Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Story of Elusive Brewing

I almost don't know where to start with this but I'll have a stab at it. Let's go with 1990, being with a group of mates in the former Fox & Horn in Mortimer, near Reading, and ordering a pint of Flower's Best Bitter - having to face a grilling about being old enough before being handed that first, delicious pint. We used to chase them with the occasional Whisky Mac but that's not the point here. The point is, it was a long time ago that I first discovered beer. 

Down the years I've been through phases of drinking mass-produced lager and even developed a mild obsession with French wine, but ale has always been my main concern. Around the same time, we discovered £1 ferry crossings and the delights of Calais. Amidst the trollies full of £9 cases of Foster's, we'd throw the odd bottle of crazy Belgian beer such as Duvel. At 9% ABV, it was a novelty. We'd challenge each other to chug bottles. I had no idea that this was one of the world's finest examples of a style I'd yet to appreciate. I had no idea of style at all, to be honest.

I moved to California in 1998 and I recall discovering Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (WHOA, BITTER!!) in our local bar and starting to find my feet by learning the difference between a lager and an ale during a tour of Anchor Brewery. Missing British beer also led to my first home brewing exploits - a couple of ex-pats trying to reproduce Best Bitter in a Californian garage that averaged around 28 degrees, even in winter. We cracked it open on Superbowl Sunday in 1999 - it was bloody terrible, but we suffered through a few pints before resigning ourselves to cans of Coors Light and Bud.

Moving back to the UK, my interest in beer switched to Belgian styles and continued to develop. Discovering the Dovetail in Clerkenwell in the early 2000s really opened my eyes and inspired many trips to Belgium to hunt down the beers I was enjoying at the source. 

Fast forward a few years - I think my real 'craft' beer epiphany came when I joined twitter in 2009 and started to network with and learn from others. I soon discovered Beer Merchants and they were tweeting about beers from a brewer called Mikkeller. It would be easy to write that the rest, as they say, is history - but it wasn't as straightforward as that. I had a love-hate thing with the entire case that I'd eagerly ordered, but it had roused my interest in a way that I'd never thought possible. Jane, my girlfriend (now wife) had gone travelling and I had far too much time on my hands. I set about exploring beer and developing the love side of those first interactions with Mikkeller's and others' beers. It went from there to watching the UK scene develop. The endless variety on offer at the Cask in Pimlico, being rained upon outside the new Kernel Brewery while dissecting the flavours that this hop and that hop brought to each beer - this was slowly developing into an obsession.

I don't know what brought me back to home brewing. I was certainly inspired by David Bishop's blog amongst others, such as Adrian Chapman's. Kenny Hannah (@ObadiahPoundage) introduced me to Gregg Irwin (@dredpenguin) in August 2011. It was the pre-GBBF Kernel tap takeover at Cask Pimlico (Kenny writes about the event here), a night on which I'd also affirm my love of Saison. We'd go on to become good friends, but let's come back to that. That night, Gregg certainly planted some seeds as he talked about the beers he'd created at home and his aspirations to brew commercially. I don't think I've ever said this to him in person, but Gregg was, and remains, a huge inspiration to me personally.

When Jane returned from her travels, I proposed, and she accepted! In early 2012, I'd finally assembled enough kit to brew a beer at home. The first brew day took me about 12 hours from end to end and was supposed to be a clone of Green Flash's West Coast IPA. The blog post I wrote on that brew day details a series of very amateur errors but I recall being spurred on by all the comments and feedback offering advice on how to avoid those errors and improve my process. 

The day after the beer was bottled, Jane and me boarded a plane for Singapore. Our jobs in IT, while enabling us financially to afford a few months off, were a source of stress and long hours. In the year we were to marry, we'd decided to blow some of our savings on a big trip before blowing the rest on our wedding. My obsession with beer had reached borderline insanity. I had all the breweries and bars of note in New Zealand plotted on a map and had every intention of visiting them all.  Thankfully common sense prevailed and we managed to balance the beauty of NZ with the beer - just about. Our time in San Diego towards the end of the trip however was pretty much entirely spent in breweries!

On our return, Gregg (after we'd met up again to share some home brews) encouraged me to enter a competition that London Amateur Brewers were organising - it would be a great way to receive feedback and guidance on my first brews. The West Coast IPA was duly entered along with a Saison I'd created with some hops I'd picked up in New Zealand - Nelson Sauvin. The Saison scored well but was apparently entered into the wrong category (I found the BJCP style guidelines confusing so just guessed, incorrectly figuring they'd sort it out for me) but the IPA, despite being around five months old by this point, scooped a bronze medal. That rosette sits proudly on our mantelpiece to this day. I think that evening was a turning point for me, arriving home to open the last bottle of that first brew in celebration. Other people had enjoyed beers that I'd produced on the electric hob in the kitchen and fermented in the dining room. How could that be?

