How I brewed my own IPA at Brain’s

Big Brains
‘People who know beer have 14-foot brains’ – I’ll drink to that

You can’t be a credible beer blogger in Britain today, it seems, if you haven’t been invited to do a “collaboration brew” with a commercial brewery. Dredge and Avery have done one. Cole has done one. Brown has done several, as has Pattinson. So when the South Wales brewery Brain’s emailed to ask if I would like to come down and brew a beer of my own design on the 10-barrel “microbrewery” plant they’ve just had installed, my first question was: “What time is the train to Cardiff?”

Actually, it wasn’t, of course. My real first question was: “What stab at a historic recreation with at least some vague pretence of authenticity can I inflict on the drinkers of Wales?” Fortunately, Brain’s had narrowed down the choices by specifying that they wanted an India Pale Ale, as part of a series that would be following on from Barry Island IPA, designed by Simon Martin of Real Ale Guide and named in imitation of Goose Island IPA from Chicago. The follow-up question, therefore, was: “Is there any historic link at all to be found between India Pale Ale and Cardiff?” One troll through the byways of Google later and the answer was: yes, a little convoluted and obscure, but one with some lovely resonances.

One of Brain’s best-known pubs in Cardiff is called the Goat Major. This was the title of the man who looked after the goat that was the regimental mascot of the Royal Regiment of Wales. That regiment was an amalgamation of several other regiments, one of which (the one that began the tradition of a regimental goat) was the 41st Regiment of Foot. The 41st Foot was in Madras in 1831, in the middle of a 20-year posting to India, when it was granted a territorial affiliation, becoming the 41st (Welch) Regiment of Foot (sic – the regiment always preferred the old-fashioned spelling of “Welsh”). Undoubtedly the “Welch” affiliation came at the request of the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Edmund Keynton Williams, whose family were from Maesrhyddid, Bedwellty.

I have no evidence for saying that Colonel Williams and his fellow officers drank India Pale Ale while they were in Madras (the troops would have preferred porter), but as Pete Brown has said, sometimes a historian has to declare: “Garn! They must’ve.” It would be far more surprising to discover that they didn’t drink the beer that was the popular refresher of middle and upper class Britons in India at the time.

In 1843 the 41st (Welch) returned home after taking part in the 1st Afghan War, and was garrisoned for a brief while in South Wales. It would be fun, I decided, to try to imagine for the 21st century the kind of beer the officers and men of the regiment might have been given if, when they were back in South Wales, they had gone along to their local brewer and said: “We drank this great beer out in India – can you reproduce it for us?” I even had the name for it, in honour of the man who linked the regiment with Wales: Colonel Williams’ East India Pale Ale.

Of course, this could only be a vague handwave in the general direction of true 19th century India Pale Ale authenticity, but my specs for Col Williams’ EIPA were designed to give a beer that would be somewhere in the right sort of area: almost entirely Maris Otter pale malt (not actually a 19th century type, but descended from 19th century British barleys), with just a touch of coloured malt to ensure the beer wasn’t too pale; Goldings hops (that, at least, is authentic, since we know Goldings were almost certainly used in India Pale Ales in the early 1840s), used for bitterness rather than aroma (19th century IPAs shipped to India would have probably lost much of the hop aroma they ever had on the way east); well-fermented, with little sweetness; and somewhere around 5.5 per cent to 6 per cent alcohol by volume (slightly lower than the 6.5 per cent that was probably typical for a 19th century IPA, but more in line with what modern British drinkers are comfortable with, I think).

Brain’s head brewer, Bill Dobson, seemed happy with my ideas – or at least he didn’t reject them – and I left Paddington Station for Cardiff last Tuesday as excited as a six-year-old on its way to Disneyland, to spend a night in the brewer’s house at Brain’s before a 6.45am start the next day to brew 10 barrels of Col Williams’ EIPA.

