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

Breaking News: Bigfoot Sighting!

OK, I really like big beers. Belgian Tripels, Imperial Stouts, Old Ales, I enjoy contemplating the complexities of life through the huge flavors, over-the-top hops and higher alcohol content of the brewer’s extreme offerings. ‘Tis the season for the annual release of Sierra Nevada’s Barleywine, “Bigfoot”. I got my hands on a six-pack today and enjoyed one as a reward for grinding the grains with which I am going to brew tomorrow, and another while watching my favorite TV show tonight, “Leverage”.  Gotta tell you, I don’t remember as good a vintage as this 2010.

First contact: Gorgeous reddish-amber, crystal clear, and a well-developed off-white head.

Aroma: Hops dominate, but there is a lot of caramel/burnt sugar/general maltiness plus a wave of alcohol. The label says 9.6% abv. I believe it.

Body/mouthfeel: this is a rich beer, full-bodied and smooth. Not syrupy by any means, but definitely more of a mouthful than average. The carbonation levels not only make it “lighter” in body than it could be (and thus more eminently drinkable) but also really help bring out the hop bite. You get fizzy bubbles, but when they burst you get an awesome hop flavor.

Flavor: More hops than malt, but almost as much alcohol as hops. It’s bitter, as it should be but it’s also sweet. And  bitter again, and malty and sweet again… Folks, there’s so much going on in this beer you can lose track. Bread, raisins, bitter hops dueling with caramel,  molasses, not at all fruity, and seriously bitter… Did I mention that it’s pretty bitter? But in a good way….

Go get yourself some and see what you think.

Timeless Style – Brewing an ESB

I forget about certain styles of beer, sometimes. In my obsession with exotic Belgians, rich Stouts, big Scotch Ales, malty Lagers, and so on, I often ignore the relatively simple Pale Ales, Brown Ales, Bitters, etc. And then something catches my eye in the store, perhaps a new version of a classic, and I know I need to go back to basics and brew something timeless and uncomplicated.  This morning’s ESB recipe is based on the classic English pub-style Extra Special Bitter – a bit more than a pale ale, a little richer, a little bigger, but still pretty simple to brew and to enjoy.

Tower Bridge ESB

Ingredients:

  • 7-1/2 lbs. Maris Otter pale malt
  • 1/2 lb. 20°L crystal malt
  • 1/2 lb. flaked barley
  • pinch (about an ounce) chocolate malt
  • 1/2 oz. East Kent Goldings pellets @4.5% aa
  • 1 oz. East Kent Goldings pellets @5% aa
  • 1/2 oz. Fuggles pellets @4% aa
  • 1/2 oz. whole Fuggles hops @5.7% aa
  • White Labs Essex Ale Yeast WLP022
  • 2/3 cup corn sugar (for priming)

The night before brewing, crush malt.
Heat 13 quarts water to 164-166°F. Mash in crushed grains and flaked barley, hold at 152°F for 75 minutes. Heat 13 more quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 24 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boil, add 1/4 oz. of the 4.5% EKG hops. Boil 45 minutes, add the 5% EKG hops. Boil another 15 minutes (60 so far), add the Fuggles pellets. Boil another 15 minutes (75 to this point), add another 1/4 oz. of the 4.5% EKG pellets. After a total boil of 90 minutes, shut off heat and add the whole Fuggles. Steep 5 minutes or so, remove the whole hops and chill. At 80-85°F, take a hydrometer reading and pour the wort into your sanitized primary fermenter. Pitch the Essex ale yeast, seal and ferment at 60 – 65°F for 7 – 10 days. Rack to secondary, condition at 50 – 60°F for 10 – 14 days. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and age 10 days or so.

OG: 1055
IBU’s: 34

A note on the hops: You will notice that the EKG hops I used had two different alpha acid values. Not unusual, each harvest can vary as much as 20 – 25% in acidity. Factors affecting this include soil, rainfall, and general climate.

This beer may test your patience. It seems so simple, looks so easy to brew, and will appear to be ready to drink fairly quickly. But let me tell you a story. I brewed an ESB similar to this one about 10 months ago. When it seemed ripe, I tried it. Carbonation was fine, color was good, nice and clear… then I tasted it. Gasp – seemed to be solid hops. Way too bitter, dry tasting, no malt at all… I was disappointed, to say the least. Well, of course, I never throw anything out until I am really certain it is of no value. A couple months later, I tried another one. Better, the hops had mellowed, the malt had snuck forward, it was much smoother. Another couple weeks went by, and I tried another. Now it was more like an English IPA, not huge like an American style IPA, but nicely hopped, somewhat malty. Worth hanging on to for a while yet. Now I have about 15 bottles left and it has really become a nice session beer, mellow, balanced and smooth.