The past few years have seen a boom in the emergence of craft breweries: small, independent start-ups established by passionate individuals who care deeply about their art. As the thirst for a more refined sup has caught on, Liverpool has become home to a vibrant community of its own homegrown independent brewers. Often these idiosyncratic organisations are started for precisely the same reasons as those cited by the single-minded music lover who’s driven to press their favourite unheard band to 7”: an impulsion to create, a sense of adventure, a drive to celebrate and, most importantly, as a reaction to the corporate structures that for so long dominated both industries.
Maybe, as small-scale indie labels struggle for a raison d’être in a digital age, the brew kettle is replacing the vinyl lathe when it comes to defining alternative independent culture? Maybe craft breweries are the new independent record labels? We sent Sam Turner to find out.
With lank hair, charity-shop knitted jumper and bright eyes, the man sitting opposite me is excitedly telling me about the thrill of pushing his art form forward whilst building on traditional methods. But this isn’t the latest bedroom techno prodigy or folk sensation. Gaz Matthews of MAD HATTER BREWING COMPANY is at the forefront of Liverpool’s burgeoning craft beer scene. And while ‘scene’ isn’t a word which can usually be ascribed to most foodstuffs, it is more than appropriate for the community which has bonded over keg beer in Liverpool and beyond. “It’s about being artistic and doing something new,” is how Gaz describes craft brewing and this seems to be the sentiment which excites and cements devotees across the city.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been meeting some of the key characters in the Liverpool brew community to try and ascertain how this beer trend echoes movements within independent music culture, a sub-sector that is traditionally seen as more creative. It turns out that the parallels are plentiful. Nick Dawes, editor of craft beer bi-monthly magazine HOP & BARLEY puts it down to passion. “I liken it to bands or musicians, such as [Bristolian DJ] Eats Everything, who set up their own labels in order to put out the music that they love. It’s just guys who love beer investing their own money into setting up their own brewery to make beer that they love.” This is certainly the case with the Liverpool brewers I met.
Those who frequent Camp and Furnace and The Kazimier will be familiar with the brews of Liverpool Craft Beer. The brewery have worked with the venues to produce Brown Bear (with grain smoked in the eponymous Furnace) and Organo (made with wild flowers found in the Kaz Garden). They’ve also made bespoke collaboration brews with the likes of Tate Liverpool’s Mondrian exhibition and Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia over the past twelve months, highlighting just how deep the alliances run. It is such community working which has forged a real camaraderie amongst those in the industry. “We just like doing nice things with nice people,” is how Seiffert assesses the love-in. The beginnings of the brewery are testament to this. When Paul and co-founder Terry Langton first made the move from home-brewing in Terry’s Anfield bathroom, they sought the welding expertise of WAPPING BREWERY (located in the bowels of the Baltic Fleet pub) and industry know-how of beer veterans Liverpool Organic Ale to set up their Love Lane base.
However, that is not to say the beer community is without its tensions, even if most of these lie in a rivalry which has arisen between the new kids on the block (craft) and the lobbying group CAMRA. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) sees the keg-based CO2 process of the majority of craft beer as an affront to the work that they have done since the 1970s to ensure what they see as more authentic, cask-conditioned beer is sold in pubs everywhere. It’s an interesting battle which has seen craft beer behemoths BrewDog stop selling cask beer completely and many within the CAMRA community refusing to sup anything which could be termed ‘craft’. Wapping Brewery’s Angus Morrison is all together more diplomatic: “All I care about is good beer, well made,” says the amiable Scot before launching into a long and complex explanation about how the definition of real ale is as confused and hypocritical as the term ‘craft beer’ has become meaningless.
As with the well-worn category ‘indie’ in music, ‘craft’ no longer means a lot to industry circles and beer geek communities. Inevitably, as the product has grown in popularity, bigger companies have tried to capitalise and as a result beer which is as ‘indie’ as whoever is headlining V Festival this year, is being labelled as craft. As is often the case with any area of culture, there is a certain danger of craft beer becoming a victim of its own success. As breweries such as BrewDog become bigger and bigger and Derbyshire’s Thornbridge grow in size and are able to sell their craft-style ranges to supermarkets at a low cost, smaller breweries become priced out.
