Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Of the many wonderful things that autumn brings soft herring roes is fairly high my list of favourites. I am looking forward to some of this comfort food for lunch on this rain-sodden and blustery day. Washed under the hot tap, rolled in seasoned flour and fried in butter, then served on hot buttered toast with a mug of tea and plenty of black pepper, my mouth is watering in anticipation. Autumn is the herring season and that means local bloaters and kippers too. There are still a few traditional smokehouses in North Norfolk and I am blessed to have one of them just down the road from my brewery in Cromer. John and Frances Jonas have a 165 year-old smokehouse in their fisherman’s yard in Chapel Street. We have known them for years and Mrs Brewer is good friends with Frances. So it occurred to me that I could make good use of this asset by smoking some malt to boost the Poppyland Brewery retertoir. But then I had a further thought.

Bamberg of course is famous for its powerful rauchbier, made with beech-smoked malt. Various breweries especially abroad offer beers made with some smoked malt but sometimes I struggle to identify its presence, either because they didn’t use enough or the flavour has died away since leaving the brewery. Or maybe its just me. So, smoked malt is not all that unusual in beers but I don’t know of any that use smoked hops. It promises to offer a different, fresher smoke experience.“Smoking hops?” said one wag, “That sounds like something I used to do at college”.

My first experiment was to take one kilogram of crushed pale Maris Otter malt down to Frances, spread out on our largest roasting tin from the kitchen. It went into her smokehouse for just 24 hours to see what effect that would have. It was a kind of calibration exercise, although I have no idea what units smokiness is measured in. It came out smelling fresh and smoky, nice and sweet from the burning of oak sawdust. It was a good flavour (not fishy!) and significantly different from either the Bamberg malt or the peaty whisky malt I had smelt before. It had great promise but it wasn’t enough, neither in quantity nor in smokiness. It went into the first beer that Edoardo and I made in the Poppyland Brewery premises. Not un-naturally I called it Smokehouse Porter. But one kilogram in a grist of some 70 kg wasn’t going to have too much impact. That was when my imagination turned to smoking hops and dry hopping with them.

I had about 1 kg of wild hops that I had collected early one sunny October morning from a bank in Upper Sheringham. I had not dried them but put them straight into the freezer. From experience I knew that these hops would have a mild peppery, grassy, noble flavour. What would they be like when smoked? There was only one way to find out.

I took the whole carrier bag to Frances and she smoked them alongside her fish for 36 hours. The beer wasn’t quite ready for dry hopping when they came out, so they were left in the brewery for just over a week before they were used. They filled the brewery with their wonderful smoky scent. Being damp they began to molder before I could use them, so I put them into a kilderkin – all of them – and steamed them for about a quarter of an hour with my steam generator to ensure they and the kilderkin were sterile before running in the fermented beer.

I was thrilled with the result. The dark, molasses and malt-flavoured beer became suffused with a fresh and gentle smokiness that transformed it from a nice sweetish porter to a really great tasting beer. I bottled off 90 bottles.

Today I took down some commercial dried hops to Frances – US Centennial and NZ Wakatu. This time they are in large laundry bags and they will hang in the smokehouse for two days before I use them for dry-hopping two more kilderkins of porter for a couple of days. Then the last of the Smokehouse Porter will be bottled off, just in time for Christmas.

Now autumn has one more blessing to offer us – Cromer smoked beer.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Black IPA

Emelisse Black IPA

8% 33 cl

What actually is a black IPA? The answer is, rather a contradiction in terms and not actually defined anywhere, so far as I know. Well, let’s find out what this is like, if it thinks it is a Black IPA.

There wasn’t must fizz when I took the crown cap off but in pouring there was a reassuringly deep cappuccino-coloured head. There is an aroma that reminds me of gravy browning or Oxo cubes but without the savouriness. It comes from the malt I think and lots of it. There is chocolate aroma too, bitter chocolate, you know that 70% cocoa stuff. The first sip confirms that this is a beer to be reckoned with. The flavours are assertive and there is plenty of alcohol to entertain the tongue. It is bitter sweet, malty and hoppy (malty first, followed by the hops). It really is lovely. On smacking it around the mouth every millimetre of my tongue is being entertained, sweet at the front and on top, bitterness around the sides and at the back. Then a wave of alcohol soothes and reassures the palate that this is a quality beer.

