Friday, 26 October 2012

The malt man

Hops get an awful lot of attention. These little green cones are the undisputed stars of the craft-beer world: any self-respecting drinker can tell his Citra from his Nelson Sauvin, his Simcoe from his East Kent Golding. Brewers have helped to fuel this hop mania - Brewdog used to advertise Hardcore IPA as having more hops in it than “any other beer brewed in the UK”, for example. Hops are hip.

Malt is not quite so fashionable. Despite being the real engine room of any beer (like Charlie Watts to hops’ prancing, pouting, gyrating Mick Jagger), malt doesn’t appear to excite drinkers like hops can.  It’s a shame, especially since Britain can boast any number of beers which give malt the co-billing it deserves (balance, I think they call it).

One of the best examples of this type of beer is brewed here in London – and that’s official. Sambrooks’ Wandle was recently named the best World’s Best Bitter at the World Beer Awards, where judges hailed its “nice fruity nose [while the flavour boasts] fresh tobacco with biscuity malt and floral hops.”

Part of what makes Wandle so good is the malt: Sambrooks use Maris Otter, a type of barley revered for the nutty, biscuity richness it contributes. “We decided right from the off to go for Maris Otter,” says Duncan Sambrook, founder and owner of the brewery. “It’s widely – and rightly – regarded as the Rolls-Royce of malts.”

Anyone who steps inside his brewery – wedged between Clapham Junction station and the grey-brown Thames – will take in great lungfuls of toasted Maris Otter aroma. It’s a traditional scent that denotes a largely traditional brewery, although not one that is stuck in the past: Sambrook’s now have a keg ale on the market, a pale ale that undergoes a period of krausening.

“We’ve produced something that is a cross between a lager and an English pale ale,” says Sambrook, 34. “It was just [about] trying to do something innovative and see how the market responds to it.”

It’s an interesting move from a brewery which has always sought to offer Londoners a taste of traditional British cask ale. Sambrook, who comes from Salisbury and still speaks with a soft West-Country twang, was surprised when he came to the capital at the paucity of breweries. At that stage he was working in the city but when in 2008 he decided to become a full-time brewer, his motivation was clear.

“I always thought that London was an untapped market for craft beer,” he says. “Where I grew up, we had fantastic microbreweries like Hopback, Ringwood, and more traditional ones like Hall and Woodhouse. I was very lucky. I was surprised when I  came to London and there was only Young’s and Fuller’s – and then Young’s left.

“Cask ale is an inherently local product. That’s true everywhere in the country –  look at the furore over Tetley’s shutting down [in Leeds], for instance. I met the guys from Leeds Brewery last week, and I love their advertising, with the hints from the Tetley advertising – ‘the last brewery left in Leeds’. There’s all these pubs up there now which they couldn’t ever supply – overnight, they’re saying, ‘we want your beer in’.”

For all of his passion for tradition, Sambrook is delighted by the proliferation of breweries across London. More good beer available means more interest in good beer. Sambrook’s has certainly grown over the four years of its existence: they now produce some 5,500 barrels a year, which equates to well over a million pints.

The tide may be turning in Sambrooks’ favour. There seems to be a move back towards session-strength beers, like The Kernel’s much-admired Table Beer, which weighs in at just 3 per cent. It’s a trend that Sambrook (whose brewery regularly produces Wandle, at 3.8 per cent, Junction, at 4.5 per cent, Powerhouse Porter, at 4.9 per cent, and Pumphouse Pale Ale, at 4.2 per cent) is understandably happy to welcome.

“I hope it’s the next thing for craft beer,” he says. “We’ve often debated where the market is going. I’ve not fully embraced the American hop thing – I love those beers but our culture in the UK isn’t about that. My expectation is that over the next two or three years you’ll see brewers asking: what are we good at? We’re good at producing low-abv beers packed with taste, at using British ingredients – more malty drinks, porters, stouts.”

Which brings us neatly back to Maris Otter, and Wandle. Sambrook admits he was surprised at the World Beer Awards triumph. “I was absolutely delighted,” he says. “I’ve always been cynical about beer competitions. I’m delighted that this was picked by a panel of independent judges on a blind tasting. Some of the other competitions you’re a bit sceptical about why things get chosen.

“I’ve always thought that Wandle wasn’t a beer that had the flavour profile to stand out – the best thing about Wandle is that it is a lovely, delicate beer. It doesn’t necessarily stand up against something that is packed full of hops, that has a high abv, and therefore if you’re judging it in a competition you’re likely to go for the other one - but if you’re drinking it on a  day-to-day basis you’ll probably have Wandle, because it’s delicious.”

Friday, 12 October 2012

'This is the best time to be a brewer'

John Keeling has seen the ebb and flow of London’s brewing tradition. First came the ebb: when Keeling joined Fuller’s in 1981, Courage was about to become the latest great name to abandon the capital. Some 25 years later, Young’s made their belated, much-lamented departure and left the Chiswick brewer as the sole survivor of London’s brewing heyday.

