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Embrace the opportunity

Embrace the opportunity

Jez and Xochitl took some time-out to talk to Tim from The Brewers Journal about building a new brewery in Brixton. Read on…

Brixton Brewery has done a great job of placing South London on the brewing map since starting out in 2013. But a life-changing approach from Heineken has allowed the team to accelerate their growth plans, employ more staff and increase the brewery’s visibility. And they’re just getting started, reports Tim Sheahan.

A year can be a long time, and it can also fly by. At times, it can feel like both.

I first met Jez Galaun, co-founder of Brixton Brewery, back in 2016. Dressed head to toe in brewing overalls, he was under the cosh, balancing half a dozen different tasks while also overseeing a brew at the company’s railway arch brewery. 

The South London site – just a stone’s throw from the frenetic, melting-pot high road that connects Brixton Road and Brixton Hill – was full to the brim. This was the sign of a business enjoying steady growth, but one that was balancing the endless commitments that comes with such territory. 

It was a moment that is both a distant memory, yet one this writer recalls vividly.

Fast-forward more than 18 months and Galaun is in attendance at the inaugural Brewers Congress 2017, an educational event organised by this very publication. Talks were delivered on areas such as branding, the barriers to growth, as well as the exciting opportunities that are out there for breweries.

The following day, Brixton Brewery announced the biggest news in its short history. That it had partnered with Heineken UK in a deal that would enable the business to open a second site in Brixton, boost capacity nearly tenfold from its 3,000hl site to up to 30,000hl, and significantly grow its team as a result.

One year on, Galaun and Brixton Brewery, co-founded by Libby Galaun, Mike Ross and Xochitl Benjamin, are looking very much at ease in their new home. But they know this is just the beginning. 

“It was surreal and somewhat strange being in a room with all of our peers without anyone knowing,” explains Galaun. “The year that has followed was crazy, if I’m honest. Building a new brewery feels like starting again.”

He adds: “We’ve had much to learn and we want to go as fast as we can, but we’re particularly conscious of the pressure that would put on us as a team. So we’re simply trying to build things up step by step.”

And that’s exactly the approach they’ve taken. The new brewhouse, manufactured by Gravity Systems, has produced in excess of 50 batches since it was commissioned earlier this year. The brewery also has a sales team for the first time in its five-year history. 

The imminent appointment of new sales person complements a sales manager and brewery ambassador, tasked with winning new business outside of the brewery’s South London home where much of its beer has traditionally been sold.

“London is a big market and to make a mark, you are going to wear out a lot of shoe leather,” says Galaun. “Until we moved into this brewery, we focused a lot on small pack as it helped us get our beer out there. When you’ve only got a little bit of beer to sell, you focus on the smaller containers. We can change that now.”

Fifty percent of their beer produced at the brewery’s old – and still operational – site at Arch 547 on Brixton Station Road went into bottle, while the remainder was split between cask and keg. Since the move, close to 70 percent of the beer Brixton Brewery produces goes into keg while the rest is canned and bottled.

“We really want to make our canning line sweat in 2019,” he says.

The scale and scope of Brixton Brewery’s new facility is impressive, but there is still much room to grow into, as well. New FV tanks will arrive in the new year while the bottling line, currently operational at its older site, will be moved into the new brewery so to bring all packaging under one roof.

This methodical approach follows months of getting to grips with the company’s new brewhouse. Such a jump has been exciting for the team, but it’s not without its challenges, too. 

“We’ve wanted, and needed, to take time to understand the different efficiencies this new kit offers. Whether that’s how we extract sugars from the malt, or the flavour and bitterness from the hops,” says Galaun. “We also need to make sure that we are getting the right yield from the equipment, because that doesn’t simply happen straightway. 

“When we started brewing at the new brewhouse, we were getting the flavour we wanted but not the right amount of beer. So we had to adjust things by increasing the amount of wort we were casting from the brewhouse to the fermenters.

