Friday, February 05, 2010

The Education of a Cask Ale Brewer

The topic of this month's The Session: Beer Blogging Friday is Cask-Conditioned Ale. In addition to inviting beer bloggers to contribute, I reached out to non-blogging beer folk (and, yes, they are many).

The following is an essay from Steve Jones.

I started 1993 in flux. A couple of years previously, after 3 years in the laboratory pursuing a PhD (Biochemistry), I came to the realization that I had grown to hate research. By way of a catalyst/escape route my friend Peter's band (Adorable) secured a record deal and were about to embark on a nationwide tour, and Peter asked if I'd care to come along and sell the merchandise. At that time the choice was simple and the answer was yes, so, one evening, I quietly put my paperwork in order, left the lab and never returned.

Fast forward to 1993. I had experienced a lot traveling with Adorable as their guitar tech across the U.K., Europe and The States as well as working for a couple of other bands but, as I neared my thirties, I decided that maybe I should get a "real" job. Adorable were taking forever writing and recording their second album and I was kicking around Coventry, unemployed.

I scanned the local paper's employment section and an advertisement jumped off the page! The Firkin Brewery pub chain was opening a brewpub in Coventry at what was then The Hen & Chickens (now to be The Fowl & Firkin) and was seeking a brewer. I had no experience of brewing but I reasoned that I had a knowledge of fermentation technology from my studies and that I had certainly enjoyed my fair share of Sam Smiths at my local so ... what the heck, why not? I mailed out my curriculum vitae and waited.

Turns out that I didn't have to wait long. Within a couple of weeks I was at a round table interview with David Rawstorne, head brewer of the Holt,Plant & Deakin Brewery. It was not a pleasant experience. Rawstorne was abrasive and, in response to my declaration that my scientific background and experience of fermentation technology would benefit me in the position, responded that (I'm paraphrasing here) that science crap wouldn't help me in the real world!

I left somewhat disheartened and was therefore surprised that I was called for a second interview the following week, this time with Rawstorne and the area manager for the pub chain. Although this was a much more formal interview it was also a considerably more enjoyable experience. Rawstorne was positively genial. and I left feeling that I had done reasonably well for myself. I interviewed on Wednesday, received a job offer on Friday, and started on Monday.

My first two weeks were spent at the Holt,Plant & Deakin Brewery in Wolverhampton with Rawstone and brewer Dave Roberts. During this time I wrote down pretty much everything that was said to me as I followed these veteran brewers about their daily business. I watched every aspect of the brew day keenly and spent much time on the more mundane (though nonetheless important) tasks such as cleaning tanks and removing shives from casks and cleaning them for filling until I was finally racking casks of Holts Entire Butt Bitter.

Following this brief training period I was dispatched to my own brewery (capacity 5 imperial barrels) in Coventry. The first day involved cleaning .... lots of it. The brewery had been installed more than a month previously and had been gathering dust since then.

The second day was brew day. Rawstorne joined me in the morning and after a quick inspection of the brew kit we mashed in. The day was long. This was my first brew day ever so I was extremely nervous and was slow and methodical in everything that I did. Still, under Rawstorne's excellent guidance, I got through it and the first brew day was done!

At the end of the day Dave slapped me on the back, wished me good luck and informed me that he'd stop by next week! I couldn't believe it! Here I was, one day of brewing experience under my belt, and I was now responsible for several thousand pounds worth of equipment and the task of supplying 3 different cask ales to each of 3 Firkin pubs. Steep ... Learning ... Curve!

The first solo brew didn't go quite so well. I had incorrectly judged my hot liquor temperature or liquor:mash ratio and as a result hadn't attained very good conversion in the mash. What should have been a 1.050 ale came in at 1.044, way out of spec. for the product (we had a leeway of +/- 1.001 for original gravity) but hey, on the positive side, I'd just brewed my first seasonal beer!

A week later, I racked the brew into kilderkins, and crossed my fingers. One week after that it was being served at the pubs and proved a great success, selling out in a timely fashion. Needless to say I made sure that I didn't make the same mistake again and subsequent brews all came in on spec.

Admittedly, for a long time, I was nervous in my job. I wasn't really a brewer. I was someone who worked in a brewery, brewing beer to set recipes. Over time I gained confidence in my own abilities and, as I learned more about my craft, began to develop my own style and recipes.

