Michael Smith takes us on a whistle stop tour of Welsh craft brewers
Tiny Rebel is urban ale: with its punky, graffiti’d branding and aesthetic it feels like a beer on a mission to introduce a young crowd to the subtle delights of craft beer.
There are ten people working for the company these days, but it started three years ago with two engineers, Brad and Gazz, home brewing in a garage.
“Eighty per cent of the time the beer was terrible, but that was how we learned the most,” said Brad.
The tiny 20 litre copper and mash tun from that garage is still what they use to experiment with new brews.
First stop on our journey of beery discovery was Tiny Rebel, housed in a small factory unit in a light-industrial estate on the edge of Newport. A lad with a bright green Mohican was scooping boiled, steaming hops out of a copper kettle.
“Nice little sauna,” he joked.
They showed me the fridge they bought off Gumtree for £20, using its insulating effect to opposite ends; sticking a heater in it to ferment the beers. I opened the fridge door; a mad scientist mist emerged, clearing to reveal a single conical lab flask full of very cloudy beer.
“Just us messing around again,” said Brad, but it struck me this was messing around with all the rigour of engineers.
Tiny rebel’s best seller is FUBAR, an American style pale ale. But I tried the Cwtch, unpronounceable but translating as “cuddle”.
They described it as a Welsh red ale. What a lovely, three-dimensional, complete flavour it has: beneath the fresh, fruity high notes, hints of toffee and a distinctive “roast” flavour that made me think of pork crackling, an unexpected taste that was completely new to me.
Tiny Rebel is certainly a brewery with youth on its side - the oldest partner’s 32. Judging by their lovely Cwtch, the future of beer is in safe hands and if this is what the kids in Newport are drinking these days, then there is hope for humanity yet.
Next, we drove away from the coastal conurbation into the gentle hills of Carmarthenshire heading for the Handmade Beer Company. Handmade was just that, a far smaller and more eccentric proposition than Tiny Rebel: a one-man band in a barn. With his big fluffy beekeeper’s beard, Ian Bowler has the air of a wise beer magus. He used to be a graphic designer in Cardiff – like the exengineers, a combination of the creative and the technical – before escaping to his farmer’s barn to brew.
Ian does almost everything, from brewing the beer to designing the labels and sticking them on the bottles. Ian’s beer is generally more traditionally British in taste than the hoppy American style that
kick-started the craft beer revolution, but he’s keen to experiment – with basil in a porter and even lapsang souchong. The small scale means this is possible, because he only has to throw away a small amount of beer if it all goes wrong.
“Big companies can’t experiment,” he said. “They’d prefer it if people just wanted the same thing all the time, like the old boys in the pub every day.”
He described the difference between craft beer and real ale.
“Real ale’s got four ingredients: barley, hops, yeast and water. Craft beer’s got two more: Facebook and Twitter. It’s the same thing as far as I’m concerned.
“There are probably ten times more small brewers than there were ten years ago. Cardiff ’s becoming a mecca for the British
scene, with half a dozen little producers. It’s a nice size – everyone’s connected, we all know each other, small brewers are all really helpful to each other.”
Ian sells locally at the moment, and has two barrels on tap in Y Polyn restaurant down the road, where I drank a perfect pint, his CWRW, that evening. I had no idea how to say that
strange world written on the beer pump (nor did I know it was Welsh for ‘beer’). I was struck by CWRW’s tasty complexity: a dark, rich amber ale with mysterious depths and a certain spicy, fruity, indefinably drinkable taste.
With a slightly sore head the next day, we drove west into the hills of North Pembrokeshire, to a farmhouse with “SEREN BEER” written in chalk on a slate outside, next to a smaller piece of slate saying “EGGS 50p.”
We went inside to meet Ali Kocho-Williams who took us through to his back room, full of pewter tankards hanging up on hooks, gold medals and rosettes saying 2nd or 1st, a mash tun, and a beery smell.
“Welcome to maybe Britain’s smallest brewery,” he said.
And the thermometer by the door?
“Oh, that’s for the ham.”
That’s when I noticed the leg of prosciutto on a hook, air-drying in his cupboard below the stairs.
The fact it was all so DIY, so one-manband, made the exquisite joy that came out of the taps all the more of an epiphany. There was genius in those beers. One was a sour, smoky porter that reminded me of bacon and balsamic vinegar. My favourite, however, was the Factory Steam, a ‘steam beer’ made the same way as a lager, but at a higher temperature, which makes the yeast produce different flavours, much brighter, fruitier and tastier. We just started getting into the history behind steam beers when a chubby bloke knocked on the door: “Hello, I’ve come for some beer... ”
Ali’s currently struggling to keep up with demand. For now it’s part-time, the day job being professor of 20th Century Russian Politics at Aberystwyth University.
And the future of craft beer?
“The whole thing started off in the US, and we’re still five years behind,” Ali said.
“In the US, beer’s now seen to be on a par with wine in terms of quality, and as good with food as wine. The market is also prepared to pay for it, in the same way we’ll now pay £15 instead of £5 for a bottle of wine over here.”
Last up, we headed back east up the Ebbw valley. We got off the main road and climbed up an unnerving slope full of hairpin bends, precipitous edges and magnificent sweeping views.
We reached our destination to find the lads finishing off their Friday fish‘n’chips, reassuringly drinking their own Hallet’s Cider. I got passed a bottle of the ‘entry’ cider: ‘beautifully simple’ it said on the label, and it was – lovely, balanced, bright, but subtle.
Martin Hallet took us out to see where the magic happens, a farm shed with a dozen tall steel drums and a big Marshall amp blasting Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven across the valleys.
“Making cider is like making wine,” said Martin. “I’m experimenting with a few winemaking techniques at the minute, stirring the lees like they do with white Burgundy, which gives it a more robust mouth-feel. Dunno if it’ll work yet mind...
“I’m experimenting all the time. Some experiments fail spectacularly, but that’s all part of the fun,” he said, taking me to his little lab out the back, with its refractometers, microscope slides and lab equipment.
“My most important instrument’s this though,” he chuckled, holding up an empty wine glass, “this and my nose and my taste buds.
“The difference between a craft cider and a factory cider is that a factory cider’s only tradition and provenance is that factory; it’s designed by a food technologist. It’s just a factory process.”
As he talked, I spied a pallet of what looked like mini champagne bottles gathering dust in the corner of the barn.
“That’s an experiment that didn’t work out,” he said.
“A vintage cider that had completely fermented in the bottle. Between you and me it tasted bloody horrible.”
He opened a bottle, expecting the worst, pouring it into the wine glass, a lovely, weighty amber colour. To everyone’s delight, it had matured and fermented in the four years it’d been sitting there, becoming a delicious, delicate, biscuity luxury: almost champagne made out of apples.
It summed up my short tour of craft beer and cider makers in Wales. What a delightful array of eccentric inventors these blokes are.
This article was produced in partnership with the Fork2Fork campaign. To find further places to buy food and drink fresh, direct and local visit fork2fork.wales