Sunday 26 April 2015

Have we reached peak geek?

As a brewery once again turns to crowd funding I ask myself have we reached peak geek?

Once an unwanted byproduct of the fermentation industry advances in brewing science have shown that beer geeks can be used to fuel previously unseen rates of brewery expansion. The rapid exploitation of this new source of funding has allowed craft brewers to strike it rich.

But are finite geek reserves being drained at an unsustainable rate? Will future generations of brewers curse their geek guzzling predecessors as they desperately search for renewable funding sources?

Beer geek's wallets are being sucked dry at a rate faster than they are replenished. As this once unused resource has become the driving force for craft brewery expansion serious questions need to be asked about how long this can continue. With only a finite number of beer geeks available to be tapped into breweries will have to search further and further afield to find more difficult to exploit geeks. There surely must come a point when peak geek is reached and future returns will only diminish. Maybe then brewers seeking funding will have to sell more than snake oil.

Thursday 23 April 2015

The Craft Brewers Conference 2015

Last week I went to the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland in the USA. It's a  much bigger event than the SIBA do, though apparently smaller than some European events. I was there mainly to plug some online training we're planning at work, though I was able to fit in a bit of research whilst I was out there.

This started with a trip to Spirit of 77, which was handy for where we were staying. They had about a dozen draught beers on.

I went for Double Mountain The Vaporizer, which went down very well, though now I've looked the beer up I'm slightly embarrassed to see its made using the English hop variety Challenger. Oh well, at least they were grown locally.

The next morning I looked to see what our hotel had in the way of lardy goodness on the breakfast buffet. Not that I had a pressing need for it but it pays to be prepared. Sadly there were thin pickings of pork products.

No bacon, so I had to make do with small sausages and weird squares of omelet. I'm used to better. I suppose that as Britain leads the world in beer and pubs, it's unsurprising (and indeed quite possibly related) that we also lead the world in fried breakfasts.

We are however way behind America in terms of gun nuts, so seeing the woman that felt the need to arm herself before coming to breakfast was something new.

Here she is, forlornly looking for bacon

and there's her gun in case she needs to kill anyone
The next day I managed to get to a specialist beer bar, Henry's Tavern, sited in part of an old brewery. They had 100 beers on tap here, which was something that caused me some concern. Whilst keg beer may have a longer shelf life than cask beer, there'll still be bugs growing in the beer lines so I didn't want anything that had been sitting around for ages.

The beers I had were fine though, and I was particularly pleased to see Deschutes Freshly Squeezed IPA as it was one I could remember being recommended by the Beervana bloke. 

As with everywhere I went the waitress was very helpful and cheery, a definitely cultural difference there. I can't help but think it's because they're all on crap pay and desperate for tips though.

As to the conference I was there mainly to plug some online training we have planned, though I did have time to wander around too. Amongst the many things on display a brand new open copper cooler must rank as the most surprising find. It's fascinating to see how interest in sour beers is growing to such and extent that long obsolete equipment is being built again, but I'm still sticking with a paraflow.

I also heard from chatting with the guy stall opposite that they sell 750,000 shives in the states each year, compared to around 6 million in the UK. A jolly good show from our cousins across the pond, though I wonder how far that puts them behind Britain? Apparently the UK is ten years behind the states in craft beer, but I suspect America is rather further behind in cask beer. And I would guess they're both equal in industrial lager.

Cider is also on the up in the states, and through no fault of my own I ended up at a cider maker's - I blame an academic from an inferior midlands based institution. Still, it was alright and we went for beer later.

A hopped cider festival is coming up soon

The beers were from Lagunitas. The session IPA tasted like thin hop juice, the IPA tasted like hop juice and the wheat beer also tasted like hop juice. There's a bit of a theme going on here. I was keen to get overdosed on hops whilst in Portland though and much as I like balanced beers I wasn't looking for them here.

For my last night there were lots of interesting places to get to but the most important one for me was meeting up with an old mate. He'd started the evening earlier than me but I managed to catch up with him hanging out with other Canadian brewers at the Hair Of The Dog brewpub.

Much to my surprise they had a 3.2% ABV dark mild on. I was half tempted to try it but remembered I was here for the hops so went with the pale ale.

Sadly it was opaque with yeast so rated not right. I'm not a fan of drinking yeast and it really doesn't help hoppy beers. There was a treat in store though as one of the guys there was cake-o bake-o and generous with it too so we got to share a pricey barrel aged beer. It was good stuff.

The plan was to move on to another brewery but after some world class faffing by one of the people I was with, followed by another desperately trying to pull, and lets face it the fact we didn't really know where we were going, by the time we got there the place had stopped serving. It seems inbreeding is popular in Portland too. But never mind there was another brewery nearby so we went on to that.

This was Cascade Brewing Barrel House, a place that specialises in sour beers. So much for my hunt for hops. The beers were good though, I wouldn't say there were up with the best of the Belgians but I certainly enjoyed them.

I also got asked for photo ID on the way in. Slightly bizarre I though, even more so as they let me in despite the only photo ID I had not having my date of birth on it. Having seen my hairline I guess they knew there were just going through the motions.

On the walk back we passed a strip club, and talked about how sleazy it was. Little did we know it had been a venue for a do put on by craft brewers that week. Oh dear, oh dear.

That was pretty much it for me and Portland, though I did have a nice pint at the airport. I enjoyed my time there, and the beer culture which is good, but different. A bit like the language really.

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.