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.

Friday 5 June 2015

Huyghe Brewery - the home of the pink elephant

The next brewery on the Belgian study tour was Huyghe, the place where they make Delirium tremens. I hadn't heard of Huyghe but I'd definitely heard of Delirium tremens. The beer that is, though come to think of it I did once have an alky boss who's hands would shake uncontrollably at times. Shocking though it is, apparently too much alcohol isn't good for you. 

They had a lovely gleaming copper brew house.

But this is the old one and isn't used anymore.

It was a mash filter and stainless steel vessels in the new brew house.

Delirium tremens turned the fortunes of the company around, and they've clearly invested a lot of money in new kit.

There was quite a lot to the bottling line too.

 And the fermenters were pretty hefty.

As this was the third brewery of the day and Belgian beers being what they are my notes are somewhat lacking for this place, though a cup of tea once we got back to the hotel revived me in time for our evening lecture.

We had Roger Mussche, a Belgian brewing consultant, giving us a talk. Not only did he clearly know his stuff, he was also very opinionated which always adds to the interest.

A particular gem was when he classified Cantillon not as a lambic brewery but as a vinegar brewery (apparently their beers have ten times the amount of acetic acid as other lambics). I went round Cantillon many years ago and loved the place but I must admit he has got a point. It's ages since I bought their beers as I really can't take much of it and the altogether fruitier and lets face it, less sour, beers of Boon are now my lambics of choice.

The history of when different fruits were added to lambics was also a bit of an eye opener, and much more modern than I thought.

Sadly time constraints meant his lecture had to be cut short as I'm sure he could have gone on for hours. He did say he's email the slides over but sadly I haven't seen anything yet. I'll let you know if they ever arrive.