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  The making of "Flat as a Board" 

Last Updated : 15/03/06

by Gazza.  Gazza

'm betting there's quite a few "old school" scoopers who remember my 4,000th beer owing, in no small part, to it's extreme flavour of smoked malt.  At the time, autumn 1996, I was well in with the up-and-coming Swale brewery in Sittingbourne, Kent and after the success of my 3,000th beer (see "in the news") John Davidson was keen to brew a beer for me this time rather than mix one (my 3,000th was a mix of the first mis-brew and the second brew!) - but he wanted me to create the recipe too!

Having been a keen full-mash brewer during my years at University this posed no problems for me and I'd soon created a draft recipe using an unusual ingredient which I'd never been able to get my hands on - peat-smoked malt.  John's eyebrows rose when I mentioned this unusual ingredient but, after a quick phone call, he said that he could get some, so we arranged to meet up at the Milton Regis brewery at 05:00 one September morning in 1996 (can't remember when!) to produce this strange brew...

What follows here is the story of that momentous day and what actually gestated from those hours of hard work.  My 4,000th scoop, Swale Flat as a Board, was named after the final line in the Kentish Express article about my stomach which had become a standing joke amongst scoopers, John and I in the months after it had appeared as can be seen by Nigel Croft's cartoon in my scooping book from March 1996...


04:45 Friday morning.

I arrived at the Swale brewery at Milton Regis at the unearthly hour of 04:45 in preparation for a day’s work toiling to produce my 4,000th scoop; I’d never actually brewed a beer in a “proper” brewery before, although I had some idea of what would be involved having brewed full-mash beers in 2-gallon batches during my time at university.  As I closed the car door and rang the bell I didn’t know what to expect, but was strangely excited at the prospect of helping to make my very own beer to celebrate my 4,000th scoop which, in those far-off days, was a very respectable total!

John threw open the door and I noticed that he seemed his usual jovial self even at this unearthly hour whilst I must have looked the sleep-deprived mess I was.  After a very welcome reviving cup of tea John talked me through the procedure we’d be following to produce my beer and I was very relieved to recognise the whole process and didn’t feel out of my depth as I’d feared I might do! 

The next step was to confirm the recipe and herein lay the problem; the mash was to be 98% pale Warminster malt and 2% crystal for colour but then there was the additional peat-smoked malt which John had acquired from an un-named source in Scotland – I was ecstatic to see that it was real whisky malt but John was concerned as to the amount we should use… neither of us had ever used the stuff before and, on inserting my nose into the sack, it smelt extremely potent!  John had been speaking to the brewer at King & Barnes in Horsham, having met him at a brewer’s event, and had been promised some advice but this had, as yet, not been forthcoming so we decided to press on and mash-in using our instincts as to the ingredients… 

The first thing to do was to transfer the sacks of malt up to the hopper above the mashtun and I got my first taste of the sheer extent of manual labour involved in brewing beer “properly”, as I stood above the mashtun and John passed the huge sacks of malt up to me; after I’d caught and stacked the sacks I was already sweating heavily – and it was only 06:00 – this didn’t bode well for the rest of the day as I knew the blue-collar work had only just begun!


Ah fuck it, in it goes!

We’d put off deciding the final mash consist as long as possible in the vain hope of a phone call from John’s mate but, with the time now pushing half six, we decided to just go for it and mash-in.  John slit the bags and I tipped them into the grain hopper to the delight of the local sparrows, who dashed in through the open door (it was September and despite being early in the morning the temperature was already edging 15°C) to steal the grains which missed the chute and then dash out through the door with the malt in their beaks.  Some particularly bold examples of the species even sat on a beam only a few feet from my head and watched my toils with their heads cocked on one side in that endearingly cheeky way of the sparrow.

The last bag was the smoked malt and we hesitated – how much should we add?  I’d wanted the beer to have a fairly strong smoke flavour but John sounded a note of caution as too much might make it undrinkable to those with less daring palates.  We had a brief discussion, but eventually we needed to make a decision on the quantity;

“Ah, fuck it!” declared John, “It’s all going in – it’ll be okay!”

We tipped the sack of smoked malt into the hopper and that was that; the grist was ready to be mashed in – which meant more work for me!

John checked the temperature of the liquor in the hot liquor tank and, after making sure it was the required 78°C, we switched on the pump and Steele’s masher, which is basically an Archimedes screw (a simple device which moves matter along) that mixes the water and grain into a thick, porridgy slurry.  We watched the mixture begin to fill the mashtun and I inhaled the gorgeous biscuity aroma deep into my lungs and thought how lucky I was to be there rather than stuck in an office breathing in other people’s body odour and ozone from the photocopier!  We both leaned over the edge of the mashtun and watched, stirring regularly with John’s “mashing-in paddle” (in reality a five-foot long piece of two-by-two wood), until the tun was filled with the glorious smelling mash, whereupon John slammed the lid shut and turned to me with a smile.

