Tuesday 29 December 2009

Flavour Compound of the Week - H2S

This week we are looking at H2S or hydrogen sulphide. This is my least favourite natural flavour compound in beer. Its aroma is the disgusting smell you will remember from the playground after someone let off a stink bomb or when your grandmother has been on the spouts at Christmas. At lower concentrations it has a sweet eggy smell like your lunchbox when you didn’t get around to eating your egg sandwiches.

I can’t understand how at any level, flatus and rotten eggs is a welcome component of beer flavour but some drinkers welcome it as a quirk of the brew. It would be interesting to see if they missed it if it was removed.

H2S is produced during fermentation by yeast from various sources. The most significant source is through yeast metabolism of amino acids. The amount of H2S is influenced by sulphate levels in water and the availability of sulphur containing amino acids so the brewer has some control over levels by ensuring that these are correct. The most significant factor in the production of H2S is the yeast strain. Some yeasts pump the stuff out like a fart machine while others need extreme conditions to produce any. H2S is also produced prodigiously by certain bacteria and wild yeast so may indicate an infection especially in bottled beer.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Tip Beer in Mouth and then Swallow

Before I became a commercial brewer I used to love tasting beer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a real perk of the job and finding a new gem of a brew at a festival or in a pub is still exciting, but now brewing is my living tasting is an entirely different proposition. When tasting beer commercial brewers aren’t doing it for fun. If it’s their own stuff they are looking for faults or for where things have gone well but most importantly for trueness to type. If it’s other beers they will probably be rating them in their head judging it like the panel on Strictly Come Dancing, comparing it to their own stuff and to the model of a good beer in that style in their brain.

I taste beer according to this hierarchy listed from most important to least important

1. Evidence of off flavours (DMS, H2S, Diacetyl, bacterial, wild yeast etc)
2. Technical merit (how difficult the beer is to brew)
3. Balance of flavours
4. ‘Commerciability’ (will the average drinker like it?)
5. Character (will the beer enthusiast like it?)
6. Do I like it (this is strongly influenced by the 3 above)

Most drinkers are only concerned with the last point. Rate beer reviewers and beer enthusiasts are probably only concerned with the last two points along with another which is individuality. The more you understand about beer the more complex tasting beer becomes. For a brewer the machine (his/her palate and brain) measuring the beer has a great deal more functions, whistles and bells.

Next time you are enjoying your beer spare a thought for the poor commercial brewer for whom beer will never be as much as fun again!

Saturday 19 December 2009

Flavour Compound of the Week

Welcome to flavour compound of the week. In this ‘feature’ of my blog I will introduce you to (bore you to death with) a different flavour compound each week, describing its sensation, origins and some of its chemistry.

Flavour in the most important part of beer. That goes without saying. Rather irritatingly for brewers it is also the most complicated. This is why global brands are low in flavour. It is easier to control flavour when there is very little there in the first place. There are thousands of known flavours in beer and probably more unknown ones. All have thresholds and act additively, synergistically and or antagonistically to each other. That is some can promote the detection of other flavours and some can mask them.

In truth, with regard to a lot of flavour compounds we don’t know exactly where they come from.

I am starting with a compound that I know more about than most because I studied it for my thesis at university. It is the wonderfully-named 2,5-dimethyl-4-hydroxy-3(2H)-furanone or DMHF for short.

DMHF smells like candyfloss and strawberry jam. As with most flavour compounds it smells differently at different concentrations and in different contexts. At high concentrations it has been described as having a rotten note. Interestingly (or not) DMHF is not only formed by non enzymic browning of malt sugars during malting and wort boiling but is also produced by yeast during fermentation. It is likely that the yeast transforms a precursor molecule which has been formed during a stage of the brewing process involving heat.

Stronger beers with more dark malts will have higher levels of DHMF than pale weaker beers, although a beer with less back ground flavours (hops, fruit, roast) may exhibit more than beers 'with a lot going on'. Look out for it in less hoppy barley wines, dubbels and strong German lagers.
Next time you're in the company of a beer nerd and they are reeling off a list of abscure chemicals that s/he has picked up in the beer, just mention that a whiff of 2,5-dimethy-4-hydroxy-3(2H)-furanone has just danced like a zephyr across your olfactory epithelium and that should keep them quite for a few seconds.

