Thursday, 01 October 2015 11:15

Brewer focus: Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery

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Runaway Brewery 5

The unglamourous life of the lone brewer is a far cry from the white-collar world of big business.

Slick suits are traded in for workwear speckled with caustic burns. A modern office fashioned from sparkling glass and steel is scrapped in favour of a dingy industrial unit clad in corrugated metal.

And the buzz of a busy office is swapped for the rumbling groan of trains passing overhead.

Given the obvious differences, the route from corporate cog to solitary labourer might not appear to represent an obvious career path but it was exactly this contrast that appealed to Mark Welsby of Runaway Brewery. After 15 years working as a environmental engineer, he had reached breaking point and saw brewing as the perfect escape route.

Joining forces with long-time friend Darren Clayson, he took a huge leap of faith and bought Bespoke Brewing's old five-barrel kit to fit inside an industrial unit beneath a railway arch in Manchester's Green Quarter. Eighteen months later, Runaway has developed a reputation as one of the most reliable new breweries in Manchester.

"Darren had sold his business and I was miserable as sin in my job," says Mark. "We had both spent most of our lives working in corporate environments, which we hated, so we reached a point where we thought 'if we don't do something now, we're going to look back and think we've missed the opportunity'.

"Darren is a beer obsessive and CAMRA member, and I love the whole pub culture so starting a brewery really appealed to us both. The business environment in brewing is also relatively supportive because the industry is very collaborative and there are lots of microbreweries who help each other out. So it was a chance to move from a very competitive, corporate environment to the opposite of that, which was attractive.

"I just find the whole brewing process very satisfying and there's something tangible at the end. I used to do consultancy and there was nothing tangible about that. Actually having a product which you're proud of is a big change for me and it makes your efforts seem much more worthwhile.

"It was a life decision as much as a beer decision. I could say I loved beer so much that I had to open a brewery but it wasn't about that. It was more that I wanted to improve my life.

"I knew I wasn't motivated by money because, in my previous role, the more successful I got, the more miserable I got. Brewing gave us the chance to leave everything we hated about our previous jobs, so we came upon the name Runaway because we were both escaping our past lives."

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Unfortunately, this contrast between old career and new was also the source of Runaway's biggest challenge.

Without any previous brewing experience, the pair faced an incredibly steep learning curve before even being able to put any beer out to the public.

However, by absorbing crucial lessons from more experienced brewers and being careful not to overstretch themselves, they have largely managed to avoid any costly missteps.

"It has been a really big learning process," admits Mark. "Darren still lives down in Northamptonshire so he largely helps me with things like spreadsheets and accounts, while I do the brewing.

"We started out by doing a brew course at York Brewery with David Smith and I was also keen to gain experience by visiting other, well-established brewers in the area.

"I'm really precious about our output and constantly looking at ways I can refine our processes - as much as anything, it's a case of survival. When you're running a small business like this you have to be really careful not to let standards drop.

"People only see our beer on tap maybe once or twice a month, so if that experience isn't a good one then it's game over. The damage to your reputation would be huge, so it's really important to monitor yeast counts and keep tweaking recipes.

"I'm working very hard to ensure quality standards don't drop and so far we've been OK. But, as a result of this, one thing that has taken a back seat is the experimental side of brewing. I'm too focused on honing our quality to start thinking about what new styles we can create."

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This is reflected in a no-frills core range, which could never be considered groundbreaking but, equally, never seems to disappoint.

Year-round regulars comprise a Pale Ale, an IPA, an American Brown and a Smoked Porter, supplemented by a handful of seasonal specials, including a Summer Saison, Märzen Lager, Rye IPA and soon a Double IPA.

The two pales from the core range, in particular, offer persuasive lessons in simplicity - clean, well-balanced and popping with flavours of citrus and tropical fruit, which are vivid but never crude or overpowering.

Aside from concerns over consistency, this approach also hints at an intertwining of tradition and modernity. Runaway's beer is clearly influenced by the recent American craft scene, while also attempting to capture the straightforward drinkability of the old school English session ale.

Mark says, "Flavour and consistency must be in balance. I just want my beer to be better, not necessarily more exciting. We're not doing stupidly exciting beers because we don't want to do styles where there could be a huge variance in quality. But I'm content with that because, although our beer is never going to change the world, I hope it's beer that people will go back to.

"We've had good feedback to suggest a lot of people who wouldn't usually drink ale drink our beer and that's what I see it as. It's gateway beer and I want to appeal to everyone, not just people who sit round sniffing schooners and describing how it made them feel.

"I also don't want to just dive in and do experiments because I don't have the experience. If I plan to do more experimental stuff, the best way to do it would be as a collaboration with someone else where I can learn from them.

"I love sours and gose, for example, but I don't just want to do them because other people are. I'll only do it if we actually have something to add to the categories."

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One area where Runaway shows a clear bias towards a more modern approach is in choice of dispense.

Virtually the brewery's entire output is packaged in keg and bottle, with only the occasional special being produced for cask.

Although this is a practical decision rather than an ideological one, Mark is keen to change attitudes towards keg beer, particularly among long-time real ale drinkers.

A motion was passed at this year's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) annual general meeting, which called for a labelling scheme to identify 'key keg' beer that conforms with CAMRA criteria for real ale. This effectively paved the way for beer stored in key kegs - a one-way container that uses air pressure to dispense the beer without exposing it to extraneous CO2 - to be classified as real ale and Mark believes this is a huge step in the right direction.

"We had to make some very pragmatic decisions at the outset, like deciding not to brew cask ale," adds Mark. "Washing, cleaning, chasing round after casks and the investment needed to get enough casks at the start were things we decided we didn't need to do.

"So we were forced down the keg route. We only use key kegs, which was our compromise position because it allows us to condition in the vessel, but I believe it's as much real ale as real ale.

"I'm not down on CAMRA but I did find the general attitude of some of their members towards breweries producing something that's slightly colder and slightly fizzier difficult to understand.

"It wasn't so much that they didn't recognise it but that, at one point, they seemed to be actively against it, which is a bit much when you consider what I'm doing is virtually the same as what every microbrewery has done for the last 30 years.

"Ultimately, I want as many people as possible to enjoy our beer rather than appealing to just one specific audience - whether that's people who drink craft beer or people who drink real ale. It's all just beer in the end and hopefully we can continue to change a few people's minds."

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Friday, 18 July 2014 09:45

The Alechemist: Rob Lovatt, Thornbridge

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Rob Lovatt Thornbridge Head BrewerIn an industry so often defined by division, Thornbridge is a rare unifying force.

Whether its cask or keg, micro or macro, traditional or experimental, the desire for distinction and compartmentalisation is a common theme in beer.

Ironically, by single-mindedly ploughing its own furrow, Thornbridge has managed to skip nimbly between the various camps.

True, the Bakewell brewery is most frequently lumped in with the 'craft' crowd but despite an evident bent towards innovation, they remain sticklers for tradition.

Honest, straightforward cask beers and faithful interpretations of age-old styles sit comfortably alongside American-influenced creations and the odd left-field curveball in an eclectic range. The single thread that holds it all together is an all-consuming obsession with quality.

Taking objectivity out of the question, the talented brewing team - led by head brewer Rob Lovatt and a hand-picked team of experienced assistants - are determined to make the best beer possible by meticulously attending to every detail of the brewing process.

"Quality assurance is absolutely key to everything we do and our intention is simply to keep making great beer," says Rob.

"What's great for us is the fact our growth is really organic and I think that's down to the fact we take a lot of care over what we produce. We can't make enough of the stuff at the moment and we're not having to discount to get sales so we're just going to carry on growing but at a manageable rate where we don't have to compromise the quality of the beer.

"Although it's important to make new beers to keep the interest going, we're going to keep making our core beers and look to improve all the time. In that sense, my own scientific background has helped. But the biggest help was working with Scottish Courage and other big breweries and applying their QA systems to the beer we make."

Thornbridge's melding of old and new should perhaps come as no surprise considering the brewery's origins.

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It all started in 2005 in a quaint yet cramped outbuilding on the grounds of Thornbridge Hall - its weary, weather-worn exterior and cracked, peeling paintwork now seemingly incongruous with the majestic, shining stainless steel of the current brewhouse on an industrial estate outside Bakewell.

