Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
2015 was perhaps the most progressive yet for the UK’s modern beer industry. New breweries opened and in many cases hit the ground running. Existing breweries significantly expanded capacity, in some cases not for the first time, in order to meet exponentially growing demand. No longer do consumers have to seek out specialist retailers to find something new. Most significantly, craft beer started to become part of regular conversation and no longer the occupation of just us geeks.
Back in May I headed down to Battersea, South London, to visit the team behind Mondo Brewing Company at their new facility. There was no cramped railway arch, no repurposed brew kit and no sign of anything being hastily thrown together. Here was a relatively large, fully functional brewery packed into a decent sized warehouse, already producing finely tuned beers, and they weren’t even officially open for business yet.
“At Mondo we chose equipment that gives us the ability to dial in our beers to an exacting standard each and every time we brew them.” Says the brewery’s sales and brand manager Andrew Turner as he shows me around. “The level of craft beer production quality in London is ever increasing. We'd like to help raise that bar and elevate the overall image of beer in London.”
The brewery at Mondo is sleekly designed, resembling the interior of a space station. Seriously, the mash tun looks like it would be right at home on the Starship Enterprise. Tanks of different sizes, so that they can produce both small, experimental batches as well as those for full production, stand in perfect symmetry. It’s immediately obvious that significant financial investment has gone into this setup, led by an experienced team of staff formerly of London Fields Brewery.
At the heart of this setup sits a giant, touch screen control panel, which gives brewers and co-founders Todd Matteson and Thomas Palmer almost complete control over their process. “We aim to have our beers look and pour the same from batch to batch,” continues Andrew. “We chose this traditional German-style brewhouse and the hard-piped system to help us create homogenous wort with every brew and a closed system in which to move it about the brewery.”
This apparent attention to detail is refreshing. Since the founding of the Kernel Brewery in 2010 and the explosion of London breweries that followed, the focus for many has been on flavour. This was our rebellion against the homogeny of beer we perceived. But now, as craft beer reaches more and more consumers, a high standard of quality has to not only be achieved but constantly replicated in order to ensure that this boom is not a flash in the pan.
“Everyone seems to be having fun and that's probably the best thing for us, to share in the excitement and possibilities that brewers and drinkers are experiencing.”
For every brewery that occasionally pops out a stunning double IPA or barrel-aged stout we need another that produces a great lager or pale ale time and time again. Dependability goes hand in hand with sustainability.
The Mondo core range is a pretty familiar one. There’s a pale, an IPA and a brown ale – a style that might have been simply called bitter once upon a time. One beer stands out from the pack, a German style altbier called London Alt. “We all felt alt was an underrepresented style in London, so wanted to bring our version of an alt to London drinkers.” Andrew then goes on to explain how Palmer fell in love with the style. “Tom developed a deep relationship with Zum Uerige, a traditional alt from Düsseldorf, in the autumn of 2008. A bottle shop near his flat in Tokyo had a wide selection of German beers and it was Zum Uerige that stood out. That changed the way he thought about traditional, continental beer styles.”
Mondo’s London Alt stood out not because it was the most interesting, but because it was the one I immediately wanted another glass of. It was chewy but not sticky, with an interplay between brown sugar sweetness and noble hop spiciness. In fact it tasted to me just like a good German alt should. It’s far from exciting though, and not unique either, with South London’s Orbit also producing its own alt called Neu. So why build a brand on the back of a run-of-the-mill style such as this?
2015 saw the end of what I see as the ‘first wave’ of British craft brewing. The bubble has burst, but perhaps not in a way that people foresaw. Maybe there was never a bubble in the first place. This first wave, inspired by brewing culture the world over but predominantly in the United States, sprang into existence with the launch of Brewdog in 2007. Sure there were already some innovative breweries around like Marble and Thornbridge plus regionals such as Adnams and Fuller’s making great beer for a long time. It was Brewdog however who realised that foreign influence meant as much about updating British drinking culture as it did producing more interesting beer.