Monday 14 December 2009

It's just not the same

Have you ever had a beer and thought that it’s different to how you remember it?

As a brewer very occasionally you are faced with having to defend the job you do against a customer who has had just this experience. The main problem with all things taste-related is that all the information is processed by the most fallible piece of equipment in existence, the human brain. Take for example the statement “I remember it as being hoppier than it is now.”. Hoppy being a qualitative thing is subject to change due to changes in the frame of reference. Hoppy in 2009 is a golden ale made with American high-oil hops with an overwhelming citrus character. Hoppy in 1999 was a late hopped session bitter with resinous hop notes.

From time to time customers have even alleged that my beers are darker or lighter than they used to be. Of all beer attributes, colour is the one that any brewer can measure and control so colour will only change if change is desired.

Another source of distortion in the chain of information between tastebuds and memory is the halo effect. When you discover a gem of a beer which no one else knows about in a small country pub on holiday this beer can be close to god. If you try the same beer, probably faithfully reproduced by the brewer in a packed ‘spoons at 7PM on a rainy Wednesday, after a pint of 300EBU Faceache Stout it is unlikely to rate as highly in your estimation. Halo well and truly removed.

Another common de-haloing factor is popularity. The beer can’t be that good if it’s popular because it’s ‘mass produced’. This is of course complete bullshit. Knocking well-balanced, well-brewed beers just because lots of people like them is not uncommon amongst some self-appointed beer experts. If someone tells you something is wrong with your pint you are unlikely to like it as much.

I’ve brewed some brands in previous roles where significant changes have been made to the process for one reason or another and there has been a change in the product. I know of a few of my favourites which have been subject to change and are lesser products for it. I am fortunate enough to be completely in charge of how Sharp’s make beer so no changes are made other than those needed to maintain consistency.

Maintaining consistency without reducing appeal is the true test of a brewer’s capability. All the inputs to the brewing process are in a state of continual change so brewers must use all the art and science at their disposal to maintain consistency.

Below is a list of changes which have fairly profound effects on the character of a beer.

· Malt – variety change, change of maltster, seasonal shifts
· Hops - variety change, change from whole hops, bad year for key variety
· Yeast - strain change, strain shift, Saccharomyces contamination
· Milling and mashing - new plant, plant optimisation
· Boil - new copper, new calandria, change in regime
· Fermentation – new vessels, FV shape change, temperature optimisation
· Conditioning – throughput optimisation
· Other - centrifuge, processing aids

Brewing is a complicated thing even for a brewer! I always drink with an open mind

Saturday 12 December 2009

The Panel Has Spoken

The results are in from the flavour panel Christmas tasting. Here’s how the individual beers were rated.

Sierra Nevada Kellerweis 6/10
Comments: Good attempt at Heffeweizen. Light and refreshing. Saccharine sweetness lacked bitterness and moreishness.

Abbaye Des Rocs Blanche de Honelles 7/10
Comments: Dry grainy aroma with spices not especially inviting, very complex taste. Feels much more alive and natural than the Kellerweis.

Belgium 1 – USA 0
Sierra Nevada Pale 5.1/10
Comments: Hops and not much else. Very and quick to finish and too bitter for the lady panellists.

Orval 6.1/10
Comments: Smells like cider incontinence pants.
Promising aroma let down by taste. Finish not good with saccharine and puckering bitterness. Unusual!

Belgium 2 – USA 0

Odell St Lupulin 5.9/10
Comments: Stunning hop rub aroma. Flavour lets the beer down. Harsh metallic middle and very little in finish. One dimensional.

Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux 8.7/10
Comments: Universally loved. Complex, alive, balanced dangerously moreish. Accomplished beer.

Belgium 3 – USA 0

Flying Dog Kerberos Tripel 6.9/10
Comments: Nice aroma of hops and grains. Good balance in the mouth. Pleasant bittersweet finish. A sound beer but nothing special.

Maredsous Tripel 8/10
Comments: Lovely fruit and alcohol aroma. Rich but balanced in the mouth. Wonderfully warming finish. Very good.

