Friday, 28 December 2012

Brewing the Megabeer Part 1

The 'megabeer' that I described in the last blog has been brewed and is fermenting away - I need to work on a better name for it than 'megabeer', but that can wait until later. As usual, there were a few hitches along the way that blew me off course on the day, so much so that I didn't actually pitch the yeast until nearly 5.30am on Christmas Eve.

The recipe was almost as described in the last blog - I cut the amber back a bit to less than 5% to make sure the final beer wouldn't be too dark:

8kg Pale Malt (Crisp)
400g Amber Malt
Mash at 64/65C for 90 mins with 24l Campden-treated water (I don't do water chemistry yet!)
This was quite a thick mash, but my mash tun couldn't take any more water.

Two very different amber malts
The first problem was that when we started to run the wort out of the tun, it was much darker than anticipated - much, much darker than expected, like strong tea, and not really what I was looking for, given that it was only going to get darker over the course of a two-hour boil. We'd put the wrong amber malt into the tun - instead of the EBC 48 bag, we picked the EBC 100 bag, hence the coffee-scented dark brown wort. (Incidentally, the EBC 100 Fawcett malt is what Dogfish Head use in their 60/90/120 Minute IPAs by many accounts, but although the beer is inspired in part by other people's clones of 120, I'm not trying to make an outright clone of that beer).

So, we made a snap decision to drain the tun without sparging, boil up anything we ran off along with some Fuggles hops that had been hanging around for ages, pitch the backup sachet of dried yeast I keep in case of emergencies, and start again. Using a Scotch Ale as a basic direction, we collected just over 20 litres of deep brown wort, gave it a short 45-minute boil with 50g Fuggles, then ran it off, took a gravity of 1.080 and pitched rehydrated Mauribrew 514 yeast. For an old sachet of dried yeast, it's done a good job - after 3 days, it was down to 1.028, and it's still going.

Hop soup - with the pellers now in sludgy suspension
While all that was boiling up, we reset the HLT and started mashing a second batch of malt. Mashing low for a highly fermentable wort, we collected as much as we could get into the boiler - 23.5 litres - knowing that we would lose a lot to the boil... and to the hops. I mixed together 250g of high-AA hop pellets (130g Amarillo, 60g Columbus, 60g Galaxy) and 75g whole-leaf Simcoe, and divided them into five equal portions, to be added at 120, 90, 60, 30 and 0 minutes. As expected, I lost a hell of a lot between the start of the boil and the FV - a shade over 15 litres. Runoff took a long, long, long time - about 2 hours - as the pellets broke down into a thick sludge that covered the hop filter and, together with the Simcoe flowers, slowed the runoff to little more than a drip at times. I need to work on a better hop filter for my boiler. I could have thrown in some more late hops, but I'm going to save them for a bigger dry hop.

300g Dextrose Monohydrate
Gravity was measured at 1.108, which was a few points up on where I thought I'd be. I allowed the WLP007 5 litre starter to settle down to a big cake at the bottom, siphoned off the top 4.5 litres of it, then swirled the cake into suspension and pitched it. After that, I made a 3-litre starter for the WLP099 high-gravity yeast, and left it to grow for three days. I left the FV in the utility room where the temperature stays at a good, constant 19C (I'll use a heatpad if I need to raise the temperature later in the ferment), and it was fermenting wildly within hours.

On the 26th, 60 hours after pitching, I took the first gravity reading at 1.030 - incredible work from the WLP007 to chew through that much so quickly - and pitched the slurry from the WLP099 starter, along with 400g dextrose monohydrate. I've measured the remaining 3.6kg of the dextrose into 300g and 150g freezer bags, and the plan is to add all of this to the FV over the next few days to give me an adjusted OG of somewhere around the 1.200 mark.

The routine goes like this - I keep a bucket of sanitiser next to the FV containing two jugs, a silicone whisk, my hydrometer and my baster. Twice a day, I take the two jugs out, drain them both back into the bucket, put the whisk and the drained baster in one jug so that they're handy. I then take a sample for the hydrometer and record the gravity, then pour this into the other jug and continue to draw beer from the FV until I have about half a litre in the jug. I add in 300g of dextrose from one of the freezer bags, whisk it into the beer until foamy and in solution, then pour it into the FV and seal it up again. I then clean all the equipment and put it back into the sanitiser.
Whisking in the dextrose

I'm hoping to keep the OG somewhere around or just under the 1.030 mark - if I take a gravity reading and the yeast hasn't chewed up all 300g of the dextrose from the previous addition, I'll switch to adding the 150g bags.

So far, it seems to be turning out very nicely! I reckon the ABV is up around the 13% mark by now, and the aroma from the FV is wonderful. My main concern is that during one of the dextrose additions, I'll introduce an infection of some kind, hence the sanitising routine each time I open it up. It's been hard work having to nurture it for as long as I have so far, but I hope it'll be worth it. I'll be back with an update once I've finished the primary fermentation and the beer is ready to enjoy a nice, mellowing rest in secondary for a few weeks.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Christmas Experiment

For several months I've been planning a brew for Christmas, the one time of year when I can have 10-14 days off work straight without using up lots of precious annual leave. I'd quite like to fit in a few brewdays between now and the new year (a classic English nut-brown ale and another saison are high on the list), but this is pretty much the only time of year when I can fit in something really labour-intensive.

What I have in mind is something like a really big barley wine, something that will keep for years and develop, but which is interesting to drink now. There were so many BWs at the festival in Toronado in February that were offered as verticals - 2009-2012 versions being poured alongside each other - and it was fun to see how they'd developed. Along the same lines, this year I've loved drinking Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA (not a barley wine per se, although the DFH site doesn't seem to know what it is) and Brewdog's Anarchist/Alchemist (which they claim is a 'triple IPA', although who knows what that even means apart from 'it's really strong'), which are both hugely hopped when fresh but which mellow out nicely to bring out sticky, candied fruits. If I can get in that territory I'll be very happy, although more than likely I'm going to end up with a big hot fusel mess.

Those two aforementioned beers have enormous ABVs - 20%-ish for the original 120 Minute, 14% for AA - which are way beyond anything I've brewed before, hence why I've been saving this 'experiment' for when I have some time on my hands. All of the yeast strains I've used so far only have a tolerance of up to 10%, so the plan here is to follow a trick Sean Paxton, The Homebrew Chef, used when trying to 'clone' 120 Minute for a Can You Brew It? - his blog on this is here. He pitched two yeasts - WLP001 to start with, then the super-tolerant WLP099 high gravity yeast a few days in - then fed the second yeast dextrose on a twice-daily basis to bump up the ABV. I'm not sure I want to take my beer up as high as 20%, but then I doubt I'm going to be able to look after my yeast well enough to get it close to that anyway.

