Spot the Difference

Posted by on May 22, 2017 in Editorial | One Comment

What you may think yourself is irrelevant. What the brewery thinks as a whole…that is the standard for judgement. You repress your own standards.

The other day I caught up with a documentary that had a number of fascinating moments, as it went behind the scenes at several breweries to get a more intimate look at what goes on within the industry. These are always interesting as irrespective of how many breweries you have visited there are always things that you can learn or may not have seen before. Plus the bottom line is that the people who work to create things we love to drink are – more often than not – engaging and have plenty of stories to tell. And as is so often the case these days, the documentary cleaved a point of difference between the two halves of the industry – the traditional, embracing the old techniques, and the young modern upstarts doing things how they wanted to strike out in another direction.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing in new technology. But you have to respect the tradition. When we brew we want to bring that tradition to life

That was from the young-looking owner of a historic brewery, interviewed sitting in front of a display of crusty-looking bottles from previous generations and interspersed with slow-mo shots of steaming tuns, wooden eaves and workers moving around the brewery, quietly taking care of the many tasks that they needed to do to create the finished product. They were shown milling the grains, with the importance of this step understated, as how much of the outer shell is deliberately damaged by the milling process will have a huge effect on the fermentation process. It also traced this step right back into the fields, with the special varieties grown especially for brewers; chosen due to the large grain size.

Next to the workers, barking orders, is the head brewer.

The quote at the top of the post comes from a one-on-one the documentary makers filmed with the head brewer – like chefs I guess there are different types – the ones who lead by example, the ones that try to fit in – and there are the ones who take the pressure onto their shoulders by being the figurehead, the guy at the top of the pyramid. This particular brewery had just such a head brewer (of course the cynic in me thinks it made for a much more interesting documentary as a result – and that was exactly the case). It talked about the early starts the brewers put in, and gave an interesting analogy for the top-down approach employed by this particular brewer – ‘on a ship it is very clear who the captain is, and the people below must do what the people above tell them.’ Ouch!

Brewing is not managed on a scientific basis. What we do is wilder and more primitive. All we do as brewers is create an environment for the microbes to do it for us

Every brewery is different but this acknowledgement that it is the yeast who do the real work is universal. The documentary made this clear as it showed the brewhouse workers mixing the mash by hand in the traditional fashion before working through the other steps and monitoring fermentation – which can take up to a month as the brewery is situated in a cold region to the north of the country. After fermentation is complete, the liquid is removed and aged for a year which as ever indicates to me that the ‘modern fad’ of barrel-ageing is far from the recent invention fans of the craft side of the industry sometimes think it is. Anyway, speaking of the modern the focus then switched to a city where a brewery doing things very differently was located.

What we do here, we like to defy convention

With striking modern bottle designs and a state of the art in-house laboratory for analysis and yeast culture, the second brewery featured couldn’t have been more different. The young guy in charge – described as a ‘master of his art’ is fond of brewing unfiltered versions and some that are barely milled, to get the flavours out. They still want to embrace the past – so barrel-ageing is a big part of what they do – but are trying to bring the entire industry back into prominence and get a new generation interested in the work of all of them. It was fascinating, and a tale we have seen elsewhere for some time.

The documentary also focused on food pairing – something else that has traditionally been taken for granted, or been a backseat to wine – but these modern breed of new brewers are using the parallels between flavours to embrace a new outlook and prove that wine isn’t the automatic addition to mealtimes. Watching the whole thing I got the impression that the brewers are trying to move with the times, although the fourteenth-generation brewery owner stating that one of his special lines is for women as it is ‘soft and elegant’ isn’t exactly going to win him any favours these days.

Despite this, the industry looks back at its heritage whilst striking out in a new direction for a modern audience.

The world of sake is fascinating.

Prime Japan, Episode 10 – Sake

1 Comment

  1. Ed
    May 22, 2017

    I did a little bit of work with some people who made sake and they were keen to make fresh, unpasteurised sake, with a shorter shelf life but better flavour. It sounded like the ‘real ale’ version of sake to me.

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