Despite being a long time beer lover, up until now my passion for the hoppy stuff has only lead me to brewery tours and extensive quizzing of any brewer I come by. These guided tours usually consist of a quick whip around the facilities, some chat about the brand and the basics of making beer, and then maybe a free pint at the end, which, let’s be honest, is the real reason most people go on a brewery tour. So when the lovely folks down at Sharp’s Brewery invited me to Cornwall for a ‘brew day’ to make London Beer Week’s official beer, Botanicale, I assumed it would be much of the same, but lucky for me, I was wrong.
Our host for the day was Aaron McClure, Sharp’s Technical Brewer, and the mastermind behind the recipe for Botanicale, the base and backbone of which is a classic wheat beer with added citrus, coriander, and juniper for depth. Joining us on the brew was Tarquin, of Southwestern Distillery, who Sharp’s Brewery collaborated with last year to create The Hopster gin, which as the name suggests is a gin flavoured with hops.
The day begins nice and early with a full safety briefing and a run down of some of the technical terms. After the short intro, we make our way down to the pilot plant clad in high-vis and some eye-wear that would be dead trendy in East London. At 10AM sharp we start the process of ‘mashing in,’ which is the method of adding ‘hot liquor’ (brewers’ speak for hot water) to various types of malt to create what is essentially a giant porridge. According to McClure, British malts are considered to be some of the best in the world thanks to their high enzyme, but low protein content.
The hot liquor starts at a temperature of 73 degrees but cools down to 65 degrees, the optimum temperature for enzymes to work, once it reaches the mash tun and meets the malt. From here, it takes about an hour for the enzymes to work their magic converting starches into sugar to create the wort, a sugary liquid that will be fermented by the yeast to create alcohol. Depending on the type of beer being made, enzyme conversion times vary - if left for too short a time the beer ends up very thick and sweet, while leaving it too long results in a thin beer that isn’t sweet enough - a delicate balancing act to be sure!
Botanicale is a wheat beer with a healthy measure of pale malt and a dash of caramalt to round out the grain bill. Because wheat doesn’t have a husk, it is trickier to brew than barley, which has a husk that acts as a natural filter. Additionally, wheat grain contains extra proteins that gives the beer a great head but can sometimes make it cloudy in appearance, an aesthetic that sharply divides the brewing community.
After the enzymes have been left to convert for an hour it’s time to sparge, a process that sounds like some form of medieval torture. Sparging is the act of spraying hot liquor (water) on top of the wort in order to separate the remaining sugars from the grain, while extra heat reduces viscosity and denatures the enzymes. The sparged wort is then transferred to the kettle where it is boiled for up to an hour.
During the boil is when Botanicale’s hops get added; Aurora hops go in right at the start of the boil to add bitterness, and then again at the end along with Citra hops to create aroma. Also added at the end of the boil is coriander and citrus peel – pink grapefruit, lemon, and orange – to give it that classic wheat beer flavour, before the liquid is cooled and then fermented with Sharp’s Brewery’s own strain of yeast. Juniper is introduced through the process of ‘dry hopping,’ meaning that it is added after fermentation, which takes about 5 days, in order to maximize flavour and aroma.
After a long day of brewing, we were treated to some Cornish pasties and a tutored tasting of Sharp’s Brewery’s full range with Ed Hughes, the resident beer sommelier. And so, while our little beer baby fermented in the tank below, we tasted some other classics including Chalky’s Bite, an homage to a Belgian style triple that’s named after Cornish chef, Rick Stein’s, dog, and Doom Bar, one of the UK’s best loved ales, 2 pints of which are consumed every second.
My sneak peek into the life of a brewer has given me a whole new appreciation for a beverage that was already close to my heart. In addition to having an excellent palate, a great brewer must be both a mathematician and a scientist, getting the ratios right is the difference between an average brewer and a real Einstein!
Botanicale is only available in limited quantities so grab it quick at The Beer Edit.