Tag Archives: Sambrooks

Ales of the riverbank

After a frankly sodden Bank Holiday Monday (I am sure I can still detect an unpleasant squelchy quality to my shoes), we were apprehensive about what Mother Nature would hit us with for Beer by the River. Set in the lush leafy surrounds of Morden Hall Park, the second annual celebration of Sambrook’s Brewery’s birthday would be a festival of beer, music and food held next to the very river their flagship ale is named after – the Wandle. We were promised a bouncy castle, hay bale seating and street food. This could either be a balmy summer paradise or a hellish muddy dash as all the revellers tried to pack into one beer tent.

Thankfully, we got lucky, and the sun was shining as we made our way through the park to the event. By the time we arrived the party was already in full swing, with a 1,500-strong crowd enjoying the late summer weather. Families packed out the grass with their picnics, the delicious smell of burgers wafted across the grass and Jo Elms & Sue Ballingall provided the soundtrack from the stage. We wasted no time in getting ourselves near to the beer.

20140830_140422We started off with a clutch of beers by our hosts, Sambrook’s. This was the perfect time to sample their wares as we caught both the tail end of their summer seasonal, Lavender Hill, and the first batch of their autumn beer, Battersea Rye. Both clocking in at 4.5%, these two beers demonstrate the range the brewery is capable of. Lavender Hill is a golden honey ale with a biscuity nose and surprisingly hoppy punch, whereas Battersea Rye pours deep copper, hits you with dried fruit aromas and comes through bready and bitter on the palate. We round out our first trio with tried and tested favourite, Junction (also 4.5%), a bitter with Challenger, Bramling Cross and Goldings hops.

20140830_141102Despite being the hosts of the event, Sambrook’s weren’t the only brewery on offer at the festival. It was interesting to see an eclectic mix of both well-known locals (By The Horns and Hop Stuff from London), further-flung stalwarts (Hogs Back from Surrey, Gadds’ from Kent) and names which were totally new to us (Flack Manor all the way from Hampshire, and Westerham from Kent). So by our second round, we were ready to start mixing things up a bit. We went for a decidedly British selection of bitters: By The Horns’ The Mayor of Garratt (4.3%), Hogs Back’s British Endeavour (4.5%) and Flack Manor’s Flack Catcher (4.4%).

20140830_150018A pint of The Mayor of Garratt comes with a little bit of local history. During the early 18th century people would elect a ‘Mayor of Garratt’ at the same time as the main parliamentary elections in nearby pubs in Earlsfield and Wandsworth. Local characters would stand and give silly speeches as a light-hearted railing against the ruling classes (and an excuse to have a few drinks). By The Horns brewed this very British beer in homage to this tradition, using purely British ingredients, and the beer has the grassy aroma you would expect from home-grown hops.

British Endeavour, Hogs Back’s tribute to the Great War centenary, is of special significance to ICIP: we saw the eponymous hop being grown at Stocks Farm during our visit in April this year. Endeavour is a hop developed through a British Hop Association breeding programme, crossing Cascade with a wild English hop. Hop grower Ali Capper promised us it would have blackcurranty, summer fruit aromas, and this beer delivers that in spades. It has raisin and stone fruit on the nose with a warm, caramel maltiness. We’re looking forward to more brewers experimenting with this new hop in future.

Flack Catcher was sweeter than the other two beers in this round, and had a spiced quality that complements the hoppy bitterness. With the citrusy, orange-like aroma it almost felt a little festive.

20140830_141553The festival also posed an opportunity for some keen amateurs to stand alongside the pros. When we arrived we had been given tokens which would be used to vote in the homebrew competition, the victor of which would win the chance to brew a beer for Cask Ale Week with Sambrook’s. Sadly, it appears that south west London prefers buying its beer than brewing its own, as there were only two entries from Kevin Wright and Andrew Barber, who were crowned joint winners after the vote was declared too close to call. By the time we made it to the tasting table our fellow festival-goers had snaffled all the samples, so we can’t comment on this outcome – but we’re looking forward to the launch of the collaborative brew later this month.