Brain’s brewery

Brain’s is the third, or fourth occupant of the Crawshay Street site. It began in 1889 as the County Brewery. The then fast-expanding William Hancock’s, which was brewing at two other breweries in Cardiff, the Bute Dock brewery, and the Phoenix brewery in Working Street, bought the County Brewery in 1894 off its then owner, Mr FS Lock, and spent the next 18 months rebuilding it at a cost of around £100,000 (equal, depending on what measurement you use, to around £37 million today), before concentrating production in Crawshay Street. Hancock’s was acquired by Bass Charrington in 1968 to become Welsh Brewers, and then Bass Wales. As Bass began its exit from brewing in 1999, the Crawshay Street brewery was sold to Brain’s, which was delighted to be able to move from its own cramped site in the centre of Cardiff to the home of its former rival.

World geology in one spot
A ballast stone wall at the brewery

The brewery today still shows signs of that 1895 rebuild: like quite a few buildings in Cardiff, the walls were constructed in part from ballast stones, the rocks brought back in the holds of ships otherwise returning empty to Cardiff docks from exporting Welsh coal all over the world. Once the ships were back in Cardiff, of course, the ballast stones were dumped to make room for more cargoes of coal, providing a cheap and convenient source of building material, and for later generations, a tour of global geology literally on the doorstep.

One problem with the brewery is that it was designed for producing large quantities of beer for a big pub estate, with no flexibility for making short runs and experimental brews. As many pubs are now looking to provide an almost constantly changing line-up on the bar top, that left Brain’s at a disadvantage compared to smaller players. Thus, late last year, the company decided to install a “mini-brewery” that would let it make small amounts of one-off beers. The kit – miniature mash tun, 10 to 15-barrel copper and two small conical fermenters, all British-made – had to be carefully designed to fit through different doorways on its way up to a site alongside one of the brewery’s standard mash tuns, and even then part of an exterior wall had to be knocked out and an entrance enlarged.

Just the size for the living room
The micro-kit: mash tun on left, copper on right, with, in the background, one of Brain’s ‘normal’ mash tuns.

The mash tun sits under its grist case on the floor above, through which, at around 7am last Wednesday, poured 550kg of pale Maris Otter malt and 20kg of black malt, all ground the day before, and mixed in the masher with hot Welsh water. This was the first time for many years that Brain’s had made a beer with Maris Otter: indeed, Bill Dobson, who came to Brain’s five years ago from Coors in Burton upon Trent, revealed that he had never brewed with Maris Otter before in his entire career. Considering that it costs 50 per cent more than Brain’s “standard” brewing malt (Pearl, IIRC – though I wasn’t making notes, so any facts like that are dependant on my memory and not to be relied upon), that’s not surprising, and I was flattered that Brain’s went to the expense of buying in the much dearer ingredient just for me and Col Williams.

After the magic of enzymes had worked to convert the starches in the malt to sugar (and I had breakfasted on tea, and toast spread with Bill’s home-made jam), the next stage, of course, was to drain the sweet wort from the mash tun and get it into the copper alongside, all accompanied by three increasingly vigorous sparges of the “goods” to get out as much sugar as possible. The wort actually arrives in the copper after being drained into a converted cask on the floor below. This is connected to a pump that kicks in automatically when sufficient wort is in the cask, pumping it back up into the copper, to ensure, I assume, that the wort doesn’t arrive in too slow a trickle.

Bill Dobson measuring the wort depth in the copper

The copper currently has an all-metal hatch on top, which makes seeing how the filling is going a little tricky: it would be possible, if something went horribly wrong, for the watcher to get a faceful of near-boiling wort. Plans for a glass hatch are in progress. Bill, being a thoroughly modern brewer, illuminated the inside of the copper to see how things were progressing with the aid of the light from his BlackBerry (he did have a very large torch as well). Getting a sample of wort to measure its gravity is simple, however: just turn a little tap on the pipe leading into the copper while the wort pump is running.

