Saturday 26 February 2011

Back to Braithwaite

The lovely Lisa and I were back in the Lake District last week. We heroically struggled up mountains and drank heroic quantities of beer.

Crossing the white spider

The excellent Open All Hours shop was one of the beery highlights of the trip. We were able to stock up on a fine selection of lake district beers, at very reasonable prices. The Hardknott Infra Red was only half the price I'd paid for a bottle from Utobeer, but then everything in Borough market seems overpriced.

If you're wondering which one of these was my favourite the answer is this one:

That's right, cask beer beats bottled yet again. We found this in the the very posh Middle Ruddings. And it was only £2.70 a pint, considerably cheaper than the prices for Jennings beers in the nearby Royal Oak.

The other beery highlight of the trip was a meet the brewer night at the Dog and Gun in Keswick. There were people from four breweries scattered around the pub for a speed dating style meet the brewers event. We chatted to people from the Keswick, Hawkshead and Cumbrian Legendary Ales breweries. The first two offered nibbles to go with the beer which the lovely Lisa seemed very taken with the beer and food pairing thing. Perhaps a beer and cheese night is needed? Though come to think of it the chocolate and beer seemed a popular pairing too.

We missed out on seeing the bods from Tirril but I did have some of their beer and Old Faithful was very drinkable.

The people from Cumbrian Legendary Ales were kind enough to give me a couple of their jigsaw beer mat sets and on my return home I was able to entertain, and I hope indoctrinate, my favourite niece.

I take my duties as a Beer Father seriously.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

BBC reports alcohol consumption is falling

The BBC website has a story reporting that alcohol consumption is falling (illustrated with the obligatory picture of someone drinking a pint of bitter of course).

It does a reasonable job of explaining that alcohol consumption figures bear no relation to sensationalist newspaper headlines, though it does get a little schizophrenic as it's interspersed with quotes from drinks industry bodies like the Portman group and anti-alcohol campaigners like Alcohol Concern and ends with the usual moral bleatings.

You can read the full story here.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Pub crawl around Euston

Feeling the need of some excitement in the big smoke the lovely Lisa plotted our latest research trip starting at the new specialist beer bar in Euston.

The Euston Tap proudly calls itself a craft beer house, though the board outside went even further and said it served craft ales and beers.

I've wasted enough of my time waffling on about how 'craft beer' doesn't really mean anything so what they mean by 'craft ales and beers' I've really no idea but you'll be glad to hear I'm going to leave it there.
On entering the pub I was surprised to see how much space the bar takes up as it's only a small place and there isn't much room downstairs. Behind the bar is a copper panel with lots of taps coming out of it. I think it's meant to look like an old brewery underback but one of my friends was convinced it was modeled on a urinal.

The upper floor has some very small toilets but a surprisingly large amount of seating space. But enough about the pub I was here for the beer. They had eight cask beers on, their names displayed on a blackboard to the left. A few of them were from Brewdog but I've haven't been impressed by their beers when I've had them on cask. There was also Thornbridge Wild Swan but I'm not taken with that one either. I then spied Marble Pint so plumped for that. When it arrived I remembered I'd had it not so long ago and it wasn't really to my taste. A pale beer with a huge amount of hops I find it low in drinkability despite its modest strength. I moved on to stout next to even out my beer balance. I started on the Dark Star, which was a bit astringent and then went on to Adnam's which went down more smoothly. The lovely Lisa was quite taken with the other stout on offer which was we think from the Bristol Beer Factory.

Dan and Simon had arrived and had a pint by this point so we were ready for the short stroll to our next stop the Doric Arch. The beer range here was more to my taste: Fuller's Bengal Lances, Timmy Taylor's Landlord and Kelham Island Pale Rider were all clamoring for me to drink them. But the guy behind the bar recommended Springhead Sweet lips so after a taster I went for that one. It was good and hoppy but balanced enough to be drinkable.

The last time I'd been this pub, which is in what looks like an office block attached to the station, I'd though it had all the ambiance of a waiting room. This time we managed to sit in a little alcove and I was more than happy. I don't ask for much: a good beer, a good seat and good company will do me.

There was still more research to be done though so I couldn't sit back and enjoy myself, it was time for the Bree Louise. This was just round the other side of Euston so we were soon there.

Unfortunately for us the pub was packed with people watching rugby on two telly screens. There seemed to be loads of beers on, many on stillage behind the bar but if there was a list of the beers I didn't seen it.
They had a weird pricing structure, that at first looked like a discount for CAMRA members but when you examined the prices was more surcharge for non-CAMRA members.

