You can imagine that life as a farm animal has few moments of spontaneous joy. It must be a Groundhog Day kind of existence – sleep, eat, poo, pee, ruminate. The lucky ones might get to engage in some reproductive activities, while those less fortunate might find themselves with a one-way ticket to oblivion and a dinner plate. I may be underestimating their quality of life and maybe it is a little more like those excellent Gary Larson cartoons where they drink, smoke and chat until they see a car or human approaching. Perhaps they are even plotting the downfall of mankind with plans to enslave us and take their revenge!
Returning to reality for a moment, the lives of these poor creatures do seem to be particularly dull. I would imagine therefore that one of the highlights of the day is feeding time. Most days it might just be hay, slop or commercially manufactured, tasteless dry feed. Nothing to get excited about there, but a meal is a meal – unless that meal has come from a brewery… Regular readers will know that our spent grain is taken away by farmers and used for animal feed. This stuff is natural, nutritious and really quite tasty. Sometimes, if it’s left open to the air for a bit, or not picked up promptly, some wild yeast can get in there…and you know what that means!
This natural fermentation phenomenon goes a long way to explaining the abnormal animal behaviours described by a farmer we encountered. He normally takes the dull, dry food out on a trailer pulled by his tractor. The animals raise a lazy eyelid, finish their conversations, shake the flies from their faces and slowly amble over to the feeding station where lunch awaits. However, when he delivers the tasty, spent grain, he happens to take his red pick-up truck. The animals are acutely aware of the different vehicle shape and noise (they’re colour blind), and know exactly what special treat is on its way.
We can’t be entirely sure if the response that follows is just down to having a welcome change of menu, a rather tastier repast or, more likely, the possibility that some wild yeast has done its work and created a mildly intoxicating foodstuff. Anyway, the farmer tells us that the moment his truck is within sight or sound of the herd, the response is exceptional. In the time it takes Usain Bolt to get upright out of the blocks, the animals have raised their heads, spat out the grass they were munching, turned to face the advancing meal on wheels and set off at a gallop that belies their less than aerodynamic build. Mud flies from their hooves, the wind drives sweat from their backs and their eyes bug out in a concentrated stare.
As yet there have been no reported incidents of injury to the farmer as he tries to shell out the food before being trampled by the alcohol-crazed herd. However, we understand that unless sufficient distribution is promptly made, enough to satisfy their lustful hunger, then things could get nasty. In the event of accidentally doling out greater quantities than intended, efforts to repatriate some proportion of the feed to the vehicle have resulted in minor injuries and a brief fracas. It warms my heart to know that our efforts to produce delicious beers for happy humans also provide a by-product that cheers the lives of these bored beasts normally subjected to a subsistence diet. I imagine they taste better when they get to that dinner plate too.
Back at Orbit Arches, the brewery is up and running. Our tanks presently hold one batch each of Ivo, Neu and Nico and we have already consigned a batch of Ivo to bottle and keg. We have a desk and chair, soon to be joined by a PC and printer. We have a lovely, big fridge to complement our kettle and toaster. Today, an alarm system is being fitted and we have already erected two paper towel dispensers and an electric fly killing apparatus. We have a supply of 98 t-shirts (Mario and I already took one each), tons of grain, a haul of hops, yeast, chemicals, kegs, bottles, boxes, tools, coffee, tea and snacks.
We decided that we would bottle onsite. So, one morning, with help from my friend Matt, we set up a bottling station. We started with 3,000 empty bottles, two rinsers, three bottle trees, one six-head siphon filler, one capping apparatus and 125 boxes. Each bottle was rinsed, dried on the tree, attached to the filler, filled, passed to the capper, capped and placed in a box. Caps and boxes had to be regularly restocked and the capper (me) got pretty wet as the caps sit in a sterilising fluid until plucked out to fulfil their destiny. Pulling down the capping machine lever 3,000 times has left me with a bruised hand, sore shoulder and mismatched biceps. However, after about 8 hours hard labour, an extended take away pizza lunch and only a few minor mishaps, we had 3,000 bottles of Ivo Pale – a noteworthy achievement.
Our plan was to condition the beer in the bottles (and the 12 kegs that we filled the next day) and then label them the following week. The whole labelling thing has however turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, with our labelling machine vendor letting us down and also having to change label supplier at the last minute. This is truly and utterly frustrating, as we can’t take unlabelled bottles out to trade, even as samples, without appearing like a bunch of home brewing amateurs. We’re pulling out all the stops to get this sorted, but it will delay our first sales by at least two weeks.
