Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Trouble with Cask in the States

Over the past five months, cask ale has earned a very large and important region in my heart. I would love nothing more than to see the method of dispense exported en masse to the States but, unfortunately, I do not see that happening for quite some time. The lack of demand (although that could change rapidly) and the difficulty and unwillingness on the part of publicans to properly keep cask ale will likely cause cask ale to remain a novelty in the American craft brewing scene.

Cask ale requires a great deal of effort on the part of publicans to maintain and serve correctly. This is something I touched on briefly in one of my earliest posts about The Harp in Covent Garden.
The vast majority of ale drinkers in the UK do not even appreciate the importance of proper cellaring. When speaking to them, all but the most beer savvy of them would attribute bad condition and off flavors to the brewer. While it is at times the fault of the brewer, my experience has been that it is far more often a result of the publicans failing to properly keep their cellar.

So why is it so much more onerous to keep a cellar full of cask than keg? Firstly, beer dispensed from a keg is almost fully devoid of oxygen. Carbon dioxide is forced into the keg during filling and is also used as the pressure mechanism to dispense the beer through the line. Cask ale, on the other hand, uses suction or gravity for dispense. Beer flows out one end and ambient air flows in the other. The oxygen will eventually stale the beer and there is also the danger of infection via exposure to whatever micro-organisms happen to be in the air. Practically, what this means is that the shelf life of cask is vastly shorter than keg. A cask will only last several days after venting, while keg can sometimes last several weeks. Pubs with low turnover will find it nearly impossible to make money off cask because the spoilage can be high if it is not consumed quickly.

Second, cask ale is alive. What I mean by this is that cask ale contains live yeast that is constantly changing the condition of the beer. The brewers put the beer in the cask, but it is up to the publican to manage the secondary fermentation. Cask ale, therefore, is not a passive enterprise in the way that keg beer is. In order for a cask ale to be served properly, it needs to be stilled, vented and checked for proper clarity and condition. This all isn't very hard in theory, but it still takes somebody knowledgeable  and willing to do the job suitably well.

Here is a spread of four of my ales that were on tap at The Bull in Highgate. It would be wonderful to see cask ale occupy such a prominent place in pubs across the States. 
What this all boils down to is that cask is much more difficult and expensive to keep. In my opinion, there simply is not enough demand to give publicans the impetus to invest in cask ale. Sure there are breweries that cask their beers, but what little is casked is generally served at the brewery or at pubs operated or closely affiliated with the breweries themselves. And sure there are pubs in the States that specialize in serving cask ale (and serve it very well), but those are few and far between. Cask ale is a tradition in the UK and that is why it exists. American craft brewing simply does not have the tradition, but it does possess an extraordinary exploratory streak. This may bode well in the future, but I still do not believe cask will gain a real foothold for quite some time. Even with some demand, publicans will not invest in cask and people will not drink cask because the quality is likely to be low on account of poor celaring. I hope I am wrong, whatever the case may be.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Mashing Enzymes Part 2: Enzyme Action

Finally, here is the second post on mashing enzymes. There will be at least one more post on this topic, but most likely it will be two because it's getting pretty long. If you haven't already, I suggest you read Mashing Enzymes Part 1: Starches as it gives an introduction to the starches that enzymes break down in the mash. Also, forgive me for not adding any diagrams because it would have made everything much easier to understand. My computer is having issues and I will post the diagrams as soon as I can.

Enzyme Action

As I mentioned in the first post, it is the job of the mashing enzymes to break down both amylose and amylopectin into fermentable sugars and non-fermentable dextrins. It is the balance between the fermentable and non-fermentable components of wort that is of most concern to brewers because, obviously, this determines the level of residual sugars that will be left in the finished product.

I would like to start first with the action of beta-amylase. Beta-amylase is an exo-enzyme, meaning it attacks the starch molecules from the ends of the chains of glucose residues. It exclusively hydrolizes every second glucose molecule in the chain starting from the non-reducing end leaving the dissacharide maltose. With amylose, this means that almost the entire starch molecule can be broken down into maltose with only beta-amylase action. With amylopectin it is a bit more tricky. Beta-amylase will still hydrolize the branches of the amylopectin molecule in the exact same way as with amylose, except, beta-amylase cannot hydrolize the glucose residues closest to the branch points. In a theoretical mash with only beta-amylase, what we would end up with is a wort containing maltose as virtually the only fermentable sugar, with very large dextrins of what is left over of the amylopectin molecules.

