Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Black Velvet, Brett and the beer that came back from the dead

Christmas at the old Courage Brewery by Tower Bridge began with Black Velvet and oysters. Not just any Black Velvet, though, as Jim Robertson (the head brewer at Well’s and Young’s, who began his career on the south bank of the Thames) explains. “Every Christmas, the brewers got together in the sampling room, all dressed up, at noon on Christmas Eve,” he says.

“The head brewer would produce a 13-year-old magnum of Russian Stout and a 13-year-old magnum of vintage champagne  - which I’m lead to believe is the optimum age for vintage champagne, but I’m not an expert!  And the two were mixed together in an old enamel jug in the sample room  to form the brewer’s Christmas Black Velvet. Then the porters came in from the market with huge plates of oysters; we started our Christmas festivities with black velvet and oysters.”

It’s no wonder that Robertson, who worked at Horselydown between 1977 and its closure in 1982, has been the driving force behind reviving this most fabled of beers. It was in 2006 that the resurrection of this beer – which was last brewed in the early 1990s – first became possible. “That was when we [Well’s and Young’s] bought the Courage brands,” he says. “That immediately refreshed my memory. The major brews that we produced were Courage Best and Courage Directors - but IRS caused most excitement.

“It took probably about three years to get anybody else interested in it. There was not much enthusiasm four or five years ago for strong bottled beers: it was perceived to be flying in the face of commercial wisdom. But I was very passionate and I talked to ex-colleagues from Courage: a chap called Tim O’Rourke, who I’d worked with for many years, and others. They teased me: ‘when are you going to bring it back?’

“The key moment was when we started to work in the US with an export team. I was at a ‘Meet The Brewer’ function in Philadelphia, in a bar with the importer, and the bar owner said: ‘You used to work for Courage. Would you like to try some Russian Stout I’ve got stacked away in the cellar?’ So with great enthusiasm, we tucked into the poor chap’s stock of bottles going back to the seventies! Much-treasured, we polished them off. He said it was about time we started brewing it again and replenished his stock.”

And here we are. This second vintage has been well-received, although beer geeks would surely like to have had a taste from the barrels that were seeded with Brettanomyces - but never released to the public.

“We did some experimentation where we took some of the brew off, put it in separate barrels and seeded it with Brett,” says Robertson. “That produces a very interesting beer but for me it wasn’t correct. It wasn’t Russian Stout. I’ve no doubt, particularly in America, there would be a heck of a lot of interest in a barrel-aged Brett version but that wasn’t what I wanted to produce.”

If that seems a little bit of a shame, then the beer that has been released is ample recompense. The effort required to produce it has been written about elsewhere but the steps taken to make sure the second vintage (2012) matched the first as closely as possible in terms of flavour are interesting. “I don’t believe the average drinker would be able to tell the difference between the vintages,” he says, “but I noticed some difference.

“The second time, we brewed six times as much beer as in 2011. There was quite a significant difference between batches – six brews, divided into two maturation tanks. One matured better than the other- it was a matter of yeast quality, I believe the second batch got too much dead yeast and hop from the fermenter. We re-pitched the second one, and blended it together before bottling. That meant that the final blend of 2012 was very similar to 2011.”

Robertson’s experience with IRS has clearly whetted his appetite for brewing historic beers, of which there are a number in Well’s and Young’s portfolio. “There’s  a couple I’d like to work on,” he says.

“One – which I’m keeping under my hat -  is a very standard, working-class beer which goes back to my Courage roots, and another one that I can tell you about - because we’re just about to launch it - is McEwan’s Scotch, which is seven per cent ABV. Again we’re really focused on the American market. It’s totally different to other beers in that category: sweet, full-drinking and lower in hop character.”

I spoke to Jim Robertson recently for an article in the Financial Times. Not everything he said could go into that story, though, so the rest is here. Strictly speaking, of course, he’s not really a London brewer - but his experience of London beer and brewing surely qualifies him to appear here.

Friday, 3 May 2013

An Argentine brewer in London

This weekend sees the first London's Brewing, at which over 30 of the city's best breweries will present their wares. It's a sign of how far London's beer scene has come in the past few years - and few brewers have come as far as Julio Moncada...

