2 Beer Guys Blog

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Ringwood, like it or leave it...

So, this is a long one but the article kept my attention, hopefully you will all enjoy it. I have really begun noticing beer with the Ringwood strain of yeast. If you are not sure you really understand what yeast does for beer....well...here's some info. If you don't know much about yeast, you might not know about the ringwood controversy. Many beer drinkers (the geeks among us) think the buttery flavor of this yeast masks the mistakes in the brewing process. Maybe...but I don't drink only ringwood beers so that is not a problem for me. Other beer geeks LOVE it and appreciate its integrity and the 150+ years it has been around. I drink a wide variety of beers and appreciate Ringwood for what it is...a lovely buttery addition to my beer...yum. An occasional ringwood laced beer is definitely welcome on my palate. I rather like it...taste some yourself and you be the judge.
Good luck and God Speed!

California is now recognized by most of the world as a wine region. Kentucky is a whiskey region,the home of every bourbon distillery still operating.But we've got a distinctive beer region right here in our backyard,and it's all because of one yeast,and the man who brought it to New England from the old England.New England is Ringwood brewing territory,thanks to Alan Pugsley, the man who brought this hardy and distinctive yeast to our shores.Maybe it's time to start making more of a big deal about it.
What difference does yeast make?

A lot, but you'd never know it from asking beerdrinkers. Ask any winedrinker what kind of wine they like, and chances are very good that they'll tell you the name of the grape: "I like chardonnay" or "Mostly merlot". They might prefer a particular vineyard's wine within that category, or a region's production. Even the person who just drinks a bottle of table wine with meals, or to relax in that magic hour after work, will probably have a preference for white or red.

Don't ask a beerdrinker that question with any kind of high expectations. The chances are about 9 to 1 that you'll get only a brand name or a jocular "I like cold beer!" Maybe they'll pick light beer over what they'll call "regular beer". And don't think you'll get much better answers from the so-called beer geeks. They might pick out a particular style - "I really like stouts the best" - or maybe a particular brewer, but you'll rarely find the winedrinker's interest and knowledge of what goes into the drink.

Yet there are distinctive differences that come from seemingly unimportant sources. I'm not talking about the malt: anyone who's ever seen the roasted black malt and barley that goes into stout knows clearly how that makes a difference. It's not even the hops: blazingly aromatic hops make blazingly aromatic beer, if the brewer knows what they're doing and wants that.

It's the yeast, and Ringwood's one of the great ones. Shipyard Brewing's Alan Pugsley knows it like an old friend, and sometimes when he talks about it you'd think it was his best friend. That's no surprise, really, he's been working with it for nineteen years. "Working at the Ringwood brewery was my first and only brewing job in England. It was my first brewing job anywhere," Pugsley reminisced. "I started on January 4, 1982 - I'll never forget the date. I had a biochemistry degree from the University of Manchester, that and my love of English pubs pollinated each other, and I had a desire to brew."

Pugsley applied to the relatively new Ringwood brewery first. "Peter Austin was the main owner," he said, "the godfather of microbrewing. The big brewers were trying to kill real ale because it was a pain in the arse, and CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, an English beer drinker's group) was making a stink about that. In the middle of it, Peter retired early from the North Country brewery in Hull and opened Ringwood in 1977."That's where Pugsley met the Ringwood yeast. "The yeast strain is well over 150 years old," Pugsley began. "Peter had used it at the brewery in Hull, where he was a brewer from late 1940s through the 1970s. That was the yeast they had used from the brewery's advent in the 1800s. It had originally come from the old Halifax brewery. They used to send yeast to and fro in wooden barrels on the train. You know, send a lad in his cloth cap down to the station with a barrel of yeast on a handcart, get on the train with it. Very Yorkshire."

That fits, because just as the famed German hefeweizen yeast is a Bavarian yeast, and the clean-fermenting altbier strain is a Dusseldorf yeast, Ringwood is a Yorkshire yeast, typical of the yeasts used to brew ales in Yorkshire. What's that mean? You'll get plenty of esters from these yeasts, the fruity aromas and flavors that make a good British ale so nice and so refreshing, even at low alcohol levels that would render other beers tasteless. You'll also get varying amounts of diacetyl ("die-ASS-uh-till"), a fermentation by-product that has an aroma of butterscotch, or butter, a sore point with Ringwood's detractors.

