Monday, May 31, 2010

The Yeasts That Run My Life: Thornbridge Brewery, Rail Ale, and Spontaneous Fermentation

The Thornbridge (Riverside) Brewery, clockwise from 11 o'clock: lauter tun, mash tun, kettle, HOPNIK!

I've officially made the jump: the Marblers have seen me off as I continue this whirlwind of a trip down south to Derbyshire. I'm now in the hands of one of the UK's most successful breweries, Thornbridge, where tradition and innovation bind to inspire clean, hoppy, rich, yummyful beers. Thornbridge's original 10-barrel (UK) brewery was inaugurated just five years ago at the Thornbridge estate in Ashford-in-the-Water but now most of the brewing takes place in Bakewell, where a blindingly beautiful, spotless stainless steel brewery (30 UK bbls - that's barrels, not bubbles) has recently been constructed. I've lucked out yet again for housing, with a roomy loft in the apartment of a pair of lively and utterly charming Kiwis above the award-winning Coach and Horses pub. Kelly manages Thornbridge's production, occasionally brews more experimental beers at the small brewery, and acts as the main marketing man for special events. Cat runs the Coach, inside and out, and has dragged me outside a couple times to help with some landscaping tasks here and there. I have to say, the petunias and geraniums I planted by the pub sign look very festive. I really ought to come back a master chef; Cat and Kelly are effortless in the kitchen. By effortless I mean the opposite of inactive. During a spate of uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather, we had a barbecue binge and grilled a plethora of lamb and sausage, balancing the meat with mounds of fresh salad mixed with herbs and rocket from the garden. Kelly's keen on finding wild edibles, too. So far he's prepared grilled puffballs, wild garlic (with spelt pasta and deep-fried sage leaves), and he's even cooked up a few mouth-watering morsels of a poor wood pigeon that met its maker by flying into some netting outside the house. I've had my first taste of smoked wild boar as well, though I'm not sure if Kelly rassled that down himself or if it was farmed. Cat has a special talent for whipping up quick and tasty salads. I'm going to keep my eye on her in the kitchen and try to convert myself to a regular salad-eater.

View from a Derbyshire hike

The two breweries are lovely, lovely places. The Hall brewery, located at the private estate, was installed in an old stonemasonry/joinery shed in 2004 and sits adjacent to the greenhouse with a view overlooking the Hall's rooftop. I haven't witnessed a brew (that's next week) but I've tagged along for some quick gravity checks and also helped prepare a conditioning tank for the transfer of Kelly's new coffee milk stout. JK, another Kiwi brewer (born in England, though), and I dissolved a few kilos of lactose in hot water, tossed this and some locally-roasted whole coffee beans into the conditioning tank, and transferred the fermented beer into the tank to condition for a while. The Hall brewery is where the brewers come to play. It's small, a bit cramped with several people, but a nice example of how to keep a small brewery clean and efficient. The timberframe shed gives it that rustic appeal I'm always a sucker for.

Nigel the Curious and Sefano the Bashful

On the other hand, the 30-bbl brewery at the Riverside industrial park in Bakewell is eye candy for the hypochondriac in us all. The dayglo green floors highlight the beautiful blue-silver stainless steel tanks and pipework that snakes around the spacious whitewashed walls. Cleanliness and quality are the buzz words here and that effort comes out in the beer. The ridiculously international team consists of Matthew and newcomer Nigel (Englishmen), Kelly and JK (Kiwis), Stefano and Andrea (Italians), and some clueless American temp worker. This is the first brewery I've worked at that uses a lauter tun. The lauter tun has a mixer within to give a good mix to the mash, after which it's pumped to the mash tun to create a filter bed for run-off and sparging. Riverside is also one of only a few breweries in the world that use a certain device to provide hop aromas to the finished wort. Called a Hopnik, it's a hipster form of hopback that continuously circulates all or a portion of the hot wort through a oxygen-free chamber of hops to maximize contact time and area. Instead of adding hops to the wort, wort is added to the hops. After this cycle the wort is sent through the heat exchanger and into a fermenter. The computer-intense tasks are left to the guys who actually know what they're doing (brewing, for instance, is predominantly computer-controlled) but I'm honing my skills as a perceptive shadow, hovering over shoulders and asking too many questions. Most of the labor I've contributed is in the form of cask washing and racking - and there's plenty of that to do. I get to use a vacuum-powered cask lifter to stack the racked casks on pallets, but I think I still prefer lifting them for the exercise. Gotta get those quads to bulge.

