On the beer trail in Poland

I mentioned at the start of the post just below this one that 2021 is the tenth anniversary of my first trip to Poland. I’ve drunk quite a lot of beer since then, both in and outside Poland, and, while Poland has always had a tradition of decent bottled beers (Baltic porters, chiefly), the beer scene is remarkably different now to then.

Back then beers whose attractiveness is best described as ‘cold and wet’ predominated (they still do, of course), but 2011 saw the arrival of the first hop forward beer – ‘Atak Chmielu’ (‘Hop Attack’), produced (under contract) by Silesia’s PINTA – thus getting the craft beer (piwo rzemieślnicze) revolution underway with a view to changing Polish beer drinkers’ tastebuds. Now, you can find interesting – and, indeed, experimental beers, if that’s your thing – right across the country and, while this might be naturally expected in the large towns and cities, even the smaller, more remote locations also have restaurants and outlets where you can find good, locally-produced, fresh beer – usually bottled, but also on draught in some places – which doesn’t taste like every. single. other. beer you tried before. Living in a small, more remote location where such a thing is difficult, I recognise that that’s no mean feat.

As this very recent article quite astutely points out, there are actually two revolutions underway in Poland – not only challenging people’s tastebuds, being the first and most obvious, but turning Poland from a vodka country to a beer country being the second, deeper, one which has major social as well as economic connotations. Both revolutions are, of course, connected.

Poland now produces more beer each year than the UK, despite having a population only 56 per cent of the size, and only Germany among European countries produces more. And, while 80 per cent of Polish beer consumption is from one of the ‘big three’ (owned respectively by Asahi, Heineken and Carlsberg), there are now more than 300 active breweries, many of them microbreweries and larger, but regionalised concerns. Naturally, this success has encouraged the big three to produce their own versions of craft beer in response, although (alongside other more sneaky big beer/business tactics, including the one of disguise) there are several issues here too. However, it seems that craft has been making some inroads: that 80 per cent figure (source: Wikipedia, dating from 2014) seems, on the basis of more recent market share figures, dating from 2017, to have fallen back a bit. Tastebuds are being changed – but progress is slow and likely to be beset by a range of issues of which the impact on social habits and customs of Covid-19 over the last eighteen months, and counting, is only one among many.

Wide availability of good product helps. In Wrocław I expected to find good beers aplenty, both as a result of the history (see post below) as well as a rich economy and a large, young population. Here, for instance, I had a pale ale brewed with New Zealand hops (actually, the first NZ beer I’ve tried) made by a local brewery but, crucially, available in an ordinary restaurant: I didn’t need to step into any of the brewery restaurants which are present even on the main square in the city, such as the rightly-renowned Golden Dog, or a taproom. But in lovely Świeradow-Zdrój – population 4,100 – craft beers were also easily available in bars and restaurants (albeit from another of the Wrocław craft breweries – a 150km distance is still pretty local); in Kudowa-Zdrój, where the local beers came from across the border in the Czech Republic; and in the Bieszczady Mountains, in the far south-east corner of the country and whose towns were largely deserted until the 1970s as a result of the aftermath of the establishment of modern-day Poland subsequent to the Second World War, where the bottled beers from one brewery, the nearest town to which has a population of 5,700, were ubiquitous in restaurants across the villages of the region.

Here’s an advert for that brewery in the market stalls clustered around the bus stop in Ustrzyki Górne – more a destination than a town, really – and, as you can see, not only an advert, too:

Ursa Maior ticks many of the right craft beer boxes – set up by a champion homebrewer in 2013, and a woman at that, it has a solid range of core beers, all of which are entirely vegan, cleverly branded and marketed, is firmly attached to and rooted within its community and proudly champions its environmental credentials. It is open to visitors for tours and for a taproom experience, is youthful, English-speaking, all over social media and with website design which has a modern, fresh appeal. Heck, to judge by the language on its 2021 recruitment advert, it could also have got to the stage, like many of its contemporaries internationally, where it could do with recognising a trade union. Hmm.

Socially therefore, we might well be getting to the point where Polish people might well be asking ‘Is a beer at the wedding a good idea?’, going by the title of this interview with Agnieszka Łopata, the founder of Ursa Maior (a title whose philosophical properties justify a deeper analysis than simply a piece on a wedding planner website, I think) – the point being that Poland is indeed moving away from spirits-based celebrations centred on vodka: still the national drink, but being caught up by beer. There are many factors in this, chief among them being the nation’s alcohol advertising laws (only beer among alcoholic drinks can be advertised and only then when health warnings covering 20 per cent of the surface area of the advert are in place). All this does, however, mean that the ‘alkohole’ shops of yore – grim places in which you’re more than likely to encounter a certain type of clientele shuffling apologetically around (hence the reason for the advertising laws – alcoholism has been a problem in Poland) and often featuring bars over small windows placed high up on walls – are being slowly replaced by modern bottle shops, like one where we stayed in Cisna (population, outside the tourist season, less than 500), well-stocked with an increasingly wide range of regional beers from many different breweries like Ursa Maior lined up on bare, or barely painted, wood shelves which are attractively lit. Sadly, I have no photographs of this one. Busy it was, too, the midweek night I was in.