But Thornbridge somehow makes the two contrasting methods work in unison - literally as well as figuratively, given the 10 BBL kit at the Hall is still used for brewing smaller batches and trials.

This clash of worlds is also prevalent in the branding, which features the statue of Flora from the Italian garden at Thornbridge Hall against a variety of bold and colourful backdrops. But most important is its influence on the beer.

Over the past year, the brewery has produced a European series focused on classic styles from across the continent, including Bavarian pilsner, weizenbock, Berliner weisse and saison among others. Each was created using modern methods but in a studied manner that paid respect to time-tested methods of production.

Rob says, "I am without a doubt a stickler for brewing beers to style. It's an ethos I try and encourage here at Thornbridge and I know our brewers buy into it, including the younger guys. You need to analyse the classic styles and understand why they were brewed that way in the first place.

"Take a Bavarian wheat beer for example. What is it about that beer that makes it special? It's the esters and the phenolics from the yeast during the primary fermentation which makes the beer, that's why the bitterness is down around 12 EBUs to allow the yeast to shine. So why do people feel it's necessary to 'hop the shit out of it' with American hops?

"The Bayern pilsner we produced was fermented at 9C and lagered for ten weeks. We even transferred the wort to flotation tank. All these procedures made sure the beer was super-clean and delicate.

"There does seem to be a trend to dry hop these beers in tank, again often with US hops. For me though, this seems pointless and just masks the delicate and the soft nature of the style."

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That kind of attention to detail manifests itself in every facet of Thornbridge's brewing process and it is here where the lines between small and large become blurred.

The on-site lab and semi-automated system, which allows almost every part of the process to be controlled using a piece of software in the relative comfort of the office, fit more obviously into a vast production brewery than alongside the copper and elbow grease of your average micro.

But Rob's own background is intertwined with this strategy. Trained as a microbiologist, he gained experience working with several large commercial breweries and spent 10 years with London's Meantime before arriving in the Peak District four years ago.

"I studied microbiology and then started from the bottom at Meantime in 2000, right at the start of the craft boom," he says. "I didn't do microbiology with a view to getting into brewing but I had always had an interest in brewing.

"When I was growing up a lot of regional breweries were closing but now we are the new regionals with a different mindset and different people involved. It used to be a bit of an old boys' club but now it's become quite fashionable and there are a lot younger people getting involved which means there is a different portfolio of beers coming out.

"When there is such an explosion of new breweries, quality can suffer due to a net loss in experience but we're just focused on ourselves and doing everything we can to remove the margin for error.

"For example, the lab allows you to know exactly where you are with the beers in terms of bitterness, colour and other elements, rather than relying on a brewer's organoleptic perception.

"If we have an issue with any of the parameters the lab tests flag them up before packaging so we can address the issues and prevent it happening again. Essentially it allows us to be very consistent, keep our oxygen low and make sure the packaged products are microbiologically clean.

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"The automation takes human error out of the equation and allows the brewers to concentrate on other tasks. That's not to say we still don't watch the process but it gives us a greater degree of control."

Producing 30,000hl a year, Thornbridge is already classed as a regional brewer but further expansion is expected to commence within the next six months, with a view to growing production steadily to 60,000hl.

Yet it still retains the aesthetic of an innovative, adventurous microbrewery, a tone established from day one when young brewers Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who went on to co-found BrewDog, were handed the reins and tasked with bringing a fresh approach to classic British styles.

The brewers' personalities shine in the beer Thornbridge produces and successes such as imperial black IPA Valravn and the Imperial Raspberry Stout highlight their ability to make bold statements.

More recently, the 'craft' dial was cranked up to 11 for an experimental range that included a parma violet porter, a mint chocolate stout and a peanut butter brown ale, the latter working particularly well.

Then there's a collaborative project with Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver that involved the inoculation of bourbon barrels full of Duvel-esque Belgian strong ale with cider lees.

"It's a big project for us and will involve a lot of work but you can't turn down the chance to work with Garrett Oliver," adds Rob. "It will be similar to our barrel-aged sour beer but all the sourness will come from the bacteria from the apples. It should be quite a novel product."

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However, the biggest challenge remains in doing Thornbridge's core beers justice.

The brewery has become synonymous with Jaipur, its best-selling beer and a genuine modern British classic, but the likes of Wild Swan, Kipling, Chiron and Halcyon are also universally-admired.

For a short spell, it became a common refrain among drinkers that Jaipur was 'not what it was' but Rob insists that's the result of changing palates rather than changing quality.

He says, "I think other beers have got hoppier along the way. Palates have realigned over time and that's why people started to question whether Jaipur had declined but it's simply not true.

"I spoke to a well-known US craft brewer the other day and they said they were looking to make their flagship beer more hoppy because the aroma is not as strong as other American beers. That's why people say things like 'it's not what it was'. Looking at our own operation, we're going to get our hopback upgraded in the next expansion so we can improve on the aroma.

"But there are also a number of other things we have done to ensure quality and consistency. When I first started here I realised that we were mashing all our beers at the same temperature and the cask versions of beers like Jaipur were feeling a bit flabby in the mouth.

"Usually Jaipur mashes in at 69C but we now mash the cask version at 68, which will be adjusted by 0.5C each day depending on the level of malt modification.

"We've also got our own malt mill and have worked really hard to find the right malt for our beers. It was essential to get the right profile."

But as much as Thornbridge continues to make improvements to process, learning lessons from the big boys, Rob insists the brewery will never develop a production-line mentality.

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In a similar vein to many of the bigger American craft breweries, Thornbridge invest heavily in staff development, giving young people the opportunity to master the brewing trade.

"It's about the people as much as it is the beer so we're not going to be going onto 24-hour shifts or anything like that," adds Rob.

"It's important that we look after our staff and create a good working environment. Small things are important like providing a quality sound system so the guys can listen to music while they work. We don't ever want the guys to stop believing in what they're doing because then the beer will suffer."

In a sense, Thornbridge's own journey encapsulates the wider evolution of British brewing.

The first step was bridging the gap between proud Old World tradition and outlandish New World ideas, one that has been mirrored in the creative output of many among the recent wave of new microbreweries.

The second was ensuring those new creations consistently reached the consumer at their very best, a consideration that will become ever more important if the new breed are to become an established presence on an already-crowded scene.

Friday, 04 July 2014 10:55

The Alechemist: Matthew Howgate, Marble Brewery

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Matthew Howgate head brewer Marble BreweryMatt Howgate, head brewer at Marble Brewery, features in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series focused on the people behind the beer.

Marble epitomises Manchester.

From its inception, the brewery has done a stunning job of capturing the city's unique ethos in the form of its favourite drink - the honest pint.

Forget the 'mad fer it' slogans or swaggering affectations. Marble's beers pay respect to time-honoured Mancunian tradition by intertwining fierce civic pride with a creative verve that consistently challenges accepted knowledge.

From humble beginnings beneath the 125-year-old Marble Arch pub, the brewery became universally revered, a shining symbol for the progressive element of the city's brewing scene.

In that context, it seems a little strange that the future of this Manchester institution has been entrusted to a Yorkshireman.

But newly-appointed head brewer Matt Howgate comes with his own proud history. Born and raised in Tadcaster - a small Yorkshire town with as many breweries as primary schools - it was inevitable brewing would be in the blood, particularly as his dad was a drayman for Samuel Smith and his mum worked for Bass.

And while Matt is keen to make his own mark on Marble, he also remains respectful of the approach that was crucial to earlier success.

"When this opportunity came up, it was one I had to go for," he says. "Given the brewery's reputation and history, it's an exciting chance to get involved in something really successful.

"Despite the reputation, it didn't really feel daunting, more just exciting. The previous brewer, James Campbell, created some fantastic recipes for beers that are well loved, so there is a lot to work with.

"I have my own ideas and I'd be foolish not to make my own mark. It would also be fairly boring if I didn't come here and look at what I might be able to add to the beer and processes.

"At first, we just wanted to get the efficiency right, make some changes to processes and then we've got ideas on what we want to do. It was just a case of getting everything settled first."

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Matt took charge at Marble in March after spending the previous two years as production manager at AB InBev's Samlesbury brewery and started out working at Molson Coors in his hometown.

