Matt Curtis explores the nascent and curious world of distilled beers
Saturday 18 December 2021
This article is from
Brewing the Future
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One of the first things we point out on a tour of our distillery is that we essentially start our process by making beer,” Max Vaughan, founder of Derbyshire’s White Peak Distillery, tells me.
Unlike beer, however, the ‘wash’ – the malty, fermented soup that is the precursor to malt-based spirits – is brewed primarily as a source of alcohol, which is boiled off and collected during the distillation process. It doesn’t traditionally contain hops, as they would become unpleasantly bitter during the long boil and taint the distillate. While they are similar on paper then, anyone who has sampled wash will confirm it could never be mistaken for beer as we know it.
Established in the Derbyshire village of Ambergate, a stone’s throw from the south-eastern border of the Peak District, White Peak has been distilling since 2018. Its first products include a gin flavoured with a blend of 13 botanicals, and is named after a local woodland called Shining Cliff, plus a rum, which is produced using molasses (a by-product of cane sugar refinement). So far they’ve released a limited amount of white rum, but the majority has been laid down in oak casks, so that the flavours can refine and develop.
February 2022 will be an exciting time at White Peak, as it’s when the distillery’s first single malt whisky will be released. In accordance with regulations defined by the UK Government, whisky must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years before it can be marketed as such. It will be the first whisky to have been made in Derbyshire.
“I absolutely think the craft beer space is ready for whisky.” Vaughan tells me. Out of curiosity, I ask if he’d ever consider making a spirit using a hopped wash? “We’ve never tried it. What we’ve read about distilling hopped beer didn’t fill us with confidence!”
Just as with craft beer, and low intervention cider and wine, the smaller arm of the spirits industry is experiencing something of a renaissance. According to industry publication The Spirits Business, as of February 2021 the UK is home to 563 distilleries, as well as countless other brands which make their product under contract elsewhere, much like the many itinerant beer brands to have emerged over the past few years.
Another trend that’s running somewhat in parallel is that those of us who enjoy beer are becoming less fixated on drinking the same thing all the time. And by this I don’t just mean folks are trying lots of different beer styles from lots of breweries. Anecdotally speaking, drinkers (especially younger ones, perhaps less constricted by history than their older peers) seem increasingly happy switching from beer, to cider, to wine and so on. Wine writer Rachel Hendry of Burum Collective has even given this trend a name: Compound Drinking.
It’s natural, then, that this more curious generation of drinkers will eventually gravitate towards spirits too. And of course, innovative small breweries are already looking to soak up a little of this curiosity for themselves. One of the ways they’re doing this is by producing spirits of their own, including—fascinatingly—those distilled from their own beers, rather than a traditional wash.
“I don't think most beer enthusiasts are that interested [in spirits], particularly the vocal superfan types, but there are lots of people interested in good drinks,” says co-founder of Somerset’s The Wild Beer Co., Andrew Cooper. “I'm not sure novelty distilled beers have a place, but if we can make great spirit from distilling beer, then it definitely has legs.”
The Wild Beer Co produces Spirit of Pogo, a distilled version of a pale ale that contains passion fruit, orange and guava. It also makes a couple of gins, but rather than being distilled from the beers themselves, they are merely inspired by their source material. For example, one of the botanicals that features in its Sleeping Lemons gin is the same preserved lemons that are used in the beer of the same name.
Andrew speaks openly about how producing distilled beers is still very much in experimental territory for The Wild Beer Co.
“We’ve worked with a few different partners on this and have had varying degrees of success,” he admits. The brewery has so far worked with fruited beers, soured blends, barrel-aged dark beers, and even some hoppy pale ales, with a few distilled efforts still in barrel that might not see the light of day for another couple of years.
“I personally haven't enjoyed any of the spirits I've tried that have been created with hops, either pre or post distillation. For the cost of hops you just don't get enough good character through,” Cooper says.
One brewery that is beginning to throw its not inconsiderable weight behind distilled versions of its beers is Leeds-based Northern Monk. Founded in 2013 by Russell Bisset, with production spearheaded by Brewing Director Brian Dickson, the brewery has become one of the figureheads of the UK craft brewing movement. It’s also now one of the largest, with the brewery operating two production sites in Leeds, and with bars presently operating in both Manchester and its home city.
For Bisset, the intent to produce distilled versions of his brewery’s beers comes from a desire to showcase them in what he describes as their “biggest and boldest manifestations”. The first of these, Spirit of Death, released earlier this year, is a 41% ABV version of its Death Imperial Stout, which typically sits at a far more tame 12%. The first batch was sold directly via Northern Monk’s website, and sold out in a single day.
“The inspiration comes from thinking about how we can continue to provide new and innovative beer(ish) experiences,” Bisset says. “Our industry has brought about incredible innovation over the past 20 years, and there are not many stones left unturned. We feel this is one.”
