If I look back on the stories I have, or could have, told over the last two years or so, I’d probably have to start all of them along the lines of “It started over a beer”. This is no exception. It’s a story in its own right, but really its just a chapter in a longer story that isn’t yet complete. But it is becoming a significant chapter. Enough though of the self-serving prelude. Let’s get this tale on to the Friday night in the first half of 2014 where this actually begins.
It started over a beer. A beer in a brewery as it happens, but that isn’t entirely relevant. A beer in a brewery one Friday night, where I was enjoying the rare pleasure of chatting with Phil Hardy. I should point out that the pleasure is rare because we don’t cross paths often enough, not because Phil is only occasionally a pleasure to chat with. I’m digressing. You may need to get used to it.
Roll back the clock further to June 2013 and I was otherwise engaged when what started innocently as the now [surely] infamous “Macc Twissup” took place. The simple concept of a bunch of tweeters and bloggers meeting for drinks in a given town, and enjoying a few establishments of note, was taken to a new level. The effort Phil, and those who supported him, put in to creating a day with treat after treat for the faithful was by all reports a massively well-received and successful event. Don’t trust me on that – I wasn’t there – but seek out the reports of others who were…
Back to that Friday night in 2014 and Phil was beginning to tell me all about his plans for the sequel. By this stage in the tale I must have been onto about my third pint, and I expect anyone reading this is too, either that or they’ve given up already. But we’ve only just begun, and so had he. Rather than it just having been a one-off twissup, the plan was to make this a regular event. Annual perhaps. And why not? Unfortunately by this stage the timing was such that the start of June was out, and the rest of that month, plus July and August, were pretty well sewn up with a glut of rather notable events. September presented a chance to sneak something in though, and so that was the plan.
The date wasn’t the only change on the cards though. Even despite the added extras Phil managed to coordinate last year, the idea of “just” having another twissup wasn’t enough, and to be fair wasn’t going to make this anything more unique than other events happening round and about, other twissups locally and further afield. So Phil told me of his plans for “Back in Macc”.
At that early stage it was still a concept. But a great concept. Especially, it seemed, for me. A showcase for new and upcoming breweries. Talented homebrewers. New startups. Fresh shining brewing stars. And, what, sorry? Me? You want to include me? Well flattery gets you everywhere. But why me? Maybe some background is in order.
I’ve brewed for a few years now. Not as often as I’d like, but as often as I can. I’ve made some beers I like. I’ve made quite a few more that other people like far more than me, but I’m a perfectionist. I can fault most of them in one way or another, even those I like. But the feedback has always been good and pretty positive in almost every case. Obviously there have been some disasters, that is all part of the development process, but the number of beers to be rapidly recycled through the waste water services of Severn Trent are actually minimal. Only one full batch has ever gone that way so far, along with a few iffy bottles. More recently, opportunities have arisen which have allowed me to play at brewing on a wider stage. I’ve been incredibly blessed by contacts in the brewing world through my small involvement in a certain Beer Bash in an equally alliterative Midlands city.
As a result I got the opportunity to visit Blackjack in Manchester in the autumn of 2013 to re-brew what I think was a moderately successful American Pale Ale recipe that I home-brewed earlier that year. And so came about the first commercial collaboration brew I can lay claim to. This was followed in December by a second brewery collaboration that brings me full circle back to where I was standing talking to Phil. Or rather listening to him being much less long-winded than I am currently.
So, I needed a beer (well, it was a long-winded conversation after all!) but more importantly I needed to brew one, not just drink it. In time for a September event. Homebrewing probably wasn’t enough, it felt like it really needed to be commercially available at the time. I can’t for the life of me remember right now if Rob, from Blackjack, was standing with me at the time or if I pitched the idea to him later, but somehow an agreement was reached that I’d return to Manchester to brew, and this wasn’t just a collaboration that boosted the ego of a two-bit home brewer, but a genuine cuckoo brew.
The idea gained momentum, in my mind at least. What to brew? Dust off the APA again? No, it needed to be something new. What about another homebrew I’ve been pleased with? Hmm, nothing is jumping out at me. I’ll tell you what. Let’s take the same concept of the last beer I brewed at home, the one that got infected and was an unmitigated disaster. One that I therefore have so far not managed to get any reliable track record for (for the purposes of discussion I count having done it once successfully as having a reliable track record). Let’s take that concept, go back to the basics of what I want to come up with, and rock up at the brewery one morning without a complete plan how it is actually going to be achieved.
What of the concept then? I wanted an IPA that had plenty of character but managed to achieve it with all-English hops. A robust body with a strong hop presence. Not lip-curlingly bitter; I wanted the hops to be all about the finish rather than punching you in the face before you start. As I walked into Blackjack on the brewday I had a few thoughts on what malts and hops might work, and an idea of the sort of strength to aim for, but that was it. The plan evolved – malts had to be decided on before we could get down to mashing-in, obviously, but the hopping could, and did, follow after. Just-in-time brewing I guess! So, the grist developed quickly, with a good dose of pale malt supplemented by something darker to get towards the deeper copper colour I was looking for, and to impart some extra flavours; this was achieved by a fairly small amount of dark crystal malt, balanced by wheat and cara malts to provide extra body.
I already had two hops in mind – First Gold and Admiral – which both feature high in the list for intensity amongst the English varieties. Keeping an open mind though a rustle through the hop store brought Summit to my attention. There was an appealing fruity aroma which fitted perfectly and so the decision was made to use a combination of all three. A bit of Admiral at the start of the boil to get the desired bittering, and a goodly quantity of all three combined late on – half 5 minutes before the end of the boil and half 10 minutes later. The hop selection seemed to be well vindicated judging by the sample taken during the transfer to the fermenter with a good fruity aroma and flavour showing through. And that’s how I had to leave it. It’s slightly strange leaving your beer in someone else’s care like that but needs must. The next time I was going to see it, it would be handed to me across a bar!
It was about three weeks later that the moment finally arrived. The beer had been at the Craven Arms in Birmingham for a week or so, but I managed to time walking in with the freshly collected pump-clip down to perfection, as I was handed a sample glass that had quite literally just been drawn through. Time for the first taste! It was a pleasingly robust colour, and the solid body I had intended to achieve was all there. Enough bitterness to enjoy without being overwhelmed, and yes, as planned a nice fruit finish, a little subdued but very definite.
Since then I’ve followed East Indiaman to a number of other pubs and festivals, and it has been an interesting experience to learn how different cellaring techniques and timings have affected a single batch of one beer. It has given me good appreciation of what care and attention the beer most benefits from, at least while young. It will be interesting to see how some of the casks which will have had the benefit of much longer conditioning in the brewery fare as well. And to see how the kegs compare.
So, when this batch has all gone, what next? Well there’s some discussion been had about brewing a further batch, and while I want to make some tweaks I am generally quite happy with where this recipe has ended up. In the meantime another rather exciting offer has landed that could see a turn to something slightly more continental, making best use of facilities geared up to kegging. Beer number two is definitely on the cards for Otherton in the coming months!
For now, here we are (nearly) Back in Macc and this first batch of East Indiaman gets one of only three outings in keg. I’ll get what is almost certainly my first sample in that format, and I’m naturally hoping it works out. I’m pretty sure I’ll get some direct feedback regardless! So come along to what promises to be a marvelous event, say hi, have a taste, and be gentle! See you there!!
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