“With that, the flavour changes so you’ve got to dial things back in with the amount of dry hop. It has taken quite a few brews of each recipe to say ‘ok we’re happy’ with this flavour profile and the amount of beer we’ve produced. That has been an interesting experience and not something we have had to do before,” he says.

While Heineken has offered its expertise at many levels, it hasn’t engaged in much hand-holding as Galaun and the team grow into their new brewery.

“They don’t brew on this scale or produce the style of beers we brew. But they’ve helped in terms of project management and getting the brewery up-and-running,” he says. “What’s also been valuable is the way they’ve helped in getting the kit in the right place, not just for our needs today, but in five-years time.”

For Galaun, the new site has a logical flow with raw materials coming in one end, going into the brewhouse, then fermentation, before packaging and warehousing. This setup has allowed the team to reach their production goals for 2018, which is producing close to double the 3,000hl capacity its arch site is capable of.

At its maximum, the new setup could produce 30,000hl per annum, but Gallaun sees such output as a way off yet.

“This facility is big enough to hold tanks to produce such volumes, but that’s a lot of brews each week on a brewhouse that isn’t automated. We wanted it that way. We wanted that manual level of control and intervention we had on our old system,” he says. “Other brewhouses were more automated, more suited to brewing multiple times a day.”

What Brixton Brewery did specify though was a whirlpool, with Heineken recommending a three degree slope on such a system.

“Like anything else, they didn’t recommend kit we should buy, they just sanity checked things and ensured each supplier was providing us quality equipment,” he adds.

The addition of a canning line was a big move for Brixton Brewery, kit that has perhaps unsurprisingly been specified with the ability to fill 440ml cans when required. This is something that will see the light of day in 2019, with Galaun identifying lager and “hazy, hoppy beers” likely to be distributed in such vessels. 

While Brixton Brewery always planned to grow, expand and invest in new kit, the Heineken partnership enabled the team to accelerate such plans. 

They’ve never looked back.

“It was serendipity, I suppose,” says Galaun. “We had long reached maximum capacity in the Brixton arch. There was no way we could add any more fermenters!” 

With that, the company identified an 8,000sqft site located on Brixton Hill, half the size of the site they now have. However that site came off the market and at the same time, late 2016, they received an approach from Heineken.

“They emailed out of the blue to tell us that they liked what we were doing, their desire to talk and to discuss how we could work together. It was to the point,” he explains.

Galaun says he and the team were “humbled” that such as business had noticed what they were doing on a relatively local, modest level.

“You don’t get that type of email every day, and we’re an open-minded bunch so it made obvious sense to agree to talk,” he says. 

“And we made them come and brew with us!” laughs co-founder Xochitl Benjamin. “We outlined our vision for the business and that was something they wanted to get behind. We don’t think this current setup would have been achievable for us if we had used crowdfunding or similar.”

These discussions continued for 12 months until Brixton Brewery announced the deal in November 2017. And the team remain heartened by the response to news.

“We had a lot of people congratulate us, acknowledge the hard work we had put in and tell us it was a great opportunity for us and our beers,” recalls Galaun. “That meant a lot.”

He adds: “A lot of breweries in our position know how hard it is to grow in London when it comes to identifying suitable space. We were fortunate to find a path to allow us to carry on with our journey; there’s a lot of breweries looking for that same next step. They could relate to us and the opportunity we were given.

“For us, much of this partnership is about us making the best beer we can. We want to place Brixton on the map for great beer. That’s not something we felt we could do as well in the old site when it comes to the level of quality control and analysis. But we can, now.”

Galaun is enthused with the beer the brewery is producing, noting a stable wort heated by its steam system. Packaging quality has experienced an uplift too, with lower dissolved oxygen levels being achieved in the three canned beers it produces: Reliance Pale Ale, Atlantic A.P.A and Low Voltage Session IPA. 

The brewery’s co-founder is also positive about the impact the tie-up will have on the team as a whole. 

“We want to give our staff the opportunity to grow as professionals but also improve their quality of life, too. Brewing and living in London can be tough, and you have to be very passionate about what you do. We want to ensure our staff can grow with us, in work and outside of it,” she says.  