Living above a pub has its perks. Living above a Thornbridge-owned pub has even more. I've jumped on the Jaipur bus and have found that the light biscuity background and grapefruity hops are a perfect accent to the strong flavors of a barbecue. Its cousin, Kipling, edges towards a softer, more tropical fruit-like character from New Zealand hops for a great quaff on its own. Always a sucker for the bigger beers, I've quickly developed a liking for the bottled versions of the robust, chicory-ish St. Petersburg imperial stout and the Halcyon fresh-hopped imperial IPA.

Rails and real ales

I can't sign off just yet. I have a couple more items I should share, given that they've contributed to both my extreme fatigue as of late, and thus my dearth of entries, and to the enrichment of my ever-developing palate. To put it well-windedly. First, a couple weekends ago, I said my goodbyes to Dom and the Marble crew by volunteering at the Rail Ale beer festival. Held in an old and fascinating roundhouse for trains - y'know, the equivalent of that piece that turns in a circle from those wooden train toy kits we all used to play with as snot-noses - it had over 150 cask beers on tap with live music and a selection of fine English grub. Pork scratchings. If you've never encountered pork scratchings, be thankful. They might have them in the American south, but in England they like them textured. Present at the festival was Malcolm Downie, a sympathetic and sturdy man from the ol' Broch and a brewer for Fyne Ales in Scotland. The connections between us are circumferentially entwining; we were doomed to meet, I think. I first heard of him as a fellow lifter at the Broch Iron Gym (acronymically appropriate) in Fraserburgh, which is where he grew up. He eventually moved and found a job at Fyne Ales on Loch Fyne, where Kelly from Thornbridge first spent his time in the UK to gain more brewing experience. Dom from Marble befriended Malcolm through the brewing trade and eventually introduced me to him (he walked into the Marble brewery as I was finishing my first comfortable independent brew, Beer 57, for which I'm forever thankful to the Marble crew). Incidentally, and to add to the ties that bind, Martin from BrewDog - and the Broch - was an original brewer for Thornbridge before moving back home to brew his own.

Civilized lambic tasters

Not to be out-fested, Belgium beckoned me with its own offering. Just this past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited by Phil Lowry of and Saints and Sinners Brewing, Mark Dredge of Pencil and Spoon, and Pete Brissenden of Hopdaemon Brewery to the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation. This festival of lambic, gueuze, kriek, and a handful of other spontaneously-fermented beers drew a buzzing but not hectic crowd of dedicated lambic lovers to a remote spot outside of Brussels, in Payottenland. I boarded a bus to London where I met Phil in Greenwich, popped into the pretty Meantime Brewing pub (home to some of Michael Jackson's beer collection), had a bite to eat at Brew Wharf where Phil brews, and headed to Kent for the night before heading off. Phil's main job is at BeerMerchants but has the dream hobby gig; he gets to brew at Brew Wharf on their 5-bbl system. And brew he does. I tried the creamy and spicy Caufield's Rye and the nose-singeing, wonderfully aromatic Hopster to both calm and cut through the crisp fish and chips that made my dinner. I'll be moving in with Phil in two weeks' time to see the sales side of the biz and perhaps to brew a guest beer. Miller's Super Duper Genuine Draft.