Alongside a network of good bottle shops which increases people’s opportunities to buy – some 89 per cent of sales in Poland is off-trade, i.e. for the home, according to the factsheet produced by the industry association in Poland – changing people’s tastebuds is evidently the key. Or, alternatively, that there can be more to ‘lager’ than cold and wet, which also has its place in hot countries; or that, alternatively, ale doesn’t have to be ‘dank’; or that good beer doesn’t have to involve a lot of faff around choice, styles, tastes and food matching options; and worrying that you might have got the wrong one. Asking for ‘a beer’ should be simple and, moreover, good beer should always be what arrives.

It’s actually pretty easy to sell a craft product – including beer – to tourists who want to experience something authentic and local to where they are as a key part of their holiday; it’s another thing entirely to be able to do more than just engage in deep cleaning-oriented shutdowns in those parts of the year when tourists are thin on the ground and when the requirement for freshness means getting your product not only out, but sold, in a reasonable time after it emerges from fermentation. The Bieszczady has its off-season too, when winter snows lead to Cisna being covered by 3m of snow, as one hotelier reported to us, albeit that snow brings winter sports enthusiasts alongside walkers looking for a different sort of challenge than you find in the mountains in the summer (and including those presented by hungry, and capable, wild animals).

Being able to sell beer year-round in remote areas means either, or more probably both, of having a good website presence and a clear online sales facility (to which you can also respond in timely fashion) and of selling to locals. In the latter case, this often means overcoming people’s desire just to ‘be like everyone else’ and, completely conversely to the tourist experience, precisely to get away from where they are. In Poland, this might well mean preferring to buy a Tyskie, a Żywiec or an Okocim (or, in the Western Isles, a Tennent’s, a McEwan’s or, ahem, a Punk IPA, Aberdeen’s Brewdog already being the largest independent in the UK). The investment in alternative beer in the spa towns of the west and in the Bieszczady seems to indicate that this key problem of selling outside the main tourist season can be overcome, although a look at the street maps produced by one online giant or another indicates just how recent a lot of this investment is – and, therefore, how vulnerable, too – and an out-of-season re-visit would probably be a good idea, too. An emphasis on the local, the rooted and the community which goes hand-in-hand with being part of a remote area; while an emphasis on fewer food miles, not least in these times of both climate change as well as supply chain bottlenecks, has a lot to commend itself and it may be part of an appeal which is possible to replicate elsewhere. In our corner of Europe, in contrast, getting stock into the major retail outlets does seem to be a problem and that may, in turn, reflect a lack of discretion to local managers as regards purchases, perhaps combined with a large degree of central purchasing.

So, some signs of good progress in Poland these last ten years; but, like anywhere else, the road is both rocky and long, and full of potholes and other bumpy bits. Do support your local producers, wherever you find them: Covid-19 and extended shutdowns has meant that many are barely surviving as it is. In the meantime, it’s good to know that local brewers in the UK can learn the success factors in selling craft beer just as much from the Polish experience, and possibly more, as Polish brewers can from us. That’s also progress.

Just add time

This is probably the last of this sort of post for a while, not because I’m stopping brewing – far from it – but, well, there’s probably more interest in the taste of the beer than in the actual brewdays; and, shortly, I’ll be able to brew much bigger batches of beer (up to 30 litres at a time, rather than the 4.5 litres I’m currently used to) so the brewing posts will anyway be less frequent, and more selective as regards what I’m brewing, while I work my way through each batch that I make. But it’s still quite magical to turn such few, standard, even humdrum ingredients into something that tastes wonderful, and using just a few pots and pans, too.

For those interested in what my beer tastes like, I’ve added a separate page via the links on the left giving some tasting notes (or, otherwise, via this link).

IMG_5769 (2)

So, this one was supposed to be the first one of me making small quantities of my own beer, rather than from pre-supplied specific kits, mixing up a bit of this and a bit of that as regards the malt with some of these hops and fermenting it with a drop of that yeast. Beers that will have their own names, and labels, and legends…

Intending to brew a few darker beers, I ordered from my usual supplier some speciality grains (amber malt and chocolate malt; and some crystal malt – all in roughly equal quantities), as well as some flaked oats, on top of a base load of pale malt (the lot totalling about 9kg); but, unfortunately, I ordered through a a ‘recipe builder’ under which my supplier simply assumed that I was making one large batch of beer and mixed all the grains together in one bag. My problem, of course – not theirs; I just didn’t understand how the thing worked. I can work with this mix, alright – but it will make some very dark beers and my idea of drawing on appropriate quantities of different barleys to make a stout, a porter and an oatmeal stout, for comparative purposes, is now out of the window: they will all be oatmeal ‘dark beers’ of one description or another, and no further customisation will be possible, not as regards the grain bill, anyway.