Julio Moncada’s life took a decisive turn the day he first walked into a London pub. “I saw these things on the bar, these handpumps,” he says. “I'd never seen them before. I said to the barman: ‘What is that? Can I try it?’ 

"It was completely different to what I was used to, so full of flavour and aroma. It just blew my mind. From that day on, I have been drinking cask ales, I have been trying different beers all the time. I haven’t stopped since.”

That was in 2001. 12 years on, Moncada is not only a keen drinker of cask ale but a producer, too, having set up his eponymous brewery in Kensal Green just under two years’ ago. It’s not something that the 35-year-old would have predicted when he left his hometown of Villa Mercedes in the Argentine province of San Luis. That part of the world is better known for its wine: Moncada grew up near to Argentina’s  most famous wine region, Mendoza.

“Becoming a brewer was an accident more than a plan,” he says, smiling. “I didn’t think I would ever own a brewery.  [After I came to the UK] I was a homebrewer for five years: I was more into cooking, I wanted to become a chef. I did different courses and worked in different restaurants around London to get experience. But it was very demanding ... 

“With my wife, I decided to open a deli. I thought it would be nice to have the brewing equipment behind the  counter and to produce my own beer for the deli. That was the first step, when I thought it could be a business.

“It was after a course at [brewing training centre] Brewlab in Sunderland that I decided to just be a brewer: on the train back, I phoned my wife and said: ‘Forgot about the deli. This is what I want to do’.”

If brewing English beer (Moncada currently produce seven beers, all of them in traditional British styles) in London is an imaginative choice for an Argentine, it seems plenty of his countrymen have also been converted to craft beer. Moncada is a regular visitor to his home country – where Quilmes, a flavour-light pale lager, is ubiquitous - and made his latest trip home in April.

“I think the spread of good beer is everywhere,” he says. “I think there are probably 200 microbreweries in Argentina now, opening up everywhere. Patagonia is quite a big area for microbreweries: there’s lot of European communities there.

“There’s actually a town in Cordoba, they do the Oktoberfest,  it’s a German colony. They start exactly the same day as in Bavaria. That was one of the first places I really enjoyed beer, I went when I was 17. After that, I was going every year.”

Moncada is now a Londoner. The beer may be improving in Argentina, but he has no plans to return. “I’m established here,” he says.  “My kids were born in London. This is my home. I don’t see myself moving out.”

It’s an exciting, confusing time for beer in London, as Moncada acknowledges. Barely a week goes by, it seems, without a new brewery opening. “When I decided to open a brewery, I got a phone call,” he says. “The first person who called me was Paddy Johnson from Windsor and Eton, he explained to me what the London Brewers’ Alliance was about, and that I was brewer no 14. How many do we have now? 40, I think.

“At the last LBA meeting, we had another 10 planning applications to go ahead. By the end of this year, there should be at least another five new breweries. In 2014, there will be more. It keeps going up and up.”

A number of these breweries are and will be in West London, where craft beer is yet to fully take hold as it has in the Eastern half of the city. It’s an interesting peculiarity (perhaps explained by the relatively high cost of living in West London), but the overwhelming majority of London’s best places to drink beer can be found in its eastern half.

“It is more difficult in West London,” Moncada admits. “Often, we need to do business over there [in East London], but there are lots of microbreweries there, too. I’m like a foreigner!”

With the business thriving (Moncada, who along with brewer Sam Dicksion does all the work for now, is aiming to increase capacity and take on new staff soon), says this presents a problem. “Our biggest challenge now is to find and convince new pubs around here to stock our beer,” he says. “We have the problem with the tied pubs, there are so many around here.”

Perhaps some new beers will convince local publicans to take a chance on a local brewery. Although Moncada concentrate on English styles for now, that won’t always be the case. “We don’t want to get stuck in a routine,” says Moncada. 

“I always want to experiment and try something new. I’m always happy to try something new. What we like to do is try something and give it to people, to see their reactions. With our porter, for example  – we wrote three different recipes, gave it to a pub, gave it out for free. The punters voted for which one they liked best.”

If that sounds like fun, it clearly is. Moncada is soon to open a bar at the brewery (initially one Friday a month, but perhaps more often depending on demand) and the atmosphere at the brewery is happy and optimistic. “I’m really having fun,” says Moncada. “This job has stressful elements – we want it to be a success, to stay in business for many years to come - but I’m having a good time.”

