Tideswell: a toper goes to Brew School

I'd never been to Tidewell before. I'd thought of going there in the height of summer on a slow bus that trundles from Buxton, to stand in the sun-dappled graveyard of St John The Baptist Church - the 'Cathedral of the Peak' - where Late Gothic meets pinnacled Perpendicular.

But I ended up there in December. In the mist. Too early on a Saturday morning. To brew a beer with this man.

Alex Barlow has been a head brewer in the UK and Europe for some of the biggest beer names around and now runs ALLBeer, geared to educating consumers and retailers about the delights of beer. He's also taken up occasional residence at the Tideswell School Of Food, where he teaches the Brewing and Tasting Skills course I'd signed up for. It's very much hands-on, as you can see from fellow attendees Chris and Andrew here.

We'd all had a chat before getting our hands dirty and decided to brew a Belgian-ish strong blonde. Just without Belgian yeast. Malt was hand milled (yes, I did my stint), we mashed in and then retired to the classroom for a session on beer style. Oh, and a bacon cob and a bottle of pils.

What really impressed me was the simplicity of the process. Three donated kegs become hot liqour tank, mash tun and, uh, 'copper'. You're up close and personal with the brewkit. It's not a brewday that happens inside closed tanks and opaque pipes. It happens right in front of you. You connect.

And digging out the mash tun becomes gloving-up the blogger to dump grain into a bin liner.

And run-off becomes a game of switch-the-jug.

And given that the last hop addition I was involved with required hacking a bale of Galaxy with a blunt screwdriver, caressing a few ounces of Cascade between my fingertips was rather therapeutic.

I feel duty-bound to point out at this stage that the beer-drinking in between mash / boil etc was in no way gratuitous. No siree. It was purely educational. Alex talked through beer traditions and styles with pointers to the science and the artisanship behind crafting a beer. Those tasters chosen weren't random: they encompassed fermentation methods (cold, warm, spontaneous) to highlight how yeast plays the vital role in brewing beer. Hence Pilsner Urquell earlier. And Timmerman's Kriek. Which I forgot to take a photo of.

And Buxton's Imperial Black, which I did take a photo of. And which was a fitting beer on which to finish. Something to savour whilst we mulled over the oxymoronic nature of contemporary beer styles. And then pretended to understand the nuances of lag-phase fermentation as Alex drew convincing graphs on the brewhouse whiteboard. And then cleaned up after us.

Done and dusted within four hours, it'd had been a great morning of brewing literally brought to life in the way that a brewery tour can never really achieve. Those who want more science and less beer tasting can opt for the Introduction To Brewing course instead but I thought this balance of theory, practice and imbibing worked wonders. It's ideal for the homebrew-curious but not so geeky that the casual beer lover would get turned off by the content. With no more than six on any course, everyone gets the chance to gets hands-on and be part of the conversation.

And then, of course, there's the beer. Whilst a big bucket full of hoppy water and yeast having sex is sat on a table in Tideswell, someone is keeping an eye on it. When it's ready, bottles get mailed out to you. After all, when you've milled the malt and sparged the wort and weighed the hops and juggled the jugs and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned, you want to taste the result. 

Brewed on December 1st, 'Advent Adventure' is fermenting away as we speak. And I know how it's doing well because they tweet to let me know.

Bloggers usually enjoy brewdays because they get to drink great beer and take photos. I enjoyed this one because a) I learned things b) I had a laugh whilst doing so and c)... for the first time, it felt like I actually really helped brewed a beer. And I could actually see myself with a brewkit in the garage. Shit. There goes my quiet weekends...

You can find out more about the Tideswell School of Food on their website. Courses run throughout the year and you can buy vouchers as presents to cover some or all of the cost. Many thanks to Alex from ALLBeer for the invite (and look out for his revamped website in early 2013).