Luckily, there is also alpha-amylase. Alpha-amylase is an endo-enzyme, meaning it cleaves the starch molecules (both in amylose and amylopectin) from the inside of the glucose chains instead of from the outside. This opens up new non-reducing ends from which beta-amylase can continue hydrolizing maltose sugars. Acting in concert with beta-amylase, there is a much more complex array of fermentable sugars and dextrins that are created. It is important to remember that even though alpha-amylase opens up new non-reducing ends for beta-amylase, beta-amylase still cannot hydrolize the glucose links close to the branch points on the amylopectin molecules. Therefore, even if there is full action of both beta-amylase and alpha-amylase, you will still have larger glucose linked molecules in the wort. Some of these would still be fermentable, such as the trisaccharide maltotriose, but most would not. In addition, in both amylose and amylopectin molecules, when alpha-amylase cleaves the starch it can leave odd numbers of glucose residues. Remember that beta-amylase can reduce those glucose residues in pairs of two (generally leaving a maltotriose molecule when it gets to the end of the chain) but occasionally it releases a singular glucose molecule. So even in a theoretical scenario, there is a wide range of sugar molecules produced in a wort from unfermentable dextrins to smaller fermentable sugars.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Goodbye to London

To be honest, I've had an extremely hard time figuring out what to write about my time in London. After all, my experiences there turned out to be the most significant period of my life. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but it is true. Unlike most of my posts, I will actually keep this one short and (hopefully) sweet because it is an emotional one to write.

My decision to move to London came with a sobering realization. Throughout most of my life, there was a plan. I was supposed to get good grades in school and get a good job at an accounting firm. I got to the end of that road, realized it was not what I wanted to do with my life, and was left asking myself "now what?" I figured that I was going to do anything, it had to be something that I actually cared about; not done purely for money or security. That led me to make the boldest and most important decision of my life; to jump ship to London and pursue what I am truly passionate

I arrived in London apprehensive. How could it be different with such a dramatic change in my life? I had no concept of how the people would be, or even if I could convince them of the enthusiasm I had for beer. Shortly after my arrival at Sambrook's; however, I realized how openminded and inviting the London brewing community is. What's more, everyone seemed to be receptive to my boarderline manic fervor when it came to any topic related to beer. Without the people, I would not have had the overwhelmingly positive experience I had.

I would especially like to thank the whole team at Sambrook's and Dan Fox from The Bull. Without you guys I might still be an accountant.

One quick addendum is in order. I apologize for not posting any content lately as I was traveling with little time to devote to writing. I am back now in full force and will post regularly.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Belgium and, more importantly, Cantillon Brewery

The entrance to my favorite pub in Brussels. 

A litte while ago I went to Brussels and drank beer. No, this will not be a tirade about how wonderful the Trappists ales and the Abbey ales and all the other tripples, doubles and what have you were. They were excellent, of course, but everybody already knows that. What people don't know about are Lambics. In my opinion, Lambics are one of the least appreciated and least understood styles of beer on the planet. I, for one, didn't even appreciate them properly until I visited the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. Although it is the only Lambic brewery I have ever visited, I can say with confidence that it is one of the premier Lambic producers in the world. I will tell you why soon, but first, a brief (and incomplete) introduction on what makes a Lambic a Lambic.

Among other things, the most prominent difference between Lambics and almost all the other beer consumed in the world today is the way they are fermented. Lambics are made by spontaneous fermentation. In a nut shell, what this means is that the wort is left to cool for an extended period, and during that time, whatever organisms are in the atmosphere (be that yeast, bacteria or other) inoculate the brew. This makes for an extremely complicated flavor profile that is unique to the brewery in which the beer was made. Also, the mix of microorganisms is constantly changing and is not necessarily the same even day after day, and there will certainly be drifts in flavor profiles over longer periods. This is why one of the main tasks for Lambic brewers is to blend different batches to achieve the desired flavor in the final product.