Belgium 4 – USA 0

Struise Pannepeut 6.9/10
Comments: Dark oxidised aroma. Thick earthy flavour. Dirty finish. Tastes like an ok homebrew. Cloying

Stone Double Bastard 7.6/10
Comments: Stunning hop and roast aroma. Tons of flavour. Too bitter and flavoursome for some of the panel.

Belgium 4 – USA 1

Dog Fish Head Palo Santa Marron 8.1/10
Comments: Smells like Parma Violets. Stunning aroma. Wine like body. Loads of flavour . Like drinking perfume

Dubuisson Bush Ambree 8.6/10
Comments: This is special! Far too drinkable for a 12% beer. Lovely hop flavour without the bitterness. Smashing!

Belgium 5 – USA 1

Summary of findings

US beers seemed more synthetic and the flavours were too brash. They almost seemed to be trying too hard to impress. The very highly hopped beers divided opinion some loved them, some hated them none of the panel were on the fence. The Belgian beers were more subtle and refined. The Belgian brewers seemed to be trying to make strong beer easier to enjoy whereas the US brewers seem to be engaged in a race to squeeze as much flavour into the beer as possible. The analogy used was Belgian beers were like eating a good homemade soup where as the US beers were like eating a stock cube.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Vin de Cereale

I wanted to resist the temptation to turn the blog into a beers I have tasted and liked blog because that is selfish. I will however just mention that during my Belgian trip I tasted the most exciting beer I have tried this year. I’m not going to go into detail about it. Rodenbach Vin de Cereale is just blindingly wonderful.

Oooooh yes!

Winter Berry Ale

I have just spent a very enjoyable day with the charming, interesting and debonair Adrian Tierney Jones making Sharp’s latest seasonal, Winter Berry Ale. Winter Berry Ale is so called because it’s matured with rose hip, hawthorn berries and sloes before racking. Adrian was treated to the full brewery experience. Lapsang in the lab, stories about the brewer’s I have maimed and a guided tour of the holes I have punched in my office wall.

The brew went very well and the wort tastes very promising. I had always presumed that beer writers would be strange creatures, Oscar Wilde-like bohemians, full of their own importance and deft prose. After spending the day with a few now I can honestly say they are just like you and I but just a little bit nicer!

I have promised to update Adrian on the progress of the brew. I’ll try to update my blog with the same.

Saturday 28 November 2009

New strongest beer in the world

Brewdog of the United States of Scotland have claimed the world’s strongest beer with Tactical Nuclear Penguin at 32% ABV.

This is very cool and great.

They have brewed a beer to 10% and then frozen and removed the water in it to concentrate the alcohol.

This is novel and radical.


I am planning my assault on the title of worlds strongest beer with an ingenious system for increasing the ABV. I’m going to heat the beer to 77.8oC until the alcohol evaporates. Then I’m going to catch the extra strong beer by cooling the vapour down. Just like freeze distillation it’s a new and totally legitimate way of brewing the world's strongest beer. I am considering maturing my extra strong beer in an oak cask for around 8 years. Haven't thought of a name for it yet. Any suggestions?

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Of the 329 days so far this year there have only been 10 days where I haven’t been in the brewery. While I love my brewery, being there for most of the day every day does lose its lustre after a while. In a week’s time not only am I going to have 3 whole days not at the brewery but these days are going to be in Belgium. I shall be enjoying good company, good food and most importantly great beer. So that I don't suffer complete brewery cold turkey I intend to spend some of my time in Belgium in breweries. On my tentative itinerary are Cantillon, Regenboog and Struise. Firmly on my itinerary are ‘t Brugs Beertje, Bier Circus and Den Dijver.

With impeccable timing my 2nd Brewer has come to work with a stinking cold. Despite eating almost all the Echinacea available in the UK and getting through a whole bottle of First Defence© per day I am now waiting for a cold to develop and rip my heart out.

Christmas Excitement

I’m getting excited about the flavour panel Christmas tasting. Every year I do a tutored tasting for the panel of a few of my favourite beers. I explain the technical aspects of how the beer is made and how this shapes how the beer tastes. This year I have added an extra twist to the tasting by choosing pairs of beers with similar characteristics/ABV from Belgium and USA.

