Author: growingbeer

Blog: Thank you

As I look back on the year there are so many things that I enjoyed, from getting my hands dirty to meeting new people in many new places. Even the times when bad weather, poor choices or just plain misfortune caused me major problems wouldn’t put me off from doing it all again. Growing Beer gave me the chance to create a truly unique beer that was a huge undertaking but most definitely worth it.

It was quite possibly the least cost-effective beer ever made, but the aim of the project wasn’t to break-even or brew something economically viable. It was to find out more about our national drink and tell the stories of the people behind it. It took me over 700 hours, cost thousands of pounds and produced just 40 small bottles of the final beer, 10S, but the story did reach a lot of people. By the end of the year, Growing Beer had been featured online, in national newspapers, radio and TV and over 3 million people saw, read, listened or talked about it in some way.

If I had to pick a personal highlight it would either be my trip to Amsterdam to learn about brewing with rainwater (see either episode 4 or the writeup), or the final tasting (see episode 11), where the entire project came down to one glass of beer and a seasoned beer judge. That said, every day on the allotment was deeply enjoyable, even those that required hours of digging, weeding or emergency repairs to the hop pole.

I was very lucky to have received the help that I did, and the project would never have been the success it was without the passion and dedication of everyone that helped me. It was wonderful to be able to share the finished beer at the final tasting with many of them, although I wish that I had more time to sit down, relax and chat. The chaos of filming, recording and hosting took over the evening and before I knew it the evening was over and I had barely stopped. If I were to take the project on again I would definitely separate the publicity from the party and make sure the evening was dedicated to the beer and people that helped create it.

I had been told to meet outside a garden centre on the edge of the city centre and to come by bicycle. My legs still ached from the 12 hour drive the day before and I was soaked through from the rain as I gently crashed into the entrance of Amsterdam’s Intratuin centre, still struggling with the unfamiliar back-pedalling brakes of my hire bike.

This trip was one of many I took throughout the year as I sought the guidance I would need to successfully brew a beer using just my allotment, and whilst the final four ingredients may have ultimately come from one tiny plot in East Devon I had racked up thousands of miles seeking out the experts who would help me.

I had already journeyed into the heart of the hop farms of Hereford and learned how important geography and terroir is to a beer, seeing the difference that just 100 miles can make as I made my way from the windswept, clay soil of my coastal Devon to the lush green canopies of the towering hop bines. Earlier, exploring the dusty, cobweb-strewn cellars of the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels I had seen how crucial wild, local yeast and bacteria would be to my final style of beer and how the success of the project would hinge on understanding these wild partners.

I now turned my attention to another of my four ingredients, which is why I found myself in Amsterdam waiting for a man called Yoris Hoebe on a wet and windy afternoon to learn about water. Not to find out about the regional peculiarities of the local supply or the chemical makeup of its minerals and salts, as for that I would have travelled far less to Burton on Trent, but to find out what it takes to brew with rainwater and why this is particularly important to the Low Countries.

Arriving shortly after me and stopping with infinitely more grace, Joris led me inside for a tour of his latest rainwater collection site, and I took the chance to interview him for the Growing Beer podcast. A friendly man in his mid-thirties with distinctive white hair, he explained in his softly spoken way how he started the Hemelswater (Heavenly Water) project as we wandered beneath the vast glass roof that drained into tanks at the back of the building. From here the water is taken to the de Prael brewery, known not just for good beer but also its commitment to employing people from a range of social backgrounds, where it is used to brew a new version of the de Prael blonde beer that is jokingly named Code Blonde after the Dutch weather warning for adverse weather. I asked why he started brewing in this way and Joris explained the threat posed by the prolonged or intense rain the city receives regularly – being so close to sea level puts the city in real danger of flooding, so collecting and using this rainwater to make beer helps to reduce the load on the sewer system. Similar to Growing Beer, the early days of the project relied on Joris to collect and transport the water single handed, his own campaign starting with a single 1000 litre tank that once full had to be pushed by hand through the streets to the brewery.