A three-year spell at Leeds Brewery was sandwiched in between and, although it's perhaps not the typical path of the modern 'craft' brewer, Matt believes the experience stands him in good stead.

The commitment to quality control learned at much larger operations has proved particularly useful in finding ways to improve an already-impressive range of beers.

Marble has undergone a tough transition period more recently, having lost such talent as Dominic Driscoll (now at Thornbridge), Colin Stronge (now at Buxton) and James Campbell but there is a sense of clear vision regarding what must change in order to regain forward momentum.

He says, "I spent two years with InBev and it was really hard work. It wasn't what I knew as brewing but I learned a lot from the experience.

"I'd spent the previous three years with Leeds Brewery so I was really looking forward to getting closer to the actual brewing again and really getting involved.

"The beers being produced at AB InBev weren't necessarily the kind of beers I love but the attention to detail was pretty impressive.

"That's what I learned from it. That commitment to ensuring consistency in the flavour of the beer was incredible and we are trying to implement some of the same practices here on a smaller scale.

"Marble has always been renowned for producing interesting hop-forward beers but other breweries have maybe caught up with us now in that respect. So we're aiming to make the beers cleaner than they have ever been before, so we can let that hop character shine through.

"One of the things they were really good at, even before I started here, is the amount that's recorded. We've got a really tight control on everything and we're going way over and above in that sense.

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"But another thing we've really picked up on since I started is the yeast. Previously we were pitching at 25C and fermenting at up to 28C and it was resulting in really high esters, which can sometimes add to the beer but we wanted to tone it down.

"We've started pitching at 18C and fermenting at 20C because we want all these hop flavours to shine through and we're not going to get that with a warm fermentation."

A quick turnaround helps too. The typical brewing process takes around eight days, meaning the beers will reach drinkers as fresh as possible, ensuring the hop character remains bright and vivid.

This can be a challenge on a 12 BBL kit, with the brewery staff working flat-out to ensure they service demand for favourites such as Manchester Bitter, Pint and Dobber.

But recent changes are starting to bear fruit and seem particularly evident in the Lagonda IPA. Samples of this classic American-style pale have practically erupted with flavours of grapefruit, orange zest and dried apricot, springing energetically from the light malt base and aided by a crisp, dry finish.

"The beers are as clean as I've tasted them and we're pleased with them," says Matt. "In terms of my favourite, it depends what sort of mood I'm in but I do like Manchester Bitter.

"We're trying to make it as sessionable as possible so we've toned it back a bit now. It had become a bit confused so we've tried to make it as clean as possible and added that dry bitterness so it's a standard session beer with that extra something to it.

"We're very proud of the Dobber at the moment and we've made progress with the Ginger. It got hammered in some reviews for not being gingery enough so we're continually upping the ginger levels."

The hop bills for each beer have also come under close scrutiny.

Although the traditional approach is to start at the beginning of the boil and add hops in chronological order to achieve a desired level of bitterness, Marble have flipped the process on its head.

All hops are now added at flame-out (when the heat is turned off on the brew kettle) and left to stand in the hot wort rather than being transferred immediately to a fermenting vessel. Any extra bitterness needed is provided by a small addition at the start of the boil.

"For bittering we use a small charge of a bittering hop and a hop stand," explains Matt. "The last hops aren't boiled, we just put them in and let them stand in the wort after flame out, so our only additions are at the start and the end.

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"We work backwards for our bittering, so we calculate what we want from our aroma hops, say a 50/50 blend of Cascade and Galaxy at a particular number of grams per litre. "We work out how many IBUs that will give us and then adjust the bittering hop accordingly. For bittering, we have started using hops like Hercules, which will impart a nice, clean bitterness, letting the aroma hops do their job in terms of flavour."

There is plenty more to come too.

Matt has overseen the production of four new beers in his short time at the brewery, most notably the English IPA - a robust yet drinkable IPA hopped with an English quartet of Target, Goldings, Admiral and Cascade - but is quietly planning many more.

A couple of collaborations with former Buxton and Thornbridge brewer James Kemp are also in the works, one a New Zealand pale ale, the other involving imperial stout, barrels and wild yeast.

Meanwhile, the brewery is undergoing a redesign, with new bottles (pictured above left) due soon that give a nod to Manchester's industrial heritage and to the blunt, no-frills candour of its inhabitants.

The only thing they have to worry about is servicing rising demand for their beers.

"We could do with a bigger brewery I suppose," laughs Matt. "But every brewer would say that."

Friday, 22 November 2013 08:08

The Alechemist: Colin Stronge, Buxton Brewery

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Buxton 9Colin Stronge, head brewer at Buxton Brewery, stars in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer.

Buxton has become a byword for quality in British microbrewing.

Cask or keg, pale or dark - none of it matters. The brewery's beers are almost universally revered thanks to an impressive melding of tradition and innovation.

Stunning 6.8% IPA Axe Edge, in particular, has assumed near legendary status. In fact, check the beer geek's dictionary and you'll find:

Axe Edge (æks edʒ) adj. Dangerously drinkable to the point where all perceptions of reality become distorted beyond recognition and grown adults are left hugging the kerb wondering why something that tastes so good can be so bad.

Given the above, the head brewer's job represented something of a double-edged sword (or axe, if you will) for experienced copper monkey Colin Stronge.

On the one hand, why wouldn't you want to have a hand in creating some of Britain's best loved beers? On the other, heavy is the head that wears the crown - screw up and you risk the wrath of seasoned drinkers the world over.

"To be honest, I was really nervous," admits Colin. "I loved their beers and didn't want to sully their reputation, though I thought at the same time that reputation meant I had an existing audience for the beers I wanted to make.

"I had been a massive admirer of their beers for a couple of years and had gone so far as to name Axe Edge my beer of the year the year before.

"The power of expectation was both wonderful and terrifying."

Buxton 1It's not even as if he was wet behind the ears, having spent nine years at Marble in Manchester and another two at Black Isle in Scotland. But, such was the reputation cultivated by previous head brewer James Kemp it might have intimidated St Arnold of Soissons himself.

Six months later, Colin is revelling in the role.

Standards such as Axe Edge, Imperial Black, American pale ale Gold and session pale Moor Top are tasting as good as ever and have been supplemented by a host of exciting new arrivals.

Wolfscote Black Sour is a mouth-puckering mash-up of roast malt and tart berries, Jacob's Ladder a hoppy little bugger at just 2.8%, and Axe Edge NZ startlingly even more drinkable than its evil elder brother.

Add to that a series of stunning one-offs, including Stronge Extra Stout - a deviant dark monster full of bold malt character - and To Øl collaboration Sky Mountain Sour, which is about as sessionable as a sour can be - an invigorating avalanche of grapefruit, gooseberry, lime and peach complemented by soft spice and bready malt.

And, rest assured, this is just the start.

"We've got lots to come," says Colin. "We've been working on some oak aged saisons, a lambic that I have wanted to make for years is finally underway and the Rain Shadow stout, which will be around 16%, is something that we have been working on that should see the light of day late this year or early next.

"There will also be lots of other sours and stouts, a triple IPA, lots of new hop experiments, a Belgian series and lots of things that we have been working out. It's all very exciting stuff.

"We all use our taste buds as our guide at the brewery. We brew the vast majority of our beers based on what we would next like to drink."

Another to look out for is Big Dump, an imperial oatmeal stout aged with Brett in red wine barrels, created in collaboration with Dutch brewers Rooie Dop and Oersoep. I was lucky enough to snatch a sample before it was sent to its oaky hibernation and it already tasted awesome - rich and indulgent even without the extra layers added by the barrels and Brett.

The sheer diversity of these creations is undoubtedly a reflection of Colin's personality.Buxton 3

Since his arrival in the Peak District, a carefree element appears to have been added to Buxton's consistent brilliance. Beyond maintaining standards across the core range, the attitude seems to be 'fuck it, let's try it' - five words which will put joy in the hearts of any discerning drinker.

The nature of the set-up has helped in this respect. Buxton is currently making the transition to a larger 20-barrel operation around the corner from its current home, which will even use water from a purpose-drilled bore hole, but Colin hopes to keep the old kit (five-barrel mash and 10-barrel copper) for continued experiments.

