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In the age of hyperbole and knee-jerk social media reactions, the word 'legend' is thrown around an awful lot. However, very occasionally, such high praise is justified. In the beer world, it is hard to find a word to better describe Roger Protz; globe trotting writer and Good Beer Guide Editor. Protz has edited a mammoth 24 editions of CAMRA's flagship publication since first joining the organisation in 1976, not to mention authoring more than 20 books of his own inspiring a whole generation of beer writers.
Following the news that the 2018 edition of the Good Beer Guide will be his last, we sat down with Protz to discuss the state of the industry in which he has blazed a trail few others can possibly come close to imitating.
James Beeson (JB): Hi Roger, thanks for agreeing to meet me. You've just released your new book, IPA. Tell me, why did you chose to write about the style, and why did you chose now to write about it?
Roger Protz (RP): Because its become the most popular beer style in the world. It’s quite amazing really. By the start of the First World War the style was virtually dead. The Germans and the Americans drove IPA out of the colonies with lager beer, and then during the War because of duty IPA went from 7% down to about 3.6% which is a bit of a joke really. It virtually disappeared, but then as part of the world beer revolution, particularly in the states we discovered IPA again. It just took off and its now the most popular beer style amongst craft brewers all over the world
JB: Why do you think the style has had such incredible longevity?
RP: Colour and hops. People want really hoppy bitter beers now and IPA really fits the bill. The original IPAS were very, very hoppy because hops keep bacteria out of beer. They loaded the beer with hops, and that really fits the bill today. A lot of American brewers are now also producing session IPAs which are not as hoppy. Some of these really hoppy beers you can’t drink lots of them, and of course beer is all about being a sessionable drink.
JB: Of course. You've been writing about beer for a very long time now. Is this the most exciting time the industry has ever witnessed?
RP: Oh absolutely. Next week we are launching the new Good Beer Guide; it’s the 45th edition – I’ve done 24 of them, it’s my last one. I’m standing down. The early good beer guides had very few breweries - there were 105 in the first edition, there are now 1,700 in the UK. Everyone was brewing mild and bitter and nothing else. Now you look at the choice available and the change has been unbelievable.
JB: Is there any one brewery or trend that you think is behind the surge in popularity we have seen?
RP: I think of breweries in this country, obviously Brewdog - although I don't have a very good relationship with them - have been very influential. Also breweries like Thornbridge, The Kernel in London - there are so many. People are brewing beer with great passion and commitment, and as well as there being a lot of new styles out there, there are also breweries going back into old recipe books and looking at ageing beer in unbelievable things. I went down to Siren a couple of months ago and had to edge my way in between all these great big wooden barrels.
The other big influence has been from Belgium. Belgian beers have had a tremendous impact in the UK scene.Obviously they don't really brew IPAs, they're more famous for their Trappist beers, but Saison is becoming very popular as a style over here now too.
JB: But it's not all rosy is it? Breweries and also pubs still face a lot of threats to survival in the 21st Century. What are the main threats as you see them?
RP: Pubs are having a really tough time aren't they? It's a real worry that there are still 20 a week closing, not helped by the Government jacking up business rates. I live in St Albans where there are 50 pubs, but there is a real worry about how many of them will be forced to close because of the incredibly high business rates.
JB: It seems traditional pubs are are being affected by business rates the most. Why do you think that is?
RP: I'm not certain the Government has set out to penalise traditional pubs, but it is interesting that the pubs in the city centre have seen rates going up, whereas Sainsburys - just outside St Albans on a greenfield site - has had their rates cut. If you're not in the city centre you've got no worries, but if you are your rates go up. It's very, very unfair because pubs are the heart and soul of communities; you can't have pubs on greenfield sites because nobody would go to them.
JB: Do you think that we are seeing a change in the way in which people are consuming alcohol? Pubs continue to struggle but brewery taps and pop up bars are thriving.
RP: Yes I think we are seeing a change in that respect. I went down to Faversham on Sunday and the streets were packed out with people drinking beer and having a great time, and there were two pop-up pubs in the main street. They're doing a good range of beers and they're a very good value for money.
JB: Do pubs need to do more to diversify their offerings? Part of the problem seems to be that attitudes towards alcohol are changing, and pubs can't get away with just being a place for the working-class man to have a drink or three on a weeknight anymore...