These yeasts are very vigorous, and plow through a batch of beer in jigtime, and sometimes don't know when to quit. They will eat up every scrap of fermentable sugar in a beer, leaving a nicely dry malt finish. Brewers call that a high degree of attenuation, the level to which a yeast will ferment the sugars in a beer. Bob Johnson, partner-brewer at Magic Hat, another one of New England's big Ringwood brewers, loves that about Ringwood. "Everything that can ferment, will. It's a rocket."

Something else these yeasts have in common is a requirement for open fermentation. That means that the fermentation tanks have to be open to the air, with no covers. "It may sound weird," said Pugsley, "but a yeast gets used to its environment, and Ringwood requires the open top. It needs the light, the air, whatever. It's still mysterious, it's not clear-cut, but nobody really knows why yeast works the way it does."

"A lot of people are scared of open fermentation," he continued, "because they think it's prone to infection. That's far from the truth. It develops a rocky head and throws off a lot of carbon dioxide; that's its protection - the barrier. Then we leave a 3 to 4 inch coating of yeast on top that gets crusty - and that's a physical barrier. We take the beer from the bottom and the crust is never broken. As long as you clean properly and use sterile techniques, you've got no worse protection than a closed vessel. You've got to be open-minded about open fermentation."

Bob Johnson was open-minded. When he and Alan Neuman were just starting Magic Hat they were homing in on a Peter Austin system, and open fermentation was a very big factor. "One of the things I liked about open fermentation," he told me, "was the tradition of it. I liked Alan's beers, we went over to Kennebunkport and tasted them. I liked the very hands-on way things are done. I wanted as little technology as possible - if it broke, I wanted to be able to fix it. I wanted to learn as much as possible about it and really learn our craft. Now we've got 150 barrel open fermenters. As long as you keep Ringwood happy...it's going to work for you."Mike McDonald, who's been making excellent Ringwood beers at the Red Brick Station brewpub outside of Baltimore, after a long stretch at New Hampshire's Old Nutfield brewery, has a short cautionary tale about open fermenters. "It's a fast fermentation, and it sucks up so much oxygen you can notice low oxygen levels in the fermenting room!" he laughed. "If I've got four fermenters going at once, and a server goes in there to clean windows, the server will get lightheaded." He chuckled, "I don't even notice it anymore. I guess all those years with Ringwood have burned out that part of my brain."

One thing Pugsley told me was news to me, even after drinking Ringwood-brewed beers for over a dozen years and talking to brewers about them for ten years - Ringwood is actually a multi-yeast strain, a combination of multiple yeasts. "It is a multi-strain," Pugsley continued, "and the strains have to be grown up separately and blended in the right proportions at the right time. I know some brewers have taken a sample from a bottle but... you don't get it right. They can't, it behaves differently if it isn't grown up the right way. That is officially the Ringwood yeast, and only Ringwood (Brewery) and I can access it from the yeast bank. You can buy something called Ringwood from yeast labs, but I know for a fact it's not the same. The mix isn't right. People think they have Ringwood, but the only people who really have it are the ones who bought our systems."

That's how all these Ringwood breweries popped up in New England. In 1983, Peter Austin advertised in the first issue of New Brewer magazine for people to come to the brewery and learn to make beer on a small scale. "In two years we had 24 or maybe 30 people come through and learn to brew," said Pugsley. "We built breweries for a lot of them. That was the first seed of the yeast coming to the States."

One of those people was David Geary, at the final stop of a brewing odyssey. "Peter Maxwell Stuart, the Lord of Traquair, arranged that for me," David told me. "I met Peter when he was exporting his Traquair House ale to this country, in 1982. We talked about small commercial breweries, 'minibreweries' he called them. He told me that if I wanted to start one, to come see him. So I did, and he set me up. I worked at Belhaven and at Sam Smith's, and some at the David Bruce Firkin chain brewpubs, and finally at Ringwood. I liked what they did.

"I had looked at a bunch of systems," Geary continued, "but I loved Peter Austin. He was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful man. I learned quickly that I would have to hire a working brewer to get us started. I hired Alan, and it seemed logical to use Peter Austin since he knew it already. I wanted to brew an English-style pale ale, and Ringwood brewed a very good example of it. We didn't use a Ringwood recipe, but as far as flavor profiles and styles go we were able to use the yeast, and the rest is history."

