Friday, February 29, 2008

Inside Scottish Distilling

This term in "beer school" we're learning all about distilling. And since my university is in Scotland, most of what we learn is about Scotch whisky. I've knows a bit about whisky for some time now, but only what I've been told from other people. Some of it was right, some of it wrong. The amount I've learned in the last few weeks has been quite phenomenal. Most of it was what you'd expect... distilleries, oak casks, maturation, etc. Whisky is a product that has a long history and is surrounded by some romanticism... but certainly its an industry that has also had to grow and adapt to make a profitable business. So the unfortunate part about learning the depths of the distilling industry is you also have some of that romanticism shattered. I would say, however, that a lot in the Scotch industry is still done quite traditionally... more so than other industries.

Anyway, I digress, as the real point of this story is to tell you about some places we're recently visited on class trips. We've visited a couple of distilleries of course. But thats not what I want to talk about. Distilleries are interesting, but they are usually open to the public. I'm going to talk about some locations that few people get to see: a copper smiths where they make the stills, a cooperage where they make the oak barrels, and a huge warehouse where they age the whisky. All three are out near Alloa, NW of Edinburgh on the edge of the highlands.

First, a little background story. All three locations are owned by Diageo, a company that produces many premium alcoholic beverage brands. As far as Scotch goes, they own 28 distilleries in Scotland (about 1/3). Talisker, Carol Ila, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, and many other single malts are all part of their family. Most Scotch, however, is blended into brands such as J&B and Johnnie Walker (which they also own).

Diageo is quite supportive of the brewing & distilling program here, and have been very kind to give us tours of many of their sites. Diageo is quite well vertically integrated, owning all three places we visited. The first place was a copper smiths where we were quite privileged to see just how copper stills are made.
Abercrombie Coppersmiths  002
Copper smiths: two new stills! (Click any photo for a larger version!)

A still is, basically, a big boil kettle that evaporates alcohol then condenses the alcohol-rich vapour. Most Scottish malt distilleries use two stills... the first to strip the wash (beer at about 7-8% abv) of its alcohol and flavour compounds. This creates the low wines (a liquid of about 25% abv), which is then distilled in the second still to approximately 70% abv. Most stills are made of copper, which reacts with sulphur to remove it from the product. The result of this is that the stills need to be replaced every 10 years or so. The Abercrombie Copper smiths do just this for all of Diageo's distilleries.
Abercrombie Coppersmiths  004
Putting together shell-and-tube condensers that will one day cool new spirit from vapour to liquid.

The construction of a still starts with the welding of copper plates together, followed sometimes by a machine hammering to get the basic shape. The final shape is all pounded in by hand, which is still the best way to do it as it turns out. Needless to say, the shop we visited was quite noisy! At the shop they were producing 14 new stills for a new distillery that will come online next year. Stills are designed to a very specific shape... a small change in design can change the final spirit character. They have to work to exacting specifications. It was very interesting to see where stills are born, it certainly looked like a lot of work.
Abercrombie Coppersmiths  007
Foreground: the bottom of a new still in production.

Oak barrels are another key to the whisky industry. By law, all Scotch has to be produced in Scotland and aged for at least three years in barrels less than 700 L in volume. Oak barrels come second-hand from two sources: the American whisky industry (bourbon), and Europe (wine/sherry/etc). A cooper is a highly skilled tradesman that can build these barrels, which consist of staves (thick wood strips) bent into shape and held together with metal rings. The nature of the wood and the compression between the staves results in a liquid-tight seal (although alcohol and water can evaporate through the cask over time).
Cooperage  001 Cooperage  017
1) Bunched staves as they arrive from overseas. 2) A cooper placing the staves back together to create the appropriate sized barrel.

The oak barrels are broken down into the staves, packed on a shipping skid, and shipped over to Scotland. The coopers here put them back together. In traditional cooperages this is all done by hand, but the location we visited was machine assisted (its still a really hard job though!). Casks are charred with a flame on the inside to release wood flavour compounds (and create a layer of carbon that will absorb undesirable compounds from the whisky).
Cooperage  019 Cooperage  024.
1) The cooper tightens the staves with a machine to place the upper hoop on. 2) casks are steamed to expand the wood, and charred for flavouring.
Cooperage  015
Inside a charred barrel.