This beer is as black as your hat and it retains a nice ring of foam and lacing on the surface. It just invites you to imbibe some more. So I do and it just gets better. I indulge myself and glug several drafts in one go, throwing it around my mouth to extract the maximum flavour on every taste receptor, all at the same time. Crumbs, this beer is a goer. It is so eager to please and to satisfy. I only bought one. I wish I had bought a crate but that would have set me back £46.20 for a dozen 33 cl bottles from RenĂ© at Beautiful Beers in Bury St. Edmunds.

Well, is this a Black IPA or is it an Imperial Stout? To be honest it reminds me of Guinness Extra Foreign Stout, which is a lovely beer and very good value for money because you can often find it discounted as it doesn’t seem to sell for some reason. I love it.

Surely an IPA needs to be both high in alcohol and assertive in the hop department. In fact the hops should be dominant over the malt in my opinion, although the malt needs to be pretty solid to support those hops. I reckon in this excellent beer the malt is actually the dominant partner, probably plenty of specialty malt too. There are plenty of hops but the flavour and sweetness of the malt actually carry the day. So in my book that places it into the stout bracket. It is not a beefed up pale ale/bitter, it is a beefed up stout, or even an Imperial Stout. God, it’s lovely. But nah, it ain’t an IPA in my book, black or not. On second thoughts I gather that American East Coast IPAs do favour the malt over the hop-bomb, so maybe it is an IPA. It is academic really.

Now we are down near the bottom I had better consider some of those elusive flavours. In the burp the hops are subdued, not your big in-your-face American IPA hops, not citrus but quite well mannered English or maybe American hops that would make a good modern-day session bitter but plenty of them and balanced with sweetness from the malt. There is bitter chocolate as I have said; a touch of coffee and cocoa. Am I imagining fondant cream? Maybe I am. It reminds me of one of those indulgent chocolate ice cream concoctions, but on stilts. I wish I had brewed this (You will Martin. One day, you will). It is the bottom of the glass now and there is just a dessert spoonful left. It is so lovely I don’t want to finish. I want to come back for more but if I do it will be gone. There, it is gone and all I have is the memory and the scrumptious flavours that are still playing around in my mouth.

They are still there.

Ooh. That was a good beer. Thank you, Emelisse. I am not sure this is a Black IPA but it is fantastic.

I went back to the bottle and found a couple of millilitres in the bottom. It was enough to give me another little hit of that flavour. Aah.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Winston's Temper

‘I am not enjoying myself very much’, said young Winston Churchill in a letter to his mother.  It was a Wednesday, the second of September 1885 and the 11 year old boy was staying at my house, Chesterfield Lodge, in Cromer that in those days lay on the edge of town, close to the newly opened Cromer Beach railway station. The weather had been fine and he was looking forward to Saturday when his mother would join him and then he would have her all to himself for a whole ten days. He was not getting along at all well with his governess, whom he felt was very unkind, strict and stiff. Adding to his woes he had a stomach upset and a temperature, which he put down to some liver he had eaten.

Chesterfield Lodge, Cromer about 1900 very much as it is today

“My temper is not of the most amiable”, he wrote. “I am counting the days till Saturday. Then I shall be able to tell you all my troubles.”

Young Winston in 1884, aged 10

Those troubles included a contretemps with his governess when he petulantly threw an ink pot at her with damaging effect. She may well have met Dr Robert Fenner when Winston was ill, but she summoned Cromer’s only doctor, to act this time in loco parentis. Young Winston was led upstairs by Dr Fenner “who played an active part in making ‘the punishment fit the crime’”.

Dr Robert Fenner, (right) and his partner Dr Herbert Dent, who recorded the incident in his memoirs.

No doubt this episode will one day help to sell my house, as it is documented by Winston himself that he stayed here and augmented by the memoirs of Dr Dent, who was partner to Dr Fenner. I thought I would commemorate the fact back in 2010 by brewing a dark and brooding beer which I called “Winston’s Temper”. This was before I had the Poppyland Brewery but I wanted to brew it again. So yesterday, I did. This was only the second brew on the premises and the first I had done solo. I have to say that I am pleased with my efforts as, despite the shenanigans of the Russian Doll kit, I produced 240 litres of what promises to be a very tasty strong and black IPA. It should be in the bottles shortly after Winston's 138th birthday, on 30th November. Cheers Winston.

