Tuesday, 16 August 2022

I’ve been brewing beer for 40 years and I still love it

HE’S the man charged with keeping Brakspear beers going and even after 40 years in the

HE’S the man charged with keeping Brakspear beers going and even after 40 years in the industry, head brewer Malcolm Mayo says he still loves the job.

Working from the microbrewery at the company’s headquarters behind the Bull in Bell Street, Henley, he can make more than 1,000 pints of beer every week.

That is only a small proportion of the amount that is drunk at Brakspear pubs — the vast majority is made under licence by Marston’s at its Wychwood brewery in Witney — but it does mean that Brakspear beer is being brewed in Henley for the first time since the company’s New Street brewery closed in 2002.

Not only that, but Mr Mayo carries out the process from start to finish on his own.

He started in the brewing business in 1976 in Luton and worked at breweries in Romsey and Cheltenham as well as at Wychwood before joining Brakspear in 2013 when the microbrewery opened.

Mr Mayo, 64, travels from his home in Stow-on-the-Wold for an 8.30am start every Monday, often stopping on the way to collect ingredients.

His first job is to mix the mash, which often involves several types of malt as well as gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate) and calcium chloride.

He comes up with the recipes himself and often has to play around with volumes and ingredients before he finds the perfect blend.

Mr Mayo says: “They tell me what they want and that’s where my brewing experience comes in. It’s all about knowing the ingredients, what flavours they can produce and how they will react.

“Every part of the brewing process is important but the most important part is using the best ingredients you can. The recipes evolve as you do them a few times. The first time I brewed Brakspear Mild it was a lighter colour so I added a few extra ingredients and put the mash temperature up to get some extra sweetness.

“When I’m making a one-off cask, like our seasonal beers, I can’t do that so I always think of something the next year that I’ll do different. The first Christmas brew I did was 7.5 per cent, which was a bit threatening, so the next time I put it down to the six per cent and tweaked it quite a bit by adding extra molasses. For next Christmas’s brew it will change again.”

Once mixed, the mash is poured into a tank with hot water, or “liquor” as it is known in the trade, where the enzymes will convert starch into sugar. This process takes around an hour to complete and the temperature is strictly regulated throughout.

The mix is then run off into a copper tank, which can take up to three hours, depending on the consistency. Once it’s in the tank, Mr Mayor adds hops to create the bitterness in the taste.

The brew is left on the boil for an hour before it is cooled and the “late hops”, which create the aroma, are added for another 45 minutes. Finally, the brew is run into fermenters in an adjoining room, which is always kept at 15 degrees centigrade.

Mr Mayo adds oxygen and yeast and leaves the beer to ferment. This is the longest stage as the beer is left for two to three days, although the temperature is regularly checked by either Malcolm or staff at the Bull.

He says: “When I’m back in the brewery on Thursday it’s usually pretty well completed. You then chill it to stop the fermentation, then it’s left over the weekend and racked the following Wednesday. It usually takes about nine days from start to finish but you don’t need that long. If we worked at the weekend you could have it all done in a week.”

While he experiments with a new brew, he says some recipes, like Brakspear Mild, are now “fully established” and are only changed if he gets different ingredients.

For example, the bitterness of hops depends on their alpha acid concentration, which changes year on year. If he gets a new batch of hops, he often has to change his recipe to get the same taste in a beer.

Mr Mayo says: “The flavour of beer comes from the hops and the smaller operations are all about using a good variety. There will be a shortage this year because over the last five or six years craft brewing has become more common and even the larger breweries have smaller operations which are producing 40 or 50 barrels of beer so they are using more hops than they used to.

“I’ve had to contract out some hops for next year just so it will be available to me, whereas normally I would just order what I want when I need it. Hops from the US are short because they’ve had a drought problem there, while hops from New Zealand are great but expensive and not in great supply.”

Mr Mayo enjoys drinking beer but can’t crack open a bottle until he’s home.

He says: “Because it takes me an hour-and-a-half to get home I don’t have a beer with my meal after work, I have a glass of water instead, but I do get to taste the beer when it’s brewed. I don’t have a favourite, it depends on the time of year. You want something flavoursome in the summer and something a bit stronger in winter.”

His 40 years in brewing means he has seen the industry develop.

He says: “One of the greatest changes in brewing has been oxygen control, which prolongs the shelf life of beers. About 20 years ago it was only just coming in and now it’s one of the most important things in brewing.

“The other changes are mostly in technology and IT because it’s all about cost and labour now for the larger breweries. I prefer the hands-on approach — that way you get to see what’s working and what isn’t.”

Mr Mayo makes up to 11 different brews for Brakspear, including the year-round Special and one-off editions including Club to Pub, made for at the annual swim of the same name.

The most recent is the Mild, which was recently revived after a gap of 20 years, using the original recipe.

He says: “I quite like making the Mild just because there’s such a lot of interesting ingredients. It has three different malts but it’s still only three per cent so it’s more about the flavour.

“Brakspear is obviously a lot smaller than other places I’ve worked — in Cheltenham we had two huge mash drums which could make 600 barrels — but as far as quality is concerned it’s right up there.

“I tend to do a belt and braces job. I go through everything and make sure the place stays clean, which you can’t do in a big brewery. We’ve just recruited a helper who will help collect, wash and rack the casks but at the moment I have to do everything.

“It’s a good job though and I don’t find it gets tedious. I usually get here at 8.30am and don’t leave until 10pm but that’s mostly due to the cleaning up. It’s a grafting job as there is a lot of manual work but I enjoy it.”

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