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 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.
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.
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.
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 …
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?
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.