RP: Yes, you're absolutely right, except I would say that the decline of wet led pubs is very sad. Not everybody wants to go into a pub to eat. I was in Wolverhampton a few weeks ago and had half an hour to wait for a train, so I went to a Green King pub and every table was set out for dining. It was 3pm so it wasn't that busy, but I would have felt uncomfortable at 1pm if I wasn't eating. All I wanted was a pint. There must be a place for people to just go and have a pint of beer after work.
On the other hand yes I think pubs need to diversify. So many pubs are doing their own mini-beer festivals, they're doing meet the brewer evenings and food and beer matchings which I think is very very important. All too often people go out and have a bottle of wine with what they are eating when beer might be a better match for their food.
JB: I went to an event run by the brewers at Sagar & Wilde in London last month and it was all about how to match beers with food, so I think there is some evidence that pubs and bars are adapting. Apart from business rates, what are the other major threats facing the industry?
RP: A lot of the problem is duty. With the exception of Finland we are the most heavily taxed beer country in the EU. We pay an extraordinary amount of tax on beer, not just duty but VAT and other taxes. I go to Belgium a lot and the prices are nothing like the prices here because the duty is so much lower. In Italy they don't bother to collect the tax, they just let the mafia do that for them!
We are penalised in this country by tax and that is the major problem. We had the duty escalator under Labour which Osborne eventually, under pressure, stopped, but then Hammond brought it back by the backdoor in his last budget. He said he wasn't but then you found out he had!
The other factor is unfair competition from Supermarkets. particularly now with the weather still being so warm you can go into a supermarket and see great slabs of Stella and its £1 a bottle; the same price as a bottle of water! If you go into a pub you pay what, about £4.50 for a pint?
JB: Let's talk about cask beer. You've long been an advocate of the merits of cask conditioned ale; do you think that it is too cheap as a product? Shouldn't people be prepared to pay a premium for a product that takes a lot more care and attention than keg?
RP: I think cask beer should be special. Cask beer is the wine of the country. No other country in the world produces cask conditioned beer like we do; its a unique thing and we should cherish and make more of it. I think people should be prepared to pay a premium for it. Having said that, what do you define as a premium? I was in The Rake on Tuesday and I had a pint of Moor Hoppiness that was about £7 a pint!
In this country we are not very imaginative when it comes to glassware, its either a pint of a half, whereas you go to Belgium and every beer has its own glass. We should encourage people to drink less and drink better.
JB: I certainly wouldn't disagree. You're someone who has had a long and very fruitful relationship with CAMRA - Do you think the organisation is as relevant as it has ever been, and if not, what does it need to do to remain relevant?
RP: Yes, absolutely I do think they are as relevant as they have ever been. I think people misunderstand CAMRA as an organisation. I mentioned going to the hop festival in Faversham, there was a CAMRA stand there with beers from local breweries. They were there for two days, run totally by volunteers who gave up their weekend to do that. I think people don't understand just how hard CAMRA members work to promote beer. It's an incredibly demanding job done by people who get no money from it. Nobody pays them to do it.
The critics of CAMRA don't understand that without CAMRA people like BrewDog wouldn't exist because there wouldn't be a market for it. Without CAMRA we'd all be drinking lager and keg beer and nothing else.
JB: But do they need to modernise at all?
RP: Yes, and I have said within CAMRA - and as I am standing down now from the Good Beer Guide I can say it publicly - that I think they have to embrace modern keg beers because I think they are very good. Too many CAMRA members think there are two types of CO2; good and bad. No, there's only one type of CO2. I went to several of the revitalisation meetings and I made the point that last year I went to Beavertown brewery in Tottenham and i thought their Bloody 'Ell beer is one of the nicest beers I've drunk for a very long time.
Unless CAMRA can attract younger people it will gradually lose its core. Next year's annual conference will decide whether we are going to embrace other types of beer. The threat to good beer is not craft keg, it is factory beer; Stella, Budweiser and Coors light and the companies that own them who are now starting to muscle into the craft market.
JB: Do you think that is a serious concern; that big beer will attempt to swallow craft whole?
RP: There's enough quality around but my worry is that the big lager brands will continue move in on the craft sector, and my concern is that the beers change when they are taken over by big breweries. It's all about cutting costs and using cheaper ingredients.
JB: Some breweries that have sold out make the argument that the extra investment and expertise from their parent companies will help improve the quality and consistency of their beer. What would you say to that?