A positive working environment will also pay dividends for Brixton Brewery as it further grows into its new home, and its relationship with Heineken evolves, too.

The brewery’s beer has already made it to around 15 of the multinational’s Star Pubs and Bar estate, a number that will only grow in time. But for now, the focus is still firmly rooted on developing direct relationships across London, fulfilled by the brewery’s sole trusty delivery van.

You get the impression that such an approach suits Galaun and the team, while they continue to get to grips with Brixton Brewery 2.0.

“The task of setting up a new brewery is almost like starting a business all over again and it is very, very intense. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had help and project management advice, so I have massive respect for those that make that journey alone,” he says.

Galaun adds: “I think that we’ve taken a quantum leap going from a small 10 hectolitre railway arch setup to a 50 hectolitre 15,000sqft facility. 

“Then away from production, we’ve had to really think a lot more about our brand, what it means to us and what message we want it to convey. You spend a lot of time thinking about that when you’re supplying locally, but that ramps up incredibly when your beer is reaching a wider audience.”

And reaching a wider audience will become more commonplace for Galaun, Benjamin and the Brixton Brewery team in 2019 and beyond. 

Concentrating on producing a quality core range of beers remains the priority, while the older site will enable production of more seasonal and experimental beers and offer up a stronger taproom experience in due course.

“We want our beer in more places than ever before. But not at the compromise of quality, either,” says Galaun. “We want more people discovering what we do, enjoying it, and associating Brixton with great beer.”BeerBrewingBrixtonUK

Jez talks to Deskbeers about starting a brewery in Brixton

Jez talks to Deskbeers about starting a brewery in Brixton

Meet the Brewer: Brixton Brewery

Jez, Libby, Xochitl and Mike started Brixton Brewery back in 2013 and quickly established themselves as a mainstay of the UK craft brewing scene. Taking inspiration from the explosion of UK brewing at the time, and influenced by both US and European styles of beer, we love that the vibrancy of SW9 shines through in everything Brixton brews.

We asked Jez to answer a few questions for us about getting started, brewing life and what it means to run a world class craft brewery in your own neighbourhood.


DeskBeers: What (and where) was the first beer you ever brewed?

Jez Galaun: Our first brew was as complete novice home brewers back in March 2011. Mike, my former neighbour and co-conspirator (aka brewery co-founder) bought a Mr. Beer kit online and it came with everything we needed. You get a tin of malt extract, yeast, hops, plastic fermenter, bottles etc and we “brewed” it up on the stove in his flat and fermented it in his airing cupboard!

Just the other week we found photos of us brewing and later tasting that beer wearing fictional “Brixton Brewers” t-shirts our wives Libby and Xochitl, the other brewery Co-Founders had made for us as a surprise. I got quite emotional looking at them.

DB: How did you come to start your own brewery?

JG: We met in the Hive Bar, which is now Craft Beer Co. Brixton in 2010. We both had new babies and were having some Sunday brunch. We got to talking, and it turned out that we actually lived on the same street — right across from one another.

The same year I’d visited The Kernel with a friend one Saturday morning in their original home on Maltby St and that was my eureka moment. Soon after we were all having a burger and a pint of Amstel, again in Hive Bar and I made a flippant remark about how we should open a local microbrewery.

Things were kind of taking off in the London beer scene, and Brixton was becoming known as a bit of a foodie destination, so it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Mike seemed to like the idea and sent me an email later that week to tell me he’d ordered the Mr. Beer kit. Not wanting to be outdone I immediately bought BrixtonBrewery.com. Every journey starts with a single step and that was ours.

DB: Describe your brewing ethos in a few words.

JG: We’re always seeking balance. We never set out to make the strongest, the hoppiest, the wackiest, the most bitter beer. We want our beers to be incredibly tasty but not slap you in the face.

DB: What’s the best thing about running your own brewery?

Community. We’re part of the local Brixton community and the wider craft beer one. This has allowed us to make lots of great friends and connections with like-minded people and businesses and also build a great community around us through the tap-room. It’s those experiences that make all the hard work worthwhile.

