Despite having cupboards and most available flat surfaces overflowing with beer, the start of 2015 saw me run perilously low on hoppy beer. A few bottles of Bad Habit Trappist, slowly improving as it nears the 1-year mark; my cup litearlly overfloweth with Busy B Braggot, tasty but too imposing for a mid-week tipple; I still somehow have several corked bottles of La Rapide, despite it being quaffable and delicious; I have a couple bottles of Clipper, the most anonymous beer I've made; I even have six bottles of stout, so old it pre-dates this blog.
But none of these hits the spot after a long week at work. The intensities and stresses of life in the Square Mile need an equal, opposing force, a hammer of hops to bludgeon your taste buds and cut through the tension. Not something to sip slowly, but a perfumed, fruity, juicy bouqet to amuse your nose while the bitterness slices through the blue language still lingering on your lips from the working week.
If my scant stocks of hoppy beer were JFK's Missile Gap, then my Space Race was legging it straight from work across London Bridge at 8pm a few Fridays ago to grab some beer before it closed. I'm glad I did too, because the beers I bought and drank reinforced a lesson I had semi-learned two weeks before. My last IPAs of any note, Mighty Blighty and Squatch, were deliberately tongue-curlingly bitter. That was, I'd figured, just part and parcel of brewing a modern IPA. I'd assumed that everyone had more or less agreed that they should be as bitter as the human palate could handle or detect. Sure, as the IBUs pass 100, you're probably just wasting hops, but better that than the alternative, because – what if it's not bitter enough?
Back in February a troop of family and friends spent a week skiing in Morzine, in the French Alps. Morzine, it turns out, by beautiful happenstance, is home to the delightful Bec Jaune microbrewery. I say "microbrewery". The set-up is actually much better than the typical under-the-railway-arches set-up you get in trendy hangouts in London, where you freeze your beer-nuts off for most of the year, your non-beer-drinking friends dare not go, and you enjoy the beer despite the experience. Bec Jaune is an actual bar, that just happens to make its own beer. This isn't intended to be a review of Bec Jaune (save that the concept is excellent and needs to be followed over here immediately). The only reason I raise it here in the context of a beer I'm brewing at home is that what struck me most about the pale ales and IPAs I tried – all of them delicious – was that "bitter" was not the first adjective to jump to mind. It was there, but the flavours and aromas were far more dominant.
Interesetingly, Bec Jaune's head brewer used to work at the Kernel in Bermondsey. All of this was playing on my mind when I arrived panting at Oddbins that Friday evening. Naturally, one of the beers I immediately reached for was a Kernel IPA (memory tells me it was Centennial & Mosaic), and filled up the rest of a six-pack with more IPAs from Anspach & Hobday, a newish Bristol brewery the name of which I now forget, Fordham (in 'Murca) and a Bière de Saison from the Kernel (a new entrant to the Kernel line-up, as far as I'm aware. More on him at a future date, I think).
In the name of science, I had the IPAs from the Kernel, A&H and the forgotten Bristol brewery one after another, and sure enough, the Kernel beer was more flavourful, more aromatic and less bitter than the others. Are high levels of IBUs really the IPA Emperor's new clothes?
Squatch Pacfic IPA was my favourite beer when it was fresh. Unfortunately a couple of months later every bottle I opened had been transformed into a terrible gushing mess, but for a short while it was delicious – the mixture of dank and resinous hops just right. It was, if anything, slightly too alcoholic at 7.6% – more of a KO punch than a refreshing summer tipple.
As the hop combo was right, I decided to make it the basis of a slightly toned down version – around the 6% mark. Instead of enamel-stripping bitterness, I thought I would aim for the more pleasant levels found in the excellent beers of Bec Jaune and the Kernel. My hop schedule was similar to the first iteration of Squatch, but I halved the amount of Chinook and replaced it with a wadge of Citra and Columbus in the mash, which is a BIABer's approximation of "first wort hopping", or "FWH" for those in the know. I know for a fact that the Kernel uses FWH, and it's supposed to give a "rounder" sense of bitterness (whatever that means), which is precisely what I was aiming for. By accident rather than design, I ended up evenly splitting my malt bill between Maris Otter and Golden Promise (I meant to buy Pearl). Other than that, the only other thing I changed was a big dollop of Citra in the fermenter to dry hop for 3 days. I threw them in without a bag for the first time – I was afraid it would clog the tap, but obligingly they floated on top and it couldn't have been easier.
I split the batch into three demijohns and chilled them in the fridge for two nights, before bottling 13.5 litres with 4g/L of priming sugar.
100% pale malt (5kg – 50/50 Maris Otter and Golden Promise)
10g Citra at FWH
10g Columbus at FWH
20g Chinook at 70 minutes
20g Columbus at 0 minutes
20g Columbus at 15 minutes after flameout
20g Columbus at 30 minutes after flameout
45g Citra dry hop for 4 days
45g Simcoe dry hop for 4 days
1 packet of Wyeast 1968 London ESB yeast
28.84 L water
Should have been a 15 L batch (but trying to keep the trub out I only managed that much into the FV, and lost a litre or so to dry-hoppage)