As you can see, I have some hops both from the UK (Target and Challenger) and from the US (Columbus and Mosaic) – some 50g of each; and a few different packets of dried yeast, both new and also with some left over from previous brews, carefully stored in the fridge. And I can attempt other customisations, with the following top of the list. I have enough malt to make probably five 4.5 litre batches, depending on how strong I brew:

1. a basic ‘black beer’, probably with an advanced hop profile, so in line with a black IPA

2. a raspberry oatmeal stout, with the raspberries added as an aroma steep after the boil

3. a porter-style beer with the addition of some chocolate and some coffee, along the lines of Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, which is one of my favourite beers (Target hops should add the liquorice notes, too)

4. a vanilla and bourbon stout, with the late addition to the fermenter of some vanilla pods steeped in bourbon

5. a low-alcohol stout (2% ABV or lower) – something I’ve been researching for some time. Should be possible to lower the amount of malt, while still retaining flavour with the darker malts and judicious use of hops both in the flavour and the aroma.

But – these are just some early ideas: do point me the way of something else you think I should be crafting in this sort of style via the comments!

That 30 litre capacity, by the way, will be via one of these Danish-origin shiny all-in-one systems, selected after some fairly exhaustive research and not least on the back of this Pub Sheds Review. This is now working its way to me – at least, once the supplier gets some more in stock; Covid-19 lockdown having wiped most such systems from the marketplace as a result of the increase of interest in home brewing. You don’t need one of these things to brew beer, essentially – but it does make brewing slightly larger quantities much easier in terms of the handling of the grains and the boil.

But, until that comes, I’ve got a few stovetop brews still left – and probably starting this weekend, after another busy week of editing coming up. Furthermore, I’ll probably still continue to do things that way when I want to try out something new (rather than risk being left with a full quantity of beer that, for one reason or another, doesn’t really work). Just now need to pick some of the beers that I’ve enjoyed the most, and start to dream of a production line in full swing…

Brewday: Hefeweizen

‘Finally!’ say my German readers as I got around over the weekend to brewing the hefeweizen I’ve had in my cupboard (and my plans) for the last two months.

IMG_5726 (2)

Hefeweizen is a cloudy beer originating in Bavaria brewed with a fair proportion of wheat (up to fifty per cent) –  although I don’t know the exact proportion between wheat and barley here as I’m using a pre-prepared kit – and with a type of yeast that tends to remain in suspension when it’s done its job rather than fall to the bottom of the fermenter. This gives the beer, once bottled, a fair amount of yeast sediment, as well as a style and ritual of its own when being poured. Legally, apparently, a weizen has to be brewed with a top-fermenting yeast, making it clearly an ale rather than a lager. It’s a light (‘white’) beer which, sat in my fermenter, has a light caramel colour reminiscent of the banana flavours which the yeast will impart – being less keen on these, I’ve under-pitched my yeast since the-bible-according-to-James tells me that this will give me a clove-heavy beer, in terms of aroma, while nevertheless leaving ‘some banana at the back end’. As you can see from the size of the hops sachet – again endearingly packaged in a white pick’n’mix paper bag before being vacuum sealed – there’s not a lot of hop flavour on offer and, for the style, that’s exactly how it ought to be.

IMG_5729 (2)

Hefeweizen in the fermenter two days after brewing, with the extent of the krausen much in evidence (especially yesterday evening when the beer got a little warm), although now subsided following intervention. Note my particularly high-tech stopper solution. It’s now back under the office desk and underneath a towel for good measure, alongside my ‘session’ pale ale (which may after all turn out to be a bit less sessionable), which is due for bottling this weekend.

This is the third and final recipe in this current batch from Edinburgh’s Brewstore, and following a bit of e-mail to and fro in relation to the previous kit beer I brewed from there, I’ve learned to treat their recipes as a starting point, as the basis from which to brew, rather than setting out measurements which are particularly precise. (In short: they stand by the hops in their recipe – which gives me an interesting decision to make about dry hopping my pale ale, which stage is due today or tomorrow – while I know that it’s wrong.) But then, a lot of brewing is like that – if you get five brewers in a room you’ll get at least six different ways of brewing the same beer – and part of the enjoyment is the research and the consultation with others who’ve been there before. And, it also matters quite a lot how good is your process and set-up. Furthermore, it absolutely won’t stop me ordering from there again: what matters to the quality of a beer is, apart from your own process management and decision-making skills, fresh ingredients and I’ve been impressed with the quality of the malt and the hops on offer; and the staff also include a fair proportion of brewers too.

So, the beer shelf in the store cupboard is now bare (though there’s a mini collection of opened packets of dried yeast sealed up and happily chilling in the fridge). Next step from here is the capacity to brew larger amounts of beer than 4.5L in one go and, given the practical difficulty of boiling more than about 10L of liquid on a stovetop, that means a bit of investment in a system of one type or other. Final research is still being done on that, while Covid-19 is evidently causing a few complications to manufacture and delivery there, too. So, watch this space.