DB: What’s the worst mistake made while brewing?

The first brew we did to commission our commercial brewery was our flagship Electric IPA. We scaled up our home-brew recipe and overshot massively on the grain bill! The mash-tun overflowed and the beer came out at almost 8%. We were aiming for 6.5!

That batch went down the drain and delayed our official launch slightly but we learn fast and thankfully nailed it on the second attempt. In hindsight choosing your strongest beer as a first brew isn’t advice I’d give to someone else starting out!

DB: What’s the most important attribute you need to be a good brewer?

Quick thinking! What we do is a genuine craft, we’re not just pushing buttons. To make consistent beers the brewer has to react to variations in raw materials, temperatures, water chemistry etc. You also need to be something of a jack-of-all-trades. Since starting the brewery I’ve had to do everything from setting up the Wi-Fi to getting my forklift licence, to using a microscope to count yeast cells.

DB: What advice would give to someone starting out?

JG: The industry is changing so quickly. You really need to hit the ground running, I don’t think you can learn on the job anymore, like we did. There’s no substitute for experience but luckily it’s an open industry and people are happy to help with advice.

We certainly got our fair share in the early days and try and reciprocate that favour now. We’ve actually recently become mates with three guys opening Nigeria’s first craft brewery, Bature Brewery and I’d like to think we’ve helped them and others on their journey, much like we’ve had help on ours.

DB: Which brewery would you most like to collaborate with?

JG: Good question. We’ve only done 3 collabs so far, one with Brasserie De La Senne from Brussels, another with Volcano Coffee Works and most recently with chef Tim Anderson. All of their philosophies and approaches really resonated with us. For us collaboration needs that mutual respect and learning.

We’ve recently launched a range called Ltd Edn to do more experimental beers, and that’s a great way to open up to more collaborations, so it’s something we’ll be pursuing for sure.

When we started, we had a brewer called Emanuel who worked for us for a while and then moved back to France to open his own brewery, which I haven’t visited yet. It would be really cool and interesting to go over and check out his set up and do something with him. His brewery is called Les Trois Croquants. France has been a bit slow to get into craft beer so we’re all for supporting Emanuel in his quest to make it happen.

DB: As a brewer, where would you like to be in 5 years time?

JG: If you read the side of our bottles you’ll see “Brewed Fresh in the heart of Brixton” and whilst we’re bursting at the seams currently that’s our pole star. It’s not just marketing. We started in Brixton, it’s a place that constantly inspires and nourishes us and we will do everything we can to stay here as we hopefully continue to grow.

DB: If you had had to listen to the same song forever whilst brewing, what would it be?

JG: Mr. November by The National. I’ve seen it performed live a fair few times (check it out on youtube) and Matt the bands frontman goes absolutely crazy and climbs into the crowd. Every time I hear it those memories come back. The process of brewing and drinking beer does that for me too — it creates and evokes memories.

DB: You are stuck on a desert island. You discover a cool box with one can of Stella and one can of Carling. What do you do?

JG: Drink the Stella, use the Carling to break open coconuts.

DB: You can drink one style of beer for the rest of your life. What do you pick?

JG: That is a painful choice to have to make, but probably IPA. Our first brew, as I said, was our Electric IPA, and it’s the style that kind of got me in to craft beer in the first place.

You can do a lot with it — we’ve got the Megawatt Double IPA, which is a pretty strong 8%, but then we also do our Low Voltage Session IPA, which is 4.3%. It’s a really versatile style, and you can do a lot with all the different hops that are out there, adding such a great range of flavours. It works well with food, and it’s an all-around solid beer style. As long as I could try lots of different IPAs, I should be able to survive with this tragic limitation.

DB: What was the last beer you had that wasn’t one you brewed?

JG: A Dugges Pale Ale. A friend from Sweden came to visit last weekend and brought me a bottle. He was completely floored that I recognised a small brewery from a small city in his home country. It just shows how global and interconnected our “movement” is!