Someone else who has done something similar to this is Scott of Bertus Brewery, except for extra authenticity he went with WLP007, the Dry English Ale strain, instead of WLP001. He has some great tips for brewing with the high gravity yeast in this blog - I'll definitely be referring to this over the next few days. He rightly points out that Sean's SG of 1.050 is ridiculously high and aimed for 1.020 - again, I doubt I'll be able to get my yeast to attenuate down to 1.020 but anything under 1.030 should be okay. I plan to measure the SG every day and control the dextrose additions to manage the sweetness.

So those were the starting points for pulling the recipe together. A simple malt bill with a few % amber malt, and using WLP099 part-way into the ferment to kick up the gravity. Sadly, the availability of hops in the UK isn't quite as good a over in California and Arizona where those guys are brewing, so I'm going to do my own thing on that score. By huge coincidence though, The Malt Miller just took stock of a load of fresh 2012 Amarillo hops. I'm going to partner it with some Columbus pellets that Mel brought me from San Francisco, and some terrific Galaxy hops from Australia. I'm not going to faff about with hop additions every 3 minutes either (I've done it once with a 60 minute boil and it was incredibly tiresome), so I may instead do 5, one every half hour through a two-hour boil.

So the broad outline for the ingredients for this 5 gallon batch of doom...

8kg Pale Malt (!)
500g Amber Malt
(Aiming to mash on the low side, mid 60s, to help with attentuation)
350g Amarillo, Columbus and Galaxy hops, mixed and split into five 70g batches and added every 30 mins from start to finish
Target post-boil gravity of 1.100 or thereabouts

The most important thing about this brew is going to be looking after the yeast. For the initial yeast, I'm going with WLP007 - two vials went into a huge 5l starter a few days ago and there's a nice big cake forming at the bottom (I don't have a stir plate, hence the size of starter and length of time I've given it for growth). Mr Malty recommends about 350 billion yeast cells for a 1.100 gravity beer, and I reckon I should have at least that in there now. I'm going to make a similar size starter for the WLP099 on brewday to give me the same number of cells again to start attacking the dextrose.

Finally, I've been worrying about how to get enough air into the wort before I pitch. I asked on Twitter for advice and the ever-awesome Broadford Brewer linked me to this video from Wyeast:

I don't have an aquarium pump (or any fish - the two are connected) or any pure O2, so I'm going to have to get shaking. My plan is to run off into the FV, seal it up, shake it well for a full minute (with help from my brother - this is going to be heavy) and then pitch the yeast cake from the starter. It probably won't be optimum aeration, but it's the best I'll be able to do.

Right. Time to go and put the HLT on!

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Belgian. (And a little bit about IMBC.)

I’m going to come right out and say it – “the best beer in England” isn’t saying much now is it. It’s a bit like “the best chocolate in the Netherlands”
That quote is from a Belgian colleague of mine at work (the context being that she was looking for Duvel Tripel Hop in England, and the place I suggested not only sells it but also 'some of the best beers in England').

It's hard to know how to respond to someone saying something like that - it's hard to know how much they know of beer in this country beyond the most visible brands, although, generally speaking, the higher the profile, the worse the beer. It's also possible that they've drunk quite a bit of English beer and they're singularly unimpressed by it all - or gave up after endless disappointments.

In any case, so far I haven't actually said anything to challenge what they've said. To make a massive generalisation about generalisations, I think a lot of people don't want to have their assumptions about things challenged. Belgians make great beers of many varieties. American beer is yellow, 'lite' and pissy. English beer is warm, brown and flat. Bears go in the woods. Why try to challenge what we already know?

(What I wish I could do would be to take them to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention which kicked off today and concludes tomorrow (which is when I'm going up). The venue looks fantastic (a former swimming baths, with bars in the pool), and the list of beers on offer is truly superb (and, dare I say, slightly more interesting than the vast majority of British beers on offer at the GBBF this year - I'm definitely not getting into whether this has anything to do with the diversity of dispense methods). I'm especially looking forward to seeing what The Wild Beer Co are bringing, if only because I'm tired of hearing from other people how great their prototypes are.)

A question to end with - if you had to change my colleague's mind, what would you serve them? I was thinking of the Kernel's Citra IPA (seeing as they like this year's Tripel Hop) or perhaps Magic Rock's Clown Juice for something with a Belgian twist. And maybe I could find something from a specialist Dutch chocolatier to go with it?

Monday, 1 October 2012

All-Grain Brew #4 - 'Jessica Porter'

If you know someone whose surname is 'Porter' and you like to brew, then I imagine that it's fairly inevitable that you will end up brewing something dark for them at some stage. My friend Jessica recently gave up her beery name when she got married to my long-time drinking partner Adam, but before he could strip her of her birthright, I brewed them a chocolately imperial porter.

Back in March, when I wasn't sure what to brew for my 4th all-grain brew, I canvassed on Twitter and someone suggested brewing a baltic porter (I'd credit you but I can't search that far back - it may well have been David Bishop). Given that I'm not in a position to do a cold ferment with the equipment I have, I couldn't do a true BP, but I liked the idea of doing a stronger-the-average porter with a traditional ale yeast. Knowing that Jess isn't a huge fan of really robust, roasty flavours (which is kind of important in a porter), and after the relative success of flavouring my first brew by using coffee beans in the secondary, I started looking on homebrew forums for shared recipes for flavoured porters. For some reason, cherries are really popular with American homebrewers (I guess it must be sort of Black Foresty but I can't say it appeals that much to me), along with chillies, ginger and even cinnamon sticks. One of the most popular recipes of all was for a 'Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter', originally devised by Oregon homebrewer Denny Conn - and I used this as the basis for this brew. There's a cracking Q&A with Denny that mentions the formulation of this recipe here.

Denny's recipe - or at least the iteration I saw, as it's been passed around, Chinese-whisper style, quite a bit I think - is pretty decadent. It's heavy on the sweeter malts (approx 7.5% Crystal, 7.5% Brown Malt, just under 6.5% Chocolate Malt...) and specifies adding two whole vanilla beans when racking to secondary. As per the name, he also includes some bourbon at bottling, while some recipes I've seen add oak along with the vanilla beans, but I wanted to keep the number of variables down so omitted them from my version. I also tweaked the proportions of the malts ever so slightly as the original recipe was given in imperial and I didn't want to end up with lots of open bags of the malts I was buying specially for this recipe.

Malt bill:
6kg Maris Otter
1.25kg Munich
750g Brown Malt
500g 'Dark' Crystal Malt
500g Chocolate Malt
300g 'Regular' Crystal Malt

Mash profile was a simple single infusion (to keep it simple) at 68°C, with tap water treated with a couple of Campden tablets - with the amount of grain in the tun and with the way we mashed in by pouring water onto the grain, I found it very hard to avoid balls of dry dough, even after stirring relentlessly. I need to work on my efficiency! Sparged with more of the same to collect just over 23l of wort at 1.066 - a satisfyingly straightforward mash-and-sparge compared to a couple of the gummy nightmares I've had.

