Apr 29, 2014

Ummm... maybe we will take some porter after all?

It seems that the pendulum swung back towards London porter after the heady days of 1826-7 when colonial beer and ale was selling so well that merchants were telling their London agents to slow down on sending porter. For some reason, the local breweries had slowed or even ceased their brewing between 1828-9.

The North-South comparison I posted the other day noted that Dudgeon & Bell and William Barnes had gotten their respective breweries churning out the good stuff in 1826 after something of a lull in beer production in the colony. I speculated that a shortage of ingredients was the problem but it looks like I was probably wrong about that. So now I have no idea what caused it, or this:

Originally from the Colonial Times but
reproduced in The Sydney Gazette,
January 16, 1829

They had the equipment, ingredient and environment on their side so why were they not brewing?Dudgeon's was successful and widely praised, what would make him reduce production? It's doesn't seem to be a financial problem. Dudgeon was paying 10 shillings per pound for colonial hops when he started up in 1826 so 3 shillings per pound is a brilliant price. Whatever the reason, colonists who could afford to were paying £2-3 more per hogshead for imported porter and those who couldn't drank spirits or whatever they could make themselves.

I guess this is just part of the disorganised and chaotic life of the early colony but it's bugging me. Need more details!

Apr 28, 2014

Thanks, but no thanks to London porter

Ha! My speculation about the long absence of Barclay Perkins from Launceston - that the local beer was too popular - now has some evidence to support it.

Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser,
October 12, 1827

It wasn't just Launceston, the whole state seemed pick local brews based on their evaluation of the cost/quality/availability equation. It doesn't necessarily mean that the local beer was always better but it does indicate that the imported stuff wasn't worth the extra cost. I feel a bit proud.

The 'this we are happy to hear' is significant. Imported beer was expensive and more importantly, it saw the money sail away as the boat the beer came on left port. In the absence of actual coin, rum became the de facto currency to pretty disastrous social consequences. As if a colony that was 75% male and had a high proportion of ex criminals wasn't bad enough. Anyway, the solution as many saw it was to promote local breweries and the growing of barley and hops. Keep money circulating in the colony and reduce the problems associated with excessive consumption of spirits. Good solution, it's probably worth a try now, too.

Apr 27, 2014

Hobart vs Launceston: beer quality in 1826

The Hobart vs Launceston rivalry is a Tasmanian tradition. I assume it goes all the way back to an insignificant incident around the time of the founding of Launceston in 1804. It's pretty ridiculous really, the smaller the population, the more important the dividing lines seem to be. There's a great little article in the Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser that suggests this rivalry was in play by 1826 at least. It keeps things polite though, the main purpose is to be comment on the resumption of work at the local breweries and distilleries though it moves from there to talk about the quality of the beer as well.

This excerpt and the ones that follow are from:
Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser,
December 15, 1826

The article gives no explanation for the cessation of brewing, presumably it's well enough known in the colony to not be worth mentioning. My hunch is that it's related to a lack of ingredients, I can't think of another reason why they'd actually stop brewing beer and distilling spirits. Even then though, it's surprising given the extensive use of various sugars among NSW and even some Tasmanian breweries at the time. I'll try to find out more about it another time.

Quick! Someone in Launceston start a faux craft brewery
built around the history of Barnes!

The comparison between the North and South is fascinating (I'm using that word way too much in these history posts). Actually, it's really a comparison between two breweries, the Derwent Brewery under the management of Dudgeon and Bell and the Port Dalrymple Brewery under the management of Barnes. There were several other breweries in Hobart at least but the article hints that these two are the only ones to have resumed operations at that stage. The good news is that in contrast to beer brewed in NSW at the time, both breweries were producing high quality brews.

Very good but not the best. C'mon Hobart, lift
your game!

