Brixton Brewery: capturing an electric community in beer

The idea for Brixton Brewery was hatched at the old Hive Bar by two local couples with a shared love of beer. Today, the Hive bar is now a Craft Beer Co and the brewery – eventually founded in 2012 by Jez Galaun and Mike Ross – is only a stone’s throw away, almost within eyeshot from where that brainstorming session took place. Beneath railway arches in SW9, Brixton Brewery is going full-throttle and struggling to keep up with demand. The community of Brixton itself is integral to the brewery’s brand, its beers and its focus. The brewery and the locality are synonymous.

Brixton’s colourful branding is visible in a number of London’s bottle shops, but it’s not always an easy task to find them at a bar or taproom beyond SW postcodes. This could be attributed the brewery's focus on producing a range of traditional styles such as pale ale, which is a difficult style to both master and make distinguishable. Yet their pale ales are beautifully rendered, bringing together traditional methods with juicy, modern flavours. A perfect balance between malts and hops is what they strive for in their beer. And despite what the rest of London thinks, Brixton is enthusiastically embraced and enjoyed by locals.

Disconnected from the Bermondsey and Hackney brewing scenes, Brixton has avoided much of the craft beer fervour in London over the past three years. Located only a few minutes from the Brixton underground station, they are spread across three arches: one for brewing, one for stock and office space and the last for keg storage. In their brewing arch, there’s a small bar, a fridge stocked with bottles and several wooden tables to accommodate locals popping in for a pint. Those who can’t get to the brewery have a second option to source Brixton’s beers, however: Brixton has a good relationship with Craft Beer Co Brixton – the very site where the brewery itself was once conceived. Kegs can be literally run from the brewery to the front door of the bar by staff.

The brewing space is snug and Brixton brews up to seven times a week, or as often as a fermenter is available, but that doesn’t faze the team. They’re content with brewing in small batches for the time-being, but they do have three fermenter tanks siting unused in storage. If these tanks were relocated into the main arch, it would encroach upon (or completely eradicate) their intimate taproom space.

The highly recognisable branding is rooted in the area, influenced by its vibrancy, diversity and history. The vivacious colours and designs are inspired by African textiles, which are sold in local markets and displayed in the community. The iconography used also makes local references, with thunderbolts alluding to the famous Electric Avenue. Even the names of the beers are laden with local significance, such as the Effra ale, which refers to the underground river that flows beneath the streets of Brixton, and the Atlantic pale harking to Atlantic Road, where the Brixton Market began trading in the 1870s.

Even the recipes have been shaped by the area; the Electric IPA is an ensemble of pronounced flavours, its namesake is Electric Avenue, where influences of African, Caribbean, South American and Asian cultures coincide. The Effra is a meeting of the traditional and new, much like Brixton itself, modernising an English ale with a healthy measure of new world hops.

Although Brixton focus on achieving well-rounded, balanced beers, they’ve not completly adverse to experimentation. They’ve collaborated with the highly revered De La Senne brewery from Belgium to create the Brixi Saison, a modern classic saison-style beer with big juicy aromas or peach and tangerine and a sweet and mildly bitter taste. They also partnered with Chef Tim Anderson of local restaurant Nanban to produce the Brixton Market Saison, a beer that paid homage to the flavours of Brixton Market, infusing a farmhouse ale with Jamaican Sorrel and Japanese green tea.

As far as the future goes, Brixton has ordered new equipment that will improve dry-hopping and the flavour of their beers. They’re also considering an in-house yeast management programme to allow them to reuse their yeast in brewing. But they do face certain limitations due to their restricted brewing space; one such drawback includes their inability to brew anything with a higher ABV than their popular annual release, the Megawatt DIPA, which is 8%. This is down to the fact that they physically can’t fit in any more grain into their mash tun. As far as canning goes, they aren’t happy with canning technology on a small scale to date, feeling that too much oxygen is trapped in the cans. Once technology improves on this scale, they’ll re-evaluate this. And there’s always the issue of supply chain variations with the availability and quality of hops, but this seems to be improving as the craft industry in London grows.

In November, Brixton hosted brewery tours to gauge the interest of the general public to visit their compact, but efficient, brewhouse. The tour was popular and the majority of the crowd seemed to be both local and familiar with the beer. It’s evident that they’ve entrenched themselves in the bricks and mortar of the community in just three short years, which is commendable. But it’s hardly surprising, as they’ve been consistent and focused on an intensely drinkable range.

