Sunday, May 2, 2010

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.


  1. Excellent stuff! sounds like you really are having a whale of a time!!!

  2. Brilliant blog Owen, great to meet you last week. I'll make sure I stay in touch...

  3. Just keeps getting better and better. Good job kicking the cold and be careful when tapping those Trashy Blondes, ok love?

  4. Great to read - hope we hear more!

  5. Thanks, everyone! Much more to come, I think and I hope! Not too many Trashy Blondes my way anymore; I've moved on to the Gingers ;)