RP: I don't buy that argument at all. I had a friendly discussion with AB InBev a few weeks ago because I said on my website that Goose Island IPA, a beer I've known since its inception in Chicago many years ago, is not the beer it used to be. They said they hadn't changed the recipe and I said 'Yes you have, because when it was family owned it had Saaz hops from the Czech republic.' ABI won't use ingredients from The Czech Republic anymore because of the dispute they have over Budvar.
The beer has changed, the recipe has changed and the yeast has changed as well. I spoke to a member of the brewing staff and he told me they had changed the yeast because of the different sized fermenters they now use. Yeast makes a huge difference to the taste of the beer. It's still not a bad beer, but it was the best IPA in the states for many many years.
JB: Can you ever understand the rationale of a brewer that decides to sell out?
RP: Of course! If I'd founded Meantime, and I know Alastair Hook very well, and had worked as hard as he has for nearly 20 years and then someone like SAB Miller said here's £120million... What would you do?
JB: I think I'd probably take the money and run as fast as I could! Thanks Roger, that's all the questions I have for you; would you like another beer?
RP: That would be lovely, thank you.
A version of this story originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser website.
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
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*
Situated under a cramped railway arch in Southwark, Anspach & Hobday doesn’t look much like the location of a brewery currently selling beer to Italy, Belgium and across the UK. In just over three years, owners Paul Anspach and Jack Hobday have transformed themselves from aspiring homebrewers to the owners of a brewery with the potential to produce up to 1,100 litres of beer. Ahead of their third birthday in March, I meet up with Jack to find out the story behind their success, and discuss their plans for the future. When I arrive, Jack is rushing around setting up the brewery’s taproom, which opens every weekend to let punters drink on-site, but immediately drops everything to greet me with a welcoming smile and offers me a beer.
It’s only just past midday, but it feels rude to refuse. “I’d recommend the Gose,” he says, pouring me a small sample, “It’s only 3.9 per cent and very refreshing.” As I take a sip, I’m inclined to agree with him. I reach for my wallet, but he generously dismisses my money with a wave of his hand.
“I’ve known Paul since I was four,” Jack recalls with a smile, “we both studied at university in London and lived together. My background was in Psychology and he studied Philosophy at Kings. I wasn’t always into my beer - I used to be your typical mass produced lager drinker - It was my lecturer who first suggested that we tried home-brewing to save some money.”
As it turned out, Jack and Paul’s homebrews were pretty good. After receiving some positive feedback from Oz Clarke – a famous drinks writer and TV presenter – they decided to put what little money they had together (£150 each) and enter their porter into the International Beer Challenge, a competition designed for professional breweries. The beer won a silver medal.
“I’ve always been really ambitious,” Jack says. “Anyone who is brewing has got to be aspiring to produce the best beer that they can.” He now predominantly takes care of the business side of the brewery, preferring to let Paul and the other staff produce the beers.
As we chat, he occasionally breaks away to serve customers at the bar, offering tasters and talking enthusiastically about the beer. Eager to share his creations, he insists I take a bottle of their porter home with me. “It was such an important part of our history and our journey as a brewery,” he says fondly, “so I’d love to know what you think.”
After raising the funds to buy a 100 litre brewkit via KickStarter, Jack and Paul set up Anspach & Hobday in Bermondsey, just a stone’s throw from the Shard. “I remember watching it being built when I was homebrewing and thinking I want to get our beer in there,” Jack recalls. The Gong bar at the top of the building now stocks Anspach & Hobday’s IPA and Porter, and has just taken on their Sour to use in one of their cocktails. “We knocked Guinness out to get that account,” he tells me, almost bursting with pride.
Of course, Jack’s isn’t the only brewery in close proximity to the famous skyscraper. Anspach & Hobday forms a key component of the now infamous ‘Bermondsey Beer Mile,’ with Brew By Numbers, Fourpure, The Kernel, Partizan and Southwark Brewery all opening their doors on a Saturday to let punters taste their beer at its freshest.
“I think it’s been absolutely fundamental to our success,” he says of the brewery’s location. “I remember thinking I’m not sure this is a good idea being so close to the others - maybe the competition would be too great - but it’s meant that the best beer critics have tried our stuff, when if we were in an industrial estate or out in the countryside it would have been very difficult to get the same type of exposure.”
“Our vision was to create a Cathedral to beer in London. This taproom is the beer chapel - it’s only tiny but it’s allowed us to do exactly what we said we were going to do and the results have been fantastic.”
