The Grand Central train that I boarded at King’s Cross was redolent of 1950s New York both in its style without, and the photos of a pouting Marilyn adorning the carriages within. However, this iron horse was headed not for the Big Apple, home of so many cool cats, but rather Sunderland, home of the Black Cats (Sunderland FC), who had grabbed the headlines that weekend for the hasty removal of their colourful Italian manager, Paulo Di Canio.
The emotional chill of leaving home on a Sunday night to venture into the unknown was thawed by the stunning red sunset to our port side, somewhere south of York. A rubbery, microwaved Panini bounced around my tum as we rattled our way north, arriving late into the deserted landscape of downtown Sunderland. After following a meandering route, I was pointed to my temporary home by two cheerful bouncers outside a sad and empty bar.
After a terrible sleep on a bed crafted from badly made porridge, I braved the foggy morning walk to Brewlab and, arriving predictably early, sought refuge in the local greasy spoon. The coffee was instant but my scrambled eggs took longer. Mr Di Canio was the preferred topic of hungry punters, sandwiched between friendly greetings and hearty orders of stotties, the local ‘delicacy’. I devoured the last of my scrambled egg mountain, vacated the sole table and bid farewell to my friendly hosts. Time to dive in to my three-day start up brewing course.
Brewlab’s HQ is situated at the end of an industrial estate on the banks of the River Wear. It consists of a small brewery, laboratories and a teaching facility. The coffee and biscuits on offer mean that I shall not be taking the greasy spoon detour again. Our class consists of 19 blokes and one lady. There’s one bloke who already has a brewery and one about to kick off, but the rest are either making plans like me or absolute beginners.
We were schooled in the practicalities, chemistry and marketing skills that would be critical to our success. Talking beer all day and again with some of the guys in the evening was a treat. The grim stories of a saturated market didn’t put me off, as I see things differently. But neither did I leave certain of my future as a brewery owner. What the course did for me was to make the whole thing starker and more tangible. I didn’t come away with a green light or a red light, but at least some more light had been shed on the shadowy future of Orbit Brewing.
I’m in the USA for two weeks now, traveling around Nashville, New Orleans and Memphis. Driving an automatic car in cruise control down empty roads affords me plenty space for bouts of reflective introspection. Beyond the questions about how much to invest, where to set up and what to brew, lurks the biggest question of them all. How much do I want this?
One day, here in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), the introspection had morphed into serious doubts and deep questions. I found a coffee house near our hostel and had to swallow a laugh as I noticed it was called Mojo. Mojo was brewing (coffee), but where was my brewing mojo? Later, on the bus into town, I see a girl with ‘passion’ tattooed on her neck. Where was my passion for beer? Tattooed on my neck, etched on my heart or just scribbled in a blog?
I started to ask myself whether my greater passions lay in travel, music and writing. After all, the Tea Leaf Paradox was born from a deep wish to travel and write. Beer was the skeleton of that story, but writing and travel were the flesh and the spirit. As I make plans for Orbit, I’m writing about the experience and my branding will be all about music. Maybe I should put all of my effort into freelance writing and keep my money to indulge my passion for travel and music?
On travel, I’m struck by how much America seems to be about religion and cars. I’m only surprised that we have yet to encounter any drive-thru churches. This vast land has bred many sprawling towns bereft of soul, lacking a heart and with community limited to the myriad flavours of church. We found a Hilton in Tupelo and I asked how far we were from the centre. “Why, y’all are already in the centre honey!” This was a world of dry counties, deserted streets and drive-thru pick-up queues.
New Orleans was a fine exception. Real personality, character and edge. Shaped by its colourful history and the ever-present threat of wild storms, it feels enticing, bohemian and dangerous. None of these adjectives could be used to describe Graceland in Memphis, but I felt I got to know Elvis the person – the boy, the man and the star. His life contained so much greatness and genuine joy, but also a sense of someone who was often lost and lonely. I even shed a tear by his graveside, noticing that his granny outlived him, his parents and his stillborn twin.
So, back home in London, I’m not just looking for premises, kit and a brewer, but also the passion and purpose that will (re)-ignite my mojo. If Orbit Brewing is to come to life then I have to start taking some chances and live with the risks. If not, then I’d better come up with a pretty good Plan B to take the place of Plan Beer.
The jet lag is keeping me awake until the early hours, giving me a darkened stillness in which to incubate my thoughts. I soon realise that there isn’t a Plan B. I’ve undertaken a marathon climb up a challenging mountain with little help and no experience. No surprise then that I’m feeling this way, but I think I can make it. I need to keep going, I need some luck, I need some help and I need to keep going.
Henry V famously endured his ‘long, dark night of the soul’ before drawing on his depths of personal leadership and encouraging his troops ‘once more unto the breach’. He had to defeat the French with a broken army; I only have to create a brewery. How hard can that be?