Interview finished and motivated by the promise of a comparison between the two beers I got back on my bike and followed Joris as he glided effortlessly in and out of cars and bikes, the wind picking up and the rain, rather appropriately, lashing down around us. I followed behind and narrowly avoided several collisions as I continuously veered into the path of the local cyclists that travel the streets at breakneck speed. We zigzagged across the city, touring the old rainwater collection spots as we made our way to the brewery, craning our necks at rooftops or venturing around abandoned buildings to see where Joris had managed to get permission to collect in the early days of the initiative. Despite getting used to the bike I still struggled to keep up, a blatant tourist bumbling into the 2-wheeled rush hour.

One of the first collection tanks, making use of an abandoned utility shed. Now disused as the site awaits demolition.

Finally we arrived at de Prael, a modern micro brewery and bustling tap room squeezed in and around a traditional canal-side building on the edge of the red light district. As Joris took me past the stainless steel fermentation tanks at the entrance I was keen to see how they prepared the rainwater, expecting complex water treatment and an intimidating list of vital equipment. I was pleasantly surprised as Joris explained that the rainwater is simply fed through basic UV and carbon filtering before adding to the brew in place of the mains supply – an approach that I could easily use myself. Relieved and excited to know that making my beer with water collected from my plot was now a definite possibility I was desperate to see what impact it would have on the final beer, so we stepped out of the calm of the brewery and into the noise of the tap room.

Joris told me that Code Blonde is popular and regularly sells out, but managed to find bottles of this and the standard, non-rainwater version. Both poured a vibrant amber with a lively white foam, the only quality separating them being a slight reduction in head on the Code Blonde once settled in the glass. Not an issue for me but potentially a big deal to the Dutch drinker looking for ‘fists of foam’, as Joris put it. On tasting the Code Blonde was noticeably softer with a smoothness that allowed the upfront yeast flavours to gently transition to the sweetness from the grain before leaving a gentle bitterness into the finish. I was aware that my own expectations of a beer brewed with a water containing barely any minerals or salts would affect my perception of it, but it did feel almost lighter in the mouth, everything in balance.

As the bar filled up for the evening Joris bade me goodbye and good luck, making his way back home to catch up on work and get his young children to bed. I returned my bike and took to the streets on foot, a weight lifted from my shoulders and an excited bounce in my step – the rainwater had a positive impact on the blonde style of beer, I couldn’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work for me back in Devon and I still had time to hunt out good beer in Amsterdam.

Leaving on foot I crossed two of the four canals that surround the heart of the city, briefly stopping for takeaway croquettes and bitterballen as I made my way to the final destination of the trip, Proeflokaal Arendsnest. A cosy bar with striking, gleaming copper pipes in front of the large, handwritten beer board it served an astounding array of exclusively Dutch beers on tap. I settled in for the evening and as I started on the witbiers and pilsners I considered how my own beer was beginning to take shape – the recipe was still to be defined but it was becoming clear just how unique it would be. Not only would the hops, barley, yeast and water gathered from my tiny part of the world affect the flavour and quality of my final beer, it was exciting to think that it’s identity would also be shaped by the people and places I was visiting throughout the project. Everything I’d seen and learned over the day had come about from people like Joris recognising the need to change their approach to water consumption, building on tradition and coming up with something truly innovative.

Proeflokaal Arendsnest bar
Polished metal, vintage wooden decor and a lot of Dutch beer beneath the eagles of Proeflokaal Arendsnest.

We’re at the end of the year, at the end of the project, and about to find out if it was all worth it.

I run through the final few days, announce the name and open up that first bottle with an international beer judge…

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, 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! 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.

In this, the penultimate episode, we’ve safely navigated the brew but I’ve still got to guide the beer through the fermentation, bottling, naming and labelling.

I catch up with graphic designer Jim Vine and look back on some astonishing numbers from the year so far…

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 the start of November and after 11 months of digging, growing and harvesting we’ve finally arrived at the big day – it’s time to combine the barley, hops, water and yeast and get on with the brew!

I’m not on my own though, as I’ll be going through the process with friend and brewer John Magill of Powderkeg Brewery…

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 the last activity on the allotment as I work out how to judge when the hops are ripe before picking and drying them ahead of the brew.

I then catch up with Jake at Crisp Malting to find out how that precious little sack of barley fared being soaked, dried and kilned in the maltings…

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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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…

It’s the end of August and it’s harvest time! We’ve sort-of survived the summer and now I need to bring in the barley, regardless of how much or how little is still there.

I also catch up with beer writer Mark Dredge to get some advice on beer styles and what to consider should I get to that final tasting…

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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