Last Thursday in Pontypridd, the early summer seemed to have revealed itself as a false start. A chill mist hung over the peaks and dulled the valleys. The sombre mood was enhanced when I got off the train at the wrong stop, forcing Nick Otley to come looking for me on a hillside industrial estate he’d never been to before.
When he finally found me and took me back to the other industrial estate back up near Pontypridd – the one where the Otley brewery is – my first impression was that Otley will soon need a bigger unit, if not to expand their brewing operations, then to get a bigger office for all the framed awards certificates. If they carry on winning stuff at the rate they have since opening shop in 2005, they’ll run out of wall space this year.
I’m not the first beer writer to brew at Otley – not by any means. I would have been higher up the list if I’d got my shit together when they first invited me to brew, but since then Melissa Cole, Adrian Tierney-Jones and Roger Protz have all been asked to come down and get their hands dirty – Glyn from the Rake, AKA @RabidBarFly, was here before any of us – his Motley Brew has become a regular addition to the range.
The trend of collaborative brewing is an exciting one, but I think, dear reader, you could be forgiven for getting more excited about, say, a collaborative brew between Thornbridge and Brooklyn, or Brew Dog and Mikkeller, than one between a thrilling new brewery and a beer writer whose only experience at brewing before has been a kit from Boots in 1981.
I’ve been asked to brew before – several times. But on most of those occasions ‘brewing’ meant I dug out the mash tun and basically got in the way. The notable exception would, of course, be Avery Brown Dredge – and my write up of that experience is long overdue – but Zak and Mark had much more to do with both the recipe design and the labour than I did.
Like our ABD experience, Otley ask writers to get stuck in. Not just the symbolic digging out of the mash tun, but designing the recipe, choosing ingredients and really taking responsibility for how it’s going to turn out. Go brew with Otley, and there’s nowhere to hide.
The pressure was on. I’d previously talked to Nick about brewing a big old Imperial stout, because when he first asked me to come and brew – at the end of 2009 – I’d only ever brewed IPAs, and was – not bored exactly – but wanted to spread my brewing horizons.
Funnily enough, inspiration came when we were sitting in Brew Dog, about to brew our Imperious Stout, weeping with hangover. (The Brew Dog bar in Aberdeen is great – but almost every beer is one you want to have at the end of the evening. The End therefore goes on for hours.) I was sitting there, feeling guilty at not having contributed more to ABD, thinking, what will I do at Otley? And Martin Dickie, Brewing Boy Genius, handed me a nice cup of life-saving tea and popped a packet of ginger biscuits on the table. I looked at the packet of ginger biscuits. The packet of ginger biscuits looked at me.
And I thought, Imperial stout brewed with ginger, maybe a bot of chocolate, aged in whisky or rum casks.
Otley have so far resisted the cask ageing trend. This was to be their first attempt. The easiest casks to get were Welsh Penderyn whisky casks – and they weren’t easy to get. So that’s what we’re ageing the beer in. It’ll be ready late Autumn.
A man with a camera came, which I hadn’t expected. I didn’t have my entourage, make-up or anything. But, I reasoned, I never have an entourage or make-up, so it makes no difference. So I hastily improvised a quick description of what and how we were brewing. I insist all errors in describing the brewing process are down to necessary editing, but I think Wales Online did a really nice job here. They turned up just after we’d finished mashing in, so I’m covered in malt flour. I’m also pitifully knackered. But it’s come out OK.
After we finished brewing, I had several pints of ATJ’s excellent Saison Obscura down at the Bunch of Grapes, and even though I was falling asleep from mid-afternoon onwards, the beer somehow galvanised me into giving a competent account of myself during the evening’s entertainments, when I matched various beers with each of my three books for an audience bussed into the brewery. The smell of chocolate filled the air by the time they arrived. I think they enjoyed the multi-sensory beer experience.