When one thinks of Suffolk, the usual images of pink houses, impressive Punches and Constable’s oil paintings come to mind. Yet more recently it’s been the craft breweries of the county that have been striving for the popular image of Suffolk, and it is the brewery of Burnt Mill, founded by Charles O’Reilly that is leading the county’s craft brewing innovation. Read the following, where Angus D. Birditt, writer and photographer, goes to meet Charles at his brewery to see how he turns barley into beer.
I arrive at Burnt Mill Brewery during one of their brewing and 'canning' days. I enter through the side door of the brewery, which by the look of it was once a barn for dry storing. As soon as I step foot into the space, I am immediately confronted with an assault on the senses; a loud humming noise vibrating through me, and a delicious mixture of smells of pineapple, lemons, yeast and hops. The brewery space is huge, filled with varying sizes of gleaming steel towers, sacks of ‘malt barley’ and ‘sugar’, and a mingling of bodies, busily weaving in and out of the floor apparatus. I meet Charles at the door, who then takes me over to the steel towers to go through the brewing process, apparently already in full flow.
Charles tells me that these steel towers are called conical or fermentation tanks, and the first tank in the row is called a mash tun – where malt, usually barley that has been roasted and ground beforehand, is mixed with hot water. He notes that the barley grain is normally roasted for longer, if you want a heavier beer like a stout or a porter, and roasted lighter for a lager or pale ale. So, the mash tun is where the brewing process really starts to take shape, when the malt is hydrated in hot water, converting the long molecules of the grain (starches) into smaller molecules (sugars), which can then be fermented.
Charles takes me further down the row of steel tanks. He tells me that once the brewer is happy with the sugar-high malt-water mixture – or simply known as ‘wort’ –, it is then filtered and stored in the second tank, which leaves behind a deposit of munched grain. This by-product is removed and collected by farmers to feed their cattle. This separating process is called lautering. I follow Charles to the third tank, what is apparently a gigantic kettle. This is where the hops go in and any flavour additions you want to add in for the final tasting notes. He tells me that you pour the hops and additional flavours early on in the process for bittering and flavouring, or later on for scent and aroma.
The fourth tank is normally called the ‘whirlpool’, where any heavy material left that hasn’t been dissolved – like chunks of malt or hop – is separated from the liquid. The liquid is then transferred to either the cellar or fermentation units where the yeast is then added. The yeast inside the fermentation units reacts with the wort, changing the sugars into everyone’s beloved alcohol. Charles notes that the difference between producing ale or lager is purely down to the types of yeast you use and the amount of time you leave the fermentation to occur. Any ale tends to be 3-5 weeks, and lager beers around 5-6 weeks. Once fermenting is finished, the beer is transferred through pipes into identical-looking tanks positioned in the brewery’s packaging unit to rest for a time before being canned or kegged, and distributed across the British Isles.
Burnt Mill Brewery was established in 2016, and in under a year, Charles had turned a dilapidated farm barn, once filled with old farm machinery and thick layers of dust and cobwebs, into an impressive craft brewery selling nationwide. The name ‘Burnt Mill Brewery’ apparently originates from ‘Burnt Mill Hill’, the hill that the barn sits upon. Back before the area was a working farm, the area stood a post mill hence the brewery’s attractive logo and graphic art – created by Josh Smith – that includes the mill. Charles is a classic example of an artisanal producer, passionate and devoted to creating something unique and flavoursome. Charles brews beer because he loves beer, and it really does shine through in the final product.