Friday 16 October 2009

Barley Wine Number One

Barley Wine, it's something of an old ladies drink. Nobody really gives it much thought these days. Often at beer festivals something turns up that is strong enough for people to declare it as a barley wine, simply on the grounds that it is too strong to be beer. I have Tokyo* on sale in my pub and it's easiest to sell by using the description of barley wine, after all, we can understand the concept of a strong fruity drink when related to the fruit of the vine1. Do we really understand the difference between barley wine, old ale and intergalactic fantastic stout?

On Monday this week I attended the British Guild of Beer Writers barley wine seminar as the start of a beer exploration week. Perhaps I would understand barley wine better.

Arriving at Sheffield station ahead of schedule I met up with guild members and was introduced to the head brewer of a slightly bigger brewery. It's nice to be recognised as "Woolpack Dave" by key people in the brewing industry, and more so by their interest in the beer blogging world. People in the industry do read beer blogs, at least some do, and they like the information it gives them about grass root beer drinkers and their thoughts. The point that came through was that it is the comments as much as the posts themselves that can be most illuminating. A lesson for me to appreciate those who comment but with whom I might not agree. Opinion, after all, is just opinion.

More people arrived and we had a quick tour of an interesting project for a brewery tap of our hosts, Thornbridge. In 1904, or there about, a building was erected as part of the station. The waiting room included a bar with echoes of a disappearing Victorian splendour, the bar front long since destroyed but the back bar, dusty and neglected, threatened to once again shine through with polished mahogany and large shiny mirrors. Apparently the new bar front is being manufactured elsewhere. The 1350 bottle beer range should cap off for an interesting bar and a fantastic beer gateway for what turns out to be a great beer city.

From here to the delightful setting of Thornbridge Hall for the seminar. Many people serious about the subject of beer in all its various forms, were in attendance to try and "make sense of barley wine". Although the subject makes sense to me now, I'm not sure as a writer, brewer or beer drinker, I can communicate that sense as well as I'd like to. Part of the reason is perhaps because the subject was covered in good depth and with great interest, but in a polite and democratic way that failed to reach any firm conclusions. For me this adds to the charm of the event, but might detract from it's usefulness to the greater beer world. Here I will try my best to single out the key important things I learnt, but suffice to say this is probably scratching the surface of the subject.

The style that is barley wine seems a little confused. Our first speaker, Mark Dorber, did an excellent job of helping to focus on the style. The first point of course is the very question of style itself. There are a few organisations2 who try to define style, and there are often discrepancies between these definitions. The inevitable arguments about what is "true to style" are bound to ensue. As Mark pointed out "beer does not make itself" and style guidelines are useful for brewers as a spring board for progression and a hook to help define a product. The arguments about what style a beer actually is might never go away and frankly is a superfluous distraction. Mark did help us to understand the basis for this style, and therefore helps me to further develop what I think is an under developed drink, from a commercial point of view.

An exploration of the various attributes ensued; There is little point trying to sumerise what Mark said, because he's done it so well himself, so I will quote verbatium his own summary from the powerpoint presentation.

Amber to deep copper in colour

Intense, estery fruity aromas and higher alcohols present – big brassy hop aromas on US inspired beers - more restrained in UK

Full-bodied - 8.5-12% abv, monuments to pale malt and single barley varieties with firm, balancing bitterness in UK

Residual sweetness capable of attenuation during months/years of maturation in oak cask (rum, bourbon etc) or bottle

Liquorous, fortified vinous, silky texture and smooth mouthfeel

UK barley wines will have no tannins from grain and in the past tended to use low alpha noble hops – now changing

US barley wines have high alpha primary hop flavours and tannins in youth – mellowing with age

Aftertaste should not be characterised by Burtonising mineral salt dryness – key textural contrast with Imperial IPAs
A key interest for me was the astringency caused by tannins from the grain. Considered by some as a fault in beer but it's presence in grape wine, if carefully controlled, can act as an antioxidant and enhance it's maturation process. Wines with higher astringencies when young are harsh and unpleasant but mature better. I am keen to understand how this could effect barley wine during maturation and indeed if it could be controlled to good effect to produce outstanding matured strong beer.

John Keeling, head brewer at Fullers talked about parti-gyle beer. Apparently much of the beer produced by Fullers is made this way. As the sparge progresses, the wort is diverted into different coppers to produce the various production strength beers. One copper would be at 1080 and one at 1020. The cooled worts then being blended into the fermenter to produce the final products. An interesting advantage is that alpha acids polymerise better in the copper at lower gravity giving a better hop utilisation. John was keen to point out that this is not high gravity brewing, which is a different concept again, with parti-gyle, beer fermentation occurs at product gravity.

