DEPRESSED by pub closures and the rise of alcopops? Good news is at hand. Sales of the cheap-booze-and-coloured-sugar drinks favoured by overgrown children are falling.
And there are more brewers in the UK now than at any time since before the Second World War. We have Gordon Brown to thank for introducing the progressive beer tax back in 2002 (in a welcome change from plundering pension funds and flogging off the gold) which paved the way for the mushrooming of microbreweries, micropubs, and now the “microbrew pub” – the dinkiest of which is right here in Thanet. “We challenged CAMRA to name one smaller,” says Mike Beaumont, landlord of the Four Candles in Sowell Street, Broadstairs, “but they haven’t come back to us yet…”
I love this place. My great friend Janice works there, my stepson Paul helps with the brewing, and it’s an easy walk home. So although I’m not a natural ale drinker – more likely to be found clutching a glass of rosé than a porter or stout – when I am given the chance to create my own concoction, a treat offered to a privileged selection of lucky regulars, I scurry along.
I arrive at 8 am to find Mike waving a recipe sheet, while I have tea and reveal my ignorance. Had you asked me what beer was made of, I’d have murmured vaguely about hops. Turns out it is all about barley. We have decided I shall preside over a light summery pale ale (so you can drink more without falling over), thus the barley I will be using will be light in colour too. This is malted barley, Mike explains and the more it’s roasted the darker the beer will be. There followed a complicated lesson on the way sugar turns to alcohol to which I nodded a lot.
“The darker it is, the sweeter it is,” Mike concludes. “Guinness isn’t sweet,” I point out. “Oh it is,” replies Mike. I don’t argue that it is the bitterest thing I can think of apart from cooked avocado (I shall save my soup disaster for another week). What do I know?
We are going to produce 400 litres – or ten casks full. Casks may be referred to as firkins, but not barrels. Because a barrel is made of wood, and anyway it’s bigger, holding 36 gallons as opposed to nine. Exhausted after all this maths, I listen to an outline of the rest of the process and nod a bit more. Then Paul gives me a Health and Safety briefing about not falling down the stairs, and we descend into the cellar and don long rubber gloves (think a veterinary surgeon in Fifty Shades of Grey) to pour the liquor (very hot water to you and me) through the barley into the mash tun.
At this point, Brian Green, our photographer, arrives and my stepson suggests that, while the grain soaks for an hour-and-a-half, it will make a hilarious picture if I get into the kettle (the next stage of proceedings) and help Mike clean it. “How will I get out again?” I enquire dubiously. Answer: by treading on Mike and being shoved unceremoniously from behind.
This is the “farming side,” I am told. There is a scientific side too – which involves sterilisation galore. To this end, Paul begins to clean the casks with a caustic and bleach solution and I, somewhat damp and studded with barley bits, repair to check my emails. Mike is sticking a saccharometer – an odd-looking instrument designed to test sugar levels – into one-they-made-earlier with customer Ali, and frowning over a lot of complex-sounding calculations involving gravity and the ABV (alcohol by volume), required in order to pay the duty. (Gordon may have given the small brewers a boost, but they still have to cough up).
This done, I get to choose my hops. I opt for “Target” that smell of Christmas cake, to give a citrusy edge, and Mike advises Admiral to add bitterness. By now it’s time to pump the hot sugary water, known as “wort”, through a Heath Robinson-type array of pipes and tubes into the copper kettle. I add the hops, peer into the steam and get a beery facial. I have “Flocculation” written in my notes at this point. Sounds rude, but I think it is something to do with giving beer its foamy head.
While Paul cleans out the remaining “mash” – donated to hungry local goats – the wort is left to boil and Mike and I go forth to Gadds, well-known local brewery, and meet smiley senior brewer Jon Stringer, who shows me round this high-tech version of what Mike has going on under his floorboards.
Gadds supply the yeast. Could I make bread with this, I wonder aloud, as we take the foaming mixture back to our production line. (The answer to this turned out to be no. The resulting bricks defeated even the seagulls.)
After a fabulous lunch made by Mike’s Chinese wife Esther, and a guest appearance by his sunny-natured two-year-old, Alex, it is time for the final act of the day – the transfer of the fledgling beer through a heat exchanger into the fermenting vessel where I pour in the yeast, Paul does yet more cleaning and I retire for a glass of wine to celebrate my small sense of pride and achievement.
If it’s all gone well PJ’s – Plain Jane’s Ale – will be on sale this weekend. If I buggered it up, there’s always rosé…
PJ’s can be sampled at the Four Candles,
1 Sowell Street, Broadstairs. Open Tuesday to Sunday evenings from 5pm (6pm Sundays), Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes noon-3pm.
For more information visit www.thefourcandles.co.uk.
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