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How to make beer in 10 easy steps

Making beer is super-easy. Just follow these instructions.

  1. Buy or borrow a brewery of suitable size and pedigree. brewery buildingI’d recommend something like the Hook Norton Brewery, for instance. It has history, it has charm. Their building looks like something out of Harry Potter, and they are very eager to preserve as much of the original equipment, going back about 170 years, as possible. They are located, surprise, in Hook Norton, a village not far from Banbury. The brewery has been in the hands of the same family for six generations now.
  2. Buy malt. You can of course grow your own, but at Hook Norton they believe you’re either a brewer or a barley grower. You can’t be an expert in both. So they say it’s preferable to leave the grains to the grain specialists and buy in your malt. You can blend different types of malt in your beer, depending on the style you want to produce. black maltOne malt Hook Norton uses throughout its range, in all its beers, is pale ale malt, as it gives richness to the beer. That’s not the one seen in the above photo, obviously. But I think you can guess what black malt will be used for.
  3. Crack your malt. grist millFor this process, serious people will use a grist mill – as seen in the photograph. You also want to mill some of your malt down to the fineness of flour. You might like to know that the mill featured in this photo is the only one of its kind in the whole wide world that is still in use. 
  4. Take a mash tun and fill it up with your cracked and milled malt, and pour hot water over it. Use high-quality water, ideally spring water or something similarly pure. They call this water the liqueur. That may strike you as a rather fancy name, but water plays a key role in the quality of the final product, so it’s not to be dismissed.
  5. Inside the mash tun, the magic happens. On the influence of the warm water, the starches in the malt are converted into sugar. This is crucial, because it is the sugar that can then turn into alcohol in the fermentation process. mash tunWhat you get in this process is a brown liquid, sticky with the starches and sugars, which we call wort (pronounce as you would ‘word’). In the traditional tuns at Hook Norton, you wait for the water to drip its way through the grains, which can take about 1.5 hours. Then you have to manually shovel out the grains, oh well, it’s tough to be a hard-core traditionalist. But what you get with all your hard work is 2,500 gallons of wort, now ready for fermenting.
  6. But before we get to the fermentation, something really important needs to be done. Choose your hops. Now hops have become a big thing today. Craft breweries place a lot of emphasis on the hops they use, and market their products with the hop varieties marked on the packaging, as connoisseurs really care. Often multiple hops are blended. Don’t be shy. Use your imagination. Hops are great. They are the life and soul of the beer. They have a light green colour and an unusual floral-fruity smell. Like with your grains, you typically don’t want to grown your own hops. Leave that to the hop specialists. 

    Hook Norton’s master brewer uses hops from all over the UK, as well as from the USA, New Zealand and eastern Europe. The wort in itself is ‘sickly sweet’, to quote our guide, and it will be the hops that give the beer its bitterness, as well as some other interesting flavour components, such as tropical fruit if, like me, you like that in your beer.

  7. Move the wort, together with the selected hops, into a copper for boiling. ‘Copper’ is what we call it, but it doesn’t have to be made of copper, though at Hook Norton one of the two coppers they have is actually copper. They are essentially large kettles with a ‘percolator’ in the middle. You bring the wort-hop mix to a boil and let it do its thing for about 1.5 hours. It’s not as simple as that, however. There is an order in which you add the hops here. You should start with the so-called bittering hops. The more aromatic hops should come in later, because with the boiling the aromas easily leave the beer. Once the boiling is over, the liquid is pumped out and cooled down.
  8. Fermentation! This is when your brown juice becomes beer. On our visit to Hook Norton, we weren’t allowed into the fermentation room as contamination is a huge risk at this stage. Suffice it to say that a beer with 5% alcohol content takes about one week to ferment.
  9. Pump some CO2 into your beer and get rid of unwanted yeasts using a microfilter. As simple as that. But if you’re producing a cask ale, do leave some yeasts in the beer – they are needed for the flavour.
  10. The beer is then conditioned in casks. These tend to be rather small in size, much smaller than, for example, wine barrels. The reason is that once a cask is opened, the beer will only keep 3-4 days. For a publican, therefore, it’s better to be able to turn the casks over quickly.

