• Seaweed stout and green fairies at Tomos a Lilford brewery

    It’s ‘experimental brew day’ at the Tomas a Lilford brewery and I’ve been invited to collaborate with them on a new beer. The brewery in Llandow, Vale of Glamorgan – a short drive from Cardiff – creates beers with botanicals used to compliment the staple brewing ingredients, with some of their more adventurous additions including pine, hay, rose and the one I’m most keen to learn more about, seaweed, which features in their stout, Crwrgl.*

    I’ve been discussing ideas with Rolant Tomas over email and we’ve decided on a wheat beer with the botanical element provided by either wormwood or calamus root (also known as sweet flag), two of the key ingredients in absinthe and the ones said to be responsible for hallucinatory side effects which include visions of green fairies.** Both ingredients should add varying degrees of bitterness, besides their unique flavours, so Rolant and his brewing partner Rob Lilford have been debating whether to “soften the effect” with some bay leaves which Rolant, rather excitedly, has just discovered are referred to as ‘dail cwrw’ in Welsh, which translates as ‘beer leaves’.

    Rolant meets me at Cardiff station on a crisp, clear February morning, which bodes well for a seaweed foraging trip to the coast later. We first heard of this coastal beer from Food & Drink Wales, who are promoting the nation’s cuisine through a ‘Year of the Sea’ campaign, and there’s not much more Welsh than seaweed, an ingredient that is becoming more popular with fancy chefs but has yet to make much of an impact on the booze scene.***

    At the brewery, the first task of the day is to stew up some tea with the wormwood and calamus to test their flavours and guess how much we should use in the brew. 10g of each goes into a separate mug which Rob fills with boiling water, handing Rolant the calamus and me the wormwood. Rolant is impressed with his first taste – it’s pleasantly fruity with a pithy orange bitterness – but my sip of wormwood has such an unpalatable astringency that it’s is immediately spat into the sink. The same sip-and-spit routine is repeated by Rob and Rolant, leaving the coast clear for the calamus root to progress to the next stage without its absinthe companion. The bay leaves also get left out, with Rob so taken by the calamus potential that he wants to discover how it fares without interference from the bay.

    calamus root for absinthe and beer

    Brewing up some calamus root tea


    Today we’ll be brewing 200 litres of beer which, assuming it tastes OK, will be sold at a regular food festival held at the brewery’s business park. Although only a small outfit, the beers have been hugely popular with locals and are starting to get recognised on the other side of the Severn bridge, enabling Rob – a former Chinese medicine practitioner – to go full time while Rolant works one day week, with help also provided by the third brewery partner, Rob’s brother Jim. Rob and Rolant met at their kids nursery, where most of the adults were mums and, as Rob says, “it can be hard to fit in unless you’re able to talk about nipple cream.” So it was a pleasant surprise when not only did another dad show up, but one with a similar passion for beer and foraging.


    Small bladders

    With the brew underway, Rob takes me to a nearby beach to gather some seaweed, while the steaming wheat is under the watchful eye of Rolant. Two varieties go into Crwrgl – the famous Welsh laver and the common rockweed – which are picked and dried before being added to the brew. Today we’re tracking down rockweed and our beachy destination is a wide rocky strip, backed by a slender limestone cliff, and a lively, spitting sea. It’s not the most challenging foraging trip I’ve ever been on as the shoreline is covered with seaweed, its wet, shiny strands supporting small bladders, lying bedraggled among the rocks and pools. The only harvesting tool required is a pair of scissors to snip the goods free. “As with mushrooms you should always leave the lower part behind, so don’t completely detach it from the rock” explains Rob, who administers a few quick swishes of the blades to fill a carrier bag.

    hopping beer at Tomas a Lilford

    Rolant (left) fills a tank with the wort before Rob (right) adds the hops


    Back at the brewery we’re ready to add our calamus to the hot wort. The whole 250g bag goes in and is joined by the curranty tasting Northern Brewer hops, with Goldings set aside for late hopping. Brewing and foraging is thirsty work, so while the liquid is bubbling away we have a taste of Crwrgl. Rolant likes the effect of opening the bottle to release the unique aroma caused by the seaweed. He describes it as being “like when you’re a kid at the beach, opening the door and getting the first aroma of the sea. It’s that ozone smell.” Rob points out that this smell is caused by rotting seaweed and is, in fact, dimethyl sulphide, but fortunately there’s no rotting whiff to this beer. It has the rich roasted malt aroma you would hope from a stout and and an uplifting freshness which I’m happy to put down to a positive seaweed effect.

