FOR many people the idea of owning a brewery is merely one of those pipe dreams but for Paul Mercer it’s a reality.
The Doghouse brewery based in Jurby started off last autumn and its beers have already been served in many pubs around the island. The beers are easy to spot even a few pints down the line thanks to the distinctive Doghouse pump badges designed by cartoonist Paul Sample.
‘I’m pleased with the design. I just telephoned him and asked if he would be interested in doing it and he said yes. He was very amenable,’ said Paul.
The name Doghouse brewery also came in a flash of inspiration.
‘I’d spent long hours there setting everything up and as I was driving back there was a track on the car radio by Seasick Steve called Music from the Doghouse,’ he said: ‘I thought, how appropriate...and what a good name!’
Even in the freezing cold and driving rain of our Saturday morning visit, there was something particularly satisfying about looking down into a vast stainless steel vat with 1,000 litres of ale gradually turning its sugar content into alcohol.
The brew being prepared when I visited was a dark-coloured coffee porter in readiness for the forthcoming Isle of Man Real Ale festival and it was being brewed with the eager assistance of members of the island’s branch of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, who were there on a visit.
Surprisingly, the coffee flavour comes from the equivalent of just six cups of Noa’s Bakehouse coffee in the early stages of the brewing process.
The Doghouse brewery has been asked to brew the official Festival Beer this year and the proceeds from it will be donated to support the RNLI. In addition to the coffee porter, the brewery will be supplying five of its other beers for sale at the festival too.
For Paul the brewery marks a complete change in direction: ‘I always had an interest in it. But I spent 25 years in engineering, making brake callipers and discs. Then I decided I didn’t want to get too old to do it.’
Further inspiration came in the form of a friend who opened a microbrewery in the UK.
‘It started out as a hobby but his production has tripled,’ Paul said.
‘Five or six years ago you could have set up in the UK and been profitable but now it’s harder. Most micro-breweries that start off now have a link with a pub so they have an outlet – but I’ve no desire to run a pub!’
Before starting the venture he had never so much as dabbled in home brew before and the transition from engineering to brewing has presented a steep learning curve.
‘You certainly learn a lot in a short space of time,’ he said.
Acquiring the relevant knowledge has been a mixture of personal research and formal training.
‘I did a lot of reading then I did a brewing course with a company called Brewlab which is based at Sunderland University. The course was brilliant with a real diversity of people on it from an ex-Coldstream guardsman, a chap whose brewery was about to be featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs and someone hoping to set up a brew restaurant in New York.’
At one time there were 137 breweries in the Isle of Man, he said. Currently there are more than 1,000 micro breweries in the UK.
‘On the course we did a test brew of our own and we learned the effect of the different malts. In fact they gave us all sorts of help along with basic recipes because they want to see you succeed.
‘I’ve never done home brew – but I’ve drunk plenty of other people’s. I was probably the only person on the course who hadn’t though.’
For Paul and the willing members of CAMRA the day started at about 8.30am when the malt and water were mixed and heated to 66 degrees in a 1,100 litre mash tun to extract the sugars.
A process known as ‘sparging’ then takes place separating out the liquid, called ‘wort’, which passes through into the copper. This will produce around 1,000 litres of beer, with the quantity of malt determining the amount of alcohol produced in the finished beer.
‘Light coloured beers are popular at the moment so I wanted to be different when I produced one for the beer festival,’ Paul said.
‘CAMRA asked for something dark. We wanted to do something like a stout or a porter. This is a very simple beer without a lot of different ingredients so it should allow the taste of the coffee to come through.’
Once in the copper the beer is heated to boiling and the ‘bittering’ hops are added. One and a half hours later the brew is allowed to cool and the ‘aroma’ hops are added. Finally, when it has cooled to 21 degrees centigrade, it is transferred to the fermenter.
Fermentation starts quite slowly for the first 24 hours and builds to a peak after about 36. After about four days it is complete. It then takes a couple of days to clear at about three degrees and at this point it can be racked off into the casks where a secondary fermentation takes place, lasting about a week. Next it’s ready to be sent out – and drunk.
‘For the mild it can be sent out in two or three days,’ he said.
‘But for the stronger beers it’s best after about three weeks.’
So far, 21 pubs are taking Paul’s beer from time to time and it is regularly on offer in the Sulby Glen Hotel, the Railway at Union Mills and the Bay View at Port St Mary.
‘Bottling the beer and exporting it will help trade too because an inceasing number of people are drinking at home,’ he said.
In fact the very first batch of bottled beers will soon be brewed and bottled by the Doghouse and are to be available through the Wine Cellar in Douglas.
In addition to what has been officially named Manx Coffee Porter, the Doghouse has six other brews in its portfolio including a gold ale, a light and a dark India pale ale, a mild and a bitter.
Mild was recently dropped as a regular brew by the island’s biggest brewery, Okell’s, because demand was too low for it to be viable for them. But for a small volume producer like the Doghouse brewery it is still a worthwhile product.
For Paul, who lives in Kirk Michael, part of the pleasure of the job – apart from the end product – is experimenting and producing different ales, He’s recently enlisted the help of consultant Sean Franklin, formerly of Roosters Brewery in Knaresborough, to work on a pale beer for the next brew.
The Isle of Man’s second CAMRA real ale festival is on April 4 to 6 at the Masonic Hall in Douglas. It will feature well over 700 gallons of real ale in 100 different varieties – which is 50 per cent more than last year.
In addition to that there will be about 100 gallons of cider or perry not to mention fruit wines, musical entertainment and food.
Last year’s event, the first such festival in the Isle of Man became a victim of its own runaway success with queues of people waiting to get in and eventually running out of beer early on Saturday evening.