Category: Weekly update

So, here we are. The year has flown by and it seems like just yesterday that I was standing on a freezing cold allotment with a pile of rubbish to clear. We’ve come full circle and, finally, I’m ready to open up the first bottle. After much procrastination and consideration I finally settled on a design and name – I went round and around in circles, trying to come up with the name that best described the ingredients, the project or the place from which it all came, and that is when it struck me. The place already had a name, it had been there the whole time. The plot is called 10S, and once I realised this there was no way I could call the beer anything else.

The final label design for 10S

The final label design for 10S

Adrian assessing the first bottle...

Adrian assessing the first bottle…

To make my life harder, I decided not to tuck myself up in Richard for an hour to open the first one. Instead, I enlisted the help of British Beer Writer of the Year and international beer judge Adrian Tierney-Jones to open up the very first bottle of 10S and critically evaluate it. This led to an extremely tense few days in the run-up to the big day, whilst the 30 minutes immediately before he poured out the first bottle was excruciating. I was quickly relieved though, for he popped off the cap to a pleasing hiss before slowly talking me through the appearance, the aroma, flavour, mouthfeel and finish, taking each into consideration before deciding on his overall view. And, his verdict…?
The beer was good. Not just okay, or drinkable as I had hoped for, but actually good. Cue huge relief, leaning back in my chair and very large grin on my face.
This wasn’t the only surprise of the evening though, as 10S didn’t come out as the hoppy, English Pale Ale that I thought it would. It was hazy as expected and coloured a deep amber, but instead of the floral, fruity or grassy aromas I was expecting from the fuggles there were spicy, clove and banana from the yeast. The hops were very subtle, only really notable for the smooth bitterness that gave way to a soft, bready sweetness that let the barley join the party. Despite my fears about getting the bottling right the carbonation was pretty good, resulting in a soft white head and good lacing around the glass, whilst the mouthfeel was full with a really rather nice, dry finish.

All in all then, 10S was far closer to a German style of Weisse/wheat beer than a traditional British one, which has to be down to the yeasts that came from the plot. I think the rainwater played its part too, as the flavours flowed together rather than competing, none of them aggressive. I’m putting this down to the very soft nature of the water, providing a neutral, clear base on which to place the other ingredients, one that didn’t favour hop bitterness or malty tones to come through on top.
I would have enjoyed drinking the beer regardless of how it came out, but for it to be drinkable to the point of Adrian suggesting that it wouldn’t have any trouble in the first round of a major competition was a wonderful outcome! There will be more posts to come over the next week and we’ll properly look back at the project and year, but for now, I’m taking a day or two to relax. The weekend was a blur of TV, filming, radio and the first tastings, so I’m going to put my feet up for a minute, rather chuffed that that the little allotment and it’s resulting beer, 10S, did me so proud.

Naming the beer has long been at the bottom of my list of things to consider, let alone worry about, as over the past 10 months I’ve had the growing, harvesting and brewing on my mind. Now, however, I’m faced with 45 bottles, each conditioning ahead of their opening in 2 weeks time and as nice as I think they look, all lined up and shiny, I need to do them justice with a decent label and, therefore, a name.

I’m not particularly keen on puns or innuendo, and I want the name to reflect either the project, the ingredients or the journey so far. Whilst searching for inspiration I asked the good people of social media, and got back lots of suggestions – some more appropriate than others, but all of them offered an idea or perspective on the year to date. I’m still not 100% clear on what I’m going to go for, but considering that the labels will need to be printed in a few days time it won’t be long until I let you know!

The full list of suggestions is:

  • Bottles beerAleotment
  • All Nature’s Work
  • Alloted
  • Allotment Ale
  • Allotment Gold
  • Autarkic
  • Beer has grown
  • Ben’s Brilliant Bottle of Beer
  • Ben’s Sacrifice
  • Cleveland Steam Beer
  • Graining Blood
  • Grass Roots
  • Ground to Glass
  • Growing Beer
  • Grown
  • Homegrown
  • Homegrown Gold
  • Offya McOffyaFace
  • Richard
  • Richard II
  • Square Yard
  • Urban Struggle
  • Weary Reaper
  • Yard Graft

It’s a day that has been getting gradually nearer as I move through the various harvests and now it’s finally upon us – Brew Day. I’ve picked and malted the barley, the hops have been harvested, dried and frozen, the rainwater is filtered and I’ve identified 2 yeasts from the plot, so there was nothing left to do but get on and make that beer.

