The brewery pushing boundaries to make London's beer taste better
By Emilie Holmes + photography by Isabelle Wilkinson
A few years ago, I was asked to write an article about the unexpected challenge of selling tea to the Brits and it became increasingly clear how similar that challenge was for craft beer at the time. In both industries, what appeared to be our greatest strength, that is taking something the nation loves and making it better, was also our greatest challenge. Just as it was a tall order to ask lifelong tea-drinkers to swap their PG tips for a ‘posh cuppa’, pub-dwellers were equally reluctant to ditch the nostalgic, watery pints they’d for so long come to expect. However, despite those cultural headwinds, craft beer has since gone from hipster micro-trend to a widespread industry shift and a number of recent, high profile acquisitions are a sure sign that this move towards quality is here to stay. Tea and beer still have a huge amount in common. That’s why we are always excited to meet the people brewing London’s best beer.
Today we are headed to Brew by Numbers - one of the many breweries housed in the railway arches which have been christened the Bermondsey Beer Mile - a term those featured are keen to discourage, given the apparent attraction it has for stag parties! Not only have I enjoyed many of their beers, I had also heard great things about BBN (Brew by Numbers). This is a brewery getting noticed, and we wanted to find out why.
As with their neighbours at The Kernel in nearby Spa Terminus, on entering the railway arch you walk right into the thick of the action - the floor is filled with kegs, full or empty, and delivery boxes and pallets making their way in and out. Everyone is busy, with half the team signing for those deliveries and running orders down from the office upstairs, while the other half (in their second arch a few doors down) are doing the brewing: tweaking the settings on the kettle, noting down time codes, or simply cleaning down the tanks ready for the next batch. Perhaps the most exciting thing about London’s many producers, beer or otherwise, is the way all the action is in one place. These guys are making, marketing and selling their product all under one roof, which has an infectious energy, with everyone riding the highs and lows together.
We’re met by Tom Hutchings, co-founder of Brew by Numbers, who tells us how it all started. Originally a farmer in Herefordshire, he later worked as a Sound Engineer in film, both abroad and in the UK. However, having met Toby from The Kernel, one of the original London craft breweries, and tried their beer, Tom found himself envying the satisfaction of being able to see the immediate results of your work. Unlike his work in film, which was long in the making and often far removed from the end product, he loved how quickly you could see the results of decisions made in the creative process with beer. In late 2011, he and Dave, a barista friend he’d met on a climbing trip abroad, started brewing in a basement in South London. While holding down other jobs, they experimented with batches at home, learning as much as they could, reading books and asking endless questions of others in the industry. It wasn’t long before this healthy curiosity led them to develop a style of their own. By 2012 they were up and running, launching that style under the name Brew By Numbers. The impressive looking ‘brewhouse’ (the tanks that line the back of the brewery), which they put together themselves using recycled tanks at the outset, is still what they use to brew all their beer today.
The craft beer market is exploding, with new breweries opening every month in London alone. When BBN first started making beer there were just 50 breweries in London - there are now 110 and counting. It has therefore never been more important to bring something distinctive to the table. From listening to Tom talk about what makes them tick, it seems clear that their approach to brewing itself is what sets them apart. From the early days, they were always experimenting - splitting large batches down at different stages to create variations on each brew - adding different hops, trialling different yeasts or testing new ingredients. This not only helped them learn their craft fast, but also meant they were always questioning the process and trying to improve. Tom explains that, though recipes and good ingredients of course play a role (the origin, quality and most importantly consistency of the hops and malt are key), it is the process and the craft in brewing that really separate a good beer from an exceptional one. ‘Another brewery could come in and see what we’re doing or even use the exact same recipe as us, but it would still be very hard to replicate the end result’, says Tom. Though neither Tom nor Dave are qualified brewers in technical terms, their skill is in this tireless pursuit of better beer: ‘We’re our harshest critics - we’re never satisfied, so we’re always looking for ways to do things better, focusing on quality but also drinkability.’ This iterative approach is neatly summed up by the unique naming convention of their beers, which, as the name would suggest, uses numbers as identifiers. The first two digits refer to the style of beer (like ‘black tea’ refers to a type of tea) while the second two numbers refer to the particular recipe - so 11:11 would be one of their popular Session IPAs, in its 11th iteration.
Their desire to produce great beer is being rewarded with growing sales, and it sounds like it won’t be long before they’ll yet again outgrow their current space. But in an increasingly crowded market I am curious as to what the future holds for Brew by Numbers and others like it. ‘We want to be one of the best’, Tom explains. The industry is moving towards breweries serving beers direct to customers, just as Brewdog opened its own pubs. ‘You lose so much margin in distributors and retailers that serving your beer directly to your customers, if you can do it, is amazing,’ Brew by Numbers currently open their Bermondsey taproom on Fridays and Saturdays and attract hundreds of people keen to try their beers. Not only is it a huge plus for the brewery’s cashflow, helping pay the hefty duty bills, it is also a great opportunity to invite punters to try their latest creations, giving them even more of an incentive to experiment. Whatever the next few years look like, it’s clear that, with Tom and Dave at the helm, this brewery is set to be always one step ahead.
As we leave, we examine a line-up of bottles from their extensive beer catalogue, noting a few one-off creations. It seems that their desire to push boundaries comes with an openness to collaborate, pulling in influences from outside the world of beer, whether via a coffee stout, a gin-fuelled Saison or, excitingly for us, a tea beer. So as we handed over a stash of Good & Proper Tea (as we do to all our hosts) we excitedly discussed a possible project. Think rich, creamy Keemun stout, floral Jasmine IPA and Hibiscus sours....watch this space.
Find out more about Brew by Numbers and where you can drink their beer here.