My obsession with home brewing snapped into overdrive on joining the fantastic London Amateur Brewers club soon afterwards. I wanted to drink and learn about everything I could lay my hands on. I wanted to brew every style I read about and tasted yet also kept going back to old recipes to refine and improve them. By the time The Craft Beer Co launched their National Home Brewing Awards in late 2013, I'd produced a few beers I was happy with and was growing in confidence. I certainly had my eye on that prize and spent about 3 months brewing most weekends to produce a range of beers to enter. Fast forward to February 2014 and what remains one of the proudest nights of my life thus far - "And the winner is...". The first person to congratulate me was Gregg, whom by now had partnered up with fellow home brewing obsessive Bryan Spooner to create Weird Beard Brewing - a brewery that was named amongst Ratebeer's best new breweries in the world after a phenomenal first year.

In terms of my own learning, it wasn't just about home brewing. I could list many UK breweries who'd generously indulged me in answering question after question during visits, or when I'd cornered them at meet the brewer events - helping to satisfy my growing curiosity around commercial brewing. Visiting Magic Rock for the first time in 2012 during the Beer Bloggers Conference in Leeds, the same weekend I'd first visited Summer Wine, was memorable. Seeing James Farran's home brew kit still stashed away in the brewery and hearing the story of how he, with Andy Baker, had started Summer Wine was fascinating to me, as was hearing Richard Burhouse talk about his own discovery of US beer and the story behind how he came to start Magic Rock, hiring Stuart Ross as head brewer to recreate those hoppy styles he enjoyed drinking. 

I was starting to detect a cross-over between commercial and home brewing. At the risk of over generalising, commercial brewers were just like the home brewers I'd met but with bigger kit, and much more at stake of course! - just as eager to learn and passionate about what they did. I don't think you ever stop learning as a brewer, commercial or otherwise, which is perhaps why I've never met a commercial brewer who sees what they do as just 'a job'. I wanted to be part of it like nothing else. As I'd learn later, it's a tough, physically demanding job so you certainly need to have a passion for it to power you through.

Gregg was a fan of the Nelson Saison and when I decided to start down the long path of setting up my own brewery, Weird Beard gave me a leg up by releasing it commercially as a collaboration. My friend Ceri Jones created some branding based on the 8-bit video games I enjoyed playing as a kid, as a logo was required for the packaging and having no idea where to take it, reverted back to my misspent youth. We launched Nelson Saison at Phil Hardy's Twissup in Macclesfield in 2013 - another proud moment for me but not as proud as, on my 40th birthday, having a barman tell me the story of that beer as he filled my glass - "this was originally a home brew, you know, but Weird Beard liked it so much they decided to brew it". The recipe would later be totally redesigned and released as Lord Nelson at the second Birmingham Beer Bash in July 2014. Weird Beard and me were both pretty proud of that beer. Further commercial brews would follow with Dark Star releasing American Red - the recipe that won the Craft Beer Co competition, Hogs Back inviting me to collaborate on a beer for GBBF 2014 and Siren Craft Brew giving me a huge leg up by inviting me to collaborate on Dinner For One, which developed into a series of releases each bearing the Elusive Brewing name.

Starting a brewery can certainly be frustrating. My personal 'adventure' would see me fail to secure three separate premises over the period of a year before finally agreeing terms on a unit in Basingstoke. The last of the premises that fell through happened very late in the process, meaning the 5BBL kit I'd ordered to coincide with it had to be moth-balled for a few months. The suppliers, Elite Stainless Fabrications in Swindon, have been fantastic in that regard, allowing me to take up valuable warehouse space by storing it. The day I'm finally able to take delivery can't come soon enough. To that end, with lease signing imminent and in light of previous delays, plus my day job giving me increasingly less free time, I've decided to focus full time on working towards that day and gave notice to my employer this morning. Being naturally risk-averse has definitely held me back but I have to do this now, or I'll forever regret it.

What happens to Elusive Brewing next is anyone's guess but I'm ready to find out. In years of supporting the brewing scene in the UK I've made plenty of friends and been offered lots of reciprocal support and advice in getting started, both technical and operational - underlining what a helpful and collaborative industry this is at its core. It might be clich├ęd to say I'll be aiming to make the best beer I possibly can but that really is my only focus, and I'm not afraid to take up some of those offers of help in order to do so! I'm also very mindful of the incredible growth seen in the past few years and am taking this as both a warning and encouragement - there's no room for mediocrity and there's definitely a squeeze coming, if it hasn't started already.

I'll be documenting the process of getting started, as much as time allows, so stay tuned for more posts on this subject. Despite the first brew day probably still being a couple of months away, I'm already nervous about it - but also ridiculously excited about what lies ahead.

8 comments:

  1. Great read. Hope it goes great for you

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  2. Good luck mate, if you can brew like you used to, then I can't see you having any problems! :)

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  3. Touched by your comments mate! Good luck with Elusive, not that you need it as I'm sure the beer will speak for themselves.

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  4. Outstanding news Andy - I'm sure it'll be a roaring success :)

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  5. Wishing you all the best and look forward to sampling your brews!

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