The idea is not really to decide which brewing nation is the greatest but to illustrate the differences in attitude between the two. I’m sure however that panelists' preferences will come out on the night! The primary reason for the tasting of course is to educate the palate of the tasters. I have only ordered enough beer for tasting on day. Most of the bottles have already arrived at the brewery so I am trying desperately to resist the temptation to sample a few before event.

The beers are as follows, some are a fairer comparison than others:

Abbye de Rocs Blanche de Honelles Vs Sierra Nevada Kellerweis
Orval Vs Goose Island Pere Jaques
Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux Vs Odell St Lupulin
Morgaat Maredsous Tripel Vs Flying Dog Kerberos Triple
Struise Pannepot Vs Stone Double Bastard
Bush 12 Vs Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

I’ll update the blog with the findings of the tasting after the event. If I can remember that is.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

9000 and Counting

This morning’s brew was the 9000th since the brewery was set up and the 5946th since I was installed as Head Brewer. I have just calculated that we’ve made 122 million pints since the brewery was set up. 108 million of those made while I have been Head Brewer. By the end of today they’ll be 86,400 more in the bag. But always in brewing it’s the next brew that counts!

Friday 13 November 2009

Kazakhstan Grand IMperial Porter

It is the St Austell Brewery Celtic Beer Festival in a couple of weeks and I have been asked to donate a two beers. Roger (Ryman) gets to brew about 20 different exciting and different beers for the festival so I wanted to do something a bit special. At this almost-festive time of year, special translates as strong. Imperial Stouts are a style I have never had a go at before so this was the ideal opportunity. Imperial stout, also known as Russian Imperial Stout is a strong dark beer in the style that was brewed in 1796 by Thrale's brewery in London for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia as Thrale's Entire Porter. The beer is black and rich but the sweetness is cut through by the high alcohol concentration making it a wonderfully balanced drink. Modern US takes on the style have a very high hop content which adds another dimension to the flavour.

I wasn’t sure if my first attempt was going to be suitable for the court of Catherine II so another member of the former USSR seemed appropriate.

The beer has an ABV is 11% resulting from an original gravity of 1105. Two grades of crystal malt, black malt and chocolate malt provide the sweet roasted body. Glucose added steadily throughout fermentation gives the burn to break though this fullness. Hallertauer Northern Brewer, Perle, Brewer’s Gold, Northdown and Challenger hops provide 80EBUs of bitterness and resinous notes to the aroma.

I’m going to bottle a few cases as well. If you’re very lucky you may get to taste some.

I trust you like the pumpclip.

The Other Beer

I have been happily married to Sharp’s beers for over 7 years now. I feel as lucky today to be with them as I did when we first got together. This is the perfect marriage but there is one small matter which I prefer to keep from them.

I keep a mistress.

There is a beer which I fell in love with as a teenager which has stayed as fresh and beautiful to this day, despite huge growth as a brand. A beer which excites, soothes and makes even the worst event tolerable. Even All Bar One on Leicester Square with tedious company can be a haven of pleasure when clutching a glass of this beer. What beer is it that keeps me running back for more? It is quite appropriately the Duvel (Flemish for devil).

While many of the great Belgian beers have been neutered by expansions in production (Chimay, Hoegaarden, Westmalle to name a few) the Duvel has stayed beautifully consistent. No other beer that I am aware of marries consistency and with complexity and character while defining a whole style of beer. A beer so accessible to the ‘average drinker’ that it was available on Eurostar, a serious highlight of trans-channel train travel.

This story of my happy love triangle does unfortunately have a sad twist. The Wicked witches of Eurostar have stepped in and tried stop me being able to drink the Duvel en route to Brussels. For commercial reasons they have replaced my beautiful Belgian with the two chav slappers, Stella from Magor and Kroney from Reading.

All love stories have a happy ending. This one is no exception. I have found a secret compartment in my hand luggage which will accommodate bottles of Duvel. When I leave for Belgium in a couple of weeks I will be taking my faithful Duvel with me and there is nothing that the wicked witches of Eurostar can do about it.

Apart from refusing to let me travel that is.

