Paul McConville's special brew at Kinnegar
This week, Paul McConville enrols at Kinnegar Brewing Academy to learn about beer making and have a go at creating his own top tipple
I HAD never really regretted not being much good at science at school. Balancing on rather uncomfortable stools at a workbench while being talked through the minute detail of a cell or a chemical equation never really grabbed my attention.
Still, there was a part of me that wished I had shown a bit more enthusiasm rather than staring out the window of the prefab classroom when I rocked up for the two-day Kinnegar Brewing Academy in Rathmullan recently.
A decent handful of the dozen or so participants could boast some sort of food science background, and then there were the two Belfast homebrewers who were just fresh from knocking up some unintentionally sour beer.
And there I was – beer enthusiast, writer of a craft beer column and therefore, a bit of a bluffer.
Fortunately, all that was required was a love of beer and an inquisitive mind, something I came well equipped with.
The academy, now in its fourth year, kicked off with a 'theory' day – basically learning what makes your beer look, smell and taste the way it does. Although a lot of it involved looking at diagrams and charts, it was a million miles away from any classroom, situated as we were in the gorgeous Rathmullan House, a tranquil retreat overlooking Lough Swilly.
Rick Le Vert was our host on day one, the man from upstate New York who darted down a few career paths before settling in the north-west of Ireland to make beers that are the toast of drinkers across Ireland and further afield.
The first thing to do was to get to know the raw ingredients that go into making beer, which involved nibbling on some malt, sniffing some hops, finding out about the weird and wonderful world of yeast and even being enlightened on how important good water is.
It was fascinating to discover how different types and combinations of those four ingredients can go into make a vast array of different beers.
Essentially, though, the process boils down to making food (or sugars) for the yeast to feast on, thus creating CO2 (the bubbles) and alcohol (the booze).
But reading diagrams and looking at charts was only going to get us so far: it was time to get our hands dirty and whistles wet with the afternoon tasting session as we planned what sort of beer we were going to brew the next day.
In the spirit of collectiveness, Rick did invite suggestions, but given that he was the expert, we deferred to his pre-determined whims.
"I’ve never made a lager at K1 before," he announced. Given that the Kinnegar operation is moving to a brand spanking new facility in Letterkenny (K2), this was going to be one of the last beers brewed in Rathmullan, so it was only fitting that it was something different.
Even a lager agnostic like myself was won by over Rick’s argument that the lager genre is wide and often unfairly maligned. That and trying out a top-of-the-line German pilsner sealed the deal.
"So, if you could be there for 8.30am tomorrow morning, that would be great,” Rick gently suggested as the tasting session was in full swing.
When you've just spent the afternoon and early evening sipping all manner of beers from German weissbier, lambic, saisons, English bitter and Irish stout to American IPA, you do tend to be in quite a suggestable mood.
Of course it was all in the name of research and if you are going to brew a beer from scratch, it's best to get as broad an education as possible.
As we ambled into the farmhouse brewery at what seemed like an unreasonable hour on a Sunday morning, the operation was already rumbling along nicely thanks to Rachel Carton – a woman who would regard an 8.30am start not so much as lie-in, but bordering on a holiday.
Brewing days are long and, for Rachel, a 5am start is the norm.
Ours was a potted education, measuring out and milling grain, heaving it down the stairs to the brew house, which is the two vessels – the kettle and mash tun – in which the wort is made before being transferred to a fermentation tank.
Yes, the rise in craft beer production has been quite the boon for the stainless steel industry too.
We all got a turn tipping the grain into the water in the kettle – how such a mob-handed workforce would come in handy in a daily basis.
There's a fair bit of mixing and waiting and increasing and decreasing temperatures and the downtimes were filled with more education on the processes of fermentation and conditioning which would happened long after we’d left.
I got to purge some of those regrets of my schooldays by testing the gravity of the beer, sampling some pre-hopped and post-hopped beer before fermentation and weighing out hops.
That last duty almost turned calamitous as I briefly muddled up metric and imperial measurements, but, with the help of one of my fellow amateur brewers, we ensured the finished product wasn't unintentionally too bitter.
After cleaning out the mash tun (something which requires a long instrument not unlike a garden hoe), the spent grain goes into large bins and is used for animal feed.
My last contribution was to tip in the second lot of hops. After a bit more boiling, the beer is then whirlpooled to clear out any of the harder bits of the hops as it is mainly the alpha acids, which come from the hop oils, which dictate bitterness and aroma.
Then it’s feeding time for the yeast as the fermentation process turn the liquid into beer.
Having waited so long to produce a lager at K1, and given it was the brewery’s last hurrah in Rathmullan, our beer has been simply named Finally and is available in all good independent off licences now.