    There’s no obvious taste of seaweed to the beer either, but that’s not necessarily the point of introducing botanicals to brewing. As Rob points out, “rockweed is quite robust and requires a lot of cooking so, along with the subtle aroma, it also adds to the beer’s mouthfeel.” The laver is much more delicate so is added towards the end of the brewing process. Rolant notes that both seaweeds “add a bit of salt to the beer which helps bring out the stout’s sweetness.”

    It’s a delicious stout which I’m a bit surprised is only 4% – the seaweed certainly seems to have boosted the beer’s body and enriched the toasty grain flavours. It’s a punchy brew but very easy to drink. A classic stout that’s both familiarly comforting and indescribably unique.

    calamus root beer fermenter

    Our strong calamus wheat beer is in that fermenter…


    High alcohol

    The calamus wheat beer has now finished its boil and is ready to be cooled and transferred to the fermenter, which leaves one decision left to make: what type of yeast to use. A quick dip of a hydrometer to test its strength reveals a stronger-than-expected 9.5% ABV. Rob puts this down to their equipment being “more efficient with wheat” and he opts for a saison yeast that is most likely to cope with such a high amount of alcohol.

    And although such an alcoholic brew wasn’t intentional, perhaps a beer using one of absinthe’s famous hallucinatory ingredients was always going to be an especially boozy one. So if you hear reports of green fairies drifting around the Vale of Glamorgan area then you’ll know who’s responsible.

    Learn more about Tomos a Lilford brewery on their website www.tomosalilford.com

    Tomas a Lilford beer bottles

    Bottles of Crwrgl lined up in the brewery tap room



    *Welsh for coracle, it was first made to celebrate the The Coracle Society’s 25th anniversary. And in a bit of Welsh punnery, crwr means ‘beer’

    **The hallucinatory compounds in absinthe are so small that any ear-severing or other crazy antics were more likely due to the drink’s high alcohol content

    ***Although I’ve previously had a seaweed beer from Cornish brewery Keltek and a seaweed gin produced by Welsh distillers Da Mhile

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  • Winter pruning

    If you can brave the cold weather and are prepared to forgo a nice warm duvet for a spot of outdoor hacky-choppy-action, now is the time to give your dormant apple trees a good prune before new season growth starts to emerge. The benefits from this are two-fold; to encourage and nurture a strong, disease free tree and more importantly, to ensure a healthy crop of apples from which to make cider in the autumn months.

    Pruning is often considered a dark art; something that should be left to a professional arborist, but just think of it like giving your tree a splendid haircut*, only the type of haircut where you might consider loping off an ear and maybe a couple of fingers for good measure. We’re talking Sweeny Todd here, not Nicky Clarke.

    Tools for the job:

    You’ll need a pruning saw for any serious branch work, a pair of sharp pruners for smaller twigs and a pair of decent loppers for medium sized branches. When choosing the latter, go for a pair of cross cut loppers like these. Anvil loppers are super for crunching through dead wood but will leave living limbs mangled and at the mercy of diseases, and you really want to be making the cleanest cuts possible.

