“As far as the practical brewer is concerned, complete knowledge of the correct use of the microscope is as necessary as his life blood, for it will save him a host of troubles. Indeed, it passes my comprehension how some prefer to take their chance when you hear them say: ‘I never look at my yeast under the microscope. If it is of a certain solidity and smells all right, and is of a good colour, I never worry further about it!’ This kind of thing may not have led to disaster in former days, when the alcoholic content of beers was such that it was an efficient protection, but to trust to such rough and ready methods in these days must surely court disaster.”
‘The Training of an Operative Brewer’, B.G.C. Wetherall, Journal of the Operative Brewers’ Guild, October 1924
We also found something extremely appealing about the idea of an off-the-shelf educational tasting session. Like a chemistry set for grown-ups, it encourages the setting aside of a couple of hours, the clearing of a tabletop, and the taking of notes. This is not drinking, but thinking. With drink.
Beer #1: fermented with Pilsen lager yeast
This is a yeast we know reasonably well from our own home brewing experiments but we struggled, at first, to discern its influence in this case. That might be because we have been conditioned to expect that yeast character in weaker, paler beers, and needed to overcome our programming.
Eventually, we did begin to pick out the familiar sulphurous note; something lemony; and then a faint reminder of Parma Violets.
Though they didn’t deliver a huge aroma, we did find that the use of decent amounts of American hops clashed with the yeast, knocking it out of focus.
What we learned: Pilsner Yeast does not seem, as they say, to allow citrusy hops ‘to sing’.
Beer #2: Bavarian weizen yeast
On the odd occasion we have run tasting sessions, German wheat beer has been our go-to to demonstrate the impact of yeast. Its famous banana-clove-bubblegum character is easy to spot and striking. And that is what we expected here.
In fact, we found a grainy, slightly smoky character, with a whack of harsh hoochy alcohol. It wasn’t very pleasant, frankly, and probably wouldn’t help a would-be beer geek to spot this yeast in action in another beer.
What we learned: wheat beer yeast is not much at home in a strong pale ale; and it needs handling properly to make with the bananas.
Beer #3: American ale yeast
This is where we expected Brewdog to shine, and for a brief break from the educational misery. It smelled fantastic, a big leafy fug of Stoned Love rising above the glass.
It tasted, unfortunately, less exciting — plasticky and gritty, like their big Hardcore IPA let down with water.
Three beers in, we were starting to notice a common off-flavour, and wondered if there was a fundamental problem with the base beer.
What we learned: were there actually more hops in this beer than in the others? If not, then it’s easy to see why yeasts like this one are popular with hophead brewers seeking to maximise their impact.
Beer #4: Belgian Trappist yeast
Cor! Though the common dodgy flavour is still just about evident, this was by far the best beer as beer. The yeast is so strident that it stamps all over the hops, pumping out spicy esters and turning the base beer into baked-apples-with-raisins delight.
Well, delight might be a bit strong: it’s not the best Belgian-style beer we’ve had by a long chalk, but really was both a demonstration of what Belgian yeasts do as well as being tasty.
What we learned: ‘Belgian’ is definitely a flavour.
We hope Brewdog do this again but, next time, the base beer needs to be better and, more importantly, plainer. Legendary British brewer Sean ‘Rooster’s’ Franklin has often spoken of pale’n’hoppy beers brewed without dark malts as providing a ‘blank canvas’ for other ingredients, and that’s what was probably needed here.
We also think there’s something jarring about the application of the Brewdog branding to this product. The beers are not exciting or awesome, even though one is very nice, and the Rock Horns rhetoric is misplaced. We’d suggest that, next year, they call the pack Understanding Yeast: practical exercises for the classroom (J. Watt & M. Dickie) and package it in textbook white.
We bought our four-pack as part of an online order from Brewdog’s own store. It cost £9.50 + delivery (around £2.35 per bottle).
We haven’t drawn any firm conclusions on this subject yet, but see what you make of these quotations. (Our emphasis throughout.)
“For this reason ‘whole’ corn meal, which contains the germ, will have a greater life-containing, life-giving quality than the ‘degermed’ cornmeal found in supermarkets. Whole cornmeal is a “live” food — it spoils when the oil in the germ becomes rancid. Degermed cornmeal is a ‘dead’ food, as it lacks the germ (of life). Hence, it can be kept on grocery shelves for months without spoiling, though like all milled grains it does become stale.” Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Bread Book, 1970.
“…’natural foods’ now threaten to replace ‘gourmet cooking’ as the main topic of food conversations… More than just a revival of old familiar food fads, this is part of the general concern now felt about the deterioration of our environment. Boredom with too much smooth, bland, overprocessed and sweet food has helped to attract not only the expected faddists, hypochondriacs and axe-grinders, but at least a proportion of scientists, especially nutritionists and conservationists.” ‘From Cranks to Nuts’, The Times, 7 August 1971.
“We opted at first for a high strength bitter brewed just from malt, hops, yeast and water. As well as being more wholesome this would also be simpler to produce.” Martin Sykes recalling the founding of the Selby Brewery in 1972, Called to the Bar, 1991.
“…the adulterated sludge that is glorified under the name of keg.” Michael Hardman, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing?, June 1972.
“The first distinction that must be made by the discerning drinker of draught beer is between keg, top-pressure, and traditional (the Real Thing)… traditional beer is alive while keg ber, like most bottled beer, is dead.” Richard Boston, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, The Guardian, 25 August 1973.
“British brewers are practically free to tamper with their beer as much as they want, unlike their colleagues in West Germany, who are forbidden by law to use any ingredient other than malt, hops and water… Fortunately, many brewers in Britain have kept faithful to nature, and beer brewed and served naturally can be found in nearly every corner of the country.” Michael Hardman, Beer Naturally, 1978.
“‘Real ale’ is the popular name for traditional beer brewed for centuries in Britain from malted barley and hops, with hundreds of regional variations in recipe and taste… Many brewers, big and small, use adjuncts in the brewing process. Flaked maize, potato starch, pasta flour, rice grits, malt and hop extracts will probably do you no harm but they are detrimental to the flavour of the beer.” CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1978.
This got us thinking. After all, though hop aroma is not something we especially associate with Belgian beer, it is certainly not the case that Belgian beer is bland or homogenous.
Hops are great — we love them — but their amount and variety are far from being the only variables a brewer has to play with.
In fact, two beers made with simple pale malt and ‘boring’ Fuggles could end up tasting and looking completely different, and equally mindblowing, if the following variables were carefully manipulated by a skilled brewer. (Or screwed up by a lazy one.)
Dark or clear? Unrefined? Caramelised?
Long boils to darken/caramelise sugars in the wort.
Blending of multiple strains.
Refinement/customisation in the lab.
Creative ‘misuse’ of specialty malts.
Belgian/German/British/US version of standard types, e.g. Pilsner malt.
Mash temperature and timing.
Heather (as in Williams Bros. Fraoch).
Salt (as in gose).
Spices (e.g. coriander).
Lactose and other unfermentable sugars.
M&Ms, otter spittle, Mr Kipling apple pies, and so on.
We’d like to put together a yeast family tree showing the relationships between the varieties of yeast used by British breweries. We know, for example, of a couple of breweries using yeast originally derived from the Shepherd Neame house strain.
We picked up a few tips in the comments to this post, and will be rooting around for information ourselves, but any information you can give us (especially if supported by links to evidence) would be gratefully received.
Where you know this is commercially sensitive information (i.e. the brewery doesn’t want people to know!) then it’s probably best to respect that.
Alternatively, if someone’s already put such a family tree together, let us know where we can find it.