What’s really special about Hook Norton is that theirs is a tower brewery, very cleverly built in a way so that the whole brewing process is gravity-based. Today cutting-edge wineries do the same, in order to keep the process as uninvasive as possible, but Hook Norton was built in the mid-19th century so that was pretty modern for a Victorian establishment. Here is a map that shows how it all works:

map of brewery

We of course finished with some tasting. The beers available on tap included Hooky Bitter, a classic, nutty session (i.e. rather weak) beer; Old Hooky, their flagship beer; Hooky Gold, a very hoppy ale; and Trial No. 1, an interesting lager with an individual character. But my favourite, needless to say, was the Kingmaker Ale, a pale ale with passion fruit, nettle and gooseberry flavours, and with a moderate 4% alcohol. And I got to pour my own beer!




The Tel Aviv show

I’ve been going more or less every year to the now legendary Jerusalem wine festival, which takes places every August in the garden of the Israel Museum, and is a huge favourite with tourists and locals alike. But this year I’m spending the winter in Israel and thus got to go to a trade tasting in Tel Aviv, the Sommelier wine show.

While the event was mainly for professionals, this requirement did not seem to apply to the organizers, who had done a far from perfect job. For example, even though there was an online booking form, it turned out to be a waste of time. I never received a confirmation of my registration, nor was I registered in their system, which meant that I was allowed in as a kind of half-legit participant. Unlike at trade (and even non-trade) tastings, there was no catalogue or tasting booklet that would provide information on the wineries, their products, and their prices. If you got there early, you were at least given a notebook to put your tasting notes in – but I was not one of those lucky ones, so I spent ages running around begging the organizers for something to write on.

But enough of the rant. The event was all in all very nice actually, and there were a lot of presenters whom I had not encountered before. The main focus of the Sommelier show is Israeli producers, but there were a few stands representing international wines as well. I was obviously interested in the Israeli stuff, and tried to explore wines I had not tasted in the past.

Having said that, I had to start with Seahorse (Suson Yam; not supervised) from Bar Giyora in the Judaean Hills. Obviously. Because Seahorse are the winery where I did a summer of interning a few years ago. So I started with Seahorse’s signature white, the varietal Chenin Blanc James 2014. I have recently opened a bottle of their 2013 and it’s a very lovely wine – the 2014 caused no disappointment either. It is fresh and fruity on the nose, presenting attractive apple and citrus and sweet aromas. Upon tasting it showed great acidity and restrained fruitiness – a refreshing, clean, youthful wine with enjoyable minerality.

Bazelet CSOne of my new discoveries was Bazelet Hagolan (kosher). Situated, as its name suggests, in the Golan region of northern Israel, the winery overlooks Lake Kineret. It was one of the first boutique wineries to be established in the Golan, in 1998. Their production is focused on the best-known international varieties (this applies to quite a few Israeli wineries actually): Chardonnay for white, and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for red.

Their Bronza 2013 is a varietal Cabernet that has spent 8 months in oak. Although I felt this wine was still very young (meaning mainly that its tannins are quite untamed), it’s bursting with fragrant black fruit and is very promising. Then I tasted their Cabernet Reserve 2012 and the difference was massive: this wine had everything in smoothness, in togetherness, that its younger brother didn’t yet have. This rich, delicious wine is fully ready to be drunk now. And then they got out a magnum (1.5 l bottle) of their Cabernet Reserve 2010. Unsurprisingly, this wine was even smoother, with better integrated alcohol. On their website older vintages going back to 2001 are still available – wouldn’t I love to taste all of them!



Ramat Negev (AKA Kadesh Barnea; kosher) winery have chosen a less obvious location for their enterprise: the Negev desert, near Kadesh Barnea. Their story goes back to 1997 and one of their principles is to exclusively use locally grown grapes. They produce both varietal and blended wines: whites from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and reds from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Mourvedre among others.

I first tasted their Neve Midbar 2013, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The wine spent 14 months in oak, which shows in its delicious toasty character. It’s still young but has ample fruitiness to make it enjoyable even now. In their Ramon range I tasted the Petit Verdot 2012 and the Cabernet Sauvignon 2013. Both were in oak for 18 months, which gives them a sweet, toasty, attractive character. Enjoyable palate, beautiful bright deep ruby colour, but the alcohol is a bit too much in your face.