The sparks generated by Brewdog’s rapid growth run parallel with the brewery boom of the last decade. Breweries such as The Kernel are on the verge of achieving cult status whereas more ambitious outfits such as Beavertown or Magic Rock are now well on the way to becoming the next generation of regional breweries. With their expansion not seemingly slowing down, these successful breweries are forming the vanguard of UK craft beer’s second wave.
This recent success has inspired confidence, not just in the consumer but also in those looking to start new businesses, as well as those who would potentially invest in them. You only have to look at the recent purchase of Camden Town Brewery by AB-InBev to see this in action. Beer ceased to be a niche interest in the UK last year and with this greater public interest also comes the greater viability of building a profitable business.
Because of this the second wave brewery owner is more inclined to take risks and throw a lot more money behind a new project now that the consumer demand is there to back this up. Mondo are one example of this, Cloudwater in Manchester are another. If one brewery is able to build a brand worth £85 million in just five years then how many wealthy investors will suddenly think that the beer industry is a good place to lay their cash? More than a few by my reckoning. We can expect many more sleek outfits such as Mondo or Cloudwater to emerge over the next few years.
This is why producing an alt makes perfect sense for a business like Mondo. With hop contracts in short supply and farmers not as willing to grow less profitable crops such as malting barley, brewing an alt, basically the German equivalent to our own best bitter, is simply logical. It’s easy to perceive as being more exciting than a best bitter and as it’s produced by a small brewery the customers perception is that it’s probably better than mass produced Euro lager. It’s the perfect style for the beer consumer at large, those that have always been outside of the so-called bubble.
“The lid's off the box as far as we're concerned. The drinking public aren't panicking about how many choices they have.”
It’s not just me that sees this shift in UK brewing and beer culture though, Andrew and the team at Mondo are well aware of it. “The UK brewing scene has matured rapidly from both sides of the supermarket aisle. The influx of foreign craft beer has allowed the consumer to see where the global standard is.” Andrew continues: “Conversely the producers have stepped up their game by modernizing kit, hiring trained professionals from all over the world, and making this new style of brewing and beer their own. London has steadily been carving its own image into the global beer revolution, and we are very lucky to be a part of that.”
It won’t all be plain sailing though, as although the emergence of more and more brands is bliss for the consumer, it heralds the development of a more competitive marketplace for the brewer. There are only so many taps for beer to pour from and although this number is growing, it’s not quite happening at the same pace at which new brands are emerging. Here in London, with eighty-plus breweries already operating and countless others around the UK wanting to get into this market, it’s starting to feel a little crowded.
Andrew doesn’t appear to be bothered by this though. “There's room for a lot of us to make beer, to make styles we like and to try new stuff. London's a really fun, international environment in which to do that.” In fact his sense of camaraderie between other breweries is almost palpable. “Its nice to see other peoples set-ups, talk about process, share tips about sourcing ingredients and materials. Everyone seems to be having fun and that's probably the best thing for us, to share in the excitement and possibilities that brewers and drinkers are experiencing.”
Mondo seem comfortable with their place within the beer community but also aware of the challenges a business like theirs will face if they are to remain a vocal part of it. They’ve also given something back by building one of the tidiest little taprooms I’ve seen, in a location where it shouldn’t work but you can’t help but think it will. “The lid's off the box as far as we're concerned,” finishes Andrew confidently. “The drinking public aren't panicking about how many choices they have.”
It’s going to be a tough year for UK breweries, especially second wave breweries such as Mondo. UK Craft Beer is now firmly fixed in the spotlight – the key to its longevity is keeping it there.
But away from this spotlight there’s something else beginning to happen, something that I find incredibly exciting – a third wave is emerging. Breweries you haven’t and might never hear of, brewing super small batches and only selling ultra local. Call them ‘pico’, ‘nano’ – hell, even ‘post-craft’ but these are the breweries those of us inside the bubble, the geeks, should be starting to get really excited about. The next generation of British beer is here, and it’s going to be really good.