Wednesday, November 19, 2008

American? Heaven Forbid

It is always fun delving into the lucky dip that is the CAMRA Beer Club quarterly delivery. I did well this time with XB Bluebird Bitter from the Coniston Brewing Co. It describes itself as an English pale ale with American aroma hops, but "not too much mind, or we might have an American pale ale on our hands". It need not worry about that, it has a bit to go before things stray into APA territory, but it is a tasty beer with distinct citrus hop notes in the American fashion but strange because it is carbonated like an English ale and the combination is a little unusual. The colour is very appealing, and a triumph of bottle conditioning in that it is very easy to pour without agitating the yeast sediment and has perfect condition.

Bottle conditioning is a tricky thing to do well. Brewers are given a number of options in the bottling of live beer and it's hard to know which is best. One question the brewer must address is how the yeast is to be provided with enough extract to condition the beer. One option is to halt the fermentation by cooling the wort before the yeast have used all the sugars. The beer can then be put into cask and bottles where the yeast continue to ferment the wort when things warm up and provide a degree of carbonation in the product. That's very bloody hard to judge, I imagine. Another option is to let the beer ferment out and then add some priming sugar to the bottling tank. This appeals to me as a home brewer because it is exactly what we do and works very effectively, but the volumes involved at the commercial scale might be impractical. Also, there are specific bacteria that just love priming sugar and ruin beer. Another appealing option is to add a measure of freshly fermenting beer to the bottling tank. Termed 'krausening' this has the double benefit of supplying extract for conditioning and also an infusion of fresh yeast that will carbonate the beer in peak condition, but again could prove difficult because the primary fermentation of one batch must be carried out with the bottling of another batch in mind.

Yeast counts are also a problem because too much yeast in the bottle will either give a sludge of dead yeast in the bottom of the bottle or a yeast layer that lifts too easily and fogs up the pint. Some brewers opt to reduce the yeast content to half a million cells per millilitre by cooling the beer in the fermenter thereby encouraging most of the yeast to drop out of the beer. Others roughly filter the beer to remove all the yeast, but leave the tastier components, and then re-introduce a specific amount of yeast to take care of things in the bottle. The yeast count in the bottle must be sufficient to allow conditioning of the beer within a few weeks and also enough to produce a thin uniform film over the bottom of the bottle preventing slippage of the sediment, providing ease of pour.

There is no doubt that it is easier, if a little more expensive, to run your beer through a fine filter to stabilise it and not worry about all these complex considerations, but I am glad that a great many brewers in Britain have persevered with this tricky business to provide us with live, flavourful beers.


David Curran said...

Coniston Brewing Co is one of the better pubs I have been in. Great food and two great beers. I prefer the ale to the bitter.

Also there is a really pretty hill (the old man of coniston) outside the pub so you can do a jaunt up that and then feel like you deserve the beer and pie.

Bionic Laura said...

Another thumbs up for the Coniston brewing company here. The Oliver's Light ale is lovely stuff as well.

Thanks for the explanation of how commerical breweries bottle condition beer. I learned stuff which is always nice.

Leigh said...

sorry to jump on the bandwagon but yeah, Coniston are very good - and very consistent, which is an underrated facet to have these days. The bluebird bitter is a touchstone for the bottled style, in my opinion!!

Anonymous said...

A couple of things -

firstly, Happy New Year!

Coniston's Bluebird, XB, & Old Man for bottling are all brewed & bottled by the same Sussex firm, Hepworths (AKA as Beer Station) they also brew much of the Beer Counter / Ridgeway beers.

(it's very odd seeing this beer at their Black Bull pub in Coniston, or in the local Co-op & Booth's, knowing that it was brewed & bottled hundreds of miles away)

The Coniston beers were previously brewed under licence by Brakspear's, under the supervision of headbrewer, Peter Scholey & he now contracts out production of the Coniston beers at Hepworths, while also running his BeerCounter/Ridgeway.

The brewing/bottling process for BCAs at Brakspears involved arresting fermentation by cooling at a certain point , having first established the "wort attenuation limit". All this is made easier if you have good plant, brewers, lab-techs & equipment, etc.

The beer was then sterile-filtered before a tiny amount of clean (acid-washed) Brakspear yeast was added back just prior to bottling.

Rumour has it that small-scale bottling of some of Coniston's own Cumbrian-brewed beers has been carried out using the contract-bottling plant of this firm -

Enough info for you? :~)
see you anon.

Thom said...

