Seeking the Bluebird

My friend Peter likes English ales. He brews almost exclusively low-gravity session-type ales – brown ales, milds, and easy drinking bitters. His wife Ina is originally from the Lakes District in England, and on a recent trip there, they re-discovered an old favorite of hers, Coniston Brewing’s Bluebird Bitter. When they came back to Vermont, Peter was very excited to find that a nearby general store actually carried the Bluebird, and he brought me a bottle to try and (of course) to try to clone. I felt I needed to do more than just taste it to get it right, so I went online. I found several homebrewers’ recipes and some additional unofficial information, but I still didn’t feel I had enough. I went so far as to email the Brewmaster at Coniston, explaining who I was and why I wanted to duplicate his award-winning (but hard-to-find in the States) ale. While waiting to hear back, I started to put together a rough plan based on what I already knew – hopped exclusively with Challenger, a mash bill of 95% Maris Otter and 5% crystal malt. I hoped that the brewer would tell me the Lovibond rating of the crystal, the approximate IBU level and the yeast they used.

I finally got an email back from Ian Bradley, Coniston’s owner and brewmaster. I quote, verbatim:
“Hi Scott,
Details as follows: TOP SECRET!”

He went on to confirm the malt percentage and indicated they used a yeast from Sheffield.

Thanks a bunch, Ian.

During my research I did discover that there is a difference between the UK version, a true session ale at 3.7% abv, and the export version, which is what I had tasted, at 4.2% abv. When I put together a recipe for Peter, I pointed out the options so he could brew either one. I chose, for my all-grain version, to brew the export. I’ve added the partial mash recipe at the end, for those that don’t want to or can’t do this all-grain.

Bluebird Bitter (clone)
5 gallons, all-grain

Ingredients:

  • 7.5 lbs. Maris Otter 2-row pale malt
  • .5 lbs. 30°L crystal malt
  • 12 aau’s Challenger hop pellets
  • White Labs Yorkshire Square Ale yeast (WLP037)
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar and 1/4 cup light brown sugar (for priming)

Procedure:
Crush grains. Heat 12 quarts water to 165°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 155°F. Heat another 14 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 24 quarts sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add 8 aau’s Challenger hops. Boil 45 minutes, add rest of Challenger hops. Boil 15 minutes, remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment warm (70°F) for six to eight days, Rack to secondary, age cooler (55 – 60°F) for ten to fourteen days. Prime with a combination of corn sugar and brown sugar, bottle and condition cool (50°F) for two weeks.

OG: 1050
IBU’s: 38

Note on yeast: Bluebird is a bottle-conditioned ale. If you are able to get ahold of a few fresh bottles, this brew could certainly be improved by using the actual yeast, recultured carefully. Peter brewed his version with the White Labs Dry English Ale yeast. I had just gotten in a White Labs shipment which included the Yorkshire (Sam Smith’s) yeast, so I opted to try it here.

Partial mash version, 5 gallons

Ingredients:

  • 3.25 lbs. Maris Otter pale malt (4.5 for the export)
  • .25 lb. 30°L crystal malt
  • 2 lbs. extra-light DME
  • 12 aau’s Challenger hop pellets
  • Dry English Ale yeast (White Labs) or similar
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar and 1/4 light brown sugar (for priming)

Crush grains, steep in 3 gallons water at 152 – 155°F for 60 minutes. Remove grains, stir in DME and bring to a boil. Add 8 aau’s Challenger pellets, boil 45 minutes. Add remaining 4 aau’s of hops, boil 15 minutes, remove from heat. Chill, top up to 5 gallons with pre-boiled and chilled water. Pitch yeast at 75- 80°F. Ferment warm, 70° or so, for six to eight days. Rack to secondary, age ten to fourteen days. Prime with corn sugar and brown sugar, bottle and condition two weeks.

OG: 1037 (1045)
IBU’s: 38

11 Replies to “Seeking the Bluebird”

  1. Thanks for putting this up, I love this beer and I’m originally from near that part of England. I just ordered stuff for the partial mash, though I’ll probably use 4lb Maris Otter since I could only order whole lbs. Couldn’t find 30L crystal so I got caramel 40L, guess it’s close enough.
    Your quoted ratio of 95% Maris Otter to 5% crystal malt would more or less match the 4.5lb: 0.5lb for the export, is that right?

    I’m using Cooper’s Ale Yeast (dry). I have some bottles of Bluebird but I have no experience re-culturing yeast, and I heard that there’s a risk of screwing up the brew if I don’t take enough care with it. Also – is there a possibility of bottle-conditioned beers using a different yeast in the bottle, compared to the brewing yeast?

    Thanks!
    Darren

  2. I meant to say 4.5lb : 0.25lb. So that’s about 95% to 5%. The regular beer wouldn’t that much different actually, 93% to 7% or thereabouts (if I worked it out right).

    1. Your ratios work, Darren. The only issue is that using some extract (to supplement the partial mash) we have no way of knowing what the extract producer used as base and specialty malts. Best we can hope for is to use a British extract (Munton’s, probably) and hope for the best.
      As for yeast, you won’t go wrong with the Cooper’s, and depending on your schedule you might not have time to bring the Coniston yeast up to pitchable quantities – nevertheless, it’s not that tricky – get a quart-sized glass jar on which you can place a stopper and airlock; sanitize it; save the Bluebird dregs – 3 or 4 bottles’ worth should be plenty; boil 2 tbsp. of dry malt extract in 1-1/2 cups water, cool to 80° and add to the Bluebird dregs in the sanitized jar, affix the airlock. Let it work 2 – 3 days, add a bit more wort (something on the order of 1 tsp. of DME boiled in 1/2 cup water, cooled) every other day for a week… total 10 days, a quart of yeast slurry… Good luck!

  3. Hi Scott – thanks for your help.

    I’ve ordered Munton & Fison Extra Light DME which the supplier says is from the UK, so that should be good.

    Based on your instructions I have enough time to work on the Coniston yeast so I’m giving to give it a blast. Just have to drink a few more bottles now 🙂

    Cheers!

  4. Alan – as a VERY general rule, I assume that LME gives 36 gravity points per pound and DME 45 – so 2 lbs. of DME would be approximately 2.5 lbs. of LME. Hope that helps!

  5. Thanks for the reply – just looking again, when I plug the recipe into a calculator (Brewer’s Friend), I get an OG of closer to 1024. The 2lbs of extract seems a bit low, or am I missing something? Cheers!

  6. The Guru,

    Thanks for the recipe and background. So, how did the batch turn out over three years ago? Would you change it up at all (i.e. the yeast selection) as I don’t think my local guy will have that exact WL handy for a brew session this weekend.

    1. Hey John – it did come out pretty close to the target – tasted it side by side with the real thing and I was pleased. I wouldn’t change the grain/malt bill or the hops, but I think you could use almost any “english” ale yeast and get a good result. I’d even think a dry yeast such as the Lalvin Nottingham would work well… Good luck!

  7. Very interesting post, I am a huge fan of Bluebird Bitter and have enjoyed more than a few pints of Bluebird Bitter “served at 58o F in a straight pint glass at the Black Bull Inn Coniston” as the bottle label suggests.
    Out of interest the draught Bluebird Bitter is brewed at the brewery at the rear of the pub in Coniston, but it is quite a small affair, the bottled versions are produced under licence elsewhere in the UK.
    I’m pleased that I have found your Bluebird Bitter clone recipe, can’t wait to give it a go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *