In July, Stuart Howe was walking on the shore at Polzeath, Cornwall, when he encountered a dead jellyfish. Most seasoned beach-goers tend to give such sea monsters a wide berth; younger ones will maybe poke them with sticks or subject them to pebble bombardment. Howe is, as far as anyone can tell, the first person to scoop one up and use it to make beer.
As head brewer at Sharp's, the Cornish brewery, Howe is best known for Doom Bar ale. But lately he has developed a cult following for his ongoing mission to brew 52 different beers in the space of a year, chronicling each one on his blog and occasionally allowing a lucky (or unlucky) few to sample his concoctions.
He had already produced a Seawater Mild earlier in the year and so the prospect of brewing Jellyfish Red was not overly daunting. As Howe observed on the blog, the jellyfish "isn't actually a fish" but instead "a ball of protein and seawater with no brain and a common hole serving as a mouth and an anus".
He added: "I followed the same principles as with Seawater Mild in this beer: using the sea salts to work with the liquor salts to add roundness. The protein from the jellyfish also comes in handy to boost the free amino nitrogen in the wort [unfermented liquid], and allow me to use some extra glucose to dry up the finish without risking a stuck fermentation."
The result? An 8.8% abv beer with a fruity palate and a dry finish, which Howe describes as "dangerously moreish".
Howe was only able to conduct this somewhat alarming experiment thanks to the mini-brewery that exists within the depths of the Sharp's complex. "We've got three breweries here," he explains. "The main one is 150 barrels, the smaller one is 60 barrels and then there's a very small one, which does 100-litre batches and was installed last year."
The micro-plant cost around £500, a small price to pay for the PR that Howe's experiments have generated. "Most of the ideas are pretty stupid and don't make it. But there are a few things that have gone into seasonal brews," he says.
"We've done an offal beer with liver, kidney and heart; and West Country White, which is based on a 16th century brew enriched with egg yolks and bean flour. I don't know why they thought of doing that in the 16th century and none of the people who tried it knew why we'd done it in 2010, either.
"We've also made a beer with 50 varieties of hops, using all of the samples that a hop merchant left.
"It's fun, but it's also in the general direction of learning. There are lots of changes that face you as a brewer and you can try things out first on the smaller kit: new season's malt and hops, or a new variety of hop. There are a few things that I have done for the blog that I wouldn't do commercially now I've had a go at them."
Some of this year's other creations include Peppermint Imperial Stout, Barley Tikka Vindaloo, Turbo Yeast Abomination (From Hell) and, perhaps weirdest of all, an attempt to recreate the blandness of Hofmeister. Stock Aerated Ale was produced with vast amounts of oxygen to produce "the kind of premature ageing that would put Olay shares at the top of the FTSE". Howe describes it as "rotting flesh walking death a waking nightmare or an inspired oxygen-aged classic".
Howe may be taking small-batch brewing to extreme levels, but an apparently growing number of brewers are installing micro-plants for very sensible reasons. Iain Loe, research and information manager for the Campaign for Real Ale, says: "It's a worthwhile investment. These days no brewery worth its salt would be without a lab. I think people are realising it's also worth the investment to have a pilot plant to produce new beers.
"Not only can you do experimental brews, but you can do one-off specials and keep some of your small production going. Elgood's a few years ago introduced a pilot plant to carry on brewing their mild."
In a sense, the trend is nothing new. "The very big brewers used to have their own trial breweries and some of those were bigger than the microbreweries of today," Loe observes. "Courage's brewery just outside Reading had a trial brewery and that was a 10 or 20-barrel plant." Shepherd Neame in Faversham, Kent, has been using an on-site micro-plant for a couple of years, according to head brewer David Holmes. "We bought a pub some years ago and in the basement there was a microbrewery, not being used," he says. "We didn't want to run it at the pub so we brought it to the brewery and mothballed it. I thought, why not plumb it in?"
Like Howe, Holmes finds the plant useful for testing the qualities of new ingredients before risking them in the main brewing process. But he adds: "We can also use it for one-off special brews for celebrations or festivals, and most of the beer we've produced we've sold. We can do quirky things. A local producer wanted us to make a beer with their honey so we've done that. We did a Valentine's special with chocolate and rose petals.
"More and more people are looking at [micro-plants]. There's no reason for not doing it and getting these benefits. In our case we've put it in because we feel it can help us optimise the plant and it's a bit of fun as well.
"We've used it very successfully as a training vehicle. We're quite keen that sales staff understand the process and they're not just selling brown frothy liquid. They usually have to spend a day with us as part of their induction and, boy, does it make them enthusiastic."
Pint Sized Brewery
Wadworth brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire, is another beer producer with a micro-plant. "We call it the Pint Sized Brewery," says brewer Brian Yorston. "Two or three times a month we put a particular product through: Pint Sized Mild, which has very limited sales.
"But we also use it for making experimental brews. We'll probably use it more and more, to be honest, because the market is changing to become more adventurous for us larger brewers. Variety is the flavour of the month."
The company used the small-scale facilities to develop a stout for the Wetherspoon's beer festival, before scaling it up for production in the main brewery. But not everyone is convinced that micro-plants are reliable ways of testing out new products.
Chris Hellin, brewer at Robinsons of Stockport, says: "We did consider it but we decided not to go down that road. Although it gives you an indication of what the final beer is going to be like it doesn't give you an exact match of what you're going to produce. My view was I would far sooner do it on a larger scale because you know exactly what it will end up like, and you can always blend off trial brews into other products to avoid wastage.
"You could be talking £100,000, with the right kit. But the problem is you've got to have someone to do the pilot brewing. There's running costs as well, outside the main production. You would have to have a bespoke plant that perfectly matched your existing brewhouse and fermentation plant. If you don't get the same shapes and sizes and techniques you're going to get different characteristics in the final beer."
Yorston at Wadworth takes the point but says that, with experience, it's possible to work out what "offsets" are required with elements such as temperature, hops and so on. "Generally you get an idea of flavour on a smaller scale," he says.
"Originally ours was electrically heated on the copper and that produces different flavours, so we changed the heating to steam, which is less charring. You need to get a feel for what the beer is going to be like. You're then able to translate that into the big plant."
Holmes at Shepherd Neame agrees, but laughs at the suggestion that anyone using his micro-plant needs to work with a complex grid of data to work out how to translate a small-batch brew into something that works on a bigger scale.
"It doesn't scale up exactly," he admits. "Brewing is still as much an art as a science. We analyse the beers to death, of course. But it comes down to what does it look like, and what does it taste and smell like.
"In most cases, the answer will not be 'jellyfish'".