Friday, 15 March 2013

'I've never met a brewer that I don't like'

How many breweries can a big city like London support? Depending on how you work it out, there are somewhere in the region of 40 now: it seems a lot, but In 1700 there were 190.

Historical comparisons notwithstanding, London’s brewing boom continues apace. New operations are opening all over the city, from Southwark basements to Walthamstow pubs via industrial units in Hanwell. Such is the demand for space that some brewers are sharing: that’s what’s happening as the last-named, from where Weird Beard and Ellenberg’s are ready to spring their wares on a thirsty public.

It’s also the case in Penge, a part of London most famous for its amusing name and the fact that Bill Wyman, erstwhile Rolling Stones bassist, grew up there. This is where Late Knights, whose beers have until now been produced in Middlesbrough, should be brewing soon. They’ll be joined by Shamblemoose and SignatureBrewing on a site that has in the past been a wine warehouse and a slaughterhouse.

“I live 150 yards away from the brewery,” says Steve Keegan (pictured above), the man behind Late Knights. “We came over to have a look to see if it would work – it was an absolute state. It was chaos in here. You could tell it was a good place for a brewery though.”

It’s a particularly interesting development for Craft Beer London since the app actually played a (very small) part in ensuring Late Knights ended up in Penge. I knew Steve, having contacted him for information for the app, and I knew the building’s owner, Graham Lawrence, because he owns Mr Lawrence, a wine bar and former off-license in Crofton Park, where I live. Graham said that he was interested in getting involved in a brewery, I mentioned Late Knights, and a thus-far fruitful relationship was born.

Steve’s beer history goes back a little further, though. Until recently, he was employed by Fuller’s to manage pubs: he played a big part in turning the Union Tavern (in Westbourne Park) and The Barrel and Horn (in Bromley) into the craft-beer dens they are today. Before that, he ran pubs in Richmond, Oxford and Finchley. Suffice to say, he knows a little bit about beer and the pub trade. “I’ve been working in pubs since I was 14,” he says. “I’ve dabbled in homebrewing in the past, I felt I understood it. [When I left Fuller’s] I thought it was time for me to do something for myself – to take a risk.”

Steve, 30, had been making beer during his time off from working for Fuller’s at the Truefitt Brewery in Middlesbrough, which is run by Matt Power, who Steve has known since he was eight. He decided at Christmas that he could no longer do both jobs. “I had to make a decision,” he says.  “Do I continue to work for Fuller’s and do both jobs half-arsed? Do I focus on the pubs - or the brewery? I spoke to my family, my girlfriend, and this is what I decided. When I went back after Christmas, the first thing I did was hand my notice in. I  don’t think Fuller’s are entirely happy, but in all honesty I didn’t expect it to reach this stage.”

Penge-brewed beer will soon be on bars across the city, but another central feature of Steve’s project is still at the planning stage. It also involves Graham Lawrence and his much-missed off-license, which until the end of January was one of the best places in the capital to buy beer. Beer-lovers disappointed by the closure of Mr Lawrence (you can still buy beer and wine online), though, will be placated by the plans Steve has for the place: license-issues allowing, it will be a brewery tap for Late Knights, and more besides.

“We’d have the full Late Knights range and a selection of other London micros,” he says. “Eight, perhaps 10 hand pumps. On keg we’ll have other American-style beers; we want to do a large bottled selection – 100 bottles and 100 whiskies. The bottles we will also sell as off-sales, so what you could get from Mr Lawrence you’ll be able to get from the bar. I’ve got the experience [of running pubs], I have the level of knowledge that we’ll need.”

As Steve says, other London brewers will also be on the bar – including, no doubt, The Kernel, who have a long relationship with Mr Lawrence. Steve is keen to help others out as he has been helped.

“I got a helping hand from Matt [at TrueFitt],” he says. “I want to offer that to other people. Like Shamblemoose: Matt and Lera [O’Sullivan] used to be locals at a pub I worked at in Richmond. Lera told me they were going to open a microbrewery.

“When I was looking into setting up this brewery, I spent an hour on the internet trying to track them down – I knew she was an American brewer living in Guildford, so I thought ‘I must be able to find it’. I couldn’t find them, and ended up going out to get a haircut. When I got back, she’d emailed me! This was 18 months after I’d spoken to her for ten minutes. Asking me advice – “oh, we’re looking at pubs, can you help me do projections.” So odd!”