Two Fonteinens

Talk about nostalgia. Belgium greeted us with pleasantly mild weather and my good friend Urbain greeted us with a few beers at Struise, our first stop. We had a massive tasting, as is Struise custom, of the new range of beers including Sint Amatus, Mocha Bomb and Black Mes. All were just phenomenal - rich, chewy, balanced, and each with its own unique set of aromas and complexities, from smooth dried fruits to earthy coffee and peat, to keep us sipping. As a chaser, we sampled a fresh Westvleteren 12 and, to be perfectly honest, it couldn't hold a candle to the Struise lineup. It was grainy, thin, and without the robustness I've enjoyed just a few months ago. I dunno what's up. But Urbs was in top form, at least, and we had a nice visit with him and Carlo. I told them to prepare for my imminent return. Next up was Drie Fonteinen where we met Armand and sampled some of the last of the lambic he brewed himself. The cellar was filled with barrels of his blends and smelled of must, mildew, wood, and wonderful spicy, fruity scents emanating from the bung of each barrel. In the corner sat a few shelves of ripening cheese made with lambic, big hunks of shiny golden goodness. As we sipped our smooth and inviting copper treats, Armand gave us an impassioned speech about the lost art of lambic blending. Lambic brewers and blenders are generally impassioned people; any career that involves producing a finicky, unpredictable product that won't be available for sale for at least three years is bound to attract people with more than a sliver of passion. Another one exists in the form of Jean Van Roy, whom we met and talked with at his brewery, Cantillon. This was my second time visiting but this time Jean busted out a specialty - not for sale anywhere, Ratebeerians - and treated us each to a taste. It was a lambic aged in cognac barrels, and it was perhaps one of the best beers I've had: notes of caramel, pears and crab apples, vanilla, and decayed leaves came through in the aroma and taste to give the smooth tart lactic acid character a perfect bedfellow. Anywho, the lambic festival itself came and went without incident. But I tried quite a number of classic lambics and vintages as well, one of the more notable being Boon Gueuze Mariage Parfait. Why, you ask? Honestly, I don't remember. But I remember thinking, "A stemmed glass of this with a Spanish omelet for dinner would be spectacular." The remainder of our trip, though dominated by car time, was quite pleasant, given the state of my stomach lining.

Everything Jean pours turns to gold

I'm back now, at the Coach, and laboring contentedly at Thornbridge. Lots of casks need washing and racking, but I hear a beer needs brewing at the Thornbridge Hall brewery next week. I'll start polishing my wellies.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Carhartts Are Crusted With Wort and Yeast

It's not often that I drink and write. You might be surprised by this, given that it's a much more reasonable and enjoyable combination than the alternative. It's just that I'm often, um, wittiest, I guess, in the morning so I generally choose to write then, when I'm still slurping the milk from my cereal. But now I'm enjoying a bottled E from The White Shield Brewery in Burton-Upon-Trent. It's supposed to taste like the original Bass before they sold out. It's crisp, malty, slightly chewy, and has a floral/herbal hop zip in the finish. Not bad. More on how this got in my hands later.

I must pay homage to the relentlessly accepting and generous crew at Marble. In just two days' time I'll be off their hands and on my own again (for a day), but, as with all of my brewery stints, time has been too short. Four and a half weeks came and went like the sequel to that car movie with Vin Diesel. In that short time I've gained a mother in the form of Jan, owner and operator of the Marble pubs and breweries, who provided me with some of the most comfortable living I've probably ever enjoyed as a guest. She came just short of brushing my teeth for me in the evenings. I've been brought jigging and karaoking by the bar staff and have been force-fed incredibly pungent, beautiful cheeses (Epoisse, Stinking Bishop, Blue Stilton) by the chefs. And, last but by no means of measure the least, I've developed some mad man-crushes on my heroes in the brewery: Dom, Colin, and James. Perhaps I was ready, perhaps not, but they've allowed me an incredible amount of freedom in the brewery (always under a watchful eye, of course) to develop my abilities as a brewer. I know I can make Dom and Colin red in the face with questions, and James just blatantly irritated, but their patience with me and transfer of knowledge of small-scale, taste-centric brewing has not gone unappreciated.

