Keg Beer Pressure in the UK

Regulators with gauges

I am heard to say, with increasing frequency:

The UK is a decade behind the US in keg beer dispense.

Yesterday an American friend of mine responded to this with a scoffing “… at least.” Maybe I should start saying it is decades.

This comes to the fore more and more often lately as I deal with customers who’ve had “craft keg” installs that are, frankly, not fit for purpose. There are multiple factors to this and multiple “WTFs” I’ve seen in installs. But this post will focus on pressure.

I am not a “qualified” cellar-build person. I’ve pondered doing the course but I gather it is basically just a how-to-plug-the-bits-together, that’ll be £1000 please, here-have-a-certificate. The only qualifications I can claim are practical experience, a hell of a lot of research & reading, building bars, getting many varied keg beers pouring, and – probably most important – a sufficient background in physics. (I’m not talking physics major or anything, but I studied some physics through to university level and gas behaviours, flow, dissolvability, etc, are all fundamentals.) I’ve spoken to qualified cellar installers and, so far, not met one who knows anything about vols of dissolved CO₂ in beer. I guess you don’t need it if you’re always setting up to serve unchanging Foster’s et al in a 12°C cellar to standard parameters. (Cellar/keg temperature is another issue… deserving of a large post of its own.)

Everything changes drastically when it comes to “craft beer”. It’s not all just pasteurised lager with a “standard” 2.2 vol CO₂ (or whatever it is) – suitable for a one-size-fits-all sort of configuration. It is *part* of the definition of some beer styles that they are at certain carbonation levels, and your top-pressure should be set accordingly. And then there’s KeyKegs, another ballpark – another game – entirely. If you have just one “craft” line for keg you’ll probably find yourself switching between KeyKegs and top-pressure kegs. (One reason many UK craft brewers are keen on KeyKegs is that it is less likely that crap cellar installs will cause their beer to be served under- or over-carbonated, KeyKeg basically eliminates one piece of fine-tuning at the pub end of things.)

What this boils down to is: every beer line should have a dedicated secondary regulator, and every secondary regulator should have a pressure gauge on it. (And the primary should have an out-side gauge allowing a safe maximum line pressure to be set (<50 PSI, <45 for Pet*cough*crap*cough*ainers) – albeit this can be set once at install and the gauge not needed. But the gauges aren’t an expensive upgrade and it is a useful bit of info when debugging cellar issues if you don’t have a pressure checking gauge handy.)

KeyKeg dispense flow chartTo add some credibility I’ll point you somewhere else at this juncture, go have a look at what Magic Rock, one of the UK’s top modern breweries, have to say about KeyKeg dispense: KeyKegs, differences & dispense issues…

So – what happens when you want to follow Magic Rock’s advice and have no gauges? You’re buggered is what. I’d not touch the thing, as you have no idea what the pressures are you could well take it past the safe limit.

But say you do take the risk and nudge it up a bit. That keg runs out. You want to put a normally carbed top-pressure keg on, you switch couplers, connect up. Over the next 2 days that beer gets increasingly carbonated and the last third basically pours foam. Bugger.

IF THERE ARE NO GAUGES SIMPLY DO NOT EVER TOUCH THE REGULATORS.

Jolly Good Beer wall

Jolly Good Beer wall

Folk in the US with these “Flux Capacitor” setups aren’t spending all their money for shits and giggles. The kit on display is normally in the cellar/coldroom – putting it on display is a bit of marketing really – but the reasoning behind it is to highlight that these things are actually important & the bar takes it seriously. Albeit it does concern me a little, pressures should not need fiddling with – pressure should be set suitably for beer being plugged into the line and then that stays the same until you’re done. I think that functionally the kit is better off in the coldroom. But hey, it makes a good talking-point. This inspired me to put regulators on the front of my own mobile bar. (Although there are other good practical reasons for that, the front of the bar is easy to get to compared to the back through a stack of kegs and tangle of lines.)

Shiny new "craft keg" install... wot?! No gauges?!

Shiny new “craft keg” install… wot?! No gauges?!

In this calendar year I’ve come across 5, *FIVE*, new keg installs that had no pressure gauges on the regulators. THREE of these were done after I told the folk getting the installs to ensure they had pressure gauges on their regulators. In the most recent case I was multiply-insistent. But on the day these professionals were adamant this was not needed… and in the end: no gauges. One of the 1st kegs put on the system was a KeyKeg, which was triggering the fob detector, and needed the pressure increased. Yet these professionals told the customer that my advice to them was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. (Oh, and this setup has kegs at ambient temp… *grumble* … but this means even more need for pressure adjustments! More chance of fobbing.)

