Arbor Ales

Bristol scene OG that is still going strong


It takes me a good 10 minutes of searching to accept that we’ve never profiled Arbor Ales in the magazine before, in the nine years we’ve been doing this. Its beer has been in the box several times, and Massive Azacc on cask is a team favourite (when we can find it up in Scotland), yet this true OG of our national craft brewing movement has somehow managed to avoid ever speaking to us. Determined to right this historical wrong, we manage to pin down co-founders Megan Oliver and Jon Comer, albeit on a Google Video call.

Founded way back in 2007 – basically the Renaissance, in UK brewing terms – Arbor started out on a tiny 2.5 barrel kit, its focus very much on traditional styles, not venturing into anything more adventurous than a Golden Ale. As head brewer though, Jon’s innate curiosity ensured this approach was pretty short-lived.

“In those days you could get any hops that you wanted from Charles Faram, you didn't have to contract anything, and they would let us know about anything interesting they had in stock,” he recalls. “Hops were also seven quid a kilo, so there really wasn’t any reason not to experiment with all these New World varieties that were suddenly available. So quite early on, we moved away from traditional styles, to single-hop pale ales. And that was kind of our niche for a little while, just constantly changing our hops and brewing a new beer each time.”

Sat next to him, I see co-founder and sales director Megan twitch imperceptibly. “It was… a lot,” she says. “I couldn’t really keep up with Jon just making different beers every time, and the pubs, and shops we were supplying wanted a core line. We didn’t want to limit the experimentation either though, so we launched our Freestyle Friday series, where we’d literally just turn up on the Friday and decide what to brew.”

Thinking about the new breweries we speak with these days, this kind of freewheeling approach feels like it belongs to a different age, in which hops were abundant, competition was more relaxed and ‘business plan’ most often meant ‘where are we going for lunch?’ That’s not to suggest that Arbor had an easy ride though; this was at a time when ‘craft beer’ simply wasn’t in the lexicon, and pushing exotically and (relatively) aggressively hopped pale ales was not guaranteed to win you friends. Nonetheless, Megan and Jon speak of these early years with great fondness.

“Now, every style of beer has been covered and reinterpreted multiple times; so many breweries have been doing this for so long,” observes Jon. “Back then, it was a lot of fun, because you could make something completely different, with a little bit more hops here, a higher ABV there… Over the years, gradually, breweries like ours have got busier, taken on more staff and perhaps grown up a little bit. But at the end of the day, customers still want cool, interesting beers, so we’ve always put a great deal of importance on keeping it fun.”

This evolution has meant changes in Jon’s role; he’s brewing a lot less and running the business a lot more. He’s very happy with the situation though, and proud of both Arbor’s commercial success and the ethos of the 16-strong team he and Megan have assembled around themselves.

“One of the best things about growing the business has been employing brewers at the start of their careers, handing it over to them and what they want. We try to get the balance of giving them the freedom to follow what interests them, while also maintain the… almost a DNA that runs through our beer that makes it distinctively Arbor.”

As one of the first breweries to set up shop in Bristol – arguably the UK’s second city when it comes to beer – Arbor has deep roots in its home town, and continues to fly the flag for local craft, culture and local business.

“It's still a fun industry, especially in Bristol,” says Megan. “We do collaborations with other breweries, and events, tap takeovers. Everybody gets on really well too. Bristol has an awful lot of breweries, but we work in fairly small teams, so you don't have a massive peer group. We’ll often do joint Christmas parties with other breweries and things like that.”

Jon continues: “We've also made a conscious decision to buy the majority of our malt locally so from Warminster, which is a traditional floor maltings. We've been with those guys right from the start, when they pretty much made us visit to see how they operate before they’d sell us anything! I used to drive down there to pick up our order in my estate car. Although we could buy cheaper from a much bigger outfit, we stick with Warminster because it's a small business like us, its local, and we’ve always had this brilliant relationship with them – I think a lot of breweries share those values, so it’s just a great place to be.”

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