The brewery now employs five permanent members of staff, and has expanded their capacity eleven-fold from its initial 100 litre kit, installing new fermentors in June of last year to take enable them to produce up to 1,100 litres. "We’ve grown it quite organically," Jack tells me, "almost everyone who has worked with or for us has at some point volunteered and given an awful lot to help create the jobs we now enjoy."
"The team is really important. Everyone really cares about the business, whether its Dylan and Dan in production or Patrick in sales or even just staff on the bar – they all know and love their beer. I think that Hunter Thompson quote really sums it up for me: ‘Good people drink good beer’ - they really really do."
With the brewery’s third birthday in just a few weeks time, Jack is pleased to inform me that they have re-brewed their Three Threads beer for the occasion. Based on a traditional brewing method of three consecutive mashes of the same grain (treating it a bit like a re-used teabag) , The Three Threads is produced from the three worts of different gravities that come together for fermentation, and is thought to have inspired the birth of the porter (although this claim has been disputed by some beer historians).
“Unlike our standard porter the Three Threads is much more toasty,” he tells me. “We use a lot more amber malt as opposed to the standard porter which uses the mordern method of predominantly pale malt with the addition of some dark malt.” The beer will be available from the brewery in large 750ml bottles in March.
Moving outside of his own brewery, what trends does Jack think we are likely to see in the year ahead? "I think it might be a year where traditional styles become more in vogue," he says. "I think they are an important part of British heritage, and I hope to see styles like the best bitter getting a bit more recognition. I also think we're likely to see further focus on sours."
On the subject of intentionally hazy, murky beer, a topic of much debate in the industry in recent months, Jack doesn't have a strong view either way. "I think there’s a few breweries that are producing some pretty hazy beer and have done for a while," he says, "so why its suddenly popular I don’t know.
"I think that is a fad and that will come and go. What it comes down to is whether it’s a nice beer to drink or not, not how you’re dressing it up. I kind of believe the best beers will out."
Looking to the future, Jack hopes the brewery will be able to retain their Bermondsey site, but accept this may be difficult due to rising rents. “This site might end up being more like a brewpub than a brewery,” he admits, “but we’ll adapt to the challenge.
"These railway arches are a great outcrop of industrial heritage that goes right into the centre of London. Years ago this area used to be known as the larder of London and that’s kind of come around again – you've got Neil’s Yard Dairy just a few doors down, and Maltby Street food market just around the corner.
"I think it would be really nice if we could keep this site and remain here for a long time.”
As I wander back up towards the looming figure of the Shard, stuffed full of incredible food from Maltby Street Food market and slightly woozy after an afternoon of drinking, I can't help but echo Jack's thoughts. Bermondsey is a special place for beer and food right now, and if I were Anspach & Hobday, I'd be staying firmly put.
*Full Disclaimer* Jack kindly allowed me to try some of Anspach & Hobday's beers at the brewery taproom on the day of my visit, and gave me a bottle of their Porter and Pfeffernusse Saison to take away.*
“A very happy accident.” – That’s how Mark Tranter, a former fine art student with a penchant for punk rock and tattoos, describes getting into the beer industry. Twenty years on, the former Dark Star head brewer is the proud owner of his very own successful brewery, Burning Sky, and he has some exciting news to share. We’re sat in the cellar of Fuggles Beer Café, where eleven of the Sussex brewery’s beers are pouring from the taps and down the gullets of a considerable number of the Tunbridge Wells pub’s clientele. “We’ve got some quite interesting stuff going on at the moment,” Mark says coyly, “We’ll be releasing a batch of Flanders Red that has been ageing since 2014. We’ve also got some Table Saison in Chardonnay barrels, and we’ve resurrected and revamped our Devil’s Rest IPA.”
“When’s this piece going out again?” He asks, pausing as if weighing up a decision in his head, “Oh, and we’re installing a coolship in Janaury.” Exhaling deeply, he leans back in the rickety wooden chair on which he is sitting. “That’s the first time I’ve told anyone that.”
Make no mistake; this is huge news. The excitement on Alex's (the owner of Fuggles) face is palpable. After keeping quiet and behaving himself throughout the majority of the chat, he is unable to resist interjecting. “Really? That’s batshit exciting!” he squeals. “We’re trying to keep it relatively in the background for now until its set up,” Mark replies, “so don’t start tweeting about it!”