To the enduring shame of my people the Launceston beer is said to be superior to the Hobart ale. The main factor seems to be the alcohol content and age of the beer, the punters preferring something with a bit more strength than the Derwent Brewery was providing. I've come across a number of references that seem to connect strength and quality and sometimes even treat them as synonymous. That puts the 19th century beer drinking public in a similar place to the Ratebeer top 50 list which features DIPAs, strong Belgians and imperial stouts prominently. Despite a vocal session beer contingent strength and quality still seem to be pretty tightly connected in the minds of most.

The Port Dalrymple beer is so good that the author says people in Launceston and the surrounding area are mostly drinking the beer produced by Barnes. They're even choosing his beer over London porter! I wonder if that's a factor in the absence of Barclay Perkins from Launceston until the 1840s?

A useful little detail in the mix is a comparison of the price of the Derwent beer to that of the London porters. At less than a third of the cost of London porter, it's not hard to see why people would be drinking it if the quality was there. The author praises the customer service of the Derwent Brewery as well as their provision of cheap but good table beer, an important social issue at the time. He'd just like them to brew something a bit stronger as well.

While Barnes was focussed on supplying the North of the state, Dudgeon and Bell were exporting their Derwent ales to NSW. It's pretty early on for that kind of thing to be happening but given the struggles they were having in Sydney to brew palatable beer, I guess it made sense for the Tasmanian breweries with enough capacity to be exporting. I've found a few other references to Tasmanian beer being exported but that's for another post.

So Launceston won the battle but the big thing to note is that the overall beer quality in Tasmania, even in the early days of the colony, was very high. Chalk that up to the favourable climate. The other thing worth comment is that the resumption of brewing and distilling in the state was news worth reporting. Newspapers from the time are such good resources and we get little insights into the scene like this one because alcohol was such an important issue at the time. Without this, the beer history of 19th century Australia would be virtually non-existent. Granted that's not quite on par with the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but it'd be a shame to be missing these fun little stories.

All this ties in nicely with our new homebrew club. We're planning on having a state competition and because of our state rivalry, having a North-South derby incorporated into the comp. Maybe the competition should be for the 'Dudgeon-Barnes Trophy'?

Apr 26, 2014

Colonial homebrew again - Hobart 1823

I keep posting homebrew recipes from the 1800s and this isn't the last one. I find it fascinating that there's so much written evidence of the recipes and methods people were using to brew their own beer from nearly 200 years ago. It gives insight into the ways people tried to deal with the climate and the shortage or high costs of normal beer ingredients. This one is the earliest colonial homebrew recipe I've been able to find; from Hobart this time. It's similar to the NSW one I posted the other day so I won't comment on it too much.

From the Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen's Land Journal,
March 1823

The climate wasn't so much a problem for brewing in Tasmania so I'm assuming that this recipe was born of a desire to minimise costs or deal with shortages of malt. The treacle or molasses would have made the brew very dark and also very dry. I'm not sure what the wheat bran would contribute if anything in terms of fermentables. Sounds like the kind of beer you brew and drink because it's got alcohol in it rather than for taste. Actually, it's probably not too far off a kit & kilo brew with all added sugar would be like.

Also, I'm glad we've moved past the technique of straining with a hair sieve.

Apr 25, 2014

Barclay Perkins in Australia 1821-1840

This time I've got a story about a couple of guys visiting Parramatta from Sydney in 1827 and some details about the availability of Barclay Perkins in Sydney, Hobart and Launceston.

First, the story. A couple of mates set out on horseback for a daytrip from Sydney to Parramatta. I'm not sure why it was worth including in the newspaper but for history's sake I'm glad they did. The part that's relevant to this blog is in the bar at their destination:

A little after 2 p. m. I found myself with my friend
Oddfish in a snug parlour at Walker's Hotel, admiring
the excellence and enjoying the luxury of a glass of
Barclay and Perkins'-ordered corn for the horses
-at 3 p. m. dinner on table-- roast beef, pigeon pye,  
custard, and good madeira. No disagreeable matters
to discuss by two cockneys after a journey of 15 or 16

The story is relatively long and not very well told but that reference to the 'luxury of a glass of Barclay and Perkins' is interesting. I've reproduced the whole thing at the end of the post for those who are interested and don't begrudge the extra reading.