Unable to get our hands on the award-winning homebrews, we fought our way back to the bar. We nabbed a Westerham British Bulldog (4.3%) and a Gadds’ She Sells Seashells (4.7%). The British Bulldog was crisp and toasty with hints of toffee and a floral nose from the Goldings and Progress. She Sells was much lighter and more zingy, hitting the schnoz hard with Cascade lemon and pine and delivering on flavour with a lingering dry bitterness. Perfect summer drinking. We also tried a kegged offering from Sambrook’s – Battersea IPA (6.2%). This is a new addition to their line up, only launched in May 2014 and their first foray away from traditional cask ales. Chinook and Citra ramp up the aroma and the hop flavour spike we’ve come to expect from an IPA. It was a shock to be drinking something cold and carbonated after so much real ale, but it was a refreshing interlude.

20140830_162049We decided we needed to stop for food, and after agonising over the burgers and fish and chip van we went for Pizzarova, a family run pizza company run out of the back of a customised Land Rover. The sourdough crust and delicious melty cheese made us weep when we discovered that they are based in FRICKIN’ DORSET. The humanity. If you are lucky enough to live in Dorset, they frequent Sherborne, Bruton and Castle Cary. I am already trying to work out how long the commute to Moorgate would be.

Our pizza break was a good opportunity to kick back and enjoy an impassioned speech by Beer Sommelier Jane Peyton. After reminding us of the health benefits of our favourite tipple (full of B vitamins, potassium and antioxidants!), Jane encouraged any beer philistines to get up to the bar and give the great range of ales a go, especially any women who still mistakenly viewed it as a male drink. “If you don’t like it, try another,” she implored, “and another, and another!” Great advice.

We were flagging after a long day of boozing and starting to lose track of our tokens so we decided to head back to the bar for a final round.

IMG_20140830_165530We tried Sambrook’s kegged version of Battersea Rye, with a slightly higher ABV at 5.8%. Like the IPA, this was launched recently as a toe in the craft waters and contains no less than four different grains – Maris Otter Pale Ale Malt, Malted Rye, Crystal 400 and Chocolate Malt. It is rich and caramel-like with yeasty, bready notes and a spicy, fruity flavour. We were impressed, and tried not to argue over whether it’s better from cask or keg.

We wrapped up with By The Horns’ Diamond Geezer (4.9%) and Hogs Back’s HBB (3.7%). Diamond Geezer is a red ale, sweet and malty with a bitter, floral finish from the American Willamette hops. HBB had a lighter touch with grapefruit aromas and a lingering, acidic bitterness on the palate. The perfect aperitif.

The party looked set to continue on into the evening, the families were beginning to thin out as the evening crowd moved in and the music cranked up. We were fair sloshing with the good stuff by now and were ready to get home and order a curry, so we slipped away past the babbling Wandle into the gloaming, already looking forward to next year’s Beer by the River.

Want more? Check out our tour of Sambrook’s Brewery, our interview with Jane Peyton and coverage of her book launch.

– PS

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Down by the river – an afternoon at Sambrook’s Brewery (part two)

DSC_0007(If you missed part one, read it here!)

Having exhausted all the options at the bar, we follow Duncan down into the brewery itself, situated in two large units a stone’s throw from the River Thames. Sambrooks currently produces around 50,000 pints of beer a week, making them the fourth largest brewery in London after Fullers, Meantime and Camden Town. It is astonishing what they have achieved when you compare their original investment to other brewers, and talking to Duncan, it is easy to see why this is. Every step in Sambrooks’ development seems to have been planned and thought through meticulously, and Duncan obviously keeps a close eye on the competition. Of another London brewer who invested substantially more for the same output, he laments: “What they did was just ludicrous. I dream of what we could have done with £2.5m”. Of a certain anarchic brewer who have recently gone on a share sale drive, he notes: “they raised £2m only two years ago, and they’ve spent it all, with no return. They’re not making any money. They’ve invested all this capital expenditure but it’s not generating. They’re practically giving their beer away. That’s the accountant in me. I was really shocked.” By comparison, his ambitions have been more realistic: “The first year was a tricky year for us. It was all about cash-flow management. We had plans to market the brewery and employ more people earlier, but we couldn’t. The first year was very much about damage limitation.” This cautious approach seems to have paid off. Their next investment, Duncan says, will be to install silos so that the malt can be delivered straight from the truck, saving time unloading nearly a ton at a time in individual sacks.

