Banding Together: Logan Plant & Jenn Merrick of London's Expanding Beavertown Brewery
INTERVIEWED SEPTEMBER 16, 2016
AT BEAVERTOWN BREWERY - LONDON, ENGLAND
In London, the idea that things are cyclical shows itself to be true, maybe moreso than anywhere else. And such is the case with their brewing culture, as well. The UK–birthplace of the IPA–is witnessing a beer renaissance. A renaissance that had quietly been taking cues from fellow scenes, simmering on the back burner and just waiting to boil over. Where pale ales were once considered traditional styles, and room temperature ESBs were king–now American-influenced, juicy, experimental recipes are being pushed.
At the heart of this growth is North London's Tottenham-based Beavertown Brewery. In the brewery's first three years in business, they moved spaces four times. And during our visit, the team was in the process of signing yet another new lease. But with all of this movement growth, the idea to start 'Beavertown' really began nearly 20 years ago, while Founder, Logan Plant was playing in bands touring the likes of the US, Europe and New Zealand. His interest in beer began as a child following his frontman father [Yes, 'Plant', as in that Plant], around pubs in the hills of West Midlands, England. The community aspect of the pub is what drew him, and at the source of those pubs: this mysterious thing called 'beer.'
Fast forward a few years, and Logan was at a crossroads. Choosing beer over music, he went on to form the UK's fastest growing brewery. With the addition of American expat Head Brewer, Jenn Merrick, the duo has conquered London's craft movement. We caught up with the pair to discuss American influences, expansion, serendipity, a sense of community–and psychedelia among other things.
Logan, talk a little bit about where your interest in beer began.
Logan Plant: Yea, it started when I was about four years old–gaining a massive appreciation with the UK's relationship with the pub, and being dragged around as a kid to many pub gardens. All the adults loved this thing called beer. I never really got on with the stuff as a youngster, but then suddenly my palate began to develop when I was about 18. I started to get very into the local breweries where I'm from, in the West Midlands–near Birmingham, England.
Yea, I was trying to read up on that area. I noticed a lot of references to "Black Country"...
LP: Yes, it's very industrial. Back in the day it was a major industrial center–mines, steelworks–and everybody would come out covered in soot and black. The air was covered with smog and you couldn't see much. So, they named it, locally, the "Black Country."
So, a good spot to hang out in a beer garden.
LP: Haha, well on a good day! When you can see your friend in front of you. But yea, it has a great heritage. There're many great breweries there–most of which are family-owned and five or six generations old. And just brewing very simply, too: a bitter and a mild usually. That's pretty much what they did, and they kind of mastered that over 150 or so years. So I began to become very obsessed with these guys, and we'd get specific types of beer because we knew it came from that brewer and this was their pub. There was a real kind of connection–between the brewery, the pub, and then the drinker.
So, I started become obsessed with beer.
And probably starting to wonder what else might exist outside these two styles...
LP: Well yea, that was it really. But it was a dream of mine to have a brewery as a young man, as a 20-year old. And eventually, at the age of 30, I started to homebrew. And then I came up with the concept of starting a barbeque joint and a brewery within that, with my 6-barrel kit: Duke's Brew and Que. I just loved the dynamic between those two things–BBQ and beer–and the environment that we could serve that in. And I found the right time, in my life, to just go for it.
Opening a brewery wasn't enough of a challenge for you, you figured you had to coincide it with a BBQ restaurant for good measure?
LP: Hah, well I just loved the concept of having them together. It revolved back to that idea of "the pub." That environment where everybody comes together–and laughs, and cries, and jokes, and farts–ya know, and gets divorced, or gets married... The pub is everything to everybody. And I just wanted this to be that. It's a defining thing really. If you can bring people into your house, show them a good time, allow them to be really stimulated...then hopefully they go away with an amazing experience. I felt that that experience would be great for us, as a brewery.
So, from the BBQ joint, you moved to Hackney Wick in East London next, correct?
LP: Yep, we took the same kit over there, the 6-barrel setup.
