Category: Weekly update

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…


Hops and barley - growing beer

One of the better patches (L) compared to one that’s er, not (R)

Hmm is definitely the word/noise that springs to mind (and not just because of the terrible pun – sorry). The barley seeds are growing, but they aren’t exactly doing it in a uniform, consistent way. I think a combination of me failing to evenly tread in the seeds and a complete absence of anything that resembles rain for weeks has caused many of the seeds that are near or on the surface to either grow much more slowly or just lie there like dormant holiday makers on a sunny beach. Those that are coming up are doing me proud, with nice green blades shooting up above the handful of small weeds that think now is the time to shine, but they aren’t exactly covering the plot.

We finally had a proper downpour last weekend, and I think (hope) that there are more shoots starting to come through. It’s not absolutely critical for the completion of the project as there is some growing, but my dreams of a bumper brew in terms of volume are directly linked to the barley growth and eventual yield – Growing Beer is increasingly about finding out which of my four ingredients is going to be the limiting factor.

On the plus side, some of the hops are shooting up the string. Fuggles is currently in the lead at about 4-5 feet high, with Cascade in second and Goldings in, well, Goldings is still tying it’s laces on the starting line but it has at least shown up. I’ve also got the guttering in to collect the imaginary rain that I’m expecting, and this week I’m meeting with some rather nice chaps from the University of Exeter. With a little luck they’re going to help me get my head around yeast, it’s collection and whether I’m kidding myself in thinking that I can get a usable culture from my allotment…

I learnt my first lesson about ideals this week, and when you have to accept that you can’t always do things the way you want to.

I had wanted to prepare the ground manually, but the amIMG_3459ount of time it took to clear the soil of deep rooted weeds caused the final soil preparation for the barley to slip into April, which then coincided with one of the longest Spring dry spells I’ve ever known. The lack of rain and the unseasonally hot sun had the effect of a grill on my previously claggy, clumpy clay soil and before I had been able to make the most of the narrow window of soft, drying dirt it was rock solid.

2 solid days of futile turning, breaking and raking later and I realised that if I wanted any chance of getting the barley sown before Easter I had to resort to mechanisation, and in this case a rotivator. Small and hand-pushed it tore through the soil with an ease that instantly made me realise the futility of the previous days’ efforts; within 30 minutes I had turned and broken up both barley beds. It wasn’t a perfect finish but it let me rake out the stones and larger, harder lumps to leave a surface ready for the seeds.

IMG_3489With relative ease I could then set up the netting and hand cast the seeds. It wasn’t practical to sow them in individually, due to there being around 30,000 of them so instead I scattered, raked, walked and watered them in. I don’t think there is a lot more I can do help them get going now, so I just have to wait and hope that the little guys germinate and grow over the next 2 weeks…

Young hopsThe past two weeks have been a mix of good and bad news. On the positive side, WE HAVE HOPS! Whilst clearing out some weeds on the main beds a small, purple shoot caught my eye and after 2 or 3 more days it was obviously a hop making a break for the sun. It’s not all been plain sailing for the little guys and some are doing better than others, but all 6 are showing signs of life.

I was also lucky to be paid a very quick visit by a retired hop farmer, Wyndham Monk, who gave them the once over but didn’t voice any major cause for concern. It’s still too early to see how they will fare against disease, pests and whether they’ll be energetic enough to produce enough hop cones, but it’s nice to know I haven’t got the setup horribly wrong.

IMG_3404On the negative we have the barley, or to be more accurate, the lack of it. As most of the UK has been enjoying the continuous hot spell my allotment has been slowly baking into a giant rock. I had hoped to get the seeds in at the beginning of the month, but so entrenched were the weeds that it’s taken my extremely helpful friend Mike and I a fortnight longer than expected to clear them. 70 square metres of clay soil is a lot to work through with your hands and all this time the sun has been slowly drying out the clay until it is solid and practically impossible to rake. I’ve just finished the second of two full days breaking up the ground and raking it to a finer tilth, but is unbelievably hard going and I’m not yet ready for sowing.

Considering that I need to finish the soil, get the bird netting in place and sow the seed before the 20th, this is going to be a very tiring, stressful few days.

IMG_3171There are no taps, wells or appropriately large puddles on my allotment, so I’ll be collecting and using rainwater in my final beer. At a basic level this is a fairly simple exercise, but something that I already know is that when it comes to brewing, water can have a big impact. Liquor, as it’s called when brewing, affects not just flavour but also the mineral content and pH of the brew among other things. I’ve never used rainwater before and it turns out that not many people have, with the nearest I could find being in Amsterdam. I don’t need much of an excuse to visit Belgium and The Netherlands, so I opted to drive up with a friend and stop off at various breweries and shops on the way there and back, eventually meeting Yoris Hoebe of the Hemelswater project.

IMG_3155Hemelswater (‘Heaven’s water’ in Dutch) came about in response to an Amsterdam-wide campaign to reduce the amount of water reaching the sewer system during heavy rain – keen homebrewer Yoris set up various collection points around the city to harvest and filter the water before transporting it the Brouwerij de Prael in the heart of the old town. It’s a great project that involves people all over Amsterdam whilst making the most of a very obvious natural resource.

After a tour of the collection sites by bike (in 50mph winds and rain) we finished up at the brewery where we tasted the resulting beer, Code Blonde. It’s made to exactly the same recipe as a regular de Prael blonde beer, but with the tap water substituted. Trying them side by side with Yoris made for an interesting comparison, but you’ll need to wait for the podcast to find out exactly how it might affect my final beer…

Next week I’ll be back in Devon, finishing off the barley beds and finding out just how bad my weed problem is as spring begins.

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