    Points to remember:

    • When pruning, you should be looking to sculpt the tree into a goblet shape – one that has a nice, open middle to allow sunlight in through the canopy to ripen and colour the fruit.
    • Begin by removing any dead or diseased branches with your pruning saw. Don’t bother smearing any tree paint over the wounds to help with the healing process – as long as you cut is nice and flush against the leading branch it will bark over naturally without any man-made interference.
    • Look for and remove any branches that cross each other and remove any over crowded spurs
    • If your tree has reached the desired height, cut back any new growth at the ends of the branches by around 2/3rds. Leave young laterals to develop fruit buds.
    • If you want to encourage a stumpy tree to grow taller, leave leaders and hack back any lateral branches.

    Afterwards, (as any half decent barber will tell you), clean your equipment thoroughly and if required, smooth out any burrs on your pruner blades with a whetstone. Finally, clean off any resin residue with WD40 and a healthy squirt of elbow grease.

    Apple tree pruning

    * I often talk to my trees whilst pruning, just like an intrusive hairdresser. “Would sir like a bit more off the sides? Where is sir going on holiday this year? Would sir like something for the weekend?”…That kind of stuff. 

    We obtained our pruning tools from Homebase. Look see, here.
    (Note: Homebase kindly provided the tools for review. Hand, ring and collection of twigs, models own)

     

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  • Talisker 10 Year Old whisky – the taste of Skye

    Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
    Say, could that lad be I?
    Merry of soul he sailed on a day
    Over the sea to Skye.

    This is the first verse of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, sung to the tune of popular Scottish folk number ‘Skye Boat Song’, about the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the Isle of Skye following his defeat at Culloden. Skye was an island familiar to Stevenson from his own nautical travels around Scotland, although he wasn’t much impressed, once writing to his friend Fanny Sitwell “Pictures of Skye enclosed. They look well enough on paper, but in reality they are hatefully bleak and cold: they make my heart sick”* But the island did have at least one redeeming feature for the author: Talisker whisky, which he declared as his favourite among “The king o’ drinks.”

    Talisker 10 year old

    The Talisker distillery has been in operation since 1835 and is the oldest and most famous of the island’s whisky makers. Peering across the craggy coastline, the company makes much of its proximity to the sea, producing whiskies with names such as ‘Storm’ and ‘Neist Point’, and using the ocean landscape prominently in marketing and packaging.

    We’re highlighting the distillery’s most familiar bottle, Talisker’s 10 year old single malt, a whisky that’s the ideal starting point for anyone looking to venture into smoked whisky territory.

    Tasting notes

    Sidle your nose up to the rim of your whisky tumbler and you’ll instantly notice that this is a peated whisky. But it’s not one to fear for peat virgins. The first sip is pleasantly sweet with a good grainy character giving it some richness. Before a lovely dry, spicy finish kicks in, the peat has wafted into the scene, steadily building an intensity with every sip so that by the time you’ve finished your first dram you’re fully immersed in the smoke-experience without any bother at all.

    For drinkers who think this might still be too much smoke to start out on, Talisker Skye is a similar whisky with the peat turned down, while the aforementioned Talisker Storm pushes in the opposite direction, with an increased intensity of peat for your palette.

    Visit the distillery

    For anyone following in the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert Louis Stevenson and finding themselves on Skye, then a tour of the distillery will provide you with a slice of the island’s history (and, of course, a taste of the whisky).

    There are currently three tours available: the Talisker Classic Distillery Tour is a mere £10 and lasts for 45 minutes; Talisker Flight at £25 is 1 hour 30 minutes and finishes with “an informal tasting of several expressions of Talisker Single Malt”; and the Talisker Tasting Tour is a 2 hour in-depth tour with a tutored tasting of 5 expressions of Talisker, costing £40. Check the website for opening times.

    Fascinating fact

    Talisker gets its name from Talisker House, historical home of the Clan Macleod, although the distillery is situated some five miles away at Carbost, Loch Harport. The area is notable for the presence of two rare species of Zygaenidae moths, the Talisker burnet moth and what sounds like the hardest moth to spot, the transparent burnet moth.

    Grab yourself a bottle of Talisker 10 at The Whisky Exchange

    Talisker Whisky Skye Packshot

    *From The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995]

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