All of this has proved extremely liberating following two years at Black Isle. Although this spell in the Scottish Highlands holds many fond memories and resulted in some excellent beer, Colin quickly realised the focus on higher production volume - inevitable on a 30-barrel kit - wasn't for him.

He says, "I enjoyed my time at Black Isle and it was definitely a worthwhile experience! It was a great chance to see how a bigger operation works and to try a hand at a more production-based brewing approach. But it also made me realise the things that I did and didn't want to do in brewing.

"I missed the freedom of a smaller kit and the opportunity to try real one-off brewing. I knew not long into my residency that I wanted to be back at a more hands-on-brewery and to spend more time actually brewing, writing recipes, playing with hops and the like."

But good beer hasn't always been an obsession.

In fact, Colin admits to something of a dirty past. Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up in Monaghan, Ireland, it involved copious amounts of a certain black beverage.

He says, "To be honest, I haven't always been interested in good beer. When I was younger I thought that a pint of Heineken was an exotic treat and beer was more social lubricant rather than an obsession.

"Every night out started with a pint of Guinness and usually ended up on the spirits. It was when I fell into my first brewing job that I discovered a love for beer that grew into a life-changing fascination as time went on.

"I actually started out studying architecture in Liverpool. When I dropped out of my degree I was working in the Brewery, a brew-pub in Liverpool, when the brewer there decided to leave.

"Being the member of staff with the most time on my hands, my old boss asked if I would consider learning to brew for them. I needed the cash so decided to give it a go.

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"I would love to claim it was love at first brew but I was feckless and young and had bad knees, which I thought were being aggravated by the carrying, lifting and general chug of the job.

"I really enjoyed it and was fascinated by the process and methods, but thought at that stage that it wasn't for me. I decided to go back to university and had always enjoyed writing so chose journalism and sociology as my new learning path."

It was at this time he landed on the doorstep at respected Manchester microbrewery Marble.

On the lookout for part-time work, Colin inadvertently made the crucial decision that forged his future career path.

"Whilst back at university I needed income," he says. "When I dropped into the Marble Arch pub one day they had signs up advertising for bar staff as they had just had a little bit of a clear out.

"I started working in the bar there and got chatting to the brewers. It was interesting for me to see the differences in the kit there and the one I had used in Liverpool, and also how the processes varied.

"Not long after I started, they asked if I could cover a holiday for the assistant brewer, washing casks, racking and the like. I jumped at the chance because it was a bit more interesting than serving customers and stocking shelves!

"Once this had begun they asked me to do a shift a week to allow them to up production and this steadily increased from one to two days, soon three a week. Then when I finished my degree - the very day in fact - I had a phone call from James there, saying Phil (the former assistant brewer) had given his notice in and asking if I would be interested in going full time.

"I had no immediate options and thought it would be a good stop-gap until I decided what I was to do next. But I fell in love with what we were doing and the growing brewing scene that was emerging around us. We had a great little team at that point too and was really enjoying working there and the beers we were making."

They were exciting times at Marble, working as part of a dynamic team that also featured current Thornbridge production manager Dominic Driscoll, and played a significant role in shaping Colin's outlook.

"There are a few moments that stand out," he reflects. "Whilst I was there we came up with some great recipes. In 2009 we birthed the second version of Decadence and the Special 2009, a barley wine-style beer.

"For my money, at the time, they were two of the most interesting, if not best, beers I had been involved in making and that I had tasted at the time. They were quite special in presentation terms as well, both presented in screen-printed 750ml bottles, corked, caged and wax sealed, which I think was a UK first.

"Myself and Dom had visited the first Borefts Festival at De Molen that year and had loved the look of their bottles and the storage ageing it allowed. Somewhat ironically these beers helped us land a spot at the following year's Borefts festival which was another of my favourite times at the brewery."

Buxton 4

It has all amounted to an unexpected yet exciting journey for the man from Monaghan.

Given the sheer weight and variety of his experience, what advice would he have for the next crop of up-and-coming young brewmasters?

"Brew what you want to drink and enjoy it," he says. "The bad ones and the mistakes will help you to get better. If you have access to a local brewer then let them try and use their knowledge to help you.

"But the main thing is that you enjoy it!"

And what's not to enjoy if the view from your workplace is anything like that on the right?

To find out more about Buxton and keep tabs on any new beers which are on their way, visit the brewery website here.

Friday, 15 November 2013 11:48

The Alechemist: Greg Hobbs, Five Points Brewing Co

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Five Points 1Greg Hobbs, head brewer at Hackney's Five Points Brewing Co, features in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer.

It's all happening in Hackney.

Maybe it's something in the water but the East London borough is fast becoming the 21st century's Burton.

Nowhere has the recent microbrewing boom been more startling, with five breweries setting up permanent homes within the area - seven if you count Beavertown and Crate, which are both based in Hackney Wick.

Hackney has become a hive of experimentation and collaboration - the latter perhaps being one of the most important factors in the success of these nascent businesses.

The borough's brewers have almost formed a family unit, shunning any sense of competition to share advice, equipment, ingredients and even warehouse space.

On the surface it seems Howling Hops is the precocious younger sibling, still a little rough round the edges but destined for greatness, while Pressure Drop is the adventurous elder, sensible and grounded yet determined to explore unchartered territory and try new things.

If that's true, then Five Points is the fastidious middle child, a quiet achiever who performs consistently well with the minimum amount of fuss and bother.

The brewery produces only three beers - Five Points Pale, Railway Porter and Hook Island Red - so there's nothing fancy about what they do but an incredible amount of work has gone into creating a core range head brewer Greg Hobbs is finally proud of.

"We wanted to go with a core range of three beers to ensure we could guarantee the quality of them and then trial new things on our smaller kit," he says. "But I think we will be tweaking recipes forever though because ingredients are always changing and we find that we are always striving to make the beer better.

"At the moment, we're really happy with what we've got but we will add to the range as and when we have the time to commit to trials and developing new recipes. We want to be sure we can get the supply of hops too because we don't want to be in a situation where we can't maintain standards for a specific beer.

"The beer I'm happiest with is the porter. It's the recipe that's changed the least and we only brewed it once on the small kit before moving it into production. We were really happy with it because it has loads of chocolate and coffee aromas and a good mouthfeel but is still quite light and is a drinkable ABV."

Five Points 4

It's hard to disagree. At 4.8%, the Railway Porter is verging on sessionable yet still packed full of flavour - smooth and oily with notes of toffee, liquorice, milky coffee and roasted cocoa beans.

Yet the Pale gives it a good run for its money. Another guzzler at just 4.4%, it is hopped with Amarillo, Centennial and Citra, so packs a juicy punch of orange, lime, grapefruit and peach underpinned by a soft caramel sweetness.

The Hook Island Red, meanwhile, is not one for the faint-hearted. A 6% rye beer where punchy pine and grapefruit do battle with spicy, bready rye in a fight to the death to discover which flavour will emerge dominant.

As a trio, they're pretty impressive, especially given they have only existed in their current guise since August. Before then, drinkers may have spotted Five Points' 'trial brew' bottles, designed to give Greg the time to perfect each recipe while remaining honest to those drinking the beer.

These trial brews featured basic labels (pictured above), which simply stated the beer style, hops used and ABV.

Greg says, "We put out the trial brews because we wanted to be very open and honest about what we were doing in the early stages and get feedback from the people drinking the beer.

"We developed all our recipes on a 100-litre kit but it's not just as simple as multiplying the recipe when you move it to the bigger operation. You have to take into account all sorts of things like more efficient mash times and a more efficient kettle for bitterness.

"We just wanted to be open about the fact we were going to have to keep tweaking recipes and once we were happy, we said 'OK, these are our beers'.

"Like I said, we will always keep tweaking the recipes because there are so many variables but we're at a stage now where we're happy with what we've got."

Five Points 3From humble beginnings on the 100-litre kit (pictured right), Greg now operates a 10-barrel set-up and has recently taken delivery of four new fermenters, which have doubled the brewery's capacity.

In fact, he remains amazed he found a way into professional brewing at all, his career evolving from a similarly modest start.

Greg met fellow Five Points co-founder Ed Mason while working at his pub, the Duke of Wellington in Dalston, and made inroads into the brewing industry following a staff visit to the East London Brewing Company.

