How Not To Build A Brewery

The eagled eyed amongst you, will have noticed that there hasn’t been much homebrew activity on the blog lately. There’s reason for that…

I last brewed in August 2015 which seems like an awfully long time ago. Things didn’t quite go to plan and the element in my main boiler burnt out, welding the plug into the socket. As I ran a three vessel setup, I just switched to using my HLT as the boiler and the brew continued.

Ecokegs waiting to be processed

Shortly thereafter, I was asked by the company I worked for at the time, to brew some beer for a couple of events. Great, I thought, the chance to foist a range of new wave hoppy beer on an unsuspecting workforce. So I readily agreed.

There were two small problems though. Firstly, I agreed to produce about 100 litres of beer, four different styles, bottled in 330ml bottles. Even if I repaired my knackered boiler, I wouldn’t be able to get 25 litres into the fermentor, let alone out of it. I needed to upgrade.

Secondly, I had about three weeks to upgrade the brewery and brew all four beers. Essentially I was going to have to rebuild the brewery and then brew four evenings on the trot and cross my fingers that they’d all ferment out in time and condition in the bottle. It was always going to be a stretch, but I had a plan.

Insulating the mash tun

As always, there was an elephant in the room, money, or lack there of. I never seem to have any, so there was no way of throwing vast wads of it at The Malt Miller or Brew Builder in exchange for some ready to go stainless steel.

As I would have to do this on the cheap, I decided to use Ecokeg outer shells. I’d been using them to ferment my cider in, as they’re made from food grade plastic. With some simple modification, they can hold 55 litres, or there about. I wouldn’t be the first to use them for brewing beer either, they seemed like the ideal solution.

Modifying a workbench to see if I can fit the Ecokegs on it

Luckily, I know Yvan, of Jolly Good Beer fame. So I soon had a stack of Ecokegs sitting in the garden needing modified. He’d even managed to find one that didn’t have the usual holes in the bottom, so I earmarked that one to be the mash tun.

I should also thank James of The Axiom Brewing Co, for all the hints and tips he gave me. Especially about where to get and how to modify, immersion heater elements, for use in the HLT and boiler. Shame I couldn’t make them fit the Ecokegs. Due to all the lumps and bumps, and the size of the element flanges, there was nowhere they would fit.

Trying to find the locations for all the fixings

I should really have worked this out before modifying the elements, but there you go. So more thanks are due to Steve Flack, another local home-brewer, who had a couple of Brew Builder 3KW LWD elements going spare at a good price. These fitted, just. It would probably have been a lot easier, and cheaper, to fit a couple of 2.4KW kettle elements and be done with it.

As it turned out, one of the elements was faulty, it leaked through the base and into the shroud cover; ever so slightly deadly. This was a set back, but not insurmountable, as the other element worked fine. Brew Builder was excellent and changed the element without quibble, even after it got lost in the post on its way back to them.

A modified immersion heater element

As the inside of an Ecokeg is rather lumpy, I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy an off the shelf false bottom for use in the mash tun. I also didn’t fancy trying to bend some pipe into a circle to make a manifold. So instead, I bought a large grain bag, the kind used for BIAB. This seemed like a simple solution to the problem.

As well as bag for the grain, I also needed a way of filtering the hops in the boiler. I really wanted to switch from whole hops to pellets, but knew I’d need something other than my existing hops strainer. I contacted The Malt Miller to ask about their bazooka filter:

Long story short, I ended up buying two of the MattMill Läuterhexe, one for the mash tun and one for the boiler. They didn’t quite fit into the grove at the bottom of the Ecokegs, and while I could have shortened them to fit, I decided not to. I’d like to go stainless one day, and would rather they fit the stainless pots properly.

The faulty element; drip, drip, drip...

The Läuterhexe came with a ½” Tee, a large nitrile washer and a ½” to 1″ male to female connector. The connector wasn’t stainless, but I had no time, or money, to swap it out for a stainless equivalent. The female side of the connector just so happened to be the perfect size for those cheap black plastic taps, that you normal see on a fermentor.

