A Brewletide Tale

When me and Baz were kids, like many young brothers living in homes with a high occupant to bedroom ratio, we shared. Not only did we share but we lived the dream of all little boys – we had bunk beds. I, being the elder brother took my rightful place as Bunk King on the top bunk. I assumed this privilege afforded me by my parents was due to the leader-like qualities that even as a stroppy six-year-old were self-evident in my even handed dominion over our bedroom. The simple practicality of the increased likelihood of my younger brother falling out of the top bunk never even occurred to me. My appointment as holder of the top bunk was just. My self-awareness has improved very little over the years.

From such a lofty position I could easily survey our kingdom. From the threadbare patch in the green carpet, the Postman Pat wallpaper, to the huge old set of drawers with the flaking varnish. This bunk served as HQ for many a ludicrous scheme, from the now infamous paper kipper industry so foolishly abandoned to an ill-fated envelope folding operation destined to fail. Surely had those two fledgling entrepreneurs had the foresight to predict the advent of the internet and email we would’ve spent our time ignoring each other and staring at the end of our noses in preparation for the advent of the mobile phone instead. But this long forgotten time even predates the Megadrive and as such we whiled away our time recording radio shows on an old flatbed tape recorder and creating products that no one in the world knew they needed.

As well as being budding media moguls and business tycoons we shared a common love of a number of somewhat period specific children’s programmes. At the time in question ranked highest amongst them was Thomas the Tank Engine. Now, whilst we had a great deal of affection for the straight-down-the-line, honest heroism of Thomas, it was the somewhat more acerbic character of Percy that we were really drawn to. In many ways that cheeky little green wanker served as a template for us both. Even now in socially awkward moments when my wits fail me and I’m searching for the right funny line I think, “what would Percy do?”.

 

percy
Percy the Small Engine complete with shit eating grin.

 

As the year wore on it came time to make the secretive trip in to town with our mother to buy one another Christmas presents. A hat and gloves for mam, four cans of Stones and a pack of Hamlet for dad, a rubber curry comb for my sister Dionne, and finally a die-cast enamelled model of Percy from Romer Parrish for Baz. On getting home the stealthy mission shifted to secreting these elicit treasures somewhere within our bedroom where they would be safe until their revelation on Christmas morning. An easy task for three quarters of the family. My mother would play along and deny all knowledge despite having paid for her own present on the shopping trip. My father would feign surprise despite having received the same gift every birthday, Father’s day, and Christmas, and my sister would have little desire to brave her little brothers’ stinking pit. The trouble would be with Baz.

Your instinct may be to assume that this treacherous little child would not be able to resist the temptation to gain easy and unsupervised access to my various hiding places around the room and spoil his own surprise. However, the lustrous glint of Percy’s green enamel and the mercurial grin adorning his spherical grey face simply proved too much for ME. I could not resist and over the weeks leading up to Christmas I teased more and more about what Baz’s gift might be and where it might be stashed until finally I simply asked if he would like to see it. Much to my disappointment he showed very little interest in having the surprise spoiled and declined. Undeterred by his Thomas like adherence to preconceived ideas of right and wrong, I asked myself “what would Percy do?”. And so in that moment I retrieved Percy the Small Engine from his hiding place beneath my folded clothes in that huge chest of drawers with the flaking varnish. It was done now and there was no going back.

In the remaining weeks between the revelation of Percy to Baz and Christmas we made nightly visits to him to look at him and marvel at his shit eating grin and his glossy paintwork but never removed him from his packaging. You can go too far after all. When the moment came for Baz to unwrap him on Christmas morning he did so with vigour not dulled by foreknowledge of what was inside but with an increased anticipation, heightened by the tantalisation of weeks of looking but not touching. And so I learned an important lesson that day.

Fast forward in time to Christmas 2016, and following a long period as a lapsed Christmas present buyer, as luck would have it I drew my brother in the family secret Santa. Unfortunately, over the intervening years his love for Percy has waned somewhat and whilst I did consider repeating the gift for comic effect, instead I decided to substitute in a gift related to our present shared passion – brewing. It has long been Baz’s ambition to not only master the craft of brewing world class real ale but also lagers from around the world, helping to dispel the myth that persists in this county that lager is the poor relation of ale. Along with a desire to conquer lager fermentation, which requires a cold fermentation, he also wants to produce some of the lesser known hybrid styles that also require a cooler than normal ferment. In order to achieve such a feat, additional equipment is required and keeping with the tradition of ‘The Meanwood Brewery’ I elected to build something.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it was not just our in-house tradition of building our own equipment that spurred the decision to build rather than buy the required piece of kit but rather it was thrice fold. Tradition I cite as my inspiration; cost would be the second factor. Pro-brewers use glycol jacketed fermenters which are cooled and heated to maintain exactly the right fermentation temperature. Even the homebrew equivalent are hugely expensive and as such beyond our limited means. And finally, is space. Homebrewers regularly use modified fridges and freezers as temperature controlled fermentation chambers, but these are large and cumbersome and a challenge to regularly move around and as our brewery regularly gets hoiked up and down three floors, not really an option for us.

And so Franken-Fermenter was born. Or at least the idea was. An easily demountable, lightweight fermentation chamber capable of both cooling and heating. The reality took a little more jiggery-pokery but ultimately yielded a pleasing result. Essentially a food grade plastic bin with a clip-top lid modified to hold a thermoelectric cooling element taken from a 12v coolbag designed for use in a car on the way to family picnics. The fermentation vessel is placed inside and the void filled with water. A submersible aquarium heater provides the, well, heating element and a small aquarium pump circulates the water to ensure a homogeneous temperature. The bin can then be wrapped up to insulate it to improve efficiency. And finally, a two stage programmable temperature controller keeps everything just where you want it. The oversized bolts holding the lid together and its DIY nature gave it its name and Franken-Fermenter was complete, essentially a homemade version of the jacketed fermenters used by the pro’s.

With the present in place all that remained for me to do was lay a few juicy hints in the weeks leading up to Christmas about what Baz’s secret Santa present might be and build some anticipation. A question here and there about how we might achieve the allusive goal of fermenting lagers in our present situation, talk of a heating and cooling thermostat – but how to cool? Unfortunately, I do not have a set of drawers big enough to fit a full sized bin in and I’m pleased to say we no longer share a bedroom, as is my fiancé and Baz’s wife, so revealing it to him in advance of Christmas was not an option. Instead I had to settle for the big reveal on Christmas Day itself. I have to say he seemed pleased, immediately working out what it was for and what it meant for our brewing. Likewise, the reveal was no less gratifying for not being able to build quite the same level of anticipation as I had in the lead-up to revealing Percy some 20 odd years before.

And the lesson I learned all those years earlier? The joy of Christmas is as much in giving as it is in receiving gifts. Particularly if they are something you stand to benefit from too.

Maybe my self-awareness has improved over the years after all.

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