It’s becoming clear that, even with our spacious yard and external cold store, the space within the brewery is barely enough to contain all the equipment and storage needs. At some point we will want to add another vessel or two and increased production will of course require increased storage. It seems much too early to be thinking about expansion when we haven’t made a sale yet, but the bloke next door is planning to retire and his arch should be available from early 2015. It seems a bit mad, but we’re going to try and take it on. We’ve also applied for permission to run a bar and have plans to make the yard much prettier, including some laurel plants to cover the nasty fence. I know that laurel is evergreen, but is at also hardy?
We were recently looking for someone with a large nose and big ears. At least I assumed that those were the criteria attributable to someone operating as an acoustic and odour consultant. This search for a cross between Dumbo and Pinocchio came about because we recently received notice that our B2 planning application had been accepted. My joy turned to despair when I realised that there were four conditions attached. Three of these were insignificant, but one required us to submit a report on the likely noise and smells from the brewery. We had explained in our submission that these would be minimal and virtually undetectable by the nearest residents. We made many salient points in our defence, but the main one was “THERE’S A MASSIVE RAILWAY GOES RIGHT OVER OUR BREWERY!” This was, of course, to no avail.
We also finally received permission to brew from Madge aka Her Majesty. I’m very grateful to have been given the privilege of furnishing ‘Lizzy’ with her lavish cut of everything we sell and look forward to reading the 108 page guide on how one goes about this task. Amazingly the returns are all done by paper and snail mail, filled out by hand and then sent back – every month, the same pro-forma, to and from the UK Duty office and every one of the UK’s 1200 breweries. The VAT folk are no better. Before you can use email, you have to sign something saying you accept the risks of this evil new technology! I wonder where HMRC get their quills and inkwells?
In other news, we have finally ordered our second-hand reefer (refrigerated container) and the hauliers have figured out how to deliver it. Part of the delivery logistics requires us to cut back the huge tree that overhangs from the allotments next door. (In neighbourly spirit, we first gained approval from the current and former chair-people, who kindly took us on a guided tour of their precious plots.) The reefer will arrive the very next day, to be offloaded by a crane lorry. The exact same day, we expect delivery of the last four brewery vessels, to be offloaded by a forklift truck. We’re really hoping they don’t all arrive at the same time.
For some weeks now, we have been watching over the progress within our robins’ nest. After two weeks of mum sitting on the fragile, speckled eggs, tiny bald, blind babies magically emerged. For the next two weeks, both parents shuttled non-stop from nest to allotments and back to fuel their brood. Soon, the tiny creatures sprouted feathers, grew exponentially and the worm deliveries went into overdrive. When we saw the orange colour on their breasts we knew it would soon be time to fledge. We’d resisted power washing the yard pending their maiden flights and were rewarded when one morning all that remained was the empty, fluffy, bowl-shaped nest.
Our bottle labels are all but done and we have settled on a name for our Pale Ale – Ivo. We wanted something that related to music, was transatlantic and fitted with the other two names. We love many 4AD bands (Pixies, Throwing Muses etc.) and Ivo was the name of the founder of that label. We also noticed that Ivo Pale becomes Pivo Ale when you switch the ‘P’. Pivo is of course Czech for beer. Spooky huh? So, our three (unborn) beer babies are called Nico, Neu and Ivo. Cute.
There are many strange activities involved in the creation of a brewery – some less obvious than others. For instance, we are presently searching for a farmer who wants half a ton of free spent grain for his animals each week. You’d think they’d be lining up for such a treat, but we’ve been struggling. Our best contact so far is ‘Pig Farmer Bill’, but he wants it all in bite-size bags, so we’re still looking. Another new experience was ordering barcodes – never had to do that before. It’s scarily easy, but, as usual, not at all cheap. Then there was the tortuous experience of signing up as an employer and registering Mario as my first employee. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back to the stage, HMRC! To be fair, this does happen electronically and they do provide free payroll software. Navigation is a challenge and, incredibly, this payroll software doesn’t do payslips. Grrrr.
When we do have a spare afternoon and the sun is shining, we embark on a sales trip. This is basically a pub-crawl, but without drinking any beer (usually). The reception we’ve had so far has been very positive and they love our logo and business cards, as well as our plans for doing a couple of German beers. Tonight I’m off to the British Guild of Beer Writers AGM, which will no doubt be every bit as dull as it sounds. However, I’m going to take advantage of being a ‘writer’ and a ‘brewer’ to see if we can stir up some interest in Orbit Beers.