The beers didn't seem in ideal condition, and some beer even had to be abandoned so I won't pass judgement on them.

We moved swiftly on to a Mexican restaurant Lisa had factored into the pub crawl for some much needed sustenance.

At this point the careful planning was put to one side and we used psychogeography to chose the next pub The Crown and Anchor. I'm not sure what Guy Debord would have thought but we liked it.

I got quite excited when I saw the handpumps as they had White Shield on draught. I'd never seen it on draught before and the gossip is that it actually tastes good again. Sadly it was cloudy so it got sent back. Further research is necessary.

I ended up having a pint of keg Sierra Nevada. Presumably this is 'craft keg'. It was pleasant enough but too cold.

And after that it was time to pour ourselves home.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Craft beer

The latest hot topic on the blogosphere is the term 'craft beer'. Is it the best thing since sliced bread or is it meaningless bollocks?

As it happens I'm a member of the Craft Brewing Association, so certainly I don't have any aversion to the term, but does it actually mean anything? The Craft Brewers Association is mainly an organisation of homebrewers. So does this mean that craft brewing refers to beer made in the way of craftsmen, doing everything by hand? Probably not as on the CBA website is a brief statement saying that "Nearly all brewers are craft brewers, but some of them have to do as they are told by the accountants". I'm really none the wiser after that so lets look to what our American cousins say, as the term is popular over there.

As recently redefined by the Brewers Association a American Craft Brewer is small, independent and traditional. Now we could be getting somewhere here, but when you look more closely things become less clear. Small is defined as producing less than 6 million barrels per year, independent means that less than 25% of the shares are owned by a non-craft brewer 'alcoholic beverage industry member' and traditional means that the brewery mainly makes all malt beers or only uses adjuncts to enhance flavour.

We've definitely got a long way from homebrewing here. If you're not sure what 6 million US beer barrels means it is over a billion imperial pints. Who owns the shares of a company has not had any effect I've ever noticed on the beer in my pint glass and the bit about adjuncts is obviously vague nonsense.

If I don't seem to be getting into the spirit of things here blame my scientific education. One of the few things I can remember from my early lectures when I was a fresh face student was the importance of "using the correct nomenclature to avoid any ambiguity". I think it was because that was such a clunky phrase that it stuck. But the point that was being made, that's it important to use words with clear and obvious meanings, has stuck in my brain. The Brewers Association definition is so vague it's almost meaningless.

So lets look to how my fellow internet beer nerds on this side of the pond seem to be using the term. As far as I can see it's an attempt to move on from CAMRA's real ale definition of cask or bottled conditioned beers so that filtered and/or pasterurised bottled or kegged beers that taste good can be added. Trying to find a clear definition for this is like trying to grab hold of mist though.

Mark Dredge (to whose brooding we owe this discussion) has said that any brewer can be a craft brewer as it's "an intangible variable". Now I don't need to refer to my old lecture notes to see that this gets us no closer to defining the term.

So we seem to be back at trying to find a term for good beer that isn't necessarily real ale. If some people want to describe beer they like as craft beer that's up to them, but it is an essentially meaningless term and attempts to define it have failed.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

More fun with a microscope

I've been a scientist again recently. My friend young Rob had phoned me asking for some tips on using a microscope so I went through a few of the things you can do with a microscope in a brewery and took some pictures.

Mostly microscopes will be used in a brewery as part of the yeast management, though they can have their place when investigating infection. The most basic thing you can do is have a look see at what's going on at the microscopic level. What could be easier than that? The thing to remember is that you'll be looking at something that's been magnified up to a 1000 times, so when taking your sample remember less is more.

First I took a microscope slide. It's worthwhile getting ones with frosted edges as these have a section that you can write on in pencil which makes labeling easier. I placed a small drop of water in the middle of the slide.

Here I've used a disposable plastic pasteur pipette or pastette. This drop had to have evaporated before I could look at the slide so I kept the drop small.

Next I took a sample of some yeast we'd harvested.

It's a bit out of focus but you can see on the end of the disposable plastic loop a small amount of yeast. This was more than enough.

I mixed the yeast in with the drop of water and spread it across the surface of the slide.

The water had a very slight milkiness when the yeast was mixed in.