Sambrooks is obviously proud to stand a little apart from the trendy east London beer boom, with its traditional pump clips and sensibly sub-5% ales. Its only arguably ‘bridge’ product between real ale and craft is the kegged unfiltered and unpasteurised Pale Ale, launched last year. “When we first started, the marketplace was entirely different to where it is now,” he says. “East London is a real hotbed of interest, with so much happening over there, but London is massive. Do we put resource into trying to get our products into that hip, happening crowd? I said to my head of sales – to be honest, let’s just focus on the entire tranche of all the way down the river Wandle,” says Duncan. “Our target market is your local juicer where they have two or three hand pumps, where you have a pint of Wandle with a roast. We still want to produce the likes of Battersea Rye so that we’ve got something to sell into the craft pubs, but for us that’s not where we do most of our business.”

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So where does this leave women, ICIP wonders, given that the craft scene is usually seen as being more women-friendly? Don’t breweries, especially those which seem to be as business-savvy as Sambrooks, see women as an untapped market?

“A lot of breweries are looking at whether there is a golden bullet to try and attract women,” Duncan admits, “but my opinion is that there is not. The only way that we as an industry are going to attract more women is to make trying beer easier.” We ask about his experiences of female visitors to the brewery. He thinks that if you exclude the not-particularly-representative stag parties, women make up 30-40% of the tour members – but often because they are dragged along by their boyfriends and husbands. “If we run a brewery tour, all the women stand around on their iPhones at the back, thinking ‘why am I here?!’. But if we can get them engaged and sampling, you end up with a circle of women at the front going “I never realised that tasted like that, and I looked at the pump clip and I wouldn’t have drunk it.”. The example is Junction – they see a dark red pump clip, a dark beer, and it’s ‘no’. And they see the Pumphouse Pale Ale – yellow and lighter – and they go ‘yes’, whereas I would say it is much more bitter and most women are not drinking this sort of beer.”

Does he think the traditional image Sambrooks has strived for alienates women drinkers put off by the CAMRA old-boys’ club image? “I don’t actively target women, but I don’t discourage women. I hope the branding is relatively general and neutral. It’s about the beer, trying to make it approachable for people so they say it looks nice, care has been taken with the pump clips, you recognise the brand.” ICIP asks what he thinks of the suggestion that the good old-fashioned pint glass puts women off. “There’s a lot of evidence that shows it changes how you drink. A glass with a big open end will be good for a beer majoring on aroma whereas a flute will be better for flavour. So actually it does change your perception of the beer. “ But Duncan demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the relationship between brewer, consumer and publican, and the issues this raises: “The challenge you’ve got with glassware is pubs. There’s a perception of a full pint. And the problem with that is it limits your glassware.” It seems that there is only so much a brewer can do to attract women to its product.

As we wrap up our afternoon at Sambrooks so that Duncan can get home after what was no doubt a typically-busy week at the brewery, he reflects on what inspired him, and ultimately what makes Sambrooks tick. “I have definitely come at brewing from a consumer perspective. I’ve never done any home brewing. I’ve never even had any aspirations to do that. I’m purely a drinker,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I love trying different beers. But ultimately my favourite beer will always be Wandle. What I love most is going to the rugby at Rosslyn Park, I’ll drink circa ten pints… and I walk home, and I have a fantastic day, and I drink a beer which I love.”

It’s this honest simplicity which we loved about Sambrooks, and we have a great deal of respect for what they have achieved in just five years. A traditional brewer with a modern twist, very aware of the market in which it resides and committed to producing excellent products. And who knows – if things don’t go too well in Tesco, (which seems unlikely), it sounds like they could have a pretty good following in Denmark already.

DSC_0003– PS

Down by the river – an afternoon at Sambrook’s Brewery (part one)

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When we meet up with Duncan Sambrook, the founder and Managing Director of Sambrook’s Brewery, he is still reeling from a Scandinavian takeover of the brewery bar. The previous evening a gathering of fifty Danes downed an astonishing four firkins – nearly three-hundred pints – of their seasonal Battersea Rye ale. They have also, it transpires, pinched his bottle opener.

Despite the Scandi marauding, Duncan is in good spirits as he welcomes us to the brewery in Battersea, south west London. Sambrook’s is one of the more mature players in the recent London brewing boom, and has just celebrated its fifth birthday with an event at Morden Hall Park, Beer by the River. Unlike many of the trendy craft breweries popping up almost weekly in east London, Sambrook’s has a more traditional image, brewing a small but popular range of cask ales and supplying around 300 London pubs.

