Ipswich: Briarbank Brewery produces an historic style beer
17:13 27 February 2014
No matter how seriously you treat the subject of beer, a true word can still be spoken in jest.
So it was when a delegation from the Ipswich office of investment management company Hawksmoor, which is based on the town’s Waterfront, visited the Briarbank craft brewery to ask if they could sponsor a beer.
The Briarbank team said they could go one better than that and brew them a beer all of their own, but what would they like it to taste like?
On the basis that the company shares its name with the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was a pupil of Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor’s head of business development, Dan Constable, suggested it might be appropriate if the beer tasted “stoney”.
When everyone else had stopped laughing, they were told that the suggestion was by no means as ridiculous as it sounded, and the story then unfolded of the German tradition of Steinbier, which, as it does not take an expert linguist to work out, translates as “stone beer”.
Broadly speaking, the Steinbier brewing technique involves bringing the wort (the initial mix of water and barley) to the boil by adding hot stones to the liquid.
This method of heating the wort evolved because, until relatively modern times, it was much easier to produce large vessels fashioned from wood rather than metal.
For obvious reasons, applying external heat – say, by lighting a fire underneath – was not really an option for brewers using wooden vessels and so, somewhere in the dim and distant past (the technique is said to have been used by the Vikings but is probably even older than that) someone had the bright idea of dropping hot rocks into the wort instead.
Beer produced in this way tended to have a taste all of its own, due to the scorching effect of the stones caramelising
some of the natural sugars from the malt which then formed a coating over the stones.
Once everything had cooled down, the stones were added to the fermenting vessel along with the beer in order for the yeast to go to work on the sugary coating as well as the remaining sugars within the liquid.
The final result was a beer rather darker in colour than the malts used would normally create, and a rich and slightly smoky taste on the palate.
Briarbank forms part of the Isaac Lord complex but, in contrast with the historic buildings which face the Waterfront, the brewery is housed within a modern unit on Fore Street which was previously a branch of Lloyds Bank.
The brewery was officially opened in May last year and has already produced more than a dozen beers, including its own Briarbank Bitter and Briarbank Lager, a number of locally-theme beers including Suffolk Pride, Port Porter and Cardinale Wolsey, and an Irish-style stout, named Black Horse, with a nod towards the building’s former occupant.
It is thought to be more than a century since a beer was brewed commercially in Britain using the Steinbier method but, following the conversation with Hawksmoor, Briarbank decided to give it a go.
To perform the technique, Briarbank heated pieces of granite to more than 400 degrees Celsius inside a colander which was then lowered into the wort. (There was, apparently, a bit more to the process than that, but they are not telling).
The result, which has been named Hawksmoor Stone Brew, is a beer which is a deep golden orange in colour and of some considerable complexity on the
At 3.8% alcohol by volume, it is little stronger than an average session bitter but it punches above its weight in terms of character, with tell-tale notes of caramel to the fore.
However, the overall impression is one of richness rather than excessive sweetness, with a gentle but refreshing bitterness coming through in the finish.