So… in an attempt to basically explain that the professionals don’t have a sodding clue: here are some guidelines for the different kegs out there…

KEYKEG (and other bag-in-container type pressurised kegs)

Slimline KeyKegs stack nicely.

Slimline KeyKegs

The great thing about KeyKeg is you cannot screw up the carbonation of the beer with top-pressure. Hell, you can use compressed air and save on the cost of food grade CO₂. (It’s up to the brewery to screw up carbonation, it does happen, too often… usually to the over-carbonated side… in which case KeyKegs can be vented.)

I can offer no better advice on KeyKeg to what Magic Rock have published. So pop along to their website to get the low-down on this topic.

The only addition I would make is that I tend to run KeyKeg at 35 PSI by default, and this works in almost all cases. If needed I will increase pressure up to 45 PSI. If you need more than 45 PSI then your beer is either over-carbonated or the keg is too warm. (And KeyKegs are rated for a maximum of 51 PSI… NEVER EXCEED THIS!)

TOP PRESSURE KEGS

Top-pressure kegs

Top-pressure kegs

This is where the real problem with some of these keg installs lies.

In light of hitting issues so frequently I have derived my own CO₂ pressure chart. As you do. De-rusting some of the old physics in my head in the process… the key differences between this and most other charts I can find are a) it is in Celsius and b) goes above 10°C… given UK cellars are often at 12°C this is somewhat essential. (Oh, and events, ah good old craft beer events, they’re another ballgame entirely.)

The 12°C cellar makes us in the UK a bit of an outlier really, here’s guidelines for cellaring Schneider Weisse: Draught Beer Guide – note that their pressure chart maxes out at 7.5°C… well, if you want to set the correct pressure for Schneider Weisse in a UK cellar look up 12°C against 3.5 vol CO₂ here:

(Oh, and I’d double-chill the Schneider Weisse… ever wonder why UK pubs have such a nightmare of a time pouring this stuff?)

But wait, there’s more! There is stuff all information online regarding mixed gas. The prevalent use of 60/40 mixed gas in the UK is what I call “the great beer flattener” – systems seem often configured just to provide dispense pressure with no mind to carbonation level. You need quite high a pressure to get 60/40 dispense working perfectly for well carbed beers in a 12°C cellar. If you’re using plastic kegs then I would highly recommend against 60/40 gas as most kegs are rated to about 50 PSI and I personally limit them to 45 PSI. Pressurised plastic beer containers have caused injury. This chart was a bugger to derive, all I could find online was an Draught Beer Quality guideline update that is worked out for a maximum temperature of 4.4°C… in the UK? Hah! So I had to get my head around partial pressures to adjust the pressure formula, to give us:

(Any “peer review” of this would be much appreciated.)

It should be kept in mind that if you smash through kegs in 2 days then carbonation isn’t going to change much and pressure is a lot less of a matter. You may even get by with plain N2 if you’re draining kegs fast enough (NOT RECOMMENDED!) and I’ve heard of some setups using compressed air like at GBBF (REALLY NOT RECOMMENDED!!). However it is my observation that in your typical multi-tap bar kegs can linger on a line for a week or so. This is not ideal… but it makes using correct top-pressure an essential part of the beer quality formula.

In the US there is this thing called “Certified Cicerone“, it is sort of an industry qualification. And it isn’t trivial like the UK’s BIIAB ABCQ. I’m planning on doing the Cicerone exam when the opportunity arises and understanding pressures is a part of the syllabus [PDF].  (I’m a “Certified Beer Server… but that’s just an online multiple-choice test.) In fact in my opinion one of the best things BrewDog is doing for keg beer in the UK is putting many of their staff through Cicerone training and qualification. (Some of these staff are leaving BrewDog and spreading through the industry – taking their knowledge with them, this is great for everyone.)

The DraughtQuality.org website – a resource created by the US Brewers Association – is also a mine of technical information. (And key to the Cicerone syllabus.) This PDF for example is a much better overview of carbonation than my own ramblings: Understanding Dispense Gas [PDF]

Have I presented enough evidence to make it clear why being able to set the pressure level of your gas is essential if you want to serve different & varied keg beers through a beer line?