Testing

As these 4 ingredients have been coming together I’ve been trying to remove as much risk from the big day as possible, mainly by running a few different tests:

  • Brewing with rainwater to see how it behaves in the mash and boil phases
  • brewing with the 2 yeast strains found on the plot (Metschniakowia and Hanseniaspora) and
  • making up small hop teas to get an idea of the aroma and bitterness of my 4 varieties

These tests not only helped to practice the brew and check the equipment, but they also gave me a really clear idea of how suitable, or not, my ingredients were.

Final ingredients

The rainwater passed with flying colours, whilst of the 4 hop varieties the Fuggles came out on top. The Perle and Goldings were subtle, the UK Cascade was a little earthy and missing the fruity notes it is known for, but the Fuggles smelled fresh, floral and grassy, subsequently making it into the final recipe.

The yeasts both fermented, but not all the way through. At best they worked their way through 15-20% of the sugar available, so unless I fancy producing a largely unfermented, sweet and quite likely sickly beer I’m going to have to add another yeast in too. I think with more time and an earlier start on the Cerevisiae hunt I could have found one, but it wasn’t to be this year, so I decided that the allotment yeasts would get a head start but then be followed up by a fairly neutral, domestic brewing yeast.

The Brew

Suddenly, there we were – 11 months into Growing Beer and I was stood with my friend and brewer John Magill at his brewery (Powderkeg), looking over my final ingredients. Because the batch size would be about 15 litres I opted to use an electric all-in-one unit, which contrasted comically with the enormous conical fermentation vessels in the background. It’s a unit I’ve used several times before and shouldn’t throw up any surprises, but I had John’s years of experience on hand should we need to deviate from the plan.

Brewing equipment

Fortunately though, we didn’t. The mash (the first stage, in which the malted barley is steeped in hot water for an hour) went well, with the 3.9kg of pale malted barley producing roughly 15 litres of sweet wort at approx 13 brix/1.050 SG (a measurement of the sugar in the liquid, which should see me on course to brew a 5% beer).

The boil involved adding in the single hops that I had chosen, so some Fuggles at the start of a 60 minute rolling boil, more halfway through and the last bit right at the end to provide an overall mix of bitterness and aroma. The now hoppy wort cooled quickly and was ready for the yeast, that I had collected earlier that day from the University, to be pitched – the allotment strains were added first so they could have a head start on the domesticated Saccharomyces Cerevisiae that I would add in a few hours later.

Ready for fermentingAnd that was it – 5 hours flew by and before I knew it I was cleaning down the equipment, packing it away and strapping my precious 15 litre tub into the front seat of the car and gently driving it back home. It would now spend the next 7-9 days in a cool spot of my old kitchen (where it stays a fairly constant 18 degrees celsius), where we’ll hopefully see all of the yeasts work through the sugars and create the final beer.

The waiting is driving me mad, as I have no idea how the beer will taste, how the hops and barley will come through in the final tasting and how those yeasts are going to behave now they have their mitts on those fermentable sugars. I shan’t have to wait too long though, as at the very end of November I’ll be opening the first bottle and seeing if it was all worth it…

For those that have been following the project on this site, social media or through the podcast you’ll know that the growing season is now behind me and if I haven’t got the hops and barley yet it’s not going to happen.

Barley right after harvest

Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that I think I’ve just about done it. The wind, rain and storms that have plagued the summer have seen a serious drop in the amount of barley that I was able to grow – amounts like 25 – 30kg that were talked about at the start of Growing Beer quickly became fantasy and the actual harvest ended up being just under 8kg. This is likely to shrink further during the upcoming malting (taking place as I write) and whilst I’m not sure what the final figure will be, it will be enough for a brew, albeit a rather modest one.