Brewing in this way enables a strong wort to be used for barley wine, such as Golden Pride and Fullers Vintage while still utilising the second runnings, blended with some of the first for the main stream ales.

Of course the unique characteristic of Fullers yeast was mentioned. A Golden Pride brew sheet was shown from 1966 where the yeast was on it's 926th generation. It does make me wonder how we can be sure the yeast was the same as it was nearly 1000 generations earlier, but of course that's the point; yeast evolves and is changed by the environment it lives in. Equally the ingredients of beer have to be varied as the yield from the grain changes or the alpha acid content of the hops changes. It is the job of the experienced brewer to adjust quantities and even possibly varieties to acheve a consistant result. "Marketing and management think that to get consistent beer you do the same thing every time" but John, at least I think it was John rather than the next speaker as my notes get confused here, asserts it is all about taste and experience. There, that makes these guys craft brewers in my view.

Despite the attraction of traditional techniques the use of the old square fermenters often don't produce good results. It was pointed out that the use of newer cylindrical-conical fermenters often increase the chances of winning CAMRA awards. Clearly good beer and traditional methods don't always go together. Just because this form of vessel is used to make mass produced poor quality lager does not mean it will make poor beer generally.

The next speaker was Steve Wellington of the White Shield brewery, the guy who looks after the "Old Lady" and so keeping Coors just about acceptable. He was keen to point out the need for saying hello to such an austere and aged old brewhouse as if you forget, you are sure to have a bad brew day. Pete Brown talks about this brewery in his book Three Sheets to the Wind, so it was nice to hear a little more about it.

Here he talked about what I understand to be Bass No1 but I'm left a little confused about it's status. Coors seem to own the brewery that Bass No1 was brewed on but AB InBev own the Bass brand. Still, Steve seems to know an awful lot about how it could be brewed, although my understand is that it is not currently being made. Maybe this seminar will produce a new interest in barley wine and the White Shield brewery will once again make barley wine.

The key notable point was the difficulty of getting more than around 1060 - 1070 wort from all grain mash methods. Bass N01 was sparged to produce this gravity and then boiled to reduce the volume and concentrate the sugars. The boiled wort would have an S.G. of 1105 and take many hours. Often done overnight the brewer would creep back into the brewery next morning, without forgetting to say hello, and hope there wasn't just black tar in the bottom of the copper. A dark concentrate that originally contained no coloured malts is the result. 6 brewery barrels, or close to 1000 litres, is reduced to half of that volume.

Conversions of sugars into other compounds colour the wort and no doubt add to the final characteristics of the product. With a hop loading 6 times what you'd expect compared to an ordinary beer due to the low uptake of hop flavours the end result is a glorious rich dark malty beverage with just enough hopping to offset the sweetness.

To round off the first session Steve Grossman of Sierra Nevada explained a little about the production of Big Foot which is their 9.6% ABV barley wine. It is interesting in the craft beer scene in America how big and bold is favoured. Extremes of flavours and alcohol marks out the differences more than considerations of cask against keg or authenticity to anything previous. Consequently their barley wine is also very hoppy and bitter.

If you've got this far in reading you've done well. It was an interesting day and I've only covered about half of the proceedings. I could have written more detail so far, but even more of you would have got bored. I haven't even covered the most interesting things for me, which is the cultural issues surrounding stronger beers. Hopefully in my next post I'll cover what some of the other speakers say and hint at where the British beer industry and pubs alike could gain from barley wine.

If you want more information on the barley wine seminar then Malt Worms and Beer Justice have also covered the event.


1The name wine of course is linked to vine, the plant type that grows the fruit used to produce the regular vintners beverage. In French this link is much more obvious by their name of vin. Of course everybody already knows this, so this foot note is pointless.

2Mark uses The Brewers Association and The Beer Judge Program as examples of barley wine style descriptions. The CAMRA descriptions are also available but not mentioned. There seemed to be some irritation towards CAMRA's attitude to styles, which I'll confess I didn't quite grasp.


Mark Dredge said...

Nice piece Dave, although I was satisfied after reading the first sentence and didn't feel the need to continue ;) (I did though, out of politeness...!)

Shame I couldn't be there, from all accounts it sounded like a great event!

Lager Bore said...

Mr. Woolpack,
I've lurked quite a bit on your blog and I must say, I quite enjoyed this piece. I found the selection of breweries quite interesting. Not only representatives of traditional breweries present but also the colonies. It must have been quite the experience to hear them talk about their products. And the Bass/White Shield bit, hmm.
I live in Toronto, Canada and am lucky in that Fullers products actually get here--in can--in an enjoyable state, and that also American beers--such as Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot--can be found with relative ease. I quite enjoyed reading about them being presented in the same place.
I look forward to reading the next installment!

StringersBeer said...

Nice one.