When Sambrook’s launched in 2008, the London brewing scene certainly wasn’t the hot property it is now. “I remember Christine Cryne came down with the [CAMRA] London Tasting Panel to do a tasting when we first opened, and said ‘it’s so nice to have a new London brewery, we haven’t had anything to get our teeth stuck into’,” says Duncan. “I saw her the other week and she said ‘gosh, we’ve got a backlog of about ten breweries to get through!’”. So what inspired him to make the radical career change from accountant to brewer?

“It was one of those slightly pissed ideas, sat with a few friends at the Great British Beer Festival. We’d done this crawl from Cornwall up to London, going from brewery to brewery. We got to London and there was just nothing,’ Duncan tells us as we pull up a barstool. “We looked at the market and saw outside of London there were breweries starting up and being successful. My home county is Wiltshire and there’s about seven breweries there, in a tiny county – it’s only about 300,000 people. We thought if that’s a trend, pushing towards local breweries, perhaps that’s something Londoners could catch onto.”

wandleWith support from family and friends, and with Duncan’s background in capital markets, he was well on the way to bringing his plan to fruition, but it was a fortuitous meeting with another City-worker turned brewer that sealed the deal. David Welsh, formerly of Ringwood Brewery, had sold his share to Marston’s and had some money to invest. “David came on board as a consultant to help us put the kit together and set the recipe for our first beer,” says Duncan, pouring us all a glass of Wandle, Sambrook’s flagship best bitter. With two business minds behind the product, a lot of thought went into its production: “we noticed that there was a really crowded market for the 4.0-4.5% sector. So we crept in with 3.8%,” Duncan explains, pointing out that this made it an attractive session ale for keen drinkers. “We tried to make it more golden than brown, so we’ve got a sunny golden sunset colour. We wanted a bitterness that was complementary to the sweetness”.

Described on Sambrook’s own website as ‘quaffable’, does Duncan think that some beer boffs might find Wandle a bit… bland?

“I know a lot of beer drinkers have said it’s not complex enough,” he admits, “but I think the thing with Wandle is it brings to bring people from lager into the category. I think of it a nice entry-level cask ale which allows people to get access to beers with more complexity.”

Unlike other breweries who have a high turnover of different beer styles and brands, Sambrook’s bided their time before releasing their next product – a whole year, in fact. But when they brought out the darker premium ale Junction in 2009 to mark their first anniversary, it certainly stood out from its older sibling. “Junction was everything Wandle was not. Junction is 4.5%, which changes the flavour profile quite a lot. It is packed with lots of Crystal malt, and we used Challenger hops for the bitterness. Challenger is not as harsh as the Boadicea used in Wandle so you get lots of rounded character.”

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It is obvious that a lot of thought goes into hop choice at Sambrook’s. Their passion for localism means they use British hops such as Goldings, Fuggles and Northdown in every beer they brew, apart from the next beer on our tasting tour – the Pumphouse Pale Ale. This beer, a traditional English pale ale at 4.2%, uses a mixture of hops added throughout the brewing process to produce the bitterness and aroma you would expect of this type of beer. “With most of our beers, we add our bitterness hops right at the beginning of the boil and our aroma hops right at the end. Aromas are much more difficult to fix into a beer, so if we carry on boiling they’ll go up the flue and you won’t be left with anything,” explains Duncan. “So with Pumphouse Pale Ale we added the initial bitterness hops, British Admiral, right at the beginning to give it its base character. Then right towards the end we added the other bitterness hops, First Gold, in four stages. We find is that it gives you that lingering finish to the beer.” And how do they get that zingy pale ale nose we all know and love? “ Right at the end we add New Zealand Hallertau and Celeia hops. Not many breweries use New Zealand Hallertau. It’s a German hop which was taken down under and cultivated there to develop a very different characteristic. Celeia is a Slovakian hop.”

Pumphouse Pale Ale was initially devised as a seasonal beer to be sold in the summer, but its huge popularity meant that Sambrook’s decided to release it as part of the permanent range. Its success encouraged the brewery to continue with their seasonal programme, which lead to the development of the beer of choice for Danish invaders – Battersea Rye (4.5%). This is the first beer that Head Brewer Sean Knight has taken full responsibility for and Duncan is delighted with the results. “Brewing is something you have to do 100%. After three months in the brewery I worked out I couldn’t do that, because you’d have a customer turn up or a phone call for a sale and it interrupts the brewing, so I hired somebody to look after it for me. Sean is fantastic; all I said was ‘I think we should do a rye beer – go away and work it out!’, and I think he’s done a really good job for his first brew on his own. He can take a lot of credit for that.”