The wort thus run off for measuring is cooled to 20C in a neat “mini-paraflow” cooler fitted to a tap over a sink in the room next door, since that is the temperature the saccharometer is calibrated at: experienced operators at Brain’s, I was told, don’t bother using a thermometer, being able to judge when the right temperature has been reached by dipping a finger into the wort. The first run-off was measured at an original gravity of 1086: well on target. A short glass section of pipe also allowed a check on the colour and clarity of the wort as it ran into the copper: somewhere between light and mid-amber, just what I was looking for.

Once all the wort was in the copper, I added the first 4kg of Goldings hop pellets and the boil was properly started, with another 2kg of Goldings added alongside the copper finings some 15 or 20 minutes before the boil ended, to give an estimated bitterness level of around 50 EBU. Fortunately, Goldings are part of Brain’s standard recipe for its beers – it uses the classic British bitter duo of Goldings and Fuggles – so no special purchase was needed there. While the boil was happening (the steam from the copper has to be run through a condenser and discharged down a drain, as it would have meant punching through two or three concrete floors to run a vent to the outside atmosphere), it was time for the classic “heavy duty” brewery task – digging out the mash tun. I can’t confess I moved much of the more than half a ton of wet left-over grains myself, but I did shift a proportion of it …

Taking a sample of the wort to measure its OG

Boil over, the now hoppy wort was pumped down to the fermenting floor (the copper acts as its own hopback) and run through a small paraflow cooler not even as big a car radiator into one of the two little conical fermenting vessels used for the micro-brewery set-up. Next door was a room full of big enclosed fermenters still used, along with other, much larger conicals, for Brain’s “mainstream” beers. While the fermenting vessel was filling, Bill showed me around the rest of the brewery and took me into the sample room, where we tried, among other beers, Col Williams’ predecessor, the Barry Island IPA. That had been the third brew on the new micro-kit: mine was only the fifth. I was also able to spot among the sample casks a few once very famous names of beers now contract-brewed by Brains: I probably shouldn’t name those names here, so I won’t, but I can reveal that until recently Brain’s was contract-brewing Double Diamond for kegging: who even knew it was still around?

Don't drop the bucket ...
Me adding the final hops to the fermenting vessel.

Once the FV was full, Bill added the yeast  –this came from the former Crown Buckley brewery, which merged with Brain’s in 1997. Brain’s uses that yeast for brewing the former Buckley beer Rev James: it gives a cleaner, less estery finish than Brain’s standard “house” yeast, Bill said – and I added a final 2kg of Goldings pellets to simulate the dry hopping a “real” 1840s IPA would have had.

And that was that: it was now 2pm, my shift as a brewer’s assistant and getter-in-the-way was over, I had managed, I think, to not embarrass myself by asking too many stupid questions, I had met a fan (Don Jeffrey, brewer in charge of packaging, who had brought along his copy of Beer: The Story of the Pint for me to sign, which, being a totally egotistical bozo, I was delighted to do), and I had had a thoroughly fascinating, instructive, highly enjoyable day. Bill Dobson and his team could not have been more friendly. I would like to thank Brain’s enormously for giving me the opportunity to help brew my own beer. Colonel Williams’ EIPA should be on sale in selected Brain’s pubs (including the Goat Major) from around July 9: if you try it, do please let me know what you think of it.

31 thoughts on “How I brewed my own IPA at Brain’s

  1. First the historic ale tasting—now this! Mr Cornell, I am becoming increasingly jealous of you. Although, creating a beer that was a nod to the IPA of the 1840s—rather than using a recipe from the time—reminds me of my process in designing my War Series beer, inspired by British beer of WWII. Well done, sir.

  2. Interesting post, I shall keep an eye out for it in july although i suspect it’ll be in their Cardiff pubs rather than ones my way, i might have to take a train ride in!

    1. Also i live in the town where the Crown Buckley brewery used to stand, no longer present I’m afraid, although a Brains pub is practically opposite the site.

  3. An excellent way to spend a milestone birthday, wish I could taste it when it’s finished and a great story to go with it as well !
    Good for you Martyn, it’s been a very beery June for you !