In the meantime, all my beers up to now have been straightforward ones. They’ve placed different technical and processual demands at different points, but there have as yet been no customisations. So, while I’m finishing off my research and waiting for delivery, I’m quite tempted to grab a load of dark malts to brew a few short-run (4.5L) stout/porter specials and (fans of the Reinheitsgebot look away now) use some fruit, chocolate, coffee, etc. to extend my skills there, too. Food for thought, anyway.

Brewing up a storm…

I chose yesterday as a brew day (though actually, on looking at the calendar, as well as at the weather forecast, I ought to have used a rare day off work to have been bottling my Belgian blonde, instead).

This was the second of my three 4.5 litre kits from Edinburgh’s Brewstore – the third may follow next week (oh, the joys of having two fermenting vehicles!) – and which bills itself as a ‘session pale ale’: a beer which, with the ABV being a tad lower, you can drink by the bucketload. This one’s in the American style and so packed with ‘zesty, floral American hops’ – almost certainly Amarillo and, I think, also Chinook (there’s two varieties in the pack).

As before, the packaging is admirably no-frill (especially around the milled barley), although this also extended this time around to the recipe instructions, whose glorious incorrectness required a fair bit of on-the-spot thinking as well as reference to the bible according to James Morton in order to magic these base ingredients into something wonderful.

IMG_5713 (2)

Specifically, the recipe called for a pre-boil volume of 8 litres, whereas 7 was expected; and with a hop addition schedule which identified usage of about one-third of the quantity supplied and which looked, to my semi-experienced eye, seriously underweight for a beer of the style. Now, it’s not unusual to get a degree of over-supply – but usually with the yeast (a 10g packet is about twice the volume required, providing (among other things) that you’ve kept it properly and you’ve not put off your brewday too far beyond the delivery). Over-supply of hops is a different matter though – and, indeed, I will be using them all, simply scaling up the amount specified in the recipe (both in the boil and, ten days or so down the line, for dry hopping) to the quantities actually supplied.

Expecting to get 4.5 litres into my fermenter, I was, some 45 minutes into a 60 minute boil, faced still with c.7 litres of wort in my boil pot and a further 2.5 litres wasn’t going to boil off any time soon, so I decided to extend the boil for a further 30 minutes. A 90-minute boil isn’t a bad idea with paler malts, not least since it facilitates greater caramelisation and therefore produces a maltier flavour – but it does concentrate the wort a little more: at the end, I still had 5L to squeeze into the fermenter, and that’s even after allowing for the extraction of a testing sample whose gravity was, as a result of the concentration arising from the extended boil time, way over target. So much for this turning out to be a ‘session’ beer, then: provided the yeast is allowed to do its job as expected, this is likely to pack a punch more higher than the expected 4.3%.

The background to my decision to extend the boil time was growing thunder and lightning arriving, as expected, but a little earlier than scheduled and with voltage dips already briefly dimming the lights on several occasions. Thunderstorms are not so usual here on the islands although power cuts are; and putting 2 and 2 together made the decision a somewhat fraught one. Indeed, no more than five minutes later, a brighter flash outside was accompanied by lights going off inside – although, as it turned out, the power was only off for a minute or so. If it had been for longer, I was faced with the difficult decision of tipping a lot of wort down the sink, eventually proceeding to feed the nettles.

As it turns out, the power going off almost exactly coincided with the time this picture was taken, from just north of the Creagorry Co-op, on Benbecula, the South Uist hills a faint outline and only a few miles from our house/brewery:


Photo credit: @RossMcClenaghan

It was indeed quite a storm which lingered until bedtime but whose crescendo was very much earlier in the day, as Western Isles Weather also faithfully reported, and coincident with my brewing. Full credit to all the workers at SSE who kept us going through the strength of all that.

But, no harm done – and, indeed, from tasting the wort in my sample jar, I have again high hopes for this one: very bitter but already (ahead of dry hopping) with a powerful, piney-yet-zesty hop aroma and citrusy flavour. Just need the yeast to do its work now: and, as I type, there’s a steady rhythmic thud from the airlock, which is a good sign that it’s happily munching its way through the sugars, turning my wort into beer.

And, after those little successes in working over somewhat-faulty instructions, time to think afresh about a little investment in some bigger kit (and more beer) 🙂

Brew Day: Belgian Blonde

Friday might well be the brewday of choice for the discerning home brewer – but Wednesday is perfectly possible, too. And, with a small gap on the work front, ahead of a busy couple of days coming up, today was the turn of a Belgian Blonde kit.

This is the first of three different kits secured a couple of weeks ago from Brewstore, an Edinburgh-based supplier of all things home brew since 1979. Currently closed to personal customers, as is the way of things during the current Troubles, the website offers a window, at changing times of the day and evening, during which people can place orders, and this came with pretty prompt service after one evening when I found myself, fortuitously, in the middle of one of those windows.

