Friday, November 20, 2015

My story

I am writing this in a pub in Knaresborough drinking some of the finest cask ale in Yorkshire, if not all of the UK.  It is a proper experience with a proper pint – one that everyone should partake in once in their life, in my humble opinion.  To appreciate the experience as much as I do, it has taken years to come to the point of understanding the craft and understanding the history and traditions that go into each and every pint.  This is my story behind my quest to bring proper English ale to Chicago.

I grew up in a home where alcohol was a dirty word and my only exposure was from a 20 year old bottle of whisky occasionally taken out of the cabinet when the cough syrup ran dry.  I was a good boy for most of my childhood, not the result of strict and overbearing parents; rather, loved by parents who wanted nothing but the best for me, in turn, turning me into a child who did not want to let my parents down.  And so, it wasn’t until I turned 21 that I tried beer...after shunning it for the entirety of my high school and college experience…subconsciously judging my peers who let it rule their lives.  I eventually found as much, if not more, fault in myself, and my abstinence from alcohol, as I did in everyone else…the whole look at the log in your own eye before pointing out the speck of sawdust in another person’s eye.  And so, my tight grip on the control of my self-righteousness gradually loosened and my perspective on alcohol dramatically changed.  No longer did I view it as an empty drink that held no worthy value; instead, I saw in it as an art and a science that provided people enjoyment and was a vehicle for community and a unifier of humanity throughout history.  And so I delved into the world of craft beer, with a slightly more responsible and thought out approach than most people begin with.

After a few years of being satisfied simply in appreciating someone else’s craft in a pint glass, the inevitable happened as I ventured into homebrewing.  My experience with brewing began eight years ago with a basic stove top beginners kit.  I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time.  My roommate had the keen idea one rainy Saturday of going to the local homebrew store and investing in some basic brewing equipment.  He proposed the idea to me to go in 50/50 on the purchase.  It didn’t take too much convincing.  Our first batch was a Hefeweizen.  Far from the target Paulaner flavor, it was drinkable…lots of banana and bubblegum flavor, but we were too naïve to know any difference.  I quickly became obsessed and steadily added more and more equipment allowing me to experiment with progressively more complex brewing methods and gradually hone in my brewing prowess.  My equipment went through bouts of hibernation as my focus was diverted to other hobbies or interests, but somehow I always came back to the brewing kit with more intrigue of trying to brew a perfect beer.  Always falling short of perfect, but always learning along the way.

I then moved to Chicago and found an apartment to rent with a guy who was also a homebrewer and more of beer fanatic than me.  Our apartment was filled with brewing equipment…an entire room dedicated to beer storage, half our fridge filled with beer, yeast samples, and various bottles of homebrew, a kegerator in our living room, glassware to suit every type of beer, CO2 tanks, numerous corny kegs, and on and on.  Having lived in Chicago for quite a while, he took me under his wings to show me the best bars for craft beer, to connect me with the local homebrew club, to network with local brewers, and most of all, to expand my knowledge of brewing and beer quality.

At the same time, I found a fellow, like minded homebrewer at the church that I started to attend in Chicago.  After only going to the church for a few weeks, we had already started talking about starting a brewery, and, after several months we started putting together a brewing system that would be the envy of many a homebrewer.  The pastor had agreed to let us house the brewery in his garage – a large one car garage with plenty of room to squeeze our brewing system alongside his Toyota Sienna.  We constructed a control panel with PID controllers for automatic temperature control.  We converted kegs to a hot liquor tun with a HERMS, a mash tun, and a boil kettle.  We had pumps for transferring from kettle to kettle, refrigerators for fermentation temperature control, a heated chamber for fermentation during colder months, a kegerator with three taps, a freezer for hop storage, water filtration, bulk grain, bulk hops, a dozen corny kegs, The scale of our brewing grew quickly.  We began a regimen of brewing 10 gallon batches every week.  Since both of us had full time jobs, the majority of our work had to be completed on the weekends, alternating brews every Saturday, using evenings after work to check fermentation, to bottle beers, to fill growlers for people.  We set up a subscription service for people to have growlers filled on a weekly basis.  We started serving at parties, special events, and company happy hours.  Our church began to have weekly barbeques during the summer outside of the garage and we strived to have at least two taps ready every week.  Brewing quickly took over my life – my mind often distracted by what needed to be done at the brewery, my schedule revolving around brew days.  I had found my passion.

