I was particularly excited to be brewing at Crouch Vale. Their flagship beer Brewers Gold is a permanent feature on our bar and has previously won Champion Beer of Britain two years in a row. This feat has only ever been managed by one other beer, Madonna’s favourite, Timothy Taylors Landlord. Brewers Gold was eloquently described by Adrian Tierney-Jones recently in The Telegraph after tasting it at The Thatchers ‘as fruity as one of Carmen Miranda’s hats with a finish as dry as the late Dave Allen’s wit‘. When first brewed it was seen as a radical, exceptionally bitter and floral, hugely hoppy beer. Over the years our palates have changed, we have become acclimatised to extremely bitter beers & big hop flavours. Brewers like Crouch Vale, Dark Star, Camden, Brewdog (the list goes on) & the American craft brewers have been gradually ‘turning up’ the hops by finding more bitter varieties and using more of them than ever before. Consequently, Brewers Gold is now seen as a pale, golden, easy drinking session bitter. Thankfully the very nice people at Crouch Vale are zealous hopheads* just like me and are always striving for their next hop fix. Recent beers like Apollo, Yakima Gold & Summit are a testament to their devotion to our refreshment.
A bit about hops before we continue: Hops are from the Cannabinaceae family of plants which includes Cannabis. The alpha acids** in hops isomerise through the boiling process into iso-alpha acids which contain bitterness. Hops also have an antibiotic effect on fermenting beer and when brewers noticed that hopped beers were less prone to spoilage than beers produced with other bittering agents such as gruit, hop usage became widespread, albeit briefly banned in Britain by Kings Henry VI & Henry VIII as this ‘unwholesome weed that promoted melancholly’ was feared to act an aphroadisiac that would ‘drive people to sinfull behaviour’***. Hops play another key role in beer as a major contributor to flavour is our sense of smell. Unfortunately the hop aromas, which come from the essential oils in hop glands, are insoluble and volatile and are typically lost during the boiling process, so in order to take advantage of these aromas hops are also added to the end of the boil or even to the fermented beer (dry hopping).
On arrival at the brewery at 7am I was greeted by Head Brewer Peter & his faithful Labrador Albert and we got straight to work (Albert in fact went straight to sleep in the office). Peter explained that we were brewing a new beer, Galena, named in true Crouch Vale style after the hop we would be using. This was to be the first time Crouch have used this hop, it had been some time since the sample had been sent to the brewery and memories of its exact characteristics were a little hazy, the name wasn’t much help either as Galena is actually lead ore so no clues on the smell there then. Convinced that they wouldn’t have ordered it if they didn’t like it and with an alpha acid rating of almost 14%, we were confident they’d be right up our street. We’d have to wait until later to find out exactly what they were like, those vacuum packed foil bags weren’t getting opened until the very last minute, just in case any of that precious aroma escaped!
We mashed in with 100% Pale Malt, 28x25kg sacks to be precise, aiming for a 28 barrel brew (about 8000 pints). Whilst still a micro brewery, Crouch Vale is considerably bigger than Red Fox or Colchester Brewery, but distinctly smaller and less automated than Adnams. After we loaded the sacks of malt into the grist case I could see I was in for a fair bit of manual labour that day. Thankfully James, general Office Jockey and Director of Wit at Crouch Vale, arrived just in time to film me emptying the 700kg of hot wet malt out of the mash tun.
We added some Challenger & Pioneer hops into the boil for bittering whilst still keeping the 20kg of Galena hops sealed for optimum freshness. When we finally opened the sacks of hops we were met with wonderful aromas of tropical fruits, tinned peaches, apricots and clementines. Quite different to other high alpha hops such as Nelson Sauvin, Citra or Summit which typically have more lemon or grapefruit citrus aromas. Before we’d even finished brewing I was getting excited about tasting this new beer. We stopped the boil before we added any aroma hops and stirred them in carefully, ensuring they were all wet and hadn’t clumped together. Finally we re-circulated the hot wort from the bottom of the kettle over the top dousing the newly added Galena hops giving plenty of opportunity for those essential oils to seep into our beer.
After transferring Galena to the fermenting vessel it was time for something I always thought would be heaven, a hop shower. Climbing into the kettle armed with a shovel and a hose I dug a foot deep bed of soggy hops out from the bottom before proceeding to spray the kettle to remove the hops which were stuck to the top and sides. Being showered with hops and cold water wasn’t quite what my imagination would have conjured up, but I have to say stuck inside that kettle with all those wonderful aromas was actually rather pleasant.
Following all that hard work it time for a drink, I’d taken a bottle of Stone Brewery Cali-Belgique IPA along with me. A typical highly hopped American IPA with a twist, brewed with a Belgian yeast. It’s a beer I’ve had before and loved, but I was keen to share it with my companions at Crouch Vale. On first impressions Colin, owner of the brewery, remarked that it smelt soapy, not a great start! However after a few sips everybody agreed this was a unique beer which belied the 6.1% alcohol, unusual for an American craft IPA that there was very little hop aroma, almost completely masked by the sweet fruit & spicy Belgian yeast aromas. For me the high bitterness, biscuity malt and yeasty flavours make this one of my personal favourite recent finds.
I have made this blog a personal mission to impart as much information about hops as I can in 1000 words. I have researched thoroughly to ensure I am not giving you duff information, but if you would like to know more about hops or almost any beer related subject, I suggest you purchase my main reference material ‘The Oxford Companion to Beer’ edited by the Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver.
* Hophead [definition via Wikipedia]
1) Someone who appreciates highly hopped beer.
2) Pejorative slang, an alcoholic whose drink of choice is beer.
3) An early 1900s American slang term for a user of Opium
** Alpha Acids ‘The Oxford Companion to Beer’ page 34
Found in the resin glands of hop flowers and are the source of hop bitterness. They are ‘rated’ by the amount of alpha acid as a percentage of the total weight of the hop