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."

Marble Brewery 2

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.

Marble Brewery 1

"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.

Marble Brewery 3

"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."

Read 16039 times Last modified on Friday, 04 July 2014 13:00

3 comments

  • Comment Link Brendon Friday, 04 July 2014 12:21 posted by Brendon

    Wow really insightful! Matt Howgate seems to really know his stuff, I'd love to share a pint with him.

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  • Comment Link Connor Friday, 04 July 2014 13:39 posted by Connor

    Matt was really detailed in terms of his plans for the brewery and the beers. You get the sense he has a clear idea on what needs to be done and how he should do it.

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  • Comment Link Matthew Friday, 04 July 2014 16:14 posted by Matthew

    Great Comment Brendon! I can only agree

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