Brewing is many things – an art, a way of life, an escape from the crushing monotony of human existence. But, above all, creating beer from base ingredients is a science. Not just because of the biological reactions involved, as the yeasty micro-organisms do their thing; but due to the hissing pipes, impenetrable terminology and hitting things with rubber mallets. At the core of science is the concept of experimentation – planning something that might (or might not) be interesting, working out how to test it, and seeing what happens. However, other than adding new ingredients or brewing different styles, beer-making is often as rigid as possible – everything has to be measured out, calibrated and made exact. In short, the process of brewing doesn’t often lend itself to experimentation.
Last week, however, as part of the 30 days of IPA promotion in Edinburgh, there was exactly that opportunity for three Scottish breweries. To test the theory of whether transportation affected the original India Pale Ales, a fitting experiment had been devised. Each brewery (Caledonian, Tryst and Barney’s) produced a beer, which was split into two batches. One was conditioned on land, as per normal – the other decanted into a barrel (two wood, one aluminium) and placed on the deck of The Reaper, a Fifie Drifter that promptly set sail around the Scottish coast for seven weeks. All six casks were then served to the public at the Counting House, with the opportunity to ascertain any difference open to the general public.
Of course, the worst thing that could have happened for the experiment was that there would be no discernable difference between the two aged beers. However, it was immediately obvious that this would not be an issue – the first beer up (Deuchars IPA) looked fundamentally different from the first moment of pouring. The landward version was clear, classic Deuchars – everyone knows what they are going to get there – but the sea-aged beer was incomparable. Hazy, tart, vanilla, cedar and sandalwood. The effect of the wooden cask was hugely apparent – as was the other old-time barrel aged beer on offer, Tryst’s Raj IPA. Land Raj was a belter – deep orange, caramel and pineapple; the maritime equivalent oaky, varnish, vanilla and balsawood.
It was fascinating. Even the non-wood sea-born cask (Barney’s Volcano IPA) was extremely different – the clear golden honeysuckle (I’d not had the Volcano before, and it was something of a revelation) of the land-based beer was completely muted on the sea-born, which was softly floral, and with a slightly bitter nip. Obviously, the effect was lessened as the wooden flavours hadn’t been present to permeate the beer (and how, with the other two) – but as a control, it proved to be very interesting. Sitting with two CAMRA stalwarts, they made the note-worthy point that the sea beers lost condition as you drank, whereas the land beers held up far better as you went along.
So, what did this experiment tell us? Well, primarily the effect wooden casks have on session-strength beer. The action of the waves on The Reaper clearly agitated the flavours from the wood, and into the beer. The best way I can put it is to imagine the smell of freshly cut timber – that’s what Deuchars Sea and Raj IPA Sea tasted like, albeit with some mellow sweetness in there. It would have been interesting to have a wooden cask on land for the amount of time the test took place, maybe, to test the true effect of the sea swell. Also, the organisers were hoping for some temperature change to the sea-bound casks to replicate the voyage to the sub-continent, but March in the Scottish islands isn’t exactly Kolkata.
Certainly, those that were there, including representatives from the breweries involved, were fascinated with how the sea beers turned out (all the attention was being focused on that side of the bar). Due to all the differences, subtle or unavoidable, it might not be hugely comparable to the long sea-based journey that India Pale Ale took – but for a genuine beery experiment, it was fascinating and definitely worthwhile.