“Right!” he declared, “time for some breakfast!”


It’s hard work, this brewing lark!

Leaving John’s Father-in-law, Dick, in charge of the tea-making, we wandered across to the butty van which was parked close by in the industrial estate and was just beginning to serve a hungry crowd of early starters with greasylicious-smelling sausage and egg rolls.  We joined the queue and within ten minutes we were back in the brewery with our calorie-laden butties and a fresh cup of tea.  I sat on a pile of malt sacks, drinking tea and trying not to get runny egg all down my front, and thought that being a brewer wasn’t such a bad job after all!

"Hard work, this brewing lark!” chimed in John with his chin covered in egg; “Give it half an hour then we’ll be able to start getting the kit ready for the sparging”.

We finished our tea then leisurely began to prepare for the sparging; for those who don’t know what this stage is, it’s basically the rinsing through of any remaining sugars and goodness from the grains in the mashtun with more hot liquor.  We made sure the hot liquor tank was full of hot (around 80°c) water and connected the sparge-arm to the tank – now we could begin the run-off from the mashtun, but first we needed to prepare the copper to receive the “sweet wort” so we laid a bed of challenger hops in the base of the copper.  We’d chosen challenger as it doesn’t have a really distinctive flavour which would clash with the smoked malt but it would add a fair dose of bitterness to counteract the natural malty sweetness, as I’d reasoned the beer might become sickly-sweet without a good dose of bitterness to balance the peaty malt out.

We trailed a length of pipe from the mashtun to the copper via a pump and switched it on, whereupon the copper started to fill with sweet wort and mouth-watering aromas of malt and fresh hop billowed out of the copper, borne on swirling clouds of steam.  After making sure that we didn’t have a “stuck mash” where the grains form an impervious bed preventing the wort coming through, we turned up the pump and watched the copper fill whilst John told me the story of his first ever brew, where the pumps refused to work properly and the mash stuck, meaning he was forced to blow some compressed air up into the mashtun in order to unstick it, resulting in grains and wort all over the brewery floor!  This first beer, Whoops Winkle, had been the basis for my 3,000th beer the previous year but now I was going one better and actually making a proper brew myself!

John explained to me that stuck mashes usually come about when too much wheat is used so, not having used any, we should be ok… and thankfully we were, as the wort flowed happily into the copper.  We siphoned off a glass of the wort to conduct some tests on and, as we smelt it, we both must have been thinking the same thing, namely “this smells really smokey!”.  When the wort had been cooled and the gravity taken, which was spot-on at 1038°, I tasted it – imagine lapsang souchong tea concentrated a couple of times and you get the idea!  John had a quick sip and his eyebrows rose noticeably, but he assured me that it would be fine with a good dose of hops in it…

Suddenly the phone rang, and it was John’s mate from King & Barnes.  I heard John’s side of the conversation and it didn’t sound good; “Yes, all of it” cropped up a few times and I was sure he was talking about our sack of smoked malt and, when he returned, he wore a concerned expression.

“He says we’ve put too much smoked malt in” he said, flatly.

“How much too much?” I ventured.

“About ten times too much!” he laughed, suddenly back to his usual jovial self, “It tastes OK to me, I’m sure it’ll be fine with some hops to balance it out.  Let’s get it boiling!”


Right, in you get and start digging!

John turned on the hot liquor tap and the sparge arm began to spin; I was transfixed by this procedure and leaned on the side of the mashtun watching the arm revolve, depositing it’s steaming cargo over the grains below.  After an hour we’d collected enough wort to begin the boil (or “hot break” as it’s properly called) so we shut off the sparge-arm and disconnected the associated pipework to enable us to commence the next stage of the brewing process, one that I’d never realised could be such hard work!

When the remaining wort had been pumped into the copper, John switched on the heating elements in the vessel then handed me a hand-held shovel, gesturing towards the mashtun.

“In you get!” he grinned, “and start digging!  It’ll be your beer so you can do the hard work!”

I squeezed into the brewery’s “guest Wellingtons” and, with the aid of a stepladder, I scrambled into the mashtun - and immediately felt the heat of the grains through the rubber boots! John saw the alarm on my face and grinned;

“It gets a bit warm in there!” he smiled, “I usually come out after ten minutes and cool my boots down with the water hose!”