Once the barrels are put back together, newly charred ones are sent off for "sherrying". Now I'll tell you, this is where one of the romantic 'myths' about Scotch that I had heard was refuted right in front of my eyes. The story goes that oak cask with sherry from Spain are shipped to Scotland, where the sherry is removed and bottled for consumption, and the barrels are used for Scotch maturation. Not so. They have a big tank of sherry... they fill the newly charred casks with sherry... they let it age for three months... then they empty the sherry back into the sherry tank (through a filter). They can use the same sherry batch for about 8 or 9 years. Yes, that is what they do.
Unfortunately, they don't allow you to take photos in any area that has ethanol floating around in the air, so you'll have to take my word for it (and lets face it, it makes more sense than shipping these casks all over the place).
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1) A machine to help place the lid in the cask. 2) A machine to push down the metal rings that keeps the wood tight together.

The purpose of adding the sherry to the cask is a little bit different that I had thought, too. The main purpose of the sherry is to remove some character from a newly charred cask. Otherwise, the character of the wood would overpower the distillery character of the whisky over the maturation time. Apparently it doesn't add colour, that comes from the char and the wood.
Cooperage  002
Finished casks!

Moving on, the third place we were privileged to see was the Blackgrange warehouse. Blackgrange houses about 3.5 million casks of whisky. In duty owed in taxes alone, its about 10 billion pounds sterling. Needless to say... its HUGE. They have very strict regulations too... you can't bring anything that could possibly contain liquid on site, you can't bring matches or lighters, nor cell phones, nor cameras. They are quite paranoid about any accident.

Anyway, there are three key parts to this operation. First, tanker trucks from carrying new make spirit from the distilleries arrive and their contents are pumped to vats. The new make spirit is diluted to usually 63% for aging to get the ideal flavour reactions with the oak wood. New make is horrid stuff, I wouldn't drink it. This is one reason you age for at least three years! The new make is then pumped into casks, sealed with a bung, and carted off to be placed in a massive warehouse. Every cask is bar coded... they know where every cask in that place is!

After aging, casks are brought out from storage and disgorged (emptied). This is done along a troph... simply take out the bung, stick an air tube in the hole (for faster emptying), and turn it upside down. This isn't a terribly sanitary operation, but nothing going to grow in a strong alcohol solution anyway! The whisky is pumped into a big tank, mixed with air for an hour or so, then pumped into tanker trucks. The trucks head off to the packaging facility, where the whisky is filtered, diluted to sales strength (usually 40-45% abv) and bottled!

I think I've rambled on about this enough for now; its hard to convey the enlightenment I've gained in the last few weeks into a small amount of space. If you want to see more photos you can check out my flickr set at


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why do all new records sound the same?

I've been learning a lot about audio engineering this week, and was fascinated to discover that something I thought about modern music was essentially true: that a lot of it does, indeed, all sound the same.
This article can explain it a lot better than I can, and you should read it.

What it all comes down to is the 'loudness war', which is another interesting topic that you should read about. Basically, pretty much everything you're going to hear on the radio and on most popular CDs is as LOUD as possible. This leads to a reduced dynamic range (which is the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a song) as well as distortion in the sound.

Anyway, read the links for yourself, as they are far more informative that I could ever be. And stop listening to the shitty loud commercial radio stations in your local city. But thats a different topic...

Coming soon: We've just visited a cooperage (place where they make oak barrels for the scotch whisky industry), a coppersmiths (where they make the stills) and the Blackgrange fucking huge whisky warehouse (where Diageo stores all the scotch for aging)... so expect a write up on all of that soon.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I music too

So in addition to going to beer school, when I'm not studying (which is often, sadly) I sometimes make some mixes in Ableton Live.... here is one such mix. Its not really for 'dancing' or whatever, its really just stuff that I thought sounded good mixed together. Sofar the response has been quite positive. Here is the link to the mp3 (1 hr long):
Click here for the mix

And, if you're interested, here is the tracklist.

I also have another mix from a long time ago that is entirely made of Amon Tobin samples... click here for it.