Continuing the minimalist theme of the Brewdog Elvis Juice kit I made a week or so ago – and which is still sat in my main fermenter, fermentation having (I hope) finished, and now absorbing the flavours of the dry hops I put in on Monday – this kit also provides only the basic ingredients and leaves you to get on with the job:

IMG_5637 (2)

Steriliser – nah: supply your own; kit instructions – check the website; flavour notes and tips – well, everyone knows a Belgian Blonde, don’t they: in this case, ‘classic Belgian fruitiness, lightly spicy and hints of clove’. Hoppier than I remember, and a little deeper amber in colour, too, if the contents of my gravity sample jar are anything to go by. Perhaps it’s just too long since I was last in Brussels. The handwritten labels, so I don’t mix hops or malt up with the other two packs I ordered, is a nice touch. And yes, the (vacuum-packed) hop (pellets) are in a little paper bag, of precisely the sort that your tuppenny mix (insert your own currency here) used to come in. The malt is not vacuum-packed – it’s in a poly bag with a hand-tied knot – but I know it’s freshly milled. And here, the yeast is at least a 10g pack: more than enough to give me another go at some future point. (At around a tenner, I should also say that it’s pretty well priced.)

And, actually, that is the point – Brewstore also offer a ‘recipe builder’ service so, in the future, I can order the hops and the malt that I need to make a particular beer, and in the quantities I want. That’s definitely one step closer to ‘proper’ brewing, once I’ve finished ironing out the process and getting my mistakes learning points out of the way.

With just the one set of hops, and all introduced at the start of the boil (or before, if you’re first wort hopping, like me), this was a fairly straightforward process (and I even managed to do a bit of cleaning up rather than needing to keep a close eye on my timings, otherwise pacing up and down, while the wort was on the boil). The tricky bit about a Belgian Blonde, so James Morton tells me, is in the fermentation, which has to be kept cool in the first 48 hours before letting the yeast rip. Keeping things cool in the Hebrides is not usually much of a problem – though, even so, while I managed to cool my wort down lower than I ever have done before, pitching the yeast at 18C, my demijohn is now sat in a bath of cold water at a steady 18C. Conversely, ‘letting it rip’: well, let’s just say I’m a bit less confident about that. At least the weather forecast is for sunshine over the weekend so, once it’s out of this initial lag, let’s see how the yeast gets on in the warmth of a Hebridean summer. (And another good reason for timing a Wednesday brewday.)

No brewday is ever quite complete without a panic or two – here, the major one was actually last night when I found out that the new silicon bungs I bought when the previous airlock got stuck in one (and snapped) wouldn’t fit my demijohn, no matter how much hot water, squeezing and swearing I tried. A quick online consultation with the very helpful and reliable home brewers over at the HomeBrew Forum confirmed for me within minutes that a freezer bag held on with a rubber band (if I wanted to have confirmation that fermentation was underway); or a bit of cling film (sanitised) and secured in place similarly (if I don’t), were more than acceptable substitutes. In brewing, there is no problem that no-one has yet come across – or found an answer to.

Life is probably a bit like that too, once we remember how to ask.

Brew Day – Brewdog Elvis Juice

Friday is fast becoming the brew day of choice, for all kinds of obvious reasons, and this week saw me brew a small batch of Elvis Juice, according to a knock-off recipe courtesy of the Brooklyn BrewShop, a US-based start-up dedicated to good beer and good food.

IMG_5611 (2)

Compared to my last brew, where the kit production was lavish, full, colourful and absolutely engaging, the kit here was, well, somewhat sparse: straight out of the box we have about a kilo of reasonably well-sealed malt, some hops (in pellets, this time – double vacuumed) and a barely-sufficient sachet of yeast (a little above 3g, this time). Brewing instructions – look on the website; flavour notes and tips – none. Hmm. Albeit that ‘Erica and Stephen’ wish me, via the label on the outside of the box, a happy brewing, while the Brooklyn BrewShop website is also happy to advise me in detail on what else I can do with my spent grains (and not only more granola). Probably, I suspect, it’s a good job that I’m reasonably familiar with what I’m doing as regards the brewing process at this point…

IMG_5613 (2)

Future breakfast cereal (this time, using maple syrup, drawn from the Brooklyn BrewShop recipe, in place of honey and sugar).

Actually, this was an incredibly smooth brew day with everything proceeding more or less totally according to plan (Dear Reader: it’s not always like this). Bigger challenges will await, of course, but the point of using small kits is to prove technique and make mistakes before these get a bit more costly. However, this being a US kit, we now have a bit less than a proper gallon (around 3.8L) of good quality beer now sat contentedly bubbling away under the office desk, and the rhythmicality of which is a helpful reminder of the solid patterns of life and engagement in the time before now.

For those who don’t know the beer, Elvis Juice is strongly characterised by citrusy, grapefruity flavours – the brewing recipe calls for the addition of grapefruit, too – it’s a ‘grapefruit infused IPA’. However, most of the flavour comes from the hop mix, with US Amarillo and Citra hops to the fore, alongside the piney contribution of Simcoe. As a wee test and, as ever, influenced by the Reinheitsgebot, the German laws requiring the purity of beer (even if rather controversial as regards the purpose and, these days, somewhat open to interpretation), I decided to omit the grapefruit, intending that the hops should do their work (in conjunction with the malt and the yeast, and the liquor) and stand for themselves as regards the flavour of my beer.

