Using American Beer to beat your own drum


Not much has changed at Vocation since Ferment last covered the brewery, back in May of 2021; that is to say, we catch them once again in a time where everything is changing, or rather, still changing. “I can't remember when we last had a normal year” says Richard Stenson, Vocation’s managing director. “We’re still growing quickly, but things are starting to settle down a bit now.” 

Vocation is not exempt from the squeeze being felt by breweries across the UK, with the cost of producing beer now, in the summer of 2022, being far beyond what anyone could have anticipated at the start of the year. “That's probably our biggest challenge at the moment, but as far as the day-to-day operations are concerned, we're just doing more of the same, which is releasing specials and focusing on fine tuning our core range to put out as good a beer as we can,” says Richard. 

He makes it sound easy, but “fine tuning” is, in actuality, a process that has both required and rewarded Vocation for being flexible and welcoming of change. Since Vocation started out in 2015, its core range has evolved significantly, but slowly and subtly. The very first iteration of its range was all produced on cask and consisted of Bread & Butter (Dry Hopped Pale), Heart & Soul (Session IPA), Pride & Joy (Pale Ale), and Life & Death (Classic IPA). “If you'd said back in 2015, will the six and a half percent beer be the one that takes off, I would have said no,” says Richard. “But Life & Death is now our flagship beer and the one that we produce the most of.”

Richard continues, noting that while Bread & Butter still performs well on cask, the popularity of Hop, Skip & Juice (Hazy Pale) has overtaken that of Pride & Joy, reflecting the continuing craze for hazy styles. “I think core ranges develop over time,” says Richard. “You've got to feel for what the market wants as much as anything else. You can't just say, this is our core range on day one and think that in seven years’ time that's what's still going to be selling. So I think that the key to having a good core range for me is working at the consistency of it.”

Richard is the first to say that Vocation is very fortunate in now being large enough to brew for its core range several times a day, allowing the team to really perfect its practice. But beyond discussion of kit and brewing practices, it is apparent that, unlike breweries that look to other industry players to stay abreast of trends, Vocation’s inspiration comes directly from the relationship it has organically cultivated with drinkers of its beer.

Since vocation started out in 2015, its core range has evolved significantly, but slowly and subtly

If you read the Magic Rock profile in this issue, which also discusses the evolution of its core range, you'll best be able to appreciate the difference in approach. Where Magic Rock for the most part tweaks, and makes variations of beers that have been in its core range for some time, Vocation takes a more rotational approach, letting best sellers progress to the core range if that's what consumers enjoy. It goes without saying that one approach is no better than the other, but drawing the comparison asks an interesting question about the difference between attitude and style.

“Of course, we’re always keeping an eye on the States,” says Richard. “Head brewer Matt and I spent a bit of time in Brooklyn at the start of the year and sampled lots of different beers. The quality of the beer out there was really exceptional, but a lot of those really high-end beers are something you only want one of. It’s great to taste something and think, wow, that tastes phenomenal, but to balance that we want to have a couple of options that you could enjoy multiple pints of.”

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but in an industry that sometimes seems to most loudly celebrate the hoppiest and heaviest, one can only respect an honest endeavour to make beer that is accessible to craft newcomers and enjoyed by seasoned drinkers alike.

Nowhere is evidence of Vocation’s muse more visible than in this month’s Beer52 box. When working with Vocation to decide on a beer that spoke to this month’s theme, it was suggested that a recipe be designed to mirror or invoke Stone’s Xocoveza; an imperial stout inspired by Mexican hot chocolate. 

Vocation’s chocolate and chilli stout fits the bill perfectly, with the warming effect of the chilli providing a nice parallel to the light spice that takes centre stage in Stone’s Xocoveza. But far from emulating another brewery’s beer, Vocation’s stout speaks to Xocoveza as a brew that is a product of the brewery’s own journey. Richard tells me that this recipe draws on a barrel aged chilli stout that Vocation made in the past, was well received and, he thinks, was one of the best beers the brewery has made to date. 

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