The installation, thought to be the first in the UK since at least the 1930's, will allow Burning Sky to create beer fermented with wild yeast from the South Downs. This naturally occurring yeast will be let into the brewery and allowed to mix with strains cultivated in their own oak barrels, which Mark intends to break up and hang over his coolship.
“We will hopefully be doing wild fermentations that will be reliant on a variety of barrel cultures that we have,” Mark confirms, “and the way we’re going to get those in is… well, you’ll have to come and see it when its done!”
Up until the middle of the 20th Century, many British breweries used large, shallow metal trays called coolers to reduce the temperature of their wort ahead of fermentation. However, as new methods of cooling were introduced and the importance of having a sterile brewing environment was realised, coolers dropped out of use and are rarely used in modern brewing. Elgoods brewery in Cambridgeshire are the only other British brewery to use them, but theirs are older models, put back into action in 2013. For traditional Belgian producers such as Cantillon and Lindemans, however, coolships are an essential part of the production of the beer style known as lambic.
Their wide surface area provides the perfect environment for spontaneous fermentation by wild yeast strains in the air to take place, and this, mingled with natural bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces in wooden barrels after fermentation, creates a distinctive sour taste when aged. One to three year-old lambics are often blended to create complex and highly sought-after Gueuze, something Burning Sky will soon be able to create in rural Sussex (although legally it cannot be referred to as such).
Although reluctant to compare Burning Sky’s new venture to the work done by Cantillon, Mark acknowledges that Belgian brewing traditions have influenced his brewery in a big way. “Obviously we produce a lot of pale ales and hop forward beers as well,” he admits, “but they’re the kind of ones that pay the bills upfront. But the barrel-aged stuff is something I’d wanted to get into doing for quite a number of years.”
He cites Saison A La Provision, a 6.5 per cent farmhouse ale aged in oak foudres for three months, as the beer he is most proud of creating. “It proved that I could,” he says emphatically. “We had no actual physical hands-on knowledge of working with wild yeasts, but we created something that I’m just dead proud of.
“I love the way it tastes and I love the way it’s changing as the foudres get older and the yeast strains are evolving. ”
Of course, Mark hasn’t always been brewing barrel aged saisons and experimenting with wild yeast inoculations. Growing up in the West Country, he would pass the time drinking real ales with his parents and friends in local pubs. “I was surrounded by beer from quite an early age,” he admits, “My mum and dad both homebrewed and as a family we tended to go to the pub a lot… I guess its always been there, for as long as I can remember.”
After leaving Bradford-upon Avon, Mark’s days at college were mostly spent homebrewing, a skill that came in handy when he moved to Brighton after graduating: “I was working as a chef whilst running a record label and drinking in a pub called The Evening Star, which had a tiny brewery in the cellar.”
This brewery was of course, Dark Star. In 1996, on the back of his homebrewing exploits, brewer Rob Jones offered Mark a job. “It was just a pub brewery at the time,” Mark recalls, “and we didn’t really make very much beer at all – a few hundred litres a week. Beer was not popular at all, or at least it wasn’t trendy back then.”
Nonetheless, the brewery soon took off, and Rob and Mark quickly found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for their beers. In 2001 they relocated to a new purpose-built brewery in Ansty, where Mark took on the role of head brewer. It is this time at Dark Star that Mark recalls most fondly: “I remember when Rob and I moved the brewery out, brewing Hophead (the brewery’s 3.8 per cent pale ale) with him and then drinking it with him two weeks later. It was just fantastic.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the industry was beginning to catch on to what Dark Star were doing. “There was no real one event or brewery that really made it take off,” Mark says, “people just started to pick up on certain flavours… and then with the internet becoming widely available, suddenly there was all this information out there, and breweries like Thornbridge and Brewdog started springing up and it really started to take off.”
Eventually, after 17 years at Dark Star, Mark decided it was time to do his own thing. According to rumours at the time, he became fed up with brewing the same recipes and, feeling constrained by the commercial side of the brewery, he handed in his notice and left in 2013. I ask him if this is an accurate description of what happened.
“That sounds harsher than how is actually was,” he responds diplomatically, “I was really proud of what we achieved at Dark Star and really proud to be a part of it. It wasn’t because I was bored so much as I was too comfortable - and getting a bit too fat!”
It was a desire to experiment and create something totally different that eventually forced Mark’s hand. “Dark Star wasn’t the place where I was going to be able to do the kind of things I wanted to do because it would conflict with that company’s approach to brewing,” he laments. Despite this, he and Rob – who ironically left the brewery six months later – still have a good relationship. “Rob was my mate. Yeah, he employed me but we were friends and still are.”