"He offered me a position to set up the brewery and brew," Pugsley continues the story, "and I did in 1986. We were the first packaging micro in New England, and that was the first Ringwood yeast brewery in the US." It certainly was not the last micro Pugsley helped get started with a Peter Austin system. Some of the better known ones would include Magic Hat, Tremont, Old Nutfield, Sea Dog, Old Saddleback, and brewpubs like Gritty McDuff's and Federal Jack's. That last one, of course, would lead to Pugsley's own big Ringwood brewery, Shipyard, where he works with his old multi-strained friend every day.

Dave Geary still grumbles a bit about the number of systems Pugsley and Austin set up, all using Ringwood yeast. "There was a point back in the early 1990s," he said, "when virtually every brewery that opened in Maine was using Ringwood, much to my chagrin. Any distinction that Ringwood had (for our beer) was lost in the proliferation of Peter Austin breweries. Wherever Alan opened a brewery, that's what he used."That's what Atlantic Brewing (better known for their Tremont brand) got, and that's what Chris Lohring wanted. "We wanted British-style beers," Lohring said. "It was the British yeast we liked the best." What was it about Ringwood that they liked? "A couple things," Lohring explained. "The flavor profile is what people talk about. I liked the esters and the attenuation level. It allowed you to brew a dryer beer. It's well-attenuated, dry, and allows a good hop finish."

I asked him if it was a tough yeast to use. "Yes," he said quickly, and told me why. "It needs a very specific environment: time, temperature, amount of yeast added, oxygenation of the beer, they all have to be right where you need them or you'll have a mess. We've found that it has a high oxygen demand at the beginning of fermentation. It's very forgiving temperature-wise, but the ester production at higher temperatures can overwhelm."

That bit about fermenting temperature is something I heard from a lot of Ringwood brewers, but it's part of what makes Ringwood so versatile. Lohring again: "We use different temperatures for different styles. Our Winter Ale, which is very estery and fairly high in alcohol, we ferment at a warmer temperature. Our Summer Ale, a lighter ale, we ferment at a much colder temperature." By playing the yeast this way, Lohring gets just the character he wants.

If you don't work this yeast right, you can get too much diacetyl, which means a beer that smells like a big tub of buttered movie theater popcorn. Unfortunately, Ringwood suffers from a bad image of always producing too much diacetyl, and some beer geeks will slam any Ringwood beers as being full of diacetyl...sometimes before tasting them. If you hear someone talking about Ringwood beers like that in your store, here's some information to educate them a little.

Pugsley is tired of the questions about diacetyl. "It's a function of the beer, largely," he said. "If it's an ESB, or our Old Thumper, which is produced under license from the Ringwood Brewery, there's a requirement for diacetyl. Our Goat Island or Export Ale have real low levels of diacetyl. Some beers require it, but that can be controlled by the brewer. Of course, there are non-Ringwood yeasts that throw a lot of diacetyl." It's true, Redhook's ales are known for their diacetyl levels, and you'll even find it in some lagers.

Chris Lohring makes a very good point about the diacetyl complaints. "Okay, if you took all the Ringwood-brewed beers," he started, "you'd have varying degrees of diacetyl. But if you remove all of it from British-style ales you're removing a very important component from the beer. It's like taking the clove and banana phenols away from hefeweizen or the funk from lambics. All these other odd characteristics are okay, but diacetyl isn't? That bothers me." He thinks a lot of the complaints are based in ignorance. "If you don't know a lot about beer and you want to look like you do, you can just say what other people say."

Pugsley told me that David Geary was a good person to talk to about controlling diacetyl in Ringwood beers. I asked him about it, and he gave me a classic David Geary response. "I hate diacetyl," he growled. "It's that chemical butterscotch flavor. I made a fake banana flavor back in college chemistry and I haven't been able to eat a banana since. One of the things we felt was necessary (in our brewing) was to deal with the relatively high levels of diacetyl, and we have. I think we've done a better job in reducing diacetyl than anyone. After fifteen years our beer has a house character. Yeast is pretty mutagenic and we've gone through 3000 generations; you're going to have some changes."