And then there’s Signature Brewing, who make beer in collaboration with musicians. Steve met the three men behind the brewery (Sam McGregor, David Riley and Tom Bott) a few months back and a plan was hatched. “I started talking to them, giving them advice,” he says. “Like how to get beer in pubs. They've done some cuckoo brewing at Titanic [in Stoke] and at London Fields. They’re coming to do some brewing here every month; we’ll see what happens.”

Steve is clearly excited by what the future holds. “I've never met a brewer that I don’t like,” he says. “They’re mostly really nice people and they do it because they love it. That’s the kind of industry I want to be involved in. There will always be competition because we want to sell our beers. But we've got to work together as much as we can.”

You can buy the Craft Beer London book here, while the app, which is now available for Android, can be downloaded here

Friday, 15 February 2013

Brewing in the shopping centre

London has a lot of breweries but not many native brewers. There are a few, most notably Alastair Hook at Meantime, but it’s striking just how many of the city’s most well-known brewers come from somewhere else. Jim Wilson, the East Londoner who’s in charge of the shiny brew kit at Tap East in Stratford, is something of a rare beast.

The story of how Wilson, born in Bow and brought up in Dagenham, came to cask ale demonstrates neatly why this is. “I used to be an avid Carlsberg drinker,” he laughs. 

“That was until I went up to Lincolnshire with my partner to visit one of her friends. We went into a country pub, there was lots of ale; I though, let’s try that. That’s what got me into home brewing and  drinking the usual suspects like [London] Pride and Bombardier.

“I used to go out with my mates and it was always ‘ten pints of lager and one pint of that weird brown stuff’. My mates would say:  ‘oh it’s horrible, why do you want to drink that?’ ‘It’s not, it’s got flavour.”

Wilson’s refusal to give in to public humiliation has prepared him well for his role at Tap East, which, he tells me, is the only brewery in a shopping centre in the whole of Europe. Tucked away in the corner of the huge Westfield shopping complex (which sits alongside the Olympic Park), the brewery is on show to the world – or at least those who wander past on their way into the shopping centre. All that stands between Wilson and a constantly changing cast of smokers, amblers and fascinated toddlers is a large window.

Of course, it means that Wilson, 26, can see what’s going on outside, too. That was particularly handy during the Olympics, when all manner of famous sportsmen and women flitted past his brewery. Some of those taking part even partook of his beer, he says. “I remember there was a Puerto Rican doctor – he was really interested, I showed him around the brewery. We had all manner of East European coaches drinking in here, too.”

If things are a little more humdrum these days on the other side of the window, Wilson’s brewing is going from strength to strength. Yesterday he brewed a Blood Orange Pale Ale with noted beer guru Melissa Cole (“I’d never seen a blood orange until earlier this month,” he laughs) and the size and flexibility of his brewing kit means experimentation is easy. “I’d like to try a Pilsner; Not that many small breweries that have that opportunity – to try different stuff, keep the beer world turning. It’s a case of, ‘let’s have a go and see what we can do’.”

Perhaps Wilson’s late conversion to cask ale has created this expansive approach to brewing. For a number of years, he was a refrigeration engineer – then came that Lincolnshire revelation. He began to homebrew, and a day helping out at Brentwood Brewery in Essex turned into a full-time job. He was there for two-and-a-half years before coming to Tap East in April of last year.  “It was a new challenge, I knew the guys at Utobeer,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It’s a nice place to work.”

Certainly, Wilson takes a lot of satisfaction from seeing his beer being enjoyed. “There’s nothing better than coming in on a Monday and seeing all these empty casks – at least someone has had a good weekend!” he says. “It is very rewarding, that’s the best part of the job.”

He is also quite heavily involved with the London Brewers’ Alliance. “Because we meet each other regularly, we know what everyone is doing. It keeps everyone on their toes,” he says. “We want to improve beer in London. It is an exciting time to say the least." Wilson now lives just outside London, in Chelmsford, but he’s still delighted to be part of the city’s burgeoning beer renaissance. “It’s great to be part of the history of brewing in London,” he says. “To work where you’re from – it’s really rewarding.”

