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A Modern British Brewer

Mike McGuigan
Interviews January 13, 2005      
Written by SilkTork

Southampton, ENGLAND -

Mike McGuigan is only 32, yet has already accumulated brewing experience at six different breweries, including Brakspear, Wolf and Zerodegrees (where he won an award for his brewing of Pale Ale). He has knowledge of traditional brewing methods using steam engines, up to modern brewpub methods, and much in between. Now he is ready to start up his own company. Following the current European trend of peripatetic brewing, Mike intends to brew using spare capacity on other brewer’s plant.

Why are you choosing this way of brewing?

I’ve decided to initially set up as a “cuckoo brewery” mainly for economic and risk reasons. I feel that a small brewery can be a viable business in this part of the world (near Liverpool), but I want to test the market first. This way of working will hopefully give me the chance to do that, without risking the large amounts of money on plant and premises that even a modest micro would require. My medium-term but definite aim is to set up my own brewery; I am a brewer, not a retailer or marketeer (important as those roles are). Ideally I would like to be involved in creating a characterful brewpub; showcasing a range of own-brewed beers and serving good food based on local produce; but also selling beer through farmers’ markets, local shops, bars, restaurants and pubs.

Do you think we will see more brewers operating this way in future?

As far as I know, there are a only few UK brewers working this way at present. But I think there will always be brewers wanting to make use of their spare capacity and other brewers happy to take up the slack; but the practicalities of doing so for both parties may be problematic. For example, I want to brew beer to my recipes, and sell some of it bottle-conditioned; but to do that consistently well, on quite a small scale, is no mean feat. My hope is that with attention to detail, careful choice of contract brewery/bottler, and ensuring quality at every stage, it’s possible.

But to start at the beginning, how did you get into brewing in the first place?

By accident really! My interest in decent beer came largely from the encouragement of my older brother, Brian. After he came back from a year working around Australia, (with a case of exploding Redback in his luggage!) I was old enough to go drinking with him and my beery education began. Even when I went to college in Canterbury, Brian and girlfriend Ann Marie kept my mind focussed on beer with Christmas and birthday presents of books by Michael Jackson & Roger Protz. While at college I got a part-time job at Oddbins, the wine and beer store, and got interested in beer hunting. By 1995 I had finished my degree, and Oddbins and I had parted company. I then heard that a brewery called Great Stour was opening in Canterbury. So I contacted them about working in their beer-shop, but ended up working in the brewery itself from early 1996.

What was the Great Stour Brewery like?

It was one of the UK’s few U-brew facilities. I was trained by a German brewer, Michael Hoek, a Weihenstephan graduate working for Shepherd Neame, mainly on their attempts to brew Kaltenberg Weissbier under licence (Michael had previously worked at Kaltenberg - last I heard he was brewing at a US German-style brewpub, I forget which one). The brewery was well-funded with custom-built brewplant - hot liquor tank, heat-exchange, and 6 tiny 50 litre coppers. There was also a semi-auto bottling-plant and bottle-washer, using re-usable bottles. I always thought that was a very good idea (as a customer you bought 100 or so bottles and similar to old-fashioned milk bottles, you just rinsed them out and brought them back to be cleaned & re-used). We brewed a range of 14 beers, bitters, stout, IPA, mild, porter and a couple of pale and dark lagers. We used decent malt-extract, with coloured malts, UK, US & German hops, and both ale and lager yeast from Shep’s. The beers were brewed under supervision one day, then fermented by us in kilderkins in separate rooms for lager & ales & then a week or 2 later the customer returned to help bottle or rack into cask (all beers were unfiltered, even the lagers). Sadly GSB didn’t last too long as the competition of cheap beer from the Calais booze cruises (via nearby Kent ports) seemed to be insurmountable, and after what seemed quite a decent start, not enough people came back to brew a second batch and the company went bust.

So then you went to Wolf . This must have been around the time when Wolfe Witham founded the brewery?

It was certainly early days at Wolf - I arrived in summer 1996. I think Wolfe had rolled out his first beers in the spring, but was using locum brewers. Dark Star’s Rob Jones was one of the locums - he later built the plant we used at City of Cambridge. The first month or so was quite a baptism of fire as I had previously only brewed 50-litre malt-extract batches in Canterbury, and was now trying to get to grips with a recently built 20-barrel full-mash brewery, which was still going through teething problems. When I joined City of Cambridge in 1998 they too were in their early days and again I was coming in to replace locum brewers. I think that having a full-time brewer, even a fledgeling one like me, improved beer quality at both Wolf and Cambridge - I had the time to oversee the whole brewing process, and the inclination to focus on issues such as water treatment, finings trials, brewery hygiene, etc.

After that brief spell at City of Cambridge you moved to the original Brakspear brewery at Henley-on-Thames.

Yes, Brakspear’s was a great experience in lots of ways; working every day in what to me was a fascinating brewing museum; they still had two steam engines - one was used regularly to pump water from the bore-hole; plus two proper copper “coppers” - one ancient and open-topped, the other the traditional English bullet-shaped design; we also used a very old cast iron mash-tun & hopback. It was good to work with a really experienced and enthusiastic group of brewers. Perhaps unlike some of the other more staid regionals, Brakspear seemed quite vibrant. I was very proud to be part of a team brewing perhaps my all-time favourite ordinary bitter (with that gin-like dryness and biscuity malt) but under Head Brewer Peter Scholey’s direction, it also seemed that every month brought some innovative and creative brew. This innovation ranged from using new pilot-grown UK hop varieties plus other unusual ingredients (crystal rye, amber malts, US hops, etc) to brewing organic beers and using recipes deciphered from the brewery’s 200 year old records; plus brewing for interesting contracts such as Coniston Bluebird & Salopian’s wheat beers and Entire Butt (with an incredibly complicated grist bill of 14 different malts) While I’m saddened that the Brakspear beers are no longer brewed in their home town, I do salute what Refresh has done in taking over the brands and now brewing the beers in some of the original Henley vessels, at their Wychwood site. I recently tried the Wychwood Brakspear Bitter and was hugely impressed by how good it was and how similar to the original Henley brew. I read recently that the Henley brewery itself has had a less happy end than the brands and some of the old brewing vessels and the buildings have been converted into part of a chain of small luxury hotels, with the ignominious name of Hotel du Vin!

