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