A big draw for the beer writers to participate in the upcoming Barrel Bragging Rights event was the chance to make a beer with a brewer and gain some insight to their process. (Don’t ask me what the incentive was for the brewers). I was lucky enough to be paired up with Amsterdam’s Iain McOustra, a man who is both extremely knowledgeable about brewing and one of the nicest people in the beer industry that I have met. Even though my grasp of brewing was all theoretical, he still wanted to make sure that our beer was a collaboration from beginning to end. We had a couple of different chats about what style of beer to make – an early contender was a wheat rauchbeer, which he ended up making with a homebrew for another event. The final pick, an old ale, ended up being my suggestion that won out because it would be a nice match for the oak barrels and was a style that Iain hadn’t brewed before.
Though I was not able to give specific ideas towards the recipe of our beer in regards to choice of malt, hops, yeast or other brewing specs, Iain took my notes about what I wanted in the finished beer (taste, colour, ABV, etc). We knew other brewers were integrating interesting ingredients and flavours into their beers, but we both wanted a beer that would be more traditional in style. I don’t know how often this happens with collaborations, but we were pretty in sync with our hopes for the beer – a complex beer that would showcase the malts, but would still be somewhat sessionable (or as sessionable as a 6% ABV beer can be). Nothing extreme, nothing perplexing, just the kind of beer that makes you want more.
Obviously our old ale isn’t a historical representation of the style – this isn’t an aged beer. But there were elements Iain threw in to give it some similarities to old ales of yore. First there was a single mash-in, as would have been done when old ales were originally being made. The fermenter for our beer had a wide bottom, once again recreating some historical conditions (though Iain pumped CO² into the fermenter, which wouldn’t have been done). These are small variations to the brewing process, but will hopefully help create a beer that gets as close to an old ale as possible. A lot of people have asked me to describe an old ale, which isn’t surprising as it is rarely seen in Ontario (either from local brewers or in the LCBO). The best way is to compare it to other “imperial” styles, especially those that are recent creations (imperial IPA, imperial pilsner, etc). Then picture a mild ale (malty, no hops, low alcohol) and make it “imperial”. That pretty much gets you to old ales – they are imperial milds.
I won’t go through a play-by-play about the brewing process, mainly because I couldn’t explain everything. What surprised me were the number of gadgets that Iain had in his equivalent of Batman’s utility belt. Not only were there the standard brewing implements like a thermometer and hydrometer, but also chemicals and additives that most people wouldn’t think are in the brewing process. There was a chemical that stopped the boil from foaming and eliminated the risk of a boil-over. Isinglass, aka fish bladder, is added to collect all the particulates and eliminate them from our final beer. Plus lots and lots of sanitizer, which wasn’t a big surprise. And here I thought you just made the wort, added the hops and popped in some yeast.
I have yet to taste the final result, but am looking forward to see what comes out of our labours. (For the record, my jobs during brewing mainly consisted of taking the temperature, keeping time, adding the failproof ingredients like the hops and turning the water on/off as needed. Other than that I just tried to stay out of the way.) A friendly reminder: if you want to taste our old ale (current name: McNulty’s Olde Ale) join us at The Monk’s Table on September 16th and vote for the beer that tastes most like an imperial mild.