Soaking and aerating the barley at the Carling Maltings

(Editor's note: it's now the next morning and I'm no longer drinking a beer.) Today I'll brew Ginger Marble at the Arch brewery. I'm having a hearty breakfast now of oatmeal and Nutella, with coffee on the side. Then I'll bike half an hour to the brewery, let the sweat evaporate, and start warming up the mash tun. It's my second-to-last day and I'd like to make a smooth one. This weekend there's a beer festival, Barrow Hill Beer Festival to be precise, at which I'll be serving beers (from whom, I'm not sure. Marble or Ashover, I hope) and after which I'll be spending my first night at the Coach and Horses, officially reporting to duty for Thornbridge. However, Marble won't see the last of me then. Two days ago a colony was propagated. A colony of yeasties, natives of Belgium, that will happily eat the sugars in the wort from a big, double Chocolate brew that will happen next week. I've been invited to come back for the day to witness this epic event. The result will be on tap at De Molen's beer festival in September (remember my post from Borefts last Halloween? Time flies!). Man oh man I wish I could go. Alas, Double Chocolate With Belgian Yeast will not wet these lips but maybe if I pluck a hair from my head and throw it into the copper something magical will happen.

Germinating barleycorns

Well, it's been great. And last weekend I took over official Dom social duties by attending an event called Twissup. We were all apparently supposed to get Twissed Up, but instead we had a lovely day of tours and (half) pints. Basically, it was a gathering of some of Britain's most dedicated, accomplished beer writers and reviewers with a smattering of brewers. The famous Andy Mogg, a grower of chilies and a hill walker to boot, helped introduce me to the crowd and I soon warmed up to Mark Dredge (Pencil and Spoon), Pete Brissenden (brewer at Hopdaemon) and his brother, and Chunk (great food and beer pieces), among over twenty others who trekked around the streets of Burton-Upon-Trent, that home of pale ale and hard water that some of us American beer lovers only get to read about in pretty books. We had a lengthy but informative (and, admittedly, wildly interesting to a biology major) tour of the Carling maltings, owned by Molson Coors. The massive plant contained two buildings for malting the barley, one of which was a curious tower that had germinating, drying, and kilning floors at various levels. The building was loud, moist, dark, and warm, but the barley corns were happy as clams, showing off their little rootlets of growth as well as a few acrospires here and there. The acrospires are generally discouraged as they contain more precursors for DMS, that cooked-corn flavor you might find in some badly brewed beer. But, at Carling (England's #1 lager, I believe), they strive for a touch of DMS; that's what the customers expect!

A Victorian tower brewery relic

After the maltings we visited a brewery museum, home of The White Shield Brewery, a functioning artifact in the brewing world. The building and most of the brewery was quite oold, not sure exactly how old, but it was a place where I would give a leg to brew. That might hard, though, since it is also one of the few remaining Victorian tower brewhouses that utilizes gravity to do a lot of the work. Rickety stairs and towering vats is the view from the bottom, but the marvelous brick building and copper-and-wood vessels stole my heart. E is brewed here, as well as some Worthington's White Shield and P2, a fruity, juicy, molassesy imperial stout that pairs with strawberries and clotted cream like natural bedfellows. After the tour and lunch, we enjoyed some beer at various pubs and had another quick brewery tour, this time at Burton Bridge Brewery. I had to sign off early to get back at a reasonable, midnight-ish time, but the whole day was great and I've met a new crowd of like-minded imbibers. In fact, there are rumors afloat that I might be tagging along with Mark, Pete, and Phil (remember Phil, from London?) to a major lambic and gueuze festival next weekend in BELGIUM. Dom and Janine will be there, too. More on that when I know more.

Copper copper at White Shield

That's all for now. I hope to have more news (well, I hope to find time to give you the news) soon. Until then, be well, do good work, and keep reading my blog.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Of Mancs and Men

73 Rochdale Road, aka Marble Arch, aka The ThunderDome

Two and a half weeks into my Mancunian expedition and it feels like ages. In a good way, of course. (Have I reported any misadventures? I feel like I should be adding some brewhouse drama in the mix. But breweries aren't very dramatic places. Unless a tank implodes.) I'm feeling more and more comfortable in the brewery, though I'm still peppering the guys with more questions than you'd find in a philosophy class. The other day Dom took me through another brew session. (I've been on a rotation of assisting the brew, washing casks, racking casks, loading the van for deliveries, labeling, cleaning vessels, and eating my way through Jan's refrigerator) I hovered around him like a midge, took notes in my little black book with my prized gold-plated Cross (which Dom stole to melt down into a nipple ring) stirred some mash here and scooped out some hops there. The note-taking process was especially helpful to synthesize all the tiny but critical steps involved in brewing, the ones involving weaving pipework and rates of flow and everything, and it felt a bit like school again though more gratifying. Earlier this week James guided me through a brew of Pint at the larger brewery down the road. This new brewery was designed to reflect the processes up the road, but the scale change complicates a few subtle but important steps. Just takes some getting-used-to.