Thanks again to Jez for taking the time to answer our questions, and to the whole Brixton team for turning out great beer day in, day out.

We love craft beer and finding out about the people behind them. If you do to, why not subscribe to our low-frequency newsletter to be notified when we publish the next interview?

Jez talks to Thirsty Dog about setting up a brewery in Brixton

Jez talks to Thirsty Dog about setting up a brewery in Brixton

ThirstyDog

 

Travel Series: Brixton Brewery

In the last few years, London has become the European hub for craft beer. The community of brewers is growing with the increased interest and demand of drinkers, but the quality of the output seems to waiver very little and craft enthusiasts from around the world are paying attention.

Brixton Brewery is only a few years old, but it’s already become an important part of the eclectic borough of Brixton. Jez Galaun, co-founder of the brewery, is fiercely loyal to this part of London and makes it quite clear that he’s in no hurry to leave the neighborhood that the brewery so happily calls home. The beer, he says, is sort of a reflection of the area. The labels pay homage to the African textile market down the street and the beer names are rooted in the culture and history of South London.

Currently, Brixton is situated in a drafty railway arch, which only adds to the charm of the brewery and what it stands for: no frills or anything too “wacky”—just consistently good beer that speaks for itself.

What’s the Brixton philosophy?
There are small micro breweries that make people proud, and for us, we wanted to make not extreme beer, nothing wacky, nothing too experimental. We wanted to take classic beer styles like an IPA, pale ale, stout and make our own interpretations of them, but we wanted to make beers that people would have them as their go-to beer—they’d know what to expect: quality, consistency, flavor, balance. So we’re not making the most hoppy beers, we’re not making the most bitter beers, we’re not chucking in every ingredient and hoping it turns out well. We’re just trying to use the four basic ingredients and get them to play together nicely and just make the best beers that we can. We don’t set out to shock or anything like that. We wanted to be that sort of local regional brewer with authenticity and representing the area that we’re from. That’s kind of the common thread through the names, the branding, the beers themselves; taking that as our philosophy.

Tell me about the London beer scene.
The year that we opened, there were a lot of brewery openings—fourteen or fifteen and there have been more planned for this year, so everything is growing; the awareness of the drinker and how discerning they are is increasing. Everyone home brews so everyone is an expert, so you’ve really got to know your game. We’re trying to catch up with the American beer scene in terms of the quality and consistency. When I say we, I’m talking about collectively in London. People are investing a lot in equipment and training their staff and I think the quality of beer coming out of London is fantastic. There are a few other cities in the UK with burgeoning beer cultures like Manchester, Bristol, places like that. But London has probably the most established breweries and it’s competitive. The theory is that the rising tide carries all boats, so you know, it’s open and friendly especially amongst your local breweries. We all help each other out. This morning a brewery from a mile down the road needed some grain, so they grabbed some of our grain and we needed some yeast last week and they gave us some yeast, so we feel camaraderie with the other London breweries. Is it kind of us against the big guys? I’m not really sure, we’re just nice people I think. I think people go into the business not necessarily to make money—clearly some do, but in general it echoes the story that I told; people didn’t like what they were doing before and now they want to do things because hopefully they’ll make some money along the way, but that’s not the primary drive. People do it because they like beer and they like socializing. It’s a story that I think you find in any brewing city. It’s great. I’ve got no regrets about doing it. Maybe sometimes in the middle of winter when you’re in a cold railway arch you question it, but it’s really great. It’s a good community.