The particular beer isn't identified. It's likely to have been the Porter although it could also have been the double brown stout that is referenced a number of times in newspapers. I really like the image of these cockney blokes having the chance to sit down after their journey with a beer from home. The luxury might refer to the taste of home but it's likely a comment on the rarity and cost of drinking a London Porter in the colony. There's a sequence following the above quote where they have to find someone to lend them money so they could pay for their beer and meal which suggests it cost them a bit more than they were expecting.

The early colonial newspapers are really useful sources of information. Aside from the occasional narrative like that one, the classifieds list the availability of just about anything that was imported. The first reference I can find to Barclay Perkins in Australia is in the snippet below, in 1821 Sydney. It's certainly possible that Barclay Perkins was available in the 20 years prior to this but at least we know for certain that it was sporadically available in the 1820s.

The Sydney Gazette & NSW Advertiser, December 1, 1821

Looking through the records it seems that ships arrived in November 1821, December 1823, August 1825, April 1828 and then a bit more regularly between 1829 and the 1830s. Mostly the ads are for their double brown stout and porter but in 1832 we get mention of their East India ale and in 1834 their pale ale, and in 1836, their export stout, 1837 their strong ale and 1839 their super strong ale.

The Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, October 30, 1832

The first reference to Barclay Perkins in Hobart is from 1822. There are occasional references to brown stout in advertising prior to that which could be BP in disguise. There's more in 1823 (superior brown stout) and 1828 but like Sydney, the supply wasn't very regular. The fire that destroyed the London Brewery did get a mention in The Hobart Town Courier in 1832.

Imperial Double Stout Porter?!! Barclay & Perkins know
how to sell beer to beer geeks in 2014. Hobart Town 
Gazette and Van Dieman's Land Enquirer,
December 21, 1822

One of the suspicious brown stouts I was referring to.
Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter,
August 21, 1820

Weirdly, I can't find any references to Barclay Perkins being available in Launceston until 1849. I'm not sure why it should be any different to the other colonial outposts of Hobart and Sydney. It's not hard to find references to Taylor's double brown stout in the 1820s and Truman's in the 1830s among others but no Barclay Perkins. Why was that?

Full reproduction of AN EXCURSION TO PARRAMATTA after the jump:

Apr 20, 2014

Western Australian Homebrew Recipe - 1834

A second colonial homebrew recipe. This time on the other side of the country but still using a fairly large percentage of sugar. Found in The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 11 January, 1834, less than 5 years after the colony on the Swan River was established.

The following is a very valuable recipe especially for farmers who have many house-servants, and for labourers who would have a cheap and nourishing beer. It may be done by boiling the water in a washing copper, or even a large tea kettle, and drawing out the virtue of the malt in any clean pans or tubs about the house. Either large or small quantities may be brewed, only observing the same proportions :-put one peck of barley or of oats into an oven just after baking, or a frying pan, just to steam off the moisture, and dry it well, but on no account to burn the grain; then grind or bruise it roughly. Boil 2 1/4 gallons of water, and when it has stood ten minutes (or so hot as to pain the finger sharply), put in the grain-mash it well, and let it stand three hours; then drain it off. Boil two gallons more water, which pour on the grains (rather hotter than before, but not boiling), and mash them well, let it stand two hours and drain it off: mash the grains again well with two gallons more water, and in one hour and a half draw it off. The three worts will be about five gallons. Then mix 7 lbs. of treacle in 5 gallons of water, and boil the whole ten gallons with 4 ounces of hops, for one hour and a half, taking care to stir it so long as the hops float on the top; let it cool, and when about milk warm take a good tea cupful of yeast, and stir it well together, beginning with about a gallon of wort at a time; let it ferment for l8 hours in a tub covered with a sack; put it into a nine gallon cask, and keep it well filled; bung it up in three days, and in 14 days it will be good sound fine beer, equal in strength to London Porter. If you cannot get treacle, take 5 lbs. of the cheapest and darkest sugar you can get.