Three thousand generations? Most yeasts run for two or three months, then you culture up new yeast and start fresh. Three thousand? Bob Johnson confirms it. "The Ringwood really does take on a house flavor," he said, "because we use it over and over. You're not dialing 1-800-YEAST-ME every 6 months - we don't go back and start a new strain every 6 batches. We're still using the same strain since 1994. When we moved to this new brewery we brought over a bucket with 50 pounds of yeast and pitched it in the tanks. But it's taken on Magic Hat house flavor. People ask, this is really a Ringwood beer? And we're all using Ringwood, but among us - Geary's, Shipyard, ourselves - our beers are a lot more different from each other than the 1056 brewers."What are "1056 brewers?" Well, that's what Ringwood brewers bring up whenever anyone gets on them about the number of Ringwood yeast breweries or the supposedly identical character of Ringwood beers. "1056" is the Wyeast catalog number for what Wyeast, a brewing yeast supplier to commercial and home brewers, calls the "Chico" strain - the strain used by super-micro Sierra Nevada. It is a very easy to use, clean-fermenting yeast that really gets out of the way of malt and hop flavors, almost as much as lager yeasts. It rubs Ringwood brewers most definitely the wrong way:

CHRIS LOHRING "People say Ringwood beers have a similar taste profile, and they attribute it to the yeast. But you never hear people say, "oh my God, it's that Sierra Nevada Chico ale yeast," even though a lot of brewers emulate it. That yeast contributes nothing to the beer."

BOB JOHNSON "I can probably pick out "that Chico flavor" easier than "that Ringwood flavor" people talk about. What's interesting is that there's been conversation about "all those Ringwood breweries". I think there's probably 10 brewpubs out there using Chico/1056 for every Ringwood brewery." It's probably even more than that.

ALAN PUGSLEY "Every yeast has its own traits. A lot of people like the traits Ringwood beers have. But they're British ales, not American. The Chico yeast, that no one talks about. That has more of a trait than Ringwood, but it's American. That's why I say it's jealousy. Someone's got to be negative about it. It's not amongst consumers, it's brewers. If you took the brewing magazine articles that are negative, we should be out of business. But we sold 32,000 barrels last year, and we're up 12% this year. Magic Hat, Geary's, Gritty's, they're all doing well and the list goes on and on. Every brewery shouldn't use it, of course not. I would never even dream of writing on why Chico yeast is bad, I've got better uses of my time."

Which finally brings us back to the beginning. Is the yeast strain something consumers should look for, and is it a selling point? To be honest, probably not. Chris Lohring told me about a study he read, put out by one of the brewing industry groups. "They asked a bunch of questions," he said, "and found out that the average consumer doesn't give a damn about yeast, hops, water. They're worried about three things: Is it quality-made, does it taste good, how is it packaged? A tiny minority cared about the ingredients and process - that was a shock to a lot of the industry. The consumer doesn't really need that specific information."Not yet, anyway. There's no reason why it shouldn't start, though. Every step craft beer takes towards the kind of status and image higher level wines have is another step towards the kind of price tag and margin higher level wines have.

Chris Lohring has seen an effect from the Ringwood yeast. I asked him if the yeast had made it easier to differentiate Tremont beers in the marketplace. "For Tremont it's been easier," he confirmed. "The Boston-area craft beer market is dominated by Harpoon and Sam Adams. They make great beers, so we had to come out with something really different." Lohring is quick to point out that it's not all Ringwood. A large part of the beers' character comes from the water treatment, malts, and hops used by the brewery.

Bob Johnson hasn't seen as much of it at Magic Hat, but that's largely because Magic Hat's beers are so defiantly out of style anyway. He does see possibilities for this kind of distinction. "I think there's some appellation distinction starting to happen." he mused. "The consumer and the market is reaching the maturity to note some things, like the difference between East Coast and West Coast beers. The hops are big and fresh in west coast beers. East coast beers tend to be understated.

"Is the consumer going to get to the point where they understand yeast?" he continued. "I don't know. They're certainly going to get to understand malts and hops. They're getting more sophisticated, not in a real geeky way, more like a chardonnay vs. Sauvignon blanc, or stainless vs. oak-aged way. That's going to continue. As people get interested, they learn things. We're getting more and more market share, and the consumer gets more and more sophisticated, which means we've got to get better at our craft. But remember, even most wine drinkers drink it just to have a glass of wine."

It only seems fair that the last word go to brewing's Johnny Appleseed, the disseminator of Ringwood yeast, Alan Pugsley. I asked him about why Ringwood beers have done so well in New England. "It's been controversial, he said. "We're hardly Sierra Nevada in size, but no one else is. Maybe the New England palate has gotten used to the taste." The west may be in love with hops, and the mid-Atlantic region's brewers have proven their mettle with malt, but Alan's right: New England's brewers have made their mark with the traditional character of a 150-year-old yeast from the heart of Yorkshire.By, Lew Bryson


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