Head Brewer Alex Lawes offers a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes at the McGargles brewery, and the workload required to turn raw materials into delicious beer.
You’re not so much a brewer at times as you are a fireman. You’ve a fire to put out 24/7 between deliveries being delayed, making sure your team are happy and positive and making sure production doesn’t ground to a halt in the midst of all the stuff we’ve got going on here. Brewing beer is the easiest and most enjoyable part of your day when you consider all that.
I know people reckon the brew begins when you mill grain into the mash but in reality you have to keep a close eye on all your materials before you get near that. We all take ownership of the quality of malt, hops and yeast that comes in the door and even the water that comes through the pipes. We get roughly the same hops throughout the year but the malt is a different story. Malt batches change very regularly and it’s important to check the quality and analysis on each batch that comes through. We even work with one supplier who malts our batch of grain to order each time! Taking your malt for granted and using the same basic recipe could be the difference between a red ale at 4% or a jet black porter thing at 5.1%. Ignore analysis sheets at your own peril, but the sheet only tells you part of the story. If it doesn’t smell good, break well between your fingers or taste how it should – don’t put it in your beer.
Much of what we do is about planning ahead. We always have an existing yeast plan four weeks in advance of a brew. In the space of a week, Preet, our microbiologist, will grow our yeast from microscopic proportions right up to a quantity of 250L that we pitch into the beer. This is a first generation strain of yeast which we draw from and selectively use for a certain number of generations. I’ll know what we need to deliver our customers about two months in advance so we know when we need a new generation and I can plan that in too. Then it’s on to the kieve, lauter, kettle and whirlpool before hitting the FV (Fermentation Vessel).
All these words refer to stages in the brewing process, the basics being Mashing, where the barley and other grain are mixed with water and heated in a vessel known as a Mash Tun or here a Kieve, which causes a release of the malt sugars. The resulting substance is known as the Wort.
In a process known as Lautering, the Wort is then separated from the grains in a Lauter Tun, and the remaining extract is rinsed or sparged with hot water. After that, we move onto Boiling, during which the Wort- along with additional ingredients – is boiled with hops in a Brew Kettle. During the boil a series of reactions take place, including sterilisation and the release of hop flavours. After the beer leaves the kettle it will not see the atmosphere again until it is poured by the publican.
When the boil is finished the solid particles in the Wort are separated in a Whirlpool. The Wort is then cooled down to Fermentation temperatures before yeast is added. Fermentation takes place in our big FV’s. The yeast then converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide and then you’ve got yourself beer. There are lots of methods of fermentation and we use several different regimes that work for us depending on the flavour we want the yeast to produce.
The beer is cooled again and is then allowed to Mature or Condition for a week to a month, the length of which depends on the style of beer. After that, it’s a case of packaging and distribution before the beer finds its way to our lovely customers.
The length of time it takes to complete a brew can vary depending on style but the median here tends to be roughly 14 days from start to finish. We put it in the tank, monitor here and at home, taste its progression every day before we keg it up and say goodbye. We don’t hold too much stock as we try to keep our beer as fresh as possible so we brew regularly rather than building up beer.
At the moment, we are brewing 24 hours a day in eight hour shifts. Over the day we will do four separate brews, a number we hope to double after we commission our new Upperback. We’re at that right now, and I’m here worrying about the brewery grinding to a halt while we plug it in, but I’ll deal with that fire when it happens.