Monday, 18 November 2013

Top Marks for Brew School...

So, having successfully brewed a kit with acceptable results, it was time for the next stage - the full mash! It's all very well reading everything you possibly can about the brewing process, but becoming hands on was the way forward... oh and maybe a little tutelage from an expert wouldn't go amiss.

With this in mind I decided to see what courses were available, if any. A quick search on the web soon displayed loads of results, but one in particular caught my attention. It was a one day course held by a local(ish) company by the name of Hartingtons, based in Bakewell (of the tart fame), who run a plethora of mouthwatering artisan foodie courses. It's tutored by 'brew meister' Paul Taylor, who heads up the lab at Murphy & Son, a company which, if you don't already know, provides all kinds of kit and services for the brewing industry and home brewers alike. He is also a founding member of the Nottingham Brewers Group and on the judging panel at the SIBA National Beer Championship. There was no denying the guy had credentials, so I slapped down some hard earned cash and booked the missus and I on the course.

My idea was to attend the course, soak up the knowledge and then purchase all the kit required to tackle a full brew. However, my eagerness got the better of me and I ended up buying one of Massive Brewery's stove-top kits and now have a successful brew in the FV doing its thing. Whether or not it turns out OK, I don't know, but at least I wasn't entering the classroom totally green.

Home grown hops...
The day of the course arrived and it was an early start for the drive over the tops of the Peak District to picturesque Bakewell, bleary eyed we made it to Hartingtons in one piece. The course kicked off with an introduction from our tutor, Paul, who spoke about what his job entails at Murphy & Son, his homebrew history and what to expect from the day's proceedings. Before he got stuck into the brew he talked us through the process of making beer -  the equipment, the ingredients and the recipe he was going to follow, which was a pale ale with hops picked from his very own garden. This brought to our attention a handy piece of brew designing software called Beer Engine, which allows you to input your ingredients and it will output your projected ABV, colour, required liquor volumes, etc., and then to save it for future reference. Something I will definitely be making use of for future brews.

With the fine details noted it was time to get a mash on. A volunteer weighed the grain and added it to the mash tun, already filled with the required volume liquor at the correct temperature (increased by a couple of degrees as the grain had been sat in the boot of Paul's car and it was a rather chilly day).

With nothing left to do at this stage, Paul discussed the quality of water, obviously the biggest ingredient of a beer, but one I really hadn't given much thought about. It was interesting to learn how the water supply from your tap can affect the general make up of a beer, and that pretty much water from anywhere in the UK, whether it's soft or hard, will need some kind of chemical assistance to get the most out of it. Alkalinity, Calcium, Chloride, Sulphate... the science is too elaborate to write about here, but it's worth reading up on if you want to tighten up your brews. We were told about a product named DWB, a mixed compound that, according to Murphy & Son, will 'alter the ionic balance and produce beers with the correct flavor and mouth feel', and who doesn't want that from their beers? Furthermore, you can send a sample of your water to their labs and they will advise of the amounts to use. It's relatively inexpensive, for both the service and the DWB, so it will definitely be something I'll look into for future brews.

With the chemistry lesson over it was time to sparge the mash with the recommended volume of water. This wasn't anything elaborate and didn't involve the use of any sparging contraptions, instead just simply adding water to the mash tun, giving it a stir, draining it off, adding it to the kettle and repeating until the target volume was hit. With the kettle now full it was just a case of waiting for it to reach the boil, a perfect time to break for lunch.

Lunch and refreshments were all included in the price of the course, and as you would imagine for a school based around artisan food stuffs, there were a nice selection of cheese, meats, pies and other treats to tuck into. With some time to spare, myself and the missus took a stroll admidst the stunning scenery and more importantly, to buy a Bakewell pudding (not tart!)... it would have been rude not to! This wasn't a particularly difficult endeavour considering where we were, and it turns out the baker who made our pudding also runs a baking class at Hartingtons. Upon our return to the classroom kitchen we were hit by an aromatic wall of malt and hops...Mmmmmm lovely.

With our hunger satisfied it was time to get back to learning. We were getting close to the end of the boil and so it was time to throw the final batch of hops in and immerse the chiller coil, along with a quarter of a Protafloc tablet to assist with the clarity of the beer. There are points of the brewing process where there's not a lot happening so Paul filled this time with anecdotes of malfunctioning immersion coils spraying water around his kitchen ceiling and FVs spilling their malty load on his garage floor leading to a sea of fungus!

With the boil now complete the chiller was attached to the tap and cold water began working it's way around the copper coil, cooling the wort down in preparation for the yeast to be safely pitched. During this time we discussed different yeasts, how they come packaged (dried, live, smackpack, etc.) and how they can affect the flavour of the brew, again something which I hadn't put much thought into yet. Paul was originally going to pitch some Nottingham Ale Yeast, which he told us is the most popular yeast amongst home brewers as it's fast acting and leaves a clear beer. However, this yeast required activating in water before hand which he had forgotten to do, so we went with Safale US-05 (the same yeast I used in my BIAB efforts) which could be pitched directly in the wort. With the beer successfully transferred to the FV and the yeast working its magic, that was the end of that. Time for an afternoon break.

During our break we did some blind taste tests from a handful of commercial beers and made some judging notes. The highlight was Thornbridge's excellent Imperial Russian Stout - St Petersburg, a popular favourite with all the attendees (I saw this one coming as I spied them covering the label up) and we were pretty much united in our distaste of Wychwood's doubt a group with good taste!

Obviously, as we had only just put the beer in the FV it was far from ready for consumption. Luckily for us Paul had the spoils from his previous brew school session, a pale ale with 5 'new world' hops, for us to bottle, label and take home. As you can see from the photo our the labels didn't survive the journey home.

We found the course to be very informative and it was useful for me to watch an experienced homebrewer run through the whole process. All-in-all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and what better way to end such a great day in Bakewell than with a slice of pudding and a glass of Thornbridge's Wild Swan! 

The Brew School is a relatively new educational establishment, having only opened its doors in September of this year, but already it seems to be gathering steam, with the likes of Murphy & Son getting on board and the sponsorship of Jim's Beer Kit lending credability. On top of the beer brewing course mentioned in this article, they also run a microbrewery course, which covers everything you would need to know to set up your very own brewery. This has recently been expanded to a three day course to include a tour around the local brewery at Peak Ales and the opportunity to quiz the folk who have already gone through the process of turning professional.

Many thanks to the folk at Hartingtons for the use of the photos!

UPDATE: Since attending the course Hartingtons have expanded their beer brewing courses massively with a dedicated Brew School covering all aspects of brewing and the industry, tutored by some seriously experienced folk!