At the end of October 2013 I spent a very pleasant and interesting day at S A Brain in Cardiff, helping create my first ever collaboration beer, Brabo, on the Brains Craft Brewery. This piece, which I’m publishing in several parts, documents the experience in detail — you might find it interesting as an insight into the process of brewing, Brains brewery and the craft brewery project, and the origins of the spéciale belge style of Belgian pale ale. This introduction will be followed by sections on the brewery, developing the recipe and the brewday itself.
This is supposed to be a collaboration but I’m already feeling a little guilty for my lack of effort, if not quite surplus to requirements. All morning, sprightly head brewer Bill Dobson, has been bouncing around his pride and joy, the Brains Craft Brewery pilot kit, tweaking taps and levers here, checking temperatures there, coaxing into existence a beer that, a few weeks from now, will have my name on the label.
My only previous experience of brewing was a couple of Boots homebrew kits back in my teenage years, the greatest distinction of which was to produce the only booze left undrunk at the end of the party, outlasting even the oversweet artichoke liqueur someone had brought back from a Mediterranean package holiday. And I’ve often said that while I’m happy to write about beer, with so many fantastic brewers in the world, I’d rather leave the making of it to the experts, so no wonder I’m standing on the sidelines.
What it’s like when all the collaborators are actual brewers? Do they naturally fall into each other’s rhythm of temperature rests and hop additions? Or do they quarrel and get under each other’s feet, elbowing for control of valves and thermostats and sneaking in handfuls of hops behind each other’s backs?
I’d already suspected I was getting off lightly. I was steeling myself for the industry’s traditional early start, so was surprised when asked to present myself at the brewery gates at a relatively tardy 0800hrs. And then when out for a drink the night before we bumped into several of the S A Brain’s senior executives, including chairman John Rhys, who was due to brew on the craft brewery himself the following week.
“Eight o’clock?” he spluttered indignantly “They’re making me get there by seven.” Sure enough, Bill was in action long before I arrived, and already had the grist poised for mashing in.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unengaged or bored – I contributed to the recipe and now I’m fascinated with every detail of the tortuously complicated process of extracting one of the world’s greatest drinks from a soup of breakfast cereal, hedgerow weeds and fungal spores.
I know this process. I’ve been able to recite the sequence of mash-sparge-boil-pitch-ferment-condition and talk knowledgeably about grist, liquor and wort since I first read the Good Beer Guide in the early 1980s, studying its quaint flow diagrams and brewery cutaways in faux Victorian style.
Since then I’ve visited lots of breweries and talked to lots of brewers. But I’ve never seen brewing in action from beginning to end, so this is a great opportunity, with all sorts of unexpected observations along the way. It’s just that I feel I’m letting Bill do all the work.
And then, with the wort safely heating in the copper, it’s time to clear out the mash tun. Now the liquid containing its precious fermentable sugars has been drained away, almost half a tonne of grain has sunk down into a steaming mass not far off the consistency of concrete.
Bill’s big grownup mash tuns nearby are equipped with mechanical paddles to scrape this stuff out but here in the craft brewery it has to be done by hand through a hatch at the bottom of the vessel. I’m handed a rake, while Bill wields an instrument that, though with a plastic blade, bears a remarkable resemblance to the eponymous spade adorning the logo of Munich’s historic Spaten brewery.
I don’t think I’ve done so much sustained physical labour for years. It takes a good 20 minutes to get the spent grain down a chute in the floor which leads to a conveyor belt beneath – eventually it’ll end up with every last scrap of carbohydrate extracted in the efficient stomachs of cattle.
Meanwhile we’re in need of carbohydrates ourselves, so Bill phones down to Ffion Jones, Brains’ assistant brand manager, to say we’re ready for lunch. “You’ve got two hungry brewers up here,” he says. I modestly suggest I’m not really entitled to that designation.
“Well,” says Bill, “you’ve scraped out your first mash tun. I’d say that makes you a brewer.”
Yes, I think proudly, pondering my complaining biceps. Perhaps it does.
Read the next part of this piece for more on the background to S A Brain and the Craft Brewery.