This regimen has more or less continued for three years.  That is a bit of a misleading statement, considering we are only able to brew 5 to 6 months out of the year, due to the rather harsh weather in Chicago and the uninsulated condition of the garage.  But for the months when it has been humanly tolerable to brew, we have been brewing…for the past three years.

Our focus has evolved, our beers have changed, our dreams have been refined, our passion has endured.  Our passion from day one has been English ales – their subtle complexity, their smooth mouthfeel, their incredible balance of toasty, biscuity malt, definitive yeast character, and earthy, grassy, citrusy, floral hops.  It has been a bumpy road trying to convince ourselves that English ales can be successful in Chicago, but our experience and our assessment of the craft beer market in Chicago has time and time again reinforced our conviction in English ales.  There’s denying that English ales are much less fashionable than an American IPA or Saison or Sour beer, but what’s the point of fashion when you just get lost in the crowd.  When the experienced craft beer market in Chicago eventually comes to its senses, there is nothing better that can offer a welcome respite from the over the top, overbearing, hop drenched beers that currently dominate the market than an easy drinking, smooth English ale…something authentic and honest and simple and modest…something served in 20 oz. instead of a 9 oz. goblet…something able to be drank repeatedly rather than one and done.  We believe in the styles of beer that we brew and we believe that they deserve more credit and more exposure than they get in the States.  We are not going to win everyone over, but we continue to be true to what we believe in.

Back to my story…off my soapbox…by most people’s standards, the last three years have been an incredibly comfortable life in Chicago – and to be honest, a dream and many prayers come true.  I had a great job in an engineering consulting firm, I had a hobby I loved, I had a great group of friends, I was living in a city that I adored, and I had met the most amazing girl that understood me and my passion and fully supported it.  So after being blessed with so much after working so hard to get to that point in my life, it was an incredibly difficult decision, when the time came, to give it all up. Following our third summer of brewing, after having arranged an internship opportunity at a Roosters Brewing Co. in the UK, I decided to temporarily give it all up to become serious about pushing our brewery to the next level. 

I am not one to impulsively jump into things.  I tend to take things slowly and to think through things thoroughly.  This has probably been a little frustrating for my business partner, and it has also probably caused some people to lose interest in what we are doing.  But, one thing that I value is authenticity and genuineness, and a person cannot be guided by authenticity without allowing the test of time filter out the meaningless from the worthwhile.  Unfortunately, fickleness and trendiness is all too common in craft beer.   A precedent has been set among new breweries in the States that proves it does not take much prior experience to be successful.  Of course, it takes a lot of time and hard work to develop a brewery that can consistently produce quality beer, but it seems like most of the time it is enough in today’s market to get by simply by being a new brewery with some cool branding. However, it is not my intention to be like every other new brewery.  To be true to myself and to maintain integrity in what we are trying to do, I vowed to myself and my business partner before we even began to think about opening a brewery that I would travel to the UK, work in a brewery, and experience real English beer culture for myself.  If we were going to claim to be a traditional English brewery, we were going to know what the hell we were talking about.

And so, here I am…a little over half way through my three months in the UK, working in a brewery, doing the hard work, day in and day out; spending my free time visiting pubs, trying beer, traveling the UK, understanding the culture – all with the goal in mind of bringing these unique English experiences back with me to Chicago and introducing them to people through our very own brewery - time honored traditions, timeless beer styles, and an emphasis on enjoying the moment in which you find yourself…the present tense.  I have met some incredible people since I have been here…people that have provided me amazing opportunities to view things behind the scenes, people that have been eager to answer any and all questions I have, people that have put me in connection with other helpful people.  It has been a great experience so far, and it has only strengthened my desire to open a traditional English style cask brewery in Chicago so that we can give people the opportunity to experience a proper pint.

The Craven Arms - Appletreewick, Yorkshire Dales

Timothy Taylor Landlord - The Falcon Inn, Arncliff, Yorkshire Dales

Burton Ale - The Bridge Inn, Burton

Red Lion - York
Roosters - Blind Jack's, Knaresborough

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The sanctuary

It was a last minute decision.  My plans to rent a car and drive around the Dales had fallen through and I was frantically trying to find something to do to avoid wasting one of my Saturdays in the UK – an all too common predicament unfortunately.  You might say I am a bit overwhelmed with the self-imposed objective of experiencing all that the UK has to offer and becoming an expert in the English beer culture.  The options are limitless, the experiences infinite.  Already almost 5 weeks in, I feel like I have only begun to understand North Yorkshire; and the more I understand, the more it opens up intriguing aspects of the area that I want to check out.  I am working full time in a brewery and only have the weekends to travel and experience other parts of the country, and after working all week, waking up every morning at 4:30am, if I were completely honest, it takes a lot for me to muster up the energy to fill my weekends with travelling and making sense of a new destination.
So, with my naïve plans of traveling all over the UK taking in all the sights and tastes seeming a little too ambitious, I reconsidered my options for this particular Saturday.  I thought a destination a little closer to home was fitting; a brewery perhaps.