As the connector wasn’t deep enough to engage the washer around the tap, I butchered some swing top bottle washers to fit into the base of the connector. This all looked liked it had worked, but it turns out that under pressure, the butchered washers were rolling into the tap. Cue a lot of mopping up, and the industrial application of plumbers PTFE tape.

Läuterhexe and 3KW LWD element fitted to the boiler

Time has a habit of slipping away, there always other stuff to do. I ended up blocking a weekend out and taking the Monday off work to try and get it all finished in time. I nearly made it, but just missed my self imposed cut off time. Which is probably just as well, as I was knackered from three long days of head scratching, chopping, drilling, screwing and running around local shops trying to find missing parts.

The extra time did give me the opportunity to pop to a local electrical wholesaler and pick up one of those IP66 weatherproof outdoor switches. I’d been controlling the pump by either putting the plug into, or pulling the plug out of, an extension reel. It didn’t feel that safe, with the cables all over the shed floor and me with wet hands.

This was not supposed to happen

After work on the last day I could possibly start, I filled the boiler up with water, added the water treatment and turned the element on. While waiting for that to hit strike temperature, I wired the pump up the the switch. Hoses all in place to recirculate into the boiler and avoid hot sports, I flicked the switch and blew all the electrics.

Not only had I tripped the consumer unit in the shed, but I’d taken down one of the downstairs rings as well. The extension and kitchen were in darkness and all the appliances were off. I tried flicking the RCDs in the main consumer unit back on, but they were immediately tripping out again, even though the shed was still off.

A bodged together extractor hood for the boiler

It was at this point, that I realised that the shed, even though it’s got a 63A RCD in its consumer unit, comes into the house via one of our external garden sockets. Rather than then going straight to the consumer unit, it goes though a switched fused spur connection unit. To say that the fascia was hot, would have been a gross understatement. I’m surprised it wasn’t melting.

I popped the fuse holder and disposed of the slightly charred 13A fuse. I then went back to the main consumer unit tried flicking the RCD back on. Rather than restoring power to half of the downstairs, it proceeded to blow all the downstairs RCDs. While my daughter enquired why the telly had gone off, I ran around the downstairs like a headless chicken screaming FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!

Not the ideal pump configuration

In the end, out of sheer desperation, I just slammed the fuse holder back into place, without a new fuse in it. The RCDs appeared happy with this development and power was restored. The switched fused spur connection unit remains fuseless to this day. Needless to say, the brew was scrubbed.

Fast forward to February 2017 and not much has changed, the shed is still without power. The shed roof felt has failed and needs replacing; so all the equipment is gathering dust, while being dripped on every time it rains. There’s 39KG of malt, still sealed in their plastic bags, stored on the shed floor in large cardboard boxes and a whole freezer shelf is taken up with sliver vac packed hop pouches.

¾" Camlock fittings

While it’s all a bit depressing, it’s not for want of trying. We’ve contacted loads of electricians, but they either don’t show up to have a look, or they wont give us a quote once they’d had a look.

So I’ve decided enough is enough, it’s time to get back to brewing. For the last month or so, I’ve been meticulously planning a new three vessel stainless brew house. I’ve even taken delivery of various stainless fixtures and fittings and have more on the way. One way or another, I will be brewing again this year.

While I’m dolling out thanks, I really need to thank Bert Kenward more than anyone else. Without Bert’s generosity, (pumps, plate chiller, fermentors, fixings, thermocouples etc, etc) this whole upgrading endeavour wouldn’t be possible. Thanks Bert!

Advent Beer: What Did I Learn…?

December is but a long distant memory. While my focus has turned to other things, I keep mulling over some of the things I learnt from indulging in Advent Beer again.

If you can cast your mind back to December, I’d decided to do another round of Advent Beer, but this time with some constraints:

Some constraints though, the beer must be from UK breweries, come in a can and I can’t have tried it before.

Purely on the basis of the constraints, it was an all round success. All the beers were new to me, they were all British and they all came in a can. That’s probably where the success stops though.

It’s fair to say that the contents of the cans were a bit of a mixed bag, some were really good, some were pretty woeful. It just goes to show, it really is all about the contents of the packaging, not the actual packaging itself. There’s just a much shite beer in cans, as there is in bottles, cask and keg.

