Published on June 15th, 2016 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Ideas can come easy, it’s putting them into practice that’s the difficult part, writes Alastair Gilmour
The curious mind will always find a new way to do things and try to improve on what is widely regarded as perfect. Making something better is about asking questions, researching and experimenting. Then doing it again.
As part of this approach, Northumberland-based Anarchy Brew Co – itself a re-creation of its original Brew Star name and ethos – holds regular brainstorming sessions where everybody pitches in ideas from all corners of the business. Everything in the company, from beer styles to delivery schedules and suppliers, is chewed over and if an idea emerges, it’s time to go for it.
As an example, although it already produced a fine beer called Smoke Bomb, using German smoked malt for a classic Bavarian character, perhaps even that could be made better.
Packaging manager Mark Young thought that if they could collaborate with another Northumberland company to smoke the malt to produce a niche beer it would tick a couple of boxes on the local provenance list. The next phone call was to Neil Robson at L Robson & Sons, world-renowned traditional smokers and producers of the legendary Craster kippers.
“We’re looking to find new suppliers and to introduce local ingredients where we can,” says Anarchy Brew Co owner Simon Miles. “It’s about bringing local companies together to produce something from each other’s expertise for each other’s benefit.”
Fourth-generation fish-smoker Neil Robson was up for the idea – he knows what he likes when it comes to ale – and such is his expertise that when Simon dropped off a bag of the German malted barley, he knew exactly what level of smoking it had had.
“Simon had asked the German company how they did it – for how long, etc – but they were very secretive about it,” says Neil. “We’ve been operating the smokehouses in Craster since 1856 but never smoked malt before. I gave it a sniff to work out how to do it.
“We decided to smoke it on trays – you can’t hang it up like herring – and moved it around so it all got an even amount of exposure. It was very much ‘let’s see what happens’, but we got a result straight away, first time.”
Neil Robson also wanted to sell the unique beer in the shop and restaurant attached to the Northumberland coastal business. Who could resist a beer made using the same methods that produced the kipper or smoked salmon on their plate, both emerging from the same small room? The beer, Neil insisted, should have a low alcohol content so that visitors could enjoy one with their lunch in the restaurant.
Simon Miles says: “We used pale malt so we’ve got full control over the process – we already know its fermentable extract properties. The malt has already been kilned and what we’re doing is adding the smoked character.
“We thought it was a brilliant idea from Mark. Up In Smoke is a 3.8% abv blonde ale that smells of Craster itself. This rural and coastal collaboration is a unique selling point for Northumberland. We’ll put it out in cask and also in bottle.”
Neil Robson fully expects Up In Smoke to be a good seller, not only in his shop and restaurant, but in Waitrose who he has been supplying with kippers since 1998 – “and that was when the nearest store to Craster was Newark in Nottinghamshire”.
The herring used by L Robson & Sons – 350 tonnes a year – is caught in the North Sea, usually by Scottish boats, and landed in Norway where it’s stored. Loads are shipped to Grimsby then on to Eyemouth, all under cold store.
The walls of the three Robson smokehouses glisten with a thick, black tar-like veneer from decades of fish oil. It’s like entering the ante-chamber to a nether world where a couple of glowing sawdust fires and choking smoke mesmerise the senses.
Herring are smoked for 14 to 16 hours; long enough to change their character without actually cooking them. Salmon is ready after 24 hours. It’s an extremely labour-intensive business with each fish handled six times through the process of gutting, brining and hooking on tentersticks, but tradition is king.
Even the wood Neil Robson uses for smoking has had to be carefully sourced. The oak sawdust that smoulders on top of strips of wood came variously from a joinery business in Berwick, then from a timber yard in Wooler, but cutting down oak trees locally is a thing of the past.
“We now get our sawdust from France,” says Neil. “We order it in 25-tonne lots which lasts us two to three years.”
Anarchy Brew Co will be about ready for another brainstorming session. What next? A voluptuous breakfast stout infused with Ethiopian Guji coffee beans? They’ve alreadt done that with Sublime Chaos (7.0% abv) which was elected Europe’s best stout in the 2015 World Beer Awards. Perhaps it’s better to simply wait and see.