I began industriously shovelling the hot grains from the mashtun into an empty maltsack stood on an upended cask and, after ten minutes, climbed out to douse my boots in cold water with my shirt stuck to my back with sweat from this unaccustomed physical activity.  However, when I peered into the vessel, I was dismayed to see I’d scarcely made a dent in the quantity of grain and, by my reckoning, it was going to take me the rest of the day to clear the tun out!  Filled with resolve to show my prowess as an apprentice brewer, I clambered back in and resumed my assiduous shovelling of grain into empty sacks, the stack of which was growing larger by the minute.

After a few more visits to the hosepipe to quell the burning in my boots the mound of grain in the mashtun was getting visibly smaller, much to my relief, and I awarded myself the luxury of a five-minute break from shovelling – just as John returned from a visit home! 

“That’s your job offer gone!” he quipped; “I’m not having any lazy bastards in my brewery!” upon which he slumped into his chair with another sausage and egg roll!

I was too exhausted to offer any justification of my languor so meekly climbed back into the sludgy grain which, by this time, had cooled down enough to enable me to shovel away without needing to get out every ten minutes; this was a double-edged sword however as, after ten minutes digging, I was knackered and a short rest was just what I needed!

Eventually, aided by John holding the bag up to the top of the mashtun, I managed to empty the remaining grain and collapsed in a sweat-covered heap onto the comfy chair with a groan.

“Easy life?” I whined, “You didn’t tell me about this bit!”

John thought this most amusing and laughed heartily;

“OK, you can have ten minutes!” he chortled, “but then we’re cleaning the fermenter!”

By now the copper had come to the boil and the brewery filled with my favourite aroma in the whole brewing process, where the wort is just boiling and the luscious fresh hop and sweet malt aroma pervades throughout the brewery, getting into your clothes and hair like fag smoke – only it smells nice!  We scrubbed the fermenter with cleaning solution so it was fit to receive the finished beer, whilst all the time the clouds of hoppy steam wafted through the door and into the heat haze outside; it was very hot for the time of year and I wasn't used to all this physical work… maybe being a brewer wasn't the easy life I’d imagined!


The home stretch.

With the boil nearing it’s end it was time to add a final dose of hops to give the beer a slight hoppy twang and, not wanting to overpower the smokey taste, we employed more challengers which would impart just a slightly citrussy note to the finish.  The only problem was that, in order to incorporate these hops into the brew, I had to climb a ladder fifteen feet in the air and push the hops through a small opening in the top of the copper; as I teetered there with a carrier bag full of hops the ground seemed an awful long way down, so I stuffed the sticky objects through the hole as fast as I could and descended the ladder as swiftly as was possible – I don’t like heights at the best of times, but that hadn’t been the most fun I’d had in my “brewer for a day” crash course!

It was now time to prepare the yeast.  John was using dried yeast as he had not yet had time to source fresh “real” yeast, but any blandness the dried stuff gave to the beer would be blown away by the massive phenolic smokiness we’d created!  We mixed a packet of the yeast particles into a sterilised bucket and stirred in some warm water and sugar before putting the bucket, wrapped in a blanket, in the warmest place in the brewery to allow the yeast to commence it’s work.

John connected up the hopback to the copper and, from there, a pipe ran through the paraflow (chiller unit) and into the fermenting vessel.  With the boil completed, we opened the tap at the base of the copper and started the pump connected to the paraflow allowing the hot wort to flow; it smelt far better now it had been hopped and I was optimistic that our overuse of peated malt hadn’t spoilt the beer and rendered our day’s work in vain.  When the “hopped wort” began to gush into the freshly-cleaned fermenter I filled a glass and we sampled the result our day’s endeavours; it was still very smokey, but now had a bitterness which cut through the malt and brought about a fairly well balanced beer yet still with a massively phenolic aftertaste; would this be too extreme for the drinking public to stomach, I wondered?

After what seemed an age the fermenter was at long last full, so we retrieved the bucket of yeast, seeing with relief that there was already a thick layer of bubbles on top, and I ceremonially pitched the bubbling beige mass into the tank and stirred it thoroughly… and that was it, we were finished, and Flat as a Board was born!  Well, almost – there was the small matter of the cleaning up to attend to, and it was a good two hours later when John called a halt.

“Right, that’ll do!” he announced, “I’m gasping for a pint – anyone else fancy one?”

Both Dick and I declared our total agreement and, as we relaxed in the chairs with pints of Copper Winkle in our hands fresh from the conditioning tanks, I reflected on how much hard work had gone into the production of this one beer – and John did this most days a week, as well as delivering the stuff too!

“You’re coming back next week to help finish it off, then?” John asked, draining his third pint in as many minutes, “We need to cask it up ready for sending out”.