Tiny view of the new brewery: mash tun and copper

I've also been out on a delivery run with Richard, the fourth and final brewery drone whose main job is the daily cask and bottle run around the region. We zipped around the Greater Manchester Area in the silver dented Marble van, stopping at a dozen or so pubs, bars, restaurants, bottle shops, and even a couple country clubs, rolling out the casks and chucking them down cellars or through windows if they got in the way. All the accounts coughed up money or a check, apparently a rarity, and I like to think I acted as a good imitator, standing behind Rich with my arms crossed and lips pursed. Rich was probably plenty of intimidation just because he's massive - about 6' 6" and fully bearded. In all, I think I prefer brewing to deliveries, unless I had a stellar audiobook to get through. Back in the brewery I was allowed another morsel of responsibility and independence. On Friday Colin was off and James was in a meeting with Jan, so Dom was left with a hovering apprentice and enough work for four people. He decided to take charge of the brew down the road, at the new brewery, and send me up to the pub to transfer some beer from fermenter to condition tank. It was all very exciting for me, but instead of geeking out on all the details, like explaining how to sanitize a tank and minimize yeast transfer, I'll just say it went smoothly. No pumps were shredded and the beer sits happily in its new sealed tank, chilled and settling nicely before it must be racked into casks.

Mmm... beer.

In other news, I learned how to cook a chicken today. I've also found a barn-burner of an Irish session at a pub called the Jolly Angler. Each Saturday about ten musicians play to a packed pub crowd, standing room only, and the tunes roll on and on instead of being interrupted by Guinness breaks or apathy. When I asked a plump fiddler if she'd be back again the next week, same time, I was replied with, "Well, yes. ...Why, you goin' ta burgle my house?" I'm also very much looking forward to eating swimming pools of curry. There's a strip of town called Curry Mile that I'm afraid might become my second home. I might try street life on Curry Mile.

A bit more beer news: I've been meeting a lot of interesting beerful people and hearing about a lot of beerish buzz around the UK, but one particular potentially nifty event that Marble will take part in is an online beer tasting event organized by two familiar names in the beer world: Podge and Tim Webb. I'm still not sure how it'll work, but I'm guessing it'll be something like a mix between a conference call, a Skype session, and, well, people drinking beer by themselves at home. I believe it'll center around Belgian-inspired British beers and Marble's Decadence Kriek and/or Framboise will be sacrificed. Podge hosts tours of Belgium for beer lovers and Tim Webb writes about beer, including the Good Beer Guide: Belgium that I've toted around for the last eight months and dog-eared to death. Another excitement at Marble is the recent opening of a third location. The Marble empire consists of the original, historic brewpub, the cozy Beer House in Chorlton, and now the more central, hip location that the young crowd will flock to. Here the beards and sandals will be worn not by musty, pot-bellied CAMRA elders, but by 25-year-old pot-bellied hipsters. Ah, the cycle of life.

Mr. Official next to the kitchen and back dining area

I've just heard some exciting news. (I write these entries bit by bit. It takes me about a week of chipping away to finally muster strength to publish one.) This weekend I'll be joining a group of serious beer bloggers on a dream tour of Burton-Upon-Trent. Yep, that place with the weird water that makes a lovely pale ale. Dom worked his magic and pulled the ol' switcheroo to get me in his place as he's got a busy weekend. You can check out the agenda here; apparently we're visiting a maltings, a couple breweries, several pubs, and a museum. The good folks that are going are some of the most prolific, respected beer bloggers and enthusiasts in the UK. I'm really just a poser compared to them, a phony with the beer knowledge of a dollop of salmon paté. I will enjoy it wholeheartedly, though, and do my duty by blogging about it afterwards.