After leaving Dark Star behind, starting up his own brewery seemed like the only option. “I’d never thought about doing my own brewery at all. It’s actually quite a scary thing,” he admits, “I don’t own a house, I don’t own a car, but I own a brewery! Every single penny that I got out of 17 years of working went into setting up this brewery.
“It could have fallen flat on its face, but if it did it would have been better for that to have happened than to have never even tried.”
As it so happens, Burning Sky has been a huge success, reflected in the number of people who have swamped to Fuggles to try their full range of Belgian-inspired beers, including the first pour of their brand new 8.5 per cent Imperial Stout. The brewery was voted Brewer of the Year 2014 by the British Guild Of Beer Writers and was rated the 4th Best New Brewery in the World in 2014-15 on ratebeer.com. They now produce up to 7500-10,000 litres of beer a week, and are currently installing a new barn for barrel ageing, where their new coolship will also be housed.
In light of this success, is Mark concerned that he may soon find himself constrained by the same limitations that led him to leave Dark Star in the first place? “Not really, no,” he replies, “it’s true that the types of beer’s we’re making are relatively fashionable at the moment, but I’m a firm believer that if you do something to the best of your ability and you really believe in it, then other people will eventually follow. So my view is just to do the things and make the beers that I love and not be swayed by market trends.
“At the end of the day I’m a stubborn punk rocker who just wants to do his thing and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else.
“Actually that’s not true,” he adds, “I do give a shit about a lot of people, but I don’t give a shit about being told what we can and can’t do. We do what we want to do, and thankfully other people like it as well.”
Given this stubborn approach, its unsurprising that Mark doesn’t have a lot of time for the whole controversy that surrounds keg vs. cask beer in the UK. “Ten years ago, twenty years ago, today. My answer is the same: Good beer is good beer. It doesn’t make any difference,” he says, “there are certain beer styles that would be wrong in cask and there are certain beer styles that would be wrong in keg… when we approach beers we design them for how they’re going to be dispensed.”
Another debate he’s not keen on being drawn into relates to the current bitterness being expressed by certain breweries in response to the amount of investment and attention the likes of Cloudwater and Lost & Grounded have received. “When people talk about investment and where the money comes from I don’t really care. I don’t think it’s any of my business, and I don’t think it’s the business of anybody else’s.”
Nonetheless, he’s keen to stress that investment isn’t always an indicator of success. “Look at what Kernel produced their first beers on! It was essentially like a shiny dustbin,” he points out, “regardless of investment you’ve got to have good beers, good recipes and good brewers in place.”
“Sure, if people have got a million pounds to put into a brewery they’re going to have money to put into marketing. But there’s room for everyone I think.”
As we finish our conversation and head back upstairs to enjoy some more beers in the slightly warmer and vibrant surroundings of the pub, I’m left in no doubt that Mark, Burning Sky and their new coolship won’t be being squeezed out of the market anytime soon.
Enjoyed this article? Why not try "In conversation with... Robin Wright, Co-Founder of Pig & Porter Brewing Co."?
“I like it because I can drink several pints of it and not fall over on the way home,” laughs Alex Grieg, as he takes the first sip of Kent session pale from a jug. We’re sat on a pair of slightly tired looking red sofas in the back-end of Fuggles Beer Café, the artisan pub-come-bar owned and run by Alex in Tunbridge Wells. Approaching it’s third birthday in November, Fuggles has become one of the most popular haunts in the town, as well as gaining a reputation for having the most varied and exciting beer selection in the South-East outside of London. The pub now boasts over a hundred beers on tap and in bottles and can rightly claim to be at the very forefront of the craft beer movement. I sat down with Alex to ask him about exactly why he thinks Fuggles has been so successful, and what he has in store for the future. Alex’s story is similar to that of many within the beer industry, having worked in the trade for over twelve years. Starting out working in an off license at the age of eighteen, before moving up through the ranks of Pitcher & Piano, Indian Pale Ale wasn’t a term he had even heard of in his twenties. “I was a lager drinker like most of us probably were – Kroenenbourg was my tipple of choice at the time,” he tells me, “but then, when I was working in Chester, I had my first craft beer – a Brooklyn lager.” However, it wasn’t until the second beer; Goose Island Honkers, an English style bitter that Alex was truly converted to the cause; “I’d never tried anything like it; it was well hopped, it was well balanced. It was fantastic at the time.” Enthused, Alex left Pitcher & Piano, came back home to Tunbridge Wells and took a job in a pub called The Wells Kitchen: “that’s where the craft beer thing really started for me.”