If not… what do you think. Why not?


Jolly Good Beer – putting the science in dispense!

Or maybe: Jolly Good Beer – putting the SENSE in dispense! ;)

#1: Do not exceed rated keg pressures…

BIIAB Level 2 Award in Beer and Cellar Quality (Cask and Keg)

My BIIAB ABCQ certificate & note

My BIIAB ABCQ certificate & note

The BIIAB ABCQ is the UK’s only professional qualification for cellarfolk as far as I know. It covers keg as well as cask, with the idea of ensuring good handling from the point the beer leaves the dray to the point it is being drunk by a customer. [Click here for the BIIAB page on the qualification, which is pretty limited in information or click here for the much more informative Cask Marque page via which I booked my own course.]

The ABCQ is a “hands on” approach to keeping & serving beer, as opposed to the Beer Academy’s Advanced Course which is more oriented around the drinking the beer in the glass end of things, communicating about beer, and details of beer production and style. The ABCQ has some overlap but is mostly style/taste-agnostic – less interested in the beer itself beyond basic factors of quality. Beer is beer – you can have this beer in keg, cask, and “packaged” (bottle/can) varieties – the ABCQ is all about getting that beer from container to glass in good form.

I did the ABCQ course and exam on Monday November 11th at a cost of £115.80 (inc-VAT). It was a fun day out – and I came away with another certificate to add to my collection. Well, it arrived a couple of weeks later but I was pretty confident I’d “passed”. When the results arrived I found I’d managed 100% in the 30 question multi-choice exam, but I’d not say that is any great feat & I imagine 100% scores are common. (I also come at this from a position of having a decent base of knowledge and practice in the subject matter.) [Para added as update on 28/12/2014.]

"Testing" beer in the Fuller's training cellar.

“Testing” beer in the Fuller’s training cellar.

My simple summary of this 1-day course, aka TL;DR, is: every pub should have at least one person who has done it. In an ideal case you should not be allowed in the cellar without having first done this course (“cellar license”?). It is a good and worthwhile thing to do. There are folk out there with a higher level of knowledge and experience already who simply don’t need it… but they’re probably few and far between and I suspect some who think they’re “it” in the cellar are not as “it” as they think.[1] (Even if just a case of “going through the motions” – much like farm kids who’ve been competently driving since they were 8 still needing a license to drive on public roads. Usually they’ll be practically competent – they may have a good grasp of the rules of the road too, but the license ensures they cover the rules as well at the practice.)

The ABCQ provides template methodologies that I agree will almost always work in “the usual case”, and identify what to do (or who to call) in several outlier cases. A motivated staff member who has done this ‘award’ and paid attention should always be able to serve beer in good form. If you can get hold of a copy of the “Profit Through Quality” handbook (see right) that goes with the course (which can be found online, after you lie about your age) then you can review all the material the course covers.

I also think that the cost of £115.80 makes it particularly accessible and I think it would be a useful “feather in your cap” if you’re keen on a career behind the bar and in the cellar (even if just to get you through uni for a few years, say). Along with train travel it cost me less than £200 in the end – including an evening out in London having some beers. If you’re lucky you’ll live closer to one of the several training locations – if luckier still you can talk your employer into paying it for you! It is worth their while, worth yours, and good for the industry all-round. [Para added as update on 28/12/2014.]

There are some ‘howevers‘, however. My more lengthy take on it continues below, because I do have some criticisms that are probably more justifications for creating an “advanced” type course that needs some more time and goes a bit further.

The ABCQ glosses over some details that I think need more explaining to give staff a enough of an understanding of beer to get it right all the time. The training stops short of providing enough knowledge for staff to solve issues, work with modern beer diversity, and understand keg beer. In essence it is a fantastic base-level that should work perfectly for someone working in a huge pub-chain[2]. Which, as on the day, is presumably where most of the demand for the ABCQ comes from. It definitely provides a good basis for folk who’re new to the industry to start out from.

