Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A visit to Rochefort brewery

I can't say I've drunk a lot of Rochefort beers over the years. A slight twinge of embarrassment from my first trip to Belgium might be why. Not being used to the ways of these continentals I started drinking in an almost deserted bar at 7pm. When I stumbled to the now crowded bar for my last beer at the usual (to me anyway) time of 11pm and ordered a Rochefort 10 I can remember a disdainful local looking round and saying simply 'English'.

I don't suppose my drinking habits have changed that much since then, but I have realised that in most countries the drinking starts and finishes later so I at least have more chance of reaching a respectable hour before I get tired and emotional.

So having no expectations about the next visit on our trip I was absolutely blown away by what a beautiful brewery Rochefort is.

The gleaming copper vessels are actually still used.

There was no mash filter in the building next door here.

And the copper vessels weren't shells hiding stainless steel ones.

The brewhouse dates from 1962 and the recipes have remained essentially unchanged since then. The monastery was founded in 1230 and probably brewed, but the earliest brewing record is from 1595. The French revolution saw the end of the monastery though, and monks didn't return until 1890. There are various historical things in the cellar but it's not all old fashioned.

Here's a centrifuge:

...and cylindroconical fermenters:

...er...and a paraflow and bottling line. I really should have got this written up sooner.

The numbers on the beers refer to an old Belgian system for measuring gravity, which was almost as sensible as degrees sacch. Rochefort 6 has a gravity of 1.060, 8 is 1.080 and 10 is 1.100. The 8 is made from pale malt, wheat starch, white and brown sugar, with Aramis and Styrian golding hops. Aramis is one of Peter Darby's hop varieties so comes from considerably later than 1962, though were told it was replacing Hallertau. The grist provides about three quarters of the extract and the sugars the rest. The hops are pelletised and caramel is used for colour.

Nine brews a week are carried out over four days. A 90 minute boil gives only 4% evaporation to the 100 hl brew length, for which 1500kg of grain are used. The mash is long at 2 hours and 20 minutes, starting at 63°C and rising to 74°C. The beer spends a week in the fermenter at 22°C and then is cooled to 15°C for two days and centrifuged. Conditioning takes three weeks in flat bottomed tanks. A degree plato's worth of invert sugar is added along with yeast for bottling, Rochefort 8 getting 3 million cells per ml and 10 4-5 million. CO2 rises from 2g/l to 7 due to the bottle conditioning.

Unlike at Orval, I did actually manage to spot one of the monks here. There are 13 of them.

I don't know how much beer the monks get through but it must be a perk of the job, and after this visit I know I'll be drinking more Rochefort.

Hmm..how many bottles are left?

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Don't fear the Namur: Bocq Brewery

The fourth day of the Belgian study tour started with a trip to Bocq brewery. Another name that didn't ring a bell but I had had of one of their beers, Blanche de Namur. Sadly I didn't remember liking it.

They do quite a few more, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Their yeast makes a lot of 4VG but not a lot of esters. Water comes from two wells but is treated by reverse osmosis and then has calcium added back. They use a lot of two row barley but six row for the wheat beer, though it has a low soluble nitrogen ratio. Unmalted wheat is of course also used in the wheat beer. The hops are  mainly Saaz and Saphir, though hopping rates are fairly modest: the highest is 25-27 IBU and the wheat beer is 11. Some beers have spices added which include orange peel, coriander, liquorish and ginger.

As seems to the common in Belgium the brewery is a mixture of ancient and modern, though part of the old brewery (the mash kettle) is still in use.

They brew four times a day, four days a week, using four tonnes of malt.

They have a 90 minute mash, starting at 62°C and rising to 72°C. The wheat beer only has a short boil to keep the natural haze, other beers are boiled for 60-90 minutes to get 6% evaporation.

They ferment at 23°C but still need a diacetyl rest at times and have conditioning tanks.

The yeast goes for 25 generations but they can have problems with it as the amount of sugar used can cause carbon catabolite repression. Try saying that after a few glasses of Triple! Zinc and oxygen are added to the wort to help the yeast, though the pitching rate is relatively low at 5 million cells per ml.

After fermentation the wheat beer is chilled to only 15°C to help keep the haze and is unfiltered. The other beers are chilled to 2-3°C and filtered. The bottle conditioned beers start at 2 -2.5g/L CO2 with a target of 7.5.

The fruit beers get a whopping 250 PU which sounds very high to me, but as it must have a low hopping rate and high sugar content I guess they're playing it safe.

As to the all important tasting, I'm happy to report that I enjoyed the beers very much, though I did steer clear of the fruit beers as they sounded suspiciously like they were at the alcopop end of things.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Volunteering has its rewards

And I'm not talking about some vague warm glow from having done a good deed. Oh no, I mean getting to go round breweries and drink vast quantities of free beer.