When asked how he sees the scene developing on Merseyside, Seiffert paints a rosy picture but is obviously aware of the hazards: “Another five breweries [in Liverpool] in the next five years, more craft beer bars and shitty bars trying to jump on the trend. We’ve had a few enquiries from bars who don’t know anything trying to jump on the bandwagon, but they will end up stocking the poorer end of the craft beer stuff which they are prepared to pay for – the ones brewed by the big breweries which look cool but is mass-produced stuff.” The more positive side of this vision seems to be borne out by his own brewery’s plans. LCB have owned premises on Bridgewater Street in the Baltic Triangle for the last 18 months. Excitingly, they hope to move there this summer and open their own brewery tap which will sell twenty-five draught beers from Liverpool and further afield. And with Mad Hatter already in the vicinity and new kids on the block Ad Hop adding to Liverpool’s vibrant scene, drinkers will continue to see the benefit of a burgeoning scene.
The latest indicator of the strength of the movement in Liverpool was the opening up of the BrewDog bar, and, while some may bemoan craft beer becoming mainstream, the city’s brewers only see benefits in the Colquitt Street beacon. “They’re a recognisable brand so people who don’t drink craft beer will still know BrewDog,” says Seiffert, “so they’ll go to the bar ‘cos it’s a cool place; they’ll try some beer and that will lead them on to more; it can only be a good thing.” The Scottish brew chain certainly seems to be giving the local scene a platform, with ‘meet the brewer’ evenings featuring Liverpool Craft and Mad Hatter a regular fixture of their events programme, and familiar names in their fridges and on the pumps.
The events side of the scene is another dimension which is making a bigger splash in Liverpool’s cultural events offering. The Liverpool Craft Beer Expo was started by its namesake brewery two years ago and is moving this year from Camp and Furnace to Baltic neighbours Constellations. The event is the centrepiece of a craft beer events calendar which includes tastings and meet the brewer events at places such as the craft drinkers’ favourite bar the 23 Club and pub The James Monro. Music is a key element to the Expo with Paul (himself a self-described failed musician) handpicking DJs and this year laying down a vinyl-only rule to the jockeys – who will once again include your own Bido Lito! taste-makers.
This vinyl-only policy seems to adhere to a preference amongst the craft beer community for the authentic. Whilst maybe not as strict as the rules imposed on the real ale fraternity, those involved in craft beer seem to prefer to see links to traditional recipes such as India Pale Ale and Belgian beer as well as know where their drink’s ingredients originate from. Nick Dawes sees this as a wider phenomenon of UK consumers becoming more conscious of the source of their food as we are developing into a nation of foodies. When asked about the explosion in craft beer’s popularity, Dawes is keen to point out the bigger picture of “people’s discerning taste for food generally – they’re so much more aware of the quality, they expect much higher quality and that should be the case with beer. So there’s been an increasing demand for good quality beer, sourced locally with good-quality ingredients and the industry has responded to that. It’s interesting to note how many chefs are really starting to take notice of beer, in terms of pairing it with food. It’s better than wine, with millions of flavour combinations – that’s something they do at the Clove Hitch and 23 Club really well.”
As well as authenticity there is also the aforementioned drive amongst this vibrant community to experiment. Angus Morrison appears to be making it his mission to move Wapping on from being a traditional real ale brewer to joining the exciting world of craft, where ideas ferment in the minds of people like Gaz Matthews, who has exciting plans to bring out two new “absolutely insane beers” on a kind of Mad Hatter mystery subscription scheme every three months.
When Liverpool Craft Beer’s new premises and bar open on Bridgewater Street, the city will be able to talk in earnest of a new brewing empire, nestled in the shadows of the now-defunct Cains brewery. Between LCB, Mad Hatter and Wapping’s sites, Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle will stand alongside Bermondsey and Manchester as a true craft beer destination. A revolution is brewing.
Words: Sam Turner / @samturner1984
Photography: Robin Clewley / robinclewley.co.uk