Now the slide needed to be dried before it could be stained. Microorganisms are hard to see, even under a microscope, so stains are usually added to make them easier to see, and to some extent help identify them. The slide can be left on the bench to air dry or heat can be applied until the water has evaporated. Bunsen burners, with of course sufficient air to give a blue flame, are what will be used in a well equipped laboratory and Camping gaz bunsen burners are even available for where there are no gas taps. Small blow torches can also be used, though they are less stable. Heating over a candle or lighter will lead to soot collecting on the bottom of the slide which will need to be cleaned off with blue roll before the slide can be looked at. When heating a slide remember it's made of glass so don't hold it continuously over the flame, pass it slowly over the flame a number of times until it has dried.

Heating the slide has the benefit of fixing the sample to the slide. This means the sample is firmly attached to the glass, denatured, and ready to receive the stain. For this reason it's usual to heat a slide for a short while even if it's air dried. You should be able to skip this with brewery yeast if you apply the stain delicately though.

Having dried the slide I took it to the sink and flooded it with methylene blue stain. The stain was left on for a few seconds and then rinsed off with tap water.

The slide was left to dry again and this is what I ended up with:

Now we get to the microscope!

When a microscope is out of focus I start by using the x 10 objective lens. I racked the microscope stage right up and lowered the slide using the coarse focus until I could see the yeast. Well, at this stage all I could see were some patches of something blue so I moved round to the x 40 objective lens. I usually start with the light on full power and the diaphragm shut and start to open the diaphragm as I move up the magnifications.

At this point I used the fine focus to bring the yeast back into view. Once I could see the yeast again I moved the lens away and applied some immersion oil to the slide. This has the same refractive index as glass and cuts down on distortion at the higher magnifications. Then I swung round the x 100 lens so it was touching the oil.

At this magnification it can be a bit tricky to bring your sample into focus so I'll often close down the diaphragm a bit and start moving the slide slowly back and forth so I know to focus on a moving item and not try and focus on say, a speck of dust on the eye piece. Again it was only adjustments to the fine focus that were needed, try focusing one way and if that doesn't work going back the other way until the sample can be clearly seen.

This picture I ripped off the internet shows the sort of thing I was seeing at this point:

If bacteria were present they'd most likely be small rods, much smaller that the yeast.

Most often brewery based microscope fun involves doing yeast counts, which are a little more long winded. To do this I took 1 ml of yeast slurry.

And mixed it with 9 ml of water in a universal container giving me a 1 in 10 dilution.

But that's not dilute enough so I took 1 ml of the first dilution and added it to another 9 ml of water in another universal giving me a 1 in 100 dilution.

From the 1 in 100 dilution I then took 1 ml and mixed it with 1 ml of methylene blue stain.

Having got the yeast diluted and stained it was time to bring out the haemocytomer. This is a slide with a grid of known area etched into it and when the cover glass is attached this gives a known volume in which cells can be counted. As the name suggests they were originally used for counting blood cells, though that's mostly done with machines now, except in the case of birds and reptiles. As these animals have nucleated red blood cells some manual methods are still required and in a previous job I occasionally used a heamocytomer for this very purpose. But I digress.

A quick dab of spit either side of the counting grid helped stick the cover glass in place and then by carefully flooding the chamber our yeast was ready to count.

It was back to focusing the microscope again, though due to the thickness of the slide I could only go as far as the x 40 objective lens.

Using another picture ripped off the internet I can show you that I saw something like this:

The clear round objects are live yeast cells, the blue round objects are dead yeast cells and the amorphous blue blobs are debris which can be ignored. By counting the number of live cells and dead cells the % viability of the yeast can be established and a quick calculation can give you a cell count. After I'd left Heriot-Watt I emailed the bloke that works in the brewery there for his top tips and here are his words of wisdom:

"Hi Ed

Did you not learn anything in the last 9 months!!!!!

OK this is what I do.

Make a 1:100 W/W dilution of the yeast slurry with cold tap water.

Mix well, then mix 1 ml diluted yeast with 1ml methylene blue.

Put onto slide and count 5 sets of 16 small squares.

To calculate the yeast concentration:-

Divide your white cell count by 80 (the number of small squares counted) to give the average number of cells per small square.

Multiply the answer by 4 million then by 200 (the dilution factor).

This will then give you the concentration of cells per gram in the yeast slurry.

Hope this helps."

So that's what I did. And there I had it, a yeast count to go with my yeast viability. You can also see bacteria if they're present, though they won't be stained so are harder to spot. Not that there were any present in my yeast of course.