In many ways, what you are tasting when you drink a proper Lambic is probably as close as you will get to tasting the way beers might have tasted several hundred years ago. Long before the discovery of the importance of microorganisms in beer, both spoiling agents and yeasts. What this means is that Lambic producers go against virtually everything you learn from your first day as a brewer, which is to keep everything as clean as possible. Lambic brewers let microorganisms grow freely in their breweries, and rarely disturb them intentionally. This is not a result of laziness, but rather a way of preserving the natural cocktail of microorganisms that make their beers possible.

Now on to the actual reason why I'm writing this article: Cantillon Brewery. It was founded in 1900 in Brussels by a man named Paul Cantillon, himself the son of a brewer. One of the many things that makes the brewery special is that the equipment and brewing methods used have barely, if at all, changed in over 100 years. I happened to be lucky enough to have one of the members of the board of directors for the brewery museum foundation at Cantillon giving me my tour. He was one of the most passionate and knowledgable people with regards to beer I have met in some time. As we walked through the brewery (which as expected looks and feels over a century old) I started to truly understand where the flavor of the beer comes from. It is in the rafters, it is on the floor, it is in the dust that covers the bottles in storage. I am sure that every part of the facility contributes in some way besides its obvious functional capacity. You can smell it as well. There is a very interesting and pleasant odor that permeates the building.

As far as the actual brewing equipment is concerned, except for one piece it was very similar to what I am already familiar with. The mash tun and boil kettle were rustic and still work in the same way they did before my grandmother was born. But by far the most interesting piece of equipment was the cool ship. This is a wide, shallow copper basin where hot wort is pumped to be cooled overnight and inocculated as I explained before. It is still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that although no sterilization techniques are used, a drinkable (in fact very drinkable) beverage is produced in this way. My tour guide informed me that they have identified well in excess of 100 different kinds of yeasts and around 50 different kinds of bacteria in their beer. My understanding is that it is pretty much a free for all during fermentation between all these different microorganisms. Some are stronger on different days, or opportunistically inocculate the brew while others aren't looking. There is also a process that goes on once fermentation starts in the barrel where some organisms are more active at different times and others take over once the others become lazy. This is why the outcome of the brews are so variable even on a day to day basis.

The old copper boil kettle. 

Not a terribly good photo, but this is the cool ship on the top floor of the brewery.

The most astonishing piece of information I heard the entire day, however, related to the extreme dryness of the beers. Previously, my understanding of the way yeast works in beer was that there are certain types of sugars, mainly larger sugar molecules, that are unfermentable and will always be left behind in finished beer. Apparently, the conditions in the barrels at Cantillon ferments virtually all the sugars out of the wort. I am not the only one that thinks this is special. Cantillon has sent samples of their beers to universities that wish to find out how this is happening. They have not had much luck as the process of fermentation with 100+ different yeasts and 50+ bacteria is extremely complicated. The lack of sugar also means that even people with sensitivities to sugar can drink Cantillon brews. You can definately taste it as well. The dryness cleanses your palate in such a way that the beer should be used to replace sorbet at fancy dinners.

At the end of the tour I sampled three different brews; a Kriek brewed with cherries, a Framboise brewed with rasberries, and a limited edition brew called Zwanze 2011 made with a rarely used grape called pineau d'aunis. All of them were good, but the Zwanze was particularly excellent. Before I left, I also bought three different other bottles and enjoyed them greatly as well.

For anyone who wants to open their minds to a very unique style of beer, head to Cantillon Brewery if you have the chance. You will not be disappointed.

The Zwanze 2011. It has a very unique reddish orange color from the pineau d'aunis.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

My First Solo Brew at The Bull

So Dan at The Bull recently gave me the opportunity to brew, on my own, a beer of my choosing. This has been the chance I have been waiting for. I have been a homebrewer for years, but I have up until now never been able to brew a beer that is served in a bar. Naturally I was nervous, as I didn't know the brew kit terribly well, and I felt as if my entire reputation as a brewer rested on this one brew. Obviously, was being a bit dramatic, but I take my beer very seriously.

