As beer fans, nothing beats spending the day with a professional brewer, learning the tricks of the trade and finding out exactly what happens. On Friday, we arranged to head the short distance to Livingston and brew with Dr James Davies of Alechemy Brewing Company. It was certainly good beer-making weather – torrential rain lashing away at the roof (thankfully it had stopped by the time I took this picture). But it was chucking down when myself, Calum and Paul arrived at 8:30am, ready to start work.
After recirculating the water in the hot liquor tank, and filling the hopper with 25kg sacks of malt, at 9am the grain went in, swiftly followed by the water. On the brew sheet for our visit was a lager, which James is contracted to produce for the Crate Brewery in London. Although they have their own kit in Hackney, Crate sell so much lager they can’t make it all themselves – which is where James (and us) come in.
Extra liquor is added to the mash to top it up, then the wait begins whilst the grains do their business. As you’d expect, the beer we were making was mostly lager malt, but had some crystal, cara and wheat. Once the mash had finished, it would be our privilege as guests to get the mash tun cleaned out – which is primarily why brewers tolerate the presence of bloggers on brew days.
Whilst the mash was slowly working away, we were too, carrying more of the aforementioned 25kg sacks of malt up to the grain/hopstore on the first floor of the brewery. James only got the keys in March – and with their 12bl kit Alechemy have already made quite the name for themselves with their hoppy beers – there were certainly plenty of interesting things on the top floor for Paul and Calum, avid home-brewers both.
James and his parents (who help out, and do more work than ever now they are retired) were fantastic hosts, supplementing cups of tea with a cask of Alechemy Cockleroy Black IPA – tapped here by Calum. A previous brewday had ended with the final cask only half full, so as it couldn’t be sold, we were the lucky beneficiaries. James – accustomed to taking everything onboard – also installs handpulls into pubs, so his Dad assembled an angram and we had our refreshment for the day.
The scale of the brewery is seriously impressive. With no grants, James got the money together to purchase the brew kit and install inside a concrete shell of a unit on an industrial estate in South Livingston. At the moment, he’s completely at capacity, and has to juggle his own beers with those of his contractees – but with another two fermenting vessels on order, he’s about to get some much needed extra room.
In an amazing co-incidence, our visit co-incided with a milestone for Alechemy – the arrival of their first ever bottled beers. Delivered on the lorry in the preceding photograph, they come all the way from Cumbria. It must have been a nervy moment for James, the first sampling – he’d just got back Cairnpapple IPA and Five Sisters, with the Cockleroy a week down the line. Both were great, the Five Sisters is (in my opinion) his best beer, and it stands up to the bottle very well.
While all that was going on, we were busy re-circulating the mash, to check the colour and clarity. Now, I’m no brewer – I’ve never even tried to home-brew – so I left it to the experts. In this picture, Calum demonstrates the correct way to man the pressure valve, which needed to be released if the level of sweet, sticky mash got too near the surface of the mini turbidity tank. At this stage, the wort tasted like weetabix stirred into sweetened tea.
Brewing is, by its nature – short periods of labour followed by long periods of waiting around – the enzymes and then the yeast have to do their business, after all. Whilst we sparged the wort (and I now finally understand what all of this stuff means), James got on with dry-hopping some of his casks, about to be delivered by his father in a Range Rover. If you’ve ever drunk Cairnpapple XH in the Stockbridge Tap – this is how it becomes XH’d…
Once the wort had been run off into the kettle, it was time for us visitors to take centre stage. James and his Dad went off to make some phone calls and answer sales requests, so it was up to us to empty the mash tun. Every brewery makes every blogger do this, it comes with the territory. At first, it was quite fun – like mucking out a very messy animal that lives inside a tin can. It was the least we could do.
Forty-five minutes later, we’d just about completed the job. At the bottom, the grains had all welded together into a piping-hot sludge, held together with super-heated steam. Scraped out by hand, and then shovelled into the same sacks the malt had been poured from at the beginning, it was laborious, difficult work – it’s quite something that James usually does it all by himself. The sacks are taken outside, hosed down, and then sent away to become cattle fodder. I bet they love eating it, as well.
The next job was to weigh and add three loads of Magnum hops to the boil. When they say boil, the really mean it – prising off the lid atop a ladder was a tricky thing to do if you wanted to retain the hairs on your arms – but we got it done. After the final addition, the boiler was switched off “It’s really just a flamethrower forced through a small metal pipe” James reassured us. This is me carefully stirring the final hop addition, to make sure all of the precious cargo was under the surface.
The next job – cleaning the mash tun. Again, a rite of passage for any beer writer. Up and over between ladders, and into the giant metal pot. Standing up, it came to my shoulders. And what implement did I have to remove all of the hardened-on bits of grain? A pan scourer. James reckoned I could do it in ten minutes, but it took me thirty – because, clearly, I take pride in my work. Sluicing with the fire hose as I went, when I’d finished it looked about as good as new – although it was to be caustic cleaned later, before the next brewday.
And this is it – the fruits of the labours. Nine hours after we started, the lager runs into the fermenter to begin…fermenting. When we began, James was aiming for 80% efficiency, but – and in something I like to think of as ‘The BeerCast effect’, he actually hit 92.5% – an all-time Alechemy record. It meant a spot of liquoring back was required, but hopefully the lager-loving citizens of the other capital will appreciate our efforts.
Before we left, a spot of cleaning up was required…
…and the rest of that half-cask of Cockleroy needed to be taken care of. Huge thanks to James and his father Adam for making us so welcome. We’ll be heading off to another Scottish brewer next month – will we top their efficiency record too? Stay tuned…