Tuesday 8 February 2011

Hop Pilgrim

Last Tuesday I made my annual visit to Charles Farams, our hop merchants, tucked away in the beautiful Herefordshire countryside. It is always a pleasure to visit our suppliers and maintain a personal relationship. The beer 'industry' is totally fantastic like that - really open, warm and welcoming, more like a network of friends really and I was looking forward to my day with Paul and Will.

By early February, all the new seasons hops have come in and the samples are packaged up ready to be scrutinised. As a brewer, this is an invaluable opportunity, not only to check out how are regular hops are looking but also to rub and sniff (to examine hops, you rub them in your hands to release the oils and burst the lupulin glands that hold the aromas, then you sniff them and try not to get too much foliage up your nose), varieties not previously used and dream up new happy hop and malt marriages.
Lots of nice little hoppy packages - I was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve

I'll be honest, I always feel quite privileged to be able to do this but this year was something quite exceptional. Paul Corbett, head hop honcho, had arranged for Peter Glendenning to join us. Peter is an agronomist (new word I learnt), for the UK hop growers - he does clever stuff like combating all the super nasty pests and diseases that blight our beloved green cones, thus going some way to protect the growers crops and in turn, the brewers supply.

Turning up at Farams like Einstein in wellies, it would also appear that he spends a good deal of his spare time breeding new varieties of hops for our growers. To give you an idea of his dedication, he hand pollinates the female plants with the aid of a paintbrush that has been liberally rubbed around the chosen male plant. The female plants are then incased in plastic to stop any other pollens getting in on the act and then one plant is grown.
Peter started unpacking all his new varieties, tub after tub after tub and I must admit to feeling quite daunted by the sheer volume (bear in mind there was all the 'regular' hops to try as well). Our mission was to grade the hops by aroma intensity and aroma quality as well as likening the smell to something tangible (like blackcurrents or pine needles). A good deal of these were hybrids of traditional varieties, such as goldings, that had been bred to be more pest resistant. Examining them at Farams was perfect with all the commercially available strains to cross reference them with. The best ones will then be grown on a small commercial scale to see how they perform.

Then it got really interesting. At Dark Star, we use a lot of hops from the States as well as some from New Zealand - new world varieties. It's like grapes for wine, you've got your traditional stuff that tends to be a bit more earthy and restrained and then you've got your young upstart new world varieties bursting with full fruity aroma's and whatnot. It's the terroir, see - different climate and all that. As tub number xxxx opened, the room filled with the aroma of top quality cascade hops. Then the next tub was opened and the unmistakable smell of chinooks leapt out. I felt like I was at the start of something so special - Peter had bred these amazingly punchy hops to grow in England. Whilst we don't know how they will develop over time, this is such a huge step forward, our hop acreage has been declining year on year and brewers today are constantly looking for new aromas to please the beer drinker - the possibility that they could be home grown is quite phenomenal.
Sniffing hops, I felt important in my white coat

Everyone was in the right place at the right time. Whilst Dark Star is by no means a big brewery, I said that if they were grown commercially, we would definitely trial a brew with them. So then Paul Corbett had the confidence to say that Farams would buy a bale or two of them, which in turn means Peter Glendinning can approach one of the growers to plant a row, knowing that they have a guaranteed market. Perfect.

74 hop varieties later and all our senses had taken a real battering - we were now somewhat limited in our flavour descriptors, our hands were thick with green resin and bits of hop leaf resided in hair, ears, nose(Iwanted to get a picture of the state of us all but didn't dare touch my camera by this stage!). It was a great day and there was only one way it could possibly get better, beer in Worcester's finest hostelry, The Dragon. We wandered in looking like we had picked a fight with a threshing machine and worked our way through some beers from the Little Ale Cart brewery in Sheffield. They were all excellent pale gold beers that showcased a lot of the American and Kiwi hops we had been so busy sniffing - thank you Little Ale Cart, you rounded the day off perfectly!

