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

Commemorative Beers and Naming Rites

In 1968, the Eldridge Pope Brewery in Dorchester, Dorset, England, brewed a beer to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of local novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. In his book “The Trumpet Major”, Hardy had mentioned an ale tasted at a local inn, and Pope tailored their celebratory ale to match that description:

“It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full of body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady.”

Thomas Hardy’s Ale was supposed to be a one-off, brewed only for the literary festival in Hardy’s honor, but it proved so popular that they began brewing it annually. It was vintage-dated, bottled in three or four different sized and styled bottles, with the recommendation on the label to put it away for a few years. This may have been a factor in its eventual demise, as beer drinkers wanted something more immediately drinkable. Pope ceased brewing it in 1999, having decided to get out of brewing altogether (they are in the hotel and pub supply and management business now). From 2003 to 2009, O’Hanlon’s Brewery of Exeter, Devonshire, brewed a revived Thomas Hardy’s Ale, but they also have ceased production. Often called “Britain’s Rarest Beer”, it was also for a time the strongest beer brewed in the UK.

This brew is also commemorative for me personally. 15 years ago this week I brewed my first all-grain beer, after several years using extracts and partial mash recipes. My first foray into all-grain? Dave Line’s clone recipe of Thomas Hardy’s Ale. I brewed a 2-gallon batch, a bit intimidated and not wanting to waste too much money and time on a brew that might not work. I bottled it mostly in small (8 oz.) bottles, thinking it would be too strong for a whole 12 or 16 oz. bottle at a time… Naturally, when it ran out in about a month, I wished I had brewed a full batch.

As if this were not already an interesting enough beer, another circumstance led to the naming of the brew. As I went about my Brew Day Eve preparations (milling the grains, feeding the yeast slurry, setting up the kettles and mash tun, etc.) I found a dead mouse in the sparge tun. He hadn’t been dead long, based on his condition, but somehow he had made quite a mess in the bottom of the cooler. I tossed him in the woods and, B-Brite, Iodophor and chlorine bleach treatments later, the vessel was as good as new. There will be no Mousaroma in this beer, but I did want to honor the memory of this valiant little warrior (who must have thought there was beer in the bucket). There had to be a prominent mention of a mouse somewhere in the works of Thomas Hardy. It was my friend Rick who found and sent me a link to the Hardy poem, “Channel Firing”, and thus was born Parson Thirdly’s Altar Crumb Ale.

Parson Thirdly’s Altar Crumb Ale
(clone of Eldridge Pope’s Thomas Hardy Ale)
4 gallons, all-grain

Ingredients:

  • 12 lbs. Maris Otter pale malt
  • 1 lb. toasted Maris Otter pale malt
  • 1 lb. Cara-Belge malt
  • 1 jar (11 oz.) Lyle’s Golden Syrup
  • 2 oz. Fuggles hop pellets (@4% aa)
  • 1 oz. Bramling Cross hop pellets (@5% aa)
  • 1/2 oz. Styrian Goldings hop pellets (@4.2% aa)
  • White Labs Super High Gravity ale yeast (WLP099)
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure:
Crush grains. Heat 15 quarts water to 168°F. Mash in grains, hold at 158°F for 75 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 20 quarts sweet wort. Add golden syrup, stir well. Bring to boil. Add Fuggles hops, boil 15 minutes. Add Bramling Cross hops, boil another 40 minutes. Add Styrian Goldings, boil 5 more minutes (60 total), 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 10 14 days at 70°F. Rack to secondary, condition warm (65 – 70°F) for three to four weeks. Prime, bottle and age at least two months.

OG: 1106 (a little weak!)
IBU’s: 54.5

Note on process: I chose to use a very thick mash (i.e. less water than standard) and a slightly higher mash temperature than usual, in an attempt to get a more dextrinous wort. This should lead to a sweeter, more full-bodied beer when finished. This size mash really pushes the limits of my brewing set-up. This much grain nearly fills my mash tun, and with the mash being so thick, runoff and sparge are very slow. In fact, the runoff was just about stopped at one point, stuck, so I gently swirled the mash for a few seconds, hoping I could loosen it up a little. I had put the kettle on the stove already to start the boil, and had a large measuring cup catching the last few ounces (I thought) of the runoff. I walked out of the room for a few minutes and came back to a small flood, about a quart of wort spreading golden across the floor…

Note on Golden Syrup: Many British brewers use some cane sugar in their brews, and it was long an absolute staple of British homebrewers (it may still be!). Golden syrup is also known as “light treacle”, and is made from evaporated cane sugar. Similar to invert sugar, the process reduces the size of the sugar crystals, making them more readily dissolved and fermented. It has a toasty caramel flavor, and a small amount in a brew like this will not produce any of the dreaded cidery/hot flavors regular cane sugar often does.