Then came the flow. Of the 30 or so breweries in the city today, only Fuller’s, Meantime and a handful of brewpubs have been around longer than a few years. It’s a remarkable state of affairs. “I can’t keep track of them,” Keeling admits with a laugh.  “I don’t know how some of them, like Brodie’s, can keep track of all the beers they produce, either.”

That’s not meant as a criticism: Keeling, 56, is evidently delighted with what’s happening around him. He’s as interested in flavour as any craft-beer upstart, as those who’s enjoyed one of Fuller’s recent series of Past Masters beers will know. “The rise of the new breweries means you have to produce more interesting beers,” he says. “You can’t rest on your laurels. You want to try and do more.

“My job is more interesting now – this is the best time to be a brewer. Now, rather than looking at the haze of the beer, the question is: what does it taste like? For brewers like myself who are interested in flavours, that’s a great thing.”

Keeling is popular with many of the new brewers: more than one has told me how useful they've found talking to him at meetings of the London Brewers’ Alliance. The admiration appears to be mutual.

“I like drinking in the company of brewers,” he says. “Even with the new wave of brewers, there’s no ‘our beer is good and your beer is crap’ attitude. It’s more ‘that’s an interesting beer, how do you do that?’ it’s always like that with brewers – you only get a more competitive edge when marketing gets involved.”

Keeling has plenty of knowledge to impart. He has been part of the brewing world since he joined Wilson’s Brewery in his native Manchester in 1974. After three years’ there, he moved onto to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh before accepting a job at Fuller’s in 1981. In 1999, he became head brewer.

It’s a role he relishes, even if the Fuller’s head brewer no longer gets a town-house at the heart of the complex as part of the job. Walking around Fuller’s part-historic, part ultra-modern site, he enthuses about the brewery’s tradition. “Microbrewers can make beers from the past, but a brewery that existed in the past can make it better,” he says. 

“We have a certain amount of brewing books, we don’t have to use anyone else’s. It’s made right next to the plant it was made in originally. We try very hard to make it the same way – we’ve looked at how we made it, we realised in 1893, we didn’t sparge. Everything here is designed to sparge, but we couldn’t do it because they didn’t. We had to change the way we brew.”

You don’t have to go back to 1893 for a different way of doing things: much has changed since 1981, Keeling says. Back then, they had two basic recipes. “One mild, one bitter,” Keeling says. “From the bitter recipe we produced Golden Pride, ESB, London Pride and Chiswick Bitter. From the mild recipe we produced two other beers.

“In the 1990s we started creating new recipes: Mr Harry, 1845, we revived London Porter. Now we’re actively looking at a huge variety of beers. Our autumn seasonal has been around for 10 years but there’s no demand to get rid of it – people want something extra as well.  

“When the Hock Cellar [Fullers’ brewery tap, where tours of the complex end] was originally designed, there was only three hand pumps. We've got six, and we probably want ten.”

 It’s not just about cask ale. Fuller’s have produced a variety of superb bottled beers in recent years, from the Vintage range to the Past Masters beers. Then there’s the Brewer’s Reserve range of barrel-aged beers.

Next, it seems, is a serious stab at high-quality keg beer. “Keg beer is the next big thing,” he says. “If you think about it, cask beer is seven per cent of the beer drunk in Britain. The best beer in Britain is cask beer but the worst beer in Britain is cask beer too. there’s many places who cannot serve it because they’ve no idea how to look after it.”

Some of these places – particularly in central London – serve London Pride. It’s clearly something that frustrates Keeling. “It does worry me. But if we don’t work with them, do something with them, they’re never going to have cask beer. But now we’ve got an opportunity to sell them keg beer that is equally as interesting.

“The thing you have to learn is that keg is a different environment to cask – just as you have to design a beer for cask, you have to design it for keg. I have no truck with people who say keg beer is rubbish, or people who say cask beer is rubbish. If you say cask beer is rubbish you simply haven’t drunk  any good cask beer – the same with keg.”

It’s a move that will bring Fuller’s into line with the likes of Meantime and Camden Town, whose keg fonts are increasingly common across the city.  More and more of London’s new beer fans expect to find good beer on keg as well as cask; Keeling is well aware that any new Fuller’s product must be of the highest quality. “Craft beer is bringing new drinkers in, and they’re coming in with a relatively open mind,” he says. “They’re quite happy to appreciate cask, can, bottles, keg.

“I do think there’s a load of lager drinkers who are searching for an interesting flavour but can’t find it because it doesn't exist in their environment. Now Meantime are trying to fulfil that need, so are Camden.  

"I think Fuller’s can enter that market. But we won’t put cask London Pride in a keg. It won’t be very good, it would be underselling us and them. It would be perfectly possible to develop a London Pride that is very good in keg but there’s nothing wrong with developing entirely new beers that are designed especially for keg.” 