The electric character of the Brixton community is being bottled underneath the brewery's arches, so it's hardly a surprise that the beer is best enjoyed in situ. The experience is indisputably worth journeying out of East London or Bermondsey for.

I was kindly invited along to take a tour by Jez & Mike at Brixton Brewery.

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia: local beer emerging from the darkness

Separated by the Halifax Harbour, Halifax and Dartmouth might mirror each other geographically, but have discrete personalities. Once both cities, the latter was absorbed by the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) in 1996. The HRM is the capital of Nova Scotia, boasting a population of approximately 400,000 in its metropolitan area. Its vibrant nightlife and drinking scene is heavily influenced by the number of universities in its urban core. Across the harbour, connected by two suspension bridges and passenger ferries, lies the former city of Dartmouth, now a community with a population of 67,000.

Compared to Halifax, the downtown Dartmouth area is much less developed and, inevitably, less lively as a consequence. But, just as regeneration is dramatically transforming some of London’s most squalid areas, this is rapidly changing. Ten years ago, a Dartmouthian would endure disdain and mockery from Haligonians for living in ‘Darkness’, the uncomplimentary moniker applied to the ‘other’ community across the harbour. In recent years, however, perceptions have been noticeably shifting.

Brewing local with room for expansion

Dartmouth’s transformation is assisted by the emergence of several local businesses in the guise of restaurants, coffee shops, record store/barber shop hybrids and, most relevantly, an excellent taproom. All within walking distance from each other in the heart of the downtown area, these facilities are drawing people in from across the harbour to see what all the palaver is about. Some of these businesses were suddenly awarded placements on ‘best of’ in the Halifax Readers' Choice Awards from the popular local independent newspaper, The Coast. The 2016 list has yet to be finalised, but many of these venues haven’t been operating long enough for consideration in previous years.

In tandem with cheaper rent, Dartmouth is now an attractive prospect for launching a new business. It’s hardly surprising that several new breweries have gone from their establishment to whirlwind success in a matter of months; Nine Locks Brewing Company epitomises this. Since opening in January 2016, they’ve been frantically brewing to supply the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC)’s government-owned stores, private boutiques and kegs to a number of local businesses.

Nine Locks launched straight into canning and sell in 473ml tins- they’ve also put enough forward planning into their business to cater for growth and the capacity to keep up with surging demand. Founded by two cousins, Shaun and Danny O’Hearn, they came into craft brewing with a proven background in the beer industry; the former is owner of a popular restaurant and bar in busy downtown Halifax, Your Father’s Moustache, alongside the Rockbottom Brewpub located beneath the main bar.

The Nine Locks' site is about 7,000 square feet (650 square metres) with a good-sized bottle shop and growler station abutting the shiny new brew house. They’re drawing in a range of beer drinkers, mostly locals who have developed a palate for their superbly refershing IPA, which has a dry bitter sting rounded off with juicy citrus and floral notes thanks to hopping throughout the boil. Their Dirty Blonde has proven just as popular and is a North American style wheat beer, using Canadian wheat and barley for a smooth yet effervescent beer with nice bready notes and a clean finish.

Another Dartmouth brewery success story is Spindrift Brewing Co, whose beer appeared on NSLC shelves in July 2015 as the first Nova Scotian craft beer in a can. Like Nine Locks, Spindrift has invested in a brew house that’s ready for further expansion- they’re working with over 3,400 square feet (315 square meters) of production space. They’ve concentrated on lager and invested in Kellye Robertson, a brewer who cut her teeth at Garrison Brewing Company in Halifax, the brewery credited with introducing craft beer to Nova Scotians in 1997. Once again, the new independent breweries are demonstrating a remarkable head for business and foresight in spades.      

Finally, the nano breweries are also muscling in, proffering their beer in pre-filled growlers at Saturday farmer markets and drumming up a presence via social media. Brightwood Brewery began from such grassroots beginnings, the brainchild of two homebrewers, Matt McGrail and Ian Lawson, and their 1 litre home brewing kit. Their inaugural brew was launched in July 2016 as The Big Lift IPA, which was followed by Smokey the Beer, a smoked honey ale with an accomplished balance between honeyed sweetness and nuances of smouldering campfire in the body.

Battery Park: engaging the local community through crowdfunding

There’s no shortage of beer flowing on the either side of the harbour and even a presence of a retail shop and growler filling station from a Halifax brewery, North Brewing Co, now in downtown Dartmouth. This is courtesy of a new taproom and eatery, Battery Park, which opened in October 2015, piquing a huge amount of interest from beer drinkers across Halifax and Dartmouth in equal measures.

