Spring Calling

Spring Calling label


The Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trusts invited me to brew a special beer for International Dawn Chorus Day. They started Dawn Chorus Day in the ’80s and it has become an annual international event. The idea is that you get up early and listen to the environment come alive as birds wake up and start singing. It’s a celebration of spring, but also a call to pay attention to the urban wildlife and natural environment around us.

I have a doctorate-level education in Earth and Environmental Sciences, and I can quantify the value of ecological services provided by natural systems and their elements. But I also appreciate the intrinsic value of connecting with the natural world. I spent many years as a political activist and community organizer, volunteering my time to protect precious natural resources from destruction and educating people on the often misleading and sinister policies enacted by elected officials in an attempt to greenwash the truth of corporatocratic greed.

My style as a brewer relies heavily on natural processes. Biological, chemical, and physical processes, all interconnected in the making of beer, are often ignored or poorly understood by many brewers. Some have an uncanny intuition that makes up for their lack of knowledge. But for many, the result is: bad beer. Not bad because I subjectively dislike the flavors; bad because it’s not the best beer it could be. I can drink a beer I don’t care for but will not hesitate to acknowledge the craft that went into it. But too many beers are bad because no artisanship went into them.

Anything that undergoes fermentation is transformed by billions of organisms – usually yeast but it can also include different species of yeast and various species of bacteria (as you get in sour beers). The brewer is a warden for this microcosm. She has to provide the raw materials (nutrients, water) and maintain an ideal environment (temperature, darkness, protection from contamination) for these microorganisms do to their jobs properly. Understanding the biochemical processes that take place along all stages allows her to use better judgment over the timing of additions, transfers, and flavor combinations. The yeast take care of most of the important work, and understanding their life cycle and requirements only makes the brewer better able to keep them happy and healthy.

However, there are shortcuts some brewers take to speed up the natural cycles. I eschew these shortcuts because they don’t allow the yeast to finish their job. The tradeoffs are beer with off flavors, overcarbonation, or profound mediocrity. That’s why my beer can take a long time to produce, compared to other microbreweries. I don’t rush it. I produce finished beer less often, and that means fewer sales and lower revenue, but it’s worth the quality I get in the end.

All this to say that most of life on this planet has been around a lot longer than humans have, and they have co-evolved over eons to create these highly complex and efficient natural processes. Nature is the ultimate engineer and humans should look to it for inspiration to emulate its ecotechnology more often. Unfortunately, we usually look for other, quicker, ways to do something for which we already have a blueprint, and the resulting option creates environmental degradation, pollution, and a lot of waste – and, in the case of beer, not very impressive results.

Too many people live their lives fearing nature, or even hating nature. They don’t like dirt; they don’t like bugs; they are afraid of stepping in something gooey or getting bitten and they obsess about mowing their lawns and killing weeds. But all these factors have a role in ecological processes that keep this planet habitable. They have no idea that 90% of their bodies are not human cells but other microbes.

It’s a good idea for everyone to drop everything and just appreciate nature once in a while. It’s too easy to forget what’s out there, and without what’s out there, there is no “here.”

This beer was brewed to benefit the Trust – they will receive 100% of the net profit from sales of the beer. I chose something that would be very springlike – bright and sunny with fresh flavors. I brewed a Belgian-style blonde ale with chrysanthemum flowers and a special Belgian yeast strain from Bastogne, which produces a crisp, dry, and slightly acidic flavor. It’s a cloudy beer – the yeast strain does not settle out of the beer easily and it’s unfiltered and alive – and this gives it a comforting, soft, almost creamy mouthfeel. The chrysanthemum flowers are an unusual addition that provide that fresh, herby, outdoorsy characteristic I was looking for. A spring tonic type of beverage is common in all cultures; elixirs are brewed from some of the first plants that appear in the spring. I made it bubbly to make it a bit festive, as well as being appropriate for its style. It’s a strong beer – 7.2% – but approach it as you would a wine, with food or on its own, and you’ll be all set for nature appreciation.

Spring Calling will be ready the last week of April and will be distributed to shops just in time for Dawn Chorus Day (May 3). It will be available only in bottles.



KeyKegs, Step-by-Step

posted in: technical | 1



KeyKegs technically aren’t kegs – they’re a plastic foil bag inside a hard plastic shell. The beer goes into the bag, and air is pumped into the space between the bag and the outer shell to mechanically push the beer out. CAMRA leadership approved this some years ago to qualify beer in this package as “real ale.” You can fill the KeyKeg with carbonated beer or, as I do, allow it to condition inside.

To condition your beer inside a KeyKeg, you prepare it the same as you would when you bottle it. Prime it for packaging, and then fill the KeyKeg. If you can raise your mixing tank so that it can fill the KeyKeg by gravity, great. If not, you can do it in steps, as I do, by pumping the beer into a smaller mixing bucket. I use 20L KeyKegs, so I use a 25L bucket. I set it up on a table on top of another bucket. You can hang a bucket overhead from a beam – anything to get it raised high.

The KeyKeg needs to be filled in an upside-down position, so you need clearance underneath it to access the coupler and valves. You can prop this up on beer crates, as I do, or anything that will do the job. Just keep the top level (which is actually the bottom, since it’s upside-down) of the KeyKeg lower than the bottom of your mixing bucket.

Before you start, you need to empty the KeyKeg by connecting a dispenser to it and opening the beer valve for a minimum of 8 seconds. This purges any residual air inside the bag. Remove the dispenser and sanitize the top of the KeyKeg.

Transfer the beer from the mixing bucket into the KeyKeg until it’s full. It will fill by gravity. The video above gives you much more detail on how to minimize the amount of air getting into the KeyKeg and the sequence of steps.

I’ve had excellent results conditioning my beer in KeyKegs in a range of carbonation levels (stout to saison). It does help to keep the KeyKeg from getting warm during dispensing or the CO2 will go out of solution and you’ll have a foamy beer that’s hard to pour. I constructed some cooling jackets that do the trick. If the beer is cool, even a lively saison will behave while pouring.

Other information:

Slimlines have a maximum internal pressure capacity 3.5 volumes, whereas the Baselines have a maximum internal pressure capacity of 2.5 volumes. These figures are at 40°C, which is ridiculously high, but there you go. Keep this is mind if you brew highly carbonated beer, such as saison, biere de garde, etc. The greater the CO2 volume, the lower the pressure needed to dispense the beer. The main thing to keep in mind is that the Slimline can handle a higher carbonated beer than the Baseline. Yvan has added some useful info in the comments section below (thanks, Yvan!).

Baselines have a lower center of gravity and are thus more stable when you transport them.

Baselines will fall apart if the cardboard absorbs water from a wet floor.

Magic Rock has a page on KeyKegs, especially on serving issues.

This document from KeyKeg (PDF) contains the specifications of all the models.

Video by KeyKeg, which has great info but not as much detail as mine.