Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
Sat on a mantel amongst the brew kit at Weird Beard Brew Co are two certificates. On the left is a gold they took home from the Campaign for Real Ale's Ealing Beer Festival for their Black Perle Milk Stout. On the right is a certificate from Ratebeer, that acknowledged their ranking on the site as the fifth best new brewery in the world in 2013. Together, these two awards manage to symbolise the universal appeal of this West London Craft Brewery.
"Thinking back, we should have set up in Hackney or Bermondsey" remarks head brewer and co-founder Bryan Spooner, who sports a beard worthy of his brewery's name. "We've got a lot more space out here though, and that's not something we should take for granted." Weird Beard emerged onto the burgeoning London Craft Beer scene in 2013, originally sharing their space with the now defunct Ellenberg's Brewery. The location of Hanwell in West London was chosen by Mike Ellenberg as he wanted to set up somewhere within cycling distance of his home. Sadly Ellenberg's own venture didn't go the distance and he ceased brewing in 2014, instantly doubling Weird Beard's capacity in the process. Ellenberg is still employed by Weird Beard, maintaining crucial brewing equipment on site.
"Thinking back, we should have set up in Hackney or Bermondsey"
Spooner met his soon to be business partner, Gregg Irwin, at the Euston Tap in 2011. Both were avid home brewers of some repute, having won awards locally and nationally. As with many startups it took them a while to get off the ground. They eventually created their first commercial beer at The Bull in Highgate, in collaboration with The London Brewing Co and brewer Daniel Vane. Shark Biscuit was a big, 7.4% ABV IPA brewed with aromatic Australian hops. Served on cask it was a tropical fruit scented delight and was a sign of things to come, even before they'd commissioned their own brewhouse.
On his decision to turn pro, Spooner remarks "Why the hell not! I had some savings and I'd put feelers out looking for someone else interested in starting up and this is what brought Gregg and I together." Since setting up a business together two and a half years ago Weird Beard have come on in leaps and bounds. Consistency has always been key and a core range, headed by beers such as Mariana Trench, a South-Pacific Hopped Pale Ale and Black Perle, their award winning Coffee Milk Stout, it's easy to see why they've become so popular. Well designed, eye-catching branding has also played a key role in their success, as well as a string of well organised events and beer launches.
As a brewery, Weird Beard are over the first hurdle, people know about their beers and they know they're good, but where does a new brewery go from here? I paid a visit to the brewery and as soon as I arrive I'm greeted by Sales and Events Coordinator, Natasha Wolf, who's eager to show me around. The brewery itself is inconspicuous, tucked away on a small industrial estate. You wouldn't know it was there unless you were looking for it. Upon entering the building, my eye is immediately drawn to a rack of wooden casks to the left of me. There are some from familiar distilleries such as Ardberg in Scotland and Heaven Hill in the USA but there's also some more unusual barrels that once held Red Wine and even Tequila.
The modest, ten-barrel brewhouse is today brewing Little Things That Kill, a low ABV pale that has its body bolstered by the use of wheat, oats and lactose. It's unusual, in that it's one of the few beers Weird Beard produces that isn't Vegan friendly, they never fine any of their cask beer, but it's become one of their most popular. Each batch uses a completely different selection of hop varieties and on this occasion they've plumped for the unusual combination of Saaz and Bravo. "Sometimes we just have to brew with what we have available" says Spooner, he smiles wryly "I'm pretty confident this will come out tasting good though."
It's just past 8.30am when I arrive but the brew is already well underway. The newly produced wort is currently being transferred into the kettle and hops are being weighed out for the boil. My palm is coated in a film of herbal Saaz as I shake the brewers hands. I'm shown two, brand new twenty barrel fermenters and the space that will soon be home to a new hot liquor tank, which will dramatically speed up how long it takes them to brew. I'm then taken a couple of doors down the road to a second, recently acquired warehouse that is now used for storage. "We now export to nineteen different countries" says Natasha excitedly, in a room full of palletised keykegs waiting to be shipped, as bottles of Hit the Lights IPA are being labelled by hand. At almost every turn I'm shown something new or a space that will soon be home to a new piece of equipment, Weird Beard seem to be in a very good place at the moment.
Packaging is still a laborious undertaking for Weird Beard, bottles, kegs and casks are still filled by hand but they've recently experimented in having cans produced by a third party. What's immediately evident to me is that the majority of the profit the business is making is being reinvested in making the production of beer a more efficient process. This will also ensure that the desired level of consistency is reached and that they'll be able to make more beer, ensuring further growth.
"I guess we're the big fish in a small West London brewing community"
You do get the sense that Irwin and Spooner miss being closer to the thriving beer scenes in South and East London, but it's not all doom and gloom. "I guess we're the big fish in a small West London brewing community" says Irwin, "Hopefully we can help this scene expand over the coming years." It's inevitable that they will if the other Craft Beer centres in London are anything to go by. Weird Beard have worked hard to be noticed in these areas, with several successful popups taking place at the Bottle Shop on Bermondsey's Druid Street. Recently, in collaboration with Manchester's Marble Brewery and London Cuckoo Brewers, Bullfinch, Weird Beard launched a new beer at a packed Bottle Shop. Named You Taste Better When You Are Scared, this tart, mouth-puckering IPA, brewed with grapefruit and acidulated malt is the special kind of beer that has made sure Weird Beard have been noticed amongst the craft beer community.
As the brew day began to draw to a close, I was pleased to see Natasha bringing a few bottles out of the cold room, and this was among them. It's tart without ever becoming sour and is led by a rich, pithy orange note. The grapefruit lends the beer a bitter, dry finish, it's complex but manages to remain totally drinkable. We then open a new double IPA, single hopped with Centennial. This beer has a rich malt body, almost like malt loaf but this is balanced by a lively, lemon note from the Centennial and a bitter, herbal finish. Bryan then emerges from the other side of the brewhouse with a pipette containing his Sadako imperial stout that's spent six months ageing in a Jim Beam bourbon barrel. This has lent the beer an immense vanilla and bourbon flavour that sits beautifully against a backdrop of liquorice and molasses. It's totally righteous and it's easy to tell that this beer is ready to sell.
On shelves around the edges of the brewery are empty bottles from some of the worlds most well regarded producers. Once a week the Weird Beard team gets together for 'Whale Wednesday' where they each bring a coveted bottle from their own cellars to share. It's easy to see the respect Weird Beard have for breweries at the bleeding edge of craft and that they'd like to be included among them, yet they still manage to produce traditional ales, often in cask, that have a broader appeal. As well as some of their core range they manufacture beers such as Dark Hopfler, a 2.8% mild ale made with the second runnings from their imperial stout. It's an example of a beer that's loved by beer geeks and lovers of traditional ales alike and helps explain how they manage to satisfy the palates of such a broad church. It's no wonder that they've already reaped awards for their efforts.
A few hours later the team has retired to Leytonstone's King William IV pub, where Brodie's annual Bunny Basher beer festival is taking place. Suddenly Gregg leans in toward me and exclaims, 'I've got nine staff now, nine!" He's clearly thrilled at the rate his brewery is expanding and it's no mean feat after taking the petrifying leap from home brewer to fully-fledged pro. There's no sign of things slowing down for Weird Beard and I don't think they'd have it any other way. I for one am excited to see exactly how far they are able to go.