Since starting this blog entry, our last four vessels have arrived, as has the container. The latter was expertly put in place with great precision using a remote control device controlling the extendable crane arm as easily as you would play a video game. The vessels needed some muscle to stand them up – a commodity that neither Mario nor I can boast much of. So, there we were, a proper strong bloke and us two, suspending this 2,000-litre vessel at 45 degrees when he says: “hold this up lads, while I reverse the fork-lift”. The first second of his absence was enough to bring screams of pain from Mario and I as we were slowly being bent double by the weight, before being rescued just in time from an untimely ‘death by fermenter’.
Looks like we might now be just a week or so from finishing off the brewery installation, testing the kit and preparing to brew. It’s been seven months since I first saw the arch and less than five since I took possession. In that short time we’ve transformed the floor, the interior, the electrics, the yard and especially my brewing acumen. A hundred projects – from tiny to Titanic – have been planned, changed, executed, changed again and finally finished. I’ve used dozens of suppliers and contractors, dealt with miles of red tape and spent about £200,000. It feels like it’s going to be worth every penny.
Our regular readers will fondly remember Brian, our trusty old VW Campervan. After returning from glorious tours of duty in Scotland and Europe last year, we were unceremoniously forced to banish him from the environs of Greater London, as he was too old, heavy and toxic to be allowed to drive around the green, fresh streets of our fine city. This came about after being caught on camera by the London LEZ (Low Emission Zone), who informed us that Brian wasn’t welcome within the M25.
We could actually have enabled him to stay if a) we’d bought a converter that would have been worth more than the rest of him put together, b) paid £100 a day to drive him around or c) had him undergo an engine transplant – none of which appealed. Apart from his age and his preferred fuel tipple (Diesel) counting against him, he was also deemed to be a tad overweight. If we could slim him down to a maximum of 2,500 kg then he could stay.
That may not sound too difficult, but this is not his actual weight (he’s actually fairly trim) we’re talking about, but rather his official maximum weight (or Gross Vehicle Weight). We had no documentation with which to argue against LEZ’s judgement, unless we could find his VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) Plate that should have been pinned somewhere on his rusty old body. However, despite several intense searches, we were still empty-handed and had to decant him out to be stored in deepest Essex.
It’s been a year now since that sad parting and apart from missing our dear companion, it’s a terrible pain to have to cart bags and bikes to his old Volks home before heading off for a weekend. While looking for somewhere closer by to keep him I found the 80-90 Club. Sounds like a middle-aged disco night, but actually it’s an online forum dedicated to owners of VW Campers from the 1980s. My fellow enthusiasts ducked my actual question about storage and instead insisted that, as their ‘Brians’ were under 2,500 kg, so too should our Brian be.
These friendly forum folk told us that the key to proving that his GVW was indeed under the maximum allowed was to find that elusive VIN Plate. Armed with several variations on precise instructions as to where this Holy Grail may be found, we set off to visit our lonely pal. After an hour of poking into every visible cavity, we had to conclude that our prey had long since disappeared. The chance to bring Brian home had been dangled in front of us, but had slipped through our fingers. We returned home after bidding a fond farewell and promising that we wouldn’t give up in our efforts to bring him back to London.
Our next avenue was to apply to VW for a replacement plate (essentially a metal birth certificate). This appeared fairly straightforward, except that owners are required to have the form authorised at a police station. The chap at the VW centre confirmed this and regaled me with a story of the last bloke to attempt this feat, who had tramped around five stations before convincing a tame copper to sign his form. I argued that sending a customer on a tour of cop-shops could not be in the best interests of VW customer relations. Some time later, after a call to Customer Relations themselves, he yielded and a distant light could be seen twinkling at the end of the tunnel.
That light was of course a train. The next day, they called me to announce that VW had ‘changed their minds’ and were once more insisting on having a bobby’s moniker on their form. Several calls back all went to voicemail, so I have since enquired directly with VW in Germany and DVLA in Wales. This is now officially a multinational project to bring Brian home! By the way, my research into VIN codes yielded more information about Brian’s creation. He was apparently ‘born’ in Hanover, sometime in the ‘year’ beginning 1 August 1986, but no one adopted him until 30 June 1988. As his present guardians we shall not be giving up our quest, so please tune in next time to hear how this story of our exiled chum works out.
Lithobius forficatus is a creature that I had not seen in very many years. I discovered recently why that might have been – they all seem to be living along the edge of my brewery yard. For the non-entymologists among you, this prehistoric creepy-crawly is also known as the (common or) garden centipede. After a sedentary first career, I was hoping that life in a brewery would be much more hands on and physically demanding. In that spirit, I spent a few happy hours clearing the weeds, soil, grit, litter and buzz saw blades from the yard, armed only with a wee brush and pan, taking advantage of the skip left by the guys laying the floor. In so doing I disturbed hundreds of these fascinating creatures, who briskly decanted to the allotments next door. I steadfastly continued and topped up the floor guys’ skip to capacity with umpteen bags and no doubt a few hundred worms and arthropods.