Brewdog – formed only in 2008 and now, following the prospective sale of Marston’s, already the largest independent brewer in the UK – isn’t to everyone’s tastes. This is the case as regards the flavours of the beer – which can be a little unexciting to a modern, continuingly progressive palate versed in passion fruit saisons – or as regards the more controversial financial/ownership aspects of the business. (Not for nothing was Brewdog one of the first to turn its production over to making sanitiser in the current crisis. But at least it did.)

Nevertheless, what is undeniably clear is that, as regards the actual process of making craft beer, Brewdog is very open about its brewing recipes, having open sourced them back in 2016, long before Private Eye got – understandably – involved, and with the specific intention of encouraging craft brewers at home to have a go and make something better. You can, indeed, DIY Dog and, in terms of the flavour of the beer, tell the company at one of its regular events where it is going wrong. With 261 open source recipes, this may well be ‘craft beer nirvana’, although it’s also clear that most of these are small batch one-offs, trials (and probably quite a few failures) and which clearly did not find a regular market as part of the core range. All you need is an online supplier of quality, fresh raw ingredients (malt, hops and yeast) – and there are plenty of those around, even if some are, currently, somewhat challenged by the adverse environment in which we find ourselves. And, I reckon, a good craft brewer needs no more than probably five recipes – or beer types – in their armoury which can be done reliably, and well. Innovation is all well and good – and refreshment and replenishment of the armoury needs to be encouraged – but there are also many problems with a post-Fordist analysis of brewing based on endless variation. Identifying those five recipes is, of course, where there is room for debate; and that is evidently where the magic of choice lies. I have my own thoughts, obviously.

My kit is a little simplified, missing out the Magnum and Mosaic hop elements of the full Elvis Juice recipe – though it’s absolutely fair to comment that, on the basis of a 3.8L kit, less may well be more in terms of the hop contribution at this level. But, building a nation of brewers has to start somewhere and a bit of simplification is probably a good thing: at this level, SMaSH (single malt and single hop) has a lot commend it. Some dry hopping awaits in a week or so’s time, just to punch those citrus flavours home – but, with an astonishingly good brew day behind me, this is another beer whose results are, the outcome of fermentation and bottle conditioning pending, keenly awaited.

Edit 24 June: according to this thread, it might be better to see DIY Dog as a starting point, rather than reflecting a case of Brewdog having given away their actual recipes…

A granola PS

… and pretty decent the spent grain granola is, too: a toasty and malty, even chocolatey flavour with a bit of bite even if a bit gritty in parts. A different malt bill from a different beer – say, a stout, as opposed to an amber ale – would clearly produce a different taste so it will be good to try it again with spent grains from a different beer.

Once dried in a low oven, the weight of my spent grains from my California Common kit came to 420 grammes, so, after I’d converted the dry goods ‘cups’ in the HomeBrewtique granola recipe, via Goodtoknow‘s conversion chart, it was easy to scale back the rest of the ingredients to 75% to produce some 1.25kg of healthy breakfast cereal from, otherwise, the addition of simple store cupboard ingredients.

Here’s the pre-bake version – once baked (30 mins at 180C), the only difference is that the picture looked a bit darker than this:

IMG_5549 (2)

Just add fruit and your yoghurt of your choice.

The mix is pretty dry, with the honey doing little in terms of binding any of it together, adding therefore only more sweetness, so – having a savoury rather than sweet tooth – I’d scale that (and the sugar) back next time by about half (sugar and honey account for about 14% of the finished product in terms of the recipe); while I’d also substitute dessicated coconut for the coconut flour which will add a different texture. A little cinnamon, especially in a dry mix, also goes a long way. I’d also add a few dried fruits (we’d run out, else they’d have been there in this one, too).

All helps make my investment in beer kits go that bit further, especially at a median price of about £1/100g, according to Healthista’s recent-ish list of ‘eleven best healthy granolas’.

And really very little faff involved in making it, either 🙂

Brew Day – California Common

What better way to spend a #lockdown May Day than in brewing beer? This one a California Common all-grain kit courtesy of the good folk at HomeBrewtique – a small company supplying low-volume beer-making kits (4.5l; 8 pints) and equipment, set up by women beer lovers and still run entirely by women. HB is still able to supply a few things in these times (although they have now run out of California Common) and the customer service is first-rate.

And a very impressive thing it is straight out of the box, too (or, rather, bag since HB typically supply their kits in a rather lovely jute bag) – a kilo of vacuum-packed grains to stay fresh in transit and during the few days it sat in my office; hops (pellets this time) in a tea bag-style arrangement to help keep back the debris; and all the sanitiser, dextrose (brewer’s sugar) finings and yeast that you need; plus 8 A5 pages of instructions and a helpful short guide. The little black number, by the way, is additional and contains HB’s own ‘Grainstay’ – essentially a fine mesh bag packed small and contained in a small pouch that will itself be handy in small batch hopping.