As per Denny's original recipe, I used Magnum to bitter (28g, first wort) and then 28g of East Kent Goldings when the IC and Irish Moss went in with 15 mins to go. (At this point I didn't have a hose connector sorted for the IC, so myself and my brother took it in turns to freeze our hands by trying to clamp the end of the hose over the cold tap for the hour it took to get down to pitching temperature - I don't recommend the experience.) As you can see, gravity at pitching was 1.074 - 5 points short of target, but better than I'd feared given the dry, doughy mess the tun had been.

Wyeast 1056 was pitched (with a 1.5l starter), and it was kept more-or-less at 22°C, using the ultra-high-tech towel-and-clothes-pegs temperature control method, for 10 days, by which time it was down to 1.022 - again, a few points short of the target, but the yeast had had enough, leaving it at 6.8% ABV (on the weaker side of imperial - perhaps dynasterial?). My theory on the lower attenuation is that there were some colder spots in the mash tun around the doughy clumps, hence a less fermentable wort - any suggestions welcome.

Two big, fat Madagascan vanilla beans were halved and scraped into the secondary at racking, then the shells quartered and thrown in as well. In hindsight we should probably have sterilised them in vodka but no harm done. Another 10 days on and there was a good, strong vanilla aroma and flavour, which really helps to bring out the chocolate and smooths off the roastiness.

The big problem came when bottling - I hadn't really worked out how to prime correctly at this point, and rather than making a solution and mixing it in, I added approximately 4-5g of sugar to each 330ml bottle. Clearly this is far, far too much for a porter - perhaps as much as three times as much as needed - and the result is that while the first bottles that I tried after only a week had the right volume of gas in them, as time has gone on the carbonation has gotten a bit out of hand. I haven't had any bottle bombs yet, thankfully, but I have had to pour them out and let them settle.

Six months on from the brew day, at Adam and Jess's wedding, I cracked some open for our friends to try, and - once the fizz had subsided - I'm really happy with it. The vanilla has settled back to a background note (but hasn't disappeared altogether), and the main body of the body is rich and caramelly. More importantly, the woman herself seemed to like it, which was the whole point in the first place, so I'm happy. I'm planning to brew this again at some point... although clearly I'll need a new name now that she's married.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

AG Brews #8 and #12 - Red Bee (An Irish Red Ale with Honey)

This beer started out as a name - 'Red Bee', as it's the place where I work and I wanted to brew something for my colleagues - and it was only after I started to look up recipes for an Irish Red that I realised that it wasn't so far fetched to brew a beer in that style with some honey to dry it out a bit in the finish (hence the 'bee' element!).

I have to give full credit for this to MysticMead, whose Raging Red Honey Ale was the basis for this. From reading his blog, his recipe has done him good service, including winning a few homebrew competitions, so it seemed like it would be worth a try. (His blog has some great stuff on it besides this recipe, including hop growing tips, so give it a look!)

I made a couple of changes to the hops to put my own spin on it. His recipe calls for Crystal and Cascade - I didn't have Crystal, so used Mt Hood instead. And to make a change from Cascade, which I've used in all the IPA batches I'd done so far, I swapped them for some juicier, fruitier Galaxy hops that I had in the freezer - I thought they'd suit the malty profile of the style.

Finally, I didn't have any WLP001, which he uses, but I did have Wyeast 1056, which is pretty much the same strain (I'd quite like to give this a try with a more English/Irish strain in future). No starter for this, as it's relatively low gravity.

Recipe - Red Bee (based on Mystic Home Brew's Raging Red)
3kg Pale Malt
500g Cara Aroma Malt
250g Carapils
250g Melanoidin Malt

Mash at 66C for 60 mins using campden-treated tap water. Mashout for 5 mins at 72C, then sparged with water from the boiler at about 70-72C. Collected 23l (can't find my pre-boil gravity figure though, which is annoying)

28g Mt Hood (5.7%) at 60 mins
28g Galaxy (15%) at 15 mins
10g Irish Moss at 15 mins
454g wildflower honey (made a bit more liquid with about 50ml boiling water) at flameout

Specific Gravity - 1.052
Approx volume - 20.5 litres (this translated into 39 500ml bottles)
ABV 5.78%

This was one of the easiest brewdays I've ever had - simple mash, simple boil, no starter to worry about - and one of the most satisfying. Eight days of fermentation at room temperature (19C) and it was down to 1.008 with no fuss. I was a bit concerned when the bottles took about 3 weeks to carb up, but they were worth the wait. It really looks the part - amazing, deep-red colour with a good white head - and with a deep malt flavour that finishes a little dry (from the honey). It's very sessionable, although I wouldn't recommend it given the strength.

As per the title, I've today brewed this for a second time due to demand from people I've given bottles to - the only change second time around was to first wort hop the Mt Hood, as in the original recipe. Just as before, it was a pleasure to brew - very straightforward, and I managed to hit my SG again (although thanks to some improvements in efficiency I managed to collect a bit more wort this time, so I've got a full 23l in the FV). If it turns out as well as the first batch, I'll be chuffed.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

All-Grain Brew #2 - Charlie Brown (a big IPA)

As per previous posts, I love IPAs, especially if they're loaded with big, piney American hops. For my second all-grain brew, I wanted to try to do something in that vein - and to banish the memory of the extract brew ruined by over-sanitation. The starting point for this was the evocative IPAs being created by Evin O'Riordan and company at The Kernel, which I find fascinating for being both extreme in their hop flavour but also, perversely, quite malty and rich to provide the right balance. I'd also been reading a bit about decoction mashing, and how Bavarian brewers use multiple steps to create a malty flavour through the production of melanoidins. I had no idea how I'd accomplish multi-step mashing on my equipment, but I did come across melanoidin malt while looking for ingredients - a modified malt designed to produced those melanoidin flavours in a single infusion mash. Ideal for the lazy brewer (or one out of his depth).

So the recipe came together as follows - keep everything simple, with pale malt as the majority of the bill and a little melanoidin malt for flavour and colour. I wanted to use the melanoidin malt very generously - firstly, so I could taste its effect on the malt bill clearly, but also because I wanted to load up on hops and didn't want to be disappointed that I'd created an astringent monster that no-one else I knew would want to drink. I settled on 6kg of Pale Malt and a kilo of melanoidin - a huge percentage (a shade under 15%), and right on the maximum of what I'd seen recommended online. I knew it would make the beer quire brown, but it turned out slightly darker than expected - a, er, brown IPA.

