Blog by Michael McGrorty
Elixir Brew Company. I first heard about them a while back, thanks to their Benedictine Groove, a beer which contains Buckfast (a Scottish staple among younger drinkers), tablet, and smoked malt. Scotland in a glass. I just had to try it. I didn’t get the chance to try it until months after I heard about it, but when I did it was definitely worth the wait. A fantastically interesting beer that I urge everybody to try. Before I managed to try the Bene Groove though, I had two other of Elixir’s beers: Conviction IPA and Cuzzy Brew, a black IPA. Conviction IPA is a super, super bitter IPA that really punches you in the face with bitterness, fantastic beer. I wasn’t a huge fan of Cuzzy Brew as it has some of the roast character that I don’t like in a black IPA, but if you like your black IPAs roasty then seek this beer out. You won’t regret it. I think Elixir are one of the most, if not the most, interesting brewers in Scotland today. If I see their beer on a bar I’m going for that one right away. No exceptions.
I recently had the chance to interview Ben Bullen of Elixir, and here’s what he had to say:
How did you get interested in beer? Have you always been a beer geek or did you gradually slide into it from other drinks?
I have always drunk beer although my tastes and, fortunately, access have changed over time. I used to drink lager, Guinness and the odd Belgian beer as that was largely what was available in Australia at the time. We always tried to seek out more exciting beers though, Mountain Goat being a favourite Aussie micro. We moved to England in 2007 and discovered real ale. That was a huge moment. Like any travelling Aussie, I had a stipulation on my VISA stating I had to work in a bar. I pulled pints at the Salisbury Arms in Cambridge for a while and started getting involved with the Ely Beer Festivals.
It’s been amazing being able to visit Belgium and The Netherlands as well. I highly recommend the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation and De Molen fests. The amount of choice in the UK just now for amazing local and international beer is incredible and it’s great to be a part of it. I have always enjoyed whisky too, I might add, which is great living in Edinburgh! I am still in love with Laphroaig but sadly have been left behind somewhat with wines. What I lack in knowledge, I make up for in Tokay adoration though.
How did Elixir Brew Co get started? What was the driving force behind deciding to brew professionally?
The driving force is experimentation. I had been homebrewing since moving to the UK and, with a lot of help from my friends, had been producing a fair amount of beer that we were really happy with. The house, as a few people will tell you, was starting to look more like a brewery but I couldn’t sell the beer. I still wanted to continue experimenting with new beers so it seemed logical to approach a brewer to use their kit initially. Barry and I are very grateful to Adam and James at Alechemy for giving us the opportunity to brew commercially.
How does it feel to be able to walk into a pub and buy a pint of beer that you brewed?
Amazing. The first time I had a pint of my own beer (Bene Groove) at the Stockbridge Tap was the most nervous I had been for a long time! You scrutinise everything but it’s a superb feeling when a plan comes together. Some of the most incredible moments have been when my beer has been turned back into food, like the Pulp Fiction pumpkin sorbet or the Minception fruit mince pies at Cloisters. Having Matt at Drinkmonger turn Conviction IPA into a jenever to make gin cocktails and the guys at Steak curing their salmon in Benedictine Groove are also fantastic. These are the moments that make the whole experience so worthwhile.
What do you think of schemes like BrewDog’s Equity For Punks and sites like Kickstarter? Have you ever considered crowdfunding to expand Elixir?
We actually haven’t considered crowdfunding to be honest although people are doing amazing things thanks to Kickstarter and, obviously, BrewDog are expanding at breakneck speed. We’re quite happy to build our business the old fashioned way for the time being.
Do you have any tips for homebrewers? What’s the most important aspect of brewing for you?
The most important aspect of brewing? Take notes. When you make something incredible you’ll probably want to do it again. The tastier the beer, the faster it will go and you’ll want to remember exactly what the malt bill and hop additions were for a start! Also, don’t be afraid to go all grain. There are some really easy techniques for brewing your own beer from scratch on the stovetop. The Aussie Brew In A Bag technique is one of the simplest ways to do this. You only really need a couple of sizeable pots and a large sack for the malt.
Mash tuns made from coolers with a simple copper manifold work brilliantly and are cheap and easy to make. I modified a larger water tank for mine because I like to brew big beers. If you want to make a sizeable volume of strong beer without relying on sugars, a larger mash tun is very handy. Finally, share your wares and ask friends, bar staff and other brewers their opinions. It can be difficult getting an honest reaction when you are giving your beer away, particularly to friends. Bring a batch along to a party and get a few different opinions.
What do you feel makes your beers stand out in an (one could say) already crowded market?
We try to do things a little bit differently, particularly with our concept beers. I think people have reacted so well to the Benedictine Groove because it genuinely conveys something of Scotland in a glass. I love the challenge of making something that shouldn’t work, work. We make every effort to source the best and most exciting ingredients available and we feel this shines through in the finished product.
I understand that you don’t have your own brewery and brew at Alechemy’s brewery, tell us a bit about what that’s like and the challenges involved with using somebody else’s brewkit.
First off, it’s obviously been a fantastic opportunity to brew our own beers commercially without owning a facility. Although there are a few cuckoo / gypsy brewers springing up, Adam and James allowed us to use their brewery when this wasn’t quite as established locally. Having access to both a pilot brew kit and a 10 barrel plant has allowed us to experiment with our more outlandish recipes and also produce enough of our core range to supply fairly regular bottled, cask and keg beers to Edinburgh and beyond.
Are there plans to have your own brewery?
Going forward, we would really need our own brewery to fill the demand we have received to date. The greatest challenge we have at the moment is not being able to meet this demand. Having said this, we do try to keep a fair bottled beer range in stock to supply local beer stores and pubs with bottled beer all year round. We’ll soon let you know when we have news.
What’s your favourite beer and food pairing? Do you match beer and food at all or just mainly drink it?
Geuze and herrings. That is a match made in heaven! The sour and musty characters of the geuze accentuate the salty, pickled herrings and the carbonation really gives it a lift. We like to match food and beer, usually with a beer heavy slant. Taleggio and Munster cheese, olives, Quorn balls, herring and Craig Garvie’s ubiquitous homebaked bread are staples at the drinking table.
What’s your current favourite beer? Aside from your own of course!
My favourite beer style at the moment is Belgian Strong Ale. My favourite beer in this style is De Struise Pannepot. This beer develops spectacularly well in the bottle. My wife and I were lucky enough to try a bottle from the original batch and it was incredible. Hands down my favourite beer to date! It has an ethereal aroma of marzipan, toffee, figs, chocolate and plums with perfectly balanced alcohol. Great fresh on keg as well.
Huge thank you to Ben for taking the time out to answer my questions. Elixir Brew Company can be found at www.elixirbrew.com and on Twitter at @ElixirBrewCo
Follow Michael on Twitter @h_doody #StillThinking