The beer recipe that I settled on was a Scottish ale with a target alcohol content somewhere between 4.0% to 4.5% alcohol. Usually, I would be able to be a bit more precise in my predictions but not knowing what brewhouse efficiency I would have, I decided it was better to make a recipe that could handle some variability. I decided to make the color relatively dark and the bitterness levels very low, similar to what a historical Scottish ale would be. The reason why Scottish ales traditionally have low amounts of hops is that, first of all, the English were very late to adopt hops relative to the rest of Europe. In addition, once the English discovered how wonderful hops were, they were reluctant to export them to the Scots because, apparently, English and Scottish people don't get on very well. As a result, Scottish ales had very low levels of hops and often even used other ingredients such as heather as bittering or flavoring agents for their beers. Therefore, in order to stay historically accurate, my hop schedule would be to use a very modest amount of English Whitbread Golding hops for bittering and an equal amount of the same hops after the end of the boil for aroma. Historical Scottish ales probably would not have had much aroma hops, so I went back and forth on deciding if I should add them at all. In the end, I decided it would be a more balanced beer with them included.

Overall, I think the brew day went smoothly. Nothing disasterous happened (even though I had recently been having bad dreams about everything that could go wrong with this beer). The worst thing that happened was a small overflow on the hot liquor tank, but a little mopping fixed that. One thing that did go very much according to plan was the color of the beer. It is a deep red mahogony color that I think will be very beautiful once the beer is done. The gravity was also in the range I wanted, and if the fermentation goes as I expect the beer will be about 4.3%. Now all I have to do is wait. After all, the most important part of the beer making process is happening right now as I write.

As a final thought, just the fact that Dan has enough confidence in me to let me use his system to make a beer that he will actually serve to customers is something I am very proud of. If this beer turns out well, the day I try the first pint will certainly be one of the best days of my life.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mashing Enzymes Part 1: Starches

The entire brewing process involves enzymes. From before barley becomes malt, until after the beer is put into packaging, enzymes are constantly changing the chemical composition of beer. Even yeast, from a purely functional perspective can be thought of simply as bags of enzymes. What I want to focus on in this series are the main mashing enzymes of interest to brewers: alpha amylase and beta amylase. Why I believe this is so important is that many brewers (homebrewers and professional brewers alike) don't really understand how they work and why this gives them the blend of fermentable sugars and unfermentable dextrins that we call wort. The concept most brewers understand is the general rule that lower mashing temperatures lead to more fermentable wort, while higher tempuratures lead to a more dextrinous (less fermentable) wort. In a broad sense this is true, but it doesn't give brewers much of a base to trouble shoot what has gone right or wrong with their mash. There are, of course, other enzymes that play a roll in mash composition (proteases, beta-glucanase, limit dextrinase, etc.), but they are much less important. I will circle back on those later.

There will be four short segments in this series, starting with starches. By the end, I hope that anyone with interest will understand more about why mashing enzymes work as beautifully as they do. After all, without them beer would not be possible.  


In order to begin understanding how alpha and beta amylases work, it is imperative to first understand the substrates they work on. Just like there are two main mashing enzymes, there are also two starches in barley: amylose and amylopectin. These represent the energy reserves of the barley grain, and it is this energy that brewers ultimately need to harness to make beer. In a very basic sense, both amylose and amylopectin are just big bunches of glucose molecules linked together. Brewers want to pry apart those links of glucose molecules using enzymes, making them small enough for yeast to digest.

The simpler of the two main starches is amylose. Amylose is just a straight chain of glucose residues linked together and makes up 20-25% of the starch mass native to barley. Given enough beta amylase action (more on this later), amylose can almost completely be reduced to maltose, the main fermentable sugar in beer wort (also more on this later).

In this diagram of amylose, each of the circles represents a glucose molecule. In reality, amylose is a much longer chain of bonded glucose molecules, but this is sufficient to understand the general structure. Also, don't worry all that much about what the reducing end means just now, but take note that it is there. Later on it will become important in determining which direction enzyme action takes place.  
The much more complex and larger of the two native starches is amylopectin. This is a similar molecule to amylose making up about 75-80% of native starch. What makes amylopectin different from amylose is that it has many branches of glucose-linked chains. Amylopectin is, therefore, much larger and heavier than amylose. More or less, you can think of amylopectin as a big tree of amylose molecules. All of the glucose bonds on the branches are the same as amylose. Yet, because of the more complex structure of amylopectin near the branch points, it is the main contributor of dextrins (unfermentable sugars) in wort. It also relies more on the combined action of alpha and beta amylases to break it down into fermentable sugars than does amylose.