The ABCQ is only a day long – it probably does the best it can with the time available. What it needs is another day (or two) to go deeper with…

  1. More detail on cask ale. “Secondary”/”conditioning” are glossed over somewhat, presumably in the name of brevity (it is only 1 day after all). So a technique is given that will almost always work but doesn’t adequately justify itself or allow for some of the common quirks of cask ale. I guess this is where cask becomes an on-the-job acquired “art” rather than a science – but it is an art with some basic technical foundations that can be taught.
  2. More (any!) real detail on keg dispense. In the world of the ABCQ all you need to know about keg beer is how to attach/detach coupler, clean lines, ensure coolers are topped up (advanced material). What gas you use and what pressure you use is a matter for “Technical Services” (you need to know not to get your gas mixed up though). This, of course, very much fits the UK world where nearly every keg tap in nearly every pub is a tied line.
  3. Variety in storage of ‘packaged’ beer (cans/bottles). They’re something kept in a fridge. When in the specialist beer world you need to be more careful in my opinion. I just confused matters (took them off track) when I suggested you need to serve bottled beer at an appropriate temperature. (If I had a pub I’d want at least 2 fridges set at different temperatures, as well as a decent bottle-store in the cellar. Yes, OK, I am a beer nerd. I’d also want adjustable inline coolers for keg!)

I think all the above is necessary to fully mesh the beer quality expectations set up by the Beer Academy Advanced Course with the serve quality standards taught by the ABCQ.

Defining 'Keg Beer'

Defining ‘Keg Beer’

Point 2 is the one I have more issues with right at the moment. Microbrewery keg beer is becoming “big”(er), many big distributors are picking it up now. I increasingly see kegs that actually specify their target vol CO2. (Not uncommon in the international “craft scene” I gather?) Here we’re heading into Certified Cicerone territory. One thing you definitely do not see in doing the ABCQ is a pressure/temperature/volCO2 table. In fact touching the pressure gauge is a big no-no. Yes, used incorrectly they can create very dangerous situations, which is why I think a bit more should be taught about them, ASAP – especially with the increased prevalence of KeyKeg. (Brewer tells staff to up the pressure, keg line has no gauge… what next? This has happened to me twice in the last 6 months in places where a brewery or cellar services company has fitted “craft beer lines”.)

Basically the ABCQ isn’t “craft ready” (no surprise of course) and if you want to be able to seriously treat keg “right” in your bar I’d suggest you poach staff from BrewDog who’ve done the Certified Cicerone. (Or get existing staff on-track to do it themselves, there are occasional UK exams now.) I think that for the UK beer world there needs to be an A(dvanced)ABCQ that is an extra day or two of instruction and goes into some of the finer details.

Draught Beer Quality Manual

Draught Beer Quality Manual

Alternatively we (the “craft beer industry”) could take what Cicerone have and adapt it to create out own British Cicerone (differently named I guess, since Cicerone is TMed!) My own studies of the Draught Beer Quality Manual [pdf] show it to be not quite right for general UK use. The main factors it does not cover that are standard in the UK are: 1) inline chillers, 2) keeping kegs at 12C (DBQM temp tables go to 5.5C max), 3) use of flow-restrictors rather than lots of 3/16 line to battle fobbing (increase “line resistance”).

DBQM Temp/Pressure/volCO2 chart

DBQM Temp/volCO2/PSI chart

Immense cask-washer line at Fuller's Brewery

Immense cask-washer line at Fuller’s Brewery

My intention isn’t to knock the ABCQ, I *did* learn things as a result of doing it. I’m no expert, I’m a novice trying to work my way towards becoming a technical expert. (Ask me again in a decade perhaps.) I won’t itemise all the new little facts I picked up – the area that was mostly new to me was on ‘beer clean’ glassware and correct glasswashing methods and chemicals. The quick tour of Fuller’s brewery was a nice bonus. There was also very good quality beer available on tap, naturally as part of the course was hands-on keg and cask handling to connect up and pull through for dispense. (The Firecracker in cask and the Frontier “craft lager” in keg – both beers I enjoyed on the day.) I’ve done exams before after drinking beer, but the ABCQ exam was the first one I’ve ever done *whilst* sipping a pint.

The next UK qualification I’d like to do is the “Technical Certificate in Cellar Service Installation and Maintenance” – but that’s nearly  £1k of spend so I don’t know if it’ll happen any time soon. It will cover some of the gas and equipment handling and may bridge some of the technical-end gap between the Certified Cicerone and the ABCQ perhaps. It will be total overkill for cellar staff, but I build keg dispense setups for myself so it will be relevant to me.

Perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do the Certified Cicerone first? Quite keen to do it, but a bit daunted by having to remember a bunch of BJCP style guide gumph.

