[Editor’s note #1 : this post has been updated in light of June 2019’s mailshot from Ubrew where they explain some of their recent problems. These can be seen in some of the experiences that we had before, during, and after the brew day.]
[Editor’s note #2 : there is no editor, it’s just me.]
A day out brewing beer. A great gift to give someone who likes beer, and is interested in the brewing process, but is not about to get into home brewing any time soon, for various reasons. A great gift for me, from Mrs MOFAD.
It had taken a while to organise, because Ubrew are based in London (with plans to expand to Manchester and Copenhagen). [June 2019 edit : the expansion plans have been shelved to allow them to concentrate on core business.] I am not based in London, so we made a trip down for the weekend in order to do the brew day, as well as doing some touristy bits and pieces, and going to a (comedy) show.
The first thing to establish was whether it would be possible to do the brewday. You are expected to come back to pick your beer up after around 2-4 weeks. After a bit of back and forth, they confirmed that this would be possible and that they could ship the beer out using UK Mail. This was reconfirmed on the day with the staff, to make sure they knew the score.
So we arrive at the day itself. It was a bitterly cold day, only a few weeks after the “beast from the East” froze us all. Getting to Ubrew involves going south of the river, to Bermondsey on the Jubilee line. After that it’s a short walk to the railway arches along Old Jamaica Road to find Ubrew tucked away in the corner. On the other side of the railway you’ll find lots more beery goodness from Brew By Numbers, The Kernel Brewery and a few more besides. [June 2019 edit : you’ll now find Cloudwater down at 73 Enid Street too.]
The brewing experience day includes beer tokens too, so you can drink some tasty brews during the day. We’d arrived in good time, so whilst things were being set up I was enjoying a Chorlton Peach Lactose Sour and a collaboration brew with Old Kent Road, which was a lovely hoppy pale.
On to the brew. There were three groups brewing today, and it was too many, with only one “proper” brewer on hand to supervise and direct operations. Packing everyone in like that meant that everyone got a lesser experience.
The liquor was up to temperature, the malts had been weighed out, and it was time to mash in with my team mates (two nice chaps from Kent). We got on with the job, with some help and advice from Olga the brewer, who was also talking about the science involved.
After that it was time to sparge. Sparge means to “moisten by sprinkling with water”, and is the process for separating the sugar from the barley. After the mashing process is complete, the grains, water and sugar are all in the mash tun. On bigger brewery kits, this is usually done with a sparging arm, so that hot water is sprayed across the top of the malt, and sinks through, picking up those lovely sugars on its way to the next vessel, where it will be boiled. This is “wort”. Sparging is best done slowly so that the maximum amount of sugar can be extracted from the malt.
Our process was more manual, with some foil with holes poked in it on top of the mash, and warm water poured over the top, which pushes its way through the mash thanks to gravity, and then out through the bottom.
Once it is all sparged, the spent malt is left in the mash tun. Next is is time for the boil. The boiling process takes that lovely sweet wort and sterilises it. Boiling releases the alpha acids from the hops that you have just added, and they in turn release some bitterness to complement the sweetness.
While the boil is on, it’s time for some lunch, with some warm fried treats from neighbours Bone Daddies, very welcome on this cold day. Some more beer too, Peckham Pale from Brick and some lovely Export India Porter Mosaic from neighbours The Kernel Brewery.
After the boil, the beer is cooled and the hopped wort is transferred into a fermentor (FV) where the yeast is added, and the magic really starts. The yeast gobbles its way through the sugars, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is where your beer experience day stops, and your beer goes away to do its job.
An automated system labels up your FV and sends you an email with the next steps. All very efficient. You leave feeling happy with a day’s work, and confident that great beer will be coming to you soon.
This is where things start to break down. The beer was supposed to be ready 2 weeks later, when it would be bottled and shipped. A week on, and this still didn’t happen, so an e-mail goes back to enquire and suggest delivery dates. Six days later, a response arrives, very apologetic, and offering some extra goodies to make up for this. Another e-mail goes back, with two new potential delivery dates.
The new delivery dates sail by. Another e-mail goes back enquiring as to what is going on. Another three days later, and a response arrives, explaining that this is not a standard service. I know that, I’ve had countless discussions to ensure that this would be ok. Extra goodies are promised again.
Two days later, and it still hasn’t been shipped. Another enquiry. No response, but four days later the beer eventually arrives. Less than the amount that was agreed on the day, and without any of the bonus goodies promised on two separate occasions. By this point I’ve given up the will to live, and have written it off as a bad job. E-mails and tweets just seem to be ignored.
To add insult to injury, the beer was awful, just malty liquid, flat as a pancake. Even after leaving it to mature in the bottle for a good few weeks, it was still rubbish. The whole thing has left a rather nasty taste in the mouth, a shame after such an enjoyable day. Lots of friends were looking forward to trying a beer, but no-one got any because it was not fit for consumption. How did it get let out in the first place if it wasn’t good enough? Is there no quality control? It’s a lot of money to pay for 24 bottles of brown liquid that you’re not going to drink.
June 2019 update
Looking back now, you can see that the rot already appeared to have set in nearly 18 months ago. Some quotes from the e-mail sent out today:-
“Our members, course attendees, clients, stakeholders, and the team deserved so much more and we failed you in many ways. We / I sincerely and honestly apologise. We are embarrassed about how we acted or did not act in many cases. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry.”
I hope that they get things back on track, but they have really destroyed the trust of a lot of people with their methods over the last year or so. I’ve since had an amazing brew day experience at a proper brewery, and the beer was brilliant. Maybe Ubrew can turn things around, because they were making some good beer, with great people. Maybe they can repair the reputational damage in time.