“We are definitely going in the same direction, it's just that sometimes we might disagree on how best to reach that end goal.”Read More
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It's been a funny few days. Earlier this week, I wrote a story for The Morning Advertiser about a pub in London charging more than £13 for a pint of Cloudwater Double IPA. The story was picked up by no less than seven national newspapers, got nearly double the views of any other story on our website for the month of August and brought out the absolute worst of beer twitter.
Amongst other things, I was called lazy, accused of stirring to generate headlines and attacked for reinforcing the stereotype that craft beer is a niche pursuit. I don't have particularly strong views about a pub charging in excess of £13 for a pint of Double IPA. It is a strong, expensive and rare beer, being sold in a pub in the centre of London, and if people are willing to pay those sums of money then fair play to them.
However, in the ensuing fall-out I was sent a picture of a London bar chain charging a similar price for a Cloudwater beer marked as a 4.2% Session IPA. Although this pricing was later claimed to have been a mistake (A fact I still have my suspicions about), some of the statements it generated about pricing made me question my own sanity at times.
One of the best things about beer, in my humble opinion, is that it can be so many different things to so many people. For some, it is a drink to be consumed in large quantities down the pub on a Friday night, whilst for others it is something to be savoured and appreciated for its complexity and depth of flavour. For most people, it is somewhere inbetween, and one of the greatest things about craft beer is that it caters to all of those tastes. Want to spend £15 on a bottle of mixed ferm saison? Go ahead. Want a pint of Neck Oil? Be my guest. I'm a great believer that beer is for everyone, and that everyone should have access to good quality beer.
A £4.50 third of Session IPA is not acceptable. End of.
I refuse to believe that this kind of beer, whilst it may be slightly more expensive than other comparable SIPA's to produce, costs this much to make or buy on the part of the pub. Clearly, this was a pricing mistake, but I still had people in my timeline yesterday trying to justify it with reference to ingredients costs and comparisons to wine. With respect to those individuals, I couldn't disagree more.
As a self-identifying socialist and a beer lover, there has always been something of a struggle in my mind between wanting brewers and independent bar owners to be paid what they deserve for the fantastic work they do, and wanting to see beer available at a price which is inclusive and affordable to the consumer. However, when we are having a serious discussion about whether or not £4.50 for a third of a beer that is meant to be drunk in pints (*read: SESSION IPA*) then I think the pendulum has quite clearly swung too far in favour of the brewers and pub owners. Beer priced at this level is prohibitively expensive, and excludes a huge amount of people from the market. Heck, I couldn't and wouldn't even pay that much myself, and I like beer a lot more than most people I know.
The argument "If people are willing to pay it then let them" absolutely does not stand up in this case. It's one thing to charge nearly £14 for a pint of a beer that won't be on the taps every week, and almost certainly won't be drunk in pints, but to defend charging that much for a beer of less than 5% ABV on that basis is madness. It sets a price precedent that will eventually filter across the market and exclude a great many people from the world of craft beer. We have already normalised the £5+ pint in London, lets not normalise the £10+ pint.
As someone who has worked in bars and whose dad owns a pub I know for a fact that beer does not cost anywhere near that much to buy, either direct or through a distributor. Someone is making a big fat chunk of profit on beer priced at this amount, and needs to be called out.
Before you engage with this post, and start telling me how wrong I am, take a step back and think about the issue being discussed here. Think about how you would justify spending £13 on a pint of 4.2% beer to someone outside of the craft beer bubble. Think about what you want the craft beer world to be; inclusive, welcoming and accessible, or some weird bullshit elite club where nobody can afford to drink more than two drinks in an evening but its okay because at least the brewers and pubs are being paid what they deserve.
I know which camp I'm in.
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.
“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”
“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.”
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.”
“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
Part of what I enjoy most about going on holiday or going traveling is the opportunity to seek out and explore different bars, breweries and beer cultures across the world. To me, there is no greater joy than seeing how many beer-related activities I can squeeze into a holiday with family or friends before they cotton on and insist we do something touristy. However, as is often the case when returning from holiday, life catches up with me, and these experiences don't get written about. Sometimes I just don't have the time to write a 1,000 word article detailing every bar, cafe or brewpub you simply have to visit in a given city, area or country, let alone edit 25 or more photos to show the destination at its very best.
