The brewery drop-ins, and once in Scotland the distillery visits, that I am proposing during LETJOG, do not represent my central challenge, rather the indulgence of a passion for real ale (and the occasional whisky), and an excuse for conversation, common interest and camaraderie on my northward journey.
For such a simple product, usually comprising just four ingredients – water, malted barley, hops and yeast – traditionally-brewed British ales present an astonishingly diverse array of products, ranging from the lighter pale and golden ales through traditional amber bitters to dark porters and stouts. Beer has been brewed in the UK continuously since prehistoric times, and at the last count, pre-pandemic, there were around 1,850 breweries in the country, up from about 500 at the turn of the century (Good Beer Guide 2020). Most of these establishments are small- to medium-sized micro-breweries, producing naturally carbonated casks of ‘real ale’ to pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as bottles for direct sale and for distribution to wholesalers and retailers.
Beer recipes proliferate, with literally hundreds of new beers appearing each year – CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court typically offers over 2,000 traditional ales. Alternative varieties of beer result, in part, from the chemical composition of the local water, with differing levels of minerals lending themselves to various styles of ale; so, for example, London porters, and the traditional amber bitters of Burton-Upon-Trent (itself a must for a brewery stopover, so scheduled for the fourth week of my LETJOG journey). The other ingredients vary similarly; barley is sourced mainly from eastern England where it is malted to different degrees (and often used by brewers in combination), to become the main determinant of beer colour. Hops, being a lighter product, are commonly imported from cool temperate climes around the globe, as well as from domestic producers traditionally based in the extreme south-east of England. The hops act as a preservative and give the ale its distinctive bitter taste.
Having at one time been involved in the founding and operation of a micro-brewery in Hertfordshire (though not as a brewer!), for those interested in what goes on in a brewery, I have included (from my own archives) the following rather technical diagram and a short description on the art of turning water into beer.
The basic brewing process begins by pre-heating mains water in a large tank. The resulting ‘liquor’ is then transferred to a mash tun for around two hours steeping with the malted barley, to extract the fermentable sugars and proteins. This ‘wort’ is then transferred to a large kettle where it is boiled for around 90 minutes with the hops, before being transferred once more, to the fermenting vessels. Once in these tanks the yeast is added, and the liquor is monitored for around a week until the specific gravity reaches a critical level as the sugars turn to alcohol. The resultant ‘green beer’ is then racked into casks and sealed prior to conditioning for two to four weeks (depending on the beer strength), whereupon the casks a can be despatched for consumption.
Aspects of this brief summary, and, once north of the border, around the whisky distillation process, will no doubt form the basis of many a LETJOG conversation – over a refreshing glass or two, of course!