Sunday, 27 September 2015

Beer In Essex: Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants - An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewery

Beer In Essex
Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants
An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewing Company

It's a bright sunny afternoon when I set out to walk the three miles across Brentwood from my house to Calcott Hall Farm, the home of the Brentwood Brewing Company, and walking up the drive I notice that the field to my right is full of ripe pumpkins ready to be picked. Halloween may be a month or so away but I've already heard that the pumpkin beers have started appearing in the stores across the Atlantic, with the season for these seemingly getting earlier and earlier Stateside. I'm not generally a fan of these beers as I find them too heavily spiced with ginger and cinnamon for my palate, and wonder if the brewery I'm visiting will find a use for them.

I ring the bell and am let in to wait in the brewery's tap room, although I barely have time to settle down into the inviting studded red leather sofa before Roland, the breweries co-founder and owner, appears and immediately offers me a beer. There is a question that I need to get out of my head, so I have to ask him about the pumpkins I spotted, and whether any will be making their way into the brew kettle any time soon.

"Definitely not!" is the resounding response, and whilst on balance I'm rather pleased, there is a small part of me that can't help but feel that it could just be an opportunity wasted.

The main reason for my visit is to follow up on a discussion I had with Roland a few weeks before about his taste in beer and preference for cask over keg. I wanted to get to the root of this preference, as he freely admitted that there were some keg beers he enjoyed, but none that he found truly satisfying. After visiting the SIBA BeerX in Sheffield earlier in the year for example, he tried plenty of keg beer but needed to finish on cask at the end of the day.

"I think it's simply the taste, " he states very matter-of-factly, "it suits my palate more. Cask beer has a certain character, particularly the bitterness, that I don't find in other beer."

"Do you have a favourite cask beer?" I ask.

"My own," he says without hesitation, "that is Brentwood brewery beer. Basically, when it comes down to it I'm tight, and I think, and I know this isn't actually right, that I'm putting money back into my own pocket."

I'm guessing that this is something that most brewers and brewery owners do, and it certainly makes good sense to be seen to drink the beer that you produce as a positive endorsement of its quality. I do however push him to give me another brewery's beers he would drink instead of his, a brewery whose beer he admires perhaps?

He replies with just one word. "Harvey's".

We discuss beer and breweries, both local at national, at some length as I'm poured another beer and Roland is particularly keen to stress how much small breweries are being squeezed.

"Head brewers in general earn around £15000 to £18000 a year at the moment which isn't great considering the work that they do. In order to make good money from brewing a pint of cask ale needs to be around the £5 a pint region, and taking a penny off a pint in duty doesn't help breweries at all. Drinkers then expect it to come off the price of their pint, and they are really only interested in that price being low, in fact they expect it, but the cost of production and materials continues to rise. We're stuck in the middle, being squeezed more and more."

This kind of open, frank and candid attitude is something that I've experienced in all my dealings with Brentwood Brewing and Roland in particular. It's refreshing to hear somebody speak in this way at a brewery in Essex and I ask him about dealings with the other breweries in the county. I am interested to know if they ever meet up and swap ideas or talk through their problems.

"Not really to be honest," he says, "other than at the occasional beer festival or SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) meetings, and even then the area we are in, (SIBA Eastern, encompassing Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Lincolnshire, Peterborough, and Suffolk) is so large that it almost makes it impossible."

Considering it's nearly 200 miles from the top to the bottom, and the roads being such that it would take over three hours of driving from a brewery like Brentwood in the south to Tom Wood's in the north, time and other constraints make it rather impractical. Apparently, Brendan Moore of Norfolk's Iceni Brewery, and representative to SIBA for the region has tried to organise more local regional meetings of brewers from three or so counties, but these have come to nothing due to poor communication, something I find hard to comprehend in the modern age.

I can of course see that breweries in different parts of the country have different problems and concerns, both logistically and with regards to their marketplace, but what about on a county level? Surely Essex brewers talk to each other about the problems that they face when if and when they meet, sharing ideas and asking for advice of particular problems they are having?

Somewhat surprisingly and rather unfortunately this is not the case. The brewers and indeed the owners, only talk in general terms if and when they do meet, I am told, and are generally quite guarded. I'm curious as to why this would be, as it would seem to make more sense and be more beneficial to help each other out. Apparently not, and when I ask why this is I am given a one word answer. Competition.