That's why I'm starting a new series of articles titled Destinations. These short pieces will hopefully provide a small snapshot of a brewery, bar, pub or venue from my travels that I think is worthy of shouting about. Destinations will run alongside my regular 'In Conversation With...' series, as well as the longer form travel and opinion pieces that make up Beeson On Beer.
The first destination I want to feature is Brouwcafé de Molen, birthplace of one of the Netherlands' most sought out breweries; Brouwerij de Molen. I took a trip to Amsterdam with some old friends from university back in May, and one day we decided to take the train 30-odd kilometers south to the small town of Bodegraven to visit the brewery site.
A ten minute walk from the train station lies a stunning white windmill that gives De Molen its name. It was here, around twelve and a half years ago, that Menno Olivier set up his microbrewery, converting old dairy farm equipment into a brew kit capable of producing 600 litres at a time. The windmill is now a cafe and taproom for De Molen's beer, with production having moved to a much larger site (producing up to 10,000 litres per brew) just up the road about five and a half years ago.
When we arrive on-site, the cafe owner Colin Hoeffnagel kindly shows us around the impressive new brewery, but it is the original cafe with which I fall in love. 20 taps adorn the back wall, pouring a range of De Molen and beers from elsewhere in the Netherlands, whilst the kitchen serves up a range of locally inspired dishes; from Dutch croquets to cheese platters that come with mustard made with the brewery's own beer. Each year, De Molen also hosts the Borefts Beer Festival (sadly no longer at the cafe site), where breweries from across Europe including Belgium's De Struise Brouwers bring rare special releases for the lucky residents and tourists to sample.
We seat ourselves by the window of the cafe, overlooking the picturesque canal (The Oude Rijn) which runs alongside the windmill, ferrying boats east to Utrecht or west towards the North Sea. Despite it being early in the day, the beers are soon flowing. Among the De Molen beers we try are Frank & Vrij, a big juicy Vermont IPA that is akin to being smacked in the face with a mouthful of new world hops, and Verdeel & Heers, an 11.2% Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout fermented with Brettanomyces yeast.
Brouwcafé de Molen is as picturesque a location to drink beer as any I have ever visited on my travels, and when the beer tastes as good as De Molen's does, there really is no excuse not to visit.
It’s been quite a rise to fame for Newport’s Tiny Rebel brewery. In less than ten years, the brewery has gone from two men producing two beers out of a converted garage to a 60-employee strong organisation, brewing on a dual steam 30-barrel brewhouse and exporting beer to over 20 countries around the world. Along the way, the Welsh brewery has found favour among craft beer geeks and traditional real ale enthusiasts alike, but undoubtedly the key moment in its history came in August 2015, when its flagship 4.6 per cent red ale, Cwtch, took home the ‘Champion Beer of Britain’ at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.
“The week after we won the award I think we brewed Cwtch six times out of eight,” laughs Niall Thomas, the brewery’s Regional Sales Manager. “It was just Cwtch cask after Cwtch cask…but you’ve got to give the people what they want!
“Winning Champion Beer of Britain was absolutely huge for us; we’re the youngest ever brewery to have won it, and the only brewery from Wales. It’s the top brewing award in the country and to have won it so quickly after opening is an enormous achievement. A lot of breweries can only dream of it.”
Tiny Rebel’s journey began in a similar way to that of many other breweries in the industry. Brad Cummings and Gareth Williams (Gazz) were thrown together after Gazz married Brad’s sister and the duo became brothers-in law. Gazz, a keen homebrewer and cask ale lover, roped Brad into his brewing experiments in a converted garage on the weekends. After receiving some positive feedback from friends and family, the two men invested in a fifty-litre homebrew kit and began to perfect their recipes.
In February 2012, the brewery officially launched with two beers, Fubar, a 4.4 per cent pale ale, and Urban IPA. These were swiftly followed by Cwtch and Dirty Stop Out, the brewery’s 5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout.
“It was a pretty quick rise from there,” admits Niall. “The first year we were eligible, our beers took a one, two, three at the Great Welsh Beer Festival – the first time any Welsh brewery has taken gold, silver and bronze at the same festival – and the year after that, we won gold again, which was the first time anyone has defended a gold.”
The following year, Cwtch won Champion Beer of Britain.
With interest in their beers soaring, Tiny Rebel were soon struggling to cope with the demand. “We’d already been at capacity at the old brewery before we won at GBBF,” Niall explains, “and when you win an award like that you’re the biggest news in the brewing industry for the next couple of months. It can put a huge strain on production.” To cope, the brewery squeezed two more fermenting tanks into their old site, and switched to shift patterns, brewing twice a day, ten times a week.