And, Jenn, when did you come on board to Beavertown?
Jenn Merrick: I joined just when they were leaving Hackney Wick to start this place, here in Tottenham.
LP: It was kind of a stripped back team back then. We were in Duke's for a year, fermenting downstairs in the basement and serving upstairs. Then we were starting to hand-bottle things, and hand-label things to just get it out into the local environment in East London. Then moved to Hackney Wick. That allowed us to go from about two brews a week to about eight, and spread the beer a little bit further. Then we went into kegs, which was a really good move for our beer. Even within just a month of being in the new space, and having this extra capacity, I was like, "Oh we've gotta take our beer further into the field. And we've got to invest in 'better'." So, straight away I started to look for a new space. And that's when Jenn came along.
So, Jenn you were hired on to grow into this larger space?
JM: Yes, and it ended up working really well, with timing. And we're a good fit, aren't we, Logan? It's a happy marriage.
LP: Yea, yea! We share the same birthday.
LP: Yea, Capricorns, haha.
That wasn't on the resume.
JM: No, hah.
LP: But it definitely got her the job!
You just knew–you felt it...
LP: That's key you know. I always talk about that, about how the alignment of things work, and how the world conspires to help you. And there's been a lot of that on our journey at Beavertown so far. I don't know whether it's luck or whether it's fate or what, but I'm definitely not turning it down!
Yes, well it definitely seems to be working out well for you guys.
I have to mention, the first beer I ever brought back from London to Chicago was Gamma Ray [APA].
LP: Oh, right ok. Was it when it was in a bottle back then, or a can?
It was a bottle, so things have come a long way already.
And aside from the growth you've already mentioned that got you into this current space, you're still looking to expand. What will that look like?
JM: We are, yes. It definitely depends on what we'll be able to find. And property in London is the biggest piece of the puzzle, really. I'm not afraid of any of the other elements of this project, apart from finding the right site.
LP: Finding the right site is gonna be killer, isn't it–I think to the project, to the concept, and to the vision of what we can achieve.
And how are you going about looking for yet another, larger, space?
LP: I think ideally what we'd like would be to have something within touching distance of the city, so we're still plugged into the people and the environment in which we've grown up in. But, we definitely want to keep the connection to the people. And that means we've got to be close, so we've got to be flexible. Or, we could go out of town and buy a big 90,000 square foot place that's all under one roof. But then you run into all sorts of planning and licensing issues, to actually make it accessible. Thankfully, though, Jenn's been looking into a lot of this.
JM: Yea, I'm doing my best to make the right connections around town. The Greater London Authority does have some ex-industrial property that they're looking to regenerate. It would be ideal for us, because we could start out and people would come to us for the beer. But then, eventually a whole community could crop up around us. And then it would be this kind of neighborhood bar, and that would be great. All along the Thames River out east, where it used to be industrial–the City Airport end of town–is all being regenerated now. So, that's what I'm crossing my fingers for, is maybe a little piece of that...
That idea of the 'craftsmen community' definitely seems to be what's happened in other parts of London, like Bermondsey.
JM: Yea! Where craft brewers go, lots of other artisanal businesses seem to go too. And I think that's what the local authority is hoping for with us.
I get jealous of that sometimes, seeing how it's all nestled together in London. In Chicago, a lot of these things are spread out–most breweries at least.
JM: Yea, we visited just last year actually.
LP: Revolution, yea!
JM: From site to site, we took a lot of taxis, yea.
LP: And the thing, though, was we did the complete opposite, compared to a lot of these guys here in London. Like where they've formed this Bermondsey Beer Mile, we went to the opposite end of London, to here.
Yea, so what is this area like, Tottenham? I only know the name from the soccer team.
LP: Tottenham Hale is really on the up. As you can see just outside there, they're all brand new flats. There's a massive, massive amount of money being pumped into this area. We've got some great other producers, not only on our site, but locally: there's an amazing cheesemonger, some great coffee guys...
JM: A Sausage man.
Gotta have a sausage man.
