Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Macc Homebrew Goes to Red Willow...

In Macclesfield we have an annual event called Barnaby Festival. A mix of art, music, food, film and just about anything else remotely cultural… and it’s kind of a big deal around these parts. The mother of one of our Macc Homebrew members, Tom, is one of the organisers behind the event and a seed was planted that there should be a Macclesfield born-and-bred Barnaby beer (since named Trouble at Mill). There’s only one brewery in this town that could make this happen - Red Willow! After numerous meetings everyone was on board the plan was a-go-go. However, as a twist it was to be a collaboration beer with the Macc Homebrew guys and Red Willow! At one of the recent meetups, Toby had spoke of supplying each of us with a brew pack, containing the same grain, hops and yeast. We all go away, brew a beer and then the best one gets scaled up and brewed at the brewery! Four of us - myself, Mike, Graham and Tom, all expressed eagerness to be involved, of course, it was too good of a opportunity to let up! A week or so passed and there was no word from Toby, then out of the blue one Tuesday afternoon we all received an email:
Bugger me time is flying and we need to get the Barnaby Beer brewed, not on a small scale but 2000 Litres, so who is around Saturday?
Eeek! A bit short notice, but thankfully my lovely wife gave me a free pass for the day, so I was raring to go. The seemingly man of leisure (just because he seems to brew all the time), Tom, was also free, but unfortunately for Graham and Mike work and family life had them tied up for the morning, but luckily they would be available in the afternoon - just in time for the cleaning! 

Toby followed up his email outlining the recipe we would be working with; a 4% ABV pale ale with lots of fruity floral hops, an already delicious sounding summer session ale! Saturday rolled around and Tom and myself arrived bang on 8AM eager to get started, but not before a whirlwind health and safety tour. Toby pointed out all the things that could kill, maim or dissolve our faces. With the formalities out of the way and our adrenaline well and truly pumping, we got stuck in sorting out  the grain - only 13 sacks of Maris Otter with a dash of caramalt and torrefied wheat. Whilst we were busy Martin, a photographer, had turned up to capture the brew day for the Barnaby festival website. We took it in turns to feed the malt into the mash tun, whilst the other clambered up the step ladder and stirred the mash. If the beer tastes salty then that’ll be Tom’s sweat as he frantically tried to break up the dough balls forming as I fed the grain too fast. Once done we put the lid on the mash tun and set the timer for 60 mins. With nothing else to do Toby tasked us with some general brewery duties, namely cleaning casks and bottles, but it was all in a good cause as we would be bottling Red Willow’s superb smoked porter - Smokeless.
With what felt like thousands of bottles cleansed (in reality it was probably only around a 100) and left to drain on a bottle tree, Toby pointed out the bench bottle capper and labelling machine to myself and Martin and then set about filling the freshly cleansed bottles. What did surprise me is how much beer goes to waste when bottling, which Toby estimated at around 50 litres! All that lovely Smokeless going down the drain! Two homebrews worth at that! This was no time to get all sentimental, I saluted the dark liquid sailing past me in the drainage trough and set about getting the surviving beer capped and labelled. The labelling contraption did take some figuring out as I hadn't noticed the pedal under the bench that made it work, but we soon got into a flow and were boxing up beers at a rate of knots. In the meantime Tom had finished sorting out the casks ready for washing and had taken over the bottle filling duties. I’d estimate at this point we probably lost a fair few more litres of beer to the drains! Before we knew it we had filled and packaged easily a couple of hundred bottles, not bad for a band of novices.
So pleased with our efforts we hadn’t even noticed that Toby had begun sparging the wort and transferring it into the kettle, with a lovely golden glow of summer emanating from the sight glass. After a little bit of tidying up around the brewery it was soon time to dig out the spent grain and with impeccable timing Mike arrived just as I had climbed inside the mash tun. Luckily for me he was eager to get his hands dirty and offered to take over. It was soon becoming apparent that the majority of the work involved in brewing beer on a large scale is cleaning! 
Not long after Mike had began jet washing the interior of the mash tun Graham arrived completing the homebrew gang. Whilst we waited for the wort to get up to the boil, Toby filled the time in with brewery tales of HMRC bills, dealings with Virgin Trains, importing/exporting, drunken landlords, it was a great insight into this business. He was also kind enough to let us sample a few of the beers he currently has aging in barrels in the back of a storeroom. A gorgeous tart sour that will eventually join the Faithless range (Red Willow's experimental and one-off brews) and Ruthless, a cherry stout that first hit the pumps at the bar last Christmas, which was tasting even better than I remembered. The cream of the crop though was an early sample of the 10% imperial stout he has currently conditioning for Christmas. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I've found a Strannik beater! 
With the wort getting up to a boil we decided on what hops we would add. We all agreed that floral and fruity were the way forward for a light summer session ale, so Chinook for bittering and then a mainly a mix of Amarillo and Simcoe for flavour and aroma. I was surprised that the 60 minute addition in a 2000 litre brew was a mere 300 grams, compared to the 4Kg we threw in at flame out, not to mention the 5Kg of T90 pellets Toby was planning to dry hop with! The brewery was smelling incredible! With the boil done Toby began transferring it into the FV via a plate chiller and heat exchanger, with the heated water then pumped into the tank that will supply the next mash, very efficient! 
Using a pretty hefty hose it took around 45 minutes to transfer the chilled wort into the FV. One thing I did notice was that other than letting the wort drop into the FV from the top, there was no other aeration involved. This is something I was recently reading up on, of which there are numerous methods and theories that brewers employ, but I had always just dropped the wort from a height into the FV, so it was reassuring to see a professional brewer using this simple method too. With the FV filled it was time to pitch the yeast, which Toby had recently harvested from another brew. Again we’re not on small measurements here, but gallons...a couple of 5 gallon brew buckets worth were chucked in there! With the hatch sealed, it was now down to the yeast to do their stuff. With the brew done there was nothing left to do other than clean the joint up. Graham had the envious task of climbing inside the kettle to scoop out all the spent hops around some evil looking heating elements. After around an hour of scooping, jet washing and sweeping, we were done. Weary, tired and wet there was only one thing to do...get our arses down to the Red Willow bar for a well earned scoop! Beer tastes so good after a massive brew day like that.
All-in-all it was a fabulous day and a useful insight into the beer brewing business and our thanks goes out to Toby for the excellent opportunity. It was a hard day’s work, but that doesn’t matter when you’re making excellent beers!