I've been a home brewer for quite a while now, and I've always been pretty pleased with the results – it's always come out tasting like beer (without that odd homebrew tang that I got back in my "beer in a bag" days at university), and when I've given it to other people to try, the feedback has been pretty good.
Like many other home brewers, I've always daydreamed of brewing on a bigger scale than my little 5-gallon setup, so when my favourite brewpub, The Bull in Highgate (now moved to a bigger brewpub as London Brewing), offered me the chance to brew my coffee porter with them it was like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one.
I've read (enviously) of other bloggers going into breweries but I've always been worried on two fronts. Firstly, that breweries have a business to run and would rather be getting on with brewing their own beer rather than whatever crazy ideas bloggers come along with, and secondly that they must get a bit fed up with some idiot amateur getting underfoot!
However the more I chatted with Jenna, the brewer at The Bull, the more I realised that my fears were misplaced. Brewers are always a friendly bunch, and as we talked it seemed that she was as excited by the idea as me.
I handed over my recipe, fully expecting a professional brewer to have plenty of modifications, but aside from a slight bump in aroma hops and a minor drop in ABV the only thing Jenna had to say was "hmm, we might have to order some of these ingredients in".
So at a very uncivilised hour one morning this week, I found myself descending into an alarmingly low-ceilinged cellar (which is where the fermenters, grain and hops all live) to start the brew day. Any lingering doubts about just how hands-on my day was going to be were quickly dispelled when Jenna handed me the sheet with my own recipe scaled-up, pointed out the grain buckets and scales and invited me to get weighing out ingredients.
When I brew at home, I usually use a bucket like this for my whole grain bill. These four are just the adjuncts – what you can only see the edge of is the two full sacks of pale malt also destined for the beer.
The LBC kit is a fairly traditional 2.5BBL setup, which means that – apart from the obvious size difference – the brew day was reassuringly familiar, especially as their kettle and mash tun are in their kitchen too! So we started by warming and then filling up the mash tun with hot liquor…
A hose is a lot easier than the jugs I have at home – clearly this experience is going to increase my desire for some upgrades.
Next, the grain was added and mashed in.
This was more of a two-person job than at home. I'm grateful to my photographer for not getting any pictures of me struggling to pour in a whole sack of grain in without killing anyone or throwing it all on the floor, as it wasn't my most elegant hour. But in no time we were all mashed in, the lid was on and it was time for a coffee.
An hour later and it was sparging time. I want a sparge arm at home - this is way easier than trying to gently pour near-boiling water over the grains out of a jug!
Sadly there's no pump for the next stage; the wort was transferred in exactly the same way as it is at home – by bucket and arm power. The difference, of course, is that my little mash tun can only hold one bucketful of wort so you can (to an extent) leave it to it's own devices. With the larger volumes, it was a continual process of pouring bucket after bucket into the kettle.
So, boiler on, and it was time for another coffee, right? Wrong.
Look, it's a beer blogger digging out a mash tun! Well, I suppose I did fill it in the first place. Actually, if anything this was an easier job than at home, because you can fit in a shovel rather than having to use your hands.
It took a lot longer for so much wort to reach boiling than in my own little kettle, but eventually we got there, and it was time to add the first hops. Yes, I do seem to have spilled a few.
And while that was boiling, it was time to address the coffee. I didn't want to throw it straight into the kettle, as I know from experience it can clog things up, and I was fairly sure that if I filled Jenna's heat exchanger with coffee grounds, she'd never speak to me again.
So instead I fashioned a giant coffee bag out of muslin, ready to soak with the aroma hops once we finished the boil. We extended the soak time a little, as obviously the coffee didn't get to circulate as much as it would loose, but by the end you could smell the aroma nicely.
After that, the wort was pumped down to the cellar and into the fermenter – cooled down to a yeast-pitching friendly 20C by the not-filled-with-coffee-grounds heat exchanger. A quick gravity check and we were within a whisker of our target, only needing a few litres of liquoring back (or, for the less technical among you, "chucking in a bit more water"), and the yeast went in to start their vital work.
There was one last vessel to clean but at least the boiler was only filled with hop debris and not coffee grounds.
So the beer is now safely tucked up in the fermenter and in a few weeks I'll be able to taste my very own coffee porter, in a real pub, in a real glass, just like a real beer.
And you're all more than welcome to join me – the tentative launch date is 12th November, and I can think of no better way to repay the kindness of Dan, Jenna, Jack and the team than to get as many of my friends down to drink them dry!
HUGE thanks to all the London Brewing Co folk down at The Bull for being such warm, friendly hosts and letting me loose!
This post was originally published 17th October, 2013. It was last updated 1st June, 2023.