Meet The Man Changing The Face Of Hip Hops
Our affinity with with froth tops is changing. Cheap lagers are now being replaced with craft beers, usually found across the pond. In fact, they've become so popular that big multinationals have got in on the act, producing carbon(ated) copies of small-batch beers and prompting the Brewer's Association to lash out at the big leagues.
How did the craft movement begin? Here MH meets the man who is turning the American craft revolution into a very British affair.
From its woodsy brand name to the psyche-apocalyptic artwork that adorns its cans, you might expect to find the Beavertown brewery - one of the driving forces in the transatlantic craft beer wave - beside a creek in heavily-wooded North Dakota, or at least a gritty Williamsburg shack. In fact, it sits next to a brook on an unremarkable, grey industrial estate in dreary Tottenham Hale, north London.
With his Red Wing boots and Levi’s jeans, Beavertown founder Logan Plant also looks and sounds vaguely American - at least in sight and name. An accent that you might indeterminately describe as Brummie, however, gives him away - as does the Wolverhampton Wanderers mug sat proudly on the desk in his office.
In case you hadn’t guessed from the surname, Plant is the son of Robert, the West Bromwich-born, former frontman of Led Zeppelin and latterly Grammy-winning bluegrass singer. Having studied sports science at Cardiff University and worked variously in the decidedly sober arenas of massage therapy and corporate events, Plant Jnr also fronted a number of hard rock bands throughout his twenties. Music eventually took him across the pond where, UA suggests, the Beavertown ethos originated…
“Actually, no.The original inspiration came from the West Midlands, where I grew up,” counters the boy from the Black Country, now 38. Far from supping American IPAs between sets at SXSW, Plant says he acquired his taste for real beer by drinking Bathams bitter as a 19-year-old. At least, that’s when he wasn’t designated driver. “My friends and I would jump in the car to certain pubs to drink specific beers that were brewed up the road,” he says. “Or to the actual breweries, which had their own pubs on the side. That was where I started to dissect what beer was all about.”
As an entry-level lover of real ale and a peripatetic musician, Plant’s rock-star approach to inebriation was remarkably scientific - rather less hellraising, somewhat more trainspotting. “Whenever I did any travelling, I’d be taking notes on beers from all four corners of the globe,” he says.
So, you took a notebook out while drinking on tour?
This uncommon dedication continued until a moment in 2011 caught him unawares. It was after a gig when, sat in the now-renowned Brooklyn barbecue joint Fette Sau and missing his wife and young children, that the desire to start his own brewery - one that Plant had been nursing since the age of 20 - finally came to a head. “I ate some great pulled pork and drank some great beer,” he says. “And it was like an epiphany.”
Plant quit the band, went online and bought a 25-litre home brew kit. “It was essentially a mash-up of a tea urn and a picnic insulated box, plus a few other paddles and meshes,” he recalls. Then started the experimentation, creating beers that would pair well with the food at his nascent east London barbecue restaurant, Duke’s Brew & Que.
Originally there were just two: a rye IPA named 8-Ball (“rye is quite spicy and earthy, which goes great with the spiciness of our pork”) and Smog Rocket, a smoked porter (“the smokey, raisin-y characteristics work brilliantly with the beef ribs, which are all molasses and char”). In between there was a lot of trial and error, reading of books and internet forums, and questions asked to members of the London brewing network, such as Kernel in Bermondsey, south-east London.
With his early attempts surprisingly successful and his confidence boosted, Plant upgraded to an 800-litre kit which he squeezed into the kitchen at Duke’s. He then continued to brew during the day and serve the results over the bar at night, enabling instant feedback: “It was killer for me as a brewer to have strangers come up and go, ‘I really liked this.’ Or, ‘Fucking hell, that is burning the enamel off my teeth, it’s so bitter.’ In which case I knew it was time to go back to the drawing board.’”
Brewing, Plant quickly discovered, is part science, part art. “You can apply the specific mathematics to the extraction and bitterness you’re going to get from a certain hop, or the amount of sugar you will gain from certain grains,” he says. “Then you drink the end product and it’s much more of a sensory thing.” His guiding principle is balance: neither too bitter nor too sweet. “That’s always a good place to start from,” he says. “Then you can start to push things, whether that’s by infusing spices or manipulating different yeast strains.”
Blood, Sweat And Beers
Today, less than five years later, Beavertown HQ occupies multiple warehouse units, brewing 90,000 litres of ale a week, spread over 60 different varieties. Aside from its distinctive taste, what marks Beavertown out from the competition is its branding. But this, as with most aspects of Plant’s approach to business, was more happy accident than marketing strategy. A friend suggested the name Beavertown, an old cockney sobriquet of De Beauvoir Town, where Duke’s is located. “And it just happened to be perfect for a UK take on a US brewhouse,” says Plant. “Which was fortunate because I recently found my first notebook and I had so many terrible names lined up.”
Meanwhile, the Day of the Dead-style skeletons that adorn everything Beavertown - from the beers, to the office walls, even the brewery tanks - came courtesy of Nick Dwyer, a waiter at Duke’s who happened to be studying illustration at Central Saint Martins art school. Now Beavertown’s creative director, Dwyer devised the livery - and the name - for the brewery’s most recognisable output, a “tropical” American-style pale ale called Gamma Ray. Featuring UFOs, skeletal spacemen and a bright blue and orange lunarscape, the unconventional and determinedly avant-garde aesthetic - it looks more like a can of sweet, fizzy pop - has proved to be its USP. “I remember someone from a bar in Shoreditch called Jaguar Shoes saying to me, ‘Everyone just wants to buy the spaceman beer’,” recalls Plant.
Five years ago, you couldn’t walk into a bar and expect to find an American pale ale. Now, the surprising thing is that a) you can, and b) many of them are, in fact, British. So how has it come to this?
“The American beer market prior to craft beer was bad,” says Plant. “There were a couple of big players all producing the same yellow fizz. Then in the 1980s, a few of the US craft brewers came over to the UK, drank some amazing ales, then said: ‘Well, this is a bit flat, but it does actually taste of something.’” Employing their own indigenous ingredients (their hops are very different to ours) and a bit of can-do attitude, the Americans started creating beers that are, in turn, are inspiring a new batch of British craft brewers like Plant. “Now you’ve got two amazing brewing centres: the US and the UK. They’ve got 4700 breweries now and we’ve got about 1700,” he says. “And we’re all about the same thing, which is producing great beer.”
It would be wrong to call the rise in craft beer - as of last year, one of the government’s official markers of inflation - a trend. Rather, it represents a bona fide cultural shift, much in common with the renaissance in coffee and gin producers before it. There now exists a greater variety, a greater appreciation of what makes it special and and a willingness to pay a higher price for the privilege. But thanks to the likes of Beavertown, ale is now accessible and, yes, cool - shorn of its erstwhile connotations with pipes and beard, socks and sandals.
Not everyone is so merry, however: purists such as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) take issue with Beavertown’s use of carbonation over the traditional method of adding sugar and allowing the yeast to do its thing. “I’m sure at some point there will be a recognition that we’re all batting for the same team,” says Plant, diplomatically. In truth, they should probably be thanking him: at a time when pubs are closing at a rate of 27 each week (according to CAMRA’s own figures), as many as 600 people come to the tap room at Beavertown every Saturday to sample its wares and talk to the brewers. That’s a lot of prospective CAMRA members.
Despite having to drink most days just to do his job, Plant has no belly - an outcome he credits to genes, moderation and knowing his limits. He also says tries to have two nights off a week, and to avoid hangovers. But if all else fails? “Marmite on toast is really good, with all the vitamin B in there,” he says.
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