On a less gruesome note, we are very proud to have a nesting robin family living inside an old hose reel by the brewery gates. While this may seem an absurd location, location, location, to have chosen, it’s dry, warm and almost predator proof due to the narrow gaps. It’s just lucky that the reel isn’t operational, as I doubt the eggs would survive the inevitable centrifugal forces when the hose was pulled. It’s also quite dark in there, but if you creep close enough you can make out the little, tired, worried face looking out from within. Maybe we should do a ‘Robin Red Ale’ in its honour.
Talking about beer names, we continue to seek inspiration, but our muse is proving elusive. Our range looks like being Kolsch, Pale, Red and Stout. Our first two beers will be the Kolsch and the Pale. The idea for a Kolsch came from our new brewer Mario, from Italy. This beer is from Koln (Cologne), ferments like an ale, but conditions like a lager. Under EU law, Kolsch is protected by designation of origin status, which means that whatever we call our Kolsch, we can’t call it Kolsch. That certainly adds a degree of difficulty. Unperturbed, we followed a musical thread (string?) and discovered that Nico (of Velvet Underground fame) was born in Koln. It then transpired that her family name was Paffgen, also the name of Mario’s favourite Kolsch brewery! And so it came to pass that we had created: “Nico, a Koln style lager.”
Inspired by this we thought that our Red could be an Altbier from Dusseldorf, which we could then call Neu. The legendary NEU! Hailed from Dusseldorf and calling ‘old’ beer, ‘new’ has obvious satirical appeal. I was all for calling the American Pale Ale ‘ZZ APA’ and the Stout ‘Sabbath’, before Mario stepped in to bring some order to the proceedings. Our next session (much closer to the truth than ‘meeting’) together will be another excuse for beer-fuelled creativity.
Meantime, our mellow, yellow floor is in, our kit is due in a couple of weeks and we should be ready to brew by early June. That said, we have yet to hear from HMRC (permission to brew), Thames Water (permission to discharge effluent) and Southwark Council (permission to operate a brewery). Those permissions permitting, we’re nearly, almost, getting there. We have 79 followers on Twitter and we even got a tweet from David Narcizo, drummer extraordinaire with Throwing Muses. The container saga continues, but if the site visit passes muster then we can buy our non-operational reefer, install it, fit a chiller, paint it (the container, not the chiller) and add some livery. I do hope our robin family will like their new surroundings and that there’s still plenty centipedes left for them to eat. Their home is shown below – their door is at 8 o’clock.
There was a time when I held interviews in a nice, warm office, seated across a desk, with someone fetching tea and biscuits. In this new world however, I’m stood in a cold, empty railway arch without any source of refreshment or even a chair, as trains rumble noisily overhead. Still, it’s the perfect place to meet each of my four candidates for the first time. I decided against seeing anyone based abroad, despite the temptation for frivolous travel, as I had plenty good candidates based here in London, and didn’t need the additional relocation risks for my first crucial hire. So, one day a German, an American, an Italian and a Brit, walked under an arch…
While you think about what the punch line to that classic joke introduction might be, I shall continue with the story. All four are experienced, competent people who could definitely do the job. I’m not going to talk about them as individuals here at all, but there were some common threads. They loved: the location, the planned floor (“luxury”, one said), the automated vessel temperature control, the logo and the chance to work with new kit at the very start of a brewery’s life. This is a huge decision for me to get right, not just for the quality of the beer, but also the quality of our working relationship. Could we organise a piss-up in a brewery and have fun along the way?
Talking about the logo, here it is:
It’s retro, redolent of vinyl records, accentuates London as well as Orbit Beers, includes our tag line ‘hi-fidelity brewing’, uses great colours, introduces the ‘OBL’ image that will appear in a few places on our marketing and, as well as looking like a single coming out of a sleeve, that single has an adapter, which will always be my favourite example of iconic vinyl paraphernalia. So, hope you like it, because next up we’ll be developing the website, Twitter account and bottle label designs.