Acting as a counterpoint to Halifax’s much loved Stillwell taproom, Battery Park promised to bring a solid selection of local craft beer on 13 rotating taps- one of which dispenses nitro and another cask- and additional taps offering one homemade non-alcoholic soda, one local cider and four additional taps on the outdoor patio bar. Despite the fact that it’s still early days, Battery Park has been hitting the right notes from the beginning. It was a crowdfunded project that aimed to be intrinsically woven into the local community. Its founders were intent on receiving the support of their neighbours- they acknowledged that from their previous successful crowdfunded operation in Halifax, a restaurant called Brooklyn Warehouse, over 85% of shareholders resided in the same postal code as the business.

While some skeptical types still need convincing that Battery Park is an accessible venue to meet a friends and grab a beer, it’s evident that the business has been designed to be approachable, comfortable and low-key. Staff are the ideal balance of welcoming and knowledgeable and the beer selection covers a wide array of styles, from seasonals to core favourites from the likes of Big Spruce Brewing, Tatamagouche Brewing Company and Boxing Rock Brewing Co. Brightwood and Nine Locks were frequently represented in September alongside Halifax stalwarts Propeller Brewing Co, ensuring that all tastes were catered for.

Inside, the décor is minimal with idiosyncratic flairs of illuminated marquee style lettering and industrial fixings without being painfully minimalist. The outdoor patio is an idyllic retreat in the summer and proved to be exceptionally popular during the hazy summer evenings of 2016. On the whole, it makes for relaxed environs to have a drink or stay for several, whether arriving in a group or pulling up a solo stool at the bar. And the prediction was right concerning the clientele- it’s evident that most are local and known to staff, many enjoying a quiet drink before filling their growler and heading home.

Making Halifax- and its drinkers- take notice

While it will take some time for downtown Dartmouth to catch up to the cultural, gastronomic and commercial retail attractions of Halifax, the winds of change are palpable as money is invested into the area- mostly in the form of new build commercial housing. But its fuelling change and the first independent businesses to open in the downtown area have seen locals flock through their doors. Alongside the charming cafes and artisanal eateries, it wasn’t long before something like Battery Park came along.

Haligonians should get used to the ferry across the harbour. The hunt for an exceptional drink will undoubtedly lead to Dartmouth, so cast your prejudices aside and embrace the spirit that the province's breweries have already embraced: a unified plight to get every Nova Scotian to drink locally and drink well.

Cape Breton: where Big Spruce is keeping craft local

Stemming from a business proposal to sell a few dozen growlers in April 2014, Big Spruce Brewing was an instant hit with drinkers across Nova Scotia. Operating out of Breton Fields, a farmland in Cape Breton with lineage stretching back to the mid 19th century, brewing is a recent addition to the farm’s repertoire. Breton Fields is also a certified organic farm and yields harvests of hops, an apple orchard, a greenhouse and a market garden. When the property was purchased by Jeremy White and Melanie Bock-White in 2008, it stood derelict. Now, it hosts one of the province’s most widely lauded and popular breweries. 

Breton farm is located in a suburb of Baddeck, a village on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The province is geographically divided into the mainland- which is a peninsula- and the island, which are connected by an artificial causeway. Cape Breton is particularly celebrated for its Cabot Trail, one of the world’s most spectacular scenic roadways characterised by dense forest, misty highlands, vast oceanic panoramas and dramatic cliff faces.

Tourism represents a crucial part of the island’s economy and is mostly reliant upon the Cabot Trail, but people are now pilgrimaging to Cape Breton specifically to visit Big Spruce’s tasting patio and growler station. They’re eager to get a glimpse into the birthplace of Cereal Killer and Kitchen Party, the brewery’s two flagship beers; they’ve become seminal drinks, symbolising the advancements of Nova Scotia’s independent breweries and the public’s shift towards more flavoursome, unfiltered and unpasteurised beer.

From Halifax, Big Spruce is approximately a three-and-a-half-hour drive, making it a feasible destination for a weekend away from the din of the province’s urban centre. The brewery’s tasting patio is a charming space sitting on the apex of a hill that rolls down to the Bras D’Or Lake, one of the world’s largest saltwater lakes.