Gofna PNAnd now a few kosher Pinot Noirs: Yarden are known for producing very reliable high-quality wines, and their Pinot is no exception. The special treat at the Sommelier show was to taste the Yarden Pinot Noir 1998. Its colour was so garnet it was almost brown. Although this aged wine was now strongly affected by oxidation, it still offered lots of fresh fruit, together with earthy, meaty notes. The Yarden Pinot Noir 2011 stands in interesting contrast to its elder: it’s still very young and light, with a nose full of strawberries. At the same time the palate has a more savoury character and is just beginning to show signs of maturity. The Gva’ot Gofna Pinot Noir 2014 has a light ruby colour and a cherry fruit nose. The palate presents a lovely balance of oaky flavours and fruitiness. It’s fresh and youthful, a well-made, beautifully balanced wine.


In general I have found that the standard of the wines was good, and some were excellent. However, it would be great to see more originality, especially in the choice of grape varieties, and more of an effort to create an individual style. Also, many of the wines are too flat and fat, lacking acidity. Without a firm basis of acidity, these wines will be unlikely to age well.

A glass of Kopár 2006

Once I had a friend, Gyuri, when I still lived in Budapest. He was the first person I knew who loved wine, and he was a major influence on me and on my ideas of what good wine is all about. It was also Gyuri who introduced me to Attila Gere’s Kopár Cuvée. Gere is one of the best-known and most prestigious winemakers in the Villány region of southern Hungary. He is particularly famed for his Bordeaux-style red blends.

photo 1Kopár was one of Gyuri’s cherished wines, and it went down in my personal wine history as The Wine of Villány – and at that time, it was The Wine in general for us, as fifteen years ago we still had little access to serious foreign bottles.

So here I am in 2014, opening this beautiful bottle of Kopar 2006 for the family Christmas lunch, and I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia. Gyuri is long gone – he was taken by cancer over ten years ago… but Kopár is still here. After a few hours of allowing it to breathe, we clink glasses and I sniff. Coffee and black pepper hit me, accompanied by intense berry aromas. The wine still needs to breathe but it’s clear that we’re in for a real treat.

The first sip shows a surprisingly soft palate, although with lots of savoury notes, and the wine is still quite closed. photo 2Again, coffee and black pepper, and lovely rich ripe berry fruit, with cedar wood, lively acidity and velvety ripe tannins. The wine finishes with graphite minerality and long berry, cherry and prune notes. If this bottle were with us in another hour or two, it would be great to see what it had to offer in its full bloom…

At this stage in its life it’s a serious, savoury, medium-bodied wine that could well live another 5-8 years. It’s spicy, fruity, balanced and has a great intensity of aromas and flavours. And it’s a beautiful way to remember Gyuri and his love of life.


The beginnings of Israeli wine

Oh Palwin… a legend, at least in Anglo-Jewry.


Sonoma to go 100% sustainable by 2019

Impressive news, although its ambitiousness is probably more what strikes me than an understanding of what is actually meant by being 100% sustainable. In any case, here is the press release issued by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, and it does throw some light on how this sustainability will be implemented in practical terms.

Click here to read the full press release.

The main points are listed below (and I’m quoting from the press release):

  • Sonoma County is committed to becoming the first 100% sustainable wine region in the United States through a three-phased program to be completed within the next five years.
  • The first phase of this effort will focus on helping winegrowers assess their sustainable vineyard practices through trainings and educational sessions focused on over 200 best management practices such as land use, canopy management, energy efficiency, water quality assessments, carbon emissions; healthcare and training for employees and being a good neighbour and community member. Although many vineyards and wineries are already implementing sustainable practices, the goal is to assess and collect the assessment data of 15,000 vineyard acres per year for the next four years until every acre of planted vines are under assessment for sustainability.
  • Phase two will involve the Sonoma County Winegrowers working with vineyard owners to achieve certification. To ensure against “greenwashing”, third-party verification and certification programs will be used, focused on environmental, social and economic viability and continuous improvement.
  • Another critically important factor to this initiative is transparency, which will be accomplished through regular progress updates, an annual Sonoma County Wine Region Sustainability Report Card and a vineyard and winery real-time tracker on the SCW website.

Sonoma County has some of the world’s most prized grape-growing areas in the world with the first vineyards dating back to the 1820s. The region’s unique combination of rich geological history, fog patterns generated by its 70-mile Pacific Ocean coastline, and topography has given rise to 16 unique American Viticultural Areas (AVA) that house about 500 wineries. Each AVA offers distinct climate, soils and temperature areas perfect for growing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and more.