I’ve been working with my beer consultant, Stuart, on figuring out which styles of beer to make and starting to design them in a bit more detail. There are well over fifty beer styles to choose from, including the familiar (Stout, Pilsener, Amber Ale, Pale Ale) and the less familiar (Weizen Bock, Saison, Polotmavy, Black IPA and Cream Ale). Of course there are variations within and between each of these styles or else brewers would just get bored sometime after their 500th brew. I’ll spare you the variety of brewing methods, but choices must be made about which grains to use, how these are malted and crushed, your hop selection and the type of yeast to use. Then, do you filter, fine or condition; dry hop or add other ingredients (herbs, spices and citrus zest are all popular)? Glad I’m hiring a professional brewer…
I may not have the knowledge to design my own beer in detail, but I am going to set some principles as the ‘Director of Beer’. I want us to make simple, natural, fresh, unfiltered, un-fined, unhurried, consistent, easy to drink, flavoursome beers. The rest is down to the Braumeister. Oh, except for the names of these, as that’s my privilege since I’m paying for it all! Preferences at the moment (depending what gets made) are: EP APA, LP APA (stronger version), Old 78 Stout, 45 Rebel Ale and Festival Pils (definitely just the one ‘l’ in Pils). So, dear reader, if you could brew just one Orbit beer, what would it be and what would you call it? Some kind of link to vinyl records or music is of course mandatory.
If you do decide to design your own beer then you have a few more decisions to make. First of all, how bitter would you like it to be? To help you with this task, you can express just how bitter you’re feeling in IBUs or International Bitterness Units. Yep, really, I’m not making this up. A pint of English bitter might be about 30, while a highly hopped American IPA could be up around 70. To make beer bitter you need hops and, guess what, there’s over 100 varieties of these, such as Cascade, Fuggles and Warrior. Not all are used for bitterness though, as you also need some for aroma – citrus, pine, fruit, floral, pepper, spice and grass for example. This is why we have beer sommeliers. Oh, then you have to choose the alcohol level, (ABV) and the colour. Yep, there are colour charts for beer too! I can’t drink a beer now without holding it up to the light, sniffing it and commenting on the aftertaste or malt/hop balance. It’s a curse.
Very soon I’ll be heading off to Cape Verde for a well-deserved break with Jo. Before then, there is a, not untypical, array of actions to complete. Most important, given all these interviews taking place, is to draft up a contract of employment – not fun. Then I have to submit my first VAT return – also, not fun, but Her Majesty does owe me quite a lot of money. I’m pushing hard to get the electrics beefed up in the arch before I go away and my mate Steve’s popping down to plan out how he could capture a time-lapse video of the brewery being built. I’ll be feeding back on the first draft of our website, checking out vans (low, long and strong ideally) and trying to decide which chiller to buy. Best of all though, I’m spending a day at a course, so that I can gain my personal alcohol licence. Maybe everyone should have to do that before being allowed to drink alcohol, never mind serve it! I’ve also just realised that there may not be room to manoeuvre a pallet truck into our planned shipping container (aka cold store), so back to the drawing board for that conundrum…
And finally, some good news. Even though we don’t even have a brewery yet, we do have an order for two crates of beer from a mate and a booking for a brewery tour from the Women’s Institute. I imagine they might be quite profligate with the free samples, but at least it won’t take much to get them tiddly!
‘To be or not to be’, that is not the question. On this occasion it was more ‘ B2 or not B2’. B2 is the ‘use class’ that one requires from the planning authority to open a brewery. Before applying (expensively) to the Council for this, I thought I’d check whether my premises were already B2. Sensible, huh? Network Rail advised B1, before latterly wobbling closer to B2. The Council had less idea, but eventually I tracked down an employee with passable aptitude and conversational English who searched the records, but unearthed a blank. So, I hired planning consultants who thought I did have B2 already, but advised me to apply for it anyway, just in case. If only everything in business life were this easy!
Another conundrum that I have been recently wrestling with, is the relative merits of cylindroconical versus torrispherical. These describe different shapes of brewing vessels and translate roughly as pointy and roundish. Other choices that faced me included: the height of the mash tun’s legs (90cm); auger or Archimedes screw (auger) and the power rating of my kettle elements (2x18kw + 1x12kw). I might qualify for an honorary degree in engineering pretty soon. Anyway, decisions have been made and the brew kit has been ordered – scheduled to be ready for user testing (tasting?) by early June. Oh, by the way, two pointies and three roundies.
In other brewery news, our application to discharge effluent has been submitted and we have found a supplier who can adapt a shipping container for our external cold storage purposes. They’re called Adaptainer, appropriately. I’m excited to discover what colour we might paint it and hopefully we’ll be able to add our logo – big, bold, front and centre. Talking about the logo, it looks like that may be getting signed off tomorrow and perhaps you might find it featured in this blog sometime soon. Things to note: yep, it’s retro; we liked Orbit Beers better than Orbit Brewing; we’re accentuating ‘London’, hence OBL; ‘hi-fidelity brewing’ is our strap line of choice and the colour scheme looks ace!