A year later, the pair joined forces again when Ed, who also owns Whitelock's Ale House in Leeds and The Deramore Arms in York, informed him he was on the lookout for a head brewer.

"Ed runs a few pubs, one of which is the Duke of Wellington and I worked there as assistant manager for about two-and-a-half years and as chef for about six months," recalls Greg.

"We went on a work day out to visit a few local breweries to get a feel for the beers we were selling. One of those was East London Brewing, where I got chatting to the owner and eventually arranged to go down for a brew day.

"At the time I wasn't really thinking about a career change but was more just interested to see what it was all about. I ended up going down about once a month and they said, if I wanted it, there was a part-time position going.

"I jumped at the opportunity and that part-time job soon became full-time. I was there for a year in the end as assistant brewer, delivery driver and whatever else needed doing. It was me who ran the day-to-day operation, which was amazing because I learned so much and Stu (brewery owner Stuart Lascelles) taught me everything he knows.

"I caught up with Ed soon after and found out he was looking for a head brewer, then officially joined the company in January. I then went on the advanced brewing course at Brewlab in Sunderland, which was really good because, up to that point, I'd taught myself and learned from Stu but never really had any formal training.

"I knew most of what was being taught already but it was nice to be able to ask questions of people who have been in the industry for a long time and check I was doing things right. I'm also doing the distance course in distilling and brewing at Heriot-Watt but I've got to admit it's been difficult finding the time given how busy we've been at the brewery.

Five Points 2

"I had always been interested in brewing but never really thought it was something you could break into. It was one of the those opportunities where I really landed on my feet."

Each of the team has bought into the Five Points ethos, believing strongly in the emphasis on community which is inherent in the company name.Greg and Ed have now been joined by Doreen Joy Barber, who handles much of the sales and marketing, and Nick Elliott, who was appointed assistant brewer earlier this month.

This extends beyond even the help provided to neighbouring breweries. Five Points runs an apprenticeship scheme for 18 to 24-year-olds in Hackney, sources energy from renewable sources and reinvests five per cent of profits into local charities and community projects.

It is an approach which heavily informed Greg's formative years.

He says, "I grew up in France between the ages of 10 and 16 and the beer culture is very different over there too. There's a bit of a scene growing there now but really it's still all about the wine.

"They are extremely passionate about wine and you can go and see local producers to find out what they are doing. My parents used to take me and I loved that kind of approach.

"Now it's a big part of what we do. I have always liked beer across the board but what really appealed to me was being able to go into different places and try something interesting, new and local. It's great to see this new wave of craft breweries but I have a lot of respect from the traditional ales as well, which is what I grew up on.

"We do tend to go down to local pubs and try our beer 'in the field' so to speak, which is important because it tastes different to what we sample here, particularly on cask. It's also great to see local pubs serving your beer and it's a real source of pride for us."

Although Five Points' beer was initially designed for bottle and keg, a proportion is also regularly set aside for cask. But when it comes to preference in the method of dispense, Greg believes the whole debate is something of a misnomer.

He says, "When we set up we always envisioned our product in keg and bottle because we thought it would suit it better but we want to do cask as well. We want demand to dictate what we create.

Five Points 5

"It's a silly debate. Sometimes I want a keg beer because I want something cool and refreshing and other times I want something less carbonated with more delicate aromas.

"Our red beer definitely prefers being served on keg. It works on cask as well but it can sometimes be a bit too sticky, especially if the bar isn't turning it over quickly enough.

"That's the problem with some of this new wave of bars where they want to serve cask but they don't really understand it. They need to know how much they're going to sell rather than attempting to merely stock a huge range which might result in some being neglected.

"A lot of new beers overwhelm your senses so easily, particularly those from America. It is an amazing experience but can leave you a bit spoiled as well. As much as I enjoy those beers, I do like a pint of bitter now and then as well."

With demand for Five Points beers continually growing, it is unlikely to be long before the range is expanded further.

Greg intends to conduct a new series of trial brews on the 100-litre kit in order to experiment with different styles and develop new recipes but, before then, the brewery has a special Christmas surprise for fans of its Railway Porter.

Greg says, "We've got a special coming out this Christmas. With our porter, we put Brettanomyces in 20 of the casks and have aged them for three months in our cold store.

"The strain of Brett we got from our yeast supplier, who also supplies our house yeast, gives good cherry pie flavours so it should be perfect for Christmas. It already smells amazing and we can't wait to let other people try it."


Monday, 28 October 2013 17:40

The Alechemist: Pressure Drop

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Pressure Drop 2Hackney brewers Pressure Drop feature in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer.

Two heads are better than one, as the old saying goes.

But what about three? That extra cranium helped to made the mythical Cerberus a thoroughly terrifying beast and it appears to have enhanced the powers of Pressure Drop too.

Granted, the London brewers may not be capable of guarding the gates to the underworld but, in the space of 16 months, they have developed a superb variety of beers marked by their quality and quirkiness.

There is so much to like about the core range, which includes a foraged herb hefeweizen (Wu Gang Chops the Tree), a traditional London porter (Street Porter), a delicious, hop-heavy brown ale (Stokey Brown), a dark and smoky wheat beer (Freimann's Dunkelweiss) and a pale ale brewed with continually-changing hop combinations (Pale Fire).

Rather than representing the work of one man, these unique brews have bloomed from a collaborative effort between the brewery's three founders Ben Freeman, Graham O'Brien and Sam Smith.

There's no division of labour here. All three conceive, devise and create each of Pressure Drop's beers, ensuring the finished product comprises an equal blend of tastes and influences.

"All three of us have a strong input into the beers we make," says Graham, who was previously cellarman at the Euston Tap. "What we've done reflects all our personalities and that makes it better because it's not just one person making all the decisions. It's better to have a filter sometimes.

"We have a good relationship because Sam and I went to school together so we've known each other since we were 12. Then Ben and I met when we were both interning at London Fields and we realised we were both trying to achieve the same thing so it worked out well.

"We all come up with recipes and then we throw ideas in until we reach a point where we're happy. In terms of tasting as well, we are almost always the opposite of each other and then you have to adapt things to get to a point where we're all happy.

There's lots of different things that go into creating a beer, from the beer itself to the name and the labelling, so there are a lot of things that can go wrong. All three of us contribute and we all work together at each stage."

Maybe it's the collaborative approach or maybe it's the willingness to experiment - pushing their own boundaries as well as those of the people drinking their beer - but Pressure Drop has become a rapid success story.

The trio were recently invited to host a 'meet the brewer' event at the illustrious Indy Man Beer Con and demand for their beers is growing even beyond the boundaries of Greater London.

Pressure Drop 1

It's a situation none of the trio could have contemplated when they started brewing in summer 2012 amid the glamorous surroundings of Graham's garden shed in Stoke Newington, using a 50-litre, single-vessel Braumeister kit.

Unsurprisingly, the brewery quickly outgrew its modest surroundings, moving to a nearby industrial unit the following November, but the trusty Braumeister stuck around throughout their early foray into commercial brewing.

This extreme 'micro' approach proved fairly chaotic - involving double brewdays every day of the working week - but proved crucial in helping to foster Pressure Drop's focus on invention and experimentation.

It gave them the necessary freedom to create weird and wonderful concoctions such as their Purple Sweet Potato Ale brewed in collaboration with Masterchef winner Tim Anderson and Pitt the Elder, an elderflower and cherry porter.

Graham says, "We wanted to add our own twist to different styles and using the Braumeister allowed us to do that from the start. It lets you do multi-stage mashing so we thought we must do a wheat beer and that's where Wu Gang originally came from.

"When you're starting out you want to try different things so we were messing around with the mash and the ingredients. Sam's not a big fan of wheat beer either so we tried to do it slightly differently with Wu Gang by adding bay leaves and herbs.

"Then there were other opportunities we were able to take advantage of because of our size that even other small breweries wouldn't have been able to. Paul from Kent Brewery provided us with a new strain of hops, Hop X, that had been developed by Wye Hops who are these mad hop scientists.Pressure Drop 3

"Paul had wanted to brew with this strain but needed somebody with a small kit and that's where we came in. They only had a kilo of this hop so we brewed with it and were really pleased by the results. It was really interesting because it was an English hop developed from an old variety which was full of punchy New World flavours."