[1] In “the field” I’ve found one chap who was instructed by the previous “expert” cellar person to peg casks that are being used with vertical extractors. That may be one of the most ridiculous example I’ve got, but it goes to show the crazy stuff I find going on in cellars. Issues of cleanliness are my primary personal concern. Folk not properly cleaning cask taps, re-using manky hard spiles, not cleaning keystones & shives, etc… the ABCQ teaches students to give everything a proper scrub & clean at least. I go one step further by preference and have a spray-bottle of a sanitiser handy too. This seems especially important to me under their ideal guidelines of: vent-and-tap-immediately & serve-when-ready. If there are nasties on the shive, spile, keystone, or tap this method gives all the more time for them to wreak havoc in your tasty beer.

[2] The BIIAB ABCQ course and material are brought to you by the following… (Masrton’s?!) which makes one ponder the motivations of the course and it’s “good tied pubs/lines” nature versus being perhaps not quite comprehensive enough to be so useful to the free trade. (Clenaware Systems market ‘Renovate‘ which is specifically pushed as a glassware silver bullet in the course… my cynic alarm is properly flashing now.)

Brought to you by...

Brought to you by…

Beer Academy Advanced Course – Day 2

Beer AcademyThe second day of the Beer Academy “Advanced Course” is intended to extend on the material in the Day 1 “Foundation Course”. You can do just the second day as an addition to having already done the Foundation Course in fact, thus spreading out the cost over time (I’m not sure what the separate prices are). We had one additional chap join us for just the second day, he’d done the Foundation Course a year ago and came back for more! He’s a beer enthusiast based near Birmingham, currently working for SpecSavers but with an eye to getting into the beer scene.

I felt the second day flowed more smoothly than the first – perhaps mainly because everyone was more comfortable as we’d had a chance to get to know each other now, Derek included. It also helped that Derek’s slide order did follow the syllabus order fairly closely.

Getting a morning coffee in...

Getting a morning coffee in…

So – the content? As advertised: same areas but adding depth to what we had covered in Day 1. I actually learnt much more than on the first day – albeit mainly through a combination of Derek’s value-add and also through others in the class with good experience in areas where my own is thin. In some cases the syllabus content led into this – for example decoction is specifically covered and now I understand the whys and hows of it. (Well… I think so.)

A hop dissected

A hop dissected

We started off with brewing inputs and dove deep into water sources and water treatment. As a newbie homebrewer who hasn’t got into water treatment yet this was incredibly useful to me. Hopefully I retain enough of the info to ease my own future use of water treatment. Malting is also comprehensively examined – from the practical level of barley varieties and seasons through to the deeps of chemical composition, conversion, and flavour analysis. Adjuncts are neither missed nor dissed, their use and value to certain styles is part of the course. Flavourings and the history of their use gets a quick look-in, with more specific coverage later when we examine styles. All of this comes with a richness of added historic notes from Derek, like the use of potato flour in brewing at Tolly Cobbold! What am I missing? … Hops! Not left out of course: again, much more technical coverage – acids, oils, and IBUs – and more about a range of specific varieties, uses, and different hop products used in brewing.

Malted Barley

Malted Barley

Derek's nano-mash

Derek’s nano-mash

As previously mentioned the mashing process is covered – explaining the different enzymatic/chemical stages of the mash. This is well illustrated in the coverage of the decoction mash. Temperatures, fermentables, unfermentables… and from this logically onto yeast, history, strains, and styles of secondary fermentation. Sterilisation – pasteurisation and sterile filtration next. Here we learnt that where our Brazillian brewer used to work they sterile-filter AND tunnel-pasteurise. I never did get around to asking where it was she was working in Brazil.

Beers

Beers

By now, it being about midday, we start to explore tastes and styles. With a series of beers in hand of course! We run through a variety of taints again, more of a re-cap of Day 1 really. Then dive into further detail about flavour descriptors and systems for presenting them – i.e. Cyclops. The exploration of beer styles went wider and whilst I am at least casually acquainted with all styles from the drinking perspective I learnt more about their relationships and histories. Derek seems to be familiar with a vast spread of European brewing and had been to and met many great brewers and breweries… so again the value-add of his presence was significant.