The biggest disappointment with the cans was sediment. Unlike glass, which you can see though, there’s no way to tell if there’s any sediment in the can. Thus it’s very difficult to know when to stop pouring. This caught my wife out when she poured a can of Magic Rock’s Wayniac and was very annoyed to find huge chunks of yeast floating around.

Given the current vogue for the yeast from Vermont, I’m not really sure what brewers can do to mitigate this. Printing a warning on the side of the can is a start, but if you can’t see where any yeast might be in the can, how can you pour carefully, without leaving a third of the volume in the can?

I really struggled with finding things to say and will admit to not enjoying myself near the end. Maybe it was getting behind with the write ups, maybe it was falling into the same old Police report¹ style of beer review. Either way, I think I’m pretty much done with reviewing beer on this blog.

I like drinking beer, just sitting back and enjoying it, letting the flavours and bitterness (or lack of) wash over me and adjust my mood. I don’t drink beer to try and identify every subtle nuance of flavour, or play guess the malt bill or hop variety.

I’ve said before that I just don’t have the vocabulary to communicate what I’m tasting, and I just end up not enjoying the beer, or the writing. So that’s it, no more Police report style beer reviews.

One positive thing to finish though. Getting Boak and Bailey to mention your blog post really does wonders for your traffic…

¹ Read Pete Brown’s excellent blog post Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections, for what I mean about the Police report style of writing.

Advent Beer: Moor PMA

I was supposed to finish on Moor JJJ IPA¹, but due to my incompetence, Thirsty had run out. So Moor Pale Modern Ale for those with a Positive Mental Attitude is the finisher instead.

Given the name, I was expecting something ultra pale. Instead, it was more of a burnished copper, marmalade colour. The loose white head sat proudly, taking its time to slowly sink back.

I struggled to get much on the nose. It wasn’t that there was nothing there, I just couldn’t determine what it was. Maybe some slightly citric aromas, maybe a bit of biscuity malt, maybe.

Lots of body in the mouth, with a lovely prickly wave of bitterness to start. A solid, slightly sweet, malty backbone supported the bitterness, allowing it to sweep through the mouth. Lingering bitter orange flavours lead into the, slightly sweet and juicy, aftertaste.

As you would expect from Moor, the execution is spot on. Very drinkable, very moorish, very good.

¹ Yes, of course I’ve had JJJ IPA before. Normally from 660ml bottles, but also on cask occasionally. Damn you high strength beer duty!!!

It’s my blog though, and as I’d not had it for about four years, or from a can. I figured that would be the perfect beer to finish on.

C’est la vie, there will be other opportunities. Merry Christmas!

Advent Beer: BAD Wild Gravity

I’d not heard of BAD Co. (Brewing & Distilling Co.) before. So when I popped back into Thirsty for a last minute restock, one had to go into the Advent Beer selection.

Wild Gravity, is packaged in one of those wide mouth cans, which I really detest. I’m at home, not off camping in the wilderness, I do have access to a glass. The only benefit I can see, is if you get the lighting right, you can see into the can while you pour. So for a beer that says, unfiltered and maybe naturally hazy on the can (i.e. there’s going to be sediment), this is a plus point.

Having said that, it duly poured a clean and clear auburn marmalade, with a loose, just off white head. No sign of any sediment, or haze. The head dropped pretty quickly. There wasn’t much on the nose, possibly some marmalade type aromas, but nothing I could really pick out.

In the mouth it was pretty nice, subtle and balanced, rather than brash and shouty. Some prickly bitterness, on top of a solid malt foundation, started things off. It smoothed out quite quickly though, with both the bitterness and malt body dying off abruptly.

This was slightly disappointing, as a touch more late bitterness and body, would really have set the aftertaste up nicely. It was pleasant enough, with some bitter orange flavours that lingered. It just felt a bit flabby though, maybe as it was quite juicy, rather than it actually lacking any body.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this beer. After it had sat for a bit, the body did fill out, so take the muttering above, with a pinch of salt.

Having never heard of this brewery before, this beer is enough to peek my interest. I will be plucking a few of their other cans off the shelves in Thirsty next time I’m passing.