The mash was very painless - I managed to retain 68 degrees throughout, and the lautering was much, much easier than with the breakfast stout I made for AG#1. My notes aren't great for this brew, but I recorded that I collected 14l from the first runnings, and sparged with 10l to collect 21l. In hindsight, I should have collected more - I didn't take hydrometer readings towards the end to make sure I wasn't oversparging, a habit I keep repeating - but I'll come back to this later.

For the hops, I definitely wanted to use Citra hops, the star of my favourite Kernel beer (the Citra IPA), but I only had 100g of these, and as I wanted to use most of them late, I used some Cascade both for bittering and to use the grapefruity flavour to complement the lighter, tropical character that I associate with the Citra. Given that it was very much trial and error at this point, I didn't want to introduce a lot of variables, and I'm glad I didn't. For the yeast, I used Wyeast's version of the California Ale yeast I've used before, Wyeast 1056, so the malt and hop flavour would be unencumbered by anything unusual from the yeast. As I don't have any brewing software, all this was worked out using Hopville, an online brewing calculator... it's not very sophisticated, but it helped give me an idea of what I was doing. This is my brewsheet...

Charlie Brown IPA

6kg (86%) Pale Malt
1kg (14%) Melanoidin Malt

Single infusion - Mash at 68C for 60 mins

50g Cascade (7%) @ 60mins
25g Citra (15%) @ 30mins
25g Citra (15%) @ 15mins
50g Citra (15%) @ 5mins
50g Cascase (7%) dry hop for 10 days

15g Irish Moss @ 15mins

OG came out at 1074 - which according to Hopville puts my efficiency at 67%, which I'm pretty happy with at this stage. You remember I only collected about 21 litres? That was a mistake - once I'd drained the wort through the 150g of hop flowers in the bottom of the boiler, I estimate that I'd lost about 3-4 litres to the hops and the boil. The yeast was pitched at 24C, and held at 22C (using a heatpad due to the cold of early February), and bottomed out at 1022 after 14 days, giving an ABV of 6.8%. I had been expecting this to go lower, but it didn't seem high enough to be properly 'stuck'... Any thoughts welcomed! To be honest, 6.8% seemed strong enough anyway.

The remaining 50g of Cascade from the 100g packet I'd broken into were used as dry hops for 10 days in a secondary - more losses there, as the hop flowers sucked up another couple of litres. In all, I only got 25 half-litre bottles out of the batch - not a great return on all that time and effort...! Something to bear in mind for next time.

Cracking the first one after a couple of weeks conditioning, the hop aroma and flavour came through beautifully. The maltiness was a lot bigger than I expected, almost like honeycomb, but with the fresh hop flavour it seemed to just about balance out. That was back in February - more than two months on, I've just cracked open the last of them that I'd been saving, and the difference seems really clear already. The hops have died back a lot, leaving an oddly sweet centre that remind me a bit like a slice of malt loaf spread with Oxford marmalade. I can understand now why everything I'd read about melanoidin malt suggested that it should be used sparingly. It's still quite drinkable, but it's nowhere near the Kernel IPAs I was aiming at. I'm already planning my next attempt...

Just as an addendum, I brewed this immediately for my third brew, I wanted to see if I could recreate this exactly, seeing as I was so disappointed with the volume and wanted some more bottles of the same beer. I followed the notes I had for this almost exactly, taking the same quantities from the lautering and into the boil, and using the same hop additions. However, during the cooling process - disaster. I left the room while the immersion chiller coil was running, and came back to find the boiler almost overflowing - a leaky crimp between the hose and the copper had caused an extra 3-4 litres of cold water to seep into the wort. I was tempted to pour the batch away, but pitched anyway - this batch ended up down at 1008, but with no idea of the OG, I can't really make any notes on what happened here. In this version, the melanoidin malt seems even more pronounced, sweet and caramelly and off-putting. The hops are distant, and it just doesn't work. Ironically, because of the leak into the wort, I have much, much more of this beer than I'd want... The home brewer will never have enough of the beers that they want to drink more of, but will always have a surfeit of those that are less successful.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

All-Grain Brew #1 – Black Rain (A Botched Breakfast Stout)

Back in January, I bought a mash tun. I hadn’t actually managed to brew an extract beer I was truly happy with yet, so it was a mixture of naivety and excess ambition. Like a lot of home mash tuns, mine started life as a cool box and has been ‘enhanced’ with a stainless steel ‘false bottom’, which protects a small length of hose that leads to a ball-joint tap. I would love to say that I constructed this myself but, after reading lots of guides that made it sound really easy, I could see myself accidentally ruining the coolbox and having to buy another… The Home Brew Shop in Aldershot converts coolboxes in-house, and I’m pretty happy with the job they’ve done.

Going back to the naivety and excess ambition… the sensible thing to do when using new equipment for the first time would have been to brew something straightforward, with as few variables as possible. 3kg of pale malt, a single hop addition, no drama. However, it was the middle of winter and I wanted to brew the kind of thing I loved, so I decided to have a go at doing an oatmeal stout. I’d been having a bit of beer banter on Twitter with a musician friend who loves coffee (he travels with an espresso machine wherever he goes), so I decided to do a breakfast stout that was luscious and thick from the oats, but with a big coffee kick to it. I thought it would be a bit less disheartening to mess up a complicated first AG brew than if I ruined another really simple brew.

So, with that justification out of the way, I needed a recipe. I initially started looking for a clone of Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast – which I love – and stumbled on a recipe for Founder’s Breakfast Stout, which I’ve never tried. In addition to the coffee, they add unsweetened chocolate baking nibs and dark chocolate – the recipe is here on the BYO Magazine website. It sounded pretty good, so that was my starting point. I dutifully went out and bought what I thought were the right ingredients – as I couldn’t find ‘unsweetened chocolate baking nibs’ (which I assume are a US-only sort of thing), I replaced them with some grated 100% cacao that I found in Waitrose.

When it came to assembling the malt bill, I realized something wasn’t right – I only had 3kg of Maris Otter to the 6kg I needed. If it had been one of the speciality grains, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but suddenly this big stout was looking a lot more diminutive. In a bit of a panic, I threw together every bit of malt or fermentable that I could find that wouldn't affect the colour or roasted flavour too much:

-       1kg Golden Promise that I’d accidentally bought in place of Crystal Malt when doing Brew 3
-       300g Crystal Malt (the remnants of the bag that went into the initial bill)
-       500g light dried malt extract
-       400g flaked oats (again, the remnants of the bag that went into the initial grain bill)

The first mash-in for the new tun

I resisted the temptation to add any sugar as I didn’t want to thin the end beer out too much. I also realized later that the recipe required special, debittered black malt (e.g. Carafa Special III), whereas I used standard black malt through pure ignorance.