That same ethos remains but, at the same time, things have definitely moved on.

In March, the brewery upped sticks to Hackney and set up shop in a larger industrial unit beneath a railway arch, which appears to be the natural habitat of your typical London brewer.

Four months later, they began brewing on a shiny new five-barrel kit, finally putting the old Braumeister into semi-retirement - although it will still be used for the odd experimental brew.

But despite the shift in emphasis, it's the old favourites that still generate the most excitement when the trio contemplate which of their creations has been the biggest success.

"I think the brown is great," says Graham. "When the pale comes out nice it's really good but there's plenty of people doing that kind of stuff. There's not many nice, hoppy brown ales about so that's why Stokey Brown works so well. It's not like every other brewery in London has a similar beer.

"There's a lot to like about Wu Gang Chops the Tree. The concept behind it was trying to come up with something to go with roast chicken. So using the cloviness of a hefeweiss, we added bay leaves to make it like bread sauce.

"People like it too. You talk about gateway beers and that's probably it for us. People who don't think they like beer try that and love it. It's light beer, it's light colour, light alcohol and it's quite herbal."

"It was the first successful beer we did," adds Sam. "It was the first one we did where we've kept the recipe the same. Although it was only our fifth ever brew, we were just really happy with the way it turned out.

"The name usually gets a reaction too! We get people calling it Wu-Tang quite a lot. It's not unusual to get a phone call from someone asking if they can get a case of the Wu-Tang. 'You can but I think you might have come to the wrong place!'"

So, what about that name? It's fair to say it has been responsible for a number of confused looks and puzzled conversations.

Pressure Drop 4"It's the one name we've all completely agreed on," says Graham. "It's an ancient Chinese proverb, which is similar to the Greek myth of Sisyphus about the endless task.

"We've depicted the story on our new bottle labels. Basically, Wu Gang angers the gods so they send him to the moon to chop a self-healing bay laurel tree, which keeps growing back no matter how much he chops it."

Looking to the future, it appears likely there will be more beers in the Wu Gang mould.

A series of beers have been created with local celebrity Jon the Poacher, using flowers, herbs and roots foraged from Hackney Marshes, and this dedication to sourcing quality ingredients forms a central part of Pressure Drop's ethos.

Graham says, "I've live in Stoke Newington, which is an area where people have been worried about what they eat for years. Whether it's organic or local, they're keen on provenance.

"But what I've always found unusual is that they never applied this way of thinking to the beer they drink and instead just drank whatever their local had on the bar. A few years ago, I thought that was going to change so we tried to embrace the shift.

"So far we've done a few foraged beers with foraged ingredients and we'd definitely like to do more. One of the best we have done was the dandelion and burdock porter. We were really pleased with how it tasted and with the concept because dandelion and burdock was a temperance drink so would have almost been used as a replacement for porter.

"In the past, we've done really limited batches of these beers but hopefully more people will be able to try them as we produce more.

"A happy consequence of brewing on a bigger scale is that we're starting to drink a lot more of our own stuff too because there's a lot more of it around. It's a rare thing to be able to sit down and enjoy your own beer."

Currently, bottles are your best chance of finding Pressure Drop's beer, with cask and keg still only made to order. Bars, pubs and bottle shops around London remain the primary focus but their beers can be found further north at Cotteridge Wines in Birmingham; Font, Port Street Beer House and Beermoth in Manchester; Friends of Ham in Leeds and Coppers 8 till 8 in Newcastle.


Monday, 16 September 2013 21:09

The Alechemist: Jay Krause, Quantum Brewing

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Quantum Brewing owner and brewer Jay KrauseBeer Battered introduces The Alechemist, a regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer. First up is Quantum Brewing owner and brewer Jay Krause.

The route from home to commercial brewing is a path well trodden.

Recent history is littered with examples of top-ranked amateurs who have successfully turned pro, from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head to the Kernel and Weird Beard.

The industry is fairly unique in that sense - after all, you wouldn't pursue a career in medicine by practising on friends and family using tips gleaned from well-thumbed textbooks - but it does seem logical to apply the skills honed through years of painstaking practice on a larger scale.

This is particularly true given many home-brewed beers are better than the vast majority of their commercial counterparts. After all, wouldn't you rather drink a small-batch stout made with care and attention than a bland pint of Guinness?

In Jay Krause's case the answer was 'yes', so he went DIY in a bid to satisfy his beer habit. Initially, he was more than happy merely serving his own needs but a string of successful creations meant the demand from friends, family and fellow beer lovers only continued to grow. Eventually, this feedback convinced Jay to quit his day job at a nursery and turn his hobby into a full-time pursuit.

The result was Quantum Brewing.

"The motivation to begin with was money," says Jay. "I didn't have any money so I needed a good source of decent beer. Beyond that it was getting some nice words off people with the homebrew. It was good to hear people were enjoying it and that I was making something they wanted to drink.

"I had flirted with the idea of setting up a brewery for a while before seriously thinking about doing it. I was working in a nursery at the time so when I got the opportunity I just decided to go for it.

"Thankfully I started out just before the massive microbrewing boom so it was quite lucky in that sense. I couldn't have asked for better timing really."

Quantum brewery mash tun

That timing was the result of chance as much as anything else. The former Shaw's Brewery was placed on the market and, spotting his chance, Jay purchased it, moving the operation from Dukinfield to a modest industrial unit in Stockport in April 2011.

It is the very definition of a microbrewery - a neat five-barrel plant in a small lock-up, hidden among MOT centres, workshops and a flooring superstore on a compact industrial estate. You wouldn't even know there was a brewery there if it wasn't for the alluring smell and the sacks of malt sat outside.

But from these humble surroundings have emerged a series of consistently excellent beers, making Quantum one of the most talked-about young breweries in Greater Manchester and a respected member of the wider beer community. Collaborations with Marble, Brodie's and current Buxton head brewer Colin Stronge provide an indication of the regard in which Jay is held by his peers.

All this despite being a one-man band in the truest sense of the term. He is head brewer, accountant, sales rep, delivery man and cleaner, solely responsible for every success and failure experienced by the fledgling business.

"I'm doing about 10 barrels a week at the moment and that's on the cusp of being completely chaotic," laughs Jay. "It's all about juggling time because I have about 15 things on the go at once. You'd think it'd have a positive effect on my fitness because there's a lot of heavy work but there's also a lot of free beer so it cancels it out!

"At the moment, I've not got a big problem selling whatever I produce but if I upped the volume significantly, I might find it difficult, especially on my own.

"I still think the demand for good, microbrewed beer is on the way up and there's still a lot of room for a lot more little brewers, brewpubs and things like that. There just needs to be more places doing good beer and relaxing the beer tie. Pubcos are the difficulty we face. People want to have different beers on but they can't because they're not allowed to."

The difficulty generating demand in a market still dominated by the pubcos has resulted in an admirable spirit of cooperation among breweries who might otherwise have viewed each other as the competition.

With microbrewed beer still accounting for a tiny proportion of overall sales, communal efforts have been focused on attempting to snatch bar space from the bigger breweries. It is a situation which has proved vital in helping small start-ups like Quantum to thrive.

Jay says, "Often, I take inspiration for my beers from other brewers. In that sense we all help each other out. We don't look at each other as the competition so if someone comes to me to ask me how I bottle or what recipe I used for a particular beer, I'll tell them because it's no secret.

"There's not really any competition because, as a whole, we've got such a small share of the market. The only competition is from pubcos so we'll all work together to push it forward. If someone needs hops or malt, someone else will help them out. Everyone just loves beer so they're all pretty obliging."

Ironically though, Jay's own taste and drinking habits were moulded, at least initially, in a tied pub.

Manchester's proliferation of large, family-run breweries means many a young Mancunian has spent their formative years supping a musty pint of cask bitter in a community boozer. Growing up in Urmston, a small suburb south west of the city centre, Jay inevitably ended up doing exactly that.

But in his case - as with so many others - that pint acted as a gateway drink, weaning him off cheap lager and ultimately leading towards a wider world of wonders.

Quantum Brewing Ginger Stout keg

He says, "I've always drunk real ale - whatever that is - because I grew up in Urmston and we had a Holt's pub at the end of the road. So because of that, I've always drunk mild and bitter.