Just a sweet photo of Colin and Janine at Thornbridge

And, of course, another update would not be complete without a few words on the progress of my scheming. I'm now officially in the works for a few weeks at Thornbridge. I believe I'll be staying above the Coach and Horses pub (see last entry), biking it to work, and hopefully providing them with some worthwhile labor in return for their patience in putting up with me. If I grunt loud enough when I move casks it might convince them. I'll fake a hernia, that's what I'll do.

In the spirit of Garrison Keillor: Be well, do good work, and keep reading my blog.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Marbled Musings: The Photos

The Marble Brewery (mash tun, copper, hot liquor tank)

The Marble Arch Inn - check out the vaulted ceiling!

Dom hovers over the mash

Colin and Kelly inspect the hop shoots. Dom wants nothing to do with it.

Vicky, Colin, Janine, and Shooter McGavin at Coach and Horses

Approaching Lairig Ghru

Our bothy early in the morn'

That's where we came from, out of the blizzard

Firefighter Dave in a real Scottish firetruck!

One last morning at BrewDog

Marbled Musings

If only I was a blogger at heart. I could pump out oodles of creative nonsense daily, coffee at my side, fingers cocked back and ready to shoot off rounds of dangerously entertaining tidbits about my time here (which now happens to be Manchester, Lancashire, UK). But alas, alack. I'm only a binge-blogger, a semi-regularist caught between the desire to record every minute of my adventure for posterity and the pseudo-justification I repeat to myself, that I should just enjoy my time as it comes and stop trying to record every damn whiff of hops in my blog. It's the same conflict of feeling I get when my mom whips out a (usually disposable) camera right in the middle of everyone having a good time. Jesus, mom, you ruined the moment, but yeah, I'll probably want that photograph in twenty years.

So now I'm struggling with what to share with you in this entry. It could take me days of straight writing to fit everything in (a combination of the excitement of nearly every minute of my trip and the fact that I write slower than death). I think what I'll do is work backwards, starting with an homage to my current, loverly hosts at Marble Brewery in Manchester, moving on to the time I hiked through a blizzard in the mountains in the coldest part of Britain, and ending with the last days I spent with the hardcore, brew-dacious crew at BrewDog. Pictures will come next in a separate entry, so be prepared for a big wall o' text here.

Aaahhh.... Marble.... what a place, what a place. For a week and a half I've been tutored in the art of brewing some of the finest cask and bottled ales in Britain by some of Britain's finest human beings. These brewers are honest, patient, upright, just a tad smelly (or a third of them are, at least), but not in the least bit common. They wear their wellies with pride. They call rubber boots wellies. They have integrity. They treat timid American intruders with the utmost compassion. And they brew damn. Good. Beer.

At the Marble Arch Inn in Manchester, Dominic, Colin, and James have taken me on and put me to work at their two adjacent breweries surrounding the 19th-century historic pub. After meeting Dom at the Pre-ZBF festival in Belgium prior to my stint at BrewDog, I harnessed the power of Facebook and built up the courage to send him a message asking if they could use an extra hand at Marble. Apparently, Dom and Colin took the owner, Jan, out for drinks, buttered her up nicely with some pints of Ginger, Chocolate, Dobber, and Decadence, and convinced her to house me for several weeks while I puttered around in the two breweries. So here I am, living with the boss (she's Irish, too) in the hip neighborhood of Chorlton, pampered like a babe, spending my days at one of the hippest breweries in the UK. Can life get better? I submit that it cannot.