Let’s stick with the colour theme (scheme?). If a brewery wishes to be taken really seriously then it simply must sport a kosher brewery floor. This means cutting drainage channels, putting down stainless steel drains, crafting a surreptitiously sloping floor and slathering an epoxy resin on top. Not all breweries do this however, and now I know why. The quote was TREBLE my budget, coming in at a pony’s worth of grands, a grand of ponies, or £25k to any non-Cockney readers. I was floored, indeed drained. I did not have a resin to be cheerful. The situation seemed slopeless. But, my principles dictate that we must proceed and, if only Network Rail would ever return my messages (that I leaves on their line), I might even get permission to proceed! Colour? We like Saffron (although it looks more like Ochre).
I never tire of reminding people how much my new job involves meeting in pubs and drinking beer. There, I’ve done it again. Regular Thursday evening sessions with my brewing consultant Stuart elicit a level of creativity and efficiency that must in some part be fuelled by the excellent beers we consume. Part of my homework this week is to drink lots of beers to help me narrow down the styles that I wish to brew. Tomorrow I’m meeting a fellow beer aficionado to discuss the latest trends and sample a range of brews. Next week I’m ‘assisting’ with a brew day at Twickenham Fine Ales and will no doubt be invited to do a little flavour assessment. I even managed to neck several gratis bottles at a Guardian Master Class last week. It was, after all, a master class in how to run a microbrewery – my equivalent of a pensions current topics seminar I guess.
My learning curves for brewing, engineering and running your own business have been joined recently by another vertiginous parabola for me to scale – project management. I’ve gone from househusband, layabout and work-shy drifter (according to my ‘friends’) to a blur of activity that threatens to sweep me up six days, and at least one evening, per week. Office work, telephone calls, meetings, site visits, research…it’s almost like being employed but without the salary bit. There are so many strings to this brewing bow that I’m having to become efficient, organised and a half decent filer. Don’t laugh Emma!
One of the more recent projects to kick off is the search for a brewer. I must say that I’d expected more applications to arrive, but they have certainly come from far and wide – Germany, Italy, USA and even Ukraine; a Mr Yanukovych apparently… There have been a few from closer to home as well, but so far my best picks are an over-qualified German and an under-qualified Italian (both based abroad). I’ll have to ask Mr Hobson what he thinks about those.
With some of the big-ticket projects well on their way, I can now turn to beer recipes and marketing plans. The beers I want to make are most likely to be European style (e.g. Bohemian Pilsener) and North American style (e.g. American Pale Ale). These will dispense from keg and bottle and will not therefore be classed as ‘real ale’. (If my beers get described as ‘unreal’, I’m going to take it as a compliment.) CAMRA are known for being quite strident and unyielding when it comes to their insistence that only real ales can be considered as craft beer. The rest are flavourless, fizzy, chemical-infused rubbish according to them. This is utter codswallop and is so beyond blinkered that I can only imagine that their beer blinkers have slipped round to entirely blind their sight like a pair of opaque beer goggles.
Anyway, one time I met Stuart and he’d just been at a meeting with CAMRA. He had mentioned that I was pregnant with an embryonic brewery and the (quite senior ranking) lady handed him her card, with instructions to pass it on to me. “Tell him not to call me until his beers are consistent”, she added, with an air of vacuous authority. I won’t be calling them at all and, if they decide to visit chez Orbit with their cask thumping rhetoric, I shall counter their gospel with some preaching of my own. I don’t care what beer is served in, how it’s carbonated or where it has been fermented; I just want it to taste delicious. Consistently!
My friend Greg is very concerned about using London water to make beer. It seems to him that you wouldn’t want to make a beverage from something that had been used to clean thousands of grimy Londoners. Certainly it would be ideal to have our own Artesian spring, gushing forth pure and pristine water sufficient to satisfy the sensitivities of the Gods themselves. Alas, there is no such spring near my arches and so I will be using common or garden London tap. Sorry Greg.
It’s now been two weeks since I signed the lease and set the clock running (fast) and the money flowing (out/fast). My ‘stuff to do to make a brewery’ list is now very much being done. Water is a good example. I have begun the process of applying to be allowed to discharge effluent (the brewery, not me), registering as a key customer (breweries use a lot of water) and studying the full analysis of the H2O that we’ll be using. No surprise to find that it’s proper hard (264.5 ppm of CaCO3), but also full of all sorts of trace elements. Apart from the usual suspects (Magnesium, Sodium, Aluminium) there also exist tiny amounts of Arsenic and Cyanide – nice. Worry not though, as we shall be treating the water (like royalty) before we turn it into beer.
