Tuesday 15 December 2009
Crack of dawn, sparrow’s fart, daylight start — none of these phrases applied on turning up at Sharp’s last week to spend a day brewing with head brewer Stuart Howe. 10am is eminently sensible, ‘unless you want to see the grain being milled,’ Howe had told me a couple of days before. Having seen this noisy process several times at various breweries before I decline, there are limits to beer geekism. The invitation to brew included a chance to develop a recipe for the brewery’s seasonal winter ale— I suggested 7% abv (we ended up with 4.5%, which is another story), hops that were there for spiciness and fruitiness rather than big blasts of resin and citrus (Fuggles, Bramling Cross, Bobek and Galena, which ironically enough gave off great big blowsy pineapple notes in the rub); alongside pale malt, crystal rye came aboard for spice and body, while some chocolate malt and Munich malt (slightly sweet said Stuart, saying that it added sour and raisiny notes) also went into the mash — all to be finished with a yeast that was called Old English Ale (somewhat cheekily I had suggested a saison one). As the name of the beer is Winter Berry, there will also be rosehips, hawthorns and sloe berries added during the maturation, gathered by the green folk at the Eden Project. I’ve brewed before, first at Moor about 10 years ago and more recently on the micro plant at St Austell. On both these occasions I spent the afternoon digging out the mash tun and so expected the same here (isn’t that why writers are asked to brew, so that their lily-white hands of soft living are firmly grasped around a malt shovel). I was wrong (thankfully) as we were working on the main plant and there are men and motors to do that job, which made the whole experience very pleasurable. I added some hops and pitched some yeast but that was the extent of my back-breaking labour.
With Doom Bar, Sharp’s has one of the biggest brands going, though it doesn’t feature on many beerwriters’ desert island lists (I’ll be honest and say I prefer Cornish Coastliner, but then I’m also unmoved by White Shield). None of this bothers Howe, ‘It’s a good beer,’ he asserts. In the last couple of years however he has flexed his brewing muscles with a series of specials that have brought his capabilities to the fore. At lunchtime, I tasted some of them. Honey spice Triple with Brett (9%) was sweet and sour, in possession of grapefruit notes and sharp and refreshing. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have guessed this as a British beer. Massive (10%) was four years old and rich and liqueur-like, chocolaty and smooth. Kazakhstan Grand Imperial Porter was at 11% a big blast of flavour with an alcoholic cola-like nose, while the palate was fiery, saddle leather, soot, chocolate and more cola — a battle-cry of flavour. It was magnificent and apparently was sold out by lunchtime at the recent St Austell beer festival. 4 followed, a barley wine that possibly was too light after the Porter, while Stuart saved the 13.4% XV for the finale — a Cornish riff on Belgian strong ale. The nose was pear drops, cloves, hop and bubblegum, while these flavours resonated in the mouth like a big bell after it has tolled in the confines of Notre Dame; the finish was dry, grainy and alcoholic. So what does this all mean? Along with the likes of John Keeling and Roger Ryman, who also produce best selling brands, Howe is not content with going through the mash tun motions — he is restless, exploratory and challenging. In the past I recall brewers of successful brands seemingly almost Robinson Crusoe-like in their avoidance of what was going on in the wider world of brewing — not so these guys and I look forward to trying my Winter Berry and thank Stuart most fervently that he didn’t want me at that sparrow’s fart.