One of the chief charms of micro-brewing is that any unsuspecting building in London could be quietly fermenting your favourite bottled beverage as you saunter by. And you’d never know it. Unless of course, someone opened the door and invited you in – which is exactly what happened when I took a morning journey up Holloway Road to check out the Umbrella Company’s ginger beer and its tiny production site.
This isn’t a pilgrimage I’m making to each and every fermentation tank inside the M25 – considering the enormous amount of micro and craft-brewing spots in London it would take more than a life’s work to peer inside each railway arch, garden shed and lock-up. But Matthew Armitage’s small production site on Holloway Road has a marked difference to nearly every other city brewery – they’re not making beer.
The building itself is nothing breathtaking – I’ve visited enough booze production sites to know not many are, with the exception of a few stunning Scotch distilleries – but it perfectly exemplifies the small-batch nature of what’s going on here. Previously fire-damaged, and with some cosmetic evidence of that still on the outside of the building, the small brewery has been gutted and turned into a two story operation by Matt himself, including some serious concreting work. Today the ground floor hosts the fermentation equipment while upstairs is a dedicated ginger workshop.
Matt’s ginger beer is made by fermenting lemon juice, sugar and barley together before adding in the pressed ginger root. The resulting liquid is fiery, citrus-led and bursting with fresh ginger and it’s about as far away from big commercial ginger beer as Four Pure is from Fosters.
“I’ve always loved ginger beer, but was never that impressed by what was out there,” says Matt as he shows off his small brewery. “I thought I could do better and wanted to make one that was less sweet.”
Taking inspiration from a recipe for ginger beer in Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, Matt set about experimenting. He trialled different yeasts, from champagne yeast to ale, lager and cider, finding that the beer yeasts added too many flavour compounds which took the focus off his precious ginger, and eventually settled on cold white wine yeast. Up to 6000 bottles worth of liquid was then lost as the transition from small experimental equipment to the big production vats altered the flavour.
Eventually though Matt had his recipe and, with bucket loads of enthusiasm from his business partners at the Umbrella Company – who own Discount Suit Co and The Sun Tavern – has launched a product. They’ve even gone on to experiment with aging their ginger beer in an old whisky cask from Dewar’s. If you can get your hands on a bottle of that, do. It’s taken plenty of flavour from the wood and its previous inhabitant and added a rounded smoothness.
Matt says creating a British brewery that doesn’t do beer has always been one of his goals, and isn’t limited to ginger beer so we’re pretty excited for any future plans that may be coming out of this Holloway Road site. For the moment though a craft ginger beer is exactly what we’ll be sipping this summer. And we seriously suggest you join us.