The hops are a different story altogether though, they’ve produced more than enough of those all important cones. The Goldings and Perle had smaller harvests, but the Fuggles and UK Cascade varieties offered up a huge yield – each one more than able to brew the final beer with alone. Once picked, each variety was individually dried in a dehydrator to stop them from rotting, compressed into airtight bags (to reduce oxidation) and then popped in the freezer to preserve them for the brew later in the year.

Ben with the hops

Water is quite easy, as I’m collecting from the water butt and pumping it through a camping filter that will help to purify it ahead of boiling as part of the brew. Yeast is not as straight forward, but the good news is that I have found two different strains that are going to be used in some test brews over the next couple of days – neither of them are the strain I was hoping for, but they should ferment. How much they ferment, what impact they have on the beer and whether I’ll have to add in another, more traditional yeast alongside I don’t yet know.

It’s been a crazy year so far and nothing has gone quite as expected, but as it stands we’re just 2 weeks away from the final brew and 6 weeks from the tasting – when I’ll find out if all the efforts result in something that can pass as a drinkable beer. If you want to find out more about the various challenges don’t forget that the podcast is out now!

So it seems that it’s not just you and I that are keen to see how Growing Beer came about, is getting on and how it will work out in the end – I’ve had my fair share of media attention over the past few weeks too.

What started off with one or two radio appearances and articles in a few publications, followed by a small spot on regional TV news, will now see me appearing on BBC2 next Friday (29 September), on the rather popular Gardeners World. I have no idea how I or the project will come across, but I’m sure it will be fine – it’s only 2.5 million viewers…

Doesn’t time fly? It feels like only yesterday I was picking through the rubbish as I tried to get the plot in some kind of order. Since then I’ve dug, planted and grown my way through baking sun, heavy rain and strong winds to eventually get to the end of the summer and the harvest.

There have been ups, downs and surprises but this is where the blog updates come to an end – as the podcast goes live this will be the main way to follow the Growing Beer journey from it’s cold January start all the way through to the final tasting in November. From the end of this month you’ll be able to follow the project weekly as I condense a year into just 10 weeks.

You can listen to the episodes from the podcast section of this site, or you can subscribe from iTunes. It launches officially in its weekly format from 27 September.

Remember that intensely dry spell in March and April, when I was praying for rain that didn’t come in time? Well, it looks as if my calls were answered, but with a slight lag of roughly 3 months.

Since the start of July it has been nothing but terrible, with almost continuous wind and rain. Both of these things are bad news for a ripening crop of barley and a not-so-sturdy hop pole standing 15 feet tall in what is looking to be a rather exposed spot in Devon.

A lack of sun is a big problem for both the hops and barley, as this will slow the ripening and potentially limit the final crop of each, whilst the rain and wind are capable of causing physical damage to th

e plants as well as create an environment that is a little too well suited to mould and disease. For the first 4 months of Growing Beer I thought I would be out every day watering, but the classic British summer has once again shown itself to be predictably unpredictable – jet streams eh?

July should have been the month where I put my feet up, cracked open a beer and enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of an allotment in full bloom. Instead, I’ve been weeding in the rain and reinforcing hop poles in 50mph winds. 

I’m not going to go into the full details of all that has happened, I’m afraid you’ll need to listen to the podcast (launching mid-September) to find out just how well, or badly, that final brew is looking. I’m still confident that there will be a beer at the end of this year, but how much I have is going to come down to this weather, and if improves or not.

I’ve been trying to get my head around sorting the yeast for the past few weeks, as it’s the only one of the four ingredients that I can’t actually see. This makes it somewhat tricky to collect, and without help my only choice is to put the beer out in the open air mid-brew, let all of the yeast and accompanying bacteria get into it before it ferments and hope it turns out okay. This is a perfectly acceptable technique, known as natural or spontaneous fermentation, and is used to make some outstanding beers (the most well known probably the lambic family of beers from Belgium). The downside to this approach though, is that it needs a long time to mature or develop and I only have weeks to ferment my beer, not months or years.