As for the future, Wilson is fairly open-minded. “I’d love to have a restaurant with a small brewery, doing American-style food, not over-complicated,” he says. “Or work for a big brewery. Hopefully by the time I’m there, some of the smaller guys will have grown – but I don’t think I’d ever have my own brewery. Too much stress. All you want to do is make the beer but there’s too much other stuff.”

Friday, 18 January 2013

Bermondsey's reluctant brewer

Andy Smith likes his music loud. Approaching Partizan Brewing’s base under an railway arch in Bermondsey, you can hear the brewery before you see it. Specifically, you can hear the music of Gang of Four, a suitable choice since Smith, 31, comes from Leeds.

“I’ll just turn that down,” he says with a smile. Behind him is the brewing kit, a gift from Evin O’Riordain at The Kernel when they moved from their own Bermondsey railway arch to a bigger one, and a huge pile of boxes filled with bottles.

Smith, sporting a thick woolly jumper and an even thicker beard to combat London’s winter chill, is somewhat wearily attaching Partizan’s stylish, witty labels to the bottles: not everything about brewing is as glamorous as some appear to think.

But Smith wasn’t attracted to the world of beer by glamour, but by money. Back at the tail end of 2009, he was working as a chef at a restaurant in Chelsea which was struggling to pay its staff.
In order to deal with his bills, he got a job at The White Horse in Parson’s Green, where he ended up working in the cellar. That’s how he met Andy Moffat, head brewer at Redemption in Tottenham. “Andy was dropping off some casks,” he says. “I’d been homebrewing and asked him if he wanted some help.” He did.

More than two years on, and having enjoyed the full Andy Moffat experience (“He’s almost too nice at times,” laughs Smith. “It gets to five o’clock and you want to finish your job but Andy’s pushing you out of the door!”) he has his own brewery.

If it seems a natural next step, it didn’t appear that way to Smith. “It wasn’t something I intended to do,” he says.  “When I was a chef, it was always ‘are you going to open your own restaurant?’ ‘No, I’m not interested!’
“I had a chat with Andy in January. We talked about my future, I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere anymore. It felt like I was doing a 9-5 job. He’s a really open guy to talk to about that. He said I could try and get a job at a big brewery like Thornbridge, or start on my own – which I wasn’t too keen on.

“I talked to a few people, including Evin (The Kernel), and he offered the brew kit for nothing. That was decisive – it was almost impossible to decline.”

If Smith sounds at all half-hearted, a taste of his beer should be enough to dispel any misgivings about his commitment. The Foreign Extra Stout, in particular, is excellent: it comes from an old Courage recipe, he says, and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of London’s other recent revived recipes.

“The beers I make are the beers that I want to make. They won’t all be very strong [like the FES, which is 8.6 per cent]. I’m making a Saison which should be four or five per cent. They have to taste good. With strong beers, it’s like reducing a stock: the more you reduce, the more flavour you get. That’s what I want.”

Smith’s background in cooking makes him an interesting brewer. Plenty of people have compared brewing and cooking, but Smith isn’t so sure. “Organisation is the big thing you learn in cooking – have everything laid out,” he says.

“That’s helpful in brewing, too - but when you’re cooking, you can taste as you go along. If you make a dish and didn’t taste it until the end, that would just be the worst thing to do. There’s nothing you can do about it when you’re brewing – you have to wait until the end, fingers crossed.”

His career as a cook began in Leeds, and it’s there that he first got a taste for great beer, too, at one of the country’s foremost craft-beer haunts. “We used to go to North Bar; it was a big chef hangout on Friday and Saturday night – you’d have a bottle of [Schneider Weiss’s wheat dopplebock] Aventinus after you’ve finished service on a Saturday night. It’s about eight per cent but it goes down incredibly easily!”

Smith believes that London has something to learn from Leeds when it comes to beer appreciation. “The drinking culture there is different,” he says. “You can go to a nightclub and drink cask ale, which is unheard of down here.”

Partizan’s beer can be found in a number of London’s best craft-beer pubs and bars (if not nightclubs), but if you want to get a closer look at the brewery it’s now open on Saturdays. Just follow your ears.

You can now buy the Craft Beer London book here, while the app can be downloaded here