Saturday 31 July 2010

Orval Part Un

When I was about 20 I used to take Michael Jackson to bed. That’s not as dodgy an image as it sounds and in any case at least I was above the age of consent. After the drudgery of a day spent with my head in a boiler and a freezing night on the training pitch being beaten up by semi professional thugs, Michael would take me to a magical kingdom, of lush forests, (sans Panzers), imposing abbeys and monks making beer according to a noble tradition. To normal people this image is romantic, to a man who had recently fallen head over heals in love with beer, it was intoxicating beyond words. My aching frame was transported to rest on a boat crossing a lake of rich ale piloted by a rosy-cheeked friar.

It’s now 17 years on and I’m a hardened commercial brewer making half a million pints a week with a lot of living under his belt. Even so the romance of monastic brewing still sends my heart aflutter. When the opportunity to gain intimate access to this world of wonder presented itself I can’t remember being more excited. I think I am perhaps even more excited in 2010 because now I can understand what makes Trappist beer unique more deeply.

The trip began in the Betjeman Arms with a pint of my Betjeman Ale and meeting up with ATJ. ATJ was invited along to record the trip for posterity. I wouldn’t have trusted myself to remember the fine details when wired with the anticipated excitement. ATJ is a man with a mind like an electric eel whose ability to digress tenfold from a line of conversation before veering back to his original point without losing any of its sense of purpose, I am sure is his skill alone. He is also the most stimulating and fascinating company available to any beer lover and knows good craich better than most.

As a warm up to our trip to Orval we spent an evening in Brussels. The highlight of this was some of the world’s finest (in my humble) cuisine a la biĆ©re preceded by a litre of unblended Drie Fontenien lambic at In ‘t Spinnekopke, As with every other evening I have spent in Brussels it was a late and towards the end hazily-remembered one. I do remember a bar called Homo Erectus catching ATJ’s eye on the way back to the hotel. As I was on my way up to bed I remember him saying he was going out to buy some stamps before disappearing back up the road....

The train journey down to Florenville was a long but thanks to ATJ an entertaining and interesting one. Subjects as diverse as the Von Runstedt Offensive and the early works of Transvision Vamp were covered quite comprehensively in conversation. They were however mere punctuation of enthusiastic but not always harmonious beer-themed dialogue. It seemed like moments before we were stranded at Florenville station which is a shed with windows at the end of a residential street, in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to the taxi number written in permanent marker on the station window and my Cocknais (bad French in a cockney accent) we arrived at Abbye Notre-Dame d'Orval an hour before the arranged meeting time.

And so, I was there, that place the Michael used to take me to. That place which was so magical that it could never live up to expectations. Being there in these circumstances, expectations could only ever have been surpassed. It was a bit like I was walking onto the Thomson Holidays advert (my blog contains too many TV references) where a team of dedicated individuals make everything just-right. The weather was warm but not oppressive. The lake in front of the Abbey had a fine mist across it seemingly underlining its naturally mystic quality. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the rosy-cheeked friar had beckoned ATJ and I on to his boat at that point. I won’t try to describe the Abbey or how it made me feel because I couldn’t begin to convey it. I am not normally one for architecture and tend to be moved by corporeal or olfactory beauty but Orval was captivatingly beautiful. It had an almost organic beauty. Maybe the hand of the god that I don’t believe in was involved in its creation?

It was now only minutes until my audience with Jean-Marie and the way I felt reminded me of a cross between the panic you feel as you walk into a job interview and the excitement I felt when I queued up to get into my first Napalm Death gig. As we turned the corner following the signs for “Brasserie” I heard the unmistakable sound of what we brewers call smallpack. I had been worried since I heard that I was “in” that I would reach a point where excitement would get the better of me and I would fail to function. As we walked into the Orval loading bay I was teetering on the edge of being there. Fortunately a waft of conveyor sanitiser transported me back to a nightshift of watching Fosters being bottled at Reading and that took the edge off. There was something a bit James Bond about this place. A state of the art packaging line housed in a neo-medieval Ardennes abbey, top secret excellence but in this case on the side of the good guys.

More exemplary cocknaise avec the brewery secretary saw our arrival announced to Jean-Marie and there he was, the bloke from the pictures on the internet, my soon-to-be brewing hero.

The picture above shows Jean-Marie listening politely as Stuart “goes off on one” about some passion or other.

Another installment will follow soon…………………………….