Sunday 1 November 2009

I love my flavour panel

Every Friday at 2 PM the Sharp’s flavour panel convenes.

During my career I have been privileged enough to be on a broad range of taste panels. Most have consisted of the Brewers and anyone else who wants to have a free beer, standing in a sample room clutching pints of beer to top of their beer guts, saying things like “yes, uh huh and oh I agree” in response to the Head Brewer’s comments while edging ever closer to the back of his trousers. In the biggest brewery (factory) I worked at it was like all other aspects of working life; tense, political and competitive. The panel was designed to detect ‘off flavours’. As what we were tasting were PPLs (premium packaged lagers) any form of taste could be considered to be an off flavour. Hop, fruit or malt notes would not be welcome to the target consumer who had only purchased the bottle to go with his/her outfit. The winner of the flavour panel game was quickest to spout a list of chemicals like dimethylsulphide, 2,2,4 trimethyl furanone, vicinal diketone, trans-2-nonenal, 2-[2-[bis(carboxymethyl)amino]ethyl-(carboxymethyl)amino]ethanoic acid *(1)......... Win enough games and you would get a gold-edged high vis jacket and a key to the executive washroom.

Early flavour panels at Sharp’s were made up of Sales Team Members, the Head Brewer and the Accountant. After a couple of weeks of adhering to good practice the panels evolved into the opportunity to gossip and to wind up the Head Brewer to the point where the veins on his neck touched his pint glass.

In 2004 this changed when we sought the guidance of flavour evaluation specialist the excellent Dr Debbie Parker and a volunteer panel was recruited, screened and trained. People on brewery tours always greet the concept of taking part in a flavour panel with mirth and assume that I am inundated with volunteer alcoholics who turn up and down several pints of each batch before going to sleep on the malt sacks. In truth flavour panel selection is very sober affair with unsuccessful applicants not only finding out they can’t join the panel but also that there is something wrong with their sense of smell and taste. Taste isn’t like sight where something is either visible or not. Taste is very complicated and involves thresholds and flavour receptor specificities (sorry). Most humans assume that they can taste everything that everyone else can but most human tasting capabilities are either average or below.

So why do I love my flavour panel? I love them because they turn up every week, because they are honest, because they have excellent taste buds, because after 5 years of tasting the beer they know it like the back of their hands but mostly because they have the character and integrity to disagree with me when they need to!

The panel is made up of a 50/50 mix of ladies and men with ages ranging from late 20s to 50s all of whom have tasting and flavour articulating capabilities well above average (none of them as good as the Head Brewer!). Tasting is carried out and recorded independently before opinion is discussed and consensus reached. I say consensus but often this means agreement to disagree. Although the panelists all have an excellent palate there is variation in how each palate perceives the flavour of the same beer. The results of the panel are reconciled with the details of the brew and used to guide and refine how we make beer. Normally this is about maintaining the status quo but when new season’s hops and malt are introduced they are used to attain consistency in the context of change.

I’m sure that like me everyone reading this who enjoys a pint or two of Sharp’s beer now loves Philippa, Lynn, Jax, Debbie, John, Cliff, Steve, Les, Rod, Ian, Tris and Alan too.

*(1)chemists will have spotted my hilarious EDTA joke.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Fantastic Article

Zak Avery, current Beer Writer of the Year and my new best friend has written an excellent article for the Beer Pages website. Click the link to have a butchers.


I got my hands on some 2009 crop hops today. I’m very pleased with how they look. The past couple of years hop supply has ranged from nightmarish to poor and the quality of what was on offer was not the best. Prices are also slightly more sane than they have been of late but still not down to the levels we had a few years ago. Some of the US varieties (Willamette) are the cheapest I have ever known them this year. Today I sampled Hallertauer Brewer’s Gold from Germany and Bobek from Slovenia both of them were very nice. Just-harvested hops are really aromatic. Smelling them is like you are being cuddled by an angel. Can’t wait to brew with them. Luckily it won’t be long because they go into Nadelik, our Christmas beer which we are brewing next week. That reminds me, I’d better order some!