Anyway, thats all for now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Three Sheets to the Wind

When I was in Cambridge for the cask ale festival last month I took a day to wander the city (photos here). During that wander, I happened upon a book store. Within that book store, a colorful book with a pint of beer on the front caught my eye. The title was instantly interesting to me, "Three Sheets to the Wind: One man's quest for the meaning of beer". Wow, sounds like just the book for me, right? Who wrote this?! "Pete Brown", eh? ... that name sounds familiar... where have I heard it before... hmmm...

OH YEAH... he was of course the guy who wrote "A man walks into a pub: a sociable history of beer", a book which I enjoyed a little too much (perhaps because reading it made me want to drink beer more than usual, or perhaps because it solidified my beer-nerdedness foundation even more). So I'm sold on this new book for sure.

I'll spare you a "full" book review for now, since I'm only 15/19ths done, aside from a quick synopsis: Pete travels the world's beer-drinkingest countries to examine the socio-cultural aspects of beer (the word 'socio-cultural' implies something boring, but this is arguably the most interesting socio-cultural thing that has ever existed). Pete's writing style is relaxed and informal, just like he was telling you a story while at the pub. Lots of humor (sometimes subtle, my favorite kind) and some excellent interesting observations of drinking culture around the world. There is a general theme that I love, which was presented in his last book as well... further confirmation that there are people out there that think about beer the way I do, as more than just an alcohol delivery method. A beverage that can (and should) taste good, that can bring people together for a chat, that can help remove the walls we put up around ourselves, that can help celebrate the wins... and mourn the losses. This book shows how people around the world do just this.

So unless the last 4/19ths of the book are shite, I will be recommending this to beer nerds everywhere (although I think its quite applicable to anybody in the general population too -- I'm certain to force my girlfriend to read it to understand what I think beer.. ."is").
Oh, and it turns out Pete Brown has a blog here.

And just because I can, here is a recent photo for no reason whatsoever:
Stary Night 2

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pilot Brewery at Heriot-Watt University / ICBD

So its about time I posted some photos of the pilot brewery here at school. Its basically a 200 L system custom made just for the school for training purposes. These photos and more can be viewed by clicking on them or as part of this set.

The brewery
The brewhouse. In front is a mash filter, a common device in larger breweries. There is also a lauder tun, which is a bit more traditional. In the middle to the back is the mash mixer / boil kettle, and a cereal cooker beside it to the left.

Boil Kettle
Mash mixer / boil kettle. The boil kettle is fitter with an external calandria, which I think is pretty much the best available wort boiling method if you can afford it.

Conditioning Tanks
In the front are some cold conditioning tanks, flanked by the fermenters. Everything is glycol jacketed and the fermenters have heaters too.

Heat Exchanger
Nice small plate heat exchanger.

Sheet Filter
A taken-apart sheet filter. The beer produced here isn't usually meant to be sterile. It doesn't have to last more than a few weeks usually, so nothing fancy is needed.

Can you spot Alley Kat?
A wall of bottles from around the world, mostly from former brewing students I believe... can you spot the Alley Kat Barley Wine bottle? Thats the brewery I used to work at in Edmonton.

OLD Beer
Fucking old bottles... the Bass bottle says it was brewed in 1869!!

Spirit Still
There is also a pilot distillery. This is the spirit still, with a bubble cap distillation column attached to it.

Well, thats it for this update. Enjoy the photos.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Ely Photos

Just a link to my set of photos on flickr from Ely, near Cambridge, in England.

Here are a couple:


ely cathedral vertical stitch
Vertical Stitch of cathedral.

Brewing to Style

Just a short thought about brewing beer to a style (say, from the BJCP guide). Basically: don't bother with it once you're marginally proficient at creating recipes. Make "beer". Be creative and don't limit yourself to whatever guidelines exist from style guides, see what comes out.

Unless, of course, you are trying to re-create a beer you like... but why are you doing that? You can buy that beer... make a new one that is your own!

Perhaps I'm just feeling out of the box tonight with no real outlet for it... either way...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Dark Island & Cambridge Photos

I was pleased to learn this week that the campus student pub will be serving bottles of Dark Island from Orkney. I'll actually be able to go there and have a decent beer now.

I've fallen quite ill in the last few days, which has limited my ability to post reasonable blog postings, finish my assignments, and generally be useful. So I'll be short today and just post some photos from my Cambridge trip:
Typical Cambridge Beauty

A Fine Day Out

Perfect Landing