There are not many stones left unturned
To produce the spirit Dickson worked with the Burton-on-Trent based Beer Barrel Distilling Company (BBDC), which has also distilled beers for Purple Moose Brewery in North Wales, and Sheffield’s Kelham Island. He tells me how BBDC’s proprietary distilling method ensures the maximum transfer of flavours from the base beer, and how for him it felt logical to use an already intensely flavoured beer to get the best results in a spirit. Northern Monk plans to follow up the initial success of Spirit of Death with the aptly named Spirit of Glory, a distilled version of its 10.5% Triple IPA.
“We settled on sending them a New England Triple IPA pre-dry hop, because even with their methods we were unsure how such a large dry hop would distil,” Dickson tells me. “I went down with a rucksack full of hops to oversee the first run and settled on a hopping rate which was way up on what [BBDC] had tried previously.”
Although when I spoke to Dickson he was yet to try the finished spirit, his excitement about it was palpable. And he’s not done there, admitting that after working on this project he came away with at least “30 more ideas for the way we can play with [hop] varieties” in a distilled beer. Before bottling the spirit will spend a further two weeks on oak chips, which Dickson hopes will allow the wheat and oats in the NEIPA base to shine through.
The Beer Barrel Distilling Company was set up by friends Tim Massey and David Goldingay, who together have a combined 40 years’ experience in the beer and brewing industry. Goldingay began tinkering with his still in 2015, which took 18 months to design and build. In 2020 the company was finally granted a distillers licence so it could begin producing and marketing its products. The actual process in which BBDC uses to distil beers is a closely guarded secret, but Massey believes they are onto something special.
“It’s been described to us as ‘beer alchemy’,” he tells me. “What we’re producing is what whisky has the potential to be.”
While Massey is reticent to reveal BBDC’s process, he does explain that – as with conventional distillers – the process first distils a white spirit. This is then aged on oak chips (Massey describes them as “dominoes”) as opposed to in a barrel, with the increased surface area speeding up the spirit pulling flavour and colour from the wood. He says that their distilling method allows them to bring more flavours and aromas through from hops than a regular still, but if more hop intensity is required the spirit is vapour infused using a conventional gin basket. He does also admit that the dark colour seen in Northern Monk’s Spirit of Death is achieved through the addition of caramel colouring.
Massey believes his company might be on the cusp of developing a new sector. For him the advantage BBDC has over a traditional whisky maker is that brewers' mashes are generally better quality than a traditional distillers wash. He says this is because they use more interesting grains and undergo a longer fermentation time. Massey is also confident that BBDC’s process is able to successfully separate the undesirable bitterness compounds from hops while leaving the aroma and flavour intact.
“What we’re making doesn’t really have a name yet, there’s a lot of excitement,” he says, pointing out that they are not producing whisky, or similar, but creating a new product category entirely. “Honestly, I can’t believe we’ve bloody done it, and how good it is!”
What we're making doesn't really have a name yet
In researching this piece something that fascinated me is how close the relationship between beer and spirits like whisky really is. When speaking to Max Vaughan of White Peak Distillery, I was fascinated to learn that they use brewers’ yeast collected from the nearby Thornbridge Brewery. Whereas a traditional whisky distiller might focus on qualities such as the time their spirit has spent in barrels, and perfecting a finished blend, as a younger spirit maker White Peak doesn’t have the same opportunities.
“We’re far more focussed on fermentation than has traditionally been the case,” Vaughan says. “We’re convinced that the flavour of our wash, and allowing it to have a long, slow fermentation is a significant part of the process.”
It’s clear there’s a lot of excitement around the category, and based on this evidence I’m confident we’ll soon see a great deal more breweries entering the spirits market. Thanks to innovators such as BBDC many of these are likely to be distilled beers. One stumbling block they might hit, however, is price. Distilled beers and small batch spirits easily cost £40 or more a bottle, and you can buy decent whisky, gin or rum for the same price, or less.
“When we stocked some spirits from brewers, we still sold more locally-made gin than anything beer-related because it was about £10 cheaper,” Phill Palgrave-Elliott, owner of North London bottle shop Caps and Taps, tells me. “They cost a lot, and didn’t shift quick enough.”
If tomorrow’s Compound Drinkers are to be convinced to dip into the wonderful world of spirits, then this new wave of distillers (and brewers who would be distillers) have got their work cut out. But that’s never stopped them before; just look at how different the beer category is now to 20 years ago by way of comparison. The technology and the enthusiasm are definitely there, but only time will tell if drinkers reap what the market is beginning to sow.
“There is some refinement to be done and it ain’t cheap to do at the moment,” Northern Monk’s Russell Bisset says. “But in time I think it could absolutely be a genuine alternative to a good single malt or bourbon.”
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