As with my representation of amylose, this one of amylopectin is very simplified and actual amylopectin molecules in barley are massive. 

Friday, 2 March 2012

Why Germany Brews Lager

It has always fascinated me why different parts of the world have developed their own unique brews. The UK has Real Ale, Belgium has Trappist beers, Latin America has Chicha, and Germany has lagers. I recently came across some information in an article written by Horst Dornbusch in The Oxford Companion to Beer that shed some light on why Germany in particular has such a tradition of lager brewing. Today, lager (mostly of the light pilsner type unfortunately) dominates the world market, and it was with German influence that this lager trend took root. Before I begin, I would like to say that if you talk to me personally, you would get the impression that I am not a big fan of lagers. This is for the most part true, only because the vast majority of lagers produced today are mass market, watery, flavorless rubbish. Some lagers produced in Germany, however, are amongst the best beers in the world, displaying other ingredients (malt and to a lesser extent with most German beers, hops) instead of a yeasty ester profile. Give Paulaner's Salvator Doppelbock a try and you will understand what I mean.

Surprisingly, the tradition of lager brewing grew out of a long period of bad beer in Bavaria, particularly in the summer months. Warmer temperatures promoted the growth of a host of different spoilage organisms that were largely dormant in the brews of the colder months of the year. Summer beers were often so bad that brewers would resort to using a number of products to mask the flavor including oxen bile, chicken blood, soot, tree bark, or even poisonous mushrooms (it really is a testament to how bad the beer was that oxen bile was preferable to the unadulterated beer). Of course, this was long before the discovery by Louis Pasture in the late 1800's that living organisms caused beer spoilage, so the powers that were did what they could to try and mitigate the issue. 

Over the course of a few centuries, there were multiple attempts to regulate the quality of beer. In 1156, the city of Augsburg issued the first decree on spoiled beer insisting that all the city's bad beer "shall be destroyed or distributed amongst the poor at no charge." This held citizens off for another two hundred years when in 1363 twelve members of the Munich city counsel were appointed to inspect the quality of the city's beer. Further, in 1420 Munich decreed that beer had to be aged for a minimum of eight days. In 1447, the precursor to the famous Reinheitsgebot was laid out saying that Bavarian beer would only consist of barley, water and hops (remember, the existence of yeast in beer was not yet discovered). And finally, in 1516 the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV extended the 1447 decree to cover his entire kingdom.

Those attempts at quality were all well and good, but they didn't have the intended effect, and summer beer often continued to be putrid. Although far less famous than the Reinheitsgebot, the legislation laid out by the Bavarian Duke Albrecht V in 1553 had far more significant ramifications for the beer world. Duke Albrecht V simply forbade the production of beer altogether between the Feast of Saint George (April 23) and Michaelmas (September 29). This did succeed in stemming the production of bad beer but, more importantly, it unintentionally led to the development of lager brewing. As production was halted in the warmer months of the year, ale yeasts were phased out and only the yeasts capable of fermenting at colder temperatures survived, eventually hybridizing to create a new species of yeast. Stronger beers brewed towards the end of the brewing months became known as March beers or Märzenbiers in German and were stored in cellars or caves for consumption until brewing could recommence. The actual term "lager" is derived from this practice and comes from the German lagern, which means, "to lay" or "to store". 

Duke Albrecht's prohibition on brewing during the summer was finally rescinded in 1850. By that time lager brewing had taken over in Germany and was beginning to spread to other parts of the globe, most notably Bohemia with the birth of Pilsner by Josef Groll in 1842. Of course, lagers are not the only type of traditional beers brewed in Germany. Weissbier and hefeweizen are brewed using top fermented yeast at warm temperatures and their history is quite interesting (although I will save that for a later time so this doesn't turn preposterously long).