Dom and Colin are two young brewers who love beer. That helps them brew great beer. They've both been fantastic teachers; they're patient and they love what they do, which makes explaining it all an obvious joy as well. I've been trying to be the best sponge I can be, absorbing their output here and squeezing out what I've learned there, learning and laboring. The original Marble Brewery is located in the back of the gorgeous Marble Arch Inn, a cozy pub with a cozy brewery where brewing is basically homebrewing on a larger scale. With a small, single infusion mash tun, copper, and hot and cold liquor tanks upstairs and four open fermenters and two conditioning tanks downstairs, the size is perfect (4.5 UK barrels); one brewer could manage a brew day on his own, but help is always appreciated. Just down the road is the new brewery, about two and half times the size of the original. Both are utilized and the majority of the beer is racked into casks for local distribution. A selection of beers are bottled, including the decadent Decadence (an imperial stout-ish beer with a soft, smooth chocolatey finish), special Special (a piquant barleywine from 2009), Decadence Framboise (avec raspberries) and Decadence Kriek (with cherries). Marble is interesting in that they condition their beers, both cask and bottled, by krausening. Basically, krausening involves removing some active yeast from one fermenting beer and adding it to an almost-fully-fermented beer as it is put into casks or bottles. This active yeast completes the fermentation, adds carbonation, and continues to develop and meld the flavors of the beer until it is ready to drink. Most other breweries I've encountered use a simple sugar solution for conditioning. This is just one example in a bottomless box of examples of why Marble is successful. If you meet or have ever met Dom, with his soft, reassuring voice and rapier wit; Colin, with his boisterous laugh and heart of pure, unadulterated gold; or James, with his expansive knowledge, experience, and stock of saucy, sly humor, I think you'd understand why Marble is what it is. James is nearly impossible to understand, however, being from Birmingham.

I've barely had time to sit still for the past week. That's OK, 'cause I can't sit still for long, anyway. No, it's no the hemorrhoids. Dom has kept me from wasting away my time on the internet by inviting me on some weekend outings. Last weekend was spent visiting Ashover Brewery in the quaint, English countryside, movie-set town of Ashover. Janine, Dom's girlfriend, brews at Ashover with her father, who runs the brewery. It's small and gee-orgeous. My kind of place. We took a nice walk around the town, huffed and puffed up some hills, quickly called it quits and went hunting for beer. A tram-crawl took us around the pubs of Sheffield where we proceeded to taste a few pints (and half-pints) of this beer region's offerings. For some silly reason (perhaps involving beer) I missed my intended train back to Manchester which turned out OK because it gave us the opportunity to try more beer at the awesome Sheffield Tap, right at the station, until I caught the last train. (Actually, after feeling a cold coming on, I had transitioned from half-pints of bitters to pints of life's sweetest nectar: straight, cold tap water.)

As the week flew by, I coped with the Marble cold that was making the rounds, toiled in the brewery, bottled and labeled beers, threw some caustic solution around, and prepared for another trip to the countryside. Dom, Colin, Janine, Vicky (from behind the Marble bar) and I weaved through hill, dale, and moor to find ourselves at the gate of the Thornbridge Estate, home of Thornbridge Hall and, much more importantly, the original Thornbridge Brewery. If you want a trifecta of solid, established, innovative UK breweries, well, Thornbridge completes it. With a duo of breweries, Thornbridge squirts out a lot of lovely beer, both traditional and new-age, and touring both brewing facilities gave me goosebumps. The smaller, older, more traditional brewery on the estate is where the dirty brewing goes down and is where Kelly, one of three head brewers, met us first for a tour. I met Kelly at Pre-ZBF as well, and he and Dom both struck me with their interest and knowledge of brewing. Kelly, bless him, is a Kiwi. His brewmates are Italian and English and they know their shit. Kelly also has silvering hair, ladies, and will charm your socks off. He works at both breweries and can exercise his craftier side at the small one and his technical side at the large one. We weaved through the eight-ish barrel (UK) brewery, discussing this year's hop crop and other brewer babble, and made our way outside where Kelly showed us his hop vine-growing project as well as his little garden of herbs that find themselves in the beer here and there. We sampled some Bracia, fermented with chestnut honey, and an old ale collaboration with Dark Star, pulled straight from the conditioning tank where it has been laying dormant for 14 months. We then drove down the road to the new brewery, set in a relatively posh industrial park near Bakewell, another fantasy town (devoid of a good pub, though). This new Thornbridge brewery, on par with the size of BrewDog, is a wonder of brewing engineering. Spotless, sparkling, full of stainless steel, and confusing as hell, the brewery produces plenty of beer. I will continue to struggle with volumes, since hectoliters, UK barrels, and US barrels are not all one in the same, but it was big. Kelly talked us through the process, pointing to shiny things and buttons, though I did get the sense that, despite the industrial appearance, lab, and obvious emphasis on consistency and control, there's plenty of personality and craft that make it into each batch. Later that night we wined and dined, or beered and smeared, if you will, at The Coach and Horses, the local Thornbridge-owned pub. The cheer was ubiquitous and our crew was in full form to destroy some fine food and beer. I muscled down a soufflé, complete with the acute accent, and Dom whipped out some Russian River Consecration to aid our digestion. Colin presented some Oak Aged Podge from Alvinne and Kelly busted out a couple New Zealish beers, including one made with a special, citrusy, almost tropical in character fruit that tickled my tongue. Throughout the night we soaked up a number of tasty Thornbridge brews as well. Cat, Kelly's girlfriend and Coach manager, joined us for the meal and cheer.