Having volunteered for a shift at Woking beer festival I got to go on the staff outing. This involved being bussed round some of the breweries that won prizes and pouring free pints down your neck whilst they get a certificate.

As I'm past my drinking prime the 10 O'clock start was a little daunting, but sometimes you just have to go for it. First stop was Triple fff brewery, near Alton.

It was here that I once again found that will power is soluble in alcohol and my plans of pacing myself lasted as long as my first sip. The first pint went down disturbingly quickly and though I did manage to slow things down a little with the second I was soon rushing up for more when a new beer was put on. 

Here's the owner playing catch up whilst waiting for his certificate

Oh well, it was free.

Then it was over to Basingrad to the Longdog brewery, an altogether smaller affair, but don't worry, the beer was still free

I mostly drank the stout here. If I remember rightly the beer originated as a home brew before the brewer went commercial.

And here he is getting his certificate
We had sandwiches here which may have delayed slightly my inevitable decline. Next stop was a pub, presumably in case we we hadn't had enough beer. Nice pub it was, probably a tick too, but I can't recall what it was called or where it was.

Then it was on to Thurstons in Horsell.

I can walk home from here but somehow failed to do so until gone ten, free beer once again winning the battle of wills. It's a good job I didn't have any plans for the next day as drinking an inordinate number of cups of tea was my biggest achievement.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The hops in Shepherd Neame beers

Last week despite my preference for spending Thursday nights hitting people I found myself in a pub in Kent playing bat and trap, a game popular with the locals. Shepherd Neame brewery were having a do and people from various companies they work with were invited. 

Having recently learnt that there's talk of Sheps avoiding the problem of light strike by using reduced hop extracts, or even no hops at all I took the opportunity to talk to members of the brewing staff about exactly what hops they do use, and how much.

Being a traditional Kentish brewery (or is it brewery of Kent?) they do of course use a lot of hops. The core beer range is all hops from Kent (Target, Admiral, First Gold and Goldings were mentioned), and with their craftier beers they've branched out to use foreign hops such as Centennial and Saaz too. As to how much hops they use, the beer I was on, Master Brew (3.7% ABV) has around 35 bitterness units, the sort of hopping rate that would put it in the realms of craft beer if only it tasted of grapefruit. Perhaps they would get more cred if they called it a Session IPA rather than a Kentish ale.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A visit to Orval brewery

This was the thing that swung it for me to fork out for Belgian Study Tour: a trip to Orval brewery. It was very good, and I did get a crate of the stuff whilst I was there, but sadly I also learnt that even in a monastery brewery the work of the devil can be found.

Taking some pictures when we arrived
The brewhouse was very impressive. The holy fathers are clearly not short a bob or two. As well as the gleaming copper vessels there was a glass floor and little lights in the ceiling so it looked like stars. A wonderful looking place.

The copper vessels were not quite what they appeared though, perhaps an early clue to the crypto-luciferianism I would soon see revealed.

Here's some more pictures of copper vessels.

And another one.

The fermenters weren't as pretty though:

The brewery was built in 1931, and the new brewhouse was put in in 2007. The grist for Orval is pale (50% proant free), cara and a small amount of black malt (one sack per 280hl!). It's wet milled at 62°C. They mash at 60°C for one hour, then 72°C for 20 minutes. Hop extact is added in the copper and some hop pellets are added to the lauter tun as an antioxidant. This last bit is a new one on me, so I wonder if it really works? After boiling the beer is centrifuges, liquored back and cooled to 17°C. Oxygen is added to 10ppm and yeast pitched at six million cells per ml.

Sucrose is added after cooling, raising the gravity from 1.042 to 1.054. The beer is down to 1.004 before bottling and drops to 1.000 after the Brettanomyces has done its work. 

It takes six hours to do a brew and they brew five to six times a week. The water is treated with reverse osmosis and the CaCl2 and CaSO4 are added to 'mid level'. The wort has 50 IBU and the beer 32-35.

The beer spends five days in the fermenter, starting at 16°C, rising to 24°C. Fresh yeast is propagated for each brew, and it skips the lag and gets straight on with the exponential phase.

They have their own bottling line which seemed to be working fine. I've always suspected that using skittle shaped bottles must be a right pain in the arse but as far as I could see they had no more problems than usual.

The beer is dry hopped with bags of whole Strisselspalt hops in conditioning tanks, for between 10-20 days at 15°C.

Here's some of the conditioning tanks:

And here's a filter and a centrifuge:

After conditioning the beer is centrifuged, filtered, primed with sugar and re-seeded with yeast to 3 million cells per ml. Brettanomyces only makes up 1% of the yeast used for re-seeding. The beer is carbonated to 5g/l before bottling and will rise to 9.5g/l in the bottle. It is also at this stage that the anti-christ does his diabolic deeds: nitrogen is added to the beer to 15ppm to improve the head. It's also used for counter-pressure in the filler and liquid nitrogen is used for over foaming on capping.

