Sunday 8 November 2009

Shed Breweries

I often get asked where I learnt to brew. People assume I had some home-brew experience or did a course, or perhaps both. No, none of this is the case. I used my tenacity and thirst for knowledge and the very helpful advice of my friend Stuart to get me going. One day brewing under the supervision of a knowledgeable brewer and then let loose on my own plant.

In hindsight I think I was extremely lucky. I followed the knowledge I was given and good beer generally resulted. I built up a model in my own head of why I did certain things and as I gained more knowledge modified that model in pursuit of better beer. Inevitably better results did follow, in most cases, but not without some errors along the way.

Up until a week ago I was still regularly finding information that contradicted my own knowledge about the making of beer. I very much doubt that this will ever stop but I felt on occasions unable to make rational decisions as to the information presented. What I did know was that some of it, especially from home-brewers, was based on inaccurate handed-down knowledge. And the sum total of my skills was no better.

I needed a course. A brewing course that would get me some authoritative information on the science behind the art of brewing. Making beer is a combination of chemistry and microbiology and doing the same thing each time, by rote, does not necessarily produce reliable results. The ingredients being largely natural and the environment changing from batch to batch, without measurements and adjustments variable product will result. Some might say this is what makes micro-brewing interesting, but it can also give breweries-in-a-shed a bad name.

Some members of SIBA have been less than kind about very small breweries, the ones in sheds. To some extent this is clearly sour grapes as we small people are making good in-roads to the market place. There is though some justification to the charge as the outputs from amateur-turned-pro brewer are much more variable. In my view this is a charm and to a beer geek like me an interesting beer is one that makes me sit up and take notice, not one that is an in offensive balance of boringness. But if I want to make a statement with my beer then I need to know how to control the outcome. If I were a painter who wanted a painting full of clashing colours then knowing how to mix that exact tone of colours is vital. If I want a beer that is going to be able to give a smack around the hop-head or one that might well have a bit of yeast bite because I've pushed the boundaries of ABV then I should understand what is happening.

After some research I came to the conclusion that many of the more successful consistent brewers I know have engaged the assistance of Brewlab in Sunderland. They do several courses but I decided that the most suitable for me was the Brewing Skills Development course. This is a 5 day course, nearly completely classroom based and heavy on chemical and biological theory. Very useful for existing brewers who need to know exactly why they do what they do and perhaps to learn why they should not do some things that they do. I went on said course last week.

I could go into great length here about the detail of the course, how the lecturers were witty, engaging and very knowledgeable. I could tell you anecdotes about my frequent good natured arguments about just how much hops can go into a beer before it becomes unbalanced, and how tolerant Chris was of my deliberate contrariness. I could also stress how important it is to engage in the learning process to maximise understanding. But I'll just confine my comments to saying how jolly good the course was.

I would say that having an "O" level in Biology and Chemistry is also handy. If you are a whipper-snapper then I guess GCSE's will do, the fact that you did them more recently should counter the inferiority of this newfangled qualification. You see, I can side with the traditionalists sometimes.

It did get me thinking; shed breweries do produce more interesting and innovative beers. Brewing beer that is nothing more than a carbon copy of a mainstream traditional ale seems a little pointless. "Brewed with traditional English malt and hops" is oft the proud marketing caption. In my book traditional equals boring. An over emphasis on balance and consistency from within the brewing industry may well be contributing to the lack of innovation discussed on Tandleman's blog.

In conclusion, I'm glad I brewed beer before going on the course. I'm also glad I went on the course. I know that brewing 4% session beer, irrespective of the innovation I put into it, is never going to make me any money. The lack of any economies of scale at 2 barrels brew-length does not permit making money at the price level that people are prepared to pay for normal session beer. I think if I had gone on this course before I started to brew I might never have started. I would have believed that making money out of beer is all about consistency and selling volume to the boring masses.

Having a small brewery I have to be different. As they say, it's not the size that matters but what you do with it. Now I am not only equipped with the experimental tenacity that got me this far and the willingness to break with tradition that governs boring 4% session beers, but now I have gained great leaps in my science knowledge surrounding brewing. This in total enables me to push a few more boundaries and make great beer that will satisfy any beer geeks that drop by, hopefully still keeping enough of an eye on balance, tradition and mass appeal.

At least that's the theory.

I still might not make any money, but if I'm not going to make any money doing something, I might as well enjoy not doing so.


Whorst said...

I enjoy those boring 4% session beers. They become boring when they turn to warm vinegar. I wonder if the Germans think a finely crafted pils is boring?