That gives you a glimpse of my Mancunian experience, but, as per yooj, I've left out more than I should. So feel free to email me to get some behind-the-scenes reportage.

Before being welcomed to Manchester, though, I was able to do some proper legwork. Legsercises. My calves needed some toning, so I shaved 'em, rubbed some insta-tan on 'em, and took off for the one place in Scotland I knew I could achieve that chiseled butt-cheek look for my calf muscles: the Cairngorm Mountains. Jenia and Ali, two couchsurfing friends from Aberdeen, kindly invited me for a weekend of hiking along the Lairig Ghru, an old route through the mountains first utilized by shepherds and their poor, poor sheep. We got lost a couple times, brought way too much food (including a separate tub of mayonnaise to dip the pre-cooked hot dogs in), slept half a night in a pool of rainwater, and hiked for half a day through a blizzard in the UK's coldest region. But we had a blast and I'm inspired to return to the Highlands for more. The views were stunning in their diversity and humble beauty. Our first day was replete with rolling, heathery mountains before bloom and complexly rich muddy hues; the second day started off with a blizzard and brought us through a vast glen walled in by extreme cliffs caked with snow, down through a Scots pine forest smelling of the sweetest pitch and finally onto flat, marshy land. We forded a river at the very end and probably just avoided hypothermia.

All of this, of course, was preceeded by my final days at that powerhouse of an establishment, BrewDog. I'll miss those nuts, the whole crew, from Skinny (who gave me some Buckfast for the road... I have yet to crack it open) to the Aussies to Franzie to Dave to the legendary Polskis to the cheerful fishermen to the wonderful Kelly and Angela to Martin and James, the prodigies behind the beer. I think that I should give special props to Stewart "Bowman" Bowman. I couldn't have asked for a better brewhouse teacher and mentor in that situation; his patience and thoroughness were amazing and amazingly helpful and the guy is a hard working sonofabitch. I forgive him for his absolute hatred of anything resembling hip hop. So to finish off my time, I continued to put in my money's worth and even progressed to the point where Stewart sort of left me in charge of at least most of a brew, from mashing in through run-off through boiling and finally to casting the wort into a fermenter. Sparging was the most stressful step for me, as keeping the mash bed correctly buoyant is a skill not easily obtained. But I got through it without spilling a single hectoliter of beer. I had a day off in there somewhere during which my man Firefighter Dave turned off his volunteer firefighter beeper and invited me and some of his friends over for a barbecue. The sun was out, almost hot, and we slaked our thirst with a few Trashy Blonde underfills (rejects from the bottling line) and let our skin slowly toast from the sun and the heat of the barbie. On my last night in Fraserburgh, I wheeled Dave's Tesco grill a couple miles from his house to the brewery and treated the crew (still at work) to a come-and-get-it barbecue of sausage, burgers, and dogs, American-style. It was dark, a bit drizzly, and cold, but Jack, Red, Franz, Martin and I huddled around the coals, threw back a couple 77 Lagers, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of charred meat and company. Like I said, I'll miss those guys and that undeniably lonely town of Fraserburgh, but I'm hoping to take another final trip up to bonny Scotland and catch one last glimpse of BrewDog life.