Eventually, however, a new site was needed. Plans were drawn up and investment sourced for a new £2.6m brewhouse site, ten minutes away from the old brewery. The new brewkit was installed in December 2016, and production moved at the start of this year. “All the profits for the past five years have gone into the new site,” Niall says, “the new brewhouse is a dual stream 30 barrel; each stream can brew 5,000 litres and they can run virtually side by side. Going forward if we really wanted to we could go back to a shift pattern and brew four times a day, but at the moment we’re brewing at most twice a day.”
The new brewhouse is certainly an impressive sight, with on site canning and bottling lines, as well as plans for a glass-fronted taproom overlooking the Welsh valleys. So what has been the secret behind Tiny Rebel’s rapid ascent to success?
“I think the key for us has been organic growth,” Niall explains, “We’ve never tried to run too fast; we wait to see where the demand takes us, and we’ve found that whenever we’ve grown, the demand grows, probably quicker than we can. We’re producing as much beer as we can, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to the demand for it, which seems to be a sign that we’re doing well.”
“We’ve also got a really good and talented team. We like to promote and utilise those resources as best we can. I joined the sales team from one of the bars; the management teams in the bars were all previously existing bar staff. We like to foster skills and reward people.”
Looking to the future, the brewery’s focus is on finishing work at the new site, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be releasing any new beers anytime soon. Indeed, one big new release is planned in the next month or so, but is still very much under wraps, so much so that we are forbidden from taking photos or writing about it. “We love experimenting,” Niall says, “Last year alone we released 30 new beers. The new brewery site obviously takes a bit of time and attention away from that sort of thing, but hopefully soon we’ll have the time to do a few more exciting things.”
One thing Tiny Rebel won’t be doing, however, is turning their backs on cask beer, as other breweries in the industry have recently done. “For us personally, we see cask as our personal origins,” explains Niall, “it’s what Gazz was brought up with and what sparked the idea for the brewery. But also it’s the origin story of beer in the UK; it’s a very British style and we see it as an integral part of the beer scene here.”
Nonetheless, Niall is keen to emphasise that the brewery don’t begrudge any of their fellow brewers turning their backs on the style. “It’s their business at the end of the day and they know their customer base better than anyone,” he says. “It would be silly to commit to something that’s going to lose you money, and from a beer perspective you’ve got to brew what you like brewing.”
“It’s down to local preference, but the key is to brew what you love; that’s the only thing we can do.”
*This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*
By all accounts, Pete Brown hasn't had a bad career. The three time winner of The Guild of Beer Writers' beer writer of the year award is currently in the middle of promoting his eighth book -‘Miracle Brew’ - his first exclusively about the subject of beer since 2009. I sat down with the globe-trotting author to find out why it took him so long, what motivated him to write the book, and where he sees the industry going in the future. "It feels quite hilarious that I stepped away from writing about beer just as craft beer was taking off," he tells me. "I always wanted to write it the broader arena of food and drink, so I think it was a case of getting that established that saw me move away from the subject, but I did leave it a bit too long."
"It takes about two or three years from starting to think about the idea for a book to it finally being published so I was kicking this idea around in 2013, and this is how long it has taken to come to fruition."
The book focusses almost entirely on the four core ingredients that make up the nation's favourite brew - barley, hops, yeast and water for those less educated in the subject - and Brown admits that the decision was based on a desire to speak to a more mainstream audience about the product.
"Most of my mates who now drink beer very enthusiastically don’t actually know what it’s made from," he says.“Beer is the most popular drink in the world after water, tea and coffee. Everybody knows that wine comes from grapes and cider comes from apples, but when you talk to people about beer they go ‘it’s made from hops isn’t it?’ They don’t know what hops are or what they do, they just think that beer is made out of them, which isn’t exactly true.
“I just thought it was so weird that everyone is so into food and drink and where it comes from, yet so even most beer drinkers don’t know that much about what they’re drinking.”
Despite this desire to educate and inform, Brown's book steers away from some of the more technical elements of producing beer, instead adopting an anecdotal and accessible style. "I generally write in the engaging conversational style and not get too technical," he admits. "I’m not a biologist or a scientist, so where I do get technical I’ve had to reduce it so that I can understand it myself! I’m hoping I’ve given it to people in a way that is engaging and interesting.