A couple of other little things link us to Winston. Firstly, he died (by then a great statesman) on my thirteenth birthday, 24 January 1965. I can vividly remember watching his state funeral on our old Pye television. Secondly, there is a brick in the back wall of the kitchen that is carved with a large letter W. I can’t prove it of course, but I like to think that Winston was showing off to his little brother Jack and getting his own back for the unhappy time he had at Chesterfield Lodge.

Who carved this initial many years ago?

Like all my beers, this one is based on the amazing Maris Otter malt that I obtain from Branthill Farm near Wells next the Sea. This is what gives the beers such amazing depth of flavour. This and the variety of hops - Centennial principal among them.

The Barley to Beer Project is funded by:

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Russian Doll

The shelves were pretty bare in the shop where the Russian dolls were on sale. It was Moscow on Friday 29 July 1966 and the next day I would be heading home, back to school in Stevenage. I had better get my Mum a present, I thought, before it was time to go. I just had enough pocket money left. They had fair-headed dolls dressed in some sort of silky national costume and they had those traditional  hollow wooden dolls – kulkas – that fit one inside another, nested 5, 6, 7 or more deep (according to your pocket) until the baby one in the middle was solid. Brightly hand-painted and all subtly different they stood in serried ranks. There wasn’t much else to choose from in those days. I couldn't decide which to get, so I bought both. They sat for many years in the china cabinet that Dad had made at the end of the war. The mahogany was salvaged from a bombed-out pub, the sunrise stained glass was originally fitted upside down – shining downwards – but Dad didn’t have the heart to tell his friend who had fitted it as a favour. So Dad had turned the doors upside-down to compensate and so for ever more we had to turn the key as if to lock the cabinet, when we wanted to unlock it because the lock too was upside-down. Now I have lost the key and the cabinet sits upstairs, unwanted, unused but it is one of a number of items that have survived the numerous rounds of de-cluttering after Dad died. I never had the heart to dispose of it. Not like the Russian dolls. They must have gone in a car boot sale years ago. You can’t keep everything and probably one day soon the china cabinet will go too.

The other week a Russian Doll came back to haunt me. Brendan drew up outside my house with a trailer carrying some brewing kit. Out jumped Edoardo, our younger Italian brewing friend and we hugged. Before I knew it, Brendan was assembling a line of little wooden dolls on the brewing kit in the trailer. “It’s a Russian Doll”, he said, “And so it this”. There on the trailer was a fiendish looking contraption of stainless steel and plastic piping. In the back of the pick-up was a fermenter. This was the brew kit for I had been waiting so long. Well actually, it wasn't really my brew kit at all. It was just a temporary measure to get me brewing at Poppyland Brewery, just in the nick of time for Christmas. It was Friday 2 November. “ I'll get a move on now with your own brewing vessels”, he promised. “ They've got a good welder at the engineering works now”. It was exactly two years since I first met Brendan and told him I harboured a desire to become a brewer.

The Russian Doll brew kit was hauled into the brewery and assembled. The gantry was attached, the electrics checked over and the thing was plumbed-in. I had all the ingredients and a recipe in mind, so we were ready to go. The next day Edo and I brewed what I thought was going to be Winston’s Temper, but actually it is now called Smokehouse Porter (see another blog for the explanation).

The Russian Doll is a very clever design for a portable brewery, very space-saving and self-contained. It has three vessels – a 1.5 barrel mash tun, a copper and a hot liquor tank and as you may have guessed they fit one inside another. The copper is a permanent fixture in the centre and surrounding it, in the space between the circular copper and the rectangular outer body shell is the hot liquor tank. The mash tun is suspended by a wire and can be wound up and down the gantry with a winding handle. At one end is a control panel with electrics, numerous valve controls, and slung underneath a numerous bits of plumbing, a pump and a heat exchanger. Liquids can be moved from anywhere to anywhere, either for cleaning or for brewing. All it needs is connection to the mains water and electricity and you are in business. I have been getting to know its intricacies as I have brewed in it with Edo and cleaned it afterwards. I look forward to brewing solo quite soon.