LP: Hah, yea–so we've sort've started to create our own "thing" as well which is really nice.
And you've got a massive stadium in the works.
LP: And a massive stadium... Ya know, Tottenham's always seemed to get the rough end of the deal, I think, over the years. So goes it in London, I guess–the further out you go. It's all molding into one now. There're so many people who want to live in London that it's just gonna get bigger and bigger.
I'd heard that there's an effort with the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to create a tailgate-like atmosphere, to attract fans with local vendors before a game. Know anything of this?
JM: Yea yea, we'd been approached actually. We'd been asked by some of the companies who are bidding to provide food and beverage, to see if they could get our beer on at the bars. They want to propose it alongside some local food from the area, too.
LP: Yea, to almost create this sort of pop-up food hall, and then have this craft beer bar. And also to have craft beer on each of the main bars. So, maybe to begin it's something like 20% of the total beer.
Is that a new concept in London, having craft beer on at the stadiums?
LP: Yea definitely, nobody else is doing that. Except maybe for some of the smaller non-league clubs around here.
You'll have to get your logo on their kit.
LP: Right? I support the Wolverhampton Wanderers, which are from the Black Country. So I definitely, at some point, will have to make some in-roads there. That'd be great.
So, these cans. A very specific aesthetic is happening here, with the illustrations. It's distinctly, "Beavertown." And your artist, Nick Dwyer, I read worked back at Duke's BBQ. Did you know that he was an illustrator?
LP: No, it was another one of those things. It was complete fate. He was the best friend of the first guy who was my Assistant Brewer. So James, this brewer, said to Nick, "Yea, you should come on down to Duke's, I'm going to be brewing there. It's got a restaurant, and you can get a waiter's job." At the time Nick had just finished studying at Central Saint Martins, studying illustration I guess. And yea, he took the job, and he would just bring his notebook, sketching away while I'd be brewing in the kitchen.
[I later would learn from Nick Dwyer that he would intentionally leave his sketchbook open during shifts, for Logan to hopefully see...]
And I took notice. It really resonated with me, I loved his work. We have a similar aesthetic. We're both big fans of Aubrey Beardsley, for example. I like the kind of Day of the Dead stuff, the skeletons. I like psychedelia. And that's pretty much his forte. You can see a lot of that Beardsley influence coming out in our Tempus beer line. That fine line, that detail, the suggestiveness.
So, 8 Ball Rye IPA has a pretty suggestive design... What's the story there?
LP: What, this? [reaching for the can] No, it's psychedelic! You know some of these guys on here were naked to begin with.
LP: Yea, we had to cover 'em up. But yea, it's all sort of like this Nevada-desert-Burning-Man-festival stuff. There's this big 8-ball in the sky, blowing up our Beavertown pyramid. There's purple whales floating in the sky. There's all sorts of shit going on, it's really far out.
So what's the creative brief like you give Nick? Does he know the beer recipe, or is it kinda just, "This is the name of the beer, run with it"?
LP: Sometimes, we'll discuss. But for, like, 8 Ball, I just said, "Go mad, go psychedelic like crazy. You know it's gotta be in the desert somewhere, just let it rip." And other times, for like Power of the Voodoo, it was all based around Labyrinth. You know, the David Bowie movie. There's a song in it, 'Magic Dance,' and part of lyrics are something like, "The babe with the power. What power? Power of the voodoo. Who do? You do?" So it's like this whole thing, and I was just thinking, "Yea, that's it!" So then Nick took all the characters out and made them into skeletons and whatnot. It's just meant to be all, again, psychedelic.
So with Nick, it was all very much fortuitous. I always wanted our beers to be expressed visually, and each to have their own personality.
Well you've definitely achieved that.
LP: Originally we were working with several different local artists. Then Nick came on board, and I'm thinking, "Actually, why don't you take a crack at it all."
You're like, "Here's a list!"
LP: Haha, yea–knock yourself out! I dunno how he does it, to be fair. We brew a lot of beers. There's a lot of new beers, a lot of collaborative beers, a lot of one-offs... And he always knocks it out of the park. And it's always resoundingly "Beavertown."