"Before I wrote this book I thought I knew a lot about hops and barley and yeast and water, and I decided to put everything I knew to one side and I just learnt so much new stuff, and got a new appreciation of beer all over again."
That's not to say that the book doesn't offer anything for the more advanced reader, and Brown tells me he has even had brewers get in touch with him to say it has taught them things about water and barley that they weren't previously aware of. "Even though it’s written for an introductory audience I think there’s something in there for everyone," he says proudly.
Another motivating factor behind writing Miracle Brew was Brown's desire to see beer elevated to the status enjoyed by drinks such as wine, which he does not see as in any way superior to his favourite amber nectar. "When people talk about wine they talk about terroir all the time, but terroir is in beer more than it is in wine," he says. "Take the water that is used in beer, for example; it falls as rain and then soaks into the ground and runs through rock or shale.
“It is a product of that land, which is the very definition of terroir. The water in Burton on Trent is totally different from the water in Pilsen, and hence beer is really tied with place and with location.”
One thing is for certain, Brown is certainly not someone who is tied to location. Whilst writing his latest book, the jovial adopted Londoner travelled far and wide, visiting breweries from the Czech Republic to Belgium. On his travels he became aware that other cultures had a greater sense of pride in their brewing traditions than the UK, something he hopes to see change in the future.
“British drinkers think that cask ale is a bit old and dull, but you go anywhere else in the world and people say how amazing it is,” he says. “Marris Otter malt gets exported across the entire world and is regarded as the best malt from Japan to America, and we don’t take that much pride in it.”
“We just don’t take a genuine pride in our styles and our ingredients and products in the way that other countries do.”
Nevertheless, he is at pains to point out that in order to take pride in British output, the product must be at its very best. In January of this year, he drew criticism for an article in which he claimed to have almost stopped drinking cask beer due to the poor quality of the product in most pubs and bars. Today, he stands by that position, and says that pubs are doing cask beer a disservice by serving it in poor condition.
"“There are publicans out there who are desperately proud of their cask beer,” he says. “But I think if you’re not proud then don’t stock it. If you’re not genuinely proud of it, just don’t serve it, because you’re doing it a disservice by serving it below par, which is what most pubs do.
"There are plenty of pubs that serve good cask and I’d rather just see it in them. When I was writing The Cask Report the message was always to try and improve and increase distribution and I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do anymore.”
"In America they recognise that hop aromas are incredibly delicate and they recognise that heat kills them, and so all craft beer is distributed with cold chain distribution, the beer is chilled from the moment it is packaged to when it reaches the consumer. British cask beer is different but can be just as good as American craft beer if you use the right methods for distribution and cellaring. When you see pubs with casks sat outside in the sun or being thrown around it’s like ‘god, treat it with a bit of respect.’"
Turning to the subject of pubs themselves, the subject of another of the writer's many books, Brown warns that unless local boozers do more to attract customers they would continue to face closure due to changing social patterns.
“Pubs have got more competition than ever before, beer is spreading outside the pub and the pub is no longer the default,” he says. “There are so many other places that serve beer now. Look at festivals, pop-ups, supermarkets. My local barbers offers craft beer when you go in for a haircut!
"We say in the industry ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to pubs, but that makes going to the pub sound like something we should feel guilty about not doing; Great, let’s turn the most pleasurable thing in life into a chore. Whether it’s great food, the pub quiz, the best conditioned cask beers, the greatest range of craft beer, pubs have got to have a USP.”
He does, however, have some sympathy with pub owners, who he says often face a near-impossible task for little financial gains. "I appreciate that all these things are really difficult, and running a pub is really difficult. When I’ve written about pubs that are great, they’re usually run by people who are very very clever who have got a massively wide range of skills."
"A lot of them choose to run a pub because they really, really like it; and the industry relies on people doing the job not because of the renumeration but because of they’re prepared to do a job that is far harder than it should be for the money they are earning because they really love it."
Turning finally to future trends, one thing that Brown believes will continue to grow in popularity over the coming years is low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, which he states are now catching up in terms of flavour due to the rise of craft beer. "When you drink a pint of lime and soda, you don’t want a second one, whereas when you drink a good beer you want four or five, so that’s the challenge for low alcohol beers," he says. "What’s the point in having a low alcohol beer that doesn’t taste like a good beer? But now all of a sudden they do."