The surrounding tranquility is palpable and draws in locals and visitors alike for a a flight of beer and, on Friday to Sunday, to listen to traditional music from local musicians. The current brewing site lies behind the tasting room, a 7 barrel (bbl) system that is at full capacity and soon to be supplemented by a new 20 bbl brew house. The brewery has upgraded their old 7 bbl kit, which will undoubtedly be useful in further one-offs or seasonal brews to supplement the new brew house’s output. Their old system has been sold on to Sober Island Brewing in Sheet Harbour (read more here)- allowing another Nova Scotian brewery in its nascent stages to increase its capacity.

The build is already underway and the new brewery is set to open in early 2017. With a canning line rumored to be part of the expansion, the current supply issues that have hampered the brewery should be remedied. Or will at least allow them to fulfill current demand. The tasting patio saw more than twice the number of visitors this year than in 2015, indicating that even further expansion might already be necessary.

Big Spruce’s popularity can be partially attributed to their approach to brewing, favouring accessible and highly palatable beers over trends- Jeremy brews for all types of drinkers, not to impress those already immersed in the scene or in the industry. Thankfully, those who dutifully log each pint downed into an app also revere the brewery and acknowledge the irrefutable quality of their range.

The core range is fairly obiquitous around taprooms in Nova Scotia- Cereal Killer is particularly widespread, occasionally the sole representation of a dark beer on menu boards. Part of the brewery’s core offerings, this oatmeal stout was brewed to plug a gap in the market; prior to its introduction, the style was rarely seen in the province as a perennial feature. It’s a magnificent feat, boasting all of the right notes in the right places: enticing aromas of chocolate and espresso, a frothy tan head, ink-black opaqueness and an astonishingly silky smooth body. The rich mouthfeel and aromas are echoed in the flavor profile, with additional hints of liquorice and a dry finish. This beer has been a gateway drink for many Nova Scotians, encouraging them to move away from the commercially brewed black stuff to something local. Today, it remains one of the best beers available in the province.

The counterpoint to an oatmeal stout is, naturally, a pale ale- and Big Spruce aimed to develop an approachable light beer for easy drinking. Explosive flavours with tropical and resinous notes are balanced with a knife-edge bitterness in their Kitchen Party Pale Ale, a beer that’s as wonderfully aromatic as it is to sip on.

The seasonals available at the brewery included Tim’s Dirty IPA, which relies entirely upon the availability of Simcoe hops. It’s a golden hazy IPA with a nice caramel profile from the malts and a rounded bitterness from those elusive Simcoe hops. Luckily enough, it was flowing freely at the brewery’s tasting patio and in taprooms in Halifax and Dartmouth throughout the month.

Another oft-spotted seasonal was I’m Wit Chris, a witbier infused with lemon and ginger, giving it an intensely citrus nose followed by a fiery kick of ginger on the palate. Enormously drinkable and made with the farm’s own ginger, this tasted exceptionally fresh at the brewery.

Collaborations between Nova Scotian breweries have become endemic- many of its smaller independent breweries are struggling to keep up with swelling demand and many are in the midst of expansion. To keep beer flowing across the province, breweries share facilities and unite; this is exactly the case with the Shame on You IPA from Boxing Rock Brewing Co and Big Spruce: a bitter, hop-forward drink that draws the drinker in with whiffs of pineapple and citrus, then slaps them across the face with a building astringent finish. It’s an assault on the senses, but becomes more mellow and drinkable with every sip. It’s an accomplished beer from two of Nova Scotia’s best breweries.

This spirit of community is entirely reminiscent of London’s independent brewing scene back in the United Kingdom- breweries are colleagues and all speak highly of each other’s beer. There is one marked exception, Unfiltered Brewing in Halifax, who take a more anarchistic and unapologetic approach to their brewing, but deliver on seriously hoppy rocket fuel that is widely respected. Jeremy at Big Spruce, on the other hand, is an engaging brewer who graciously talked us through the brewery’s pursuits while allowing us to sample some experimentations that weren’t quite ready to see the light of day. Jeremy also spoke of foray into experimentation with yeast- ten strains were being tasted that were derived from swabbing every surface on the farm.

The brewery’s commitment to celebrating local ingredients and its roots has garnered respect from the surrounding community and Nova Scotia’s beer aficionados alike. Although Big Spruce can be sourced from most taprooms and independent bottle shops in the mainland, visiting the brewery in Cape Breton is an immersive juncture, bringing one more critical component of the inspiration behind the beer into the forefront: the surrounding scenery and the local people, who have been filling their growlers here from the beginning. The serene environs are intermittently broken by the strumming of an acoustic guitar and a powerful rendition of Farewell to Nova Scotia from a musician in the far corner of the tasting patio.

