Freedom Brewery: the return of Soho Red

Freedom Brewery likes doing things a little differently. Since 1995, they have focused exclusively on lager, maintaining a core range of full-flavoured and distinct iterations of classic styles. Their commitment to brewing is bifurcated: not only do they want to produce a reliable core range of beer, but they want to limit their environmental impact in doing so. Freedom is a pioneer on many fronts, distinguished as Britain’s longest established craft brewery and recently awarded the SIBA Green Business of the Year at the British Business & Industry Awards for 2016. That’s a plethora of feathers in one cap.

From modest beginnings in Fulham, Freedom operated out of one- eventually two- pubs until 2004. When they could no longer keep up with growing demand, they did something that, in retrospect, seems unprecedented: they relocated from London to the pastoral setting of Staffordshire. Few microbreweries could survive the dislocation from the beer scene and taprooms of London, so what propelled this risky venture?

The answer is rooted in Freedom’s ethos and the secret is in the water. Striving to be a fully sustainable operation, they saw Staffordshire as the ideal site for brewing and their brewery sits on a borehole that provides naturally filtered water. Reputed to be the best water available for brewing in the world, it has the added benefits of not requiring any chemical treatment or need for transportation because it’s drawn directly from the source. This means clean, unadulterated beer.

Further initiatives undertaken include recycling of spent grains once separated from the wort, hosting an onsite beekeeper to increase biodiversity and building a reed bed water drainage system to naturally filter out brewing by-products from waste water. If that wasn’t sufficient, all of Freedom’s beers are certified vegan because they don’t use isinglass- that’s fish guts- in their clarification process.

Freedom has a feel-good rap sheet as long as my arm, but how is the beer? Their core range represents an assortment of lager styles, including an organic Bavarian Helles, an IPA, a kolsch and a pilsner. There’s also a sessionable IPA with an ABV of 4%, so the spectrum of crisp, quaffable beer is comprehensive. Mirroring the uncomplicated philosophy of the brewery, the beers are equally as understated- there are no gimmicks or frills, just masterful brewing. Freedom challenges our expectations of the humble lager, packing full-bodied flavour and punchy aromas into each of their beers.

The drinking is good as well. The Liberty Pils is a solid iteration of a traditional pilsner, giving off citrus aromas and a rounded, well-balanced flavour profile that’s bright, clean and finishes with a refreshing bitterness. The King Koln kolsch is just as satisfying, delivering a complex nose that demonstrates Sauvignon characteristics, but the taste is crisp, slightly sweet and, once again, it finishes on a pleasantly bitter note. As for the East India Pale, their rendition of a classic IPA, it demonstrates the resinous, grapefruit notes that you would expect from a bill of classic American hops.

In April 2016, Freedom released Soho Red, relaunched after disappearing from their line-up from the early days of the brewery. Billed as an American hopped red rye lager, I was invited by the brewery to sample this seasonal offering. In contrast to the high contingency of pale straw and golden lagers that I associate with Freedom, a rye lager presented an intriguing prospect- I expected the addition of rye to the malt bill to bring a distinctive spiciness to the table. I felt that this could be the most complex and challenging style from Freedom yet.

Pouring a burnished copper, this effervescent beer was mostly malty with hints of sticky fruit and caramel on the nose. The first sip revealed a soft, creaminess that slipped down with ease. Peppery notes were tempered with the sweetness of caramel and malt- the hops weren’t overly prominent and there was a rounded finish with crisp bitterness. There was no doubt that this was a Freedom beer- it shared the balanced flavour profile and brilliance of the core range and showcased a nuanced complexity that is often overshadowed in incredibly hop-forward beers.

Given their pedigree, it’s heartening to see Freedom release this seasonal offering. Since 1995, our beer drinking culture has exploded and evolved at a breakneck pace and microbreweries now operate out of every ramshackle railway arch in London. Despite this, there’s still plenty of leeway for Freedom and their solid, reliable beers. I hope that this relaunch of Soho Red heralds a new era for the brewery that elevated the humble lager to something worthy of appreciation.

Samples of Freedom’s core range and Soho Red seasonal were provided by Freedom Brewery, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Photographs by @jack_dougherty.