Many thanks for the info. It's interesting that the beer is sterile filtered first. Are there many brewers who bottle condition in a more traditional way without any filtration? I'm interested to know what kind of shelf life can be expected from beer that has not been sterile filtered.

Anonymous said...

In my experience reliable shelf-life of normal strength (3-5%abv) bottle-conditioned beers without filtration is a real crapshoot!

One thing that might support this is that I have only ever seen one beer on a UK supermarket shelf that I know to be entirely unfiltered (& unpasteurised - the brewery only bottles in-house & has no filtration/pasteurisation equipment).

Likewise, if you have a look at CAMRA's annual Champion Bottled Beer of Britain award - AFAIK, every beer that has won has been sterile-filtered & re-seeded with yeast (& possibly priming too). A quick Google finds - Fullers 1845, Young's Special London, Wye Valley DG Stout, O'Hanlon's Port Stout, Worthington White Shield, Titanic Stout, all AFAIK filtered & reseeded. Do you notice something else too? - stronger &/or darker beers doing well in this competition? Do these type of beers maybe taste or keep better in bottle-conditioned form?

For our own beers, previously we were putting a month or 2 Best-Before-Date on & sometimes they'd be off or cloudy before the date was up!

We were contract-brewing at a local brewery & hand-bottling with very simple kit, with no lab, so maybe others could do a better job, but I think it's still a struggle.

I'd like to give it a go on a small scale, with more care & better kit, just to see if we could get it right, but if we don't throw big money at it, it's still going to be very labour intensive.

Even then, if we wanted to deal with supermarkets, etc, they would rightly want to check out our QC practices & probably insist on filtration, plus up to 18months shelf-life!

Thom said...

It is a little disheartening that so little beer is bottle conditioned in a traditional non filtered way. I think it is misleading also because the allure of bottle conditioned ale is the lack of filtration and subsequent stripping of certain desirable flavour components.

I understand that shelf life is paramount from a commercial point of view, but it must be the transport of beer that ruins it because I have any number of bottles of unfiltered bottle conditioned home brew that had a very comfortable life without any temperature fluctuations which still drops brilliantly bright and tastes great.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, it does feel like a bit of a swizz - if CAMRA found out that a brewer was doing the same to a cask beer they'd be up in arms!

Transport may be part of it, but I think there's much more to it.

I remember reading a great article in The Grist (1980s-90s craftbrewers magazine - edited by Meantime's Alastair Hook) it was written by King & Barnes' headbrewer Andy Hepworth (coincidentally now set up his Hepworth/BeerStation & the brewer/bottler of your Coniston beer!).

If memory serves, in the piece, he suggested that at the time K&B *were* bottling unfiltered, but that it demanded incredibly high levels of hygiene - as all it took was one or two cells of spoilage organism to ruin a whole batch. (I think K&B later went to sterile filtration & reseeding, but the beers were great).

Given that many micros & regionals repitch their yeast, have open fermenters & 'top-crop' the yeast, have aging/imperfect plant which might be difficult to get absolutely spotless (but is generally fine for cask beer) all these things seem to add up to no real guarantee of the sort of shelf-life demanded by supermarkets.

What's the answer? I'm not sure, but from the countless times I've had over-carbonated, flat, yeast-bitten, infected, oxidised, etc, usually from small brewer/bottlers, I think something needs to change!

Anonymous said...

Oh & you're absolutely right about filtration "stripping certain desirable flavour components" - in our first attempts, we found that maltiness, body, colour, & hoppiness were all diminished in sterile filtration.

Our answer? - through brewing process & recipe we add back more of these flavours/colours/body to try to ensure they still show up in the finished bottled beer.

So far, on the first tweaked brew back from bottling, we're pretty chuffed.

Oh & just to drink a bit more of the Devil's Advocaat - I'm dubious about how much of those big name bottled real ales really have all of their carbonation naturally produced in the bottle!

Thom said...

Funny you should mention the carbonation because I had a bottle of Shepheard Neame 1698 the other day and couldn't spot any yeast in the bottom of the bottle until I spied a miniscule patch off to one side. I found it hard to believe that this little yeast could carbonate the beer.

I must admit to still being a little shocked at all this so called real ale in a bottle being sterile filtered. I had an idyllic notion that it was possible to get the yeast count down sufficiently, prime and bottle just like home brewers do it, but I also assumed that the more professional kit used in commercial breweries would greatly reduce the levels of spoilage organisms, rendering this form of bottling practical.