Brew York: Brew Day

Brew York aren’t even two years old and they are already creating some of the UK’s best beer, with countless awards under their belt and a range of their core beers available in many a high street store. So it was a great pleasure to have them give us a shout about doing something for the Tryanuary promotion we have been championing for the last few months. They came up with the idea of opening up the brewery to a few people in the community to give them almost free rein to create a new beer from scratch, and when we say create, we actually mean hands-on grafting! This sounded almost too good to be true, but as always Brew York delivered the good,s so we grabbed the opportunity to make some top-notch beer in some proper big kit!

The day started at 8am, much later than a standard brew shift, but they had to pander to us non-brewing softies still requiring some kip I guess. Nevertheless with this much excitement we were there outside waiting, like kids on Christmas Day, at 7:15am buzzing on Kit-Kats and ideas for the day ahead brewing. We were greeted, and after the obligatory sign in and health check we got straight to the first matter at hand. The brew-up. Tea of course! Well, we are in Yorkshire so nowt starts without a good brew in hand, in a very limited Brew York mug, made straight from the urn that started the Brew York boys love of beer. The urn that launched Wayne and Lee into making home-brew, keeping that water at the perfect temperature so that in the not too distant future they could be making beer professionally. It was a nice touch to be drinking from the vessel that launched a thousand brews and a fabulous start to the day. Great brew, Yorkshire Tea…. solid flavour profile there…

On to the first part of the day in earnest, the grain weigh out. We were going to be making some gargantuan mega brew, a huge version of the Tonkoko; bigger even than the Imperial behemoth released a few months back. Aiming at over 10% for this one we needed some serious grain, just shy of a metric ton’s worth of the stuff and so the day started with just a little bit of exercise. Not many places can, or would want to, mash a ton of grain, so this batch of beer would be done in two batches to be combined at a later point in the process for the final boil. So with that knowledge in hand we got to lifting the mixture of pale malts, flaked oats, roasted barley and other grains all into the  grain hopper. This hopper has a hydrator attachment which enables good mixing of grain and hot water, ensuring all grains are in contact with water, facilitating the movement from this hopper into the mash tun itself. Once the water in the standby vessel was at a good temperature, a small amount was let into the mash tun to cover the base of the unit. This gives a good barrier between the incoming grain and the base to avoid clumping and so a good mix, this initial amount being called the foundation liquor. Once this was stable, the grain bed was opened and the hydrator did its thing, adding hot water to the incoming grain and mixing it up into a thick porridge-like consistency, allowing it to flow down the interconnecting pipe to the mash tun efficiently and without any dry pockets. Dry pockets of grain are bad, as they don’t contribute to the sugar extraction from the grain bail making a less fermentable wort (rhymes with Bert) and so less alcohol comes out at the end. We don’t want that, so it was good to see it all mixing in nicely there.

We need to take a little time here to mention something that is often overlooked in beer drinking, and sometimes even in the brewing process: the quality of the water itself. With water being around 90-95% of the product you drink, surprisingly little is heard about looking after the quality of water or what is done to make your water good for beer. At Brew York they pride themselves on the quality of the water they use, which shows in the final product. Before each brew they check the pH of the water and measure the mineral content so they can gauge what, if anything, needs doing to it to allow the brewing process to go at its optimum. A dark beer prefers a more alkaline water in brewing and the hard water in York facilitates that, but the guys still need to check that it’s around the pH 5.8 mark, adding natural gypsum to help if needs be. Never using chemicals or anything ‘artificial’, Brew York stay as close to nature as possible on brew days, so only natural things like gypsum, chalk or lactic/acetic acid are used. There’s never a pH buffer or anything more complicated: this keeps everything ethical and certainly keeps their logo strap-line “Brewing It Right” intact. Fair play to them too.

It takes twenty to thirty minutes to fill the mash tun, and fill it it most certainly does; this grain bail is right to the limit that this piece of kit can handle which goes to show how much poke the end beer will have. 1200 litres of water at 67°C were used to get the grain into the tun and mashing (steeping) away to get the wanted flavours and sugars out of the grains; this process would usually take around 60 minutes but as this is such a beast we mashed the grain for a good 90 minutes to get every last bit of goodness out. The final water usage for this first batch was 1300 litres, so only a very small percentage of the water was used in the sparge (wash-off) making a really thick and concentrated wort. Good for those little yeasty fellas to get feeding on later.

Once the wort had been mashing for the allotted 90 minutes it was drained into the boiling vessel through a special filtering device that uses centrifugal force, not mesh (via whirlpooling) to make sure no grain escapes the mash tun, which could cause blockages and also burnt flavours once the wort is boiled. This took some time to drain through, so the next batch of grain was weighed out, with a further 450kg of grain to be lifted into the hopper. Obviously all the spent grain needed to be taken out of the mash tun so the new batch could be put in and there are no easy ways of doing it. So out come the spades and the digging of the grain begins: this weighed over 450kg out as it had taken on some more weight from the water it absorbed. Thirsty work indeed. Time for a break: now, what to have in a brewery for lunch…. Yeah…. Pints. Not too many though; there was still plenty of work to be done.