Back to the arts. The two biggest contributing factors are water and yeast. If I owned a small brewpub, I'd have a small lab for yeast manipulation. Loops, agar, vials, dishes, microscope, large vessels for growing starters, etc. Water should also be treated in high regard with knowledge of local water report and its contribution to the styles you most commonly brew.

Unknown said...

Indeed Wurst, if the water, or brew liquor, is not correct then everything goes down hill after that. It's my first task to check my brew liquor.

Yeast manipulation is something I'd like to be able to do, but one thing at a time.

Mark Dredge said...

Well said! I still need to try some of these beers though, Dave! Now you are a learned brewer I expect them to be even better than I would've previously hoped :)

Stonch said...

I think microbrewers that are consistent with quality have a right to be sniffy about those that put out dodgy beer. As a publican I've written off some microbrewers with otherwise good reputations as too unreliable.

The Urban Brewer said...

I did one of the brewlab courses last year and found it incredibly useful. They are very knowledgable and enthusiastic about the science behind the art. It made me even more keen to start a brewery.
I assume evenings were spent doing "research" at Fitzgeralds?

I'm with Wurst on session ales, when brewed dilligently and kept well in the cellar they are wonderful.

Crown Brewery said...

Dave, great post and i agree with you about pushing the boundry's, i try to that every time i come up with a new brew.
those are also the kind of beers i like to drink my self.

I also agree with Mr Bell there are to many brewers out there not brewing well enough, not consistant enough and also too many casks not settling.
One brewery we have had two deliverys from won't be getting any more orders from us. 1st delivery was a swap of 4 9's, nothing out standing in flavor and we had to have 2 of them replaced cos they didn't settle. at some point before the next order i spoke to some one about this brewery and they said they had always been impressed so next time rang i orded 2 9's the 1st took 7 days to sell the 2nd didn't settle.

ChrisM said...

I spent this afternoon at the Bacchus in Newcastle for a beer and food matching event with beers from The Brew Company of Sheffield. Pete, the brewer, was in attendance and was telling us about his Brewlab experiences and how much they had helped him. The beers certainly backed this up! 8 beers matched to 8 courses - a good day!

Rob Sterowski said...

I sometimes think with breweries like Adnams, Harveys and Batemans that their water and their yeast contribute more character to the beer than the actual recipes.

What's with all the bashing of session beer? This is one of the more unattractive aspects of the US beer scene that I don't want imported here. Traditional doesn't equal boring. Boring equals boring.

Unknown said...

Water and yeast are part of a good beer recipe, not more or less important.

I like session beer. I had 4 pints of 4ish% last night and enjoyed every single one.

I'd agree that the inverted snobbery of the American beer scene is too far the other way. Here however we are too focussed on just how many full pints we can neck in one evening, so much so that many beer lovers won't experiment.

Tim said...

I'd love Gazza to take me in that shed you have pictured

John West said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the course and would love to come up and taste your wares sometime soon (I should stress that's not a euphemism...)

But I feel an 'in defence of session bitter' post welling up inside of me.

I love London Pride, Landlord, Elgoods Cambridge and Adnams Bitter - all trad bitters. Dark Star Hophead is session bitter, lest we forget, but a very interesting one.

I agree there are too many me-too, brown water nothing-to-it session bitters. But I think the art of the session bitter must be in the margins as it's generally a subtle drop.

Love a full flavoured and extreme beer, but I enjoy session ales too.

Whorst said...

"Water and yeast are part of a good beer recipe, not more or less important."

Come on Dave, they are the two most important ingredients. Can you brew quality beer with water from the sewer and bakers yeast? One could argue that yeast is actually the most important ingredient. Both of them make the biggest impact on flavor.

Whorst said...

Oh, I forgot to add, it's nice to see homo-erotica in the beery world. Yes Barry, the things Prescotti could do to you in that shed would make the mayor of San Francisco blush!!

Unknown said...

"Can you brew quality beer with water from the sewer and bakers yeast?"

Indeed Wurst, you could not. But then neither could you make good beer from cornflakes and rice crispies, although some do try.

Velky Al said...

I know I am just an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to the brewing arts, but by and large I try to mix up my brews so that I am not just making the same as everyone else - especially looking forward to making another batch of my single hop (Fuggles) smoked chocolate porter next month.

When I design my recipes I have a flavour that I have in mind which I want to re-create, so Wurst is bang on the money, the yeast selection is vitally important, and explains why I seldom brew two beers in a row with the same strain.

Starting to ramble there, so will stop.