Monday, 1 October 2012

'Maybe I need to be more ruthless'

What’s it like to be the nicest man in British brewing? Andy Moffat laughs. He’s heard that one before. “Maybe I need to be a bit more ruthless,” he says, but the smile on his face suggests he doesn’t mean it.

His actions confirm that suspicion. If Moffat was more ruthless he might still be working as a banker in The City, which he did until his gnawing desire to brew became too much. That was in 2010, when he set up the Redemption Brewing Company in Tottenham. In the short time since, the brewery’s cask ales have become regulars on all the best bars in town. And last Friday, Big Chief, a punchy IPA made with New Zealand hops, was voted the South-East's best beer by the Society of Independent Brewers.

Such is the quality of his products that Moffat, 39, has not had to be particularly ruthless in selling his wares. There's that niceness again. “We don’t do any sales,” he says. “I don’t want to hassle people. I just think about how many calls pubs get from people trying to sell them beer. I think most good pubs in London want to have a nice spread of beers  - they know what they’re doing. They’ve got a clear idea of what they want.”

Which, more often than not, includes at least one Redemption beer. The softly-spoken Scotsman has the intelligence and clear-sightedness you’d expect of a banker, even if he has rather more heart than the tabloid stereotype would allow. That clear thinking is obvious when he talks. Listen to him, for instance, on the subject of kegged beer and why Redemption, who for the moment produce only cask ale, will not be joining the rush to put beer into keykegs.

“I think there’s good keg beer around but it’s too much investment for us,” he says. “I think that’s where the future growth is going to be but it would be a lot of work. We have a brewing consultant, a guy called Dave Smith, who comes down three times a year to do quality control here. [That shows how] We want to keep standards up:  if we were going to do the other things we might not do it very well and that would affect our good cask reputation.

“I know keykegs are the big things right now but the cost adds about £20 – I can envisage myself having a conversation with the pub: ‘oh, if you want it in keykeg that will be an extra £20’. They’d be ‘we’ll have it on cask!’”

Don’t get the idea, though, that Moffat dislikes change. The recent updating of Redemption’s branding illustrates how keen he and his five-strong team at the brewery (which includes his other half Sam in the office) are to reach a new audience. “If the beer’s good, the beer guys don’t care [about the branding],” he says. “But if you want to get other people interested, who might not otherwise try it in a pub, that helps.”

Moffat is clearly happy with where the company is. He says – and it’s easy to believe him – that he’s still pleased he made the jump from city-boy to brewer. The blossoming London craft-beer pub scene is opening up new avenues for those like him who produce good beer.

“The great thing about London is that lots of the breweries are doing different things ,” he says. “You’ve got The Kernel who are a bit more niche, Sambrook's who make good solid session beer, Brodie's doing all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff, Stuart [Lascelles] at East London is making good beer, it’s a real family business. We’re somewhere in the middle.

“One of the things we like about being in Tottenham is that there’s still an edgy, urban quality to it. You’ve got a contradiction in that there’s a brewery in a place where very little cask ale is sold. But it’s a quirky place, there’s an element that’s like Shoreditch 15 years ago – I’m not sure Tottenham will ever change like that but it’s an interesting place.”

It’s a long way from Moffat’s previous life working for Deutsche Bank, too. Moffat, though, insists bankers are not all bad. “I got on really well with the guys I worked with,” he says. “ We helped each other out.

“But there’s a minority, a large minority, I don’t know what the best word is to use [to describe them]! They don’t care about anything. You don’t just want to care about yourself, we’d be selling bonds to insurance companies and pension funds and you’d want them to be happy. There were some of us who were interested in more than just ourselves.”

Moffat admits it was a bit of a midlife crisis that led him to brewing (‘Some people gets a sports car,” he says, “I opened a brewery”) but he doesn’t regret it: “When I got out of banking, it was starting to go a little pear-shaped. It was going in that direction.

“[At the time] I thought, ‘There are lots of breweries up and down the country but very few in London’ – I tried to analyse my way out of it: ‘Oh, it’s a bad idea, if it was a good idea someone would be doing it already.’ The more I thought about it the more I thought it could work.”

It was the perfect time to make the leap: Redemption opened perhaps a year-and-a-half before London filled up with little breweries. The last year has been good. Moffat is now selling around 140 casks a week, as compared to 80 12 months ago. There are no plans for rapid expansion: home will be a Tottenham housing estate for the foreseeable future.

Moffat is cautiously optimistic. “There are many more people opening in London now but we’ve not felt [the impact of that] yet,” he says. “There’s still a big potential for expansion.

I’m fearful that there’s an element of faddishness with cask ale at the moment. I dare say that in a couple of years things might move on – to gin distilleries, perhaps, that might be the next thing.

“There’s always room for good beer. It has to be of the right quality, though.” 

Images by James Lambie for 'Craft Beer London' (Vespertine Press 2012)