With the first mash done and the first livener partaken of, we moved onto the adjuncts to this beer, the extras that give this beer its memorable flavours. Four ingredients are used to give the original Tonkoko its taste profile and with this more beefy sibling there was no reason to change that, so we set about prepping these ingredients for the beer. First up tonka beans: these come from a tree found in Central and Southern America which grows to around 30m high. They produce a slightly bitter substance, coumarin, which has a similar odour to vanilla. These beans are usually ground up into a rough powder for Tonkoko, but we decided to do it manually as we wanted to put our love and time into the product. To be fair after pounding 50 g of these little fellas we decided that was a foolhardy idea, seeing the mountain that the remaining 700g was making. Still we plodded on. In addition to the tonka bean, we had 750g of pure fresh vanilla beans which had had their insides scraped out and added to the tonka bean to produce a paste, that can be used to infuse the beer once fermented. The final two products, cacao nibs and toasted coconut, will be prepped nearer to infusion date, as their flavours will dissipate over time, unlike the ones issuing from the vanilla and tonka. Once the beer has been fermenting for a few weeks (normally two to three) it will be pumped into an infusion vessel which has large filters on each end, to stop the contents (the coconut, cacao, tonka and vanilla) from going back into the fermenter. This process will continue for 48 hours, after which the beer will be sent back to the fermenter to condition for barrelling.

Once we had completed the task of deseeding all the vanilla and crushing the tonka beans, Lee took us around the new proposed site of their expansion into the next door building; to say we are super excited about what is planned is an understatement. The first main room you come to will be a 20 x 10m open plan room with a full width bar plying all your favourite Brew York beers plus a few extra; there will be open plan seating and along one wall there will be an open plan kitchen manned by none other than Mark from Street Cleaver dishing all sorts of wonderful goodies. There will be pop-up kitchens for other street food traders for as-and-when functions happen, plus at the other end a small ‘pilot’ brewing station will be in operation for small time brewers, and experimental stuff that will be only available on the taps a few feet away. None fresher than that. Then we went to the upper floor, where it will be set out for events like weddings and corporate functions, with plenty of space to mingle and still have access to the main bar downstairs. This opens up a load of room that was being used as storage, so that the main brewery floor can be extended out to hopefully include further fermenting vessels, conditioning tanks but most importantly a dedicated canning area, to enable Brew York to do everything from grain to can themselves. Awesome!

With this tour done, the final batch of grain had mashed in nicely and so we transferred this hot wort into the copper to start the boiling process. This is done to ensure a sterile liquid but also to help promote flavour profiles by driving off volatiles plus also concentrating the final wort, which is useful when you are aiming at producing such a brute of a beer. The liquid was brought to the desired temperature by the use of a huge gas burner that sounds pretty much like an afterburner on full pelt once it gets going. This sent heat into the tank via a set of coiled pipes. Once the wort was boiling it was left to do so for a full 90 minutes, which is longer than a ‘standard’ brew by 30 minutes, but that’s because we weren’t brewing anything near standard here. To add to the final kick of sugar in the wort 100kg of dextrose was added just to make sure the final beer gets over the 10% barrier. Hops were then added, 5.8kg of Columbus in this instance, to impart their flavour to the brew; they were left for the length of the boil to give their bittering qualities. Fifteen minutes before the boil came to its end, 65kg of lactose was added: this is an unfermentable sugar that aids in giving the final beer a slight creaminess and that rich ‘mouthfeel’.

Once the boil was concluded it was passed from the copper to the final fermenting vessel, via a great piece of kit known as a counter flow chiller. Cold water comes in from their cold water tanks on site and passes into the equipment’s cooling metal plates, over which a lattice of pipes run with the hot post boil liquid thus cooling it rapidly. This enables a fast transfer of liquid from the boiling state to a vessel where yeast can be pitched into it without the fear of contamination from local air-born bacteria. A small amount of the liquor was taken off to help hydrate the two kilos of dried yeast that was ready to go. Very much like making bread, you wait till the dry yeast has made plenty of bubbles and is happily foaming over the top of its containing vessel until you add it to your final mix. Only in this case, you have to climb up a ten foot set of steps carrying said foaming vessel to pour it into the fermenting tank. We happily left this part to the professionals, if only for the fact that we’d hate ourselves if right at the very end of the day, the whole thing was called off because ‘someone’ dropped the yeast on the floor from a great height. An initial read of 1.095 was taken on the hydrometer giving us an estimated final ABV of around 10.5-11%, which will do nicely.

With the beer in the tank and already fermenting beautifully, we needed to name it. Many names had been thought up during the day: most were just daft, but some stuck and due to the fact that there was once a Japanese princess called Tonkoko, we came up with something to combine the power of the beer and the strength of this female warrior princess, and so Empress Tonkoko was born. A third of the barrels will be released for the Brew York 2nd birthday bash on the weekend of the 14th April (keep that date free); the other two thirds will be laid down in bourbon casks and aged for a year, to be released for the next Tryanuary event. There are three casks to be used, Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace bourbon, all of which will impart their smokey, rich aromas into this beer to take it even further.

So, with a good clean down, the day was done. And what a day! We had crowned a new beer and a belter we’re sure it will be. Tonkoko is an award-winning beer, Imperial Tonkoko took it to another level. Next, you will kneel before the Empress….

A massive thanks to all at Brew York who kept us informed, entertained and watered throughout the day. Your passion for beer and the people involved in making it is to your credit. It shows in the quality of your product. We look forward to trying this new one at your birthday bash, and thanks again for involving us in the making of it.