Prior to coming to the UK, my understanding of English beer and brewing was pretty general.  Sure, the uninformed person may have considered me quite knowledgeable, but I tend to hold myself to a pretty high standard, so I only saw through the lenses of what I did not know.  The things that I did not know definitely outweighed what I did know.  And what I did know was usually just based on a conjecture – actually, true of most things in life, until you experience it for yourself, most things are just based on a conjecture.   So my trip to the UK was chockfull of things that I wanted to learn – but three things had definitely risen to the top: 1) tasting proper cask beer, 2) experiencing proper pub culture, and 3) seeing a brewery that used open fermentation, more specifically Yorkshire squares.  I had become well versed in the first two, but up until last Saturday the third had eluded me.

Black Sheep Brewery in Masham
I knew of two independent breweries in the UK that still used Yorkshire squares.  One was Samuel Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, the UK’s closest thing to Willy Wonka’s factory – a place that makes some fantastic beer, but a place that is virtually closed off to the outside world.  I had tried every possible option to get a tour of their facility with absolutely no success; in fact, I was told that the brewery had not been open to the public for over 10 years.  The other brewery was Black Sheep in Masham – a relatively new brewery, opened in 1992 – a brewery steeped in tradition, founded by a sixth generation brewer in Masham.  Considering that Masham was only 20 miles from Harrogate, my plans for Saturday quickly fell into place. 

A little background on Yorkshire squares may be necessary at this point.  There is not much that differentiates the way that breweries brew beer.  Obviously the ingredients change from beer to beer, each brewery’s process will have its particular nuances, cleanliness cannot be overemphasized, but at the end of the day, all breweries are basically just steeping malt in a kettle, draining off the sugary liquid, and boiling it with the addition of hops.  What comes next is often the secret in a brewery’s recipe – the fermentation – because, in all actuality, this is the stage that actually makes beer.  Most modern breweries use closed top cylindroconical fermenters – for good reason – they are easy to clean, they produce consistent results, and their closed construction eliminates any risk of unwanted things getting into the beer.  Yorkshire squares, on the other hand, are a traditional open top fermentation vessel, originally made with slate, but now modernized to be made of stainless steel in a round shape.  During the fermentation, the yeast bubbles up onto a shelf positioned over the beer, and the beer is repeatedly sprayed onto the yeast sitting on the shelf to recirculate the beer and rouse the yeast.  Breweries that use them claim that they allow the yeast to produce flavors during fermentation and gives the beer a distinct full, rounded palate that cannot be produced in cylindroconical fermenters.  However, the benefits of cylindroconical fermenters are often too enticing for a brewery to consider using Yorkshire squares, and now their use is primarily relegated to the diehard traditionalists.  But tasting a beer fermented using Yorkshire squares is a beautiful thing – actually, to replicate this flavor and feeling in a beer is my aspiration for Present Tense – like I have said before…nothing that is worthwhile in this world comes easy.

I scheduled a tour for 3:30 at Black Sheep.  Even though Masham was only 20 miles from Harrogate, it was not an easy trip without a car.  A bus ride from Harrogate to Ripon and a taxi from Ripon to Masham ended up taking over an hour, but I was welcomed into Masham with a rainbow arching from one end of the sky to the other – a sure sign that I had made the right decision for my Saturday destination.

What welcomed me in Masham
I arrived with about a 20 minutes to spare before the start of the tour.  I perused the brewery shop a bit and then thought it appropriate to grab a pint to take with me on the tour – a chocolate oat stout suited me just fine.

The tour started off with a video explaining the history of the brewery – an interesting story involving the all too common path of most of England’s historical breweries – being bought out by a corporate conglomeration of breweries when times were tough for breweries in the mid-20th century.  Paul Theakston, the founder of Black Sheep and the sixth generation of a brewing dynasty in Masham, just so happened to be the victim of this buy out.  The namesake brewery, Theakston, was bought out, and instead of giving into the corporate life, he quit and started his own brewery to continue brewing the way that he believed in ( – and, thus, the name of the brewery – Paul being the “black sheep” of the family.

