You spin me right round
Siobhan Hewison faces the music, with the German-inspired London brewery that’s hitting the right notes
Photos: Kit Oates
Tuesday 09 June 2020
This article is from
Summer of love
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Orbit is one of London’s most exciting and revered breweries of the last few years. Strongly independent, its ethos of perfecting traditional beer styles has elevated Orbit above other breweries of its kind.
Thanks to the high standards Orbit brews to, its popularity has risen steadily, allowing the team to expand into the neighbouring arch in the Walworth railway arches it calls its home. It now has a popular brewery taproom and an online shop, but a huge portion of Orbit’s sales are through the off-trade - through bottle shops and distributors, sure, but with foodie establishments like local restaurants as well. A deep respect of long-established, time-honoured methods of brewing means that its core range is beloved with beer drinkers and industry professionals alike.
However, growth has not been the primary focus for Orbit. The brewery’s founder, Robert Middleton, explains: “we’ve consciously chosen not to have a strong growth strategy from the outset, and instead have opted to have measured development. Growth is still important, and the team want to see that we are selling more and more beer, and garnering more customers who enjoy what we make, but we prefer it to be steady rather than dramatic.” It’s organic and based on quality, as Robert adds: “it’s what comes out of what we do, rather than something we drive for specifically”.
So, thanks to its high-quality, well-balanced beers, Orbit has steadily built a reputation, ensuring that people will come back to its beers again and again. Communication is key to Robert and his team, as well - forming a relationship with the consumer and establishing trust is vital, as well as sharing an enthusiasm for good beer and an uncompromised view of the brewing process.
Robert posits: “one of our principles as a brewery is that we really look after the beer, so its journey is one of the most important things to us. Therefore, we want to receive the best ingredients, store them properly, make the beer ourselves, package it ourselves, and keep it in cold storage - that’s also very important to us - and then we deliver it ourselves. Bar a few packages that go out via distributors, we deliver a significant portion of the beer ourselves, which means we have that connection with the customer.”
Orbit has always been a venture rooted in creativity and collaboration. A few years ago now, Robert sacked off his boring office job and decided to go travelling for a couple of years. When he got back, his mind had been opened and he knew he wanted to get into something that was more cooperative, creative and that made a product. He took his VW camper van named Brian on a five-month trip around his native Scotland, with the intention of writing a book and exploring what Scotland had to offer in terms of beer and brewing. He fell in love with the industry, and this trip helped him make his mind up - he was going to enter this wonderful industry. He returned to London, took some courses, did his research and talked to a lot of people.
Throughout his travels, the beer styles Robert enjoyed most “were those of long-standing, such as Bavarian lagers, Köln kölsch, and that sort of thing. I’ve never been a trendy person [he says with a giggle], and I liked the tradition - the provenance - of these beers, like the specific type of glass you drink the beer from, the particular way in which to pour it, how it’s kept… It’s something that has endured over many centuries, and I was attracted to that.”
He adds: “in the early days, we were tight on traditions and we were inspired by them. I learned the importance of time with regard to beer, temperature (which is a mixture of artistry and chemistry!), plus the risks you experience and the care you have to give when moving beer from one vessel to another, or into bottle, for example.”
Quality control is also a huge priority for Orbit - their Kölsch is around 50% of their output at the brewery, and the team will spend hours every week tasting every batch they make, ensuring it’s at its best, but also looking for any possible way to improve it.
The most important thing though, of course, is when the drinker has the beer in their hand - be it in a pint glass or a bottle - and the experience they have with it. Robert places a lot of emphasis in respecting that: “when I was interviewing for my first Head Brewer, I was looking for someone who could bring a lot to the party.”
Throughout the six years that Orbit has been brewing, a huge focus across the beer market in the UK has been on hoppier, stronger beers, or more ‘out there’ stuff like milkshake IPAs and pastry stouts. At Orbit, the team has deliberately opted to not go down that route. Robert explains that they’ve never been ones to follow a trend, opting instead to concentrate on elegant, well-made, more traditional beers that will stand the test of time. He adds: “we have our White Label series (an ever-growing collection of monthly, one-off releases), and our barrel-ageing Digger’s series, which allows the brewers to play around, get creative and have their fun. But, our core range doesn’t change. The core range to us is sacred - it’s what speaks most to us and it’s what makes us stand out. In fact, we’ve probably only made one change to it in the last six years.”
The core range to us is sacred - it’s what speaks most to us and it’s what makes us stand out
Robert takes his team on a weekend away somewhere with a big brewing history every year - they’ve been to Cologne twice, once when current Head Brewer Paul Spraget joined the team. Robert explains that Paul liked Kölsch well enough, but wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it… However, after touring breweries in Cologne famous for their Kölsch, speaking to the brewers, and trying all the beers, Paul came back to London a changed person.
This thoroughness and regard for the craft is a great way to illustrate how Robert feels about beer, and the passion and thought that go into planning and making beer at Orbit. There’s a culture there, and he wants to make sure that everyone fits in but also respects the ethos.
Their most recent trip was to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic and king of lagers, which inspired Paul to make a Czech pilsner. This will be the newest beer in Orbit’s White Label series, and is set to launch at the end of May, so keep your eyes peeled!
Music nerds will know that Orbit has strong connection with music, too, albeit one that they’ve woven in without being overt about it. As a child, Robert used to sneak into his two older sisters’ rooms and play their records on their record players - loving music is his first memory. What sticks most in his mind is the spindle adaptors at the centre of the records, which is a main part of the Orbit logo - “it’s genuinely part of who I am, and I also think that beer and music belong together, so it was an easy connection to make!”
You’ll notice musical influences in the beer names (Peel after John Peel, Nico after the art-rock singer-songwriter), and even in the name of the collection of limited-edition brews, the White Label range - white label records are distributed by labels to DJs and radio stations to promote new artists and test listeners’ reactions to their tracks.
If everything about the brewery wasn’t already rooted in history, there’s more. The name ‘Orbit’ harks back to his childhood - as a kid he had a speech impediment, which meant he couldn’t say his name properly, and ‘Robert’ would come out sounding a bit like ‘orbit’. After initial embarrassment, and the subsequent successful conquering of his speech defect (which eventually meant people forgot about his nickname), as an adult he looks back on that time fondly and decided to name the brewery Orbit as another nod to his formative years.
Orbit is a fantastic example of a brewery that blends the contemporary with the established, the modern with the traditional, to great effect. Drinkers trust in the brewery, and the high standard that the team strives for speaks for itself.
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