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.


  1. Great write-up, Owen. It's one hell of an apprenticeship you're having! Good to meet you at Rail Ale, probably see you at the C&H sometime soon

  2. Great to meet you, as well. Come by the C&H this Sunday for some blues!