It is with great pride that I recall the first time my pub was featured in CAMRA's "Good Beer Guide" and also the time that the Coventry And North Warwickshire Branch of CAMRA presented me with an award "for brewing consistently fine ales and also brewing the first festive beer to sell out at Coventry Beer Festival 1996". I felt truly blessed that I had stumbled into the world of brewing!

During my time at the brewery I studied for a Diploma in Brewing from The Institute Of Brewing & Distilling in London.

In 1997 I moved to a larger brewery, the 10bl system at The Phantom & Firkin in Loughborough, where I remained until the company was bought by Punch Taverns/Bass and closed down in 1999. During my time with the Firkin brewery I brewed many different cask ales, variations of some of which I still brew today (Old Habit, Dark Horse, Blonde Ale).

We brewed only cask ale, (I had never even touched a keg until I started working for Oliver Brewery), to very strict standards which I think has served me well in what is still something of a niche market in the U.S. At the firkin brewery quality and consistency were, of course, of the utmost importance. All casks were labeled with the fill date, gyle number and fill number. The brewery was not allowed to ship any cask that was more than 14 days old. The pub was not allowed to sell any cask more than 28 days old and casks were to be sold within 3 days of first pour, regardless of cask size.

In keeping with CAMRA's archaic (in my opinion) guidelines for eligibility into the Good Beer Guide, pubs did not use cask breathers. I performed regular finings trials on the beers that I produced using Imhoff cones for sediment measurement to ensure that my fining regime resulted in optimal clarity. Anything less than perfect clarity was not tolerated and was considered unsaleable and, in the rare instance that this problem arose, it would require re-fining in trade and, if that did not rectify the problem, then the beer would be returned to the brewery.

Each month we also submitted a sample of each product type to the laboratory at Burton-upon-Trent for analysis. Samples were analyzed to ensure that the original and final gravity, alcohol content, and colour were within acceptable limits, and that the beer was free of microbiological contamination.

In order to ensure proper handling and dispense of our products each brewer was also required to perform quarterly cellar audits of the pubs that he/she supplied, a time consuming process as I, for example, supplied thirteen pubs within a 50 mile radius of the brewery.

Wharf Rat's Steve Jones

The standards to which we held our beer in the U.K. are very different to the approach of many craft breweries towards cask ale in the U.S. Clarity of the product is often not considered an issue by either the brewer, bar, or the customer, with many brewers not fining their casks (or not properly fining their casks), or the bar that serves the beer not venting and tapping the product in a timely fashion with the cask not being allowed an adequate period of time for the yeast to settle out.

Likewise the customer seems to accept being served a cloudy pint, sometimes thick with yeast, as the norm, a situation that I have not fully adjusted to when I am myself the customer, and to this day I will choose my cask ale carefully to avoid such beer.

As the host brewer for the Chesapeake Real Ale Festival I have handled many casks from many breweries and have dealt with cask ales of all conceivable qualities from the sublime to the ridiculous. At last year's festival, I had the unfortunate experience of trying to tap a cask that was so incredibly over conditioned that it blew the tap out of my hand! A beer shower at 3am is not a pleasant experience, especially when the beer has been "dry hopped" with hop pellets that cover me in green sludge!

Firkin with a transparent 'head'

It is reassuring, though, that the market for cask ales is increasing, that bars such as ChurchKey in D.C. can maintain an impressive turnover of casks from 5 beer engines and that , most importantly, the beer is well handled. The increasing number of venues for cask conditioned beer will clearly convince more brewers that cask ale is a viable product and with that will increase the awareness of proper techniques of production and handling of what is, after all, beer in its purest, freshest form, a true testament to the brewer's art!

Steve Jones has been the brewer and the cellarmaster for the Pratt Street Alehouse of Baltimore, Maryland (formerly known as the Wharf Rat Brewpub), since 2000. He blogs about it here. More about Steve (and Mild Ale) here.


The Session #36: Cask-Conditioned Beer
The Session: Beer Blogging Friday is a monthly event for the beer blogging community begun by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer, and co-moderated with Jay Brooks at the Brookston Beer Bulletin.
On the first Friday of each month, a predetermined blogger hosts The Session,
chooses a specific, beer-related, topic, invites all bloggers to write on it, and posts a roundup of all the responses received.

More here.

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