Calum Fraser takes a tour of Greenwich Meantime Brewery, and thinks he’s living life in the fast lane….or is it just the Blackwall Lane brewery fumes which are getting to him?
It’s like stepping into a biker stop on Route 66. Low ceiling, rugged men with beards, beers in hand and talking in semi hushed tones. But this is no Hells Angels hideout, this is the Greenwich Meantime bar in Blackwall Lane.
This sits in front of a brewery that pumps out around 50,000 litres of beer a day. A burly man in an orange hi-vis jacket approaches me and sticks out a hand.
This is Ciaran Giblin, 36, one of the master brewers at the Greenwich Meantime Brewery (GMB) who has worked for the brewery since 2010.
After a bit of small talk we head upstairs to the Brewhouse where hundreds of different beer bottles cover every square inch of the wall.
Ciaran says: “In the mid-80s our founder, Alisdair Hook, decided to go travelling. His plan was to visit all the great beer producing places and uncover their brewing secrets.
“To cut a long story short, he did a lot of travelling and he did a lot of beer drinking.”
Sounds like Alisdair may have set the trend for all wide eyed gap year kids who set off on a journey of self-discovery.
But unlike your usual 20-year-old, Alisdair came back with more than a dreadlock and some ankle bracelets.
Ciaran says: “The concept for GMB came from his travels. In terms of beer the word craft hadn’t been invented yet.
“Alisdair wanted to do great brewing conditioned beers that people would not have seen before, inspired by European traditions. The first beer we produced was a Viennese dark beer.”
This continental streak runs through the whole operation at GMB. While having connections with local malt and hops producers in the UK, GMB brewers roam the world looking for different ingredients.
My beefy brew master Ciaran shows himself to be a no less than a modern Renaissance man as he repeatedly shrugs off his Manchunian accent to reel off French and German. He takes me over to a pile of jars containing grains and empties a few into my hands.
I give them a curious sniff.
“No, no,” he says, “You’re not going to get much from sniffing it. You have to eat it.”
In it goes. The first, a light brown grained called Crystal Malt, has a caramel sweet flavour. This is used for lighter beers like a pilsner or a lager. Then he pours another batch into my hand, Chocolate Malt, they are a darker seed and much crunchier. They have an instant bitter taste like a cross between coffee and burnt popcorn.
While I have thrown the whole handful in each time, Ciaran has delicately selected a grain or two and placed them into his mouth.
For the next five minutes I am preoccupied with my mouthful of grain. Ciaran continues: “Brewing the malt is a delicate process and each beer requires a different type of malt, water and temperature. For something like a lager you want to lightly roast or kill the malt. This creates a smoother taste. The next key ingredient is hops. Hops are like a little flower that should smell fresh and fruity. They can give a bitterness, like the flavour you taste in an IPA.
“The most important part of the hops flower is the delicate oils that are released when you boil them. They’re very volatile and if you’re not careful they can flash off and you completely lose the flavour.
“In the same way French winemakers have to be aware of the ‘terrior’ (fancy French word for soil quality) we have to consider the conditions in which the hop is grown.
“You can grow the same crop in the UK, Germany or the US and they will all taste different.
“Part of my job is to travel around the world trying hops.
“In the US you get big, tropical, fruity, garlicky hops that have a really potent aroma.
“In the UK they are a bit earthier with a richer citrus content.
“Then you go to Germany and you get what we call a very noble flavour. They are very citrusy, light and clean with a subtle aroma.”
Ciaran then takes me on a tour through the brewery. We walk among the cavernous vats that peer down at us like metal giants. One is for boiling and churning the malt, another is for extracting the “wort”, a sugary water that is filtered out of churned malt.
Finally we come to a particularly shiny vat sitting high on a throne of its own. This is where the yeast is added. “Yeast consumes the sugars that are created in the malt and breaks them down into carbon dioxide and alcohol.
“This is where all the fun comes from. Without yeast we’d just have this sugary non-alcoholic liquid,” he says. What a generous queen yeast is. But Ciaran is quick to tell me that she is also temperamental and must be treated with care and respect.
“If you leave the yeast in for too long you get a process called autolysis where the yeast starts to eat itself and creates a nasty off taste.”
We make our way out of the brewery and back into the bar to taste a selection of GMB’s best beers. As the sun dips below the sky more punters have entered the bar with a festive glow on their faces. We find a free table and Ciaran brings over a selection of beers.
“When we started in 1999 there was Fullers, Budweiser and Twickenham Ales and that was about it. Now there are almost 100 breweries in London alone.
“In the UK there are close to 2,000.”
GMB have been at the forefront of this boom and were taken over by global beer producer SABMiller in 2015 before being resold to Asahi in 2016. With the same delicacy that Ciaran carefully draws out and retains the hops oil in the brewing process, GMB is trying to strike the balance between home grown character and global flavour.
Ciaran says: “We were founded by Alisdair Hook and Ben who live in Blackheath.
“Our engineers are from Greenwich and some of our other brewers are from the area as well.
“But then we also have workers from all over the world.”
Ciaran guides me through the beers as I try them, from light and refreshing lagers like Helles to the infamous London Porter stout, until we finally reach a bottle of Greenwich Winter Spice Porter.
This is a special brew GMB created for the festive period. I take a long sip. The Porter provides a strong bitter base which the hints of cinnamon and allspice overlay with a perfect balance of sweetness.
Ciaran says: “Our main aim is to make ‘sessionable’ beers, balancing accessibility with drinkability.
“There’s no big secret to it.
“Yes there is some science, yes there is some art, but at the end of the day we are bringing malted barley, hops and yeast together to make great beer.”
- For more information on GMB tours visit www.meantimebrewing.com and the Winter Spiced Porter is available for a limited time across selected Marks and Spencer stores