"I went through a bleak few years when I just drank lager, when I wasn't bothered about what I was having, but then I moved to London in 2006 and we had the Bree Louise in Euston. I used to drink in there and they had loads of different beers on, so it was like 'oh OK'.

"When I moved back up, the Magnet in Stockport opened and I started homebrewing fairly soon after that. Then it snowballed. There's plenty of good beer in Stockport so we're spoilt and I've become intolerant of poor quality. In fact, it's not even poor quality, it's just stuff I don't like!

"What I drink depends on the mood and depends on the day. It's never just as simple as drinking pale ales in the summer because I sometimes love to have a good stout in summer. I'll drink all sorts, pretty much anything, although I don't really like Belgian witbiers."

This ever-changing taste heavily informs Jay's approach to brewing.

Quantum doesn't have a core range and although there are certain beers which are produced semi-regularly - the Pale and American Amber being a couple of the more prominent examples - no two batches will ever be the same as the recipes and ingredients are constantly being tweaked. There is a heavy emphasis on sourcing the highest-quality ingredients, so the hops used in a particular beer may change depending on the relative success or failure of the most recent harvest.

Beers are produced in small runs and experimentation is very much the order of the day. Jay has produced barley wines, imperial stouts, saisons and a single-hop series including Aramis, Super Alpha, Triskel and Europa. There was also a pale ale made with blood orange tea that got a lot of beer geeks very excited at last year's Indy Man Beer Con.
"The process starts with inspiration," says Jay. "I get inspiration from everywhere, whether it's fellow brewers, reading about beers, seeing something on TV or going through the hop lists. I speak to (hop merchants) Charles Faram regularly to see what's new and what's coming out and see if there are any exclusives I can use.

"Then it'll go from there to a point where I ask myself 'would I want to drink that?' If the answer's no then I'm just not going to make it.

Quantum brewery 3

"I've not really got a core range as such but there's a few beers I'll do time and time again. But they always change anyway so you'll never get the same beer twice.

"Especially at this level, there's a lot of market for constantly changing beers. I don't really want to drink the same thing eight or nine times so my beers reflect that.

"I do the single hop IPA series purely because it lets me figure out what the hop does in all parts of the process. It helps the consumer to understand the flavours as well. If you have a single hop beer, you get a better understanding of what the hop's like and what it contributes."

With Quantum selling everything it produces, expansion appears to be next on the agenda.

Currently, Jay's beers are only readily available in the Manchester area and, until very recently, would only be frequently found on cask in a select handful of venues.

But there are positive signs that may change, as bottles and, to a lesser extent, kegs have been popping up with increased regularity.  Recent highlights have included the Barleywine USA, CCC IPA and Small Beer, so if you can get your grubby little mits on any of those I would highly recommend it.

"I'm not planning too far ahead but I would just like to expand and get more fermenters," adds Jay. "I'm hoping to open a tap in the brewery at some point as well but it's part of a long list that doesn't ever seem to go down!

"In terms of the beers, I want to do more sour beers and barrel-aged beers. I've got a starter going for a sour at the moment, which is six months in, so we'll see what it's like. It may be disgusting!"

That seems unlikely, considering the unerring quality of Quantum's output.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013 08:24

Meet the brewer: Beavertown at Port Street Beer House

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beavertown brewery logoMeet the Brewer: Beavertown at Port Street Beer House, August 20, 2013

Forget those punks north of the border, Beavertown are the real rock 'n' rollers of British brewing.

Putting aside, for one second, that head brewer Logan Plant is the son of celebrated Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, the brewery and its beers ooze grimy, balls-out attitude, something akin to the deep-down dirty groove of a Hendrix riff.

Beers called Smog Rocket, Neck Oil and Black Betty should really be drunk in some dingy, underground bar where a scowling barman chews tobacco behind a small wooden counter and the growl of the Stooges seeps from a battered old jukebox.

Instead Logan and business partner Byron Knight brought them to Manchester on a quiet Monday night for the latest in Port Street Beer House's series of excellent Meet the Brewer events.

The evening started with a Gamma Ray, Beavertown's 5.4% ABV American Pale Ale, which is not a bad way to kick off any night. Fresh aromas of grapefruit, orange and mango immediately greet you after plucking this one off the bar, giving it a real mouthwatering appeal.

An initial flavour of slightly sticky caramel is perhaps unexpected but this quickly gives way to the hops - and boy, are there hops! First comes a burst of sharp grapefruit, then orange zest, tropical fruit and pine, leading to a heavily bitter, dry and crisp finish with some lingering floral notes that stick to the inside of the mouth, numbing the tongue.

Beavertown have enjoyed an incredibly rapid rise to prominence since founders Logan and Byron were introduced by a mutual friend around two years ago.

Los Angeleno Byron had been keen to open an American barbecue-style restaurant in London, while Logan had set his sights on brewing after an eye-opening trip to New York (and a brewpub serving sublime pulled pork) had caused him to jack in the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, quit the band he fronted, Sons of Albion, and cut his hair.

The result was Duke's Brew & Que restaurant, which opened in February 2012, just three months after Beavertown's maiden brew.

Logan made a quick ascension from homebrewer to professional and initially operated a four barrel setup, which was primarily focused on servicing the restaurant. At first Logan brewed in the cramped kitchen, risking the ire of Duke's chefs, before transferring to two fermenters in the cellar. But as the operation grew, more space was needed for fermentation and this resulted in Logan brewing in the kitchen before throwing the wort into the back of a van and driving to a garage where it could be transferred to the FVs for the yeast to be pitched.

Thankfully, that is no longer the case and, after eight testing months, Beavertown have finally moved into a new brew house in Hackney Wick, which makes six or seven brews each week and includes 13 fermenters.

Coming back to Gamma Ray, it was initially conceived as part of the brewery's experimental alpha series and the final recipe was only settled on two months ago, following an extensive period of trial and error.

It was followed by another beer from the alpha series, the bloody briliant Bloody 'Ell, a 7.4% blood orange IPA.

Although this was initially intended to be Beavertown's first straight IPA, it took an eccentric twist when Logan decided to chuck 25 kilos of blood oranges into four barrels of the stuff. This involved painstakingly zesting and juicing each one before adding them late in the boil to give the beer a blast of blood orange that smacks you round the chops in its efforts to be noticed.

The first batch, made just for bottles, was more sharp and pithy but Logan explained the current incarnation is intended to strike a greater balance and it does exactly that.

Use of extra pale malt makes it almost translucent, a really delicate light yellow colour that would seem to suggest a light-bodied beer.

It's nothing of the sort. There's a whoosh of sweet, juicy blood orange in the nose, which carries straight through into the taste, at once sweet, sharp, zesty and extremely moorish. The badass blood oranges aren't allowed to run riot though because the slightly bready malts play the role of sheriff, just about keeping them in check. In that sense it's like zesty orange marmalade slathered all over a slice of toasted brown seeded batch.

The flavour is enhanced further by spiciness from the Magnum bittering hops and further orange, grapefruit and tropical notes from the Galaxy and Amarillo used in dry-hopping.

Despite the slightly seedier connotations of the name, Beavertown is so-called as a result of its location, taken from the old Cockney slang for De Beauvoir Town, the area in which Duke's is based, famed during the Victoria era for its breweries and ale houses.

And despite the Masonic quality of the logo, Logan (seen below emerging from the ethereal glow) insists the pair aren't entwined in some secret society. In fact, it came about merely due to a fascination with the all-seeing eye and was designed with help from Jonah Schulz, the American brewer at London neighbours Kernel.

IMAG0216So to the next beer and even though following Bloody 'Ell was a tough task, the Barley Champagne made a pretty good fist of it. Intended to be an attempt at creating a mutant beer/champagne hybrid, it is an 8.7% ABV saison that includes juice from a heap of Bramley apples.

Beavertown have only recently started experimenting with different strains of yeast, so this is only the fourth saison to be produced by the brewery. It uses French saison yeast, so there is less of the in-your-face clove spiciness you get from many Belgian-style saisons and it works well in tandem with the crispness of the apples.

Light golden in colour with a frothy white head, it contains a strong earthiness in the nose alongside fresh, sweet juiciness from the apples. The mouthfeel is beautiful, combining strong carbonation, with a velvety smooth, almost sticky quality that makes it a ridiculously easy drinker for its strength.

