How I created Slate

I’m not a big fan of dark beers. Possibly because I had been brought up on the usual stout offerings in the 90s, or maybe because my taste buds just don’t work that way. But I always like to try different things so I hadn’t written them off completely.

Anyway we’ve been brewing at Grain for almost 10 years now – I’m not sure whether that makes our brewery old or young – it’s hard to tell these days, and we had two dark beers in our range, Blackwood Stout and Porter. Both had received great reviews over the years (Porter was Champion Beer of Norfolk two years on the run), but after 10 years I was pretty sure we could do better. Geoff (Geoff Wright – who now looks after the pub side of our business) and I wanted to drop the Porter in our range some years back, when it was just the two of us at the brewery, partly to give way to something stronger, bolder and better, but also because we had concerns with the ingredients.

Being a ported Porter, we added port to it. I don’t think this is traditional and probably came about simply because the two words sound alike and a connection was made, but it certainly added a sweet richness to the beer, and people liked it. The trouble is (and many brewers are probably nervous about this), that if you add a spirit to your beer, and it tips it over the edge into the next ABV decimal place, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will declare it as a spirit and charge you the spirit duty rate on it. So your 5% pint of porter at £3.50 will shoot up to something like £11, or your living-the-dream brewery will go bust. So sourcing a low ABV port, that still adds that zing you want without tipping the ABV scales too far, and triple-checking your alcohol content every month, gave us an unnecessary headache. And there was always the risk that our local Budgens in Harleston would run out of the stuff we needed, so we were keen to move on.

So the decision was made, and it was time to create something new. The name was the easy bit. We like to work with different types of materials for our pump clips, it’s often expensive and a lot of hassle, but if you get a great result, then all of that is worth it. We usually use wood (goes with the Grain), have used 316 stainless steel for our ThreeOneSix beer, and Slate engraved into slate as a pump clip seemed like the ideal choice.

As for the beer and the recipe, there were two beers that inspired me. Firstly, whilst preparing for a tasting session I was hosting at Norwich Beer Festival, I grabbed a jug of Old King Henry Imperial Stout from Old Chimneys brewery, which is just down the road from us near to Diss. Even though the place is just miles away, you’re still more likely to be served by a unicorn than you are to find Old Chimneys on the bar, so it seemed like a good opportunity to try some. I loved it. It’s a strong beer just south of 9% I believe, but mix that alcohol with those chocolate and roasted flavours that coat the inside of your mouth, and I quickly realised why the beer has such a great following. So I tapped ‘velvety’ and ‘strong’ into the Notes app on my phone under ‘Slate wish list’

The second beer I came across when with Geoff in Amsterdam. He’d been wanting to show me this great little bar called Café Gollum for some time, and we’d finally managed to be in the same place at the same time. Café Gollum is dark and dingy, with decades of dirt, it smells a bit, and has the tiniest cubby-hole toilet you can imagine. But when it serves you amazing beers, you forgive it for all its flaws and those flaws rapidly turn into charm. I’d had a few IPAs that night already, and asked the lone barman for something strong, dark and flavoursome. He gave me an un-smiling nod and poured me a Gouden Carolus. It was sweet dark toffee without being sickly, and had aromas of smoked oak and roasted coffee. I added a few more notes to my wishlist, sent a couple of Tweets, and had another.

I set my ABV at 6% – strong enough to give a kick, but not so strong that it would never feature on a regular bar. I wanted it to be what you would expect from a porter, but with hints of Belgian beer too – caramel notes, more sweet than dry, and I wanted it to be smooooth and smoky. Being in Norfolk, our water is classified as ‘very very hard’, which is much more suited to darks than pales, so we were off to a good start. My recipe involves an overly complex combination of malts, starting with Maris Otter Pale Ale, through the ambers, browns, up to chocolate, always throwing in a bit of wheat, and an expensive dose of oak smoked malted barley.

All the sugars come from the grains, there’s none added, and it contains no lactose (I learnt my lactose lesson from an exploding cask that destroyed the electrics in our kitchen). A few tricks in the mash tun gives us the sweetness we are after, and some fruity hops at the end give an extra burst of flavour. It’s difficult to identify any hops because the roasted malts trump those aromas, but I have tried brewing it without, and you definitely notice a difference.

One of the highlights of my life in brewing was probably when I went back to Café Gollum in Amsterdam. We had done a bit of a beer swap thing with a Dutch brewery, and as I sat there I saw that it was on the chalkboard (they’d marked it up as ‘Slade’ porter, but a wet finger soon sorted that out). Drinking my own beer, and it was good, in that cool little bar, was a very special moment.

I am not claiming to have matched those beers that inspired me, but I am rather pleased with the results. But it is since lagering Slate at zero degrees Celsius for a few weeks, whilst gently carbonating it, that it has ticked all those items on my wish list. It’s good in cask, but even better when served in keg, giving a full and creamy, smooth and rounded feel, like melted chocolate blended with liquidised velvet. But whatever format it presents itself in, those who like dark beers (and a few who don’t) seem to like Slate.

Phil Halls