Following the video was the obligatory explanation of the brewing process and then the requisite show and tell of the ingredients that go into beer – probably the 500th time I’ve hear that spiel - at least I had a pint to get me through it.  The presentation eventually ended and the tour commenced - we made our way through the doorway into the brewery.

View of tower brewery at Black Sheep
Climbing the stairs to a little platform overlooking the brewery, a tall wooden roof peaked high above us.  From this vantage point, the original brewery, a traditional tower brewery, could be closely examined.  The grist hopper, the mash tun, and the copper kettle – none of the typical stainless steel of modern breweries could be seen anywhere.  This was all original brewing equipment purchased from a defunct brewery and dropped through the roof into place – a good indication of this brewery’s adherence to tradition.  We then moved onto the adjacent room, the second brewery, a more modern set up with more of the familiar stainless steel vessels.  Even though some modern conveniences had been added to the setup, the brewery was full of character, not similar to any other brewery that I had seen.  It had been set up in a repurposed malt house formerly owned by Lighthouse Brewery, and had made particularly efficient use of the unconventional space.  There is definitely something to be said about the character of an old brewery compared with the well laid out and standardized configuration of most modern breweries – they are definitely more unique and intriguing, however, I am sure much less convenient.

After listening to the tour guide give a thorough explanation of the brewery, we finally made our way around the hop back, the mash tun, and the grist hopper, and opened the door in the back corner of the brewery to discover the purpose of my visit to this brewery – the fermentation room…the sanctuary of Yorkshire rounds.  It was a gorgeous sight!  Six large, round stainless steel vessels – three lining the left side of the room and three lining the right side of the room.  On display for all to see, resting on top of the round vessels, was the yeast; the magical creatures, the mysterious creators of alcohol, the enigmatic sources of flavor and character in beer.  No need to hide inside a closed tank, the yeast was able to receive the proper attention it deserved.  Completely exposed to the surroundings, open to all the elements for all to see, with people walking directly above the vessels, the risk of infection seeming imminent, however, the yeast, kings of this sanctuary, maintaining the sterile condition of the beer and warding off any unwelcome guests.  A perceived nightmare to most other brewers, Black Sheep proudly displayed their fermenting beer in their patented Yorkshire rounds – an unapologetic symbol of the six generations of brewing that lives on through this tradition.

Yorkshire round at peak of fermentation.
The sanctuary.
Yorkshire round toward end of fermentation.
I was the last person from the group to leave the fermentation room – it had become quite obvious throughout the duration of the tour that my interest in what was on display was on a completely different level to everyone else.  With only myself left in the room, I snapped several more pictures, I breathed in the air, I took mental notes, I stared deeply into the fluffy, bubbling surface of the yeast – dreaming of one day making Present Tense beer in these vessels. 

I returned to my sense and found my way back to the tour.  After a short summary from the tour guide, the tour was over.  The once elusive Yorkshire square that had been but a picture in a book and a vague entry in Wikipedia, was no longer just a conjecture.  I had seen it for myself.  I had witnessed it in operation.  I had observed its dimensions and construction.  It was now real to me…and the only appropriate thing to do at that point – enjoy a pint!

Enjoying a pint

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Pub

Golden Fleece - York
The large block letters illuminated from above by two large lamps, radiating in the dark street as a beacon of comfort to the weary sojourners.  The name of the establishment enshrined by some historical significance, but long lost through the generations of false stories and over embellishments.  No doubt, a good reason exists for the name, but now it just seems like a funny euphemism or novel alliteration; however, it is the essence of tradition in this land – an eye catching, nonsense name.  Jutting out from the ancient building a sign drops from a wooden beam – many times remade, but always retaining its character – hand painted, it provides the necessary imagery to explain the name of this worthy establishment.  Completing the backdrop of this building, a row of flowers dropping down from wooden planters precisely dividing the second floor from the first in a way that steals the cartoonish charm from the painted sign and provides a proper garnish to a proper English pub.

Blue Bell - York
The front door, a solid wood door, hewn many ages ago, painted dark brown with heavy metal fixtures, eeks open to a small foyer presenting two doors in stark contrast.  The right door…the left door – the ultimate decision. There is certainly a good explanation for the two separate doors; however, I have yet to hear it.  These doors present a confusing option to a newcomer, but certainly they provide a distinct layout for a very traditional pub – dividing the pub into two opposing rooms, one noticeably smaller than the other with the prominently undersized bar situated in the middle, open to both rooms.  There is no attempt at convenience in this establishment, and because of that it feels as though the privilege is all yours to be a part of it.

