Cask Of Mild

Last weekend, amid bouts of rain, we tasted Griffin Hill's latest test batch with some friends and family on top of our hill. The beer? A British-style mild with a twist. The twist? A grain bill consisting of barley, wheat, rye and oats, all grown in New York State. Cask-conditioned, this mild poured smooth, creamy, and full of complex malty goodness. It's a testament to the quality and versatility of NY ingredients- and a tasty expression of Saul's brewing adventures in the UK. 

The Melting (brew)Pot

Coming out of David Smith's Fundamentals of Mini-Brewing course I feel like I'm fully prepared to start a traditional British Real Ale brewery.  I know how I want my set up to look.  I know how many casks I'll need.  I know how to figure out exactly the right amount of isinglass finings so that every pint comes out of the cask crystal clear.  I'll have some choice words for landlords who aren't treating my product well in their cellars too! 

But wait. We're starting our brewery in... New York. There are no landlords tending to cellars full of cask-conditioned real ale.

American craft brewing is different than the British version.  The Brits call the American version craft keg .  That is, it's a craft brewed product, brewed by people who care about what they're making, not just making money, but it's served out of a keg under carbon dioxide gas pressure, not out of a cask through a hand pump.  Craft keg is starting to catch on here in the UK with big breweries like Brew Dog and Meantime  and some smaller ones like the Kernel, but the vast majority of British craft brewing is traditional cask-conditioned ale.

There aren't any US breweries who brew only cask-conditioned beer (as far as I know).  The whole beverage industry infrastructure just isn't set up for it the way it is here in Britain. Quite a few beer bars in the US have a hand pump or two for cask beer. The Brazen Head in Brooklyn and J. Ryan's in Syracuse do great cask festivals. But as a whole, cask-conditioned beer is much more a novelty than a mainstay of US craft beer culture.

So why study traditional British brewing when we are setting up a brewery in New York?

Well, I love British beer and want to know how its done. Also, in a way, being here gets to the heart of what American craft brewing is all about. We are drawing on an American tradition of drawing on old world traditions. American craft beer is innovative, dynamic, and reflective of many traditional beer styles and brewing techniques made our own. You can train anywhere and make American craft beer.

In the US, we can take the framework of traditional British brewing and turn it on its head if we want and no one will complain unless we send some over to London. Don't worry, David Smith, that's not our plan. Not exactly.

Laura and I don't want to brew just traditional British style beers, though we love them and will certainly brew some.  We also love all sorts of Belgian and German styles. Then there are all the American styles that have emerged from the craft brewing revolution of the past few decades. We're starting a hop farm, and it would be a crime not to brew an explosively hoppy American IPA.

A particular brewing tradition will not be the defining feature of our American brewery, though there are many great US breweries for which this is true, like Belgian-oriented Brewery Ommegang. We have a different goal. We want our beer to be truly representative of where we are by using New York ingredients, including our own.

There's a link here between our vision and the British brewing tradition.  So many traditional British beer use only British ingredients.  

We want to do the same thing in New York.

The styles we'll brew and the recipes we'll create at Griffin Hill will be globally inspired. The ingredients we use will be locally grown and processed. That is our vision.

This T-shirt from Hale's Ales in Seattle says it all.

Think globally. Drink locally.

Cleaning casks at Le Brewery

Cleaning casks at Le Brewery

The Fundamentals of Mini-Brewing

Sometimes things just fall into place. 

York Brewery , York, England

York Brewery, York, England

When the Skews family started Le Brewery, they enlisted the help of a brewing consultant named David Smith.  David brewed for the famous Samuel Smith's in Yorkshire for many years before striking out on his own and starting a brewing consultancy business back in 1988.  Since then he's opened over 100 breweries and provided support for a whole lot more.  He is one of the world's brewing elite.  Back at Le Brewery in August when Steve told us about him and informed us that David and his wife Melanie were coming to stay for couple of days we were more than a little bit in awe.  "He's someone you'll want to know if you really go ahead with this brewery," Steve said.

Steve was right.  We got to brew with David when he came over to Normandy back in August, and it was great.  He's like a brewing Obi-wan Kenobi. He's seen it all, he's done it all, he's crafted Best Beer in Britain recipes, you name it, if it has to do with Real Ale brewing in Britain it probably has to do with David Smith.   A natural teacher, David is a wealth of wisdom and experience.  It's easy to see why so many of the breweries he has a hand in have become so wildly successful.

We had a lot of fun during the time we were all at Le Brewery.  This winter, when we decided that we needed more commercial brewing experience in order to get Griffin Hill Brewery going, I decided to get in touch with David and see if he had any suggestions.  He's been wonderful.  He started looking for a place for me to work and suggested that I take a brewing course that he teaches twice a year in York.

That's how I found myself sitting with nine other brewers (all from the UK) in one of the conference rooms above York Brewery last week.  The course is called the Fundamentals of Mini-Brewing.  The story behind the name is that back in the 80's when the small craft brewery movement was taking off in the UK they referred to themselves as mini-brewers.  David started giving the course back in '88 and that was the accepted term.  Then the '90s came along and with them the American microbrewing explosion, and British brewers went with the new term.  David's just never seen a need to change the name of the course.  He's conservative like that.

The course has been an incredible experience.  Most of the other participants are already brewing on a commercial level, so it's been great getting that perspective.  Then there's all the detail on traditional British brewing.  I've done quite a bit of it at Le Brewery, but I had a lot to learn.  We brewed, visited breweries and maltings, had guest lecturers from people who work throughout the various parts of the beer industry, and of course tried quite a few beers at the end of each day.  Over the next couple weeks I'll try to share some of the experience here.