I assured him that I would be there and so, my work done, I headed back home and lay on my bed exhausted but blissfully content that my dream of brewing a beer in a proper brewery had finally come to fruition, although I was still a little apprehensive about the level of smokiness… Ah well, maybe if we’d had the internet in those days then we’d have been able to check the proper quantities and all would have been fine, but there would only be twenty firkins to sell and I was sure they would all go… it was a scoop, after all!


One week later…

…I was back in the brewery and it was the big moment; time to sample the finished product!  I gingerly drew off a glass from the fermenter and saw it was an attractive copper colour – just what I’d wanted – and it now smelt delicious, with a strong smokiness yet with a delicate spicy hop aroma to balance it out.  I took a large sip and swirled the fluid around my mouth to acquire the full taste experience whilst John looked on with concern; he’d not yet tried it and I knew he was secretly worried about our slight miscalculation with the smoked malt!

I put the glass down and smiled. 

“It’s bloody superb!” I grinned, “really smoky, but you were right; those hops have balanced it out perfectly!  It’s just what I was aiming for!” I gibbered, taking another large mouthful of the beer.  John decided he’d like a taste too and, although he was still concerned that it was too smoky for the general public, he declared himself satisfied with the results of our labours;

“It’s good – different, but good” he affirmed with obvious relief.  “I can sell 20 firkins of that to scooping pubs easily!” he concluded and we both laughed; I thanked John for helping me to make a dream reality, to which he replied it had been no problem and there was a job for me digging out his mashtun whenever I wanted one!

John said he’d like to give the beer a week in his new conditioning tanks to take any harshness off it, so I helped to transfer the brew to the conditioners and returned a week later to help with the casking process; we lined up twenty firkins along the floor and I worked along the row, filling the casks, then hammering the shives into place with a rubber mallet which was a very therapeutic job and I was disappointed when the final cask was reached.  With the final task complete I now understood exactly how much work and effort went into producing a single batch of real ale, although I was excused the effort of physically delivering the casks!

Never again would I underestimate the sheer hard work put into brewing beer, having done most of it myself, and as I completed my final task of loading the firkins into the Swale truck for distribution I secretly wished each one of them good luck and hoped they would be looked after properly; it was like seeing the children I never had leave the house and I wanted the very best for each of them!

For the record, many people have said to me they didn’t like Flat as a Board, citing it as being “rancid”, “too bloody smokey” or even “shite”, but I honestly liked it’s flavour although, if we’d brewed it again, maybe I would have cut back on the smoked malt just a touch… alas, it was destined to be a one-off, although I was back at Swale a month later to help John to concoct his 1st anniversary beer – but that’s another story…  Gazza


V1.2 ©  31/07/06 by Gazza.


Swale brewery outside   Gazza mashing in at Swale Gazza presents the mash at Swale   Swale Mashtun 1997 Sparrows in Swale 1997
Swale brewery outside with the not required for doss dray! Gazza mashing in at Swale - it's a lot harder work than it looks... Gazza presents the mash tun ! (it was smelling good at this point...) Swale's Mashtun full of grain! Sparrows in Swale brewery waiting to be fed on malt!
Sparging flat as a board at Swale Wort being tansferred to copper John Swale in brewery Challengers in the copper Swale John fills the copper Swale
Sparging... The wort being tansferred to the copper. John Swale in the brewery, preparing for the hot break Challengers in the copper for the boil. John fills the copper with the sweet wort
Swale brewery inside   Gazza digging out mashtun Swale John making tea Swale Adding second hops to copper Swale Running off to fermenter Swale
The Milton Regis brewery inside Gazza digging out the mashtun. John making tea during the hot break Adding the second dose of hops to the copper up a very dodgy ladder! Running off the hopped wort to the fermenter 
John tests the gravity Swale Pitching the yeast Swale  Full fermenter Swale   Old Dick cleans the copper Swale Sampling the finished article Swale
John tests the gravity of the finished wort Pitching the yeast for "Flat as a Board" The fermentation gets underway... Old Dick cleans the copper! Sampling the finished article a week later...
John and conditioning tanks Swale   Gazza filling casks Swale 1997 Gazza filling casks Swale 1997   Swale Flat as a Board pumpclip Gazza's 4000th Nige's drawing in my scooping book explaining how I could be as "Flat as a Board"...
Racking the finished beer to the conditioning tanks for final settling. Gazza filling casks at Swale brewery. Hammering in the shives at Swale brewery. Swale Flat as a Board pumpclip, Gazza's 4000th ! Nige's drawing in my scooping book explaining how I could be as "Flat as a Board"...


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