This one is significantly different to the first recipe I found. It actually uses barley for a start (or oats). It also uses less hops but boils them for much longer, around 2.5g/L boiled for 90 minutes.

It also calls for an addition of yeast, the other one left that out so I'm assuming it was working on spontaneous fermentation. This one calls for a tea cup full of yeast, drastic underpitching in this day and age but probably good enough for then.

The way it goes about the mash is a little odd and I'm not actually sure that the barley or oats it describes were malted. The roasting in the oven could potentially destroy the enzymes and make conversion either slow or impossible. The mashing instructions also seem problematic. 10 minutes off the boil is way too hot for the probably non existent enzymes to function. I guess if the grain isn't malted but gets browned, it might just be contributing colour and flavour rather than a significant amount of fermentables. From what I can tell, we're talking about 4-5kg of grain in about 40 litres of beer.

Overall the instructions are for something more recognisably like beer than the last one but it's still not something I'd be in a rush to go out and brew. I guess what both these recipes are doing is showing what people were trying to do in response to the climate and with the limited ingredients at their disposal. Homebrew wasn't a luxury or a hobby like it is for us, it was about providing for yourself and your family or being thrifty in much the same way that growing veggies or having chooks would be.

All is not lost though! I've got a couple more colonial homebrew recipes up my sleeve and one of them actually seems like it'd be really good.

Apr 19, 2014

Brewday: Fine Detail Table Sour

I was planning on brewing a Christmas Ale with Luke today but my memory betrayed me and I completely forgot about growing up some yeast for the beer. I'm secretly happy about that though because I've been wanting to brew some sours for a while and this gave me the perfect opening. I originally started this blog thinking that brewing sours would be a significant part of it but along the way I got distracted by all the shiny pale ales and IPAs and all kinds of other things. Anyway, I'm back on case and hopefully I'll manage to brew new ones regularly so I can keep up a good supply.

The most excited I've been about one of my beers was a sour I brewed back in 2012 and bottled sometime last year. I dry hopped 1/2 of the batch with some Simcoe. The result was brightly sour and fruity with a funk that gave it a real twist. That first bottle absolutely did my head in, I remember just sitting there and smelling it for ages. Although it was 6.8% ABV, the alcohol was completely hidden which made it dangerous to drink and a bit much for my preferences. For this one I'm shooting for something in a similar style but a bit lower in alcohol.

It's a simple recipe, just pils malt, wheat malt and a small dose of hops. The idea of the grist is really to provide a home for the yeast and bacteria rather than contribute a huge amount of flavour. I'm hoping it'll have a nice bright sourness like the last batch but with something like 3.5% ABV to keep it a bit lighter. I'm planning on letting it develop in the fermenter and then probably dry hopping most of it with some Galaxy for that passionfruit and citrus character to go with the bright acidity.

Luke came around anyway and helped me with the brew. It was all nice and easy with the smaller batch but I didn't take into account how much more vigorous the boil would be with the lower volume of wort. That meant that I had way more evaporation than I expected and coupled with higher than expected efficiency (86%!) meant that I've got 10 litres of wort at 1.040. I'm thinking I might top off the fermenter after fermentation has died down. That should take it to 1.035.

We also bottled the Tmavý Ležák after a month spent lagering. It's black with brilliant red highlights and seems to be lovely and clear. The flavour is crisp and loaded with cocoa and complex malt. I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

In its cupboard home for the next
8-14 months
Fine Detail Table Sour (10L batch)
OG: 1.030 (1.040 measured)
FG: 1.005
IBU: 6
EBC: 4
ABV: 3.3%

91% Dingemans pilsner malt
9% Best Malz wheat malt

1g/L Saaz @ 60 minutes
3g/L Galaxy @ dry hop

WLP530 + dregs from a previous sour + bottle dregs

  • Stepped mash: 65C (45 minutes), 72C (15 minutes) and a 78C mash out
  • Lactic acid for mash pH
  • Calcium

  • 90 minute boil
  • 10g Saaz @ 60 min
  • 1/2 tab whirlfloc @ 10 min

  • Pitched an estimated 85 billion cells of WLP530, dregs of a previous sour and dregs of a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze.
  • Fermentation is just going to happen at ambient temperatures, in Hobart at the moment we're looking at 17-18C as the daily maximum over the next week or so.
  • It'll sit in my cupboard for around 6 months before I give it a taste and see where it's at. Once it's ready to bottle, I'll dry hop 5 days.