We’re nearly ready to order the kit. This is the biggest ticket decision, at least in terms of cost. We’ve settled on Johnson Brewing Design, who will be providing all of the vessels we need for around £70,000. Then there are the extras like 16 days of labour to install it, miles of pipework, a Glycol chilling unit and an ‘Arch’imedes screw. Eureka! Then of course we have to pay for the two tradesmen to stay over for eight nights each (“single rooms please”) and meet the costs of two large lorries to bring all of the kit down to London from somewhere north of Manchester. But that’s not all…
Way before the brewery kit arrives to be set up like an industrial art installation, we have to prepare for its arrival. Many breweries miss out this step and just brew on a concrete floor, but they live to regret it. We are going to install a proper brewery floor that has excellent drainage, sloping floors and an epoxy resin coating that can resist the various chemicals and temperatures that we’ll be throwing at it. This is a major project (my resin d’être), as we need to cut the floor, lay the drains, shape the floor into (winged and envelope) slopes, and then add the resin topping (from a choice of six lovely colours) like icing on a cake. But that’s not all…
Last Sunday Stuart and I paced around inside the chilly arches, armed with a measuring tape, chalk and our imagination. Our purpose was to figure out the optimal configuration for the brewery. How would we fit in nine vessels, a cold store, office, front desk and yet more storage? The fit was on the tight side of snug. (I thought I’d found a solution to the double door on the toilet though, by adding one just inside the loo. This will require a degree of coordination and grace that one doesn’t always associate with blokes rushing for a pee, but it does save space.)
We had to find a Plan B or there would be no room to move, serve customers or expand in any way at all. Then I remembered that we had 34 square metres of yard out front and we could surely put our cold store out there. This precipitated a journey into the world of refrigerated shipping containers (called ‘reefers’ apparently), which seemed ideal for our purpose. They’re not cheap, but maybe we could decorate them as a splendid backdrop for what might one day become our little open-air bar area. But that’s not all…
Before any of the above can happen, there is a long list of other stuff to do like getting permission to brew from Her Majesty, getting me and the premises licensed, passing the examination that will allow me to sell spent grain to farmers and so on. Top of this list however is the requirement to gain Planning Permission from Southwark Council. I won’t bore you with all my trials and tribulations, but it looks like no one has ever made a planning application for these arches before, as they’ve been used as car garages since forever and a day. I want to brew, so I need to apply for a ‘change of use’ and that, of course, costs money and takes time. And I’m sure that won’t be all.
I love it though. I’m going to have my own brewery, run my own business and explore a whole new world. The huge bunch of keys I need for the arches weightily confirms my proprietorship and I can cycle to work whenever it isn’t raining. Being able to cycle to work, in scruffy clothes, to do something everyone understands and appreciates was a core part of my dream. Can you describe your job in three words? (I make beer.) Now it’s really happening and, while it’s stressful at times, it’s good stress. I must never let this get to a point where the unpleasant side of working starts to creep in again. That would be time to move on. I did enjoy the irony, on the day I signed the lease, of receiving an invite to a pensions current topics seminar. Beyond dull – unless one can be happily distracted by the slow loss of moisture from recently decorated walls.
We end with a nice example of how much working life has changed for me. There’s boring stuff in any business and many of us would associate accounting (and accountants) with that side of things. I had to deal with plenty such stuff in my past. My accountant seems a little different though. He asked me to meet his Social Media manager, Jen. She wanted to do a blog about me (Brian, Tea Leaf Paradox, Orbit etc.) as their ‘client of the month’. Cool. I therefore spent 15 minutes with my accountant and an hour and a half with her. Turns out she’s Glaswegian, runs an online fashion website called The Pokey Hat and had more stories to tell than I could ever hope to muster. The best of these was about the three months spent living with the Masai, including having to eat rice cooked in cow blood. The whole experience was topped off when four of the Masai came over to run the London Marathon. To this day they still impersonate her accent by saying “Ah’m freezin’!”.
That’s all for now – there’s work to be done…
At last, seven weeks after being informed that my bid had been successful, a date had been set for the final inspection of the arches. This pivotal event would either herald the signing of the lease, or send me back to the drawing board. The assessment would be carried out by Stuart, my brewing consultant, and overseen by Sandy from Network Rail. It would be my role to frown, look important and ask questions. Everything would hinge on this hour, starting at 3pm the following Wednesday.
