A Moment of Clarity

With noise and distraction all around us, we often need a moment of clarity to help us make sense of a situation, a niggle, an ambition or whatever it may be.  The picture above is a photograph I took while visiting Toby McKenzie at his Red Willow Brewery in Macclesfield.  The photograph is of a sight-glass which allows the brewer to view the wort running off from the mash tun.  These first runnings of wort will be re-circulated (taken from the bottom of the mash tun and pumped back to the top) until a grain bed / filter is formed which traps the grain debris and allows the sugar rich wort to escape to the copper.  The brewer knows it’s time to run from the mash tun to the copper when the wort is running clear.  It’s never going to be crystal clear at this point in the brewing process, but as the cloudiness dissipates, it signals the moment to move to the next stage.

I knew why I was visiting the brewery, I have an interest in beer, specifically brewing and have the obvious dream of going professional.  I try to be realistic and often get carried along, or rather away from, the things I most need to do to work towards my goal.  What I took away from the brew day with Toby, was that while there is most definitely a romantic notion of crafting a delicious drink out of water, barley, hops and yeast, there is also the serious business of, well, business.  Forget the dream of profit and fame for now, although nice if you can get them, I’m talking about the business of risk and of rolling your sleeves up far enough to get burnt.

Endless cleaning, Sleepless nights, Wreckless ambition.

Stood in the background, an imposter, watching and listening to Toby, Caroline and Ben as they went about a typical day in the brewery made my head spin.  I wasn’t naïve to the requirements of a professional brewing enterprise before today, but if I coin the iceberg analogy here, then it would illustrate where my homebrewing brain is currently residing.

I was lucky enough to get to help on many of the daily tasks, and for those that were beyond me I was afforded some of Toby’s time and patience in explaining what he has explained a hundred times before to well meaning visitors.  Amongst the bustle of the day, the array of smells and constant din, there were moments of giddy joy.  I tasted beer from the fermenter as it was bottled, I cut into vacuum packed hop bails which gasped for air as they breathed new life, and I was let loose with a rather powerful jet spray which could propel a plastic bucket across the length of the brewery with one blast.

So, thank you Toby and Caroline for having me along, I wish you the best for 2012 and beyond, and look forward to trying a few pints of Wreckless and as many bottles of Ageless as it takes before I’m satisfied that I have drunk one that I had a hand in getting to market!

Another blog on Red Willow here if you are interested in a bit more detail on the operation. The Brewery website and Toby McKenzie on Twitter.

A Grand Day Out

It was my birthday at the weekend and I enjoyed some much needed family time at home.  All this safe in the knowledge that I had the day of work on the Monday (yesterday), with a plan to escape the day job and treat myself to a brewday on a larger scale than my home setup.  A while back I wrote about Phil Saltonstall and his Brass Castle Brewery.   Since his launch in September Phil and his beers have enjoyed recognition at local festivals, including his Vanilla Porter (Bad Kitty) winning Champion Beer at the York & Cider Festival.  I’ve continued to watch Brass Castle developments via twitter and always intended to take up Phil’s kind offer of a brewday.

After a late start I arrived at the brewhouse, having navigated the winding roads of my native East Yorkshire countryside, as roads turn to tracks laden with mud and animal produce, and ‘passing places’ save you from the locals “drive straight and true” attitude.  The brewhouse was already a hive of activity as Phil and Assistant Brewer Ian were nearing the end of the mash.  With my keen bat senses I already knew this as I approached the building, steam billowing from every outlet.  A beautiful setting on Lord Halifax’s Garrowby Estate and a much needed increase in capacity from his 1BBL brewery back in nearby Pocklington.

Soon after I arrived I was introduced to Gavin Aitchison (News editor and pub columnist at the York Press) and Paul Marshall (Landlord of the Waggon & Horses, York).  We were given the brief tour of the brewery and then enjoyed the ensuing brewday as we chatted and quizzed Phil and Ian on their operation.  The brew was a single hopped, low abv, Pale Amber Heritage Ale and I understand this will be called Number 1 or #1 with it being the first brew at the new premises.  More information on this from Gavin at the weekend.   Despite the unfamiliar look and the obvious step up from the kit I use at home, there was a refreshing familiarity with the Victorian equipment and the manual processes that went with it.

I have seen a few modern breweries on tours and while I know enough to nod along in the right places, it’s not easy to grasp the brewing process when most vessels are enclosed, electronically controlled and the liquor, wort and beer being despatched at great speed through a mess of stainless steel tubing.  This is certainly the kind of set up that is needed once demand dictates, but at Brass Castle’s Garrowby Brewhouse this is all stripped back to two copper vessels, a hopper and a large gas burner where the coal fire once lived.  As I watched Phil and Ian work together to understand the mechanics, adjust and readjust the pipework, wrestle with levers and pulleys to raise the heavy equipment and generally overcome what many would see as limitations, I felt right at home and realised that my two vessel home set-up and faffy batch sparging process is really all that is needed to brew some tasty beer.

With the beer tucked up in the fermentation vessel and with the fun over, myself, Gavin and Paul quickly said our goodbyes and left Phil and Ian to clean up!  sadly we had left our overalls and wellies at home.  Thank you to my hosts, I had a really enjoyable day and look forward to trying Brass Castle beer again soon!