The sight of the framework of the new brew house, which is within eyeshot of the patio, acts as a reminder that there’s more to come from one of Nova Scotia’s most venerated breweries. This quiet corner just outside of Baddeck is set to become a mecca for beer lovers, whether they’re local or merely dropping in. There genuinely isn’t a better way to experience Nova Scotia than a Kitchen Party Pale Ale in hand and Cape Breton's awe-inspiring vistas.

Hammerton Brewery: where Peru meets Islington

I was fleetingly introduced to the man behind Hammerton Brewery, Lee Hammerton, during the London Craft Beer Festival in August 2016. Although the brewery has been operating since 2014, their beer has largely eluded me- this is mostly attributable to the fact that they're detached from the East London drinking scene. Local to Islington, they proudly serve a range of beer that rivals London’s other emerging independent breweries. My oversight was indefensible because, in reality, the brewery is only a short jaunt from Hackney Wick on the overground.

Based in N7 and specialising in turning out small batch beers, my previous encounters with Hammerton was limited to the flagship range, namely the- you guessed it- N7 IPA. But it was their effusive excitement about their take on chicha, a popular drink in South and Central America usually derived from maize, that captivated me. Branded the Chicha Pale, this pilot brew is a 4.1% pale ale made from South American black corn, which lends it a striking amber hue. When last weekend’s taproom opening presented me with the opportunity to taste this unique beer, I cleared an afternoon. I was intent on redressing my unfamiliarity with the brewery’s range.

Just a hop and a skip from the Caledonian Road & Barnsbury station, the brewery and taproom are located within a commercial unit. On a Saturday afternoon, the lot was quiet and the surrounding units showed little signs of life. There were only the tell-tale characteristics of the open taproom coming from unit 9: the wafting smoke of a street food vendor and an al fresco seating set-up. Stepping inside, I was struck by the generous size and arrangement of the taproom, spread out across the brewery’s warehouse floor space. Nine beers were available fresh on tap and bottles were chilling in the fridge to take away, all showcasing the breadth of Hammerton’s range. Styles available included their N7.7 DIPA, the Blanche witbier and their Pentonville oyster stout.

Hammerton are quietly confident- but with sufficient reason. I was served by welcoming staff who demonstrated exhaustive knowledge and enthusiasm about the selection. This batch of the Chicha Pale, v 4.0, was running low. Given the fact that previous versions were limited to 60 litres- the volume of the brewery’s pilot kit- they must be flying through their supply. I was advised that in future batches, there was talk of achieving a lighter hue comparable to a rosé wine and deriving more of the natural sweetness from the corn grist. You could almost envision the Chicha being decanted into a wine glass and glistening away in the sunlight- at 4.1%, it’s a perfectly sessionable beer for long, languid summer afternoons.

Indisputably an attractive beer in the glass, the Chicha is also remarkably drinkable- I was uncertain whether I would discern any characteristics from the corn- whether aromatic or on the palate- but there was certainly pleasantly soft flavour nuances of ripened strawberries and white fleshed fruits. While present, the sweetness of the beer is tempered with a long, refreshing bitterness. As a pale ale, I found it was a nicely rounded and deceivingly complex. It had me going back for a second half- just to be certain that I hadn’t missed any restrained qualities imparted by the corn.

To further my acquaintance with Hammerton’s beers, I also sampled the Blanche, a 5.3% witbier infused with orange zest, coriander and ginger- this was a good, clean rendition of a Belgian wheat beer with apposite haziness, zingy citrus notes and a nice buttery earthiness from the coriander. This was intensely drinkable in the humidity of the afternoon. I was equally as satisfied with the N 7.7, a DIPA with an ABV of 7.7%, carrying a nice nose of tropical fruit and citrus, which was also exhibited on the palate alongside some maltiness, a hint of resin and bracing finish.

Although I came for the Chicha, I was easily swayed to try further examples from Hammerton’s range. I can now confidently place them as another London brewery that’s producing solid and immensely drinkable beer. It was the passion of Lee and Gavin, the brewery’s Head of Sales, who inspired me to revisit their offerings after our chance encounter last month. And the allure of their taproom will see me returning, but how could it not? Drinkers are invited to sit within eyeshot of operations and brewing, harking back to the salad days of many of London’s stalwart brewery taprooms- some still independent, some no longer- and this is a great, convivial environment to lap up Islington’s finest beer.