Advent Beer: Harbour Little Rock IPA

I’m always keen to try beer from Harbour. So when I saw this on the shelves in Cozzi & Boffa, I knew it had to make the Advent Beer selection.

It poured a slightly hazy chestnut brown, with a thick off white head. The haze appeared to be caused by minute suspended particles; it would have been a real looker without them. There was no mention on the can of any sediment, nor a warning to pour carefully.

There wasn’t much on the nose, just some subtle crystal malt type aromas. There was the feeling of hop aroma, but it was too subtle for me to pick up.

The first few mouthfuls were quite disappointing. Lots of slack crystal malt caramel type flavours and not a lot else. It wasn’t that it was lacking body, it was just quite mouth-watering, which had the side effect of making it feel a bit on the light side.

There was a quite a bit of prickle in the mouth, with the caramel flavours then asserting themselves. After washing out a bit, the aftertaste was quite long, with sweet caramel flavour and some bitterness.

It felt like the was a hole where the hop flavours should’ve be. The initial prickle, then all the sweet malt flavours, then where I was expecting the hop flavours and bitterness to show, there was just an absence.

Bitterness did build though, mouthful by mouthful, as long as they weren’t too far apart. There just wasn’t enough of it, especially with the finish being so sweet.

  • RateBeerHarbour
  • Little Rock IPA, 5.5%, 330ml

All in all, a bit of a disappointment, it was just lacking something. Hopefully with the arrival of Stuart Howe, Harbour will be back to producing the top quality beer in 2017.

Advent Beer: Rooster’s Ragged Point

This can of Rooster’s Ragged Point was the last on the shelf in Cozzi & Boffa. It would have been rude not too.

From a distance, it sat jet black in the glass. Just showing hints of deep ruby red, when held up to a light. The easily formed, tan coloured head dropped to a covering fairly readily.

The nose was intense. Lots of roasted malt flavours, predominantly chocolate, with hints of bitter coffee. It was hard to pick out any particular hop aroma, just a general, it’s been shown some hops.

The mouth feel was good, substantial, but still relatively light. Lots of roasted malt flavours, with chocolate, again, the mainstay. Rather than just being about the malt, the cheeks prickled with bitterness, causing some salivation. The juiciness and hop flavours combining to form a lingering bitter aftertaste, with hints of roasted coffee.

I really quite liked this beer; light, malty, bitter, moreish, accomplished.

Advent Beer: Northern Monk The Trilogy MMXVI: YEAST

Northern Monk’s Trilogy series is an annual series paying homage to the three pillars of beer: Hops, Malt, and Yeast. This is the last of the three and the one I was least looking forward too.

I was torn over this beer. It’s not a style I particularly like, I have to be in the right mood. That mood appears to happen once every five years or so. I’m not quite sure why this is, I’ve drunk loads of them in the past and enjoyed them.

Either way, I wasn’t in the mood.

It poured an every so slightly hazy, dark apricot jam, light marmalade colour. The tight white head looked solid, but dropped fairly quickly. The nose was quite fresh, with all the spicy ester aromas that you expect for this style off beer.

It was massive in the mouth, with an initial waft of carbonation, that parted to allow all the yeasty ester flavours to swamp everything. Sweetness reined. The yeast ester flavours lingering, like the last guest at a party, drunk and refusing to leave.

There may have been a tickle of bitterness in there, it was hard to tell. What was telling, was my reaction to drinking it. Gurning, is probably the most descriptive I can be.

After leaving it for an hour or so, it wasn’t quite so bad. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if my palate had adjusted, or the beer had mellowed. It was still sweet and estery, but now also had a slight juicy hop quality at the death.

Yes, it’s well made. Yes, it does what is says on the tin. Yes, loads of people are probably going to love it.

No, I wont be having another any time soon. The clue is in the name of the blog…

Advent Beer: Northern Monk The Trilogy MMXVI: HOPS

Northern Monk’s Trilogy series is an annual series paying homage to the three pillars of beer: Hops, Malt, and Yeast. This is the one I was most looking forward too.

The smell when the can was broached, was awesome. It poured a slightly hazy, apricot jam colour, with a compact head. The head was relatively hard to form and droped quickly back to pretty much nothing.