Note on yeast: According to several sources, the White Labs Super High Gravity yeast is in fact the Eldridge Pope strain used in the 70’s to brew Thomas Hardy’s Ale. In any event, it does have a considerably higher alcohol tolerance, making it a good choice for this big beer.

Note on aging and storage: The original Thomas Hardy labels instructed consumers to put the bottles away for a few years. I have participated on a couple occasions in “vertical flight tastings”, comparing as many as 6 or 7 different vintages. This brew will age well, will evolve in the bottle, but I wouldn’t keep it over five or six years. Try one after about three months, but be sure and keep some for longer storage.

Ode to a Brown Ale (with apologies to Robert Burns and Jethro Tull)

When I used to judge at local and regional home brew competitions more frequently, I would inevitably hear other judges, while waiting for their category assignments, muttering prayers under their breath – “Please, not Brown Ales, anything but Brown Ales…” It was the common perception, among all the trained and educated palates gathered there, that the humble Brown Ale is the most boring category to judge. There are a couple of reasons for this: it’s not an exciting beer, generally, no big alcohol, no huge hops, no distinctive malt profile, nothing special in the yeast… And also, they all tend to taste pretty much the same. In the world of beer, Brown Ale is a working class, under-the-radar brew, a session beer, an oft overlooked gem in the rough.

It can be a wonderful beer, to brew and to drink, however. It’s all in how you approach it.

Today’s recipe is a minor adaptation of a recipe published in my book (North American Clone Brews). It’s designed to replicate one of my favorite ales, Griffon Brune, brewed by one of my favorite breweries, McAuslan Brewing in Montreal. This is a mild English Brown, semi-sweet, with dried fruit and chocolate notes in both the aroma and flavor. I changed the hops, substituting Whitbread Goldings and Mt. Hood for the Willamette, and used a White Labs yeast instead of the Wyeast I suggested in the original recipe.

Griffon Brune
5 gallons, all-grain

Ingredients:

  • 6 lbs. mild ale malt
  • 8 oz. carapils
  • 4 oz. chocolate malt
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 5 AAU Whitbread Goldings hop pellets (1 oz. @5% aa)
  • 1.9 AAU Mt. Hood hop pellets (1/2 oz. @3.8% aa)
  • White Labs British Ale yeast (WLP005)
  • 1/3 cup corn sugar (for priming)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar (for priming)

Procedure:
The night before brewing, crush the mild, carapils and chocolate malts. On Brew Day, heat 13 quarts of water to 165°F, mash crushed grains in to strike a temperature of 156°F, hold 60 minutes. Heat 15 quarts to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 24 quarts sweet wort, add brown sugar, bring to boil. At onset of boil, add Whitbread Goldings hops. Boil 30 minutes, add Mt. Hood hops. Boil another 30 (60 total), turn off heat. Chill wort to 80 – 85°F, take a hydrometer reading, pour into sanitized fermenter, pitch British Ale yeast, seal and ferment. Rack to secondary after 8 – 10 days, bottle after another 14 days, priming with corn sugar and brown sugar. Bottle condition 10 – 15 days.

OG 1047
25.8 IBU

Brewing notes: This is one of my favorite styles to start off new brewers with – it’s relatively easy to design the recipe, takes less time to ferment and condition, hence the brewer gets rewarded much sooner than with other beers. As this is an all-grain version,  however, this particular recipe is not the best place to start. To brew the same beer, roughly, with extracts and some steeped grains, here are the changes:

Ingredients:
1 lb. mild ale malt, toasted (375°F for 15 minutes, on a cookie sheet)
8 oz. carapils
4 oz. chocolate malt
2 cups brown sugar
4 lbs. unhopped amber malt extract syrup or 3 lbs. amber DME
hops and yeast as above

The night before brewing, boil and chill 3.25 gallons water. Toast mild ale malt, crush grains. On Brew Day, steep grains in a mesh bag, in 2 gallons cold water. Gradually heat to 160 – 170°F, hold 30 – 40 minutes. Remove grains, raise heat to boiling. Add malt extract and brown sugar, stir in well to avoid burning on. When the wort returns to boil, follow boiling and hop schedule as above. Chill wort, pour into sanitized fermenter, top up with enough of the pre-boiled and chilled water to make 5 gallons. When total wort is at 80° – 85°F, pitch yeast, ferment etc. as above.

A tip for extract brewers: it probably does not make sense for the extract brewer to invest in a wort chiller, as you are only boiling 1/3 to 1/2 of the volume that an all-grain brewer is boiling. However, quick chilling to yeast pitching temperature is crucial to a healthy fermentation, and to avoiding bacterial infection in your beer. I strongly advise pre-boiling a couple gallons of water and chilling it overnight – by boiling it, you are effectively sanitizing it, and the addition of the cold water will bring your wort down very quickly to a manageable temperature.