SAMUEL ADAM WALTERS FREELANCE WRITER
We met Signature Brew, the musical brewers who won't be beat....
In a cramped warehouse somewhere in East London, several young men are practising the unusual art of blending beer with music. Here at Signature Brew, craft beers are specially developed with some of the finest musicians and dance acts that England has to offer. The result is a range of highly personal and unusual beers that have a rhythm all their own. We meet brewer, Tom Bott to find out more . . .
What’s the idea behind Signature Brew, and what makes it so special?
We have a clear goal to try and get music fans drinking decent beer. What sets us aside is that we get the actual artist and musicians involved, not only drinking good beer on tour and on stage, but with every step of the process of creating the beer too. That starts with them coming down and doing a tasting session with myself, where we go through about twenty different beers covering every style to both educate them and find out what they like. By the end we’ll all be a little bit pissed, but also I’ll have some scrawled notes that I’ll be able to create a recipe from.
Do you try to match the sound of the music to the beer then? That sounds mind-boggling!
It’s easier with solo artists because that’s one person and one person’s opinion. They can very much say: I like that flavour, I don’t like that flavour. Whereas, with a band such as Enter Shikari, there were four guys who were all passionate about the project and all disagreed about every single beer we tried! In a tasting session with some high abv beers, the further into it you get, the more opinionated and noisy the participants become. So five hours down the line, over a lot of time and a lot of beers . . . But no, it works! After the tasting session we get the guys involved in brewing it as well.
So they really are involved all the way?
They brew the beer with us so they know what’s in it, how it’s created and why it tastes like it does. It’s not just a labelled product and it’s not a merchandising deal. It’s something they actually care about. It’s also important from our point of view for when they go on tour.
Signature Brew - Dave, Sam and Tom
Do you effectively supply them with beer rations for their tour then?
Yeah, we get them to take it on tour because we want them to tell people about the idea. We also try to sell it to as many venues as possible. It’s not easy because a lot of them are tied up by the beer brands, but we’ve actually had a lot of joy getting them into big venues all over the country.
How did you manage that?
Perhaps to begin with we almost weren’t bullish enough and we would just go to the pub round the corner. Now we sort of know where we can and where we can’t get it in. Certain places have actually taken off the house lagers like Carlsberg and Fosters and put on our beer so it’s the only beer available. That’s a massive win for us and proof that it’s working. And then there’s a room of 3000 music fans all drinking what we think, and hopefully what they think, is a decent beer.
So tell us about the background of Signature Brew. How did it all come about?
Two other guys started the company with me: Sam, who’s actually my cousin, and Dave. They were both from music marketing and have always been beer fans, so to speak. I was born into a brewery so to a certain extent I deal with that side. I’ll brew the beer that the bands want and that the fans will enjoy. Sam and Dave deal with the music side and the many other aspects of running a business that you don’t necessarily have to be a beer connoisseur to do.
You literally grew up with beer then?
Yeah, from early teens you’d be in and around it doing jobs from digging out the mash to delivering the beer and all the way up. The brewery is in the Midlands and called Titanic. I guess you’d probably still describe it as a microbrewery, but it’s on a much larger scale than most London brewers. It’s border-line a regional brewer, which is probably a technical term that would mean nothing to anyone . . . unless you’re a brewer!
Recently you brewed a beer called Remedy with Professor Green. What was it like working with such a big name?
He’s passionate about his beer and he’s been really supportive the whole way through. It seems like a very long time ago since we started the project. It was last summer, last June, and we’ve come a long way with it. We never look at it as a short-term thing. This whole time we’ve been working with Professor Green on Remedy we’ve been building it up. So we’ve gone from working at gigs he’s been doing right the way to now where it’s available in all Morrisons stores, which is again for us, as a small company, quite a big deal. He’s been very supportive and we’ve enjoyed working with him.
Who’s been your favourite artist to work with?
All have been good and I love the beers like I’d love my children: equally. Enter Shikari have been great fun to work with as their whole ethos in touring and everything they do is very much like a family. Everyone is in it together and they sort of brought us in on that as well. Frank Turner has been fantastic too.
As a brand new, small brewery, has it been hard to break into the market?
No, not really. I think the beer industry is different to most markets in that there is a demand for products created on a small scale. It’s not like other industries; if you’re buying fabric softener you wouldn’t buy a craft fabric softener! So, it’s a bit easier to enter. Staying there is not so easy! But just look at the different brewers there are in London alone. It’s a testament to the fact that you can start small and work up. There are forty-seven London breweries right now. That’s lots more than when we started and that was only two years ago. So you can see how fast it’s grown.
