Thirsty work: Ed and his father Peter with their porter recipe
Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley
The first thing you notice as you step into the railway arch off a quiet
street in Brixton is how much it doesn’t look like a brewery.
Having been on tours around some of London’s more established beer-makers,
there are features one comes to expect: large stainless steel mash cookers,
300 gallon fermentation tanks, fork-lift trucks. The London Beer Lab (LBL),
on the other hand, looks like a cross between a huge hardware cupboard and a
hastily assembled cafeteria. What appear to be four tea urns sit along one
wall, while equipment of indeterminate purpose line the surrounding shelves.
I’m here not because I like making beer (although I do), but because after
34 years, I’m clean out of ideas for Father’s Day.
LBL is the brainchild of Bruno Alajouanine and Karl O’Connor, who used to work
in the City. It came about when Bruno realised that many potential
home-brewers were stuck in flats too cramped for beer-brewing. LBL provides
equipment, training and space.
There are 12 of us on this course: 11 men and one woman. A trend quickly
emerges: almost all have been bought the day as a present, in most cases by
their other halves, and many of them have been harbouring vague ideas of
brewing their own beer. Despite being handed our first of many glasses of
beer to drink, any suspicion that this is going to be a lazy day of tasting
is quickly dispelled.
Bruno and Karl detail our mission for the next few hours. We learn that we’ll
be brewing one of four recipes – a golden ale, an American pale ale, a
porter and a wheat beer – in groups of two or three. Then the work begins.
Our main equipment is a 20-litre, temperature-controlled cauldron (the “tea
urns” we saw earlier). The first step is to measure the malted barley for
our recipes, which will spend the next hour or so heating to a variety of
temperatures to release their enzymes.
Dad picks the porter recipe, which involves a healthy dose of rich chocolate
malt, and we pour it into the mixing bowl. We both recognise the aroma from
the train as it passes a coffee-roasting warehouse on the way from
Basingstoke to Waterloo each morning.
With our barley on the go, Bruno takes us through all sorts of ingredients,
giving us examples of malted barley to taste and explaining the science
behind the brewing process. Bruno, who has been in the business for just two
years, apologies for the level of detail, but it isn’t necessary: he keeps
things just the right side of geeky (really), even when the graphs about
brewing time and the diagrams explaining the chemical elements come out.
Before we know it, it’s time to add the hops.
At this point, Karl goes to the freezer, returning with a dozen bags of leaves
and pellets, each a different variety with its own smell. One of them, we’re
told, is a particularly sought-after strain, Nelson Sauvin, which makes beer
taste like wine.
For the next hour we watch our timers and throw in small amounts of hops at
precise moments. Our efforts are then decanted, cooled and pitched (a
brewing term for the moment the yeast is added). Now there’s nothing to do
but wait for two weeks while the yeast does its thing, leaving us with our
beer. The only thing left is to think of a name: Pater’s Porter?
ClärkenBräu? This is where the real work begins…
Want to learn to brew?
London Beer Lab (londonbeerlab.com)
London Fields Brewery (londonfieldsbrewery.co.uk)
Hartingtons of Bakewell, Derbys (hartingtons.com)