The most impressive part of Bermondsey-based Fourpure Brewing Co's set up isn't its state-of-the-art canning machine, capable of sealing 12,000 cans per hour. Nor is it its vast quantities of oak foudres, in which small batch and highly complex beers are being aged ready for consumption. No, the most exciting thing about Fourpure is a small rectangular room located up a drab staircase and far removed from the brew house itself. In this room, three old laptops are lined up against a wall, separated by white polyester boards. In front of the laptops are beer samples in small plastic cups.
It is here where Fourpure's beers are rigorously tested by the 31 members of the brewery team trained in sensory analysis. The results are meticulously logged into the brewery's database and any samples containing the slightest of off flavours are further analysed to detect flaws in the brewing process.
It is this level of attention to detail and technical, scientific approach that has seen Fourpure become one of London's most commercially successful and recognisable craft breweries in just over four years. Since being founded in 2013, the brewery has at least doubled its volume sales every year, and is now in the midst of a significant expansion programme that is reported to have cost in the region of £2million.
“We’re always keen on making that next investment which will take us to the next level as a brewery,” Fourpure's head brewer John Driebergen tells me over a pint in the brewery's on-site taproom. “We’re currently operating on a way higher technical level than we ought to be for our capacity.
That capacity is about to get a whole lot bigger. The brewery has ordered a four vessel, 40hl fully automated brew house, manufactured in Germany, as well as 12 new fermenters that will allow the brewery to increase its capacity by up to 300%. The new brew house will allow Driebergen and his team to brew up to eight times per day and be fully operational 24 hours a day if necessary.
"It's going to be like driving a luxury car as opposed to the clunker we are driving around now"
“What I’m most excited about is that we’ll be able to brew three beers in the time it takes us to brew one and a half," Driebergen laughs. "The quality and consistency will be incredible. As the wort quality improves you will see an improvement in the hop extraction; everything is engineered to such a high degree of specification and so highly optmised. It’s going to be a little bit like driving a luxury car as opposed to the clunker we are driving around now."
The expansion, due to be completed in November, will also help improve the brewery’s sustainability; something that has always been at the forefront of every decision Fourpure has ever made. The brewery chose to produce its entire core range of beers in cans at a time when few others in the market were doing so, a decision heavily motivated by the smaller environmental impact it would create.
"We knew right away that we wanted to can all of our beers; Dan (Lowe, the brewery's co-founder) was very keen on that, and had a clear vision in terms of leading the way in terms of sustainability," Driebergen explains. "It was definitely a huge gamble at a time when canned and kegged beer was, quite wrongly, still associated with a lower quality product."
"As a brewery our investments are driven by the two categories of beer quality and sustainability,” he continues. “Those are considered to the same degree, and are the driving factors behind every investment we make”
"As a brewery our investments are driven by the two categories of beer quality and sustainability"
“The new brew house itself is far more efficient, we’re moving over to a steam boiler which is a lot more efficient, and there will be a lot less energy wasted because we’ll be brewing a lot more frequently. We’re also investing in a new fully automated carbonator which should use about 5% of the carbon dioxide that we currently use to carbonate our beers.”
Despite the remarkable growth that Fourpure has enjoyed in recent years, Driebergen is keen to emphasise that the brewery, and indeed the craft beer sector as a whole, remains only a tiny slice of the overall market. “We now employ 47 employees, having started with just three,” he says. “The only thing currently holding us back is our capacity. We’ve seen tremendous growth in recent years, primarily driven by the craft beer sector.”
“However, less than 1% of the market by production volume is from independent breweries. We (craft brewers) are all focused on the same thing and have the same goals, and hence we are more willing to be collaborative and help each other.”
Around a third of the quite considerable quantity of beer produced by Fourpure (around 100hl per day at present) is lager. With another of London's big lager breweries Camden Town having recently opened a huge new £30m site in Enfield following its buyout by AB InBev, it seems possible that lager could be the next big craft beer trend in the UK. However, whilst Driebergen believes the style will grow in popularity, he is keen to stress that breweries ought to continue to innovate in their own way, and not chase market trends.
"The thing about trends is that they’re always kind of hard to predict," he says. "I think it's important for breweries not to focus on what may or may not be trendy but focus on innovation in your own way. We like to focus on quality and experiment in all sorts of ways, and as long as breweries stay true to that we will eventually stumble across the next trend in an accidental sense anyway.”
“Lager will continue to grow for sure. There are a lot of people who drink lager and who are now discovering craft beer and realising that provenance does matter, quality does matter and that locally produced fresh beer does taste better.
“If they like lager then they will have a better experience drinking a lager from a local brewer than from a big industrial brewery. So yes, I think craft lager will grow but I don’t think it will necessarily set the world alight in the way New England IPA’s have done in the last year or so.”
"It's important for breweries not to focus on what may or may not be trendy but focus on innovation in your own way."
Well-spoken, articulate and charming, Driebergen is a difficult character to dislike. Indeed, it is hard to imagine him being irritated by anything at all. Determined to discover his bugbears, I ask what he would like to see pubs and bars do more of to help spread the growth of craft beer.
His response is initially diplomatic. "I think in general the bars and pubs in London have been great in terms of supporting craft brewers and the rise of craft beer," he says. "I’ve been really impressed by the degree to which that really good craft beer has become more widely available."
"However, I think it is really important that bars and pubs focus on training their staff," he divulges. "Often pubs have people who are employed on a short term basis. They need to make sure they are continually training their staff on what makes craft beer different, why that difference matters, and the importance of things like stock rotation, hygiene and keeping beer lines clean.
“Ultimately if the customer has a bad experience drinking a beer, most of the time the problem won’t be the beer, it will be the hygiene of the pub, but the drinker will blame the brewery, and that will affect that pubs greater sale of craft beer and they will lose customers."
This education is of particular importance if pubs wish to retain customers and develop a good reputation for serving craft beer, he warns. “With the craft stuff you really have to make sure you are paying attention to hygiene if you want to get repeat sales and attract the types of customers who want to drink craft beer.”
"If the customer has a bad experience drinking a beer, most of the time the problem won’t be the beer, it will be the hygiene of the pub"
“These people are younger, they have more disposable income and are more interested in spending money in bars and restaurants, but if you want to keep those customers you have to have an interesting range, you have to train your staff, you have to rotate your stock, order from a good distributor and you have to look after the hygiene.
“If you do that then you’re going to keep customers. If you think ordering the beer is enough, then it’s not necessarily going to work out for you.”
Despite his friendly demeanour and affable personality, it is clear that Driebergen is fiercely proud of his work and determined to see his beer showcased at its very best. Indeed, part of the brewery's decision not to brew cask beer came from his dislike of the lack of control over how the final product tastes to the consumer.
“As a brewer the reason I like keg beer is that you can brew and mature the beer and package it up and its exactly the state I want the customer to drink it,” he says. “The problem with cask is that you are outsourcing a third of the process, the conditioning and cellaring, to a third party who may or may not know what they are doing. As a brewer that has no appeal to me.
"Additionally I think the beer styles we are producing are less suited to cask anyway. I have a lot of admiration for a lot of cask brewers but I have no experience of making it and most of my team have very limited experience with it, and its not something we see as fitting within our range of beers.”
On the brewing side, Driebergen is happy to let his beers speak for themselves. He smiles and hands over a glass of Southern Latitude - the brewery's session-strength interpretation of a New England IPA - before departing in search of dinner. At the rate at which it I drink it, it's a good job Fourpure will be producing a lot more beer come this November.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser