. You’d be surprised how many memories a plastic bucket can hold.

Session #131: Three Questions About Beer

Illustration: 2018 BEER, constructivist style.

For this 131st Session of the ever-fragile Session (a monthly event which sees beer bloggers round the world post on the same topic) co-founder Jay Brooks has stepped in as emergency host and poses three questions.

  1. What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

What Jay wants to know here, we gather, is which phrase we might prefer to ‘craft beer’, given the general derision that term elicits from beer geeks in 2018.

But here’s the thing: we don’t use the term craft beer all that often, but when we do want a shorthand phrase for These Beers which are different to Those Beers, with flexible criteria and vague category boundaries, craft beer still seems as good as any.

We don’t really care — boutique beer (pretentious), designer beer (sounds as if it wears a shiny grey suit with the sleeves rolled up), indie beer (a little more specific), or even Category X94, would all work just as well — but as craft beer does mean something (even if nobody agrees exactly what) and is in everyday use on the street, why bother fighting it?

‘Craft beer’ is fine, and we will continue to use it occasionally, if it’s all the same to you.

2. What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Jay set the bar high on this one: “everything they brew should be spot on”. We can’t think of a single brewery that meets that standard and most of those that come near aren’t underrated. But…

Maybe our brewery of the year for 2017, Bristol Beer Factory, gets a bit less attention than it deserves. It is a touch conservative by the standards of 2018; it lacks novelty value being more than a decade old; and it can seem somewhat faceless. Those beers, though. Oh, those beers.

And we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some of the small West Country breweries on rotation at our new local, The Draper’s Arms, many of which we’d never heard of and/or never tried. There are a few that might end up filling this slot, when we’ve really got to to know them. Kettlesmith, for example, or Stroud, or Cheddar Ales, all of which have now moved from Risky to Solid in our mental list of trusted breweries, with potential to progress further.

3. Which three kinds of beer would you like to see more of in 2018?

Mild. Dark, ideally, but with flavours defined by sugars rather than out-of-place roastiness. (Mild does not just mean baby porter.)

Pale-n-hoppy. It’s not there aren’t lots of them, just that we don’t come across them quite as often as we’d like. Ideally, every pub would have at least one on offer, just like they’d have one mild/porter/stout, but that’s not our experience so far in Bristol pubs.

Imperial stout. Although people complain ‘that’s all you get these days’, we still hardly ever encounter them in pubs. Bottles would be fine — this is one style that can sit in the fridge for months just getting more interesting. The funkier and scarier the better, but ideally fruit/chocolate/coffee free.

Session #129: None of Our Beer Styles Are Missing

A pint.

This month’s edition of the Session, hosted by Eoghan at Brussels Beer Cityasks us to consider ‘missing local beer styles’ and for us, still coming to grips with a new city, this has been rather heartening: Bristol has all the beer styles.

First, there are the standards. There are tons of bitters, best bitters and pale-and-hoppies — too many to mention. Brewpub Zero Degrees (of which more in a moment) has a decent pilsner while Lost & Grounded produces a widely available Keller Pils that has just a whiff of craft about it without being scary or weird.

Then there’s the second tier styles. To pick just one example, Moor brews a straight-up cask stout, called Stout, primarily for the Italian market, which we think is just wonderful. Bristol Beer Factory has its Milk Stout which is also bordering on ubiquitous, not only cask and keg in pubs but also bottled in delis, cafes and restaurants. And there are other local milk stouts available. Milk stout!

In fact, here’s a (no doubt incomplete) list of styles currently being produced on a regular basis by breweries in and around Bristol, and fairly easy to find:

  • Barley Wine
  • Black IPA
  • Bock
  • Brown Ale
  • Brown Porter
  • Double IPA
  • Dubbel
  • Dunkelweizen
  • Eighty Shilling
  • Farmhouse ale
  • Gose
  • Imperial stout
  • Kölsch (terms and conditions apply)
  • Kriek
  • Porter
  • Rauchbier
  • Saison
  • Stout
  • Table Beer
  • Tripel
  • Weizen
  • Wit

And remember, that’s just what’s being brewed here — once you get into specialist bars, BrewDog, the flagship Fuller’s pub or Wetherspoon’s, you can probably tick off every other style that might come to mind if you have a particular craving for, say, dubbel or altbier.

If there’s something we’d like to see more of (stuck records that we are) it’s mild, although we’ve managed a few pints of that here and there since arriving in town, too. And, of course, we’re keen for someone to explore Bristol Old Beer. But, really, what do we have to complain about with all that lot listed above to explore?

This post would be quite different if we didn’t live in a city although even Penzance, a short ride from Land’s End, where we lived until the summer, had its own porter, mild, imperial stout…

The point is, if you’re interested in the full range of beer styles — not everyone is — then 2017 is a hell of a time to be alive. It’s just not much of a time to be writing plaintive blog posts about missing beer styles.

Session #127: Festbier auf Englisch?

Autumn leaves somewhere in Europe.

For this month’s edition of the Session, when beer bloggers around the world write on one topic, Al at Fuggled has asked us to hunt down and consider Oktoberfest beers.

This is another one we were going to sit out because we haven’t seen any on sale and didn’t have chance to go hunting. But then we decided, once again, to just be the kind of idiots who ignore the instructions and come at it sideways instead.