World's 'oldest beer' to brewed again

Bottles of beer have been retrieved from a ship wreck in the Baltic the BBC reports. Believed to date from 1800-1830 the beer is to be analysed so a re-creation can be brewed.

Personally I can't help but think that they could save themselves the effort and just ask Ron what the recipe is. He's bound to have the details in one of his tables!

Monday 7 February 2011

The horror! The horror!

My usual Sunday routine was once again disturbed this week. Though at least I got the fry up in this time. After that the lovely Lisa and I headed up to Kew for a a family lunch at The Botanist.

Two beers were on, both from the righteous Twickenham brewery. We were the first there so got in some of the hoppy Naked Ladies (4.4% ABV) whilst we waited. When everyone else got there we were shown to our table and without much thought I plonked my pint upon it. To my horror it immediately slid straight off. I managed to catch it but I must have lost half a pint, which went all over our seat. I was not best pleased.

The barmaid did warn us about the table when she brought some drinks over later, and even gave us a free half when she heard of our earlier mishap. I couldn't help but think that the warning came a bit late though. I hope pub tables with convex slopes don't catch on as they're a really rubbish idea.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Cask, Keg, Bottle or Can

The great and the good of the beer blogging world were posting on this subject yesterday. In the main they've waxed lyrical about the benefits of each of the four containers. Those that have expressed a preference chose kegs and cans, which any discerning drinker will recognise as being simply wrong.

But do not panic, I'm here to put you straight. Cask is where it's at.

Now don't get me wrong, as a piss artists as well as a beer nerd I accept that each container has its place. Like bottles for when I'm at home, keg for when there's nothing else on and cans for when I can't find anything else. Sometimes you just have to make do. But unlike my fence sitting fellow beer nerds I have no hesitation in stating my preference. And more importantly it's the right one.

The flavour of beer is determined by much more than its ingredients. If it has been filtered or pasteurised will affect the flavour, as will the serving temperature and level of carbonation. Which container the beer will be served from will have a direct effect on all of these things, so saying that the container is unimportant is undoubtedly wrong.

Some have argued that provided a beer is well made it doesn't matter how it is dispensed. This is mistaken. I mean, you wouldn't say you don't care how your food's cooked so long as it's made from good ingredients would you?

I don't like beer that's too cold or too fizzy. I don't think it does beer any favours to filter out some of the flavour or apply heat treatment to it. In my wide and varied drinking career I can honestly say that the best beers I've ever drunk have been on cask, and beers from other containers just can't match it.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Searching for snow in Snowdonia

At the weekend I went to Snowdonia is search of something to climb. We made good time on the journey up so were able stop off in time for last orders at the Ty Gwyn Inn. As Sharp's are now owned by Molson Coors I had what was to be my last pint of Sharp's Doom Bar whilst it was a craft beer. It was pleasant enough but as of yesterday everything from Sharp's is no longer craft beer so I will never drink it again. Or something.

We were staying in Llanberis pass, though to climbers it is simply known as 'the pass'. It's home to some of the most striking and famous climbs in Britain, such as Cenotaph Corner. Not that we climbed anything there. There wasn't much snow and having large mountains on either side it dosen't lend itself having sun warmed rock in January.

Having safely got to the hut where we were staying there was time to a night cap so I had a bottle of my very own Black Syrup of Death.

It's an oak aged stout that came in at 12.5% ABV and it certainly did the trick.

We headed up to Cwm Idwal in the morning, looking for something frozen, and after much trekking managed to heroically climb a grade I snow plod called Easy Gully.

Flushed with success the beers (again made by my own fair hands) went down easily that night.

The next day we decided not to bother with any of the winter stuff so headed to Tremadog, a place know to escape the worst of the weather in Wales all year round.

It was still freezing though so we warmed up on a climb at the modest grade of V.diff called Hail bebe. By the time we reached the top it was almost feeling warm to we decided fit in another climb by going to the smaller crag on the upper tier, where I lead something at the almost respectable grade of Very Severe.

I was knackered by this point and I thought a few beers to unwind would see me right before an early start home for a quite Sunday.

But it was not to be. A frozen stream had been spotted so I was press ganged into more heroism the next day to climb Idwal stream (grade II)

The climbing was easy but the rope got wet and then froze which made it hard work. We had a five hour journey home after this which I could have done without, but it was good to get back to the lovely Lisa who had dinner and beer waiting for me. Hurrah for Lisa!