Beer: Battling the Black Stuff
Taking on Guinness is the beer world’s equivalent of offering to mark Lionel Messi, or flicking Mike Tyson’s ears: it suggests a predilection for painful humiliation. The Irish brewer’s dominance of the stout market – such as it is – is so complete that for many drinkers, Guinness is stout. In one corner of North London, though, that reality may be about to be challenged. “Why can you only get Guinness as a stout in the UK?” asks the Camden Town Brewery’s owner Jasper Cuppaidge. “They have, like, 90-odd per cent of the stout market – and you ask a Guinness drinker what he drinks and he doesn’t say stout or porter, he says Guinness.”
Which is where Camden Town, and their new beer, a stout called Camden Ink, come in. Launched this week, the beer will be sold initially in a relative handful of pubs – but from the dreamy look in Cuppaidge’s eyes as he discusses his brewery’s latest offering, there are bigger plans. And no wonder. The beer – to be served exclusively under pressure, like Guinness – has been four months in development at the brewery’s base under Kentish Town West station (below) and you can taste the hard work in every gulp. It also looks a dream, something that clearly matters to the 36-year-old Australian.
“The first thing is, it has to look beautiful,” says Cuppaidge. “It has to look good; it has got to look really sexy. But of course the flavour is crucial: we’re not a hop-first brewery, we like balance. We didn’t want to make it without character, we wanted it to have flavour – I think that’s the problem with Guinness, it’s almost flavourless now. There’s no character. We wanted to have hop character but not alpha-ey.”
So what does it taste like? “It’s a lovely drinking beer,” says Cuppaidge, who made his name with the success of his Hampstead gastropub/microbrewery, the Horseshoe. “It’s got those roast flavours, chocolate flavours, espresso flavours. It’s got length, a nice lingering flavour. The roast is sort of in the background, but you could drink it with your eyes closed and know it’s a black beer.”
You could also be pretty sure it’s an American beer, except that of course it isn’t. Nonetheless, like so many of the best new British breweries, Camden Town have drawn inspiration from the deep well of American craft brewing. Most of their beer is keg beer – as opposed to cask ale, the traditional method of dispense for British brewers – and the brewery itself is impressively modern (all shiny metal, bleeps and screens) if somewhat cramped. In addition, though – as demonstrated by the production of a stout, a beer style that was born in London, not Dublin – they’re proud to be Londoners.
“America was the inspiration,” says Cuppaidge. “People would come to the bar at the Horseshoe and you’d say ‘oh, have an ale’ – and they’d say ‘I don’t want any of that. I’d love a Sierra Nevada!’ They didn’t see it as an ale! It’s got bubbles in it, it’s cold, it’s got nice packaging, it’s flavourful. We sell lots of beer in the pub but it’s a lot of imported beer.
“Also, the Americans are modern. Brewing is a traditional process, but it’s sexy and modern over there. We don’t follow trends with our beers – we don’t go ‘oh, lets brew a hop monster, let’s do this’ – no, let’s make beers that are right, that we want to drink. All these beers are bloody hard work because we want to make it easy for the bar to sell it.”
And what about London? “We’ve always wanted to make beer for London, we want to satisfy London, not be on the bandwagon of being London,” says Cuppaidge. “It makes sense to offer one of the most traditional beers from here. No-one was doing a craft keg stout – a lot of porters and stouts on cask, but there’s no-one doing it on keg. You see places that do oysters but the only beer they have to serve with them is Guinness – I’m sure if we go and knock on the door they’ll put us on, because we’re a London brewery making a London beer. We’re lucky to be in London, we’re lucky to have that recipe.”
Camden have knocked on plenty of doors since the brewery was set up in June last year. The response has been encouraging, says Cuppaidge: the success they’ve enjoyed is testament to the fact that more and more Londoners want interesting beer. With a core range that embraces lager, pale ale and wheat beer and regular specials – which, next year, will include a pale ale brewed for the Olympics that is inspired by a beer made by the defunct Camden Brewery at the time of the 1908 Games – Camden have got most bases covered.
“It’s easy to get people interested in what we do – then they come down to the brewery and it’s like ‘oh, you’re really doing something different,’” says Cuppaidge. “And then they taste the beer… we’ve really focused on quality. The beer sells itself. We get people in here, show them a great time. If the beers aren’t good enough, they won’t sell. We’ve struggled because all of our brands are selling really well. The doors are opening, in places we didn’t expect.”
Cuppaidge’s own beer background includes not only the brewery at the Horseshoe, but a grandfather who brewed beer for much of northern Queensland. Laurie McLaughlin owned Mac’s brewery in Rockhampton, Australia, and more than 100 pubs. When he died, Cuppaidge’s mother – then 24 – sensibly decided to sell the family business. Nonetheless, it is a history that clearly inspires Cuppaidge. “That heritage has always been around – we’ve got the brewing books, we’ve got photos of old trucks,” he says. “But it was never a brewing influence on me. Brewing beer at The Horseshoe was a present to my mum, a reincarnation of her dad’s old brand. Then I got a big note on my desk, just saying ‘STOP!’”
He hasn’t stopped, and doesn’t look likely to do so any time soon. Expansion is on the cards – Cuppaidge expects to move to a bigger site, still in Camden, within two years – and, anyway, optimism appears to be the Australian’s stock-in-trade. For now, all thoughts are on Camden Ink. “I’ll be interested to see how this goes,” he says, his face a picture of nervous excitement. “You probably wouldn’t drink four or five pints of dark beer in a night. Will the sales peak and trough, will it do well in the winter but not the summer? It could take us all by surprise and sell loads.” That wouldn’t be such a surprise.
Follow @Will_Hawkes on TwitterTagged in: beer, camden town, craft beer, Guinness, london, stout
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