It’s the start of May, and I’m happy to have come through heatwaves and rock-solid soil to finally be able to sow the barley seed.

I check up on the hop growth and take a trip to Amsterdam to meet Joris Hoebe – a man who is combining a city-wide campaign to reduce rainwater runoff with a love of brewing. Handily for me this involves making beer with rainwater…

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It’s March, and while life is beginning to pop up across the plot it’s not all wanted.

I report back on the early hop progress, deal with some unwelcome guests and get some much needed advice on how to grow barley…

This episodes’ guest is Steve le Poidevin – he works for Crisp Malting and is providing some expertise on the different types of barley, when I should be growing and harvesting, and what problems I’m likely to encounter throughout the summer.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or Stitcher, whilst I’ll be adding more players/services soon.

If you’ve enjoyed the episode please rate it, review it or share it – it makes a big difference to how many people can discover and join us!

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It’s February, the rubbish is gone but the weeds are very much still here and I need to start planting.

I construct the hub of activities – the shed, foolishly involve my family in decision making and hit the road as I go looking for guidance to get me started with the hops.

This episodes’ guest is Ben Adams – he works for international hop merchants Charles Farams, so knows a lot more than me about the varieties, growing and flavours of hops than me. He’ll also have a good idea of what problems I may come across.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or Stitcher, whilst I’ll be adding more players/services soon.

  

If you’ve enjoyed the episode please rate it, review it or share it – it makes a big difference to how many people can discover and join us!

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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…

This episode we’re right at the beginning. It’s January, it’s freezing cold and I’ve got half a tonne of rubbish to shift before I can even think about planting anything later in the year.

I explain the project and get some much needed advice on how to sort out the plot and what to consider when I start growing.

This episodes’ guest is Toby Buckland – BBC presenter, gardener and man who knows a lot more about growing things than me.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or Stitcher, whilst I’ll be adding more players/services soon.

  

If you’ve enjoyed the episode please rate it, review it or share it – it makes a big difference to how many people can discover and join us!

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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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