Apr 18, 2014

Colonial Style Homebrew & James Squire

I've found some fun stuff as I've been working my way through references to beer and brewing in the early years of the colonies. Lately I've discovered a few home brew recipes which I'll post up here over the next week or two. This first recipe was published in The Australian in Sydney, 1832. From the description, it sounds like it would make something almost, but not quite entirely, unlike beer.

[We give the following approved recipe, for the convenience of families residing in the country.] 
To make Ale and Porter for a Half-sum— Take ten pounds of small sifted bran, one pound and a quarter of hops, twenty-five pounds of brown sugar. Boil the bran in twenty-five gallons of water for two hours, then strain, dissolve the sugar in four or five gallons of the bran water, and skim it while any impurities arise, then add the hops, and boil, for five minutes more, not longer; then strain and press it well through the cloth; then put it into the cask, and fill it up with the hot bran water; then mash it for half an hour, letting it flow out at the bottom, and pouring it in at the top of the cask. — N. B. The addition of ten ounces of bruised liquorice, with half an ounce of sliced gentian root, and two tea spoonsful of salt of steel to the above, will make good porter. The cask should be placed on its end, with a cock about three inches from the bottom and a hole of about one inch in diameter in the centre of the top. 
The fermentation will commence almost immediately and continue briskly till all the sugar is decomposed. During this period the hole at the top of the cask should be left open, but at the expiration of this time, generally about a fortnight,the cask should be bunged up, but the bung re-moved for a minute or two every second day, for another fortnight, when the whites and shells often eggs should be added as in fining wine, after which it should be finally closed up for about three weeks, when it will be fit to bottle or drink.The sugar and bran afford a most excellent substitute for malt, six pounds of sugar being equal to a bushel of malt. The greater or lesser degree of strength of the liquor will depend on the quantity of sugar used; the above gives a tolerably strong, and pleasant beverage.— South African Advertiser.
4.5kg of bran, 11.5kg of brown sugar and 550g hops @ 5 minutes with a brew length of about 130 litres, how could that go wrong? It's hard to imagine that this recipe would produce beer that was even close to pleasant. Add some bruised liquorice, gentian root and salt of steel and I'm sure you've got some kind of incredible not-really-porter on your hands.

One of the problems for early settlers was that malt and hops had to be imported from the UK, were expensive and not always available and imported beer was relatively expensive. The other, for those in NSW where this recipe came from, was that the hot climate and lack of pure yeast cultures meant that all malt beers went sour super quickly.

To deal with these problems, lots of beer was brewed with most or all of the fermentables coming from sugar. The sugar was cheap and would ferment out nearly completely, robbing any bacteria present of the chance to sour the beer too much. The image below is part of an account of colonial beer and gives a picture of brewing practice and drinking habits as well as calling out James Squire who had died 10 years before it was written.

The Sydney Monitor, 29 Feb, 1832

(It's a bit unfortunate for the modern James Squire brand that they chose to name themselves after someone who was more about marketing than brewing good beer. Not that they let history get in the way of their stories.)

In Sydney at this stage, about 73 000 litres of this 'beer' was brewed each week, more in summer. It was brewed one day and began to be served in pubs the next, long before it had fully fermented. The sweetness of the unfermented sugar made it more palatable for consumers and the beer didn't have time to get sour.

So in that light I guess the homebrew recipe makes some sense, especially for those living outside of Sydney, even if it doesn't sounds like a great drink.

