Sambrooks Brew Day
The Beer Boutique’s Client Relations Exec, Mark Kelly goes to Sambrook’s brewery in Battersea to get the way for a day
I am gazing longingly at a large quantity of beer. Nothing particularly new there of course since I work in a beer shop and spend a lot of time flirting with bottles of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout or winking at the Bigfoot Barley Wine. The difference today though is that the frothing liquid I’m eyeing up is not quite beer yet. It’s in a steaming mash tun packed with Maris Otter Barley from Muntons of Norfolk and being sprinkled hypnotically with hot water in a process known as “the sparge”. In three weeks it will be pumped into casks or bottles and sold as “Wandle” - the flagship product of Sambrook's brewery in Battersea.
It’s 9am on a chilly Tuesday morning and I arrive at Sambrook's brewery with my preposterously white festival wellies to be greeted by the friendly head brewer, Sean who is busy doing manly things with a forklift. “Get some wellies on and then we’ll go see Gary,” he says. “He’s about half way through the first brew”. I head to the cloakroom, which is reassuringly cluttered with dozens of pairs of white wellies – though none of them have a yellow “Latitude 2011” sticker on them. It feels like the first day at big brewing school – though that I consider Sambrook's one of the “big” breweries in London betrays my ignorance of industrial scale beer making. They produce around 6700 barrels per year, which seems like a lot until you consider the Fullers brewery in Chiswick knocks out 217,000 barrels in the same amount of time. Sambrook's then, are still Microbrewers in every sense; despite how “big” the brewery seems in comparison to my five-litre curry pan and gallon jug at home.
But even when you produce a paltry two million pints a year there’s still plenty of beer to make. So I’ve arrived ready to shovel malt and get down to some serious – erm… brewing I suppose. Oddly though, the first thing brewer, Gary Wilds starts talking to me about is sugar. Specifically, the amount of sugar in the wort at any one time. “Brewing is really like chemistry,” he says. “So the most important thing is to be constantly checking the sugar levels”. I’m slightly surprised it’s so delicate a process to be honest but eventually the amount of sugar left in the tank when it goes into the fermenting vessel will determine the ABV of the final product. It becomes plainly obvious the level of control Gary has over the beer is much higher than I anticipated as he records sugar levels at every stage with a hydrometer.
When I arrive, the beer is being sprinkled with hot water to get the maximum amount of sugar from the malt. Soon after, its time to send all that lovely sugary liquid into the copper kettle for The Boil. This is where he adds hops; the funky, smelly flowers that look a bit like something I used to smoke at University. “All the hops we use are grown in Kent so its all British,” explains Gary, who has served many years as a brewer including a stint at Hogsback Brewery in Surrey before moving to Sambrook's.
The idea to use all British ingredients is something that Sambrook's has been passionate about from the beginning. When the brewery opened a little over five years ago, the modern American styles of beer were already taking hold in the UK with hops being imported from the Yakima Valley region of Washington State and malt being sourced everywhere from Vienna to Norfolk. So it’s refreshing to see brewers like Sambrook's sticking to their guns and using only local ingredients – regardless of how it might cut them off from certain sections of the beer drinking market.
The Bodicea hops are added all at once at the beginning of the boil for the bitter flavours that balance out all that sugar we’ve extracted. At this point I’m starting to wonder why I bothered to bring wellies at all when Gary, smiling, hands me a shovel and points to the mash tun which is full of spent barley. “Get yourself in there and get shovelling,” he says wheeling around a huge plastic bag on a pallet and dropping it in front of me. Head of marketing for the brewery, Jo Miller pops her head in and informs me that empyting the mash tun was considered “an eight pint job” back the day. Payment in beer? I don’t need telling twice.
The malt is still steaming hot when I jump in and I’m immediately soaked to the skin by bready, sweet smelling steam – brilliant fun! The jumper comes off and then I’m bent over double scraping out a thick layer of grain from the bottom of the giant metal vessel – half hoping, half fearing that Gary will close the lid on me as a sort of initiation thing. It doesn’t happen but I emerge from the tun, soaking wet with a big, beery smile on my face nonetheless. The spent grain will now go to feed some cows I’m told. “You are welcome cows,” I think.
While I’ve been getting my hands dirty, Gary has been weighing out more sticky hops whole cone hops – specifically Goldings and Fuggles which are added to the boil at the end for aroma and flavour. He tells me I should head over to the burger van down the road and ask for “the special”. I don’t argue with the man. He makes beer for a living so he’s bound to know a good burger van when he sees one. When I arrive back the remaining hops are added and the copper tank full of malt is circulated. Many brewers (including the Brooklyn Brewery whom I visited in September), use pelleted hops which as Gary explains are easier to measure out, less likely to clog up the equipment, and make it more difficult to know exactly how much you need. That said, most brewers agree whole cone hops are better for adding a fuller aroma and its nice to handle the big sticky flowers as I’m weighing them out for the afternoon brew. There’s also something slightly more romantic about throwing the flowers in whole.
Later on, I’m introduced to Jamie, who arrives a little before midday to start the second brew. Jamie is a lady, which is cool because the only other lady brewers I’ve met are Petra at St Mungo’s brewery and Melissa Cole. She’s at the top of the stairs keeping an eye on the temperature of the malt and water as it’s into the mash tun. She tells me to poke a thermometer around in different areas and records the results. I ask her how she got into brewing.
“I was just doing some really boring admin jobs when I moved here from Australia,” she says. “After a while it got to the stage where I wasn’t sure why I was doing them. So I started volunteering here and eventually got to the stage where Sean trained me up as a brewer”. She’s been at Sambrook's now for the best part of a year.
By this time, I’ve covered in malt, sticky with hops and literally smelling like a Brewery. It’s time for me to head home. As I leave, Jo tells me if I want to come back and do a day helping out on the dray I’m very welcome. I just might do that.