Miss E visits Ridgeview

Believe it or not, the English make sparkling wines. It’s not a huge industry but it’s growing, and some of it is considered very good – so good, in fact, that in a recent issue of the World of Fine Wine Tom Stevenson and his panel of specialists tasted English sparklers against champagnes blind. Which is saying a lot. English sparkling wines (typically made in the southernmost counties, mainly Sussex) again competed with champagnes in the Judgment of Parsons Green (February 2013, see Tom Stevenson’s detailed evaluation here) and, well, the top medals all went to English wines. To be more precise, three out of the top four wines were made by Ridgeview Wine Estate. And so when I was looking for a winery to visit in the UK, the choice seemed obvious. Let’s go to Ridgeview.

L1250317This small, family-run winery is located just north of Brighton in the beautiful South Downs. Surrounded by a meticulously tended Chardonnay vineyard, the winery building is rather industrial-looking but the warm welcome from marketing executive Oliver Marsh makes up for the absence of a stunning chateau. And anyway, I’m more interested in the gyropalettes than any aesthetic niceties. Gyropalettes are a very clever invention, they come from Cava-producing Spain and are now used pretty much everywhere in traditional method sparkling wine-making.


Agi is delighted to meet the first ever gyropalette of her life

As you can see in the photo here, they are large metal structures that hold hundreds of bottles of wine. When sparkling wine is made the traditional (i.e. Champagne) way, the rules of which are strictly set, the still dry wine has to undergo a second fermentation in bottle. This fermentation is triggered by the addition of tirage, a mixture of yeast and sugar. As fermentation takes place and the yeasts eat the sugar, CO2 is produced as a by-product, and since the bottle is sealed, it can’t escape. This is how champagne gets its bubbles. When fermentation is over, the dead yeast cells (called lees) are also stuck in the bottle, and this is good because after a while they begin to decompose and add exciting, complex flavours to the wine (this is called autolysis). However, when the producer wants to sell the wine, he wants to sell a clean product and so these dead leftovers need to be removed. The first stage of the removal process is riddling, or remuage in French. And here is where the gyropalettes come into the picture. Traditionally riddling was done by humans. The bottles were placed in A-shaped racks called pupitres, at such an angle that the neck of the bottle was slightly lower than the bottom. Every day the remueur would come and give each bottle a little twist and shake, and gradually increase the angle. After a few weeks the bottles would be almost completely upside down, and as a result of the shaking, the lees would now be sitting in the neck of the bottle. So, I asked, what’s all this fuss, why can’t you just shake once, but shake properly, and get it over and done with? It turns out that the lees are actually stuck to the side of the bottle so it takes them a longer time to travel down to the neck. But the great thing about gyropalettes is that they speed up this process, from weeks to only a few days. Oliver tells me five days at Ridgeview. And since no human labour is needed, it makes things a lot cheaper.


Ridgeview’s beautifully maintained on-site Chardonnay vineyard

After I’ve sufficiently familiarized myself with the intricacies of riddling, we go and see the vineyard. It only produces a fraction of the grapes used by Ridgeview, and only Chardonnay is planted here – the rest of the grapes, including Pinot Noir and Meunier, the traditional champagne varieties, come from further away, but all are grown on nearby lands so the soil and climate will be similar. The bedrock is chalk, with up to one metre of clay top soil.

2013 has been a great year weather-wise, Oliver tells me, and so they’re expecting excellent quality fruit at the harvest, which is to begin some time in early October. The grapes are hand-picked at perfect phenolic ripeness, which means that they will have lost all green, unripe flavour components. The harvest can thus take up to three weeks as grapes in different parts of a vineyard will ripen at different times. The bunches then undergo gentle whole-bunch pressing in a massive pneumatic Coquard press. Only the free-run juice is used in the production of the base wine.


Chardonnay grapes – not quite ready yet

By mid-November the base wines are ready. They undergo malolactic fermentation throughout the winter, and blending takes place around February. Sparkling wines are typically blended, as they are made up of several grape varieties unless blanc de blanc (only from Chardonnay) or blanc de noir (only from Pinot Noir) is being produced. The second fermentation, described above, takes place over 30 days in the dark cold room, and after this is finished, the wines are left on their lees for two years before degorging (the removal of the lees from the bottle).

