Friday, 17 April 2015

It was 20 years ago today...

I made my first brew! Proper one that is, not syrup from a tin.

It was something I'd discussed with my dad and he's got hold of some pale malt. Then an uncle brought down a ten gallon burco boiler that I still use to this day, though it is showing its age. I went to The Home Brew Shop, back when it was in Northcamp and the old generation of the family were running it, for more supplies and equipment.

I started out using an insulated cool box as a mash tun, and Graham Wheeler was my guru. As I'm sure is the case for most people the first brew did not go brilliantly well. The malt was so old it took ages for starch conversion to occur. I seem to recall in the end I actually went out somewhere for a few hours and it was only when got back that the iodine finally stopped turning blue-black.

Not having much idea about extract the original gravity was way lower that what I wanted, but the addition of a kilo of sugar soon sorted that out. The beer turned out totally opaque but tasted good. I was clearly an early craft brewer (in fact I joined the Craft Brewing Association as soon as I heard about it).

Making my own beer taught far more about beer than the reading I'd managed to do had, though in those pre-internet days information was a lot harder to find. I went to a couple of day courses in London run by Brewlab, and in the end after seeing an advert in the CAMRA newspaper I got a scholarship to study Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. Since then apart from a slight hiccup* I've worked as a professional brewer. If I wasn't so congenitally unfashionable I might have made more of this, as home brewer turned pro is quite the in thing nowadays. In fact I know of a prominent craft brewer that bullshits gratuitously about his home brewing credentials.

That first brew only fuelled my already obsessive interest in beer, something which still shows no sign of abating. I still brew at home, sometime just for something to drink, and sometimes because there's something I'm keen to try out. I've also brewed professionally more times than I'll ever home brew, and I think it's fair to say I've got better at it, but I'm still learning after all these years.

*In my first brewing job one of my bosses was one of the biggest cunts I've ever met, and after I'd had enough of the bullying I quit and briefly returned to lab work. "Beer people are good people" my arse.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A pub crawl in Portsmouth

Whilst others might have spent the Easter weekend enjoying themselves I was busy researching. Researching the pubs in Portsmouth that is. 

My friend Jimmy, a Surrey compleatist, was having a Good Beer Guide ticking expedition. For various reasons, the main one being abject cowardice, I've not been on one of Jimmy's expeditions before. There were 15 pubs on the list this time, which did have my liver quailing in terror, but I was told we might not make it to all of them. So putting aside my previous poltroonery I girded my loins and set off. 

Yup, it's a port
We were using the objective scientific binary scoring system to remove any bias from the ratings, though I'll add my own subjective views too.

There's a score of 1 or 0 in each category and then these are added to get the total score out of ten. 

 The first stop was the Old Customs House, a Fullers pub.

The Old Customs House

This was a large and busy pub with a lot of Fullers beers and a few guests on. No ESB though, which didn't go down well with Jimmy. Can't say I was keen on the place so it's score of only two is fine by me.

Next stop was the Bridge Tavern, another Fullers pub.

The Bridge Tavern
This one was empty though, despite it being a much better pub, which was reflected in its score of five.

I wouldn't have it as my local mind you, the fire wasn't lit.

After that it was on to The Pembroke.

I like this one, it's the sort of place they have meat raffles in. 

They had Bass on here, which as usual I had for nostalgic reasons. To my horror though I saw it was served through a sparkler so automatically a zero for beer quality.

Bullshit Corner

This elementary mistake meant they only scored four, which seemed a little harsh, but you can't argue with the scientific facts.

On the way to the next pub we passed something called Brewery House, though sadly it's used by the scouts.

Brewery House
The Hole in the Wall was where we were heading to:

The Hole in the wall
It looked promising from the start:

And they were clearly going for the "beard or weird" score here.

This pub scored a very impressive eight points, making it the clear front runner at this stage.

Our next port of call was in spitting distance, The Barley Mow:

The Barley Mow
This had a pool table and a jukebox you could get 80s rock on. I fear this may have lead to some researcher bias as it's massive nine points seemed more than a little generous to me.

Five pints in I was definitely getting a bit pissed so had a half in the next one, The Apsley House:

The Apsley House
They had a cat on the bar, which definitely counted as a special feature, but I don't think anyone was particularly taken with it otherwise and it only scored two.