Things got better in the lab:

Here are some Brettanomyces cultures:

At Orval they brew the same amount each week, all year round. They don't seem to have any plans to expand production so supplies are limited, even to the extent that sales from the brewery shop are rationed.

Mind you then can condition 17,000 cases at a time (at 17°C for min. 3 weeks) so that's still quite a bit of beer.

Thanks to the Head Brewer

You can wander round the grounds of the monastery too, and of course exit via the gift shop.

The monastery has been destroyed twice, once by fire in the middle ages and once during the French revolution. 


We ate at the monastery's restaurant, which gave me a chance to try their patersbier, a weaker beer (4.5% ABV) made for the monks which they only sell here. As this was in all probablility a once in a lifetime opportunity to try it I was a bit concerned it would be rubbish. Happily that was not the case and I very much enjoyed it. The beer had a very fruity taste for those that are wondering.

And here's the main event:

Heavenly beer, dark satanic head that even a northerner would balk at
Then we were off for more secular pleasures. Though come to think of it as it was drinking more beer not much different from our recent religious experience.

Last picture before we went

Friday, 19 June 2015

Historic barley varieties used for brewing

During a welcome, but sadly brief, lull in my workload I was able to go through most of the piles of paper that had built up on my desk. There at the bottom of one of them was a gem I'd mined from the JIB archive* and then forgotten about: the malting qualities of Spring barley varieties from 1880 to 1980:

They've used some peculiar foreign system for the Hot Water Extract, but fortunately give it in litre degrees per kilogram too. Similarly they have the Kolbach Index not the Soluble Nitrogen Ratio but they're both pretty similar anyway.

In the century 1880 - 1980 plant breeders have made a 40% genetic improvement in grain yield, but how much have they managed to improve malting qualities? Yield is one thing but for malting we want plump and bold grains, rapid and even germination so there is rapid and even modification, as well as low concentrations of cell wall material and protein.

In the experiment described in the paper 15 varieties of barley from 1880 to 1980, all of which were considered suitable for malting at the time were grown at Cambridge and Warminster in 1980.

Improvement in extract yield per hectare (i.e. a factor of grain yield and extract improvement) was 0.012 and 0.015 tonne/ha/year at Cambridge and Warminster respectively. Post 1953 when the variety Proctor was introduced the rate increased from the 100 year average: tripling at Cambridge and doubling at Warminster.

A previous study found little difference in extract between new and old varieties grown in a greenhouse, it allowed up to nine days for malting though. However, this study with the barley grown under field conditions and using modern shorter malting times did find significant differences. The mean extract yield of post-1953 varieties was 48.7% higher than that of earlier varieties. 

The Cambridge barley has nitrogen levels unacceptably high for commercial malting so data from Warminster was used to determine the relationship between nitrogen content and hot water extract
The genetic gain in yield was about 0.4% per year over the 100 year period, and 0.8% per year between 1953 and 1980.

Looking at the malt analysis figures its striking that though steady improvements have been made they are nowhere near as much as the improvements in the grain yield. It also looks to me that if you manage to get hold of a heritage variety it should be OK to brew with.

Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 89, Issue 5, September-October 1983, Pages: 344–348, P. G. Gothard, T. J. Riggs and D. B. Smith

Monday, 15 June 2015

St Feuillien brewery

After a hard day visiting Belgian breweries the next day we were up bright and early to visit some more. Only two this day though, starting with St Feuillien.

It was founded in 1873.

A new brewery was build after the first world war.

Though they stopped using this one eighteen months ago.

They produced table beer, pale ale and stout on quite a modest scale of around 4,000 hl a year. After the second world war they started producing an abbey beer.

In 1974 the brewery was mothballed and production outsourced. Brewing at the site restarted in 1986 to make special large bottles of beer. Things must have picked up since then as once again we moved from an old brewhouse with copper vessels to a gleaming stainless steel one with a mash filter.

It must be something to do with the strength of beer they produce that makes mash filters so popular in Belgium.

The mashing schedule is 15 min at 52°C, 40 min at 65°C, 30 min at 73°C then heat to 78°C. Mash filtration takes 75 minutes and has an efficiency of 100%. The boil is for 90 minutes with three hop additions and any spices are added with the last hops. They can make 120hl of beer at 1.064 from 2,600kg of malt, for stronger beers they add sugar.

They've also linked up with the American brewery Green Flash to do some collaboration beers

They're currently doing 12 brews a week, though the brewhouse could do up to 60.

The brewhouse is fully automated and can be controlled though the internet but in practice someone needs to be there to deal with any problems, so it seems the brewer still has to get out of bed. I suppose you can't have everything.