Food and Beer

Beers with food

The final set of beers we tasted included some basic food matches as well. Some working better than others – having degrees of both success and failure in the matching was a good touch (I don’t know how deliberate it was!) Pairing Innis & Gunn Original with Apple Pie was, for me, terrible. The majority were not keen on the pairing – however the vast majority gave the beer a firm “thumbs up”… so there you go. Tasted like lollywater to me. Derek led the matchings well – and has done beer and food pairing in the past, so it isn’t like they have just grabbed a master brewer who only knows the beer from the brewing end… he’s incredibly enthusiastic about beer and food pairing.

As with Day 1 we finished up with a fairly informal 20-question multi-choice exam. No great challenge. I’d liken the whole exam element to having done my “Life in the UK” test. Study some material and then do what is effectively a memory and comprehension test. I reiterate here that the Beer Academy puts this course forward as being about education, not examination. I expect anyone doing it is going to be there with a serious interest in learning, as was certainly the case on the course I attended. Just being there is a qualifying activity in my view.

All in all Day 2 had a lot of value in it for me – as both a homebrewer and drinker. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone with a keen interest in homebrew who is not already well versed in the finer details of full mash brewing. Although a more purpose-designed brewing course is probably more relevant, so it helps if you’re interested in the wider world of beer as well.

Everyone seemed to go away from the course happy for the experience. The majority of my fellow students dispersed quickly at the end, but those who stayed around were upbeat and happy with the experience. Even the proper brewers. We shared a couple of beers downstairs in the Bull and had a chat. Everyone has beery activities planned for the evening… ah, a proper beer crowd. We finished our beers and headed in our separate directions… Derek to the Wandsworth Beer Festival… others to different parts of London with must-see bars in mind… and me down the road to the Southampton Arms. A fantastic little pub and a pint of Magic Rock Rapture in the BEST condition I have ever found it – NBSS 5/5 material… beer… it’s wonderful.

Final slide

This post, yesterday’s write-up of Day 1, and the previous introductory post all form a “log” of sorts. “Web Logging” as originally intended? The idea is to give a “live” overview of doing the Beer Academy “Advanced Course”. I’ve glossed over some bits, and obviously cannot cram much detail of two 09:30-16:30 days of learning into a reasonable number of words. I will write one final post on this topic which will be more of a rounded overview and review of the experience. Watch this space… well, not *this* space exactly… ah, you know what I mean.

 

Beer Academy Advanced Course – Day 1

Beer AcademySo, here’s my write-up of Day 1 of the Beer Academy “Advanced Course“, which is equivalent to the 1-day NVQ-Level-1 credited “Foundation Course“. The session I attended was conducted at The Bull in Highgate on 25/26 March 2014 and it is led by Derek Prentice – a Master Brewer who has been in the brewing industry for over 40 years. Starting out at Truman’s, and ending up at Fuller’s via Young’s. He has retired from Fuller’s now but has an eye out for picking up something in the burgeoning craft micro scene – with an ideal being a combined brewery, smokehouse, and bakery! Sounds wonderful to me. Without a doubt Derek is a lover of beer and extremely enthusiastic about all aspects of it – especially when talking about some of the finer details of ingredients and brewing. He is an engaging speaker with a bulk of knowledge that lets him riff on a point in a slide for minutes before realising we’d better catch up with our course schedule.

Chap through glass...The “class” is made of up 15 “pupils” harking from a variety of backgrounds. Five from the beer/events industry, two with plans to go into the pub trade in Brighton, two with a brewery in Ireland, one setting up a brewery in Yorkshire, two “simply” working in bars, one professional brewer from Brazil looking for work in the UK, a chap there because the course was a birthday present, and me… whatever I am. That was a mouthfull. A very wide spread of knowledge levels represented here, which makes me wonder how the course can offer “something for everyone” to such a group.

We are all given a printout of prepared slides that do not seem to have been prepared by Derek and on top of that his projector copy is ordered differently from our printed copy. I’m not one for following printed slides myself – but this did cause a bit of confusion and frantic page-flipping in the room. However Derek was clearly more than familiar with the content and led the show from his deck pretty fluidly regardless. Very good going given it was only his second time running the course.

The content is broken into modules that are interspersed with some beer tastings and beer and food pairings. From the slides alone the content doesn’t touch much that I’m not already familiar with but Derek makes up for this with the added value of his own experience and stories.