The decision to go into cans–Beavertown was a little ahead of the curve, at least in the UK right? Was there a stigma attached to cans here?
JM: Yea, for sure. I mean, one thing in the UK is that beer had typically often been in 500s (500mL), and 330s had always been a soft drink can. So we had the dual battle to fight, of, "Yea, it's comic-booky in imagery. And it's in a soft drink can." So, some folks called the Portman Group, who look after trading standards of alcohol producers, and not marketing to children, etcetera.
Gosh, I wouldn't have even considered that.
JM: Yea, I was aware. I was aware that it was probably a sensitive issue. So, Nick and I had a conversation before we transitioned to this larger scale brewery. Before that, we'd been pretty under the radar–maybe just a few bottles around East London. We were small. Like, if you look at the original Gamma Ray bottle, the character had a more friendly, 50's comic book look. But we went for the darker, more adult content with the skulls on the can. Just to kind of keep the cops away, really.
LP: Haha, didn't work.
JM: You still had to go and stand in front of the Portman Group board, didn't you Logan?
So, were you the first then, to can craft beer in London?
JM: Yea, we all had the same machine, so we would troubleshoot with each other! We all had that same machine that had rubber bands for tension. You had to have just the right grade of rubber band to get the tension right on the lid dispenser...
Yea, those types of things you think about when you get a canning machine, right?
JM: Haha, well on the one hand it was good, because it made you have to actually deal with things mechanically, with your hands. You could sort of strong-arm it to make it work for you.
Well, cans are almost becoming the norm in the US, for craft now.
LP: The original move into cans was made after I started to keg the beer, initially. And I noticed there was a massive difference between bottle conditioning, and putting it into a keg. And the can, basically, you can call a small keg. And there was a huge huge difference in the beer's stability and freshness, a month, two months down the line. And that was it, I just put two and two together.
And, I'd also drank some amazing beer in the States. Surly, you know Surly. Their Furious IPA. I had that in cans over there, and I was like, "Fuck, this is amazing." Not only is it a great beer, but it was so fresh. And I was just, "That's it. We gotta do it."
Beavertown obviously exhibits an American influence, with the style selection. Other than Surly as you mentioned, do you remember another brewery that influenced your brewing?
LP: Dogfish Head. Dogfish was a massive influence from the beginning–his experimentation, and also the way he sculpted his whole business, his mindset, and just kinda the way he expressed himself. I actually got to go there and meet the people. And the culture was really an eye-opener for me. I think it just reaffirmed everything that Sam [Calagione] is about. He's an absolute winner of a bloke. He was definitely a big inspiration, being a UK brewer, looking over.
When you knew you wanted to open a brewery, was it always with the intention of brewing American styles?
LP: Yea, the first beers I ever brewed at the restaurant were to compliment the food–it was a rye IPA and a smoked porter. I wanted them to be beers that paired well with the pork and the beef tips. So they were, I suppose, inspired by beers pouring over from the US, but also had European roots. But it's kinda like all one big melting pot now, isn't it?
The irony here, is that the English created the IPA. Then it went over to America and they funked it up. And now we've brought it back and we're funking it our in own way.
JM: What goes around comes around. Being in Europe and seeing it from this perspective, it all feels like one big global brewing scene. But, a lot of American brewers that we speak do sort of don't know that this is happening over here now, in London. But, why would you, ya know?–you've got 4,700 and some breweries over there.
My buddy from London is who sort of pointed me in the right direction toward which breweries are in London. But he's always said that his interest really began after he visited Chicago a few years back, and thought, "Holy crap."
LP: And he's an English dude, yea?
Yea, and when I tell him that in some places in the US, it's trendy now to do cask ales, he can't believe it.
LP: I love it when I go to the States now, I do. I do a lot of festivals now, and they're all like, [doing his best American impression] "Oh, 'Beaverton,' from Oregon?" I'm like, no. From London. Beaver-TOWN. "What!? This is English beer??"
