Grapevine

Kathryn McWhirter on what's brewing in the beer world
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The Independent Culture
Weigh and grind your own hops, barley and malt, brew your own beer in a gleaming, state-of-the-art brewery, and design your own label using the ultimate in computer graphics and colour laser printing. Playing brewer at The Great Stour Brewery, in an attractive old building in the heart of Canterbury, bears little comparison to home brewing. Ex-marketing man Toby Mynott and his financers sank pounds 300,000 into ultra-modern brewing equipment and employed a German master brewer, Michael Hoeck, before opening up to the public a couple of months ago. Brewing centres were not entirely new in Britain: there's one in Acton, another near Birmingham. But those, says Mynott, "are more home brewing facilities zipped up. What we have here is a professional brewery scaled down." He hopes ultimately to franchise more around the country.

A commercial brewery would brew, say 10,000 gallons at a go. Here, you make 100 pints in your own individual little copper. "People who have never brewed before can do it all themselves, with help on hand," says Mynott. Your first visit lasts two hours. You design your label while your mix is cooking, add the yeast, and transfer to barrel, which gets taken off to temperature-controlled fermentation rooms, one for lager, one for beer. You return a week later to bottle and label your brew on an automated line. Built- in, up-to-the-minute automated washing ensures sterility between batches - vital if there are not to be off-flavours and hazes.

Consultant Michael Hoeck, who studied brewing and worked in a brewery in Munich before moving to a nearby commercial brewery in Kent, trained the brew house assistants at The Great Stour Brewery and put together the 14 recipes from which aspiring brewers choose: three lagers, three bitters, two stouts, a porter. "They can bring their own recipes if they want and use what they like, unless it's eye of toad or something," says Mynott. "Someone has just faxed us a recipe from the 1600s, a bushel of this and that - we'll do our best to accommodate anything. We can guarantee the quality of the beers made to our own recipes, though."

All the ingredients are Kentish, and intended for professional brewers. Purists might object to the use of malt extract but, as Mynott and Hoeck point out, few amateur brewers would want to hang around for the five hours it would take to extract their own. "We get the flavour you lose in not doing a full mash by adding grist bags [large 'tea-bags' of ground, malted grain] and by using different types of malt," says Hoeck.

Because you brew it yourself for personal use, you pay no tax. But you have to become a member (pounds 6.50 for 3 months, pounds 20 to pounds 37.50 for a year) before you brew, and sign a declaration that you will not sell any of your personal ale. You pay between pounds 40 for 100 pints (for a bitter or mild) and pounds 67 for a Maerzen German lager.

The Great Stour Brewery 01227 763579

IF YOU'VE no time to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury, there are some excellent new ready-brewed beers to take home this summer.

My favourite among these recent arrivals is a fascinatingly complex Samuel Adams Boston Lager (pounds 23.76 for 24 x 330ml Majestic), which is sweetish and fruity with wonderful herby and spicy flavours. Also at Majestic, and on special offer until 29 July, look out for the deliciously soft, malty Dortmunder Union (just pounds 15.60 for 24 x 330ml, normally pounds 18). The German-style King & Barnes Wheat Mash (pounds 1.39 per 550ml Oddbins) manages to be gently bready and invigoratingly hoppy, and Sainsbury's Nazdravi Czech Beer (pounds 2.99 for 4 x 330ml) is very good, hoppy, creamy and full. Nazdravi, incidentally, means "cheers" in Czech; this is the beer sold as "Primus" within the Czech Republic itself.

Drink those in the sun. But for wet weekends this summer, head to Tesco for a couple of real stunners of a more substantial kind. Normans Conquest Extra Strong Ale (pounds 1.25 for 330ml Tesco) from the Cottage Brewing Co in Somerset, is an intensely fruity , very savoury, almost stout-like beer, with dark, roasted malt flavours.

Another favourite of mine, which certainly matches the Boston Lager above when it comes to complexity and harmonious flavour, is the Belgian 1996 Chimay Bleu Bottle Conditioned Ale (a real snip at just 99p per 330ml). What it offers is a fascinating combination of spicy, savoury, malty and orangey flavours.

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