It's Monday evening and once again I start the week with a quiet drink at the Golden Bee in Stratford-on-Avon. Tonight though I had a pint which brought back very happy recent memories. Last year I reached the half century and for my 50th birthday my brothers and sister bought me a one day brewing experience at Sadlers Ales near Stourbridge in the West Midlands. The perfect gift for me!! A chance to live my dream for a day. I knew very little about Sadlers Ales but I had managed to sample a pint of Hop Bomb in Stratford-on-Avon a couple of weeks before my experience was scheduled and I was suitably impressed with the explosion of hops on the palate from the pale 5.0% ABV Brew.
The first Friday in May was requested and the brewery quickly responded to confirm the date. I booked two nights accommodation at the Lamp Tavern in Dudley, an excellent traditional Bathams pub, so I did not have far to travel in the morning and I had somewhere to recuperate after a hard day brewing. After a comfortable night I arrived at the Windsor Castle Inn (home of Sadlers Ales) for 9.00.am where I met the brewer, Sam, and a fellow 'trainee', John, from Portsmouth. Immediately I was offered a drink (good start) but having had a 25 minute walk from Stourbridge I opted for a glass of water. I figured I'd get plenty of opportunities later on to sample their fine looking array of beers.
As I write this it is now three months since my experience so memories may not be totally accurate. However, the day was so memorable it has stuck in my mind fairly well I think. After a brief 'getting to know each other' chat we left the bar and went into the brewery at the back of the pub. Sam gave us an informative and concise explanation of the brewing process and we were soon ready to brew.
The beer being brewed was JPA, a 3.8% ABV hoppy bitter. To start things off we had nine sacks of malt to chuck into the hopper where it mixed with the water flowing into the mash tun. The water was heated to 78 degrees I think. Sam insisted we shared the workload so it was three sacks for each of us. Climbing the step ladder with a bag of malt on my shoulder was not as easy as I imagined but while the water was streaming into the mash tun we managed to get all nine sacks in without a problem. Added to the malt was also a small amount of a fine white powder to 'burtonise' the water. The water was eventually shut off when the texture resembled a thick porridge. It was then left to sit there for about 75 minutes and during that time the sugars in the malt get extracted.
After all that hard work it was time for breakfast. A delicious sausage sandwich was washed down with a pint of JPA, the beer we were brewing. It certainly had a beautiful hoppy taste. After this wholesome breakfast it was back to the brewery where we were shown how to clean the casks. This was a mainly mechanical process but there was plenty of lifting the casks into position. The opening was lowered onto a pole which spewed out jets of water to wash out the inside and a power washer cleaned off the outside. During this process I chose a half pint of Magic Miles to quench my thirst, their monthly special for May, a strong ruby mild that turned out to be my favourite beer of the day.
The cleaning was interrupted by the next stage of the brewing process. The wort (the name given to the sweet sugary liquid we had created from the first stage) had to be transferred to the next vessel where it would be boiled. We had a taste of it at this stage and it was just a very sweet sugary drink. Not unpleasant but not something to drink by choice either!!
With the wort boiling away it was back to the cask cleaning. We were also shown how to break up the hops ready for the hopping process later on. With JPA being a hoppy beer we had to get a vast amount of hops broken up (about 8kg I think) and ready to mix into the wort. The hops came vacuum packed (American Citra hops for this particular beer) and we had to break it all up by hand. John began this arduous task and I carried on cask cleaning.
The time quickly passed and it was soon lunch. We had a table reserved in the bar where we had a delicious hop pickers platter along with beer-battered chicken and a bowl of chunky chips. Much more than we could manage and it was all washed down with some Thin Ice (an extremely pale ale of 4.5% ABV). I found this beer a little too harsh for my palate. A citrus bitterness with an acidic aftertaste.
Before the hard work began for the afternoon there was time to grab another half. This time I tried the Red House, a traditional black country mild. At 4% ABV it did not have the same magic as the Magic Miles but it made an interesting comparison between what was essentially the traditional mild I was used to growing up and a more modern and stronger mild bursting with flavour.
To begin the afternoon I swapped tasks with John and eventually the hops were ready and the casks were clean. By now my hands and jeans were covered with the green oily resin from the hops and the aromas were quite powerful. For me, it was back onto the step ladder to complete the final hopping. Sam had been adding hops to the wort at various intervals and I added the last lot for a final 15 minutes of boiling. For this, you have to imagine holding your hands over a boiling kettle while stirring in the hops with a large metal paddle. The rubber gloves offered little protection from the heat so my hands were as warm as toast afterwards.
While the brew was boiling away for the last few minutes we had to clean out the spent malt from the mash tun. This involved shovelling the (still warm) malt into the plastic sacks they arrived in. These were later collected by a very grateful local pig farmer who paid for the 'feed' with some trays of eggs. Bartering at its best!!
The boiling was now complete and the liquid had to be transferred to the fermenting vessel where the yeast would be added and the liquid would slowly become the beer that would be drunk in 3-4 weeks times. For this process to work the liquid had to be cooled as it transferred and it had to enter the fermenters at a temperature of about 20-22 degrees. The original gravity was measured at this stage too and thankfully it was about 4.0, slightly higher than the finished beer was due to be. Water can be added to reduce it but if it had been too low this could not be rectified so easily. After a bit of trial and error (it's too warm, now it's too cold, now it's too warm again) it flowed nicely into the fermenter at a steady 21.5 degrees and Sam the brewer was a happy chappy.
The final process was to fill some casks. One of the fermenting vessels was full of Worcester Sorcerer which was ready to go. This is a traditional golden English best bitter at 4.3% ABV and coincidentally it was also the next beer I sampled. It was not quite as bitter as I like my Best Bitters to be but it had a nice creamy texture and a well-rounded aftertaste. John and I both commented on the amount of wastage at this stage as the casks overflowed to ensure they went out full. We were probably just thinking how we could have put the wastage to good use!!
So that was the end of the brewing for the day. Me and John were both exhausted and we retired to the bar to sample three more beers. A pint of Red IPA (an amazing 5.7% ABV IPA with a deep red colour) was followed by a pint of Mud City Stout (a fabulous chewy stout at an impressive 6.6% ABV). Finally, Dr Hardwickes Double IPA (an even more impressive 8.5% ABV) completed the day.
It was only 6.00.pm but I was ready to collapse. Sam was a very entertaining and knowledgeable young host who had only been brewing for a few months. He clearly loved the job and was extremely conscientious and detailed in ensuring everything was done right. As I was quick to tell him, he's a lucky man to be doing a job that some people (like myself) pay good money to experience!!
If you love beer this a day you will never ever forget. Everyone at Sadlers Ales was very very friendly and this added to the experience. The Windsor Castle Inn is a fantastic pub and the Sadlers range of beers has something for everyone. I have always had a dream of running a brewery. I now know it is something I could do and enjoy. The process it not difficult to learn. It is physically demanding though and at my age I would probably need a 'young helper' like Sam!! If I had the cash to invest I would seriously consider it. My dream has certainly not gone away. A three day Brewlab course is next on my list at some point and I will be sure to let you know when I have it booked.
Back to the present and tonight I had a pint of Sadlers Sundown. I don't usually take too much notice of beer tasting notes when it starts to go into details of the different fruits lingering on the palate and such like. However, the description of a bronzed ale with a grapefuit taste was extremely accurate. You could close your eyes and the aroma of grapefruit was very strong. It looked lovely and there was a delightful bitter finish. It was only 3.8% ABV but it tasted stronger. Perhaps I'm slightly biased towards Sadlers now after my brewing day but I did find this to be a very pleasant beer.