Standing in complete confusion in the foyer, my blank face snapped back into reality when the right door opened up and a couple guys walked out, providing me a brief glimpse in the room.  I held the door open and gave the lads some room to exit then proceed to take the opportunity to take up the freshly vacated spots in packed room.  No more than 10 foot by 10 foot square with a few tables, chairs surrounding them, cushioned bench seats, upholstered in red cloth, lined the front wall of the room below large paneled windows looking out onto the street.  The dark wood interior, the well-worn, dark brown painted bar with 6 hand pulls and several taps – it was described as a characteristic Edwardian interior…whatever that meant. 

Blue Bell - York
Entering through the door, I had to carefully walk around the man sitting at the round table right in front of the entrance – the necessary obstacle to maneuver for admission to the bar.  Finding my footing and securing a sure stance to get to the other side of the room – I couldn’t help but feel like I had just become the center of attention.  All eyes were on me, the new denizen of this hallowed place.  The uncomfortableness of the place only momentary – the stares, not malevolent – simply the nature of a pub.  Half the result of the environment – a small room with towering ceilings which caused an illusion of the walls bending slightly over everyone to secure them in this cozy, tight knit atmosphere able to instantly recognize a newcomer.  And half the result of the unspoken creed that a man walking into a pub enters with respect of the people already investing their time there – the process having played itself out over and over since the beginning of time… a price of a pint is the investment, finding a seat secures your contentedness until you chose to give it up.  If I were sitting in the seats like those staring at me, I would do the exact same thing – stare down the new intruder, the momentary disruption to the karma of the room. 

A pint of Roosters
I cozied to the bar with as much confidence as I could muster considering the place being as far from welcoming as possible.  The bartender, noticing my gaze upon the beer options at hand, was instantly at my service… “Ya alright?” – the casual greeting that inquires of the current state of my being; in other words, “How are you doing?”…“Do you need anything?”…“How can I help you?”  I said, I’ll have a pint of Roosters.  The bartender grabs a large glass from behind the bar and holds it at a slight angle, sparkler near the bottom of the glass, while the other hand grasps firmly on the top of the black hand pull.  The shiny black curved surface of the hand pull embellished with polished brass trim standing tall on the bar, a sturdy pump clip snapped around the base of the hand pull labeling the contents flowing through the lines from the cask in the cellar into the glass.  The bartender pulls the top of the hand pull toward him with a slightly exerted effort, just enough work to require of the bartender in preparing a proper pint – the dues he pays as a symbol for the work that was put into the brewing of the beautiful beer – nothing that is worthwhile in this world is easy.  One pull, beer spraying from the sparkler directly into the bottom of the glass; two pulls, the beer gradually filling up the clear glass with a swirling dark golden and creamy white hue; three pulls, rising closer to the top; four pulls, the creamy head slowly rushing over the edge of the glass.  The bartender sets the glass beside the hand pull and says “That will be three pound sixty.”  I pull out of my wallet five quid and the bartender goes back to collect my change.  I continue to stand and admire the glass.  A pint is a beautiful thing – blankets of air cascading through the beer as the liquid begins to settle at the bottom in a crystal clear liquid, a thick creamy head like whipped cream forming on the top of the beer as the air works its way up to the top of the glass – floating in waves, swaying to the perfect rhythm of the delicate body of the beer, the sheets of air layered in the fluidity of the beer to give a depth and texture that can only be seen to be believed.  The bartender tops up the beer with another half pull to fill the entire glass with a perfectly clear, dark golden beer.

Red Lion - York
I find my way to an open seat - open, a generous term.  There is space for me, however, in a tiny room, filled with people, personal space is redefined.  Sharing tables with complete strangers becomes customary, overhearing everyone’s conversation, unavoidable.  The one thing uniting everyone – the pint in hand.  I am no longer the center of attention.  I have found my seat.  I have paid my dues.  I am now one with the crowd, having made the necessary investment to claim the seat as my own.  The pint is now my time piece – instead of a pile of sand building up in an hour glass, the ever dropping level of liquid in my glass marks the consumption of my time.  With every drink the thick head of foam laces a beautiful story down the inside of the glass – leaving its indelible mark full of mystery and intrigue longing to be understood like the lines of a palm.  The bottom of the glass is not the end.  The bottom of the glass is an opportunity for a new beginning – the process repeats itself – “Ya alright?”…1,2,3,4 pulls…the masterpiece paints itself again in the pint glass, and I lose myself in the moment unfolding all around me in the crowded pub.