But after two years there you left to join Meantime in London.

Meantime gave me my first chance to brew some authentic lagers - not something too many UK brewers get the chance to do. Lager still has a poor reputation amongst many beer aficionados here because, along with the big brewery keg ales of the 1960s & 70s, lager was seen as a threat to the flavourful homegrown real ales that CAMRA was established to defend. Lager’s poor reputation amongst UK beer-fans hasn’t been helped by breweries using lots of adjuncts, few hops, low ABVs and next to no lagering time. At Meantime I trained with another Weihenstephan Braumeister, Florian Kuplent (now brewing Bud in the US - no comment!). Meantime uses an adaptable lauter-tun brewplant, capable of the decoctions and multi-step temperature mashing necessary for authentic lagers, but equally able to brew German and Belgian wheaties, and UK style ales. Slow, cool fermentations and a fair amount of lagering, with no pasteurisation of the beers (just filtration) gave me experience of brewing British lagers and wheat beers that could hold their heads high.

But you then changed again - this time working in a modern American style brewpub. How did that come about?

ZeroDegrees’ original brewer, Grant Johnson decided to return to the US, so when I heard that the job had come up, I jumped at it. I spent a few days working with Grant, (last I heard he was brewing at Diamond Back, near San Francisco) learning the plant and his recipes/methods, but also some time with one of the German brewer/engineers that had designed the complex, PC-controlled lauter-tun plant. The opportunity to work within a modern brewpub, brewing a diverse range of ales and lagers, plus designing new beers in styles from around the world, was something of a dream come true. Like Meantime’s, the brewplant at ZeroDegrees was very adaptable, but as a CAMRA member I was pleased to have one less piece of kit - no filters. All of the beers - ales, lager, wheat, etc, were served unfined and unfiltered from horizontal serving tanks, lined with giant plastic bags and pushed to the bar using compressed air. This system meant that all of the fresh flavours of the beers remained intact through to the glass, and not lost in the filtration process. The closed fermenters at ZeroDegrees meant that I could regulate how much natural CO2 to leave in the beer before it went to the serving tank - less for the Brown & Pale Ales, more for the Pilsner and most for the Wheat Beers. The main down side in terms of brewplant was the shortage of conditioning space for the lagers and at busy times of year, the Pilsner might have been served a little greener than I would like, but still ’bright’ and perfectly drinkable.

Why did you leave Zero?

Put simply, I got fed up with the stress of overwork and in particular the very long hours. Prior to opening the brewpub, the owners had run successful restaurants in the US. They were used to staff working to the frenetic pace and long hours culture that are often the norm in kitchens and restaurants. I was committed both to the quality of the beers, and to keeping all five on tap at all times. There were added demands of filling minikegs and supplying beer each week to several other bars owned by the group, all this from quite a small brewplant, with no reliable help. All this meant that I too was expected to work frenetically and very long hours or compromise on quality and the beer range. I personally don’t think that quality craft-brewing is compatible with that kind of work regime. After 14 months of asking for help, while just about managing to keep all the balls in the air, I’d had enough and quit

What have you been doing since leaving Zero?

After ZeroDegrees I needed a total break from brewing and wanted to leave London and recharge my batteries, so I moved back to Wirral where I grew up. Up here I’ve been playing some music (I’m a drummer), I’ve been doing some part-time studying and some acting and massage lessons, and I’m finally learning to drive. I’ve also been helping out at a local creche for children with special needs, and writing the odd piece for the local CAMRA newsletter - most recently about my summer working holiday, helping to carry some Titanic Brewery beer by narrow-boat to Burton-Upon-Trent!

You’ve had quite a range of brewery experience - a Brew Yourself brewery, a start up traditional micro, an old established regional, a modern brewpub, and a modern lager based micro. And now you are planning a very modern peripatetic brewery. Which of these types of brewery do you feel will be more successful in the future?

That’s a tricky one to answer. My guess is that some of the regionals that haven’t yet managed to ensure the quality of their beer or the service and atmosphere in their pubs won’t survive in the longer term. I do wonder whether at some point the EU or UK government might seek to redress the perceived “closed shop” of regional and national breweries owning large chains of pubs; any changes forced in this area could have great impact on other sectors of the industry. Significant changes have happened in the industry in the last 10-15 years - the Guest Beer Provision made brewing viable for a generation of micros in the 1990s; and the Government’s decision a few years ago to halve the excise duty (tax) paid by most micros has seen increased investment and expansion once again. I think that quality and distinctiveness are key to survival for a brewery of any size or shape. Breweries of different types will measure their success in different ways so a “one-man-band” micro might be happy to brew great beer and have sufficient local outlets to sell it; with no plans to expand and thus complicate the way he works. That sounds like one kind of success to me. A regional or larger micro, perhaps with shareholders, might see that approach to business as stagnation - not striving for the profit and expansion that might be gained. My view is that there is room for success in the industry for quality brewers of all types, I hope I can be one of them.



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start quote While I’m saddened that the Brakspear beers are no longer brewed in their home town, I do salute what Refresh has done. end quote