Summit Unchained #6: An interview with brewer Damian McConn
Earlier this month Summit Brewing Company released the sixth beer in its Unchained Series. Gold Sovereign Ale is an English IPA brewed according to a 19th-century recipe but using modern ingredients and brewing processes. In crafting it, brewer Damian McConn brought together an abiding interest in the history of English beer with an appreciation for and curiosity about the new ingredients coming out of the UK. I recently sat down with McConn to talk about beer, brewing, and Gold Sovereign Ale.
Mark Roberts Brewer Damian McConn and his Gold Sovereign Ale
Damian McConn, a native of Ireland, was educated at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where he completed the honors degree program in brewing and distilling science. After finishing his studies, he went to London where he worked for, in his words, "a large, multinational brewer that makes a lot of black beer." In a move from black beer to golden, he returned to his homeland to make mostly pilsners for the Irish Brewing Company, Ireland's first modern micro-brewery. He came to Minnesota eleven years ago as head brewer at the Sherlock's Home brewpub in Minnetonka. The brewpub specialized in traditional English ales. Fifty percent of the beer served at Sherlock's was cask-conditioned, which fit well with McConn's training and interests. When the brewpub closed its doors in 2002, McConn was hired at Summit and has been a brewer there ever since.
McConn is Summit's go-to guy for cask-conditioned ale. He is almost certainly the state's most knowledgeable expert on these beers. His passion is palpable when he talks about them. "Cask ale is a traditional way of serving beer, particularly ale, in the British Isles. It's a combination of craftsmanship and the hands-on approach that is still adopted by large producers in the UK." Cask beers are created by refermenting the beer in the keg to create natural carbonation. They are usually served by gravity or pulled to the tap with a hand pump. The resulting beers are smoother, richer, and typically lower in carbonation than most draft beer. It's something that takes a certain amount of skill to do well. According to McConn, "The great thing about cask is that it offers a product that is unique in terms of its flavor characteristics, in terms of its freshness, in terms of the fact that it's a living product that actually contains yeast. It's not as stable as kegged beer, but it offers the potential to provide so much more flavor and drinkability."
To craft Gold Sovereign Ale, McConn indulged his long-held interest in the history of English beer, searching for authentic recipes from the 19th century. "There's a lot of data out there." he says. "Heriot-Watt, for example, has a huge archive. A lot of old breweries in England, like Courage, Whitbread, and Bass, have their own archives that are accessible to researchers. And there are a lot of good books out there as well." For his own research McConn used a combination of sources, but much of it came from his time at Heriot-Watt.
McConn's recipe was based on one from 1857, but he utilized ingredients that are brand new. His decision to give his historic beer a modern twist was driven by the realization that differences in ingredients and brewing processes made recreating a beer from the 19th century a practical impossibility. "The problem with recreating a beer like that is that we can get a pretty good, rough idea of the hopping rate, the original gravity, fermentation temps, mashing programs, and stuff like that. But we can't replicate the ingredients. So the more I investigated beer from that time, the more I thought that I just wouldn't be able to do it justice." He went on to say, "I'm an all or nothing kind of brewer. I thought, 'If I can't do it as closely as possible to what it would have been like back then, then I want to try and put an interesting spin on it.'"
All of McConn's ingredients only became available to UK brewers in the past few years. In a nod to the past, he chose a new variety of barley, but one that's organic and is malted using the old-fashioned and labor-intensive floor malting process that was the only method of making malt in the 1870s. In floor malting, grains are spread out on a heated floor for kilning and must be manually turned by maltsters using rakes and shovels. "The most modern variety I could find was Westminster." he explained. "It came out about four years ago. Crisp Malting in England works exclusively with Westminster malt for their organic floor malt. It gave me a lot of what I needed. It gave me organic floor malt, but it also gave me a modern variety. And I really like the flavor." McConn chose his hops to showcase modern varieties that are coming out of the UK right now but that are bred from classic English strains.
McConn left Gold Sovereign unfiltered, another accommodation to past brewing process. He explains that he wanted to leave as much character in the beer as possible. "There's still enough yeast in there that especially in the bottled beer, it will continue to mature and condition just a wee bit. It's kind of a nod to the way they would have done it back then as a bottle conditioned or cask-conditioned beer." He leaves it up to the individual consumer whether or not to pour the yeast from the bottle, but says that he prefers it with the yeast.
Gold Sovereign is a bitter but balanced beer. The emphasis is on fruity hop flavors, exhibiting juicy tangerine, orange, and peach character. The Westminster malt provides a lightly sweet, graham-cracker base. It's a great beer for spring.
In the end McConn says of his beer, "I just hope that people appreciate some of the new ingredients coming out of the UK. Whether this is similar to a pale ale from 1875, we can't really tell. But it might give us an idea of what they were like."
Gold Sovereign Ale has been available on draft since earlier this month. It will be released in bottles this week.
A Perfect Pint