Now a passionate advocate about the merits of good beer, Alex needed an outlet. Working at St. John’s Yard, he began to plot an escape. “I’d worked with some not particularly nice people (although not at St. John's Yard) and it got to the point where it was getting me down and I wasn’t happy,” he says, “so I had to do something for myself.” That something, as it turns out, was Fuggles. With £40,000 scrapped together – half from his Mother and Grandmother, half from a Government backed loan, Alex rented a run-down shoe-shop in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, and turned it into a “fairly threadbare” beer café, opening its doors to the public in November 2013.
Fuggles was an instant hit. Initially serving four cask ales, ten keg beers and a number of bottles from Belgium and the UK, the pub enjoyed a huge level of success within the local community and was soon expanding to serve a range of spirits and whiskies. The pub now boasts over forty different gins, and a similar number of whiskies, something which Alex tells me was a hugely important factor in the success of the business: “It (the gin) was something at the time which was really growing and I could see that it was a really great add-on to what we already did,” he notes. “As a bar, as a pub overall, it meant we appealed to more people that improved the atmosphere and everything else we were doing, I think.”
As we chat, I order a cheese and ale toastie from the food menu. Made with local farmhouse cheddar and Belgian Westmalle ale, as well as four types of leek and onion, the sandwiches are freshly prepared each morning, and are served alongside a range of cheese and charcuterie boards as the main food offerings in the pub. “All we wanted to do was something that was simple to prepare, tasted good, easy to put on a plate and went really well with the products we were selling,” Alex admits, “it was as simple as that. We never had room for a kitchen, so we had to keep it small.” Nonetheless, he takes does pride in giving a platform to local businesses, with many of the products sold coming from the surrounding areas in Kent. “Local provenance and local products are vital to what we do. We’ve got some fantastic breweries and some fantastic food producers within thirty miles or so of us – that’s amazing, we’re so lucky. It’s not our sole focus, but it’s lovely to have local products and to know where it comes from, and it’s nice to know and support the guys that make it, who are only round the corner.”
Of course, the main focus of Fuggles, is, and always will be beer. Naming the pub after a local hop was a obvious way of ensuring the pub and its bartenders never forget their original purpose, but watching the staff at work, it’s evident that probably won’t ever be an issue. “I’m adamant that staff know what they’re selling and how it tastes and how to sell that to a customer,” Alex says. Now in his early thirties, sporting a receding hairline and an obligatory bushy beard, he very much fits the bill of a craft beer pub owner. Watching the (predominately also bearded) barstaff chat with customers and recommend styles based on their preferences, it’s immediately evident that Alex invests a lot of time in training his staff. “A lot of the time the customers come to the bar and they’ll ask for a beer and they’re not sure want they want,” he explains. “They’ll ask for something light and hoppy for example and we need to be able to interpret that as bartenders and know what they mean by it. It’s largely to enhance the customer experience and service; we have to be able to offer customers the right product.”
On the particular day of my visit, Alex and his staff are busy preparing the bar for that evening’s event; a tap takeover with ten beers from Buxton Brewery. A brewery at the very vanguard of the beer movement in the UK, Alex is excited for his punters to try their new Belgian range. “One of the reasons we really wanted to get them down is that we specialise in Belgian beer and Buxton have just completed their range of Belgian inspired beers. We felt it was the perfect time to get them down to really showcase what they were doing with the influence they’ve had from Belgium alongside their core range and specials.” Amongst the beers available to try from the Derbyshire brewery are their Belgian Tripel and new Double IPA, Kingmaker. “Buxton are without a doubt up there in terms of UK breweries in general. They’re up there in the top ten quite happily sitting alongside Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Dark Star, Beavertown, Arbor, Kernel, Burning Sky etc,” Alex enthuses. “Its nice to give our core beer drinkers something to showcase a brewery that we really respect and really like.”