So, here’s the actual recipe:

3kg Maris Otter
1kg Golden Promise
1kg Jumbo Oats
500g Crystal Malt 60L
450g Chocolate Malt
340g Roasted Barley
250g Black Malt (NOT Carafa Special III)

500g Light Dried Malt Extract @ First wort
35g Nugget hops (12% AA) @ 60mins
13g Willamette hops (5.5% AA) @ 30mins
13g Willamette hops (5.5% AA) @ 0mins
1 dessertspoon Irish Moss @ 15mins
55g Sumatran Mandheling coffee beans (fine ground) @ 0mins
70g Green & Blacks Organic Dark Cook’s Chocolate @ 0mins
43g Willie’s Supreme Venezuelan Black 100% Cacao @ 0mins

1 vial California Labs WLP001 (California Ale)
50g Sumatran Mandheling coffee beans (coarse ground) – 7 days in secondary

The sparging set-up

The set-up was a classic three-tier – boiler at top acting as a hot liquor tun, mash tun in the middle, fermenter at the bottom to collect wort, which is then poured back into the (empty) boiler when full. 15 litres of strike water went into the grist at 75, giving a mash temp of 65, which held firm for an hour (I was prepared for a loss of a degree or two, so was pleasantly surprised). I had been aiming for 68, but didn’t think I’d lose a full 10 degrees to the grain – more naivety! In addition, the mash was probably a shade too thick - there were a couple of stuck sparges along the way (solved by blowing into the tap.

The hop additions were straight-forward – 35g Nugget on 60 mins, 13g of Willamette on 30 and 0 mins. The chocolate, cacao and coffee went in right on flameout as well, and turned the dark wort absolutely jet black – just the colour I wanted. The biggest downside to using the coffee like this was that it immediately clogged up the tap on the boiler – getting the wort from boiler to fermenter took a very, very long time, as the tap kept jamming with coffee grounds. (getting the coffee out of the tap afterwards was nigh-on impossible – tell-tale coffee grounds appeared from nowhere when I was heating the strike water for the next brew!)
Clockwise from top left, all my boil additions - a mix of cacao, chocolate and ground coffee; Irish Moss; a vial of WLP001; Willamette; Nugget; and more Willamette to finish!

The OG ended up at 1.068 – below where it should have been if the recipe had been followed (1.078 is specified in that recipe), but not disastrous – and as I didn’t make a yeast starter and simply pitched a vial of WLP001 into the wort, it’s probably just as well. I was a bit worried when the yeast gushed out of the vial on opening, but apparently this can be a good sign – and there were no ill effects in the finished beer. The primary ferment was at about 20-22 degrees – and that was with the help of a heat mat that my parents use for their wine fermenting, and was down to 1.028 within three days and finished up at 1.022. ABV a shade over 6% - less than I’d been hoping for, but not bad considering the farce with the grain.

Wort draining into the FV - fantastic colour!

I racked it onto 2 more ounces of coarsely ground Sumatran coffee beans and left it to picked up their flavour for 7 days. Then, as I fancied oak-ageing some of it, I split the batch into two, bottled half of it and racked the other half into carboys containing oak chips that had been soaking in Jack Daniels for a few days – I’ll blog about how the oaking worked out later.

It went into bottles before the SF trip in February and I resisted the temptation to open any until the start of March. The colour is perfect – dark black, with a tan head, although it doesn’t stick around for very long (due to the coffee oils?). The body is a bit disappointing – I was hoping it would be feel a bit thicker with all those oats in there, although I’ve since read about using glucan rests with oats, which I need to read up on. The coffee and chocolate flavour are spot on though, and getting better as it matures – it’s a shame that it doesn’t have a bit more booze to back them up, but that’s my own fault. A bit more sweetness might help too, which could be achieved either by changing the mash temperature or adding a little lactose to the boil. I'm very happy with it though, overall - a huge leap ahead of the extract brews, despite the numerous basic errors.

I’ve christened the beer Black Rain, after one of the aforementioned coffee-loving musician’s songs – I’ve given him, Mel and a few other friends some bottles, so am looking forward to getting some feedback. If anyone reading this would like to do a swap, please let me know! I’m hoping to brew another batch of this in the coming weeks that puts right some of the problems mentioned above - Item 1: Make sure you have the right grain bill before you start.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

First Steps in Brewing

Before I started writing about my all-grain brews, I wanted to write a bit about how I started out. At the time it seemed really easy to get started, but then none of the first few batches turned out exactly as I wanted them to, which says something. I started brewing beer towards the end of 2011 – it’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time but never had the impetus to start. I was lucky enough to have parents that have made beer, cider and wine intermittently throughout my childhood, so they had fermenters, airlocks and hydrometers knocking around. As a hugely impatient novice, I had the idea that I could flick through John Palmer’s How to Brew, buy some ingredients, and suddenly be turning out decent brews. As I said – an impatient, naïve novice. The hardest bit for me to get my head around was the cleanliness. Everything needs sterilizing – fermenters, equipment, surfaces… but not too much, as any trace of the chemicals you’ve used will do as much damage to the brew as if you’d not bothered at all. A thin sodium hypochlorite solution does not taste good – but more of that later.

The first brew was a beer kit called Citrus Blast, put together by Pop’s Home Brew in Cheltenham. It seemed a bit too easy – you got some dried yeast, two cans of Coopers LME and a couple of different hop additions, each in their own bags. Boil them up with as much water as you can fit in as big a pot as you can get your hands on, then after an hour tip it into the fermenter, top up with cold water (which helps bring the temperature down to 20C), then pitch some rehydrated Nottingham yeast. What we had after fermentation was recognizably beer – deep brown, bit of malt, a bit of classic English hops… it just wasn’t the sort of stuff I like to drink.

Brew Two was another kit, which should have come out as a 5% stout, and consisted of a single hop bag and two cans of Coopers Dark extract. I had the bright idea of cutting the overall volume to under 4 gallons instead of 5 in order to bump up the original gravity to 1.080 or something silly and therefore, in theory, the eventual ABV. No taking into account the yeast (it was the same dried Nottingham yeast) or the amount of unfermentables in the Dark Malt Extract or anything – I told you I was naive. It eventually bottomed out at something like 1.028, looked and smelled like Marmite and tasted like, well, diluted Dark Malt Extract. Thinking it was a write-off, we decided to play around with it a bit – splitting it into four one-gallon demi-johns and putting some coffee beans into one, bourbon-soaked oak chips into another, both oak and coffee into a third and leaving the fourth gallon untouched. I’d read online about using coffee and oak to flavour stouts in the secondary, and given that our extract beast seemed to be a bit of a mess, I thought it would be an opportunity to try it out. We gave them all a week, then bottled then. Incredibly, they turned out okay – they were clearly not going to win any brewing awards, but the coffee and oak came through in the various bottles to take the edge off the twang. I’m planning to leave a few bottles for six months and see if they’ve improved.