Ridgeview was established in 1994 by Mike Roberts and his wife Chris. Today their children also work in the winery, which employs ten people altogether. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, relaxed, and the tasting room is open to visitors almost every day of the week (from 11 to 3). Ridgeview’s style is young, fruit-driven wines in which acidity is balanced with autolytic and fruit flavours. Their wines are mainly sold on the UK market, with about one-fifth being exported. They also produce sparkling wine for retail giants Marks&Spencer, Waitrose and Laithwaites.

I taste three wines, all from the 2010 vintage, their most recent one now available. Grosvenor is a pure Chardonnay, bone dry wine with lots of minerality, high acidity and green apple flavours. Cavendish is more mellow, with autolytic notes and raspberry fruitiness. It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. This is Ridgeview’s flagship wine, Oliver tells me. And then we taste the Fitzrovia Rosé, which has an intense strawberry nose and on the palate good acidity with lots of sweet fruit and a bit of toastiness. My favourite is the Cavendish, though each wine is well made and has its appealing characteristics. Since my visit I’ve been looking in wine shops, and you won’t find Ridgeview on every Tesco shelf but it is available, for example on the Wine Society’s website or in specialist shops, but also from Waitrose Direct.

To find out more about Ridgeview visit their website.

All photos by Tamas Sarady

Learning to love champagne

This might sound like a cliche to some of you, but I do believe that becoming a wine taster is a learning process. Most people are not born with a fine palate, but, like other skills, tasting is learnable. I am certainly a novice: I have only been seriously tasting for two years, and although I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot even in this short span of time, I still find that I’m all too often seduced by the loud, obvious and overstated, and don’t always notice the elegant, refined and stylish. I am reminded of young children’s taste in colour. Most like reds, harsh pinks and yellows. It’s OK. I like, for now, such reds and pinks and yellows on my palate because they are so easy to notice, and easy to enjoy. Oak and vanilla are direct and striking and they overwhelm and no detective work is to be done. But I’ve always wanted to be a detective, so this will not suffice.

Still, when I took part in my first ever serious champagne tasting, I raised an eyebrow. What’s all the fuss about? Why do people pay hundreds of pounds for a bubbly that to me doesn’t seem that different from a £7 Cava from Tesco? And then, having heard myself ask that question, I begin to think. What should one be looking for in a champagne? Surely it’s not all hype and fashion and snobbery. And the detective work begins. How should I taste champagne? I bombard Tom Stevenson, arguably one of the worlds’ greatest experts of the sparkling beverage, with beginners’ questions. Where is the kind of intensity I’m used to in still wines? Where are all those fruity flavours? Why do all these wines seem so uniform? And Tom explains, and then I read up on the subject and slowly slowly a clearer, sharper picture of fine champagne begins to take shape in my head – and hopefully on my palate.

As a novice, one of the distractions I have to deal with when it comes to champagne-tasting is, of course, the bubbles. Be they as fine and silky as they may, they still keep my palate busy and turn attention away from individual flavour characteristics. But perhaps this is just as well. Perhaps this is the way towards learning to judge and enjoy a wine as a whole. Anyway, since champagne is made from very different base wines to the aged, matured still wines I’m used to drinking, I can’t expect to discover the same flavours, the same ripeness, the same intensity. The fruits tend to be more subtle, more citrusy, or light red fruit. What predominates in champagne is the flavours that come with age, partly developing during the autolytic process (this is when the wine sits for months or, ideally, years in the bottle, having received a dose of sugar/yeast/wine to start a second fermentation, having completed that fermentation and developed lots of bubbles) whereby the dead yeasts, or lees, are creating added flavours and contributing to a creamier texture in the wine. As Tom tells me, the toast and biscuit and yeastiness that are the dominant flavour characteristics of traditionally made sparkling wine do not come from the autolysis, but rather from the next stage of ageing, after disgorgement (when those dead yeasts are collected in the bottle’s neck, frozen and popped out), after dosage (a wine refill of varying sugar levels; the more serious the wine, the less the sugar content of the dosage, it seems) has been added. So, autolysis will produce floral fragrances, and post-disgorgement ageing will give us the toast and yeastiness.

So we look for these flavours, and for good acidity and of course balance and structure. But one needs to fine-tune one’s palate. Champagne is chamber music, not a symphony orchestra. There won’t be much crash boom bang (except when you drink Krug’s!), but it doesn’t mean the music is not just as great, the expressions as intense and beautiful, and the overall experience as cathartic.