This makes no sense to me, and noting my confusion Roland is obliged to expand on his reason.

"We are concerned that any idea that we have will be copied, and in todays market it's all about having an edge and being one step ahead. That is the main reason we don't really talk to each other, that and time constraints, but we're really worried about our ideas being copied by the big boys, the big countrywide brewers."

This is quite a statement, and whilst it makes sense on one level it is quite difficult for me to process when I look at it from an outsiders viewpoint. In my experience, certainly at local level, brewers are very keen to tell you what they're up to next. It is after all good publicity to let prospective customers know what to look out for as I creates a sense of anticipation and raises the profile of the brewery in the minds of the consumer.

I ask about collaborations with other breweries in the county or even further afield, and both Roland and his son Ethan, Brentwood's head brewer who has now joined us, agree that they would consider the possibility although they have no plans at present, nor have they had any approaches as yet. Personally I see this as a great way for a brewery share ideas and techniques, and breweries that have done so have grown from strength to strength, so hopefully there will be some scope to do so.

At this point Roland is needed to attend to a customer who has come to pick up several polypins of beer for his daughter's wedding that weekend, so I take the opportunity to follow Ethan into the brewery itself, the first time I've actually seen it up close since they moved to the current site in 2013.

The set up is very similar to that which I remember from when I spent a Brewery Experience day with them back in 2012, the subject of my second ever blog post, at their previous home just up the road from the White Horse in Coxtie Green, a pub still referred to as the Brentwood Brewery Tap.

The new site has a tap room of its own that is open at weekends for beer to be purchased to drink or on the premises or to be taken away, along with a range of brewery merchandise.

There's plenty of room for expansion here however. Currently a 20 BBL brewery, with brewing taking place 2-3 times per week, Ethan shows me the space in which he hopes to install a further two fermenting vessels which will greatly increase capacity and give him a little more room to experiment under the Elephant School brand, as he has plenty of ideas of his own.

I'm interested to discover that Brentwood actually brews a beer that is kegged, Wapping Hoppy 4.0% with the tag-line "The Home of Hoppy" which it supplies to the new home of English Hockey, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, just up the road to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. They also supply cask beers, Wapping Gold and Wapping Cape, which are simply existing Brentwood Brewery beers re-badged.

I ask Ethan what we should expect from Brentwood in the next couple of months, thinking that he may not wish to give too much away, however he is keen to tell me of his upcoming plans.

"We'll be brewing Spooky Moon again soon," he tells me, "our Autumn seasonal, to tie in with Halloween coming up, and I plan to brew a few special one-off beers under the Elephant School label, the first of which will be a White Mild."

I'm familiar with White Stouts, pale beers with the body and flavour of a stout that plays with your mind when you drink it, similar to a Black IPA in a way, but in reverse of course. A White Mild is however a new thing on me and I ask Ethan how he proposes to brew it.

"I haven't quite figured that out yet," he states with a huge grin on his face, "however we haven't used the elephant name in any of our brews so far, and White Elephant would be perfect for that."

I have to agree.

There are also plans afoot for a winter release of a barrel-aged Chockwork Orange, their dark Old Ale-style beer brewed with oranges, possibly in nip bottles, a special tasting event, or even a combination of both. Whatever they choose to do it will certainly be something that you won't want to miss out on, so keep an eye on the brewery website for any information on this or indeed any other release.

Four hours have passed since I arrived in seemingly no time at all, but as I'm getting ready to leave the heavens open so I head back to the tap room where I'm poured another beer and we continue the conversation.

Plans for a possible micropub in Brentwood are mentioned (something I've discussed with three separate and completely unconnected parties in the last few weeks), as well as ideas for beers, both new and maybe the revival of a few of the older styles, but as these are still ideas at this stage I will leave them there.

All too soon the sun reappears and bidding farewell to Ethan, Roland and the rest of brewery team I head back to my home on the other side of town. Both of them independently offer me a lift but I refuse, preferring to reflect on a good afternoon and time well spent amongst local people with a real passion for what they do and a genuine love of good beer.

It's turning into a beautiful early-Autumn evening and I realise that I quite fancy another beer.

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