Alex explains the main reason he initially decided to feature Belgian beers in Fuggles came after being inspired by numerous visits to the country. “There’s almost a theatre around the way the Belgians serve their beer,” he says, “you get the correct glassware, the way the beer is poured and the effort that goes into it. Also the flavours and drinkability of some of the stronger beers just blew my mind and I really wanted to showcase that.” There certainly does seem to be an almost Belgian-feel to the bar, with its dimmed lighting and rustic, cobbled together furniture. A number of signs from various breweries adorn the walls, and dotted on each table is a candle in an independently brewed spirit bottle. Nonetheless, Alex is determined that the focus on Belgian and British beers does not limit Fuggles’ range, and has recently expanded to include beers from breweries such as De Molen and Kees brewery in Holland.
Part of the reason behind Fuggles’ immense success has been down to the pub’s ability to create a brand for itself, with the beer café now stocking T-shirts, bar-blades and growlers, enabling drinkers to take home up to two litres of their favourite draft beer with a twenty-five per cent discount. “When you open up a business like Fuggles you’re effectively creating a high street brand,” Alex states, “and you have to get your name out there and get people talking about your business; it’s free advertising basically!” Refusing to compare the Fuggles brand to that of high-intensity and outlandish breweries such as Brewdog, who have made a name for themselves through their ‘punk ethos’ as much as through their beer, he prefers to label his own strategy as more of “a slow cooking form of viral marketing.”
Despite being a huge success both financially and with local punters, Fuggles hasn’t always quite found favour with some more traditional beer drinkers, finishing runner up two years in a row in West Kent CAMRA’s pub of the year awards, despite Alex’s frankly obsessive nature when it comes to the condition of his cask ale (as we speak he tests his pint with a thermometer before declaring irritably that it is “just the wrong side of twelve degrees” before sending a co-worker down to the cellar to investigate.) “We’ve had a lot of really good press, we keep coming runner up in various things,” he acknowledges, “which obviously its nice but I’d love to win at some point – West Kent CAMRA if you’re listening, seriously, come on!”
On the topic of CAMRA’s future, a topic that has been the subject of much debate within the beer community in recent weeks, Alex has mixed feelings. He is unequivocally an advocate of promoting cask beer, “I think what’s fantastic about cask is that it’s a uniquely British product – there’s nobody else really doing it - I think it’s an underrated art form,” but questions the policy which has seen the organisation promote badly-conditioned beers on cask over more reliable keg beers. “I wish they (CAMRA) would focus more on cask beer in the marketplace. Generally they’re a good thing for the industry but they’re pushing a product that is so indifferent in so many pubs and that frustrates me," he sighs, "it’s not easy to go up to a Landlord and say: ‘Your beer tastes like shit mate, sort it out.’ but at the same time if the beer is too warm or it tastes like vinegar, I think that as part of the campaign maybe they ought to be mentioning it.” On what he would like to see the organisation do more of in the future, Alex is clear: “I think there’s an educational thing CAMRA could do, it’s members are very knowledgeable and they certainly know how beer should be tasting. That’s what I’d really like to see CAMRA doing – Improving the quality of cask ale.”
Whilst we are on the topic of the future, I enquire as to whether Alex believes the level of growth we have seen in the beer industry is sustainable, and in what direction he thinks the next step ought to be for UK breweries. “I’d like to hope that the industry will keep growing and keep expanding as it has done,” he replies, “and I hope breweries will continue to be more experimental and continue to revive old historical styles of beer.” He does think, however, that there remains room for improvement in terms of the quality of beer being produced by some breweries. “There’s a few breweries out there doing a huge load of new beers and collaborations yet the actual quality of the beer is not great, they’re just trying to get their name out there rather than focusing on making a really good core range and making that really solid and consistent.” Indeed, he warns that unless this standard can be met, some breweries will fall behind. “New breweries are opening left right and centre with a lot of money behind them such as Cloudwater, and the beer has been largely fantastic so far. That’s the benchmark. If you cant keep up with that you’ll struggle to create a long term, viable brewery.”
And what does the future hold for Fuggles? Rumours of expansion have been on the cards for some time now, with the pub having hosted a pop-up bar throughout November last year in Tonbridge Fire-station. “Yes, we’d love to expand,” Alex says coyly, “Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be able to get cracking on Fuggles number two.” On the location of this new bar, he refuses to be drawn, but tells me it will almost certainly be local. In the meantime, however, with more tap-takeovers, a beer club launching and a big refurbishment in the pipeline, the team have more than enough to be getting on with. “It should be enough to keep me busy until Autumn, I hope!” Alex laughs, before excusing himself to prepare for the evening's tap takeover. If I take one thing away from our talk, it’s that Fuggles certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.