Freedom Brewery: brewing ale by democracy

A few months back, I was introduced to Freedom Brewery and their core range of vegan-friendly and sustainably brewed lagers. Freedom has an extensive history- founded in 1995, they’re Britain’s first established craft brewery- and they’re particularly noteworthy for their commitment to reducing the effect of brewing on the environment.

The environmental impact of brewing beer is a significant issue. The Guardian recently reported on the scale of the problem and the figures are eye-watering: the energy consumption required to brew a single pint of beer is equivalent to turning on a 40-inch TV for almost three-and-a-half hours. The quantity of water required during the process is equally as astounding, estimated to take 300 litres of water to create one litre of beer. Finally, there’s the spent grain- which is separated from the wort following the mash process. Not all breweries have implemented recycling projects and this can end up being discarded, destined for the landfill.

Freedom has distinguished themselves as a brewery with a conscience, actively pursuing solutions to reduce their carbon footprint and damage to their local surroundings. Programmes include a resident beekeeper to increase biodiversity, a natural drainage programme to filter brewing by-products from waste water and donating spent grain to a local farmer. Their innovative approaches earned them the accolade of SIBA Green business of the year 2016.

Other breweries have followed suit in the crusade to administer procedures to lessen the real consequences of brewing beer. In the United Kingdom, this includes Northern Monk Brew Co and their zero-waste farmhouse ale, Wasted, which boasts an ingredient list comprising surplus breads and fruit. It’s been well received amongst beer drinkers for both the concept and its palatability. Hackney Brewery also recently partnered with the food charity Feedback to create Toast Ale, which incorporates stale bread and has proved to be another virtuous – and highly drinkable- beer.

Given the clamour around responsible brewing, and the fact that Freedom is a stalwart and pioneer in this movement, my interest was piqued when they announced another audacious move- their inaugural foray into the world of ale. Not intending to venture into the unknown recklessly, they’ve asked imbibers for their input. The Prototype pale ale is currently being sampled in pubs around the UK until September of this year. After tasting, drinkers are invited to complete a comment card and give their honest- but hopefully not too scathing- reflections on the beer.

On the whole, the idea of engaging drinkers with the brewing process is appealing. And I’m not alone- one needs only to look at the paroxysm caused by Cloudwater Brew Co’s DIPA v. 4 & 5 release in July to identify the public’s willingness to participate in shaping a final product. In this instance, the dry-hopping of each version occurs at different stages in the fermentation process. The brewery went as far to encourage individuals to blend both versions to find the ideal balance, all in the name of attaining the superlative Double IPA.

The concept has proved enormously popular- both v 4 &5 sold out online at Honest Brew in 30 seconds last month and lasted minutes in the bottle shops lucky enough to stock them. I sourced mine from BottleDog in King’s Cross, but it was entirely down to serendipity. So there’s a colossal demand- albeit still predominately amongst the most enthusiastic of aficionados- for brewing driven by feedback.

It will be fascinating to note how Freedom tweaks the Prototype’s recipe once the comment cards roll in. I tried it for myself in its current state, hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Motueka and Rakau hops with a 4.2% ABV. The New Zealand hops deliver a soft nose of tropical fruits and there are notes of citrus and marmalade on the palate- it has a nice bitter finish and boasts the crisp, clean characteristics that I associate with Freedom’s core lagers.

For a low ABV beer, it’s surprisingly astringent and hoppy, making a welcome alternative to an insipid lager for a mid-afternoon pint. It’s a good baseline for the final product, but there’s still ample scope for something more daring, punchy and juicy- unfortunately, the easy-drinking ABV would almost certainly be lost to realise this.

I wonder what the upshot would be if Freedom followed the Cloudwater model and released two variants- one sessionable and the other with a higher ABV and even more complex hop character- to measure the public’s appetite. The current ubiquity of DIPAs is indicative of the demand for stronger, more robust beer styles, so I’d be disheartened to see Freedom play it safe when they’re on to something remarkable. But I concede that I don’t speak from the viewpoint of the average beer drinker.

My opinion aside, I’m excited to see how feedback-driven brewing can ultimately shape a beer and pinpoint effective channels whereby breweries can engage with their customers. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to environmentally-conscious or zero-waste brewing, where the ethos might eclipse the quality of the beer. Breweries must dovetail responsibility with sophisticated efforts, rising above gimmicks to produce beer that drinkers can both covet and feel virtuous about.

Samples of Freedom’s Prototype pale ale were provided by Freedom Brewery, but all opinions expressed are my own.