This is Bill, and he’s got that look of calm, focused consternation that comes over the faces of brewers every now and again. 98% of the time, they are relaxed and in control (that figure may vary depending on the equipment), but every now and again, when you’re in their company as they work, the chatter stops, and you realise it’s time to keep quiet for a bit. Bill Dobson is head brewer at Brains, and has to be one of the most easy-going I’ve ever met; despite working in surrounds that are utterly unique, you get the impression he’s seldom outfoxed. When the good people at Brains invited me down to Cardiff to take part in a collaboration brewday, as part of their Best of British series, the one thing I wanted was to come up with something different; an idea that might make him think a little. As a result, it meant a bit of paddle shimmying whilst mashing in, to get everything in the 600kg capacity mash tun – but once Steve upstairs had thumped the side of the grist hopper, signifying that was it, Bill instantly reverted back into his usual composed demeanor. Having cleared room for the sparge arm to rotate, we were off.
It’s always interesting watching brewers as they work (it’s pretty much all I can do, for one thing, until the mash tun needs emptying). Although the craft beer kit at Brains has all of the dials and switches you’d expect, Bill often does things by eye; using his experience, he mashes in by sight and sound. Peering through the steam to check the consistency of the porridge doesn’t vary too much. Listening as the mix of malt and hot liquor sluices into the tun; if the noise is too watery, he nudges down the liquid. If it’s too quiet, he nudges it up. The gadgets and readouts are there, but it’s pretty obvious that Bill trusts his own judgement implicitly. It’s fascinating. It also explains the workarounds that exist in the brewhouse; things like the levers – which are adjusted by near-imperceptible fractions – have fan-shaped plates welded to them, with the optimum level simply etched on with biro. If it was me, I’d struggle for months dicking about with getting the lever right, before I ever thought of doing something as simple and effective as that.
Anyway, aside from taking pictures of levers, I was there to help out with making a classic Scottish style, only with a slight difference (of which, there is a fairly major clue above). As the beer is set to be released at the end of November, something dark and rich seemed to be the way to go – and once I got an email from Bill saying he’d be happy to go up to the 7.5%abv duty limit; something strong, too. That led perfectly to a Wee Heavy – sweet, complex and warming – and a style of beer he’d not actually brewed before. The extra addition; when I was a young lad, we used to go over the road from my Grandad’s house with him, in Enfield, and pick blackberries (or brambles, as they are in Scotland) that grew down the side of a path leading to a golf course. It’s one of my fondest early memories, and as my Grandad passed away recently (at the age of 92), I thought it would be nice to add an ingredient he would appreciate – even if he was a lifetime tee-totaller. The beer name – usually the trickiest part – was easy. Over the Road.
Of course, a twinkle appeared in Bill’s eye when the groaning mash tun had done its business. But, I know – it’s part of the brewday territory; part of the deal. You can’t wax-on about the glory of samples straight from the CT without doing a bit of work, after all. Truth is, I actually quite enjoy emptying mash tuns – and I enjoyed this one even more when I saw ‘the pit’. Due to confined workspace rules (why am I only learning about this now), you’re not actually allowed in the vessels unless you’ve had special training. Instead, the spent grain is raked out of the door and straight into a custom-made hole. As Brains is a tower brewery (i.e. everything is on a different level), they simply put a gap in the steel platform, and installed a conveyor belt leading to a crusher. So, after I took my wedding ring off, all I had to do was pull rakeloads of drying malt into the steel pit, and think about that scene from Return of the Jedi. At the same time, I was grateful we weren’t on the large kit on the other side of the room, which can take 7.5 tonnes of grain at once. That’s a lot of Boba Fetts.
After Over the Road was Into the Copper, and boiling away, Bill showed me round the rest of the brewery. It’s an utterly fascinating place. I’ve been to breweries small and massive, but the layout of Brains is really something. We seemed to spend the whole time going up and down stairs (particularly when the final transfer was going on). Interestingly, the craft kit is heated entirely by steam; they generate so much at the site – billowing clouds almost envelop the breakout room where the brewers gather for cups of coffee – that it made sense to use steam to heat the copper, rather than an electric element or gas burner. We ended up (as one would expect) in the basement tasting room; an enclosed yellowing brick room, racked with lines of small casks. Also in place, bespoke glass-ended barrels to check the sedimentation levels in the beers that have been casked that day, which can be backlit. Peering in, you almost expect a fish to swim past at the other end. The centre cask here is Rev James, with the beaming SA Gold to its right, looking like a furnace door.
There are innovations like this on pretty much every floor; Brains used to have a facility right in the centre of Cardiff, but moved away in 1999 when it became unfeasible to operate. Their current site, acquired when they absorbed Hancock’s Brewery gives them more room, but still has plenty of old touches that need solutions. This, though, is a solution from a different age. The tower brewery creates problems of layout (our stairclimbing attested to that); to anyone who likes to think ingenuity in the brewing industry is a modern phenomenon, there is this – the Man Hoist (actual name). Bill was speaking to a colleague when he saw me trying to work out what it was. It really is simple. A vertical conveyor belt, rising four storeys, with repeating handles and footplates. ‘Hold Handle. Face Band. Carry Nothing’ says the instruction. I asked Bill how fast it went, but he’d never seen it in action. Apparently back in the day, Hancock’s staff had threatened strike action when it was mothballed; Brains had understandably decided it would be left alone, from day one of their operation.
I thought a fair bit about the word ‘craft’, whilst I was there in Cardiff (and whilst I was bouncing around on the plane home). Part of that is because, being a beer blogger, I think of little else. But this notion that craft is a movement is only part of the story. It is – or at least, it is now – but in literal terms ‘craft’ is about how you approach the challenges of brewing. Whether you have the ability to solve the many and varied problems that arise in a creative manner, or not. Brains is a craft brewery – and not just because their 15BBL kit is so-called. It’s because when they needed an extra fermentor, and a load-bearing concrete beam precluded the raising of an upright vessel, they designed and built one with the same capacity, only that fitted the space exactly (you can just about see the clearance over Bills left arm, as he pitches the Edinburgh Ale yeast from one of three cornie kegs). That kind of thing is everywhere at Brains; aptitude and dexterity. Crafting the answers to problems; whether a bespoke fermenting vessel, or a biro-mark on a steel plate. It’s one compelling place.
Many thanks to Bill, Sarah and the brewteam at Brains, and to Laura and Danny for helping it all happen. The 7.5% bramble-infused Wee Heavy, Over the Road, will be out soon on cask in select Brains’ pubs in Wales, in bottle, and on cask in the Stockbridge Tap, here in Edinburgh.