So here’s the question we asked ourselves: what’s the English equivalent of Festbier?

First, we need to get our heads round what Festbier means in Germany. Yes, we’ve been writing about beer for years and should know by now but the fact is, it seems a bit vague; has been the victim of some apparently incorrect explainer articles over the years; and, being seasonal, hasn’t often been on offer when we’ve been in Germany.

So, without getting bogged down in its history, what does it mean now? What does a German consumer expect from a bottle with Festbier or Oktoberfest on the label? We decided the quickest way to get some kind of working answer was to ask a German, namely Andreas Krenmair (@der_ak) who blogs about beer and brewing at Daft EejitHe says…

Good question… personally, I’d expect it to be slightly stronger than an Export-strength beer but not quite as strong as Bockbier. For a Festbier, that would essentially mean a scaled-up Helles, with a thicker mouthfeel, possibly a slight booziness, and maybe a tiny bit more bitterness, but still relatively restrained. If it’s advertised as Märzen, I’d expect an amber to pale-brown colour, with noticeable melanoidin flavours, i.e. that maltiness coming from darker-kilned malts like Vienna or Munich malt.

Disappointing with a beer labelled as Festbier/Oktoberfest-Märzen would certainly be either not enough or too much alcohol, any of the obvious off-flavours that some lagers suffer from, too much bitterness or an assertive hoppiness. In the case of Märzen, the lack of that typical maltiness would be especially disappointing, as it would be an indicator for an industrially brewed Märzen that is essentially Festbier coloured with Sinamar (Ron Pattinson once mentioned that some Munich brewery does that for the US export market, but I forgot which brewery it was). All in all, my expectation of a Festbier or Oktoberfest-Märzen is that I can drink at least 1 Maß of it without getting drunk, and wanting more afterwards, so drinkability is key…

As a bonus, if the beer is served from gravity instead of keg, and with slightly lower carbonation, that makes a good Festbier even more drinkable in my opinion.

That’s something to go on, and more or less fits with what we thought it meant.

So, an English equivalent would be a stronger, richer, smoother version of an everyday style, and a bit stronger than the norm but not Super Strength. Stronger, richer, smoother, 5 point something… That sounds a bit like ESB for starters, doesn’t it? The only problem is, ESB is available all year round, and a Festbier probably ought to be withheld if it’s to feel special.

With that restriction in mind, Spingo Special, from the Blue Anchor in Helston, occurred as an option. It only turns up occasionally, and is certainly rich. The only problem is… it’s not very nice — just so, so sickly sweet, and way too strong. It certainly fails AK’s drinkability test.

Another candidate might be St Austell Tribute Extra which is a stronger, maltier version of the famous ale that tends to appear on cask in November and December. (That’s right, not September, when Oktoberfest happens, or October when people understandably think it does.) Quite a few other breweries (a bit of Googling suggests) have winter versions of their standards ales along the same lines. So maybe that’s as close as we get, timing notwithstanding.

As it is, British autumn seasonals tend to be things with Red in the namerye in the grist, or both, and that’s fine, but it might be nice if those beers were also a full percentage point or so stronger.

Actually, ‘autumn ESB’ has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? How would you go about brewing one?


UPDATE 13:47 01/09/2017: Johannes Weiss (@weizen) works at Weihenstephan and says:

As for Oktoberfestbier, original gravity needs to be even higher than for Festbier, and in Germany only Munich breweries can call it Oktoberfestbier by law.

So there’s nothing there that really applies to Britain, but it’s an interesting distinction.

Session #125: Single Malt, Single Hop

Cascade Express -- hop-themed boarding card.

Mark Lindner at By the Barrel has asked us to consider so-called SMaSH beers — that is, those made using one variety of malt and one variety of hops.

We were going to give this a miss because we couldn’t think of any such beer we’d drunk in recent years, or at least not any that made a virtue of their SMaSH status and proclaimed it at point of sale.

(St Austell did release a series of SMaSH beers a couple of years ago but unfortunately, like so many of the more interesting products of our (not for much longer) local giant they proved impossible to actually find on sale in any of the pubs we visited at the time.)

But then we began to wonder… How many quite commonly found beers are SMaSH beers even if they don’t declare it?

Rooster’s Yankee, for example — a beer we wrote about at length in Brew Britannia and have often touched on elsewhere — is (as far as we can tell) made with 100 per cent Golden Promise malt and 100 per cent Cascade hops. And we believe (evidenced corrections welcome) that Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, another long-time favourite of ours, is made using 100 per cent English lager malt and 100 per cent, er, Brewer’s Gold hops.

You might say, in fact, that the pale-n-hoppy UK cask ale sub-style is often SMaSH by default. Sean Franklin, the founder of Rooster’s, has long championed the idea of using 100 per cent pale malt to provide the cleanest possible background for hops to express themselves, and that’s certainly approximately how most of the best examples of HLA seem to be engineered. Perhaps there’s some wheat in there (see Jarl) or a dab of something like Munich malt just to round it out a little but, generally, Franklinian simplicity seems to be the preferred route.

So, what other examples of Stealth SMaSH are out there in UK pubs?

And does anyone know, for example, if Oakham Citra might be a SMaSH beer? Online homebrew forums are full of guessed recipes (guesscipes…) but we can’t find authoritative information. Our guess is, yes, in which case, it turns out we’ve drunk tons of SMaSH beer after all.