    1. A further absorbing essay into divining historical beer flavours. You gave no taste notes, so I’d guess the beer is not ready for tasting, but please report anon on this when it is ready.

      One suggestion for future attempts, or for homebrewers or commercial brewers reading this trying similar things, is to do something almost never done (to my knowledge) in such recreations. Don’t use the heat exchanger to cool the wort. Use a shallow cooler as they did in the 1800’s and as Anchor Brewing used for steam beer into the 1960’s and perhaps still today. There is an artisan-scale brewery in Toronto using 1800’s principles to brew which does this and I’ve tasted the beers many times. They are excellent and there seems no apparent harm from doing it this way if the process is not over-prolonged and the ambient temperature is not too hot. I’d like to think something special enters the brews by such close contact with the elements along the stage to becoming the liquid we all know and love.


  4. I like your thinking on the pale male with a hit of black malt combo, I often think old school malting and kilning processes would have left some burnt bits around the edges

    1. Yeah, though it was more because (1) I suspect modern pale malts are paler than 19th century ones would have been and anyway (2) commercially I didn’t think too pale an IPA would have sold in today’s pubs

  5. Martyn, I have a historical question for IPA that you may be able to answer or ask some pro brewers about. I am a home brewer and one of the books I have by Al Korzonas claims that a traditional IPA would have had a “horsey” and “sour” character similar to modern Lambics due to Brettanomyces yeast from the aging in old oak casks. It doesn’t have citations, but he did say that he used a book by the Durden Park Beer Circle as a style guideline. Do you know if it is true or ever hear of this before? I know Guinness supposedly uses this method and of course some Old Ale has this also. It would be interesting to know for sure if this was part of the true character of a traditional IPA?

    1. Stock ales would have had a Brett character (Brettanomyces was, after all, first identified in an English stock ale) but those were the XXX and KKK ales, not the IPAs: I’m not aware of any reference to Brett-like flavours or sourness in IPAs, and my instinct is to feel that wouldn’t have gone with a beer majoring in bitterness anyway. So my feeling is that to claim 19th century IPAs must have had Brett flavours is several steps too far.

      1. This is a very interesting question. On the same page that James Steel in his1870’s mashing and brewing text mentions the practice of prolonged outdoor storage for some Burton IPA, he mentions, in an apparently unrelated paragraph, that “old beers” acquire “apple and other flavours”. He notes, as so many of his contemporaries (and “laters” and “earliers”) noted, that tastes were changing and vatting was fast going out of style. He seems to accept this due to changing tastes, excepting for porter which he feels benefits from the treatment. Then he launches into a section explaining long outdoor storage of IPA – he himself states it was brewed in winter to be stored over the summer and utlimately bottled wherein we know it enjoyed a further sojourn in its new container for up to six months and more.

        Well, ain’t that vatting? If not why not?

        The dry hopping of pale ale couldn’t IMO have prevented Brett. If anything it might stimulate it since dry hops are known to excite a secondary fermentation with unpredictable results on flavour. (This is why many U.S. craft brewers at any rate are against the practice).

        Old ales were hopped a fair amount by modern standards, surely they couldn’t have been alone to succumb to the blandishments of those witchy wild yeasts. Orval today is a kind of pale ale (isn’t it?), well-hopped, a correct Burton orange, but it submits to multiple ferments and certainly Brett influence.

        Could it have been Burton water, that sulphurous quality, which prevented Brett from occuring? But the water used all over the Trent Valley varied in composition.

        Yet why did Steel not advert to this change of tastes before launching into a detailed discussion of how and why Burton beer was stored for half a year and more in the open? Did he take it for granted it had “apple and other flavours” too and these tastes would wither in time as mild over took over from pale? Or did know that the pale ale style never had that taste?

        My guess and it can only be that is, some IPA had the flavours, especially exported pale ale, and some didn’t. Even the same brand probably varied, or with the bottler.