Next door was another pub, the Auckland Arms, with a very impressive exterior so we went off piste and called in.

The Auckland Arms
I wasn't overwhelmed with it but it scored a very respectable five.

Continuing with our research we passed what looks like more brewery history:

The Old Brewery
I may have to read up on the brewing history of Portsmouth. The Phoenix was the next pub on the list:

They had what I'd been looking for: beer from Irving Brewery.

Very good it was too, and the taste definitely reminded me Gales, the brewery Malcolm Irving worked at until Fullers closed it.

The score here was a very solid seven.

After that it was the Leopold Tavern:

There was a big beer range here...

 ... and no doubt about the beard or weird.

Then it was on to the Northcote Hotel:

They had Landlord on here, and very good it was too.

I've got a bit of a thing for Styrian goldings hops, probably down to me being brought up on the late lamented Burton.

The overall score here was only three though:

By this point it was time to get a curry in.

Leading to Quain Avenue
I must have had some of my wits about me at this point as a passed up the dubious delights of whatever crap lager they had on and stuck to lassi.

We managed one more on the way back to the station, The White Swan. This pub had its own brewery, which scores highly in my books, though of course this still scores only one in the binary scientific scoring system.

They had their version of a kolsch on cask, and unsurprisingly it was better than any real kolsch I've had. Definitely a point for beer quality here, and an overall total of five:

And with that it was time for the train home. Most of my mates fell asleep on the way back - light weights! Despite at times wimping out and having a half, my tally was more than the all important eight pints, meaning I can in fact still drink a gallon, and am indeed still a real man.

I hadn't been overly looking forward to going to Portsmouth, my previous impression being that it had all the charm of Aldershot by the sea, but there were some cracking pubs and I really enjoyed myself. I may even have to return.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Supercritical hops

Much of the technical side of brewing can be grouped around the poles of microbiology and chemical engineering. As a microbiologist the former was pretty straightforward when I was a brewing student, but the latter was a whole new world. Things like the Reynolds number and pressure enthalpy diagrams took some getting my head around but once I had I saw how wondrous they were.

One part of the chemical engineering where we almost seemed to enter the realm of science fiction was with phase diagrams. At certain pressure and temperature combinations the liquid and gas phases of a substance will no longer be distinct, instead being a supercritcal fluid. See, I told you it was almost science fiction.

Now it may not be the sort of pressues and temperatures you'll find in a brew house but using supercritical CO2 is one way of making hop extracts. And I'd never seen it being done, until my trip to Germany.

The reason for my trip to Bavaria was to visit a hop company, and I got to have a tour of where they make the hop extracts and hop pellets. The extracts plant was first, starting with ethanol extract. In the tank pictured the ethanol extraction took place, with the ethanol percolated through the hops. I innocently asked if they fractionated the extract at all...

This is at ambient pressure so we've not got supercrital yet

...before being shown the biggest rectifier I've ever seen:

and there were some pretty hefty centrifuges too:

These separate out the solids, and divide the extract into aqueous and resin fractions.

Next we came to this large tank. I think this was a CO2 tank as we were heading to that end of things.

When it comes to engineering I like to see things on a proper industrial scale, and there was no pretence of craft here. The CO2 was at a pressure of 290 bar, so the vessels were impressively thick to cope with it:

If I've understood it right mere liquid CO2 is a non-polar solvent, but supercritial CO2 becomes polarised and its dissolving power increases. There is little flavour difference between the different types of extract, but there is some variation in the composition of the extracts, for example ethanol extracts contain more hard resins than CO2 extracts.

After the extract plant we got to see where hop pellets are made.

Bales of hops being broken up

Nascent hop pellets

There are a range of dies for the pellets. The thicker the die the harder the pellet becomes. Different ones have to be used as higher alpha acid content in the hops also makes the pellets harder.

Can't remember what this was. Probably contained hops though.

Vacuum packing the pellets
Then the packages of pellets were tested to makes sure they were properly sealed before being sent off to be boxed up. Both Type 90 pellets (said to contain 90% of the original hop material) and Type 45 pellets (said to contain 45% of the original hop as the lupulin glands are concentrated and unwanted 'leaf' material removed) are made.