Malted barleyTo begin we cover the basic ingredients of brewing. Water and its properties and adjustments. Barley, the malting process, and the varied flavour contributions of malted barley. Adjuncts and similarly their value in brewing and flavour. And finally hops – well covered for a complicated subject. Interesting bits of information about hop growing practices and history too… with morsels from Derek such as US growers not growing any male plants due to a dislike of seed production versus UK growers deliberately including males in order to result in seed production and thus cause the cones to close and reduce risk of mould issues. Climatic foibles! Derek also had a fun note to add about the yearly “Hop Shoot Day” where brewing folk gather and do something with the new season’s shoots… and that last year they tried a high alpha variety with little culinary success. Thus learning that hop bitterness properties affect the entire plant.

As is typical in these situations we were able to observe, feel, sniff, and even taste a variety of malts and hops.

Hops

This continued into the brewing process including yeasts… which is much what you’d expect if you’re familiar with brewing. Subjects cover backyard micros through to industrial level beer production. Various conditioning and packaging processes are covered – not in any way cask-centric either. Unlike experiences within CAMRA this course is all-inclusive… multinational brands lager brands are not shunned, or even despised – except where, perhaps, deserved. Objectivity is key however and cask also can go wrong and there are no kid-gloves for the cask industry.

From production we lead into history… which you could call “the usual suspects”. Beer versus ale, hops, barely touching on gruit, middle age brewing through to UK industrialisation and pale malts, and from there the spread of modern beer across the world.

Beers with foodWe’ve already started tasting beers at this point – beginning with Fraoch and then leading through a variety of common beers that usefully exhibit flavours like DMS, acetyl, and seriously bad skunk – the latter thanks to a good old UK regional brewery who love their clear glass. Grim. All up through the day we taste thirteen beers (not including the half I had in the bar with lunch). Some of the tasting forms a nice segue into the matter of beer and food matching. We try a few beers against selected morsels and discuss cut, complement, and contrast. I’d pull up an issue on the tasting here – beers were not treated as I’d have preferred. Too many were poured too well in advance. And bottle conditioned beers were poured through to dregs – leading to a variety of samples of the same beer being distributed, from crystal clear to near opaque. Some got a bright Duvel experiences whilst others basically got a “yeast shot”. This really could have been leveraged to the advantage of the course in fact. Derek did cover pouring etiquette with respect to yeast at the time. (Beer pouring was all handled by an off-sider.)

Quote time, regarding clear glass: “We tell them to bugger off, but they don’t believe you. Then you do a taste test and they *still* don’t believe you!” – Derek Prentice, Master Brewer.

From beer tasting and matching we lead on to fairly comprehensively, although speedily, cover core beer styles with respect to Europe but lacking an eye to the colonies. As much as I hate it a bit of an BJCP injection here would be educational… especially as it has increasing influence on local UK brewing, not just imports. Some history content comes in here of course and I learn a few things about the travel of brewing around Europe as a result.

The final part of the day deals with the on-trade – beginning with stats about the dire state of the overall market. Cask and keg are given equal treatment and matters of cooling, cellar management, glassware handling and selection, and staffing are all touched upon.

We wrap up with some more stats and an industry overview – with the upbeat message that beer is good and to go forth and evangelise our favourite drink.

To cap off the day we all complete a 20 question multiple choice paper, hand it in… and our certificates should be in the post. All very casual… and Derek makes the point that the course is intended to be an educational experience, not an assessment.

Day 1 completes the Beer Academy “Foundation Course”. Day 2 will apparently revisit the same areas but drill down to a greater level of detail (at the time of writing I’ve done Day 1 and am still do to Day 2 on the morrow). I’m looking forward to it… whilst Day 1 was fun it was far more confirmational than educational. There were few points of new data for me within the syllabus but this was more than made up for by Derek’s personal tales and input.

That said… I am, perhaps, a bit of an extreme beer nerd. I think the course would be extremely useful to people working in pubs. I came away from Day 1 thinking: if I ran a pub I’d get key staff to do this. It is accessible, not overly expensive, and leads to a sense of increased enthusiasm about beer… even for me. I’m feeling a little more refreshed and excited about beer already. Then again, that might be the beer talking…

I leave you with a Derek quote on the subject of sparklers: “Northern bloody things”… a sentiment with which I find myself agreeing… but I will continue to try and grok them in the name of personal education. I’m due a trip up north soon.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Beer Academy Advanced Course – Prelude

Beer Academy - Copyright of the IBDIn pursuit of further motivation and confidence I booked myself into the Beer Academy’s “Advanced Course” a couple of months back. These courses are popular, you need to book a couple of months in advance if you want to be sure of doing a given date. Whilst the information about it on the website is rather vague – based on what I’ve heard about it the course seems a logical step in continuing my education in beer. The cost of the course, including VAT, is £312… perhaps high if measured in pints of beer, but in a better perspective: less than a decent weekend away.