I suppose the uniqueness of your beer helps?
I think we’re a bit more national than most local brewers because it’s a product that can travel, just like the bands. In fact it’s international rather than national. And it does export quite well too.
The image of beer aficionados seems to be changing. It’s no longer just the province of the old beardy types is it? These days it’s quite hip to be a bit of a beer nerd. Obviously a company like Signature Brew helps this along no end, but what do you think is behind this general shift?
It’s a good question. The delivery of beer and style has changed. That’s come from, whilst I love British beer, America. American beers have influenced our tastes a lot in the last five years to the point where we’re now seeing beers over there that we want to re-create. These styles have come over, as well as big hop flavours from New Zealand, and have just changed the way we create beer....
"Are you mad? Try Remedy" - a collaboration with Professor Green
...I think it’s also an awful lot down to the breweries themselves making products that are interesting to young people. It’s quite a cool industry now. Just look at the number of beer festivals in East London and places you wouldn’t see them five years ago.
I think perhaps another side to that is the fact that it’s not cheap to drink now. If people are going to have to spend x amount of money going out and buying booze, why not buy something nice? If it’s going to cost you fifteen pounds to have a few beers, you can either have Fosters or you can have a selection of nice locally brewed beers. I think people have come around to that . . . Why not?
So you’re very experimental with your brewing?
We like to experiment and that’s what small breweries should be all about. We’re perhaps a little less so than a lot of similar sized breweries because when brewing a beer for an artist, you’re not taking consideration of just them, but also a large audience who are perhaps not craft beer fans. So if a brewery down the road, another Hackney brewery, makes a beer, their target audience is almost all converted. They’re already in the pub looking for an unusual beer, whereas our audience are in a music venue and don’t care so much. They can try our interesting, good quality, craft beers without blowing their head off and never trying it again. So it’s about a balance: being interesting but also being accessible.
What’s the weirdest ingredient you’ve ever used then?
We did a beer with a music magazine called Drowning Sound using coriander seeds and paradise seeds.
. . . Paradise seeds?
I hadn’t heard of them either. They’re from the west of Africa. They’re not too dissimilar to coriander, and quite spicy. I think it worked… And they’re removed before we bottle it so no one suddenly chokes on a seed!
Do you have a top tip for home brewers?
. . . Experiment. If you’ve got your ingredients and you’ve got your recipe and you’re sat there going: well what if I chuck that in? Do it. What’s the worst that could happen? And the other one, which is perhaps a little bit boring, is just write everything down.
You don’t want a George’s Marvellous Medicine moment?
I learnt the hard way. If you do something right, you know how you did it and if you go wrong you can perhaps work out where you went wrong.
It’s obviously an impossible question, but if you could only have one beer for the rest of your life what would it be?
It is a difficult question and a few different beers spring to mind. I’m almost thinking I probably wouldn’t pick my favourite ever beer because it’s quite a unique one; I love the West Coast IPAs which are often 6-7% but if I was only going to drink that for the rest of my life I’d go mad! Something like an Odells or Flying Dog beer would be something I might save, like a desert island beer.
On that note, what’s your favourite way to enjoy a beer? Basking in the sun? Roasting by the fire?
With music as well! The combination of a really well made beer and a few mates in the pub is hard to beat. It’s quite simple, but it’s just the combination isn’t it?
Who are you working with at the moment, anyone we might have bopped along to?
We’re doing a massive black IPA with an American Metal band called Mastodon. It’ll be 8.3% . . . a huge beer compared to some of our others. We’re quite excited about it because it’s going to be big here and in America, and available for fans over there too. In the spring we’ll have another big one to get quite excited about too, but I’ll just have to keep that under my hat…
Importantly, where can people buy your beers?
The simple answer is: all decent craft beer shops. All of them are available online as well and they’ll be with you in a day or two. You can get Remedy in all Morrisons stores and we’ve now started doing our own cask range, which is slightly removed from our core artist base.
Finally then, what’s the future for Signature Brew?
I guess the end goal for us at Signature Brew is simple. We want people to walk into a music venue, small or large, see Signature at the bar and, whether it’s Professor Green’s Remedy or just our Pale Ale, to see it and say: I trust that, it’s a good beer; I know the rest are a bit shit, and it’ll be a decent, well-made beer at a decent price. . . That’s quite important to us too!
Ilovegoodbeer mag - 11/11/2013