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Special Brew

Anyone who is vaguely interested in Dark Star (which must include you, if you're reading this), will know we do monthly specials. First beer up in 2011 is one I've been looking forward to for quite some time.
A collaborative effort between myself and my friend, the beer writing, beer swilling, drink you under the table, fountain of knowledge, Melissa Cole.
This beer was originally down for brewing way back in May 2010 but due to some Dim Wittington in the brewery and a general Hophead thirst that needed quenching, it was put back a few months - which was probably a good thing.
Why good? Glad you asked. Although we were originally gonna brew in May 2010, we had been talking about it for longer and many different idea's had been bandied around. As our frequent pub meetings showed, this was a beer that was going to shape shift and evolve. By the time we had actually had a date set, the gestation period for when the beer would be let loose on the world, was a lot longer than a standard pregnancy. We, didn't know exactly what it would be like but were convinced, as all parents are, that our baby would be beautiful.
One thing we did know, is that we would brew a porter at 6.5% and one that we felt would bare more resemblance to traditional porters, whilst not shying away from a restrained use of old and new world hops.
Come the brew day, the brewery was filled with heady malt aroma's as we mashed in - anxious to see whether the selected 1.7 tonnes of malt would fit in the mash kettle.
Fortunately, it did and as the day progressed we were privileged to wort tastings, hop rubbings and infusings and general banter.
I know not everyone is a fan of collaboration brews but as a brewer, not only is great fun to do something different to the norm, it is also a way of learning, trying new styles and brewing techniques - sharing knowledge, whilst creating a fine pint. Working with Melissa was no different, whilst she is not a brewer per se, this lady does a lot to promote beer, runs tutored tastings, judges beer - the list goes on. As I said earlier, she is a fountain of knowledge and someone I have a lot of respect for (plus we are good verbal sparring partners!).
Which brings us back to the beer in question - holy mother of god it was a beast! Regular calls to Melissa to keep her informed of it's progression during fermentation and maturation usually ended with "You bastard, I want to be there tasting it!"
Our original plan (well, one of them), was to age the entire brew on oak chips, but in the end we felt the base beer was just too good. So rather than one beer, there would be three versions, the regular and then a small amount aged on vanilla toast oak chips and the same amount on mocha toasted oak chips.
This was totally unchartered territory and I was amazed to see how a small portion of things that would look more at home on the floor of a childrens playground would have such an amazing effect on our beer.
The original was a beautiful mahogany coloured brew with hints of blackberries, chocolate and a whisky like smokiness that would not be out of place in a gentlemans club, wearing a velvet smoking jacket with a reading briar pipe in hand. The version with the vanilla oak chips accentuated the whisky flavour beautifully, whilst the mocha version had a smooth lushious chocolate depth to it.
Trying the three side by side was fantastic and Melissa was determined it should not just be us who were privileged in this way.
Last Thursday, 20th January, a whistlestop tour of London was put into place. Four pubs were selected and each of them would have all three versions of M&M porter -  The Rake, The Euston Tap,  Cask Pub and Kitchen and finally The White Horse in Parsons Green. Originally we wanted to involve more pubs but due to time constraints were unable to (we also originally wanted to travel between them on Roman Chariots but that didn't happen either). The response was overwhelming and I was quite humbled by the sheer number of people who came out on a bleak January evening to try this beer. I would like to thank you all and would especially like to thank the pubs for taking part and making this such a great event.

Beer geeks of the world unite and take over.

Thursday 6 January 2011

New Year, new blog, new bods and new beers

So finally in 2011, Dark Star is getting a much needed new website. Hopefully it will be far less annoying and a lot easier to navigate. It will also look damn cool! As part of that, I will be doing this blog to keep anyone who cares abreast of what the hell we are up to in our pursuit of brewing and drinking great beers (and other random stuff no doubt).

There has been a lot of change in the brewery over the last few months  - after years of having the same staff, almost everyone has decided they've had enough of me and my OCD tendencies. Toby left to set up The Kent Brewery, J left to run one of our pubs, The Duke of Wellington, Shoreham (and is doing a fantastic job too - pop in when you're in the area!). Now after months of anticipation, George is moving to Japan to work at Kiuchi Brewery www.kodawari.cc and pursue is interest in Japanese women. George has been with Dark Star for over four years and during that time has been totally dedicated to the Brewery and our beers. It has been a joy to see him develop as a brewer. We wish him every success in this new adventure and will watch with interest as he tries to purchase size 13 shoes out there.

So that leaves me and Dave...
...and the new guys - Steve gave up a cushy lifestyle (much to his families chagrin), put himself through the Brewlab course, did time at St. Peters and Purity before realising there was a brewery a little closer to his home town of Brighton. Josh has moved over from Australia and arrived just in time to see England doing rather well in the Ashes. Back in Oz, Josh worked at Little Creatures and was the Senior brewer at Gages. Finally, Brian is jumping ship from King & Co. to join us on 10th January as Production Supervisor.

The tasting notes for 2011 were finished in the usual rush and were finally delivered to us on Christmas Eve. Permanent beers remain the same, Saison has slipped in as a seasonal, from a monthly, as has the Smoked Porter that I brewed with the legendary Doug Odell last year.
As usual, there are a few additions to the specials list. Kicking the year off is the porter that I brewed with Melissa Cole back in November. Pretty excited about this one - definitely malt led with 8 varieties including aromatic barley, roasted wheat and peated malt, then balanced with a subdued blend of Willamette, Brambling Cross, East Kent Goldings and Amarillo's. To top it off there is a small quantity that have been aged on vanilla toasted oak chips and some on mocha toasted oak chips. I have yet to try this beauty in the pub but regular tastings revealed a super complex beer that over time had matured from snotty brat to well rounded individual. I'll be gadding around London with Melissa on January 20th to promote this beast in The Rake, Cask Pub and Kitchen, Euston Tap and The White Horse...
Other new beers will include Carafa Jade, a new world red ale that will be showcasing Pacific Jade hops  from New Zealand. Then there will be a beer aged on Seville oranges and El Dorado hops - a new variety that I was lucky enough to secure a portion of. Oh, and there will be a Maibock with green peppercorns...

All in all 2011 should be an interesting year!!!