At Christmas time I was given a 5-gallon boiler, an immersion chiller and some other new equipment, and decided to make Brew Three a recipe of my own. I adapted a recipe online for an Imperial IPA, and,ordered three cans of light malt extract, some US hops (Apollo and Chinook) and a vial of White Labs WLP001 California Yeast. The boil seemed to have gone well, the OG was up at 1.070 where it should have been, and the hops smelled great. Seven days later, it was down to 1.018 - despite me not making a starter, firstly because I didn't know exactly how and secondly because I hoped the yeast would pull through). We racked it to the secondary for dry-hopping with more of the Chinook hops and left it to settle. However, when we came back to it in the following days, there was an odd smell to it – instead of the crisp hop aroma, there was a slight chlorine taint to it that got worse when I tasted a sample. My theory is that there must have been some undissolved crystals of the sodium hypochlorite in the bottom of the secondary that we hadn’t rinsed out properly. The whole batch was ruined (although having said that, my brother couldn’t really taste it, so drank every bottle over the course of a fortnight…)

The lessons I learned from the first few batches were:
  1. -       Keep everything sanitised... but rinse everything before use to make sure there's no residue.
  2. -       Don’t mess around too much unless you know what you’re doing. If you do have to start messing around, make copious notes. 
  3. -       Record everything… starting temps, OGs, FGs, everything.
  4. -       Don’t be too ambitious to start with.
  5. -       Read and learn as much as possible - the Palmer book is highly recommended.
  6. -       Until you know what you’re doing, expect to make fairly mediocre beer at best
      That's not to imply I'm any kind of expert now, but I'm definitely cringing a bit at remembering some of the stuff I've just written....

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


I’m looking forward to trying a bottle of my first all-grain beer batch, a coffee stout called Black Rain, which I brewed back in January. I’ll blog about that my fully when I do, but one of the big challenges I faced was trying to source the right coffee beans to put in the secondary. I wanted to copy the coffee aroma of Founders’ Breakfast Stout, but despite finding a recipe online and going to every supermarket or coffee vendor around Cheltenham, we couldn’t find what they use – Kona coffee. (In the end, we used some Guatemalan beans instead.)

Kona’s coffee is hugely prized – the conditions on the volcanic western slopes of Hawaii’s Big Island are perfect for growing it, and apparently it can fetch more than £50 a lb. (I made sure to pick up a couple of pounds for the next batches of coffee stout – much cheaper than that, I assure you). Somewhat less prized are the beers of their local microbrewery, the Kona Brewing Company, which is based a few hundred yards from the sea in Kailua-Kona. I’d seen their beers on the shelves of Whole Foods in San Fran, but not tried any of them, so was immediately curious. Although the beer element of our trip was ostensibly over, I can’t resist the lure of a brewery tour, especially if there’s an adjoining brewpub.

Kona Brewing Company's compact setup, which only produces draft beer
Given the hot and humid year-round climate in Kona, the majority of KBC’s brews fit into the pale, designed-to-be-served-ice-cold mould – they have a stock lager, the grassy, gassy Longboard; a pale ale, Fire Rock; and a slightly paler ale, which was on draught only and whose name escapes me (it may be the Duke's Blonde). I wasn’t too impressed by these – bland and anaemic, they may have been microbrewed but they didn’t taste particularly individual. At the end of the tour, we got to try a sample of Even their Hefeweizen, Hula, was strangely muted – lots of fruity, banana twang, but very one-note, with no real depth or complexity.

Kona's Longboard Lager - the colour of varnished pine but without the flavour

The Lavaman Red comes across like a pint of English premium bitter that’s been chilled to freezing point and then carbonated to within an inch of its life (They have a cask-conditioned night every other Friday, and perhaps this might be better served that way). Their IPA was better – a passion fruit bomb on the nose, although it was a bit too dry in the finish. Our tour guide, an ebullient man called Jesse, wouldn’t divulge the hop bill of as ‘we don’t give away our recipes’ – although this may be news to the brewers, who put all the info for each beer on their website. So the hops in the IPA are Northern Brewer, Cascade and Centennial – just don’t tell Jesse. The best of the pale beers is Wailua Wheat, a wit brewed with passion fruit juice. You get the fruit flavour straight away, but then it fades into the body of the beer to become a refreshing note rather than dominating.

Their most successful beers are their darker or more experimental beers. Pipeline Porter, which takes their stock porter, Black Sand, and ages it on the aforementioned Kona coffee, was fantastic – a really rich coffee aroma, but only a hint of coffee in the flavour, with the caramel malt flavour dominating. Their other coffee beer, a stout called Da Kine Grind, was even better – bumping up the strength to 8.5% and pouring engine-black. The most impressive thing for me was the rich, creamy head – something you don’t usually see with coffee beers due to the oil in the coffee killing the head retention. I didn’t see it poured, so perhaps there’s some special technique at play. We stuck to these for our time on the island – the Pipeline Porter was so good that we took a growler of it away.

My 64oz Kona growler alongside some of their Pipeline Porter

Pipeline was one of the beers we’d seen in Whole Foods, and again in some of the local liquor stores on the island, so it might have made more sense to buy bottles. However, the two beers are not necessarily one and the same. While the beer we’d been drinking in the brewpub – and that’s supplied to Kona’s other bars and restaurants – is brewed on site in Kona, all their bottled beer is contract brewed by the Craft Beer Alliance at an industrial facility in Oregon. While Jesse was quick to point out on the tour that this was just a question of size, and that this practice is commonplace, but it made me feel uneasy – I’ve read of UK brewers having one particularly popular core beer contract-brewed to meet demand, usually while they are trying to expand their own brewing facilities, but the Kona setup means that their brewers never touch any of the beer that is distributed nationwide – only that which is drunk in Hawaii. And there’s no indication on any of their bottle labels that the beers, which trade heavily on their island heritage, have actually been crafted on the mainland. Perhaps I am being too naïve here.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Kona, I do recommend taking the tour and trying their beers for yourself. The adjoining brewpub does fantastic food – using some of the dried, spent grain from the mash tun to make pizza dough and bread, which I thought was quite cool. For the moment though, I don’t think coffee is under threat as the most famous drink from Kona.

Friday, 24 February 2012


Our trip to San Francisco is over now, but I wanted to blog about our trip to Oakland on Saturday night after the Barleywine Festival. You would have thought that 20+ barleywines would have been enough, but after a pint of mild at Magnolia (albeit one that was served carbonated and icy cold – I let it warm up a bit before I got into it) and a nap back in the hotel room, we were ready to go again.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland sit on opposite sides of the Bay, linked together by the Bay Bridge (a much longer and more impressive structure than the Golden Gate, I reckon – after all, it just seems to link the city to some fishing villages in the North Bay… great.). You can drive between Oakland and San Francisco by land, via San Jose, but it takes a long time. The reason for that long-winded lesson is that as it was President’s Day, the Bay Bridge was closed for repair, so the trip to Oakland was either a long drive or another ride on the BART. We chose the latter.

