Manchester craft veterans
Saturday 14 January 2023
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Joseph Ince cannot take a compliment, and shifts uncomfortably when we talk about anything that might even loosely be considered self-promotion. He assures me that being head of production at Marble Brewery just means he has big boots to fill; in many ways that’s true, but also doesn’t tell the full story. Joe’s mum started the brewery in 1997, making Joe just a kid when Marble was born. Being a teenager cleaning casks for many of the pivotal years that legendary characters were passing through Marble’s doors means Joe can’t take credit for a lot of what the brewery has become. However, managing production in a place that’s featured significantly in 25 years of his life, now means Joe is in the unusual position of shaping the future of a brewery that also shaped him.
Marble Brewery was born in the back room of the Marble Arch Inn, in 1997. Though the area around Rochedale Road is now rapidly being gentrified, the Victorian pub was then situated on the industrial outskirts of a city still recovering from decade defining recession. The Arch, like the rest of Manchester, was struggling but had a reputation for the great selection of real ale it sold. When Joe’s mum, Jan, who then ran the Marble Arch, made the difficult decision to turn available on-site space into a brewery, Marble attracted the support of big beer personalities in the city.
I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Brendan Dobbin before beginning research for this story. The apparent fact that he quit the brewing scene some years ago, means my investigations into this myth-shrouded man took place across several spectacular rabbit holes, and brilliant home-built blogs dating back to the early 2000s. All are in agreement that Brendan was likely among the first brewers in the UK to use American hops in the production of his famous Yakima Grande Pale Ale, and say he also sourced hops from around Australia, New Zealand and Asia before they were really imported from these places. Joe goes as far as to say that Brendan was probably the most progressive brewer in Europe around the time that he built the 800L kit in Marble’s back room.
The pub’s infrastructure was not designed to support a brewery’s water usage, and while Brendan had long left Marble by the time burst pipes and leaking ceilings necessitated the brewery’s move to a nearby railway arch, his contribution began its long-standing legacy of employing some of the industry’s most celebrated brewers. James Campbell (co-founder of Cloudwater), Colin Stronge (head brewer at Salt), Dominic Driscoll (head of production at Thornbridge), and Matt Howgate (head brewer at Vocation) among others would all work at the brewery before, during and after Marble’s move to the arch on Williamson Street in 2009.
The 100m migration to the brewery’s new location was costly and compounded by investment in a new – albeit very traditional – 22hl direct fire brewhouse. But having been born in difficult circumstances, Marble weathered spiralling interest rates and the second recession of its lifetime to keep making the brilliant beer it was known for. “They always sat next to you in conversation, but weren't necessarily the focus” says Joe, of the beers that Marble became known for. “I think a lot of that comes from Manchester's history and the strong working class culture that comes through drinking at the pub. That's still something we really try to put into all our beers.”
I ask Joe what it is about Marble’s culture that has always attracted brewers with big ideas about beer. “For two years after I took over the brewery, I actually really struggled because I came in and there was no production target”, he says. “There was no, ‘you have to make this much’, ‘you'll get a bonus if you do X’, or ‘we need to hit this profitability’. It was just ‘no, come in, make some great beers, don’t fuck up the things people love and take the brewery forward’. I found that really, really difficult. I like straight lines. I like to work to a target, but I think for someone a bit younger, who’s early in their career, to come in and be told 'it's yours, you make it, we're behind you' is really good. I find that really intimidating. It's make or break. But I think if you have that confidence and ability right behind you it's an amazing opportunity.”
Before Joe got into brewing in an official capacity, he studied forensic science at university, a detail that lends a lot of context to his needing some time to settle into a more creative and experimental environment. “Forensics is obviously very logical, very science and process based, which now means I’m big into continuous improvement programmes and development. I’m not really a brewer who's going to be able to pick up a bag of Mosaic and tell you which farm it was grown on, but I will clean the shit out of stuff. For me, that’s always been really good when we do things like barrel ageing projects and sour beer, because I can come at it with a logical eye. I’m maybe not quite as arty as others, but I’m good at control and process.”
Joe might paint himself as different to those who have gone before him, but in charting his own course, he follows in their footsteps. When Joe first got into brewing he wanted nothing to do with the unfair advantages that come with nepotism, so he began his career independently, spending several years at Buxton and then Magic Rock, always promising he’d come back and help out at Marble someday. He only made the move when his younger brother, Dan, started up Wander Beyond Brewing; “I was a bit like, ‘hang on, I can’t have my younger brother setting up his own brewery while I’m just kicking around’” he says jokingly. “I had to come in with a prodigal son story.”
He joined Marble in December 2016 and took over brewery operations in January 2018. By that time plans to move to a bigger site were in full swing, so Joe oversaw the construction and relocation of Marble to a new brewery in 2019. “I actually had plans to come in, do that and then move on to somewhere else”, Joe says, “but during the commissioning my partner got pregnant so my son was born just a week after the first brew”. He is good natured when telling me about an opportunity in Hong Kong that he gently let go of, saying “it was actually really nice to put down some roots, and buy a little house in the countryside”.
In some ways, the only thing that makes Joe different to any of Marble’s star-studded alumni, is that he’s staying put at the brewery, and in Manchester, for now at least. “This city has a great way of putting its own spin on things,” he says. “Everyone knows the famous quote ‘this is Manchester, we do things differently’, but I think Marble has a little bit of that too. It's great to have influence, but you need to put your own fingerprint on it. When you hold to something, it has to be yours, too.”
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