What do you think sets London apart from other cities when it comes to beer?
I think there’s history of brewing in London, so there’s that kind of tradition. There were a lot of London-based breweries and they all moved out. I just think London is often and the forefront of anything and everything that happens in Europe, and there were pioneers like The Kernel—they were one of the first in London—and you get a lot of imitators, and we’re kind of jumping on those coattails and trying to grab onto them, but there’s money in London as well so people can get access to money to open breweries because it’s really capital-intensive to open a brewery. That’s one thing I’ve really noticed—the game has changed recently—people were opening breweries really small and not risking too much. But now the brewery openings—people are spending more on their floor than we’ve spent on our entire brewery. So that’s changed; there’s a lot of money going into brewing. You know, London has just had its second acquisition of a craft brewery by the big boys: Meantime [bought] by SAB Miller and Camden Town by InBev for £85 million [€108.8 million]. So I just think there’s a lot of venues to support a lot of breweries. We’re all trying to sell to the same customers, but not at the same time. People value variety, novelty—so you bring out a new beer, people really want to try your new beer. Next week, another brewery will bring out a new beer and they’ll really want to try that one. But also, there’s not loyalty to a particular beer which kind of flies in the face of our philosophy, which is that we want to be the go-to beer. Though obviously some people will want to drink the same, but a lot of people want to try something new. There are a lot of people that have never really drunk beer before who are getting into it, so the amount of people drinking craft beer is rising. I’d say nearly half of our customers are women. That’s something that didn’t happen in the past when I can remember drinking a fizzy lager and that kind of thing. So London is just so big it can support a lot more breweries. London is full of creative people and craft beer is a nice intersection of creativity and a few other things, so maybe that’s the reason.

What’s important for London brewers to keep in mind during this beer “gold rush”?
I would like to see more people embrace locally-made products. So obviously we’re making something that isn’t going to be as cheap as mass-produced products, but we’re hopefully providing more satisfaction and more value. I think the responsibility for us as brewery owners is that we make the best product possible. Over the last year we’ve invested in lots and lots of equipment to make sure that we’re producing the best beer possible. Because the worst that could happen is that you get lots of new breweries opening in this gold rush and their beer is crap, and then people think that craft beer actually tastes like shit. So on the brewing side, I think we need to share our education, share our expertise, share our knowledge. When we were starting out, we would go to breweries and ask questions and they would always tell us the answer—and when breweries come to us, we go out of our way to try and help them. Even the guys that are “on our turf”—the local rivals—I just don’t see it that way.

What’s next for Brixton?
To get some beer outside of London is the plan. I mentioned we’re putting some funny languages on our labels, and we’re just starting to produce more so that we can distribute outside of London. The original concept was to make beer for people in Brixton, then it went a little further and we started to supply some beer north of the river in London, and then you reach further out and you get random calls from people like in Scotland or different parts of the UK and they’re interested in trying your beer. Because of the novelty value—they want to give their customers something they haven’t tried before. We’ve had visits from people from Italy—there’s a burgeoning craft beer scene in Italy. They really want to get London-brewed beer. You know, London beer is kind of seen as sort of a brand, I guess—an unintentional brand, but London is seen as a place with lots of cool breweries and people want to try beer from London and that kind of thing. I’m also sort of wary of where our beer goes to, which is a bit stupid because of course you want to sell as much as you can, but I’d rather it went to people who appreciated it for what it was rather than what it is. I don’t want people to buy it because it’s got a pretty label, but obviously people are going to do that. I want the beer to kind of speak for itself, so that’s one thing The Kernel is saying; they’re always using these plain brown labels. They don’t do any branding or design, no tasting notes or anything like that. They don’t want to tell people what the beer is going to taste like. But, I don’t want to go to that extreme, though we’ve never had any sort of PR or anything like that. I don’t want to push the beer. I want the beer to kind of take its own natural path. In Brixton we don’t try to sell the beer to anyone. We just want people in Brixton to realize or get what we’re doing. I would rather they came to us and asked us about the beer rather than we went to them and told them about it. It doesn’t work all over London, of course. I want people to appreciate what we’re doing, to come here and see. We don’t have any dedicated or full-time salespeople, which we’re going to need because the market is very competitive now, but I just want people to order our beer because they like and they get what we’re trying to do. Which is kind of a weird dichotomy I have inside my head, because it’s like one eye on the bank account and one eye on this kind of—I haven’t fully reconciled it yet. I kind of think maybe we should be doing all of these PR stunts, but I don’t like doing it. I want it to be a beer that kind of makes its presence quietly felt. I think that’s why we don’t do anything too extreme or wacky.