"It’s about the ritual of having something in your hand that you enjoy doing, so if I could do that with low alcohol beer I’d be quite happy to have two or three days off a week.”
A version of this article originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser, and has been reproduced here with their permission.
Forest Road Brewing Co. isn’t your typical London brewery. While most of the capital’s emerging small brewers produce small quantities of a wide range of beers on tiny, cramped kits on industrial estates, Forest Road’s head-brewer Pete Brown heads out to Belgium every couple of months to brew 15,000 litres of Work, the brewery’s signature 5.4 per cent ale, at the family-owned Brouwerij Van Eecke in Flanders. Pete began homebrewing in New York city back in 2008, and since then the jovial American has amassed over seven years of experience brewing at four international breweries including Siren and Camden. Whilst at Siren, Pete moved into a house on Forest Road in Hackney, and after several successful homebrews, he quickly convinced his housemates they should set up a brewery.
“To build the kind of brewery I wanted to build I needed a shit load of money that I didn’t have,” Pete explains over a pint of Work in The Prince Arthur, a few doors down from the Forest Road flat where the beer was born. “I hit up some guys around the UK saying ‘I want to brew this much beer, this is how I want to do it, this how I want it packaged,’ but the only people who got back to me were people saying ‘we can do it but we can only do cask’ or ‘we can do it but we can’t use your yeast strain’ or whatever. I wasn’t in this to make money, I wanted to brew my fucking beer the way I wanted to.”
Frustrated, Pete turned to Belgium, and managed to convince an old family run brewery in Flanders to allow him to brew on their kit. “I went over on a complete whim to this old brewery and had this meeting with these Flemish guys… they’re not a contract brewery; I was the first person that had ever brewed on their kit that wasn’t part of the family since they opened in 1624.”
While some UK breweries are content to contract out their brewing to Belgium and import the finished product, Pete insists on being involved with every stage of the process. “It’s not like I go over there and its all set up for me,” he says. “I have to source the malt, the hops the yeast – I get my yeast from Copenhagen. It has to get there, we have to propagate it three days before we brew; all this shit needs to be done before we can brew.”
The first brew wasn’t without a few hitches along the way. Two weeks before he was scheduled to go out to Belgium, Pete received a call from the Van Eecke brewery informing him they’d been unable to source the hops he needed. After begging, stealing and borrowing Chinook, Equinox and Mosaic hops from friends in the industry, he headed out to Flandres in November 2015 to brew 150 hectolitres of Work, listing his flat as the delivery address because the brewery didn’t own anywhere to store the beer at the time.
The resulting beer arrived in the UK in February 2016, and three more batches have been brewed since, with Pete heading out to brew a fourth this month. An unfiltered, hoppy ale, low in bitternes but big in flavour, Work certainly doesn’t appear to have suffered from traveling across borders. “There’s no oxygen inclusion, its unfiltered, everything is done the way we want to do it,” Pete says proudly. “I want it to speak for itself. There’s nothing on the bottle about what kind of beer it is. As an American I don’t like seeing mediocre beers being marketed as American pale ales. It drives me nuts. Why is it called American pale ale, just because you used American hops?”
“I don’t put bullshit in my beer, and I don’t do gimmicks. If you want to get fruit flavours out of a beer they should come from the hops, it’s not about putting raspberries in it or any of that shit.”
Of course, Pete doesn’t intend to brew in Belgium forever. The brewery already has a storage unit and bar in Hackney, and has put in an offer for a brewery site “on the river.” In-between prank calling neighbouring Five Points and playing with his one-year old rescue dog Cassie, Pete excitedly tells me that Forest Road are planning to open “the UK’s most sustainable brewery,” in the next year.
“We want be ahead of the curve,” he explains, “we want to do things right, even at a greater cost up front. At the moment people are just dumping shit down the drain and burning electricity. Our kit will be very efficient. It really is amazing.”
“We’re going to build a fucking sweet 25 hectolitre kit in the centre of London. It’ll be London’s most advanced kit – nobody that will have a better kit than us.”
*This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*
Following a dream often requires sacrifices, and the young Italians behind Brewheadz have sacrificed more than most in pursuit of opening a brewery. To finance the cost of their four-barrel kit and eight-barrel fermenters, the four friends all moved into a one bedroom flat in Angel, brewing in the kitchen and taking it in turns to sleep on the floor. “We didn’t have that much money,” head brewer Gianni Rotunno recalls, “we needed to make that sacrifice… we’re still living there, although just two of us now!”
