Friday, 3 July 2009

KK Sulphury Bitter

I'm fairly sure I'm in a minority on this among beer drinkers, but I do like a decent whack of sulphur in my beer. The legendarily hard water of Burton-on-Trent historically gave a sulphury character to the beer brewed by Bass, Allsop's, Ind Coope and Marston's among others. People say that this so-called "Burton snatch" is far less prominent in the likes of Marston's Pedigree than it used to be, but in the bottle it's still pleasantly noticeable (I haven't drunk it on draught recently). Can't say I can get it in Worthington White Shield though.

I've also detected sulphur in certain Franconian beers, though I shall have to look into which areas of Franconia (if any) have hard water.

There's a passage in one of Michael Jackson's books where he is tasting a Japanese microbrewery's beer and remarks that it's rather sulphury. The head brewer replies "Yes, that is intentional. We want the beer to smell as fresh as a bath-house." Which just goes to show that there's also an element of cultural context involved in whether you find it pleasant or not.

I wanted to make a souped-up beer inspired by the famous Burton bitters. For me these are about being about to taste the minerals in the water, about an intensely dry bitterness and a nice deep red colour, but not too dark (it's a pale ale after all). It's not really about hop aroma or full, malty body, although a bit of toffee is not bad.

So that means adding a stupid amount of gypsum to the brewing water, hops mostly for bittering, and crystal malt.

5L water heated with 1 tbsp gypsum

200g crystal malt
1800g pale malt

Mash at 68º for 180 minutes (they did long mashes in the 18th century … oh, all right, I went back to bed and fell asleep)

Sparge with 4L @ 80º and another 1 tbsp gypsum in the sparge water.

Boil for 90 minutes.

30g Challenger (5.1%) 90 minutes
10g Challenger 0 minutes

The wort doesn't taste sweet because of all the minerals and hops, but the OG is right at 1050.

It wouldn't be right without a Burton yeast, so I kidnapped the sediment from a bottle of Worthington White Shield and cultured it up. I was very impressed with how well the yeast recovered.

The temperature according to my thermometer is still under 23ºC, but I don't believe it. We shall see – the last couple of brews seemed to do quite well despite the heat in my flat.


  1. I brewed a summer ale here recently with 50/50 Maris Otter and lager malt. I used White Labs Premium Bitter strain which is supposedly from the region you mention. It smelled like an arse after 10 pints and an Indian the night before. The sulfur does go away with age. I'm not sure it's entirely down to water profile. I think some yeasts are more inclined to produce it.

  2. Aye, I've been told the yeast plays an important part too. Someone was also saying that all Burton yeasts were essentially the same, as Bass, Worthington, Ind Coope, Marston and Allsopp would swap yeast over and over over the course of several centuries.

  3. I believe it. It certainly is interesting. I found very little difference between White Labs Burton Ale, and the Premium Bitter strain. Both are estery, but one is a true top fermenter(Burton Ale) and the other(Premium Bitter) ferments from the bottom. I've heard that top cropping yeasts will start to ferment from the bottom, if that's where they're collected. This probably occurred as more English breweries went to conical fermenters.

  4. I've just tasted the first bottle of this and it's still green, but the mineral-water taste and the colour are right. I'm not too keen on the flavour, I'm getting sharp forest fruit and peanuts. No discernible sulphur and it's sweeter than I thought it would be too.

    Now that I remember how warm it was when this was fermenting, maybe it's hot alcohol that I can taste.

  5. "Yes, that is intentional. We want the beer to smell as fresh as a bath-house."

    That line coming from a japanese brewer relates to the volcanicly heated Onsen that the japanese are so fond of, and unfiltered onsen is a murky pool of hot sulphurous water to relax you with a good soak.
    very nice they are :)