Apr 17, 2014

Brewday: Celebration Ale with Juniper

My mate Dan and his wife Miranda are having their 4th baby in a couple of months so Dan and I got together to brew a beer to commemorate the event. It's fun to work on brewing something with Dan, he's the one who gave me my first taste of craft beer - a Little Creatures Pale Ale - and introduced me to lots of fun beer experiences. We ended up brewing a strong English ale with Juniper, not the kind of beer that's right in my wheelhouse but it's fun to try something new even if there is some risk of disaster.

Mikkeller's Hoppy (Happy) Lovin' IPA was where we began when we started talking about a recipe - more for the inspiration of using pine needles in the brew than to recreate it. We wanted something a bit different and special. In my mind something called a celebration ale needs to have a decent level of alcohol without veering into the high alcohol range. 7-8.5% ABV is about right for me. It should also be rich and malty. I guess something in the bock family or strong ale is where I would normally go for this kind of thing. Anyway, I decided to push it in the direction of a strong English ale, malty but with enough bitter heft to carry it. We could have used pine needles but to make it a bit more Dan and Miranda I decided that juniper would be a fun way to work in that sharp, piney flavour. Juniper is something that pregnant women need to avoid and also one of the flavourings of gin, another thing Miranda had to give up once she got pregnant.

So with that stuff in mind, I drew up my recipe. Maris Otter, with some light crystal and biscuit malt for the grist, East Kent Goldings for the hopping and WY1469 as the yeast. We got some dried juniper berries and added 20g of partly crushed berries to the urn at flameout. I originally was planning on 30g but on the day we decided to play it safe and add more into the fermenter if necessary.

The brewing itself was pretty straight forward and relatively easy for me since I had Dan and Will around all day and Luke and Huw for parts of the time. We ended up losing a few litres thanks to the tap getting clogged with bits of juniper but I'm not too fussed about volume.

No. 4 Celebration Ale (20L batch)
OG: 1.076 (1.074 measured)
FG: 1.020
IBU: 48
EBC: 17.3
ABV: 7.2%

94% Maris Otter
3% Light crystal
3% Dingeman biscuit

2.75g/L East Kent Golding @ 60 min (32 IBU)
1.9g/L East Kent Golding @ 30 min (15 IBU)

1g/L juniper berries @ flame out (10 minute steep)


  • Stepped mash: 65C (45 minutes), 72C (15 minutes) and a 78C mash out
  • 2g CaSO4, 10g CaCl2, 3g MgSO4 to raise the calcium as always and to raise the malt enhancing chloride level
  • 4ml lactic acid for pH correction

  • 60 minute boil
  • 55g East Kent Goldings @ 60 minutes
  • 38g East Kent Goldings @ 30 minutes
  • 1/2 tab whirlfloc @ 10 minutes
  • 20g juniper @ 0 minutes

  • Oxygenated for 90 seconds
  • Pitched a 1.7L starter of WY1469 with an estimated 350 billion cells of yeast
  • Began fermentation @ 17C

12/04/14 - Brewed with Dan, Will, Luke & Huw

16/04/14 - Tasted a sample, malty with a sharp pine from the juniper which melds with the bitterness. Very promising.

Apr 16, 2014

Guiness Porter in Hobart - 1868?

As I've sifted through Tasmanian newspaper advertisements from the 19th century I've seen plenty of names I'm familiar with: Truman, Whitbread, Barclay Perkins, Allsopp and several more. There are also a bunch of names I've not recognised which isn't shocking, there were plenty of breweries and I'm new to this beer history thing.

The Mercury, 13 November, 1868

So I didn't think much of it when I came across ads for Blood, Wolfe & Co choice porter. Well, beyond thinking they were obviously a vampire law firm as well as a brewery.

Later on I did a bit of searching to see who they were and what they brewed. It turns out that they brewed nothing. Here's an interesting little snippet:

From Guinness: The 250 Year Quest for the Perfect Pint

So it looks like the same thing was happening in Australia, bottling a beer from the barrel and selling it off as their own. I wonder how many other names I've come across are just the names of the people who bottled/exported the beer? The paragraph goes on to talk about how in Adelaide they were brewing a pretty ordinary stout and then selling it as Guinness. Classy move, Adelaide.

