Going Wild at Elgood's
There is no doubt that the beer revolution of the last ten years has presented some challenges for established breweries in the UK.
Regional and family companies, witnessing the sense of adventure that has driven successful new arrivals, have needed a response.
For many, this has come through the installation of microbreweries within their existing set up, allowing the creation of small-run beers with a more intense character than their existing brews.
For one particular brewery, however, it has involved turning back the clock and taking full advantage of an asset that, until recently, was seen as more of a nuisance.
Elgood's has been brewing in Wisbech since 1878, although the fine Georgian building dates back even further, to the late eighteenth century.
The beers that the company is primarily known for are Cambridge Bitter, the mild Black Dog and the blond Golden Newt, but – in line with other family brewers – it also branched out in recent years, using a ten-barrel brewery-within-a-brewery to create special and one-off beers.
All the while, though, the perfect answer to the challenges of the modern brewing era lay beneath the brewers' noses in a pair of cooling trays that had stood idle for the best part of twenty years.
These shallow, copper-lined vessels sit next to the hop back, strategically placed in such a traditional brewery to provide a cooling solution in the days before heat exchangers.
The wort was simply strained into the trays and the cool air overnight brought down the temperature so that it could be transferred into fermentation vessels and yeast could be pitched.
As a method of cooling, it was primitive and also not without risks. Leaving the wort exposed to the open air offered an invitation to the wild yeasts, bacteria and other microflora existing in the atmosphere to settle down into the sweet, sticky liquid and begin feasting.
It was hardly surprising that Elgood's was happy to shelve the practice in favour of a faster, closed cooling system.
The only reason the trays were not stripped out was the physical difficulty of removing them and they remained, lacquered and polished, as a reminder of the bad old days for visitors to the brewery.
It took a visit from the Elgood's American distributor to change this perception. Knowing how popular Belgian lambic beers had become in the US, he instantly recognised what a unique position the brewery was in.
Historic cooling trays have become virtually non-existent in British breweries and no one has a linked pair like Elgood's. Lambic breweries are defiantly traditional and cooling trays are fundamental to their processes.
The very act of cooling the beer overnight and the subsequent invasion of wild yeasts and bacteria is intrinsic to the creation of a lambic beer.
The brewers rely on such invaders for fermentation. They don't pitch brewers' yeast; they just allow the wild yeasts and bacteria to do the job, turning sugars into alcohol and creating acidity that makes the beer tart and sour.
The potential struck home at Elgood's. The cooling trays were dusted off. The lacquer was removed and they were restored to use.
Elgood's first adventure into lambic-style beer (the term lambic is geographically protected and so can't be used) came in 2013. Head brewer Alan Pateman delved deeply into Belgian brewing culture, tried desperately to forget all the accepted brewing practices he had learned over the years, and put together a suitable recipe.
Lambic beers have a high percentage of unmalted wheat in the mash. Alan opted for a fifty-fifty combination of pale ale malt and raw wheat, raising the mash temperature slightly, and allowing more time in the mash tun, to help extract the starches from the unmalted grain.
The wort was then boiled with Savinjski Golding hops, but – as favoured by lambic brewers who want preservative quality and tannins from the hops, but very little bitterness – he sought out some rather tired examples.
Two or three years old, these were precisely the type of ingredients Alan would never have allowed in his brewhouse in other circumstances.
The boil was allowed to continue for an hour or so longer than usual, to try to match the procedure in Belgium, and then the transfer to the cooling trays took place.
I joined Alan and the team recently to witness the turning out of the brew. It is quite an experience.
Fountains of near-boiling wort, splashing onto the copper surfaces, raise a fog of steam that envelopes the room.
Within seconds, you can barely see your hand in front of your face and the air only clears a little when Alan opens the louvres in the side wall, to allow a cool breeze to blow over the vessels.
The beer sits here overnight and the hopped wort leaves the trays suitably cooled and naturally infused with those important wild yeasts and bacteria.
In Belgian lambic breweries, these little creatures have made themselves at home in the rafters, on the walls and in every little nook and cranny of the brewhouse. They have multiplied there over generations and there are plenty in the atmosphere to do what the brewers want them to do.
At Elgood's, they've needed to encourage them. To help things along, planks of oak, cut from a tree that fell in the brewery's four-acre gardens, have been nailed to the beams. The wild yeasts and bacteria should settle here over time, encouraged by the moisture from the billowing steam.
When the trays have done their job, fermentation takes place in closed tanks at the farthest end of the brewery from Elgood's main fermentation vessels. Alan does not want the intruders to cause any problems with his regular brews.
The process is as natural as it comes. To emulate the wooden cask effect experienced in Belgium, oak shavings form a bed inside the tank and the wort, sitting on these, is simply left to its own devices for a year or even longer.
By the time it is deemed ready for sale, it has created around 6% alcohol and tart, fruity flavours that zing with acidity.
The Belgian term for cooling tray translates as coolship and that's the name Elgood's has given to its beer.
I named Coolship as one of my beers of the year last year. Aromas of sherry and caramel, I found, led to a bittersweet but bitingly sour taste with floral notes, a sultana fruitiness and an oaky, drying backnote. A dry, acidic, fruity finish left the palate tingling.
The brew has been repeated several times since, with most of the output heading to the USA. Elgood's is now hoping to open up a market for the beer in the UK, both in bottle and in keg form.
Alan has also begun to experiment. Joining the original Coolship is a dark 'lambic' – basically a stout that has been given the same treatment – and also a fruit version, laced with blackberry and raspberry extracts after the ageing process.
The fruit has not been added the proper Belgian way – in tank to encourage a secondary fermentation – but that may come as Alan continues along what he accepts is a learning curve.
Among all the envelope-pushing and the tearing up of rulebooks that's going on in UK brewing at the moment, there are many brewers experimenting with wild and sour beers.
None, however – thanks to those nuisance cooling trays – is able to compete with Elgood's for authenticity.