The saison yeast supplies a soft spiciness that rolls across the tongue before yielding to the crisp tanginess of the apples, leading nicely into an abrupt dry finish. It was a privilege to be among the first handful of folk to meet this new kid on the block.

After three reasonably light-coloured beers, this was the point where things began to get dark, really dark.

Next up was Black Yeti, a 5.6% ABV stout originally brewed in November last year in collaboration with their friend Ben, then at Camden, now at Kernel. It was the first stout brewed by Beavertown and now in its second run after being reincarnated earlier this month.

The intention was to create a mellow, drinkable stout so they opted for milder dark malts and carafa (dehusked barley), which certainly help to make it smooth and silky, sliding down the hatch with real ease.

There is a good bit of coffee and smoky malt in the nose but the coffee isn't allowed to dominate the palate. There is a touch of espresso in there but it's mixed with chalky dark chocolate and a light fruitiness. It's pretty hop-forward for a stout and these hops ensure a dry finish characterised by a really clean bitterness.

Beavertown's beers are often designed to work with food and it is easy to see Black Yeti fitting neatly into that mould as an accompaniment for one of the meaty treats at Duke's Brew & Que.

From the outset of the restaurant, for example, the Smog Rocket smoked porter was designed to accompany their beef ribs, while the 8 Ball rye IPA partnered with the pork and this approach has proved a successful formula.

The final beer of the night is perhaps a result of this success, originating from a chance visit to the restaurant by Brewdog's James Watt. They got talking and ended up doing a collaborative brew, designed as an Imperial version of Smog Rocket and named Catherine's Pony after Catherine the Great, who had a thing for porters and, err, horses apparently.

But Logan wanted to take this one step further and decided to make an even smoggier version, which ultimately became Imperial Lord Smog Almighty, a smoked porter weighing in at 10% ABV and packing an incredible punch of 110 IBUs.

This was, without a doubt, my favourite beer of the evening, an ominously dark, treacly liquid that smells like someone has chucked a whole load of barley, cocoa and coffee beans on the bonfire in a strange experiment gone very right.

It's a beer that simply doesn't mess around, grabbing your tongue and assaulting it in a number of of weird and wonderful ways.

There's an initial blast of bitter dark chocolate and coffee, followed by soothing milk chocolate and rich raisin, all underpinned by sweet, syrupy molasses and brown sugar.

But, ultimately, it's all about the smoke, which patiently waits its turn before overwhelming your senses with a wave of intense charcoal warmth, like a hunk of smoky bacon smothered in smoked paprika and cayenne pepper before being thrown directly onto hot coals. Delightful and strongly reminiscent of Bamberg rauchbier, which is always a bonus in my book.

The only problem with Beavertown's beers has always been a lack of ready availability around Manchester but that looks set to change, with a greater variety of bottles apparently winging their way up to Beermoth in the near future.

That moment can't come soon enough, especially with a couple of special beers on the horizon, an old brown sour made in collaboration with Wild Beer and a rye bread Kvass (Russian bread beer) to mark their 100th brew.

Mad Hatter pump clips

Meet the Brewer: Mad Hatter at Port Street Beer House

Surely you've all heard the phrase 'mad as a box of frogs'?

Well those crazy critters have got nothing on Liverpool's newest up-and-coming microbrewery.

Mad Hatter produce beers that are as quirky as the name suggests, including such barmy beverages as a Pannetone Truffel Tripel and a Cucumber and Rhubarb Wit, and showcased a few of them at Port Street Beer House on Monday, July 29.

The five beers debuted at Port Street were mildly less loopy than those mentioned above but still reminded you of that eccentric uncle you only bump into at family parties.

Brewer Gareth Matthews - or Mad Gaz as his wife Sue was happy to point out - was on hand to explain the reasoning behind all five to an eager audience.

As you might expect, his passion for brewing was sparked in a slightly unusual way. Something to do with his older brother hosting an illegal bar in the family home, which included a fruit machine and a separate doorbell.

Anyway, to the beers...

The first of the evening was a Raspberry and Basil Wit at 6.5% ABV, which was a good refresher on a muggy Manchester evening - you know one of those ones when the weather's foul but it's still hotter than a blast furnace.

Gaz from Mad Hatter

Gaz (pictured left) explained he made it by infusing the beer with a kind of raspberry jam and throwing a whole basil plant into the mix. Unfortunately, the basil doesn't really come through in the final product but the raspberry thrusts itself centre stage, playing the lead role in a sharp, tartly sour beer that finishes extremely dry. The mouthfeel is light as a feather and there is just the slightest touch of wheat malt in the finish, producing a taste of buttered shortbread.

Despite the quirky nature of Mad Hatter's beers, Gaz explained how his brewing adventures had actually begun by trying to reproduce Theakston's Old Peculier - a beer he then considered to be the best in the world - from the 'classic' Dave Line book Brewing Beers Like Those you Buy.

After many years of homebrewing, he decided to turn pro after becoming frustrated with a career in academia and now operates a 1.5 bbl microbrewery, with a focus on bottled beers.

Mad Hatter has scaled cask production down to around eight a week, with the rest being bottled, an approach that is very much conducive to Gaz's experimental approach.

The second beer was my favourite of the night, a 7% ABV Sour Saison, which immediately filled the nose with an earthy aroma that also included a hint of tang.

It is sweet for a saison and nowhere near as dry as the previous beer, with much more of a balanced malt character. It delivers a rush of zingy sourness and peachy, funky tropical flavours from the mountain of Mosaic hops thrown into the recipe.

Sweet caramel malt also comes through fairly strong and Gaz admitted it was his aim to create a saison with more balance - and in the process create something he admits is probably not a saison at all!

He also revealed it had been hopped with 200g of Mosaic in just a five-gallon batch, which certainly explains the carnival of exotic flavours and aromas. An apricot version of the same beer is also on the way, which should prove a little more sour and less malty than its counterpart.

Then came the cask selection and first a 7.2% IPA hopped solely with Galaxy, which just so happens to be one of my favourite hops. It was a bit of an odd IPA, however, perhaps owing to the fact it was fermented using a yeast starter created from Mad Hatter's Brown Ale.

This perhaps explained the strange aroma, which mixed resinous hop with more musty, slightly spicy notes. Punchy, bitter grapefruit from the Galaxy hops is immediately evident upon tasting and there is a strong taste of pine too.

But this quickly gives way to a sweetness from the malt, toasty caramel and a strange deep, woody spiciness. Ultimately, the malt perhaps obscures too many of the hop characteristics and Gaz admitted it is a recipe he may not repeat.

Mad Hatter American Psycho

It didn't matter too much because the fourth beer was a real triumph, a 7% ABV American brown ale called American Psycho (pictured right).

Gaz explained this was created out of a serious admiration for the style, which he considers a beer for all seasons due to the balance of chocolately, toasty malt and bitter, citrus hop. All of that was evident in his own interpretation.

It pours a beautiful rich, brown colour with a perfect white head and immediately gives off a heady mix of different smells. The palate is treated to a touch of bitter, dark chocolate and an underlying caramel malt before you're smacked round the chops by the piney, citrus hop profile, which creates a pleasant bitter finish.

The final act of the night was a beer created specially for the occasion - a twist on REDRUM, which is one of Mad Hatter's core range.

REDRUM on Port Street is a 7% ABV ruby ale, which was created by Gaz and the Port Street staff in the aftermath of the recent Liverpool Craft Beer Expo, while still nursing significant hangovers.

It was designed to be more hop forward than the original beer, using 5kg of Chinook in the boil and a further 5kg of Chinook in dry-hopping a 30l batch. Just for good measure, a further 650g of Amarillo was added to each cask.

Despite this, the distinct flavour characteristics of each hop are not immediately evident. It is dark for the style, verging on mahogany rather than red and the taste seems to reflect this, flooding the palate with rich plum and dark fruits.

The Chinook does eventually crash the party but more to wipe the palate with a crisp bitterness rather than provide a lasting bitter finish.

I'm undecided whether I think it works or not but, regardless of whether they hit the mark or not, each beer was a journey worth taking. If you see Mad Hatter on the bar anywhere, it's definitely worth taking a plunge down the rabbit hole.