I managed to find references to Guinness being sold in Hobart in the 1890s so I guess they'd managed to sort things out by then.

I wonder why the Allsopp beers mentioned in the same advertisement didn't get the same rebranding treatment?

Apr 14, 2014

First look at Hobart & Launceston beer in the early 19th century

Inspired by Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and the joy I've had drinking the 1834 porter I brewed in February, I wanted to see what I could find about what was available to drink in Tasmania in the 1800s.

John Glover's 'Hobart Town as Viewed from my Garden, 1832'

Hobart Town Courier, 5 July, 1828

Hobart Town Courier, 8 November 1828

It turns out that in the first decades of the settlement of Hobart, when beer was available, they were drinking London porters and stouts, Burton ales and IPAs from breweries like Truman, Barclay Perkins, Allsopp, Bass, Charrington and Reid. No big deal, just some of the best breweries of the time.

It seems to be a pretty decent volume as well given that the total population of Hobart was under 20 000 at the time.

Hobart Town Courier, 29 June, 1832

I haven't had a chance to look into it much but just a quick look suggests that at least in 1854 Launceston had heaps of imported beer available as well. Some of the highlights are Allsopp's pale ale, Truman's XX stout, Whitbread's porter and Dantzic spruce beer.

Cornwall Chronicle, 10 June, 1854

It's a surprise to me that not only could they drink London porter or Burton ale but they could choose which brand they preferred. I guess I've been so conditioned to think about the hardships that the early colony faced, that the idea of being able to choose between Truman and Barclay Perkins seems like incredible luxury. There's heaps more info to slowly sift through and I'm sure there'll be some more fun stuff to come.

Apr 4, 2014

John Kimmich & Becoming a Better Brewer

When someone like John Kimmich is speaking, the immediate impulse of homebrewers - even those like me who haven't actually managed to taste the celebrated Heady Topper - is to search for details. How do you make it? What tricks and methods are you employing? What's the recipe?

And while that urge is understandable, the truth is that this recent Chop & Brew episode featuring 60+ minutes of Kimmich talking brewing is much more valuable than that. His brewing experience goes back to the early 90s and the lessons he's learned in that time are pure gold. The points he makes, both directly and indirectly are incredibly valuable if becoming a better brewer is higher on your agenda than cloning Heady Topper.

What follows are some points he made that I found particularly significant and some reflections on some of his themes.

One of the things that stands out throughout is his focus. Brewing the same beer day after day, year after year. Someone asked him 'Do you ever get bored with brewing the same beer day after day?' His reply 'Do you get bored having sex?' He seems to genuinely delight in brewing Heady Topper, the details of the process and the results and especially people enjoying the beer. He's experimented with everything and established a best practice over a long time. It's easy to be bored or to be happy with something when you're comfortable with the process. It's good enough and everything's ok so why try harder? Kimmich is obviously not bored.

Paying attention to the details
Related to this, one of his priorities that emerges over the course of the video is that he pays attention to the details. It was funny and revealing when he expressed exasperation that people who give him their beer to try don't know their mash pH or water chemistry details. It also came out in the way he was talking about different brew systems and practices. Kimmich said they use gas to transfer wort post whirlpool, no pumping, in order to treat the beer as gently as possible. Regardless of how much of an issue some of those things are, the point is that he's paying attention to the little things. To get a beer to 90% of what it could be isn't so hard but that last 10% is made up of those kinds of tiny improvements.

Craft beer is variable
I loved what he said about the changes of a beer from batch to batch. It's variable, that's what craft beer is, that's the whole point. If you want something dead and unchanging craft beer isn't for you. It reminds me of what Derek at Bear Flavoured mentioned once in passing as his definition of craft beer: craft beer is personality. If microbreweries try to produce exactly the same thing every time they are only asking for trouble. It's playing the big breweries' game and it'll make craft beer boring.

