As anyone who has read any of my articles, or posts in the forum will know, I am a pretty obsessive amateur brewer. And, like most amateur brewers, I harbour the dream of going professional and brewing for a living.
Now, I have no formal training in brewing and have learned everything I know about the subject from books, the internet and trial and error. I would like to think that, at this stage, I have a fair bit of brewing know-how, but how much this applies to the world of commercial craft brewing, I have no way of knowing.
From their website: http://www.brewlab.co.uk
“What is Brewlab?
We are a recognised centre for brewing studies and microbiological services, based at the University of Sunderland in the North East of England, and have been trading since 1986.
We teach various brewing courses such as Start Up Brewing and British Brewing Technology and also provide specialist training in taste evaluation, microbiology and small scale bottling.
Our analyses services assist brewers with quality control, Tax & Excise compliance, and yeast storage and culturing. The due diligence service helps breweries to maintain quality and to comply with industry codes of practice.”
I signed up to their three day Start Up Brewing course and, on April fools day, I got on a plane to the UK (coincidentally, I gave up smoking on April fools day, a few years ago, so it is becoming a significant date for me).
The University of Sunderland is surprisingly easy to get to, from Dublin and I had an easier time travelling to the course than many of the UK based attendees. €80 got me a return ticket for an Aerlingus flight direct to Newcastle and for £2.70 I got a metro from the airport to a stop a ten minute walk from my B&B in Sunderland.
The course itself started at 9:30AM on Monday the 2nd and, after a welcome and some introductions, we got straight down to it, with Dr. St. John Usher (simply known as Saint), giving us an overview of the brewing process.
The first day covered Brewery Design and Layout, Equipment, Malt and Hops, Water and Yeast, and accounts and Business planning, in five lectures, with four different lecturers. Two much needed coffee breaks were slotted in and lunch was provided.
After the first day of lectures was over, at 5:00PM, we were herded into a minibus and taken to Fitzgerald's, a pub in the centre of Sunderland, offering 10 different cask conditioned ales, where Saint bought us all a pint.
I ended up drinking five or six pints, having a curry with a few other attendees and heading to bed.
The next morning, it was back to class with Saint teaching us about recipe formulation and the important subject of cleaning and hygiene.
After the 10:30 coffee break, an enlightening lecture on accounts and business planning was given by Richard Gay, who managed to make the subject, not only interesting, but understandable to the likes of me. No mean feat, I can tell you.
After lunch Wort Boiling and Chilling, Fermentation, Beer Conditioning and Racking casking and Fining, were covered in two hours of lectures on the process of commercial craft brewing. This was a tag team effort, as Chris Holliland and Saint conspired to cram all this information into our brains.
A change of subject followed the afternoon coffee break, with Jill Bennison advising us on the basics of starting a business, in a one hour lecture.
A trip to a computer lab followed this lecture where Saint provided us with CD's full of excel sheets and templates designed to help you calculate the likes of Tax and Excise, Bottling profit and loss, etc. Unfortunately, it took a while for us all to get logged into a computer and then some mistakes were discovered on the CD, so Saint took them back off us and promised to post us updated ones.
After this, we had a look at the 100 litre pilot brewery, in their lab and headed to Fitzgerald's, for more cask conditioned ale. I followed this with another curry, with a couple of prospective brewers from the course.
The next morning was an early start. At 8:30 we met up and piled into the minibus for my favourite part of the course; the brewery visits.
First on the itinerary was The Bull Lane Brewery. This is a tiny little 2.5 Barrel* plant shoehorned into a pub cellar. They do sell casks on the open market, but mostly they brew cask conditioned ale for the two pubs they own.
Next stop was Mordues Brewery. http://www.morduebrewery.com/ In contrast with the Bull Lane Brewery this is a 20 Barrel* plant, located in an industrial estate. It was here that I got my first real life look at the plastic casks some breweries are using now. Saint commented on them, but he didn't seem to be a fan. They are much cheaper than steel casks, but they can be prone to splitting and cracking.
After Mordue we headed for the Wylam brewery. This 10 Barrel* plant has been installed in A disused farm building. The farmer not only leases the building to the brewer, but also benefits from having a constant supply of spent grain, to feed to his cattle. Apparently it makes a very good feed, resulting in premium prices for his beef. The hops are spread on the land, where they compost.
The last brewery on the list was High House Farm Brewery. http://www.highhousefarmbrewery.co.uk/
High House farm suffered badly from the foot and mouth epidemic of a few years ago, so Steven Urwin, the owner and operator, went to Brewlab to learn how to brew. In 2003 he opened this impressive 10 Barrel* brewery, aided by farm diversification grants. As well as the brewery, which includes a small scale bottling set-up, he has a small bar, gift shop and visitors centre. Located as he is, a stones throw from Hadrian's Wall, he is well placed for the tourist trade. The information centre opened in the last months of 2006 and has already exceeded expected visitor numbers for the first year.
After our visit to High House Farm, we headed back to Sunderland and lunch and a pint in Fitzgerald's, courtesy of Brewlab.
The last class of the course was Flavour and beer quality assessment. This consisted of tasting and identifying sweet, sour, salt and bitter, followed by beers which had been spiked to exhibit beer flaws, like DMS, or acetic sourness.
After the course broke up and we said our farewells, I joined another attendee in a few more cask conditioned ales, in a couple of pubs, including “Killer Bee” by Brewlab's sister company, the Darwin Brewery.
Overall, I found the course very good. The lecturers were informative and willing to answer any questions we had. They even gave us their phone numbers in case we have any questions in the future.
The notes provided with the course were excellent. A thick folder of printouts and articles, on every conceivable aspect of the brewing industry, was given to each of us on the first day and I still haven't managed to get through it.
The other attendees ran the gamut from people finding out exactly how beer is made, to one man who already had his premises and was expecting the equipment for his 5 Barrel brewery to arrive two weeks later.
On the down side, form the point of view of an Irish brewer was the focus on Cask conditioned ale. I understand that this is the most accessible market for British micro breweries, but other packaging options were barely mentioned, which I think is a mistake.
Naturally, much of the information on tax, excise, grants, business resources etc. was focused on the UK and while much of the information for Ireland would be similar, you would have to check it out yourself.
To sum up, if you want to find out about the commercial side of brewing, this three day course is well worth the money and time it takes. Even though much of the information about the actual brewing process was already known to me, it was good to know that it IS done the same way on a commercial scale. A lot of things fell into place in my head, thanks to this course and I feel that I have a much clearer view of how commercial brewing actually works.
* 1 Barrel = 36 Gallons (UK) = 43.2 Gallons (US) = 1.64 Hectolitres = 164 litres