Saturday 24 October 2009

Gourmet Beer and Food

From 27th October my beers are being showcased at Trewithen Restaurant with an a la carte menu pairing them with Paul Murray's excellent food. Trewithen is a complete gem of a restuarant. They get everything right without trying to convince the world that good food is anything other than good food. I've got the honour of being there in the Friday night. Back of the net!

Here's the menu

Cornish gourmet menu perfectly partnered with
Sharp’s gourmet ales

Tuesday 27th till Friday 30th October
a la carte menu still available

Paul’s homemade breads & Trewithen butter
Caraway seed & sour dough
Grilled mackerel
on saffron risotto

Potato & garlic yarg soup
with one of Kate’s mini oggy’s (small pasty)
With Sharp’s Chalky’s Bite
Oven baked whole stuffed plaice
with mussels, prawns, spinach &
Cornish new potatoes
With Sharp’s Atlantic IPA

Tender loin of pork wrapped in Cornish coppa ham
apple, cider vinegar & rosemary,
with a spring onion mash

Sweet onion tart
our homemade basil pastry filled with sweet red & white onions
& glazed with St Endellion brie
With Sharp’s St Enodoc Double

Dark chocolate fondant
homemade clotted cream ice cream
With Sharp’s Massive Ale

Crushed blackberry ripple syllabub
almond tuiles
With Sharp’s Honey Spice Triple

£25.00 per person

Friday 23 October 2009

My Contentious Philosphy

I’ve been brewing for 15 years and I think I’ve arrived at a question. What am I trying to do?

What first inspired me to make beer was shite beer. It was keg at the rugby club that tasted of fizzy acid. It was cans of Norseman Lager from Tesco that must have cost the brewer several thousands in hospitality for the beer buyer. It was these beers and hundreds of others that made London Pride, Admans Extra and Duvel such a stunning revelation.

As a beer lover I followed the advice of Roger Protz, Michael Jackson and Tim Webb. I saught challenging, idiosyncratic beers made on a tiny scale and loved nearly everything I tried. The romance and history behind the great beers made the whole process of finding and consuming them almost magical. These were the days when the history was magical in itself and didn’t seem to need embroidery by marketers

Throughout my training as a brewer I followed the path of science of production management best practice and grew to love balance and ‘commerciability’ in flavour. I learned that clear and clean is best. As a practicing brewer I learned to respect the ability to create and achieve this balance consistently within the contexts of changing circumstances.

The apparent conflict between idiosyncrasy and balance brings me to the question which I ask myself today. Am I trying to get a number one single or win the Turner Prize? Does there need to be a compromise?

For trained brewers of the yesteryear life appears to me to have been easier. Most were biochemistry graduates looking for something to do for a career. You loved the beer you made and enjoyed your job. Your world was fairly insular and your focus was on ‘your’ beer.

Nowadays we have the sexy brewers who are driven by the need to innovate to reinvent beer with wild and exciting ingredients and processes. Beer made with malt and hops which tastes of beer is no longer cool. Good beer must be brewed with 10kilos of hops per pint, be spiced with the stamens from an Icelandic orchid, be fermented to 18% ABV upside down in a supersonic jet, before being matured for 3 years in an old sherry cask covered in puffin shite half way up Mount Everest. It helps if it's called Crack Whore on a Skateboard.

I’m all for innovation but only when it makes delicious beer. There seems to be a growing enclave of the beer enthusiasts who seek difference for difference’s sake and for whom the process seems to be more important than the product. Is the world of beer at risk of becoming like the world of art where the top prize (Turner Prize) is awarded to what the vast majority of people consider to be complete bollocks?

Do wine producers of the world, seek to achieive greatness by making wine out of pumpkins and watermelons before spicing it with anchovies?

My raison d’ĂȘtre as a brewer is to make great beers which appeal to true connoisseurs but at the same time are accessible to the average drinker. Nice drinks in their own right. I don’t like bullshit and I don’t like mass appeal dross so I don’t want to make that. To me an insipid commodity lager is no worse than a beer brewed on a small scale with care and passion which tastes like sipping a Glade Plug in.

Thursday 22 October 2009

It's New and Exciting

This is it. The first post in my new blog. I've got to be up in five hours so it's a quick one. I am embarking on an exciting journey in which my very soul will be open for all to browse.