Oakland is a big city in its own right – less glamorous and affluent than SF, and we were warned that it was a bit edgier at night too, which was borne out by a loud and aggressive argument that seemed to be raging across the road when we got out of the BART station. Just to be on the safe side, we kept our heads down and walked quickly.

We were headed for Beer Revolution - ten blocks from the BART, on the other side of the freeway and next door to, of all things, a vegan soul food restaurant. Of all the bars I’ve been to on the trip, Beer Revolution felt the most instantly familiar – busy and bustling atmosphere, a terrace for al fresco drinking, fridges full of bottles that you can browse like the Cask Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico… There was even an absolutely hammered patron doing her best to annoy her fellow drinkers (at one point she told me I wasn’t the King in Oakland, which was at least accurate) – just like home!

Part of the charm of the place is its idiosyncratic nature. When they first opened, they started with four taps, but with time and success they’ve added new lines all over the place – as a result, you can never tell where your beer’s going to be poured from, with taps on the side of the bar, the front, the back – everywhere. Tonight’s beers were billed as an ‘LA Tap Takeover’, with a few kegs left over from their Bruery showcase on the Friday night. I’ve tried The Bruery’s tasty Saison Rue before and liked it, so I went for their Burly Gourd – billed on the boards as a milk stout with spices. What I got was a slightly peppery, cinnamon flavour and an oddly syrupy character instead of the smooth sweetness that you usually get from a milk stout. I’ve subsequently looked on their site and they refer to it as more of a pumpkin beer… I’d go along with that – it’s definitely nothing like any milk stout I’ve ever drunk!

The incredible tap selection at Beer Revolution - spot the piecemeal-added taps!
When you come to a place with more than 40 beers on tap and hundreds of possibilities in the fridges, the temptation is often to stick with breweries you know or to work through countless tasters before you settle on something. So for the next beer, I took a recommendation and ended up with a pint of Golden Road’s Point the Way IPA. I’d never seen their beers anywhere before, but was really impressed by the subtlety of this. It had the big citrussy hop aroma that you would expect from a Californian IPA, along with a little bit of blackcurrant, but it was much lighter in body and with a slightly creamy roundness to the bitterness at the end - not so much as to make it all too bland though. The Golden Road website claims that ‘New Zealand hops’ are the key – I’d guess at Nelson Sauvin in the pint I had – and I would happily drink this again. I think sometimes the temptation for brewers is to go more extreme with IPAs – massive bitterness, double IPAs, triple IPAs, round after round of dry-hopping – but in this case, to use a cliché, a little bit less gives you more.

After an hour or so of debating what to take from Beer Revolution’s fridges, I settled on a bottle of Evil Twin’s Biscotti Break – a porter made with coffee, vanilla and almonds. And yes, I am aware that it was brewed in Scandinavia, but I’ve never seen it in London and I love his beer. Mel gifted me one of the craziest things I’ve seen all week – Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, a 10.5% imperial stout sold in a can. Even writing that makes my mind bend. I look forward to cracking them back in London.

Finally, Mel’s friend Andrei shared the night’s piece de resistance with us – a Swiss sour called Abbeye de Saint Bon Chien 2010. As I’ve mentioned previously, my knowledge of sours could fit onto a postage stamp, but this was wonderful – bit of a funky aroma, slightly dry, clean gooseberry-type flavour, and very refreshing. As close to, say, an Austrian Gruner Veltliner wine as I’ve tasted in a beer. I must drink more sours in the coming year if they’re as good as this.

Brasserie Franches-Montagnes' Abbey de Saint Bon Chien 2010

I’m glad we went to the trouble of coming all the way over to the East Bay – the chance to sample a new brewery’s drinks should always be taken - I’ll be looking out for more from Golden Road in the future. If you ever happen to be in the Oakland area, give Beer Revolution a visit.

Monday, 20 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Toronado Barley Wine Festival

On my flight to San Francisco on Monday, I was flicking through the current edition of Beer Magazine, the succinctly titled CAMRA quarterly, and came across an article entitled ‘Does Barley Wine Even Exist?’ The style is almost entirely invisible in English pubs and off-licences these days – I think the only examples I’ve had back home in the past couple of years are Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot (of which more later), and the Brewdog and Three Floyds’ collaboration Bitch Please, which is hardly mainstream stuff in name or flavour. The article’s author, Graham Holter, makes the point that barley wine is experiencing a renaissance in America, and San Francisco’s Beer Week culminates in possibly the largest celebration of the style in the world.

As a result of the scarceness of barley wine in the UK, I was preparing for the Toronado Barley Wine Festival without a clear idea of what one is. It should be high in alcohol – a minimum of 8.5% - with a malty, ‘sticky’ mouthfeel and a brown, rather than black colour, to differentiate it from an imperial stout. It should have some hops, but if it is too hopped, then it can start to veer into the double/triple IPA territory that some SF brewers have explored. I’ve just looked on Wikipedia for their BW ‘style statistics’, with original gravities and SRM colours and so forth, and my preconceptions aren’t too far off.

I hadn’t realized quite how big a deal the Barley Wine Festival is. A pub or bar in London running an event like this might expect to start to fill up at about 4-5pm. Factor in that most of the beers on offer are well into double-figure ABV, and perhaps the event wouldn’t even be that packed. Well, out on Haight St, the first people started queuing up at around 7am, with doors due to open at 11.30. Special pre-festival brunches are on offer nearby – the Magnolia pub further down the street was even promoting a selection of milds and session ales as a contrast.

Once we’d filled up with a big breakfast, we headed down to Toronado for 12 noon to find that the place was packed – although not, according to our friends Mel and Andrei, as busy as at the same time last year (thankfully, in my opinion). On coming through the door, you pick up a sheet of the barley wines on offer – 52 in total, with 46 kegs being poured in the front bar and an extra six in an auxiliary bar in a side room. Beers are served in either small (3oz) or medium (6.5oz) measures – half or full glasses, essentially, although my experience was that the half-glasses  were pretty generous…! Every table I could see was already covered in glasses – with the numbers of the beers written on the coasters underneath to keep track of what was in the glasses.

