Lockdown Brewing

We spend as much time as we possibly can outdoors. Our boys are still small enough to follow whatever we suggest without too much complaint, so most weekends we’re out walking at some point and spend as much of the summer as we can in our tent. Throw in a bit of cycling, cricket, boxercise and Taekwondo (the last two nothing to do with me) and you could say we’re a fairly active family.

Lockdown ended most of our hopes and plans for the summer very quickly, and like most people we started looking for ways to fill our time. Like everyone else we planned some DIY, joined in PE classes with the godlike creature that is Joe Wicks and flirted with some sourdough yeast. I don’t do downtime easily, I’d rather be busy and I get impatient if I feel bored for any length of time. So I made beer. I love everything about brewing: from formulating a recipe and sourcing ingredients to managing the brewing process on the day, then the anticipation while the beer is fermenting and conditioning, and finally the tasting. It’s a really interesting process that challenges your creativity, technical skill, ingenuity and resourcefulness, and has the added benefit of producing something that often makes you feel very happy indeed.

Some of the grains ordered for my first lockdown beers

I wasn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. My go-to homebrew suppliers, the always superb Hop Shop in Plymouth, were quickly overwhelmed with orders and lack of incoming supplies, but somehow managed to keep the wait down to two weeks. I put together an order for four beers and got brewing:

  • an 8% Belgian Brown beer, along the lines of Leffe Brun. We called this one Leffé in honour of an encounter we once had with a grumpy French waiter who pretended not to understand our mispronunciation of the word.
  • Lockdown, an American-style IPA weighting in at around 7% ABV. This is a very bitter and quite angry-tasting beer that I formulated on a particularly frustrating day on furlough. Although when it warms up you get some lovely peachy notes on the nose.
  • Bidon, a French-style biére de garde, again around 7% ABV. This was brewed as a refreshing post-cycling beer with a nod towards the beers Graeme and I have enjoyed on our cycling tours in France.
  • Clipper, a California Commons-style beer (similar to Anchor Steam) at 5.2% ABV.

You may notice a thread common to most of these beers. They’re pretty strong. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Delicious as they are, you just can’t drink 3-4 pints of an 8% beer and expect to be a functional home educator the next day. Most of the Clipper got drunk very quickly; most of the others are maturing nicely in the shed.

So it was back to the drawing board and this time I had to plan some session beers that I could actually drink in the sun. Fortunately, two great local breweries, Bays Brewery and Platform 5/Zombies Inc kept me hydrated and sane with their home delivery services while I got my shit together.

Like many home brewers, I use brewing software to make it easier to put together recipes. I use Beersmith, which allows you to select a target beer style and lets you know if your intended recipe will broadly give you a beer along the lines you are looking for. This is extremely useful and allows you to easily see the impact of recipe changes – what happens if I substitute hop A for hop B, or if I add it to the boil later? Is my stout going to look like a stout? How strong is my beer likely to be? You still need a lot of knowledge, experience and creativity to come up with the beer you want, but in terms of a broad outline of strength, bitterness and colour the software can do a lot of the heavy lifting.

The problem I have is that I like bold beers, usually with strong flavours and higher ABV. I’m definitely more American IPA than English Mild. You next drink could be your last, so make it a good one. And when your friends try your beer, you really want them to go ‘wow, that’s really [insert characteristic]’ rather than ‘hmm, that’s… errr… subtle’. So when I’m formulating a beer, I’m quite often pushing the limits of the style, as you can see below:

Screenshot of part of the style guide for my Lockdown IPA

I’ve selected American IPA as my beer style, and the sliders beneath show the expected results if I brew with the ingredients I have chosen. The green parts of the bars are the expected range for the style, yellow is borderline and red is ‘out of style’. It’s always tempting to make a ‘really hoppy beer’, ‘proper dark stout’, or ‘traditional-strength IPA’ while forgetting the fact that what you really need is a nice session beer to enjoy on sunny evenings sat outside with your wife.

So the big brewing lesson I’ve learned during lockdown is just to be a bit more zen with the recipes. Not everything has to push the limits.

I put in a second order with the Hop Shop and came up with four more socially acceptable beers:

  • Third Man, a 5% golden summer ale brewed with my favourite floral hop, Boudicea. This promises to be a great beer, somewhere between Summer Lightning and Proper Job, and should be ready very soon.
  • Lovefool, a 5.2% rye pale ale which has burst into life with the addition of half a kilo of raspberries. I had an idea to do a family of beers based around the names of Cardigans songs, so in a way this is a proof of concept.
  • An as-yet unnamed coffee porter at 5.5% ABV. We had a fun night adding espresso shot by shot to the base beer to find out how much it needed. I reckon an espresso to every two pints is about spot on.
  • Blaggers’ Brown Ale, an imaginatively named nut brown ale around 5.2%. I put my favourite photo of a 19 year old Sachin Tendulkar on his first day at Yorkshire on the label.
Sachin Tendulakar on his first day at Yorkshire, from the Guardian website

I’ll let you know how they all turn out.

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