Brew School

I was lucky enough to get a last-minute place on the Brew School at the Brockley Brewery in Lewisham, London. I’m a huge fan of their porter, and have always wanted to have a go at home brewing so this was a perfect opportunity.

The school ran from 10am until, well 4pm in theory, but we were so darn efficient we finished early. Brewing is all about efficiency. And cleaning, apparently. (“We’re mostly cleaners who make beer as an incidental by-product,” one brewer said.)

There were 8 of us – a good number – and we paired up to choose what beer we wanted to make out of a choice of pale ale, porter and red ale. I chose porter to do something a little different, and because I love the Brockley porter so much.

We were taught an all-grain method, the idea being that we could replicate, more or less, what we did today at home. First up heated water to between 75 and 78 degrees C and we weighed the grains out. For porter we used mostly pale malt and added much less black malt (for colour), chocolate malt (for chocolatey flavours), torrified malt (for head retention – don’t lose your head) and crystal malt. I have no idea what crystal malt is, but probably best not to use crystal meth by accident.

When the water had hit the right temperature, we put the grains in mash tuns made out of large plastic coolers with taps and sieves fitted and added the water. With the lid back on, this steeped for an hour while we had lunch.

After the mashing is done, comes the sparging. Brewing is full of great words, and sparging is a new one on me. It’s apparently also known as launtering, which may possibly be an even better word. “He was launtering with intent to brew ale, m’lud.”

The idea is to run water through the wet grains to extract as much sugar as you can, because sugar makes alcohol. We got a very pleasing black oil-like liquid off at first, which got paler as it went. Then the fun bit – you boil it for an hour and start adding different hops at different stages to add bitterness and more flavours.

I added Fuggles (see, another great word), East Kent Goldings and some added Bramling Cross at the end of the boil, which I’m told should add some blackcurrant and citrusy notes.

By now the brew was smelling amazing and already tasted sweet. At the end of the boil, you are left with wort. You need to chill this as fast as you can down to 20 degrees C before putting in a sterile fermenter. This would, I think, be the trickiest part at home. Today we used a heat exchanger with cold tap water running through it – this worked really well costs around £200. (The brewery uses a much bigger one with commercial refrigeration units). You can use an ice bath at home, or make a heat exchanger with copper pipe loops that run cold water through the hot wort.

Then it was time to put the black gold in the fermenters, add an air trap and drink some beer. Well, we were in a brewery, it would have been rude not to.

A measure of the original gravity of the porter suggests it may end up around 4.3% abv. We took our fermenters home to add yeast to and in 5-9 days we should be ready to bottle. Joe our instructor made sure he explained how we do that, and gave us a syphon, yeast and sterilising powder to take home, so as long as it’s kept at the right temperature, none should go to waste.

In all a fantastic day which I’d highly recommend. The group was just the right size, our instructor was perfect: friendly, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and relaxed. We never felt we were being lectured, yet we learned a lot.

Just need to see how my porter turns out now…

You can see more photos from my day here and find out more about the Brockley Brewery on their web site

Update – listen to my podcast to learn more about the Brockley Brewery and the Brew School:

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