The nose was immense, thick with piney, resinous, citric hops. An undertone of prickliness, gave hints of a potentially aggressive mouth feel. This didn’t materialise, as it was actually quite soft in the mouth, with just a tickle of carbonation.

This beer is all about the hops, and boy did it deliver. The bitterness built, and built, then like a big wave breaking, the mouth was flooded with thick, bitter, citric flavours and bitterness. The cheeks prickling, the tongue and base of the mouth, throbbing with the thick bitter tang.

It wasn’t quite one of those hefty Olde English marmalade aftertastes, it was a touch too sweet and juicy for that. Although it did last and the more you drank, the longer it lasted and the heftier the flavours became. I could still taste it an age after finishing; I love it when that happens.

It didn’t feel like it drank to its strength, it felt like you could neck it quite easily. Then you’d have another mouthful and it felt huge and thick and sticky and all of its strength.

Each mouthful was a pleasure. You could argue that it was a touch sweet, but that would be nitpicking; I’d buy another in a heartbeat. Very, very tasty and dangerously drinkable. Phwoah…

Advent Beer: Northern Monk The Trilogy MMXVI: MALT

Northern Monk’s Trilogy series is an annual series paying homage to the three pillars of beer: Hops, Malt, and Yeast. I have all three and decided to start with MALT, an Imperial Porter, brewed in collaboration with De Molen.

It poured an almost impenetrable black in the glass, with hints of brown at the edges when held up to a light. A thick, rich, light brown head, formed slowly and dissipated relatively quickly. A quick swirl of the glass brought it back though.

For a beer that’s sole purpose is to showcase malt, it completely, unexpectedly, smelt of malt. Thick, rich, chocolate, coffee, stewed fruits, the whole gamut of hefty malt flavours. None of your lightweight biscuity, cerealy aromas here.

Massive in the mouth, the kind of beer that requires swishing around the mouth for a bit, before swallowing. Soft, smooth and subtle, with no one flavour jumping around. Everything just blending together, the result, unequivocally better than the sum of it’s parts.

That was my initial impression. Once it warmed up, the finish started to become sweet, very sweet. Lots of vanilla flavours as well, which added to the sweetness. With no real bitterness, it did get a bit sickly towards the end.

It’s the kind of beer that requires contemplation, demands it even. The kind of beer that requires a big sofa, a cold winters day and a roaring fire; I had to make do with one out of three. Other than finishing a bit sweet, it was pretty good. Looking forward to trying HOPS next.

Advent Beer: BrewDog Black Hammer

My once yearly purchase of beer from the Scottish Brewery.

I have my reasons for not buying beer from the Scottish Brewery. They have a place though and are now pretty well known, even by non-beer drinkers. I do feel the need to try one occasionally. Mainly so I can point out to which ever non-beer drinking friend has brought them up, that they could do better. Mainly by going here, here, here or here and buying something more interesting, something you can’t get in every supermarket.

Evidently this is a variation on their regular Jack Hammer, which I’ve had once, in 2014; I didn’t think much of it according to Untappd. It poured a really dark mahogany, rather than jet black, it is a Black IPA after all. A loose (ish) tan coloured head formed slowly and dropped back to half a finger quite quickly.

The nose was thick with hops, positively reeking. Dank C hop aromas spilling out of both the can and glass. The same C hops provided a massive wave of prickly bitterness in the mouth. This upfront bitterness, was overwhelmed pretty quickly, by massive sweet coffee and chocolate roasted flavours. The segway wasn’t nicely integrated, it was quite a discordant change.

More dissonance followed, with the change from all that cloying roasted malt, back to the aftertaste of astringent C hop flavour. The brutality of the flavour change did lessen slightly as the beer warmed up, but it was pretty unrelenting. As was the sweetness; you’d think a beer with a theoretical 200+ IBUs would be searingly bitter, not cloyingly sweet.

It wasn’t that it was unpleasant, it was just far, far, far too sweet. The aggressive hops just couldn’t cope with all that dark malt. Who knows if it’s the beer, or just shoddy warehousing by Tesco. Either way, that’s my annual Scottish Brewery purchase done and dusted. Back to buying something more interesting…