Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A Visit to Belleville Brewing: 31st May 2014

This weekend was to be my once-a-year cricket weekend with my Dad, with a trip to Lord's, the home of cricket, for the England-Sri Lanka One Day International on the Saturday (a cracking game!). Since we were staying in the Fulham/Putney area it was a great opportunity to make the relatively short trip out to Belleville Brewing in nearby Wandsworth on the Friday afternoon before the cricket for an informal visit & tour.

View Belleville in a larger map

Travel was as follows:-
  Train: Wandsworth Common (South-East Trains)

I'd wanted to try some Belleville Brewing beers ever since a London-based friend had been impressed with them after trying them in her local pub, The Earl Ferrers in Streatham. I then managed to find a couple myself at both the Larbert and Alloa Beer Festivals (run by Forth Valley CAMRA, I don't know how they managed to get them north-of-the-border) and I was (more than) suitably impressed myself.

After arranging a time & date with Belleville Brewing we arrived about 30 minutes late into Putney due to due to a 'missing staff member at Preston', definitely a new 'excuse' to me. We then had to walk to Putney mainline station, change at Clapham Junction, walk over about 1,000,015 platforms (OK, exaggeration by about 1,000,000) and get the connecting train to Wandsworth Common station. The road on the east side of the station is Jaggard Way - it's basically a lot of industrial units (not railway arches, damn!) and No. 36 used to be a print shop but is now the Belleville Brewing Co. There weren't too many tell-tale signs of this outside but I did spy a couple of bags of malt at the front door.

We headed inside and were met by head brewer (and currently only full time employee) Adrian Thomas who was washing & cleaning-up after a brew today (it's a glamorous life brewing) but who was kind enough to chat away for quite some time and let us have a look around the brewery (as always beer people are great). In his previous life Adrian was a full-time musician (he had played guitar & keyboards with Mike Oldfield amongst others) but had been been thinking about taking the plunge into brewing for quite some time (he was/is a keen home-brewer). What seems to have given him the impetus to brew commercially was a couple of road-trips up the East Coast of the US visiting loads of breweries - SweetWater, Red Brick, Victory, Brooklyn, Sam Adams and a whole lot more especially in the state of Maine (sounds like my type of trip). Adrian then met some like-minded 'Dads' at his local school (Belleville Primary) who were seriously impressed with his US-biased hop-forward homebrewing skills and together the 10 or so of them were able to raise the necessary capital (~£60K to date) to lease the industrial unit (literally only around the corner from Adrian's home) and then buy the brew-kit and the other pieces of ancillary equipment. It's a custom 5BBL brew-kit complete with hot liquor tank, mash tun, copper and a couple of fermenting vessels.

Adrian had been brewing the Thames Surfer US-IPA today which has a lot of citra hops added late on in the boil - these were the remnants and consisted of still almost complete hop flowers which had a wonderful strong, almost pungent grapefruity aroma.

Adrian uses a small amount of finings in the cask beers but is hoping to do away with these together as he gets to grips with the relatively new conditioning tanks.

There's a large cool room used to store the beer (both cask and bright) which is needed for those damnable high London temperatures (at least compared to Glasgow) - the distinctive blue-and-white casks carry the colours of Belleville Primary School (as are industrial unit's shutters).

Currently Adrian bottles by hand (the other investers also help out at the Sunday night bottling session) and is quite happy keep things that way. He uses a small amount of sugar syrup and then the beer normally drops almost completely bright with some very slight sediment; he thinks that any 'tanker' shipment out to the big bottling places would make the beer taste quite different to what he thinks it should taste like (interestingly Tempest and Magic Rock seem to hold a similar opinion).

Adrian's obviously trying for US-style, hop-forward intense flavours (but still with balance) in his beers, indeed the brewery tag-line is 'Beers from over there, brewed over here'. They are mostly named after local features or events and include Battersea Brownstone (US Brown Ale), Commonside Pale Ale (strongish Pale Ale), Northcote Blonde (Golden Ale/Pilsner hybrid) and Thames Surfer (US-IPA) as well as (at least) 4 other seasonal beers with interesting seasonal, sometimes foraged ingredients which he mostly picks himself. Adrian's pretty happy with them at the moment but he thinks the new conditioning tanks will definitely help in terms of repeatable quality and intensity of flavour. Belleville started brewing back in January of 2013 and were only going for a few months before getting a 'Cease & Desist' letter completely out-of-the-blue from the lawyers at AB-Inbev regarding the 'similarity' of the name to the AB-Inbev Belgian Belle-Vue fruit beer products (see Daily Mail link, sorry).

Things were in limbo for a while (a possible name change to 'Northcote Brewing' was mooted) but eventually common sense prevailed and Belleville were able to keep their name and not have to destroy any associated labels & pump-clips.

They sell a fair amount of cask beer to local pubs but hardly make an appearance north of the Thames (so are really only seen in a 3-4 mile radius from the brewery) and don't have any tie-ups with national 'Craft Beer' distributors (e.g. New Wave) that some of the new London breweries have had from day 1. What they do have a lot of is on-sales at the brewery (especially on a Saturday) - this is to individuals, clubs, craft fairs, markets, schools fairs, garden fetes etc... and includes bottles, growlers and polypins (with 5L minicasks also a possibility). They also have The Belleville Beer Club, with annual & season memberships for cases of beer, and all of these cut out the supermarkets and sell to the people who want decent beer at home, but can't necessarily get to the pub too often because of family commitments. Judging by the amount of packaging in front of the brewery it seems to be a very successful method of selling to local customers.

Adrian's got some expansion plans in his head which would involve a fairly easy migration to a 10BBL (perhaps even 15BBL) brew-length, but after that larger premises would probably be needed (as well as a couple of additional people) and since that would almost definitely mean moving outside the local area it's not really a path he would countenance going down. It's an interesting philosophy and we chatted about it, beer in general, the fire at the Glasgow School of Art and the newly opened Drygate Brewing Co. in Glasgow's east-end over samples of Northcote Blonde and Chestnut Porter (I left a Fyne Ales Landslide for him, Fyne Ales and Williams Brothers being the 2 breweries he really admires in Scotland). Adrian then pointed us in the direction of a local beer shop, The Beer Boutique in Putney, which was (by happy co-incidence) an easy diversion on the way back to the hotel.

There's a nice relaxed feel about the place, with lots of beers & fancy glasses covering the shelves of most of the 3 walls and then wooden tables and the odd beer barrel in the centre of the shop where you can sit and open any of the beers and have a relaxing drink whilst reading or web-surfing. The staff were really friendly & helpful, pointed out the new London beers (from a choice of over 400) and I managed to get a great selection of mostly local beer (OK, I also took the new Siren White IPA, but Berkshire is fairly local) for the cricket match the next day.

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