Bristol Beer Factory: ‘We’re always trying to be innovative’
Everything you need to know about Bristol Beer Factory can be found on the wall of the brewer’s office. Where more inspiration-challenged workplaces might have a ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here…” poster, there’s a large sheet of paper with a list on it. ‘Crazy ideas for 2012′, it says at the top. “There’s everything from champagne beer to leather porter on there,” says Chris Kay, the head brewer. “When Mitch Steele from [American craft brewery] Stone Brewing came over, he put up a few ideas using lemon peel and grapefruit peel. There’s saison, rosemary beer, double IPAs – we’re always trying to be innovative and try new things.”
That much is clear in their Christmas offering this year. Many British breweries churn out what amounts to a stronger version of their normal efforts for the festive period. Not Bristol Beer Factory. They’re going to unleash 12 different stouts (the 12 Stouts of Christmas, in fact) on the Bristolian public. It’s a project that demonstrates their innovative approach, their sense of fun and their appreciation of Bristol’s brewing history.
“Back around the start of the year, we were tossing around ideas,” says Andrew Cooper, Business Development Manager. “We all like stout and Bristol has a long tradition of stouts and porters. It’s been a chance for us to make some interesting beers and try out new techniques. We’ve used barrel-ageing, fruit, we’ve meet new people on chill and fruit farms.”
The beers will be launched at an open day at the brewery, when food complimentary to the beer will also be served. That’s another key thing about Bristol Beer Factory: like all the best new breweries, they understand that beer is a natural partner for food. They’ve spent the last few months putting on beer-and-food events across the south of England, and they regularly host beer dinners in their home city.
Given that Kay spent his teenage years in Belgium, where there is an acceptance that beer is at least as good a partner to food as wine, this appreciation of beer’s qualities should be no surprise. “Its not unusual to see beer on the dinner table in Belgium,” he says. “It’s so intrinsic in Belgian culture; you see beer in Michelin-starred restaurants, beer has never been the poor relation to wine.
“To say one is a lesser drink than the other is ridiculous. Going on from that, it makes sense to partner our beers with food and they work really well. And if you’ve got a very wide range of styles of beers, it’s easier to match with food. When we do dinners, we definitely have a few converts [to beer] every time.”
They’ve had plenty of converts over the past few years. When Bristol Beer Factory was founded in 2005 it was a fairly traditional outfit but the arrival of Cooper and Californian assistant brewer Brett Ellis (pictured below (left), with Kay) has changed all that. Although their core range still includes all the British classics – best bitter, stout, golden ale – their more unusual offerings are starting to make waves in Bristol.
“We’re getting there slowly but surely,” says Cooper. “Bristol was a Courage city and their old estate is now in the hands of Enterprise. You go into many, many pubs in Bristol and you don’t see much variety – but our stuff is growing in popularity. There’s a real passion beginning to show itself.”
It’s a passion that has long been evident across the Atlantic, where the American craft brewing revolution continues to grow and evolve. Ellis is typical of his countrymen in at least one respect. “I need to get my hop fix regularly,” he says (Kay agrees: “Brett has introduced us to the world of hop! A lot of our beers are more hop-forward than I had been brewing before”). But it was trying cask ale when he arrived in the UK (to get married) that really got him interested in brewing.
“That opened my eyes in terms of the amount of flavours [you can get] out of the product just because of the temperature. Cask softens and deepens flavours. If we put our IPA – Southville Hop (above) – in a cask, and put it through a handpump, the malt is accentuated. Its still definitely a hop-driven beer, but the malt is stronger. In a bottle [by contrast] with that added carbonation, it’s a lot more prickly and brighter. It’s a lot more hop-driven.”
The Californian’s interest in beer, however, does not begin and end with big hop flavours. He is keen to do more barrel-ageing and blending: he whetted his appetite recently when they put their imperial stout into whisky barrels. He also wants to put some beer in kegs – Bristol Hefe, a wheat beer, and Southville Hop, he thinks, would suit that method of dispense.
“Our first foray into whisky barrel-aged beer is our imperial stout, that we aged first for just under six months in one Laphroaig whisky barrel and two Glenlivet,” he says. “We also had about 500 litres in stainless tanks. We tried the Laphroaig barrel after six months – it was so intense that you couldn’t taste the subtleties. It was dominated by peat and the char of the barrel.
“We did a couple of blends in pint glasses and we really found that adding in 30 per cent of the [beer from the] stainless steel kind of did that barrel justice. It brought out the subtleties; it was more balanced and quaffable.”
Understandably, Kay is thrilled to be brewing at a time when such experimentation is possible and when there seem fewer boundaries than ever before (notwithstanding the government’s wrong-headed tax hike on beers over 7.5 per cent ABV). “Back in the 1980s, the world of beer was a very small place and Belgian beers were considered very exotic and rare, but now you can buy Chimay in Tesco’s,” he says.
“It has all changed in quite a short space of time. American craft brewing has played a big role. The standard and the range of beers produced have certainly improved over the past five years. People are becoming more demanding – they want to try interesting beers. They’ve travelled, you can find out a lot on the internet. They want that at home.”
This interest in beer means Bristol Beer Factory will have to expand, albeit on the current site in Southville, which is not far from Bristol City’s home at Ashton Gate. The brewery, in fact, is based in part of the long defunct Ashton Gate brewery. “We definitely need to expand,” says Cooper. “The kit we’ve got limits us on some of the styles of beers we’d like to brew in the future. We need kit that’s more adaptable.”
Having just brewed their 1000th beer (Bristol Vintage 2011, pictured right), these are heady days for Bristol Beer Factory. “If we can make it, we can sell it,” says Kay. “Everything is heading in the right direction. It is a very exciting time.”
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