Is it difficult to brew with rye, ICIP wonders? Not many breweries produce a rye beer. “Sean was bit worried about brewing with rye because he’d not done it before, and it has this ability to really clog up your mash tun so the maximum that people usually brew with rye is about 20-25%. He decided to err on the side of caution and do about 12%.” So how do Sambrooks approach a new and potentially troublesome ingredient such as rye with no experience of brewing with it before? “With all our beers we do a lot of research and spend a good 8 weeks working out what ingredients to use and talking to our suppliers. We understand that our suppliers know an awful lot about brewing. Certainly if you go to a specialist rye supplier they know what kind of flavours you are going to get.”

powerhouse-porterAnother popular seasonal is Sambrook’s Powerhouse Porter (4.9%), named after the iconic Battersea Power Station. Once Duncan has relocated one of his wandering bottle openers, we crack open a couple of bottles. “The porter is not out in cask yet, but it is a lot better in cask,” he says. “That’s the beauty of cask ale – you get the secondary fermentation and it changes the flavour. For the last two years we’ve kept a cask of porter back from the last brew for the whole eight months in between and then taste-test it alongside the first brew of the following year. It mellows the flavour so much and makes it a lot more rounded and you lose a lot of the harsh edges that some of the hops provide when you age it for that long. It’s unbelievable how different it is.” Hops are not the first thing ICIP thinks of when we drink a porter, so we are stunned by Duncan’s revelation: “you wouldn’t know this from the taste, but this has more hop in it than the pale ale. The reason for that is, the sweeter the beer becomes the more hop you need to balance it out.”

Bitter, pale ale, porter… Sambrook’s seem to be going down the traditional route with no super-strong triple-IPAs or gimmicky flavours in sight. “I think a lot of other guys in the brewing in London in the moment have come at it from a brewers’ perspective, and they want to brew the best possible beer, the most eclectic mix of flavours. To me that’s almost a game of roulette because you don’t know if it will be a success or not. When we release a beer we do a lot of research to work out if this is something we can sell. We have to because if we don’t sell this it’s two or three grand down the tube.” Does this mean the brewery is adverse to trying anything new? “Our plan is to use our bottled products as our more experimental area,” says Duncan. “The problem with cask ale is that not only do you need to sell it into a pub, but that pub needs to sell it on. You have a tight window. If it’s not popular, the beer goes off, and if that happens regularly they won’t take any more beer from you. It gives your beer a bad reputation. So for cask ale I would always err on the side of caution and try to make something that will appeal to the majority of people. If you’re doing bottle you can do whatever you want, because a bottle will keep and get better.”

To prove this point, Duncan brings out some bottles of Sambrook’s No 5 Barley Wine. At 8.2% this is a big departure from Sambrook’s usual session ales. They produced it for their fifth anniversary and intend to make it every year from now on. ICIP asks what is involved in making a barley wine as opposed to a standard cask ale?

“Barley wines are usually at least 8%. The British style is lighter, whereas the American styles are much darker. So it’s one of those styles which is more defined by its alcohol content than the the ingredients,” Duncan tells us. “It has a longer fermentation and different yeast to a normal ale. We can get up to 10% on our own yeast. We fortified this so we ran the mash tun and then added some brewing sugars to give it enough sugar to keep it going. Sean decided he wanted to get a very earthy, grassy character to the beer, so he used Northdown and Challenger to get this aroma. I think this will be fantastic in a couple of years.”

Sambrook’s are obviously looking to the future. They have just invested in a bottling plant in Kent with two other breweries – Ramsgate and Westerham – and now bottle their whole range. As Duncan has already intimated, this will free them up to try more experimental recipes such as the barley wine. They have also scored a deal with Tesco to sell Wandle in selected stores in the capital. Does this mean they’re going to make a move from local boozer to supermarket supremacy? “Draught ale is still 90% of all our our production. We’ve gone from bottling 2% to now almost 10% but that’s a big step change for us. Having our flagship product somewhere like Tesco supports our marketing initiatives. I’m thinking about the people who aren’t necessarily that engaged with beer but like to go to a pub and drink a local beer. Having Wandle not just in their local pub but also their local supermarket reinforces that we are your local brewer and that’s an important message for us.”

Read on for part two…

– PS