Meet the Brewer: By the Horns Brewing Co.

For a Norf Londoner like me, Tooting is pretty much terra incognita. I’ve heard people live there. Maybe dragons, too. Someone said there was a volcano.

Last weekend, I made the trip to this fabled place south of the river (Turns out Tooting is really close to Wimbledon! Go figure.) to attend the first brewery open house event at new SW17 brewhouse By the Horns Brewing Co. I was of course immediately shown up for the prejudiced Northener that I am: there were lots of people there, not a dragon or volcano in sight, and – most important – there was plenty of damn fine beer.

By the Horns have barely been around for half a year. Alex Ball and Chris Mills founded the brewery in August and began brewing in September, but they’re already generating buzz among discerning SW drinkers. Their beers are available in some 30 pubs, mainly in the South London area, and with more to come – so far Alex and Chris have focused on selling to pubs and bars with a real ale/craft beer profile (By the Horns beers can for example be found at the Market Porter, the Southamtpon Arms and the Old Fountain on a fairly regular basis*), but now they’re starting to reach out to other pubs as well. Bottled versions of their imaginatively-named beers (see below) have so far only been available direct from the brewery but in the coming year they will set up an online mail-order service for bottles, as well as selling via a small number of specialist off-licenses in London.

I had a chance to chat a bit to head brewer Alex about the brewery and their beers:

LB: How did you get started?

AB: I’d been homebrewing for a couple of years and got a lot of positive feedback on my beers, so finally we just thought, why not do this commercially? I did a course at the Brew Lab in Sunderland to learn more about commercial brewing, and then we raised some money to get the brewery going. Friends and family helped a lot. And here we are!

LB: There’s a booming brewery scene in London, with many new breweries being established in just the past year or two. Does that make it easier or harder for you to sell your beers?

AB: Easier, definitely. There’s more awareness now, all the breweries help raise the profile of good beer. There are more pubs and bars that care about real ale now, too. Real ale sales are up and more people are interested. We’re happy to be part of the London beer scene, it’s good for all of us. In the coming year, we’re going to have more open events like this one – like they already have at The Kernel and London Fields Brewery, for example. Opening your brewery to the public is a good model.

LB: What are your own influences? Which breweries are doing it right at the moment?

AB: We’re very influenced by the US brewing scene, there are a lot of breweries there that are really innovating, really pushing it, in a way that few breweries in the UK do. Obviously there’s BrewDog, who have their niche and are doing it really well. I haven’t been to their bar in Camden yet but I’ve been to the one in Aberdeen and it’s great. But we look for influences all over, there are many German breweries that we like. With our wheat beer, we were primarily looking at the German-style wheat beers for inspiration, for example. Looking at the US in particular, there are two breweries whose stories we have followed, Odell Brewing Co. and Dogfish Head. They’re both pretty big breweries now and we love how they were formed and how they have developed in the past 10-15 years.

By the Horns so far have a permanent stable of three beers: Stiff Upper Lip (ABV 3.8), a session Pale Ale, Bobby on the Wheat (ABV 4.7), a wheat beer with both German and NZ varieties of Hallertau hops, and Diamond Geezer (ABV 4.9), a red ale (there’s also a Double Red Ale version available of the Diamond Geezer at ABV 6.1). Alex and Chris also do some seasonals and limited-run beers, the current one being Jolly Fatman (ABV 5.6), an oatmeal stout with lots of Christmas spices. I had a chance to try all four (except the higher-ABV version of Diamond Geezer) when visiting the brewery, and here are my capsule reviews:

Stiff Upper Lip

Look: Clear yellow/light amber, head dissipates fast but the beer retains some fizz.

Nose: Faint flowery notes, otherwise minimal.

Taste: Round malt body and light citrus up front gives way to a more floral and perfumed yet marked bitterness and a dry finish. Some subtle sugary notes round out what is a very well-balanced and highly drinkable session beer. Quite complex for an ABV 3.8 beer.

Verdict: 3+/5. A proper session beer is hard to do right and to make distinctive at the same time, but By the Horns succeeds.

Bobby on the Wheat

Look: Light auburn, cloudy, hardly any head.

Nose: Yeast/bread and some generic spice notes.

Taste: Lots of bread, very German in style. There’s a tiny bit of clove and some herbal notes, but they get a bit overwhelmed by the mealy bread flavour.

Verdict: 2/5. Solid but unspectacular.

Diamond Geezer (ABV 4.9)

Look: Reddish brown, cloudy. Head? It has a head?

Nose: Surprisingly sweet – caramel and toffee.

Taste: Caramel body, mellow yet robust opening changing into pleasantly balanced pine/resin/citrus hops that linger a bit longer than I did expect.

Verdict: 3+/5. A diamond in the rough – By the Horns definitely has the balance right, chunky body balanced by strong hops. Shame I did not get to try the Double Red Ale version – but the regular Geezer packs plenty of punch.

Jolly Fatman (ABV 5.6)

Look: Dark dark brown, pours relatively thin, small head that quickly goes away.

Nose: Straightforward – light spiciness and roast malts.

Taste: A big mouthful of spice: cloves, nutmeg, dried citrus peel. The spice is followed by a mild roast coffee bitterness, a good and slightly caramel-y malt body and – again – a nice, dry, hoppy finish. An accomplished layering of flavours and a proper Christmas brew.

Verdict: 4+/5. One of the better Christmas beers I’ve had this season, a well-crafted oatmeal stout. Get it if you have the chance! I definitely hope By the Horns will use the oatmeal stout base in some future brew as it would be a shame to use it for this one seasonal.

A note on design: considering that poorly-designed and borderline offensive pump clips seem to be a genre of their own in British brewing, a special mention must be made of By the Horns’ crisply designed labels/beer logos. They’re very distinct and cool-looking, a far cry from the panto pun/seaside postcard-style designs that are all too popular among British real ale brewers.

By the Horns have been around for under six months, and they’re already producing some very accomplished, complex beers. I was very impressed with how high they’ve set the bar – I certainly hope to see their brews in more pubs during 2012. Perhaps even in some places north of the river?

* Other pubs that feature By the Horns beers relatively regularly are The Trafalgar (South Wimbledon), The Rake (Borough Market), Bree Louise (Euston), The Bricklayers Arms (Putney), Grape and Grain (Crystal Palace), The Black Dog (Vauxhall), The Antelope (Tooting), The Kings Head (Clapham) and The Royal Albert (New Cross).

PS: Anyone out there who’ve tried the Double Red version of Diamond Geezer and would care to share your views?

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Posted on December 20, 2011, in Brewery, Event, Interview, Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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