(I'd never seen anything like this before. Note the papers under the glasses with numbered circles)

As with my first time at Toronado, the ordering system is strictly by number only. Given that the queues at the bar are so big and it takes so long to get served, the savvy drinker selects six that they want to try from the list, bring along a cardboard six-pack holder, shout out your numbers at the bar like a bingo caller (remembering to say small or medium), carefully stack the glasses into the carrier, then take them back to your spot and try to unload them. If this all sounds like an enormous hassle, then you’re forgetting the most important part of the day – we now had six unique barley wines to taste and compare before we had to go through it all again.

All but one of the beers on offer were from American brewers – the sole exception being Emelisse from the Netherlands. There were a few verticals on offer (the same beer but from different years, so you can taste the ageing), as well as some special barrel-aged versions. There were some that were blends of different barrel versions, and even a barley wine blended with an imperial stout (which I’ll get to later).

(Thirty-five of the beers on offer - it continued overleaf, but you get the picture)

As Mel and Andrei knew what they were doing, they picked the first six, which were: Ninkasi Brewing’s Critical Hit 2010, Alaskan brewer Midnight Sun’s Arctic Devil, North Coast’s Old Stock 2008, Rogue’s Old Crustacean 2009, Ballast Point’s Three Sheets (Rum Barrel) and Anderson Valley’s Horn of the Beer. We all agreed that the Arctic Devil was our favourite of the six – the highest ABV of the festival at 13.2%, but super-smooth vanilla oak tones. I found the Three Sheets too sweet (rum barrel ageing suits a darker beer, in my opinion c.f. Lost Abbey/Brewdog’s Lost Dog), but I loved the prominent hops in the Critical Hit 2010. You’ll remember we tried Old Stock 2009 earlier in the week, and the 2008 was a maltier version that perhaps wasn’t quite as good. I don’t remember much of the Horn of the Beer – for the rest of the blog I’ll simply gloss over my poor note-taking! – and Rogue’s Old Crustacean had a sweet, apricot jam flavour that I could imagine being too cloying if we’d had larger pours.

We had taken up a convenient position in an alcove by the auxiliary bar,  which not only gave us one of the few places in any of the rooms with space to set our glasses down, but also easy access to the six beers available on the taps there. We chose number 47 – Alesmith’s Old Numbskull; 49 – Drake’s Frankenwine (a blend of their barley wines); 51 – Pizza Port Carlsbad’s Farley (aged in bourbon barrels) and, just to make up the numbers, 52 – Beachwood’s Annihilator. The latter was awful – an odour of soap and washing-up liquid, followed by the taste of bubblegum and a touch of pine disinfectant. Not very pleasant! The Drake’s Frankenwine was fairly indifferent – a mish-mash of different flavours that blended into nothing much at all, which seems like a waste of all the effort put into the individual barley wines. Thankfully, the other two were better - Old Numbskull was an American-style well-hopped barley wine, with a finish like candied grapefruit peel, while Pizza Port’s Farley was bourbon-barrel perfection. You could smell the barrel as soon as you put your nose in, full of that delicious rich, chocolate-vanilla scent, and it was so smooth and easy to drink. The tastiness, along with our proximity to the keg, meant that this was the only brew we ordered twice. Or three times, as it turned out.

 (The highest ABV drip tray in the world? The auxiliary bar in action)

At about this point, the realisation kicked in that we’d split about 65ozs of 10+% ABV beer between four of us, and it wasn’t yet 1.30pm. The pros that were queuing in the early morning sun had come prepared with lunches and snacks that you are allowed to bring in to eat with your beer, but we were still running on our big breakfast. Our next six included a classic example of the style, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot 2009. I find the taste of their Pale Ale so distinctive that I could identify it blind, and the Bigfoot takes that base and turns the dial up on everything especially the malt. Apparently collecting Bigfoot is a big thing here - Andrei was telling us about tasting a 16-year-old bottle from a 'Bigfoot Chaser's collection, which must have been incredible.

High Water’s Old & In The Way is billed as ‘English Style’, which means the malt should dominate the palate, and sure enough, it did – like drinking a liquid Highland Toffee bar, but with a burn at the end. The aforementioned blend of barley wine and imperial stout was 50-50’s BART (Barrel Aged Really Tasty), and my notes simply say ‘Accurately named’. The description makes clear that it had been aged in a Jack Daniels barrel, and you could taste the distinctive Jack flavour through this. We also tried Marin’s Old Dipsea 2011, Bear Republic’s Old Scoutter’s and Triple Rock’s Dragonaut – which we only had because the bartender misheard Mel ask for #35 and served her #25 instead - in this bar run.

(Ordinarily I'd list the beers - the centre right beer is Pizza Port's Farley, but not sure about the others...!)

With the time ticking into early afternoon, the bar was pretty much at capacity now, with our well-guarded spot by the second bar being encroached upon and a line outside to get in. A few beers had started to run out, too -  Farley went quite early, along with the Arctic Devil and the Three Sheets (to my surprise). We decided to pick a final six beers and then make our escape before we all passed out. We finally did get the #35 we wanted – Schmaltz’s He’Brew Genesis 15:15. Coincidentally, as we tried this, the brewer walked past us – one of a number of brewers of the beer we were drinking that had come along to enjoy the festival. Genesis 15:15 stood out on the menu as an interesting beer – brewed with dates, figs, grapes and pomegranates, then aged in rye whiskey barrels. This was a glorious, sticky, fruity confection, and I could taste the pomegranate juice in the palate. The barrel had less of an influence here than with other beers we tried, but I’ll put that down to the sheer weight of other flavours going on in there. Disappointment of the day was Deschutes’ Mirror Mirror (2011), a beer that Mel and Andrei assured me was very good when they’ve had it from bottle, but which had an unpleasant acetone/nail polish aromas and a slightly astringent flavour. We reckoned it might be infected.

I convinced our American friends to try Emelisse’s Dutch take on the style, although they weren’t impressed with the upfront hops in there. Uinta’s Anniversary was next, and very tasty – although I did point out that, as the beer was made in teetotal Utah, my expectations were quite low. Next was Speakeasy’s Old Godfather, which was fairly unremarkable, before we completed our vertical of North Coast’s Old Stock with the 2010 version (I think my favourite was the 2009).

With our veins flowing with barley wine, we wandered out into the warm afternoon sun. As we walked up Haight, debating our favourites, what struck me was the sheer variation in flavour across the beers we’d tried – from the dark, rich Farley through to the vibrant, fruity Genesis 15:15 to the big hops of Critical Hit 2010. With such a wide definition of the style to play with, there is so much scope for brewers to play with the style to brew something tasty and different. I understand that a selection of medals are handed at the end of the day – personally, if I had to choose a favourite, I think the Arctic Devil or the Farley would win. The most interesting was the Genesis 15:15, although I don’t know how much of that I could drink – or how often!

After all that strong, strong beer, there was one thing I wanted more than anything else in the whole world. We walked up the hill to Magnolia for a good, old-fashioned pint of mild.