IMG_5535 (2)

This time I’m also using HB’s own plastic fermenter which, helpfully, comes ready supplied with a tap and a bottling stick to facilitate the bottling process.

So, after trying a few simple all-grain brews, I’ve opted for the brew-in-a-bag method (BIAB – more accurately, mash-in-a-bag, really) as a way of keeping back more of the debris which, at both bottling and drinking time, has presented a few problems firstly of technique and then of taste; while I’ve also abandoned – at least, for now – the demijohn which I used previously, this being impractical for dry hopping and also with more than a few weak spots in terms of the ease (and hygiene) of bottling batches of this size. The BIAB method is also a little quicker since it eliminates the need for sparging, although yesterday I continued with the sparge stage (and also with recycling the wort), firstly since it’s the best way of ensuring as much of your fermentable sugars are transferred into your boiling pot as possible; and secondly because, well, it is one of my favourite words.

My decisions here stemmed from the problems I had with bottling my black IPA and which I’d feared on brew day itself. The amount of debris in the fermenter was considerable and, after I’d dry hopped, left me with barely six x 660ml bottles of beer, of which I’d be only really confident of three while a fourth presented real concerns and which, I suspect, is already oxidised. At least it hasn’t – yet – blown. I’m looking forward to drinking what I can of the batch – though that won’t be for a few weeks yet as it’s currently conditioning – but the bottling experience was a stressful and not particularly enjoyable one. There clearly is a better way.

The California Common brew day went well enough although – once again – I failed to give myself enough backup liquor to top-up, leading to a second, somewhat extended, cooling process in the fermenter. The Grainstay looks to have done a decent job in holding back some of the grain and hop debris, with the amount of sediment in the hydrometer jar being visibly less than before (while still being there…). The fermenter being plastic means I can’t see what’s in it as regards a sediment layer, which is a drawback compared to the glass demijohn, as is that I can’t check quickly – without removing the lid which I’m loath to do, even briefly – on whether the yeast is doing its job. This is quite important since the amount of yeast supplied in the kit – the brand supplied is a known slow-starter, by the way, for all its other merits – was precise rather than generous. It was enough, although I rehydrated it firstly as good practice and secondly as a way of trying to maximise the number of yeast cells in operation. I do have some suitable backup dried yeast, just in case things don’t happen as they ought.

So, after two weeks in the fermenter, two weeks of conditioning in the bottles and then a further two weeks (or so) of storage, my California Common (essentially an American pale ale, but with more woody spice than citrus notes coming from its use of Northern Brewer hops which German migrants brought to the rather different brewing practice in the warmer climes of California) should be ready to drink. In the meantime, the sample in the hydrometer jar was, once it had clarified over a couple of hours, a beautifully clear amber colour, showing excellent promise. High hopes for this one!

In the meantime, and speaking of recycling, yesterday’s spent grains are now drying off in the oven and I’ll be using them to try and make some granola, in line with the Home Brewtique recipe. Well, if you don’t come out of this #lockdown with… &c, &c.

Brew Day – Black IPA

Brew Day was Saturday, as it turned out. I was hoping to fit this in earlier during the week – but dienst ist dienst und schnaps ist schnaps and, well, work has continued to keep me fairly occupied these last few days. (Unless, of course, dienst ist schnaps – though that’s a different blog post entirely!)

This brewuk kit (once again accepting orders, BTW, though the Black IPA seems to have disappeared, amidst a general run on kit stocks across all UK suppliers) closely follows a recipe in Greg’s own Home Brew Beer and it was good to have a bit more technical information from that about the malt bill and also the contents of the individual hop packets in the kit. (Incidentally, the idea that lockdown is turning us all into a nation of home brewers is, I think, a most wonderful thing.) Brew day went pretty well, albeit not without a few alarms, and 4.5 litres of Black IPA are now fermenting happily away in my demijohn, airlock bubbling nicely and a bit of krausen already building up after only about 18 hours in the fermenter:


(Now tucked away nicely under the office desk where it’s quite a bit darker but, nevertheless, precisely the right fermenting temperature. Incidentally, I love the way the demijohn reflects back the rest of the office (including your photographer/blogger) in a kind of ‘fish eye’ style and makes it look cavernous!)

The use of real (dried) hops in this kit was a nice touch, rather than the pellets I’ve used before, while the 1.3kgs of malt made me realise that I’m gonna need a bigger sieve (a second, smaller one was (quite) quickly pressed into action but I still needed to drain the wort, and then sparge it, in batches. Brewing in a bag is probably a good idea – also from the point of view of keeping back some of the trub which you can see settling out at the bottom of the demijohn: going to need to be very careful there when the time comes to getting the demijohn to the bottling line.

