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A Labour Of Love

I’ve been drinking beer for the best part of 30 years, and I think I’ve got a fairly intimate knowledge of it, in terms of taste at least. I know what I like and I’ve certainly got experience in establishing that fact. But until you have spent time actually making beer you can’t truly claim to understand the mechanics of it, the science behind it and the sheer effort required to make a quality brew. I always knew that, so it was a real pleasure when I was offered the opportunity to spend a day in the King’s Yard brewery with head brewer Paul Spencer.

Many of us have spent an hour on a whistle stop brewery tour, but unless you have wiped malt dust off your eyebrows, tried to detect the emerging sweetness from a mash tun or stood over a steaming copper tank for 90 minutes, it is impossible to appreciate the passion and expertise that goes into producing every last drop of our favourite ales. And I was lucky enough to be present for the seven hour process that makes an 11,500 pint batch of Yorkshire Blonde, or at least prepares it for a week in a fermentation tank.

Before we did anything it is worth noting that there is an awful lot of preparation required the previous day. All the tanks and pipework are clinically clean, and of course empty, and all the malt bags are lined up and opened ready to start the process. But also, all the hot water we are about to use is primed at the right temperature, as we can’t afford to lose any time or be using water outside of strict temperature parameters.

Upstairs in the malt store, Paul explains how the malting process modifies barley, making it suitable for brewing. In simple terms, the maltster makes the starch molecules in the grain accessible to the brewer by steeping the grain in water, allowing it to germinate for a few days and then kilning the malt to the desired colour and moisture content. Ossett buy their malt from Fawcetts in Castleford and Crisp in Norfolk. The colour of the malt is important in essentially dictating the final colour of the beer, in this case the familiar lager-coloured but full bodied ale we know as Yorkshire Blonde. So the first thing we do is enable the vast hopper of malt to flow from the grist case into the mash tun below and turn on the water flow to mix it up. It is important to regulate the flow of water and malt grain to ensure the mash doesn’t get too sloppy or too dry, but this is entirely subjective based on Paul’s many years’ experience. Essentially we want a consistency not unlike an enormous porridge bowl and so I’m left to keep an eye on that and adjust the water flow accordingly, because even a novice like me can understand the universal measurement of ‘like porridge’.

The mash tun is left for one hour during which time the starch in the malt converts to dissolved sugars. While that occurs there is no time to waste, and Paul and I go back upstairs to prepare all the malt bags for tomorrows brews and empty them into the grist case. 

After an hour we return to the mash tun and you can immediately smell a subtle sweetness from the sugars that are now in the mix. The huge brew kettle, known as “the Copper” extends from the floor to the gantry above and has three heating zones inside which help to bring the brew to a vigorous boil. We immediately add water to the mash tun – in a process known as the “sparge” - and let the brew flow into the Copper, via the underback which helps to provide a buffer. At the end of the sparge, the deep bed of spent grain is now a waste product and is shovelled out into IBC’s to be used as cattle feed.

It takes 90 minutes to fill up the Copper, and as it fills, steam flows through the heating jackets, raising the temperature of the liquid - known at this stage as “sweet wort” - to boiling point. Paul has prepared three barrel loads of hops; the magic ingredient that introduces the distinctive flavours and aromas to the brew. One of these goes in right at the start of filling up the Copper, but the final two don’t go in until the end.

The spent malt is taken away by a local farmer for use as cattle feed. He will also take the residual hops that eventually come out of the Copper, although these aren’t part of the cattle’s diet, like the malt is, but the farmer agrees to take them as they just deteriorate harmlessly into the ground. However, the arrangement is good for both parties financially and environmentally, and I guess it’s also good for the cows, although whether they would prefer a taste of the final brew is something we will have to consider another day.

Emptying the mash tun of the spent grain is hard work, but cleaning the tanks and getting them prepped for the next day is an essential part of the job, and a huge amount of man hours goes into using water jets and hosing down tanks, floors and equipment. Fortunately a lot of this can be done while tanks are filling or emptying, but you still need a sixth sense to know when something might be overflowing or a specific temperature is being reached, and Paul certainly has that experience.

The Copper needs to reach a vigorous boil, but once there this must be carefully monitored to prevent it boiling over. At the end of a sixty minute boil we make the final hop addition (known as the aroma hop) and ensure the hops are fully mixed in to give the brew the fruity hop aroma that Yorkshire Blonde is famous for. The mix is then piped, via a heat exchanger, into one of eight fermentation vessels, where it will sit for a week. We immediately take a sample of the brew and check the density of the mix, this is the major factor that influences the ultimate ABV % of the finished brew, and Paul adds a specific amount of water at the end based on this result. An amount of yeast is also added as the fermentation vessel is being filled, and the batch number and liquid volume is identified on the side of the tank. Paul and his team will undertake daily tests to ensure that the fermentation is progressing satisfactorily. These results are plotted on a graph on the batch record and a recognisable ‘s’ curve should be formed to indicate the brew is fermenting properly.


While the fermentation vessel fills up, Paul cleans out the Copper, which includes shovelling the residual hops into an IBC to go to the farmer as waste. This is essentially the end of the seven hour process to make a batch of Yorkshire Blonde, and my time is done. Sadly I can’t come back to taste the fruits of my day’s endeavours. In a weeks’ time the brew spends a further day in a conditioning tank to settle before being transferred into the casks that are delivered to pubs all over Yorkshire. Who knows, I might happen upon a batch of the beer I helped brew over the next few weeks, in one of the many great pubs across the Ossett Brewery estate. But even if it’s a different one, I will know how much accuracy and precision went into ensuring both quality and consistency, and that every drop was made with love, affection and a serious amount of knowledge.

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