This year’s most interesting new British beer is not being made in East London or Manchester, and it hasn’t got any fashionable hops from the American Pacific Northwest or Australia in it. It’s not an IPA, session or otherwise, but an amber lager, and it’s being made by a company called Braybrooke Beer Co in a former grain-drying store in the Northamptonshire countryside.
What makes this beer fascinating isn’t that it’s delicious – although the signs suggest it may well be – but how it came into being. It’s the result of a collaboration between restaurateurs Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, who run 10 Greek Street, distributor Nick Trower of Biercraft and Stephan Michel, the owner of Mahr’s Bräu, the craft-beer world’s favourite traditional German brewery.
The result is a kellerbier, an unfiltered and unpasteurised amber lager inspired by Mahr’s world-renowned ‘Ungespundet’ (known as ‘U’). It’ll be made with German malt and hops, fermented with Mahr’s yeast, and brewed in the traditional way, including a single decoction step and four weeks’ lagering.
Thus far only two test brews have been carried out, but the results suggest it will be as malt-rich, balanced and drinkable as its parent, albeit with a lower abv for the UK market (4.5% to 4.8% as opposed to 5.2%). The first batch should be available in March.
The project began when Wilson, Emirali and Trower went to see Michel at his brewery in Bamberg, Franconia in October 2016. By that stage Biercraft had been importing Mahr’s in the UK for a few years and the trio had decided a British-brewed version, overseen by Michel, would give them a unique selling point in a busy market. ‘We didn’t know what he’d say, but he was all for it,’ says Wilson. ‘He was so keen to be involved. That was brilliant.’
Michel, the self-styled ‘rock and roll brewer’ of Germany, is one of the brewing world’s most interesting characters. A surf bum turned lederhosen-sporting traditionalist, the 47-year-old is as much at home at festivals like the Beavertown Extravaganza as he is amidst the wood-panelled splendour of Mahrs’ brewpub, which sits in front of the brewery on a quiet back street in Bamberg.
‘What appealed to me about this project was bringing something new to life with good friends and partners,’ he says. ‘It’s obvious that English beer drinkers like to drink German lager beer – that’s why we started this project, to make German lager for the British market, beer that will have great drinkability.’
The man charged with ensuring this beer lives up to expectations is Andrew Catherall, a Northamptonshire lad who learnt to brew whilst living in Shanghai. Working for a software company in the day, he homebrewed at night and became a well-known figure on the local beer scene.
When a job came up at a new brewery called Fighting Tiger in central China, he was offered it and even when that project turned sour (the brewery never opened), he soon found himself a job at a Drei Kronen 1308 brewpub in Shanghai. He learnt to brew classic German styles there, and has been to Bamberg to see how ‘U’ is made, an experience that will stand him in good stead as Braybrooke head brewer.
‘Mahr’s Bräu is loved all over the world – that’s the taste I want to bring to the UK’ Luke Wilson
Catherall has his own brewery, the wildly experimental Three Hills, where he produces everything from a brown ale made with the Chinese fruit Jujube to a Thai-flavoured IPA. He’ll have to be rather more restrained as Braybrooke head brewer, although specials – particularly barrel-aged beers – are planned. ‘There’s an art to brewing just one beer,’ says Catherall, whose Three Hills colleague Steve Neal will work alongside him at Braybrooke. ‘I can hone this lager. I’ve got the best of both worlds.’
He’ll be working on a 10-hectolitre brewkit made by the Hungarian firm Zip that was acquired from the Battersea brewery Mondo last year. Water comes from a recently-discovered spring in a field behind the brewery, for which a 35-metre deep borehole was dug. Between £400,000 and £500,000 has been spent on bringing this project to fruition, Wilson says.
One of the most important aspects of this project is the beer’s suitability with food. It will be available on keg and in bottle at 10 Greek Street, and Wilson expects it to be popular with all types of customers. ‘This is a beer that’s good if you just want something easy to drink, but there’s also complexity there,’ he says.
Wilson and Trower have been friends since working together at Liberty Wines a number of years ago, but it’s a shared passion for beer-and-food that has kept their friendship burning. This is a project that has the potential to move that concept forward in a city where progress has been sometimes hesitant; Wilson is optimistic.
‘The interest in beer with food is really growing,’ he says. ‘Our customers are inquisitive; they want to try new things. It was really important to us that the beer we made was food friendly, it has to be elegant and approachable, to have subtlety.’
That certainly describes Mahr’s ‘U’. With Czech pale lagers and the whole gamut of Belgian ales increasingly well-established in the UK, might this project help to awaken Britons to the equally pleasurable magic of Franconian lagers? ‘I’m not sure if this beer will offer Franconian character or reflect it,’ says Michel. ‘The most important thing is to offer the British customer a great lagerbier. Mahr’s Bräu is loved all over the world – that’s the taste I want to bring to the UK.’
There certainly seems to be something going on with British-brewed German styles at the moment: the likes of Lost and Grounded’s Keller Pils and Thornbridge’s Lukas, a Bavarian Helles, suggest a subtle shift is underway. It might just be that British craft beer is growing up.
‘The hop explosion we’ve had recently in beer, I liken it to Australian chardonnay,’ says Wilson. ‘It started when someone makes a really nice wine with a bit of oak, and then someone else made a slightly oakier version, and on and on – and people got sick of them. Now Australian Chardonnay is approachable and subtle. I think the same thing is happening with beer.’