Yea, we basically invented it, haha.
For the record, I have to say, your American accent attempt is the same as every Londoner's that I've heard.
LP: Haha! Well I watched a lot of Cheech and Chong growing up.
But yea, I think to your point–about the trends here, it's about accessibility now. For example, all of the lovely hops you guys grow in the Northwest, we're starting to be able to tap into that now. Whereas before, when I started, it was really hard to get decent Citra, Amarillo or even any amount of them, let alone decent quality. Now, though, we've got relationships. We were out at Yakima last week. It's key for us, to be able to compete on that intensity level of freshness and quality.
JM: Also, we're of a size now that we can bring a container back on our own. And have built our own direct relationships with farmers.
So, Logan, with your background in music and being in bands [Sons of Albion, Black Country Bandits]–what's one thing you miss about that industry? And what's something you don't miss?
LP: The parallels are really similar, actually. They're very similar, as far as a form of expression and having that kind of platform to be able to do that. Whether it's a vessel like beer, or whether it's with a song. But–I do miss singing. And I don't miss singing, probably moreso, that's why I'm not in the industry anymore. I love my life more now. Even though I probably spend more time away from my family now, with the brewery. But, I'm on a path, where I really feel like I'm a part of this great movement, and we're making a difference.
This is your new band, here.
LP: I do, I have a new band now, with new band members.
Jenn, what do you play?
JM: Haha, something that's made out of stainless steel, I think.
[At this time, Jenn gets called into a meeting to discuss a potential new brewery space.]
LP: But yea, I do miss a lot about it, but overall I'd say that music is a really really tough industry to be in. I don't miss being on the road and being away. I was really conscious of my voice, almost to an extreme where I wouldn't even drink. And I love to drink! I love beer.
Was it a relief for you, then, to find such an interest in something other than music–with beer? I also read that you used to play professional soccer?
LP: Yea yea, I played semi-professional, in the League of Wales, which was amazing. Prior to that, I was always playing for different clubs as a youngster. But sports have always been my main thing, and I would always play music on the side with my best mates. We had a 4-track tape recorder and thought we were The White Stripes.
My favorite band. They credit Led Zeppelin as one of their biggest influences, of course.
LP: Yea definitely, and you can hear it. So after toying around with music then, I went away to school in Cardiff, Wales. Then my best mate and I took a year off and traveled around the world. We found ourselves at one point busking on the streets of New Zealand. We thought, "Fuck it, let's do this. We're gonna rule the world." We were 21 at the time.
But it gave me confidence to go after that, and to sing out loud even. So we got home and started to build this this band, and this studio in a barn in the middle of nowhere. We had some amazing times.
And you mentioned around this time you already knew you wanted to have a brewery.
LP: Yea, it was at that exact same point. I knew the space I wanted to open it in, it was in Wales in the middle of nowhere. But I knew that'd be quite hard at the time. But now I know, nowadays you can put beer on a palette and it can go anywhere in the world.
Beavertown is in how many countries now?
LP: We're in about 20, but we concentrate on maybe 4 because we still don't have a lot of beer. Our main market is London, and I want to keep the beer as fresh as possible.
If you're drinking a beer with your dad, what are you guys drinking?
LP: Gamma Ray is his favorite one of ours. He's always keen on that. I'm gonna see him in a bit, so I'm gonna take him a couple cases. He's taken to hops now, which is good. He very much appreciates them now, to the point that he takes a can to bed. That's always a good thing.
A little night cap, I can appreciate that.
What is something that people don't know about you, that if they found out, they'd be surprised?
LP: That I'm really really competitive. Maybe people think I'm just laid back, but I want us to be the best. The team here knows that, because we talk about it a lot. But externally, I think I come across as relaxed and chilled. But underneath it all, I'm extremely driven.
I've always wanted to win.
Words & Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A big thanks to Logan & Jenn for stepping away from a busy day to discuss beer among other topics. Watch for them as they continue to expand across London, and the globe. It likely won't be long before you get to try a Beavertown beer, if you haven't already.