Ideally then, I need to isolate a domesticated strain of yeast from the wild, for example saccharomyces cerevisiae, but to do this I need help. Cue Guy and David (or Dr Leonard and Dr Milner to give them their proper titles), two rather clever people at the University of Exeter Living Systems Institute that have agreed to help me discover if there really is the yeast I need on the plot and if so, how I can get it to a usable form. I’ve gathered together 20 different cuttings and samples from the various plants and flowers on the plot and they are running them through a series of processes and machines that should help to confirm if we have the all important yeast or not.

It’s not a level of assistance I was expecting when I started Growing Beer and it’s certainly far beyond anything I could do on my own. Between the two of them the samples that I collect will go through a process that, amongst other stages, involves being spun at over 13,000 G, having their DNA deconstructed and identified against an international database and, if it turns out that sample is what we’re after, cryogenically frozen at -80C to keep it until I need to brew. It’s amazing stuff that has a definite air of science-fiction wonder to me, but it turns out this is fairly standard when you’re working in a world-leading research laboratory.

Early tests from the first batch of samples aren’t looking too hopeful, but the best time and place to collect is late summer and from slightly overripe fruit.We’ll be taking more samples over the coming weeks and I’ve got my fingers crossed something will turn up – there’s still no guarantees it will work, but if these guys don’t find a workable yeast, it’s basically not on the allotment.

A visit from my friendly hop farmer reveal that it’s not all doom and gloom with the hops. Yes, one or two of the stronger bines have withered away following the storm damage but the rest are doing well and growing almost too strongly – spreading out and in need of some controlling.

The barley has also taken off, suddenly producing a miniature sea of ears, waving majestically in the breeze. It’s a wonderful sight, and even though there are some unwanted plants coming up too the barley should hopefully be able to stand it’s ground with a little selective weeding. There are several weeds coming up that compete for the light around the barley, but one in particular is real problem – bindweed. It was the one that took the longest to remove from the soil and the few pieces that I inevitably missed are now coming up the barley, smothering it like a python and dragging it down toward the ground, sometimes with 2 or 3 neighbouring ears. I can just about keep on top of it, but for the few that are out of reach it’s a desperately sad scene, up there with the Attenborough documentaries in my eyes. I’m just grateful I got rid of the vast majority or we’d be in trouble about now…

Having realised that the tap on the water butt was open, it’s closure has resulted in the gradual collection of water whilst it looks like I have a solution to the yeast problem. The University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute have volunteered to help me collect usable samples from the allotment and with the two of their researchers I should be able to not just get a culture but also learn a lot more about it in the process. I’m still waiting on the results, so more on this in the next update…

Wow, what a difference 3 weeks make.

The good bit…

In mid-May I was still looking down at the slightly bare, dry ground wondering if anything was going to grow at all, yet getting back onto the allotment after a few days off in early June and I’m greeted by a sea of green. Damaged hopsLarge blades of barley wave in the breeze, hopefully building up the energy needed to shortly start putting out their main flag leaf – the one that will eventually produce an ear of barley and the all important grain.

It’s not just barley that’s making it green though. As I’m not spraying there’s a fair amount of natural competition for the light and 2 or 3 different weeds are starting to muscle in. I’m removing them as I can, but it’s not possible to get to all of them and I think I need to accept that some parts of my carefully prepared beds are destined to be homed to plants less useful to the final brew.

The bad bit…

Whilst the recent rain has been great for the barley, the wind has been a nightmare for the hops. As they’ve grown higher and higher, they’ve also got heavier. The intense rain and very strong winds whilst I was away have caused the strings to stretch, which in turn pushed the main stem of my biggest fuggles into the side of it’s protective cloche and to shear it off from of the plant. Barley growing wellIt’s not a total disaster, but it’s definitely bad and very sad to see the strongest part of the healthiest plant wither and die, whilst some of the others have suffered damaged leaves or stems.

With luck they’ll recover and produce as hoped, but it’s a timely reminder that there are elements of the project that I can’t control. I can weed around the barley and squirt aphids off the hops, but there is clearly going to be a fair bit of checking weather reports and crossing fingers over the next 3 months…

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