It’s been quite a journey for Gianni, who couldn’t even speak English when he moved from Fondi, a municipality between Rome and Naples, to London ten years ago to study business management. After making the Wenlock Arms near Old Street his local, Gianni fell in love with beer on a trip to CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in 2007. “I just went mad for it,” he says, “without speaking English I was just going around asking for ‘hops, hops, hops.’”
Inspired by the beers he tried at GBBF, and a bottle of punk IPA from the then-newly formed Brewdog, Gianni enrolled in a Masters in Brewing & Distilling at the famous Herriot Watt University in Scotland. One by one, his friends became to come to London, and he proceeded to “infect them” with his passion, eventually convincing them they should set up a micro-brewery together.
“We were brewing every week in our small flat. We decided to move from brewing different recipes to just three recipes. It was pretty boring but we just wanted to make sure what we were making was consistent.”
Once the four friends had secured a site in Tottenham Hale, just a stone’s throw from Beavertown, One Mile End and Redemption breweries, those three recipes were scaled up, and released into the market at the end of last year.
“The reason why we’re just making three beers now is because we wanted to go out into and test the market, and get our name out there,” Gianni explains. “We have other recipes already done; I work on recipes all the time on my homebrew kit. We want to put out a Black IPA and a session IPA in a few months, then we want to start to do sours as well.”
At present, Brewheadz range is made up of Electrobeat, a 5.4 per cent American pale ale that Gianni describes as a “low bitterness, juicy and hop-forward beer that is easy to drink”, Fired Up Donkey, an aggressive 6.6 per cent rye IPA, and Kitchen Porter, a 5.2 per cent chocolate porter.
“Porter is a classic London style, and we wanted to pay tribute to that,” Gianni says, “the reason it is called Kitchen Porter is because when we started out all of us used to work in some kitchen or another!”
Despite being taken with the culture and history of British brewing, Brewheadz remain firmly proud of their Italian heritage. On the day of our visit, the four friends are excitedly opening a care-package sent by Gianni and Stefano’s parents, and insist we try the Grappin and Olives produced on their farm back home. The brewery also plans to pay tribute to their roots by producing a beer using ingredients sourced entirely from Italy in the near future.
Set up alongside such esteemed company as Beavertown and One Mile End in Tottenham, it would be easy for Brewheadz to feel daunted. However, their neighbours have been nothing but helpful, according to Gianni. “We were a bit scared when we first decided to move here,” he says, “but straightaway Simon from One Mile End was really helpful. He talked to a local newspaper saying he was hoping we would open a taproom to attract more people to the area. All of them have said ‘if you need any help, or if you run out of ingredients just let us know’, so it’s been pretty great.”
It can be hard to stand out in the increasingly saturated London beer market, but with their distinctive cartoonish branding and colourful bottles, Brewheadz are hard to miss. “Sometimes people have judged us for being too flashy and colourful,” Gianni admits, “l but I don’t really care to be honest. We wanted to do something different.”
In the short tine they have been open, the brewery have certainly made an impression, appearing at Craft Beer Rising and the London Brewers Market, and hosting numerous tap takeovers at Brewdog bars across London. They’ve also recently opened an on-site taproom. For a brewery that is under six months old, their growth has been astonishing, and after tasting their beers, this doesn’t come as a surprise in the slightest.
*This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*
Around 90 per cent of all Belgian hops are grown in the hop fields of Poperinge, a quaint municipality in the province of West Flanders. The surrounding countryside contains over 275 hectares dedicated to the growth of Humulus Lupulus plants, stretching ever-higher towards the skyline.
The region's association with the famous plant goes back as far as the 14th Century, when the Count of Flanders ordered the region to stop production of cloth due to persistent disagreements with the nearby town of Ypres. Until the mid 20th century, schools in the area started later than in the rest of Belgium, so that children could help their families to pick the year's harvest. The region's Hop Museum describes the plants as part of "the very soul of Poperinge", and with the exception of the Yakima Valley in Washington state, it is hard to think of a region whose identity is so closely intertwined with the bitter, green cones that are so essential to the brewing process.
It comes as some surprise, therefore, to hear Joris Cambie, hop-grower at the biological Brouwerij De Plukker, declare that no beer from his brewery leaves the site until eight weeks after the start of the production process. "Good beer takes time," he says, "and it is important that we allow our product the time to mature before we release it."