Friday 30 July 2010

Radical Juxtaposition 75% ABV

Don't tell anyone but through the entirely legitimate method of reverse osmosis I have pushed the ABV of an Larch-Aged Imperial Rauch Lambic Kolsch Stout up to 75%. I intend to call it Radical Juxtaposition -the Cataclysm of Caudate Lobe  and sell it for £5k in a tartan colostomy bag to discerning and intelligent people.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Jellyfish Red

I did intend to be doing some work on my thesis tonight but Microsoft decided to change Excel and Word to make pasting graphs onto a word document more annoying than an episode of The Hills. To save my sanity and laptop I decided to do a post about a beer I have brewed to simultaneously upset and delight Oz Clarke on Sunday. It is a red ale brewed with the Jellyfish Aurelia. Oz apparently hates them.

I recently watched a documentary on jellyfish on Channel Five. You know the type of documentary with only 8 facts which are strewn out over an hour with lots of overly-dramatic music, repetitive images, effects and an overexcited voiceover from the bloke who does detergent ads. After each set of adverts there is a 10 minute recap of the 2 facts introduced in the first quarter of the programme along with the same music and images. In effect knowledge has been eaten and digested by the American production company and then defecated out into your mouth in a brown sausage of children’s TV for retarded adults. How stupid do you have to be to still be interested in the subject by the end of the programme?

The Jellyfish, which isn’t actually a fish, is a ball of protein and seawater with no brain and a common hole serving as a mouth and an anus(insert Channel Five joke here). I followed the same principles as with seawater mild in this beer using the sea salts to work with the liquor salts to add roundness. The protein from the jellyfish also comes in handy to boost the free amino nitrogen in the wort and allow me to use some extra glucose to dry up the finish without risking a stuck fermentation.

The jellyfish was picked up from Polzeath beach and added to the kettle as the wort was collected to make use of the proteolytic enzymes from the mash not yet denatured by the sparge. The beer is fruity with a very moreish dry finish. Dangerously moreish for an 8.8% beer.

Tech Spec:


Malt: pale ale, roasted wheat, 140 crystal, roasted barley

Hops: Northern Brewer, Perle, Bobek

Yeast: Sharp’s

Spices: Jellyfish

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Flavour Compound of Last Month - 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole

It seems like a lifetime since I was blogging. One day I will tell you all about the dark place that I have been, until then it will haunt me like a pale moon in a summer sky.

I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending that I have kept to my blog brew schedule but I will start brewing them again next week and will catch back up by brewing a few a week for a couple of weeks. I should be back on track by September.

This week’s flavour compound is 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (2,4,6-T) which if you are a wine lover you will know as cork taint. It is described as having a musty “damp basement” aroma and is perceptible in beer in concentrations as low as 0.094 parts per trillion (ng/litre). In wine the 2,4,6-T comes from the cork, in beer the water supply is the culprit. If the brewery uses chlorinated water 2,4,6-T is produced when chlorine reacts with dissolved organic carbon such as dead algae, bacteria or fragments thereof. 2,4,6-T is particular problem in breweries in the developing world where water is scarce and water treatment less effective.

I have heard anecdotal evidence that mustiness in general is found at higher concentrations around washing lines in the M4 corridor than anywhere else in the UK (careful Adrian).

Friday 23 July 2010

Cream coloured ponies and crisp apple streudels

I am hopefully now advancing towards the light in the brewery and normal blog service should be resumed before too long. Thank you to everyone for your encouragement, support, acts of hari-kiri, beer and fruit baskets. I am alas unable to leave the brewery for the foreseeable future so I apologise in advance to everyone I had agreed to meet up with before, during and after the GBBF trade session for my non appearance. I am particularly gutted about missing the GBBF because I was invited to judge the Champion Beer of Britain for the first time this year.

I will be popping out of the brewery to meet up with Oz Clarke and Hugh Dennis next week. They are co starring with me in a TV beer tasting at Watergate Bay. I have been challenged to create a beer using their two least favourite comestibles and still make it palatable. I have made a red ale with jelly fish for Oz and an oyster stout for Hugh. The oyster beer will be the blog seafood stout. I am pleased with both of the beers. I hope they are too.

Happiness is a contented flavour panel.

Saturday 3 July 2010

I am still at the bottom of a deep dark trench blanketed with fear and pain so no time or liberty to post anything substantial.

The only thing to mention is that a couple of experimental beers are to be appearing at the Chelmsford Beer Festival. They are the blog brew Honey, Ginger and Oat Strong Ale and Petite Massive. The Petite Massive is a lower ABV (6%) version of my bottled barley wine Massive Ale. Not all that petite but more petite than the original.

If you go I hope that you enjoy them.