Also, it would be a really good idea to measure the original gravity – the starting point for working out the beer’s eventual ABV – after topping up the wort to the batch size with more liquor – I achieved, on my measure, 1.074 which is waaay above the 1.054 I expected according to the recipe and this made me wonder how I’d managed to get such a potentially super-strong beer until I realised that there was a timing issue involved. The books really ought to make that point a bit better. I did seem to lose a lot more wort from this brew than previous attempts during the boil so, in technical terms, the efficiency of this brew was pretty low – I was considerably under before adding more liquor to the demijohn, even accounting for spillages as a result of trying to keep out as much foreign matter as possible. It’s a really good idea to keep a pre-boiled kettle of water at pitching temperature close to hand. And then measure the OG.

Next stage will be to add some dry hops on Wednesday – though adding them through the neck of the demijohn (I have no second fermenter) without introducing oxygen into the liquor is going to be a challenge although the lightweight nature of hops means I probably shouldn’t worry too much. And, I can’t get them out once in, which is also a bit of a concern.

Worry and stress is probably not the natural state of a home brewer. We’re a fairly laid-back bunch and, where we’re not, we need to learn to be, chiefly by remembering the core principles involved about why you do what you have to do – which is where your original research comes in. But some degree of, well, anxiety is probably inevitable where the potential for things to go seriously, catastrophically wrong – even in a process that is entirely straightforward – is sizable on top of a time commitment which is pretty substantial. My brew day took me, for one reason or another, from about half two in the afternoon to about eight in the evening during which time not a lot else can be done, when you’re not being called upon directly, than simply watching over the pot(s). Still, it’s all good learning and experience for the grander things that are planned 🙂

Just add water… and a bit of time

Well, who knows what will happen when this thing is all over, but I reckon that an ability to brew beer is going to be a much sought after skill in the new world. So, ahead of some planned new investment in, er, plant and some raw materials to facilitate a bit of expansion, here I am dipping my toes back in the water with another stovetop brewing kit.


Yep – brewing beer at home is as straight-forward (though not simple) as beer ought to be: malt (at the back), hops (in the four (count ’em!) foil packets), yeast and water. When brew day comes – which might well be tomorrow in the continued absence of Saturday football to distract me for the whole afternoon – I’ll be brewing 4.5 litres (just shy of 8 pints) of a black IPA: a dark beer packing a mind-bendingly confusing hoppy punch.

Just as with the earlier efforts, this is an all-grain brew, with the addition this time of some Irish Moss to clear the protein haze and a hydrometer which will both test when fermentation is complete as well as tell me (in time) the strength of my brew. But, otherwise, things pretty much remain the same, including the equipment used the last times. With the single exception that there’s a bit of dry hopping involved with this one: so, a new skill, too.

I was tempted to dive back into brewing when I was up in Shetland back in January. Here, I bought James Morton’s 2016 book Brew, followed not long after by a walk in the misty rain of a Lerwick morning up to Lerwick Brewery where John, the Head Brewer, and Kathryn, the Marketing Manager, were kind enough firstly to give me a tour and answer my questions about the process as well sample a few of their beers. Indeed, my choice of kit this time around was, perhaps unconsciously, informed by their Blindside – a lovely example of a black IPA (sampled for the first time on a visit to Lewick last summer). Morton – now a junior doctor but, more famously, also a baker and a contestant on Bake Off, if you’re recognising the name or otherwise remembering the knitted jumpers – is a controversial character, both in terms of Shetland’s fishing industry and culture and in terms of Scottish politics, as well as a self-confessed dilettante (a relaunched blog with just two posts and nothing since last July). Nevertheless, he’s written a wonderful book on brewing beer at home with exactly the right mix of photographs, information, Heath Robinson and enthusiasm to de-mystify the process and be encouraging to brewers across a range of skills, knowledge and experience. And, indeed, palates.

My black IPA kit came from brewuk, based in Shewsbury and predominantly mail order seller of all things brewing, started back in 2008 by a husband and wife team the first of whom, coincidentally, authored the book on home brew beer which piqued my interest. It seems it’s not just me looking to use the time during this crisis to develop brewing skills, as a little note on the front page of the website this morning reads ‘Due to the unprecedented increase in orders over the past few days, we have suspended taking any orders until we can clear the current backlog.’ So I’d better get cracking then, to get in a good position before the MAC adds ‘brewmaster’ to the current range of UK shortage skills.

Singing as I go, perhaps under my breath, some recent lines from Jeffrey Lewis’s ode to the crisis ‘Keep It Chill! (in the East Vill)’:

Maybe a wide alliance will respect more science
in every nation and each state
We’ll take total warning about global warming
and when the virus soon blows out
we’ll have a full-on call for healthcare for all
and better safety nets rolled out
With old ways on freeze and new priorities,
this could be just what sees us
set things more at ease.

Plus a better regard for the jobs, and the pay levels, and the status, of those who really are the key workers in this country.

One thing is clear that, once this is all over – nothing can be the same as before: this virus will (and should) change everything about our understanding of what is important and what is the value of the structures and systems and shibboleths we have invested with so much truth and we simply can’t, afterwards, go back to doing what we always did.

Until then, Slàinte Mhath.