To skip straight to the daily log and summary posts click below…

Why this course? Aside from the UK’s Beer Academy there is also the USA’s Certified Cicerone® programme. The US option is gaining increasing airtime in the UK as the craft worlds intermingle across the Atlantic and US-led BrewDog put more of their bar staff through the programme. (At this time all but one of the UK’s Certified Cicerones are associated with BrewDog.)

The Cicerone programme seems, on the face of it, to be far more thorough and organised than the Beer Academy qualification – although this could be amplified by the more detailed and better presented online presence of the Cicerone website. I expect the main downside of Certified Cicerone is that it would be, unsurprisingly, US-centric… thus probably not covering cask ale and UK styles and practices to to a depth appropriate for someone in the UK. OK, so that is probably not so much of a setback to someone working in BrewDog bars and I wonder if the Cicerone programme does have a real advantage in the context of more craft-led establishments. I figure it’s obvious that BrewDog believe so. It’ll be interesting to see if the concept of craft beer is covered by the Beer Academy, or even just newer/less-traditional beer styles. Cost-wise the two appear similar – but note the Cicerone headline price is purely for an assessment that is probably best preceded with some training or industry experience. It also seems likely to be necessary to fly to the US to complete the assessment as I see no European dates on their calendar… I thought I’d heard about exams in London but that may have been specific to BrewDog staff.

I’m not really in a position to rate the value of one over the other. Just noting that I’m aware that there is another option and explaining why I’m not pursuing it instead. The Beer Academy course is “NVQ Level-1″ which I presume has some meaning and interest to bar staff in the UK. I really don’t know – feedback from UK barfolk on this would be much appreciated. For my purposes the Beer Academy course seemed the logical choice given it will likely be a tight cultural fit to the UK beer scene. It also helps that I can simply pop down to London to attend. That said, I’d love to do at least the “Certified Beer Server” stage of the Cicerone programme as well some day… and not just because I think the shiny badge would look mighty purdy on Colin.

Budalicious!

Torture

I suppose I began my own casual beer matching by 2010. Since then have experimented extensively in cooking with beer, dangled a foot into the world of homebrew, and have gone as far as learning some cellarmanship skills and torturing my palate. Outside of the CAMRA bar management course this has all been informal “play”, fun but shooting in the dark a bit. So the time has come to see how the subject matter is dealt with in a professional context. Perhaps I’ll also find some new inspiration along the way.

Frighteningly, last week, a week before my booked course was due to start, I came down with a nasty head cold. Five days before the course date I couldn’t taste anything at all. A most unpleasant state… if a permanent affliction I’m not sure I would choose to go on with life. Much to my relief I’m now clear of the cold with just one day to go! I exercised my palate across a variety of beers on Sunday night… just to be sure, y’know…

The course I’m doing is hosted at The Bull in Highgate and runs from 09:30 to 16:30 on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. The next decision to make after booking the course was whether or not to commute down to London from Cambridge both days or stay a night or two in the big smoke. A month prior to the date hotel pricing made the latter a definite no-go. But on Sunday, two days before the date, a LateRooms search came up with the goods – a B&B room in New Market House for a total of £112 to stay Monday and Tuesday nights.

This stroke of luck meant I could book a return train ticket for £34.50 rather than two daily peak-return-with-travelcard tickets for £92.60. Ah… affordable public transport? Anyway – the overnight stay means I can take the healthier and more casual option of walking rather than the tube/bus sardine experience. Not bad it only costing £53.90 extra to be much more relaxed, happy, and not a sardine. New Market House is just under a mile from Kings Cross station and The Bull is a about a three mile wander from the B&B. It’s a good thing I like walking. I dare say the location also means I’ll be popping my head into the Southampton Arms and BrewDog Camden, at the least.

I’m planning on writing some notes about the Beer Academy course over the next couple of days with an intention to post a brief impression of each of the two days and follow that with a brief post-digestion summary. The aim being to avoid the usual 2000+ word wall-of-text I’d normally generate for this sort of thing. Stay tuned… if interested.

Follow-up posts: