Tuesday 27 November 2018
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It’s fair to say that the UK craft scene owes a great deal to Bristol’s Moor Beer, which has not only pioneered and advocated for smaller breweries, but also forged a bridge between traditional British real ale and the hoppy US-style beers that we all associate with the craft movement. Eleven years down the line, the team is still pushing the boundaries, whether it’s preaching lager to the CAMRA crowd or bringing a slice of Bristolian hospitality to the heart of London.
For the uninitiated, Moor was founded by Californian Justin Hawke in 2007, who had developed a taste for European beer – and particularly English cask ale – when he was stationed in Germany on army service. When he left the army, Justin brewed for a time in San Francisco, but he and his wife Maryann held onto the dream of moving to the UK and brewing in the traditional style. They were touring the West Country in 2004 when they came across the closed Moor Brewery. They bought the company and moved it to Bristol, in an old truck refurbishment plant.
In a market where the last enclaves of cask ale were being steadily eroded by the onslaught of homogenised, mass-produced lager, Justin made his mark by brewing cask beer without the use of isinglass finings that clear beer of yeast and protein, arguing that these were “the soul of the beer”. The result was an unfamiliar marriage between cask ale and the bitter west coast hop bombs that Justin knew from back home; in the cider-loving south west, this earned Moor a reputation for producing the nation’s hoppiest beers.
The other big trick up Moor’s sleeve has been its pioneering use of can conditioning, in which the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the can, rather than being force-carbonated in the brewery. This is a key characteristic of real ale, and even the custodians of British brewing CAMRA have given Moor’s cans the thumbs up.
It’s been a winning formula, as evinced by the fact that last year the brewery passed the 5000-hectolitre per annum mark, meaning it no longer receives the generous reduction in duty afforded to small brewers. As a result, 2018 has been very much focused on growth, to offset Moor’s significantly increased HMRC bills, but sales director George says the hard work has left the brewery in a great position to expand even further next year.
It also doesn’t seem to have distracted the brewing team from doing what they love: experimenting and sharing knowledge with their peers across the world.
“Summer’s been exciting, with lots of festivals and normal beer world gubbins,” says George. “One of the high points for us was the launch of our first pils, which was a collaboration with Birrificio Italiano. Justin drew so much of his inspiration from German beer, so we’d always wanted to brew a lager. We thought we should probably do it with someone who really knows what they’re doing!”
“Some of our more traditional drinkers, who were more anti-lager and believe CO2 is the devil, seem to have come around to it quite nicely in the end. Part of that I think is that for our 11th year this year, we held a big Frankenfest, so got loads of small-batch German lagers over and let people experience them from the cask. As soon as most people tried it, they realised they’d completely misjudged it and decided to give it a whirl. It was really pleasing to see.”
Many of the collaborations Moor is taking part in now won’t see the light of day for several years. For example, George talks in glowing terms about a recent collaboration with Norway’s Lervig, which will now be barrel aged until at least 2020, and a double stout brewed with Spain’s Quinto, which has been filled into barrels previously used for rum and whisky, and some of plain virgin oak for comparison.
“They’re going to be good fun. I like being able to try the same beer in different packaging formats, or making subtle changes and saying ‘ah that’s what this or that brings to the table’. We have a few of these collaborations maturing now, and we’re just starting to get the first of our own beers coming out of the barrel programme.”
This relatively new line of experimentation has been made possible by the opening of Moor’s Vaults warehouse and taproom on London’s legendary Bermondsey beer mile. Originally conceived as a straightforward storage facility – driving up and down the M4 to serve the thirsty London market isn’t much fun – the Vaults is now home to Moor’s long-term experiments, including barrel ageing and sour beer development. It’s also intended to give London drinkers a little taste of Bristol.
“London is just ludicrous as a market, a colossal proportion of the UK’s total alcohol sales. You can’t ignore that. With the taproom, we’re better able to show London drinkers what we’re all about and give them the full experience, rather than sitting on the shelf in a bottleshop with no context or explanation.
“Having said that, Bristol is central to what we are, and we’d never move from there. It’s got such a sense of life and community. It’s somewhere that’s pretty much unique in the country, just for its love of independent and local businesses. There’s a real sense of community that I think has really shaped the city’s craft scene – we’re all on the same side, we’re all really good friends and we’re proud of where we brew.”
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