        1. Great replies. Brett probably varied among brewers and could have been in an IPA among other styles. Since brett loves wood and was a result of keeping and storing the beer, IPA looks like a style that was affected. It is interesting to know if it was purposely aged in brett or just that sanitation methods and the old wood barrels used gave the brewers no choice?. Orval and Guinness apparently use it today on purpose to create a historical flavor profile to their beers. Maybe this suggests at one time the brewers had no choice so this character was always present in wood stored beers and when they modernized this was lost. If there is no literature about the use of brett from historical sources than maybe it was just an accepted byproduct of storing in wood and not used purposely to give the beer character. For me as a home brewer trying to recreate a beer that tastes the same as one in the 19th century leads me to think that I would need to use brett. The question becomes which beers and which styles? We would need a time machine to see if it was in IPA and other styles had it?

          1. Brett as Martyn indicated was only isolated and recognized in the early 1900’s, by scientists on the Continent who dubbed it the British yeast – Brett means British linguistically. This yeast was recognized as contributing something special to English stocked beers, which would have included vatted porter and old ales such as aged Burton ale, what became known as barley wine. This characteristic was not imparted intentionally initially since is source was unknown, but was a result of using wooden vessels as you said. English brewers did often try to clean and sterilize their barrels. It is difficult completely to do so however. Today one can control these factors much better. Orval seems definitely to have a smack of Brettanomyces. I am not sure if Guinness still does, perhaps not since I understand its slight lactic note is imparted by adding a food-grade acid. Orval, but for the the very Belgian quality of some of its yeasts and its non-British hops, to my mind is one form of stocked 1800’s pale ale.


      2. Note – three years on, and I’m increasingly convinced I was wrong: I now strongly suspect that aged IPAs would definitely have has a Brett element

    2. An analysis of Bass Pale Ale in the 1930’s found Brettanomyces. It’s in the book about Brettanomyces written by a Dutch bloke in 1940. He found two types in Bass Stout.

      It’s so sad that I know that off the top of my head.

      1. Wow, thanks for that information Ron. That must mean that the Bass Pale Ale experienced in the 30’s is a little different from what I would taste today. I always wondered how say from 1700’s -1900’s a brewery could keep the same yeast character over time. Maybe they had ways to re-pitch and clean the yeast without having it mutate that I don’t give them credit for? If I were to continue to re-pitch the same yeast and keep building it up, it would slowly lose certain traits and take in others. I am always told Duvel yeast was originally a McEwan’s strain but that since so much time has past that it is actually now considered a different strain. I love this blog because I learn a more faithful history of beer than what I read in so called experts books.

        1. Also Ken, breweries often replenished supply, from a neighboring brewery. Although at least one writer said, when you do this in the same locality (as most did), you are getting no further ahead because all yeasts in a cluster of breweries will have similar traits. Still, there were probably enough “local local” peculiarities – variations of cellar temperature, type and method of cleaning of storage vessels, etc., that meant some beers were more resistant to the “British taste” than others. Bear in mind too when people liked long-stored beers, they accepted that taste as normal.


  6. The converted cask pump set up (Wort Receiver) is so that your pump doesnt disturb the run off as you lauter. There is the potential of forming a vacum and a stuck run off or disturbance that clouds up your runnings if you run the pump straight off the mash/lauter. That said some breweries dont have a wort receiver. I have only ever brewed on set ups that do.

    Interesting choice going for the cleaner yeast, particulary if your focus was on early hopping.

    I hope the beer ends up tasting great.

  7. […] How they differ from the crass, corporate culture of, say, Carlsberg, is the way they’ve come up with their recipes. They’ve launched on an IPA theme, and instead of assuming to know what people want to drink they’ve effectively gone direct to the people who matter – the beer drinker – by asking respected beer writers to have a go. The fifth beer in the new range from the Brains Craft Brewery, Colonel Williams, was created by Martyn Connell, author of the Zythophile blog: […]

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