Let there be beer!

by Steve Renshaw

When this column goes to print, I should be at the Great British Beer Festival in London’s Olympia. CAMRA’s flagship festival, first held in 1977, will have a huge selection of cask ales, together with beers from around the world (plus ciders and perries).

Beer has been brewed across the globe for thousands of years. But cask beer has deep roots in this country. In the 19th century, as the lager revolution spread from central Europe to most other parts of the world, Britain remained loyal to beer made in a time-honoured fashion.

The process of brewing is the same, whether it takes place in a giant brewing factory or in a home brewer’s kitchen. The key ingredient is malted barley. When grains of barley begin to germinate, the starch they contain is transformed into soluble malt sugars. The skill of maltsters is to kick-start the germination and then roast the grains to produce the malted barley. This not only provides the sugars that are vital to producing the alcohol and carbon dioxide but also gives flavour, aroma and colour to the beer.

The brewer crushes the malted barley and soaks it in hot water to dissolve out the sugars. The resulting liquid, known as wort, is pumped off into the “copper” where it is boiled.

Hops are added during the boil to give extra flavour and aroma. The hopped wort is transferred through a cooling system into fermenting vessels, where yeast is added. This digests the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer stays in the fermenting vessel for a number of days, before it is transferred into conditioning tanks or casks.

The vast majority of beer is filtered, and often pasteurised, in the brewery and then run into sealed kegs. It can then be transported to pubs and served by applied gas pressure. Casks of real ale, on the other hand, undergo a secondary fermentation in the pub cellar. This enhances the flavours and produces the natural carbonation which means that the beer can be served direct from the cask or be drawn to the bar using a handpump.

I recently cycled to Bracebridge Heath to visit the new premises of the Cathedral Heights microbrewery. Having been a home-brew enthusiast, Steve Marston set up as a commercial brewer a couple of years ago, just in time to brew a special ale for his wedding.

After a year’s break from brewing, Steve is now back on stream in a unit on the Churchill Business Park. Being a Jack-of-all-trades, he has built his 2-barrel (that’s a 72-gallon capacity) plant from scratch. Every last piece of welding and pipe work was completed by Steve, with some help from family and friends. Having visited a number of larger breweries, it was really interesting to see all the same elements but on a much smaller scale.

Steve’s first brew using the new kit was in June, but he already has six different beers in his portfolio. And they are appearing in local free houses, including the Ritz and the Forum in Lincoln. One frustration for Steve is that, because of beer-tie arrangements, none of the three pubs in Bracebridge Heath have yet stocked his ales. That’s a common problem I’ve highlighted previously.

And what about the beer? Steve kindly let me have a taste of his BBH Bitter (4.3% ABV). It’s a golden colour with a fruity aroma. There’s plenty of hoppy bitterness but it’s not overpowering. All in all, a refreshing treat that set me up for the ride home.

In the words of the new advertising campaign, “Let there be beer!”.