Living in the UK and constantly being told how important it is to drink hoppy beers as quickly as possible, this assertion comes as something of a shock. Even more shocking is when the first beer Joris hands over to sample is a six month old bottle of the brewery's Green Hop beer. "This beer was bottled in late September, so maybe it is a little bit on the way down now in terms of the quality, but I think you will agree that it still a very tasty beer," he says. Admittedly, the hop aromas have faded, giving way to a slight whiff of damp cardboard, but the taste is mellow, less aggressive and actually still extremely pleasant. The fact that Joris was prepared to use a six month old beer to showcase his brewery speaks volumes about the attitude Belgians have towards drinking fresh.
It's not just De Plukker who are extolling the virtues of patience when it comes to drinking hoppy beer. A short drive away at Brouwerij Het Sas, a family-owned set-up which dates back eleven generations, beers are matured for around a month before being released to the public. On our visit, Karel Leroy, project manager for Leroy Breweries, (which manages both Het Sas and nearby Brouwerij Van Eecke) is more concerned about ensuring that all of the brewery's bottles are clean and uncontaminated than he is about whether or not the beer is fresh when it is drunk. The brewery currently produces 25,000 hectolitres of beer, two-thirds of which is exported, and their flagship 7.5 per cent Poperings Hommelbier (made using entirely hops from the region) is as drinkable and delicious as anything currently being produced in the UK.
Over in Oostvleteren, trendy new kids on the block De Struise Brouwers are fast developing a reputation as one of the rising stars of Belgian brewing. Surely these semi-celebrity, rock-star brewers have embraced the concept of super-hoppy, fresh-as-nails West-Coast IPAs? Except they haven't. The brewery's flagship beer, Pannepot, is a 10 per cent dark Belgian ale, 2011 vintage's of which are still readily available in the region. On the day of our visit, the taproom line up is dominated by dark, barrel aged beers such as Zombination, a 17 per cent imperial stout, and Rio Reserva, a 10.5 per cent dark ale aged in wine and bourbon barrels for over four years.
The brewery currently owns between 500 and 600 barrels of different origins including sweet wine, port and whisky, each of which contains a few litres of the liquid still absorbed into the wood. "If you simply add alcohol to a beer it will ruin the flavours," explains Carlo Grootaert, a former wine maker who helped start De Struisse back in 2001, "but by allowing it to mature and letting the alcohol from the barrels soak into the beer slowly over a long period of time, the flavours are preserved and enhanced." De Struisse have also recently begun ice-distilling their beers with the use of a custom-built Eisbock machine, sending the ABV rocketing up as high as 39 per cent in some cases.
Admittedly, there are lots of breweries in the UK producing excellent barrel aged beers with long shelf lives that are not designed to be drunk fresh. However, there has been an undeniable surge in the number of breweries producing hop-forward pales and IPAs and demanding that consumers throw them down their gullets the instant they are released. There are also a considerable number of breweries churning out new releases every few weeks, whizzing beers through the production process in order to free up fermentation space and keep cashflows at a maximum, and not giving the beer adequate time to ferment and mature as a result.
In an age of Drink Fresh/Born to Die double IPAs, we've been conditioned to believe that the longer a beer is left after bottling or canning, the more it will deteriorate. In many cases, these beers will be perfectly palpable long after their 'best before' has expired. But of course, 'drink whenever you feel like it' doesn't quite have the same ring to it, and won't keep consumers rushing back, wallets in hand, determined to have the latest 'hype' release. It is true, generally speaking, that hop-forward beers tend to taste best in the first six to eight weeks after they have been released, but only if the beer has been properly conditioned and not dry-hopped to oblivion during fermentation. In many cases, these beers will actually need at least six weeks after bottling to round off the aggressive hop flavours contained within them, and rushing to consume them before then will probably leave you disappointed.
In our desire to consume, check-in and tweet about the latest must-have IPA, we appear to have forgotten that the entire reason the style came into being was due to the power of the hop flower as a preservative, allowing beers to survive the long journey across the sea to British colonies. I'm not suggesting that we start ageing our New England IPAs and session pales, but some inspiration from our Flemish neighbours may be required if we are to shake the idea that a beer isn't worth drinking once everybody else has Instagrammed it already.
*Full disclosure*: This article was written after a trip to Flanders that was paid for by Visit Flanders, Visit Poperinge and the Ypres Tourist Office.