Fruit of their labours
How to make the perfect wild-yeast fruit beer. First, find an old, derelict brewery. Second, spill beer everywhere. Then wait, watch and enjoy
Saturday 08 May 1999
The truth is that, while some fruit beers taste like alcopops, others are as complex as pink champagne. The secret is in the building where such a beer is brewed. The atmosphere must contain an invisible life form: old, wild yeasts, which actually live and develop in the breweries over the years. Until recently, such "ghosts" have survived only in a handful of breweries in the Zenne Valley, near Brussels. Now, they have taken up residence in Britain, in the historic town of Stamford, Lincolnshire, at the Melbourn Brothers brewery.
On the whole, these ghosts prefer very old breweries. This one, next to All Saints' Church, stands on a site where beer may have been made in the 1200s, when the town had three friaries and many visiting wool and grain merchants from Flanders. There was certainly an ale house on the site in the 1600s, and some of the buildings clearly pre-date the early 1800s, when the present brewery was built.
The brewery closed in 1974, when its steam boiler was deemed dangerous. Subsequently, the brewery's tied pubs were for a time supplied with beer by Samuel Smith's, of Yorkshire. That arrangement has long expired, but the Yorkshire company has quietly tended and restored the brewery.
Now, with a new boiler, it is sporadically working again. It is an extraordinary experience to see the steam firing life into the 6ft high, 12-horsepower engine that drives the brewery. The iron casings of the engine, immaculately painted in fairground green and red, resound to the thump of its single cylinder until its 3ft flywheel whirs into a blur. The belt- drive to a system of pulley wheels is engaged, and the brewery's grain mill vibrates into action. In a brewery of this vintage, it is possible to see such a process for what it is: a combination of agricultural industry and cooking.
Each activity is on a different floor, so that the grains and water, and the brew, can flow by gravity. The malt is stored in the loft, the mill is on the next floor, the mash-tun, the vessel in which the mash of raw ingredients is mixed, below, then the kettle, the fermentation and maturation cellars and the boilerhouse.
As the three brewers scurry from one level to another, adjusting controls, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that they are enjoying themselves. They sweat and swear, but see and smell the grains, water and hops being transformed into beer. It is rather more sensuous than sitting at a computer watching it all happen on a screen.
The sexiest part is the awakening of the ghost. The idea is to match the style of beer made by the breweries of the Zenne Valley. In countryside much painted by Bruegel, they have persisted with the medieval technique of brewing with the wild yeasts already present in the atmosphere. In these breweries, after the boil, the brew is cooled in an open vessel, into which the wild, airborne yeasts can descend. The breweries themselves are also left relatively uncleaned, so as not to disturb resident yeasts. More wild yeasts live in the fermenters, which are made of wood rather than modern steel.
This type of beer is known as Lambic, probably after the town of Lembeek, in the Valley. Some of the wild yeasts are so distinctive as to have local names such as Brettanomyces Lambicus and Bruxelliensis. Others resemble those used to ferment fino sherry, adding a further allusion of flavour.
Lambic beers are an acquired taste; are costly because they take years to ferment; and require a brewery with plenty of nooks and crannies to accommodate wild yeasts. Nor can any other style of beer be made in such a brewery: the resident wild yeasts would turn it sour. So why take the trouble? Because these beers, a taste of brewing history, have a connoisseur following. And because their tartness is the perfect foil for local fruits in the Valley, such as cherries.
A friendly Lambic brewery supplied a quantity of fermenting beer to Melbourn a few years ago. Some was allowed to reside in Melbourn's swamp-cedar tanks for a period of maturation, but much of it was hosed around the brewery. The idea was to impregnate the Belgian wild yeasts into the fabric of the steamy old premises. Melbourn has since made three brews of its own, fermented with the newly resident yeasts. Every few months, some of this beer has been sprayed around, building up the organisms. This practice is completely unknown in conventional brewing.
The first beer to be brewed at Melbourn, with the further addition of strawberries and apricots, in the form of both whole fruit and juice, is now available in some of the fancier wine merchants. Melbourn Brothers Strawberry Beer seems dry and almost medicinal in the nose, but balances its obvious graininess with a clean, fruity sweetness and a perfumy finish. The Melbourn's apricot version is crisper - and expresses robustly that interplay of sweetness and winey sournes
Melbourn Bros fruit beers are available nationwide from mid-June at Waitrose supermarkets, and from good independent retailers including: Chatsworth Farm Shop, Pilsley, Bakewell, Derbyshire (01246 583392, mail order is also available); County Stores, 52 North Street, Taunton, Somerset (01823 272235); Larners of Holt, 10-12 Market Place, Holt, Norfolk (01263 712323); Peckham & Rye, 21 Clarence Drive, Glasgow (0141 334 4312), 155- 159 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh (0131 229 7054), Unit 11, Main Hall, Waverley Station, Edinburgh (0131 557 9050); Winchcombe Wines, Wichcombe, Glos (01242 604313).
Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts
Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested
George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios
Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?
Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets
Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination
I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title
Life & Style blogs
iPhone 6 'catches on fire and burns man's leg after bending in pocket'
Soylent: Could a slug of nutritionally engineered sludge ever replace the leisurely meal?
Drink alcohol and eat meat to improve male fertility - but cut down on coffee, studies suggest
The inventor of the Facebook 'like' button says he never made a 'dislike' button because he feared the 'unfortunate consequences'
What lies beneath La Perla's 60 years of luxury lingerie?
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver allegedly kicks gay couple off for kissing
Amal Alamuddin calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain: 'Injustice has persisted for too long'
Lord Freud: Tory welfare minister apologises after saying disabled people are 'not worth’ the minimum wage
- 1 Indian footballer Peter Biaksangzuala dies after injuring spine doing somersault celebration
- 2 Jack the Ripper: Scientist who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 3 Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake report claiming that the street artist's identity has been revealed
- 4 Drink alcohol and eat meat to improve male fertility - but cut down on coffee, studies suggest
- 5 Brian Harvey turns up at Downing Street and 'demands to speak to Prime Minister'
£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...
£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...
£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...
£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...