Meantime, my research continued in earnest and I started to work my way through the hundred pubs located nearest to the brewery. I’d love to tell you that this was done on foot, testing their wares on the way, but no, this was purely a desk job. The first bar on the list, and therefore the closest one to the Orbit Brewery, was the Beehive. I thus anointed it my ‘local’. It seemed like a good choice, looked cosy inside and had some decent reviews. I reckoned it would have a real buzz about it too. Would this prove to be my first customer perchance?
Even better, there was history to this hostelry. It stands near to what was the Montpelier Tea Gardens, which started life as an 18th century market garden. It lasted for about a hundred years during which time it became a bit of a pleasure garden, featuring a maze, a cold bath and a cricket ground. The Montpelier Cricket Club played their first match on the Beehive Ground in 1796 against the legendary MCC. Soon after, a match was arranged between eleven men with one arm and eleven with one leg. The event organisers were clearly going out on a limb with that idea. To find out the result, have a read of this article under ‘Before the Beehive’: http://www.thebeehivebar.co.uk
After the Montpelier Club disbanded, a new team took over the ground and this proved to be the genesis of Surrey County Cricket Club. To facilitate their growing status they later moved to their present home, just up the road, at the Oval Cricket Ground. This place is of course famous for hosting some of the greatest ever, international cricket matches. One of the very first Test Matches between England and Australia took place there, which Australia won, leading the Sporting Times to publish a mocking obituary about the “ashes of English cricket”, thereby giving birth to the ‘Ashes’ series that we know today. The Oval went on to host the first ever England v Scotland football game (1-1) and the inaugural FA Cup final (Wanderers 1 Engineers 0). The Wanderers got to the final because the Scottish Club, Queen’s Park, could not afford to attend the semi-final replay, after drawing the first game 0-0!
So, yep, the Beehive will do nicely as my local. In other research news, I discovered that my namesake brewery in San Diego might not be much of a competitor after all. Apparently they crowd funded a target fund of just $2,500, to go towards a project that appeared to be worth about $500,000. Also, they launched three different crowd-funding efforts at the same time. Why would you do that? Then I noticed that their Facebook and Twitter accounts fell silent by late October – just when the funding target was met. Comments are now appearing on the crowd-funding site asking what on earth has happened to Orbit Brewing. A response was finally posted asking for patience. Was this a genuine delay or a complete scam? We shall see…
This week the big day finally arrived and I made my way down to Arches 225 and 228, just under a mile south of the famous Elephant & Castle. I was early, so I strolled around ‘my territory’ and had a wee peep inside the Beehive bar nearby. Sandy soon turned up, opened up the arch and swiftly shot off to another meeting, leaving me to pace around the cavernous space underneath the four railway tracks above. No Stuart though.
I started to take in more details of my future workplace and took note of the pile of dead leaves out front that would need sweeping up, the mound of rubbish out back and the rickety fence held up by string. No worries, but also no Stuart. I tried to figure out the address logic of the street and looked for clues as to the number of our ‘door’. I stood silently inside the premises and listened to the deep rumble of the trains thundering past overhead. And still, no Stuart.
It was now just fifteen minutes until Sandy was due back to lock up and ask me for a decision. Just as this was looking like a really bad day at the office, Stuart arrived, parked and strode inside. “I can see one problem that you’re going to have, right away.” His words chilled me and I hoped that this wouldn’t be a deal breaker, a fundamental flaw. “You need two doors on your toilet.” Now, I’d be the first to admit that an exclusion zone around my loo would be common sense, but it turned out that food hygiene laws actually require this second degree of separation from the area where food (aka beer) will be prepared. No problem, we can build an office around the loo.
Everything else seemed fine, as long as Network Rail agreed to our plans for re-laying the floor, digging a drainage gully and fitting a chimney. We started to plan how the actual brewery would be configured, where the cold store would go, how we’d receive deliveries and load our van. It was all beginning to come together – in my mind at least. Agreement was made to sign the lease, on site, on Monday 3rd February. I set up some consulting dates with Stuart, all of which will be taking place in pubs across London. I love this industry. I hired an accountant, opened my bank account and the next day met with Alex, my brand consultant. Progress.
Having been in the dressing room getting ready for this race for what felt like an age, I was now out on the track and eyeing the starting line. I was ready to take my marks, get set on my blocks and go. Poised at the line, I take an imaginary glance to my left to catch a glimpse of the starter’s finger twitching on the trigger of the gun. The journey is just about to begin.