Quality of life over production volume
There was also some talk of the quantity of beer they produce, currently 9000 bbls, potentially up to 12000 bbls. He explained that they would increase to 12000 bbls only to cover the current shortfall so that people could buy beer at the brewery on Saturdays since they normally sell out before then. Kimmich's perspective was that he could make more than that but to what end? If you can make enough to not worry about your next paycheck and have a thriving business what more do you need? His agenda now is to reduce the time and effort spent producing the current volume of beer. He's after a better quality of life for him and employees. It's such a refreshing outlook and one that seems to be shared by other Vermont breweries Hill Farmstead and Lawson's. I think this should be a bigger story in the beer world.

Knowing the ingredients
In addition to having a strain of yeast that does amazing things for his beer, Kimmich knows his yeast inside out. He mentions being able to taste how many generations old it is, knowing its ebbs and flows, having brewed with it for years and years and played with the parameters so that he can get the most out of it. The same goes for the malt where he talks about the differences between batches, and hops where he talks about the private acres of hops they're establishing with growers. That knowledge of ingredients, particularly the yeast, is something I dream about. I guess that's a luxury you have in the frequent brewing schedule of a commercial setting.

The craft beer bubble
Someone asked the big question 'is craft beer in a bubble?' Could we see a crash in the number of breweries/market share of craft beer? His perspective was interesting, it seems that rather than expecting a major collapse of the breweries he foresees a shortage of ingredients, hops in particular I guess. That would probably lead to closures as well I wouldn't be surprised if that's part of the motivation for them to have their 30-40 acres of Alchemist dedicated hops. He did mention the failure of mediocre breweries as well given that consumers are getting more educated and there's a generation of drinkers emerging who've only known craft beer.

Always learning & striving
The long path to owning his own brewpub and then production brewery was fascinating. It started with home brewing in the early 90s and working for $4.75/hr at a home brew shop. The owner had a library of brewing magazines and books and he tore through it. Then he moved to Vermont and worked at a waiter in a brewpub, spending his days off working for free helping the brewer. That led to the job as brewer once the original brewer moved on. He learned everything he could from Greg Noonan the owner. There were several other stops beyond that, learning what to do and what not to do in running breweries. What stood out was the way he was learning the whole time, soaking it all in, chasing knowledge from people, books and experiences.

The unglamorous reality
While the prospect of owning your own brewery is thrilling for lots of brewers, one thing that stood out was just how unglamorous it is to work towards owning a brewery, and even the reality of owning it. He and his wife were willing to deal with poor wages, terrible jobs and the years and years of struggle in pursuit of their goal. The things that seem to make it worthwhile for him are taking pleasure in the craft and sharing his beer with the public. There are plenty of people who'll tell prospective brewers how hard it is and to go into it with their eyes open. Kimmich implied those things but in a really positive way, communicating the hard stuff but unable to hide his enduring passion for it.

The most important partnership
He makes it clear that his partnership with his wife is one of the keys to the success of The Alchemist. They worked towards the goal of opening their brewery for so long, both working, moving around the country, giving their combined efforts to it. It's her wisdom in decision making that compliments his skill in the brewery and he attributes the brewery's continued existence to her skill. So no big deal really. Just the difference between the brewery existing and not. Craft beer is still very much a boy's club but I'd be interested to hear more of these stories. I bet there are heaps.

The gift of dissatisfaction
It struck me watching the video that one of the biggest gifts a brewer can have is dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with inadequate processes, with small flaws that 99% of people won't notice, with good enough. If a brewer has that and it doesn't drive them insane, they will eventually produce something amazing. That's not to say that Kimmich came across in a negative way, not at all, but Heady Topper is transparently the product of a great deal of time and effort.

It was fascinating and inspiring hearing Kimmich speak. There's a level of enthusiasm there that seeps out in everything he's got to say. It's not a hyped, jumping around manufactured enthusiasm but something that wells up from within and spreads to everyone listening. It's long video but well worth your time.

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