Master brewer spills beans on making the perfect pint

Reporter Jon Dean learning to brew beer at Islington Brewhouse (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

Reporter Jon Dean learning to brew beer at Islington Brewhouse (photo: Arnaud Stephenson) - Credit: photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Gazette reporter spends the day in the pub – but it’s hard work

Pete Hughes,beer brewer at Islington Brewhouse (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

Pete Hughes,beer brewer at Islington Brewhouse (photo: Arnaud Stephenson) - Credit: photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Nothing says Christmas to me like a festive ale. And despite guzzling lots of the stuff, I am constantly surprised by how little I actually know about it.

So when the opportunity came up to take part in one of the Brewhouse’s beer-making days, I verily jumped at the chance.

Since opening, the pub has been gaining a great reputation for its pints, most of which are made on site by master brewer Pete Hughes.

By the time I turned up at 10am, the South African was already fully clad in his beer-making suit and rooting around in sacks of malt – the backbone to every ale on the planet, he assured me.

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We were going to brew the first batch of seasonal tipple Vlad (named after former Islington resident, Mr Lenin), which is malty, not too hoppy and packed with flavours you associate with winter – spiced fruit, cinnamon, all spice, and so on

First up pale malt, which has to be phenomenal quality, was mixed with some black and roast malt. The grain is mixed with hot water and the whole malty mash bubbles away for a goodly while in a big barrel, known as a tun.

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This is a seriously scientific process, everything weighed precisely, with software to work out measurements and highly-calibrated devices to work out sugar content (and therefore alcohol level, something HMRC and trading standards are rather keen on knowing).

But as Mr Hughes said: “We’ve been brewing beer for 5,000 years, so you don’t need all the fancy equipment. We just make it better now.”

As long as the temperature and PH level (balanced using different acids) are right at this stage “it’s very hard to cock up”, apparently.

Already thirsty, we had a quick swig of this mixture. Known as wort, it is a sweet, unfermented malty drink which, I was keen to note, is alcohol-free at this stage.

The wort is drained through the grain into another big barrel, and here, we get our first taste of hops.

This amazing smelling flower (closely related to marijuana), also comes in many varieties and adds the fragrance to the pint – it’s what you smell just before you take a sip.

For Vlad, a mere handful of hops and again the whole mixture churns away before sloshing into the fermenting tanks. This is where the yeast comes in – arguably the most important part of the process.

In fact, Mr Hughes says brewers consider themselves “yeast whisperers” so important is the little fungus, which controls the fizz, alcohol content and final flavour of the ale.

From here, it’s a waiting game. You won’t leave with your own brew because it needs in the region of two weeks to hit the high notes of flavour.

We did have the chance to sup a couple he made earlier however – a one day old brew was still sweet (and still didn’t have any booze in) while by day four it was beginning to get alcoholic and had a dry, yeasty bite that would fade in time.

Despite assiduously measuring everything at this stage, Mr Hughes is keen to point out “taste is more important then any readout”.

Cleaning out the barrels is also of a very high priority (and hard work – shifting several kilos of wet malt with a trowel is tough), so crucial Mr Hughes says he is tempted to put “cleaner” on his passport.

With this out of the way, it was time taste a few proper pints, sipping the various brews (all named after famous Isingtonians) in the presence of a master craftsman who could tell you what tastes to look out for. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative experience.

The whole process of brewing is packed with amazing smells and tastes and really gives you an insight into what lies behind your beloved jar. But how did my first brew taste? Well, I still haven’t found out. but if you want to know, head to the Brewhouse and treat yourself to a pint of Vlad – tell them Jon sent you.

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