Interview with Tom Hutchings of Brew By Numbers

London truly is buzzing when it comes to beer. Just a few years ago you were more likely to find Budweiser in a traditional pub, then a good craft beer from a keg. But things have changed and in the wake of The Kernel and Camden Town came many more breweries, like Partizan, Beavertown or Brew By Numbers. Founded by Dave Seymour & Tom Hutchings they brew unpretentious and delicious beer just as they are unpretentious people. Go visit them in the Bermondsey beer mile every Saturday and have a chat. Here the chat we had with Tom at the LCBF.

We’ve met about a year ago, had a long and interesting chat in the brewery, but unfortunately the recording file was corrupted and the interview was lost. So first of all, thank you for still talking to us. But second, this gives me an easy question: What has happened with BBNo since we last met?

We’re taking on a new railway arch, which is about 50% bigger than the first one. We’re using it as a warehouse but also do barrel aging there.
In the UK there’s beer duty relief where you have to pay 50% less tax if you’re producing bellow 5000HL per year; With the expansion we hope to get up to around that level. We’re having much higher expenses now, and in order for that to work and the business to get to a level where we sell enough beer, we need the business to run smoothly.
Since we last spoke, we’ve made some money but there was always something else we needed to buy. Whatever goes into the account, goes out again. But I suppose that’s just part of growth.
We’ve added some staff and there are ten of us now. I’ve not ben an employer before, so it’s nice to do that and treat people how I wish to have been treated.

Who are the people and what do they do?

We’ve got three new people in the sales team. We’ve got three new brewers, starting at the very basic level to a guy that’s joining us in September who has completed the brewing degree course in Edinburgh. We are trying to employ people with skills in different areas. Chris used to be a beer blogger. It’s really good to have him on board, as his background is in an area where neither Dave nor I know very much about.
We also want to do more events, like the one we did with Tim Anderson who won MasterChef a few years ago. This will allow us to bring in different people to do events with or collaborations with.

The booklet that’s handed out here at the London Craft Beer Festival mentions that you like to put your beer in a culinary context. Can you elaborate a little on that?

We like to work with other artisan produces outside of the beer world. We’d love to do more collabs with brewers, but it’s also great to have somebody come from a completely different place and oftentimes they have a completely different perspective to you. I find that immensely interesting. It can be a lot of fun to make a beer and cheese pairing event with someone that produces cheese. We’re learning a lot in the process, so things like that are really good for us.

Last time you also mentioned this competition for esteemed chef Michel Rue where you came in second. So pairing beer with food is important to you.

Yes, things like that are great, as it pushes beer into a new realm. And Luksus at Tørst in New York is the first Michelin star restaurant that only serves beer. It’s awesome to see beer pushed into another realm, where it is paired with world class food.
Further it is also beneficial to be with people that do very good things for brand association. Therefore we’re also very interested in bottle sales to restaurants. It is an opening into a whole different market. Further, you’re more likely to remember the beer than when you’re having it in a pub on a Saturday night where you’re likely to also drink many other beers.

Our meeting also led to you eventually talking to Jonathan from Beers-N-More in Zurich and thus we get some of your beers now. The other day I had your Export Stout and got a toast from BBNo on Untappd. You do that systematically?

Untappd is quite useful, as you can go on it and see who’s drinking your beer. Because sometimes beyond our distributor we don’t know where our beer is going. You spend a lot of times to make sure that your beer is good. Thus it is really important to us that it’s available in good place, where it’s presented well. That it’s not served out of date, because sometimes we see some things online that are a bit old. Particularly hoppy beers only have a few months shelf life. Thus Untappd is a useful tool to keep track and interact with customers.
A few weeks after the shipment arrived in Switzerland we had a guy come to the brewery on Saturday and say “oh, I had your beer in Zurich”. That’s kind of fun.

So where does your beer go nowadays?

Lots of different places. We have some in Japan, there’s a shipment that’s just about to arrive in Singapore. We are still sending bits to Scandinavia intermittently. Furthermore Spain and hopefully France soon. In Ireland we do quite a lot.
As said, we are in the midst of expansion. We are just trying to make connections, try to meet nice people, nice distributors, build a relationship. So that as we grow, they hopefully can take more of our beer.

Many breweries seem to be hesitant to export while you seem to embrace it.

For us it is really important that our beer goes to places where people appreciate it and to places where people specifically enjoy trying new and interesting beers. So we try to start at the top and have our beers in the best places first and then work down. So in places like Barcelona we try to get into our favourite bars there, rather than send it to just anybody in the UK.
When we were starting, our prices were a little higher because of our small scale production. And some places in the UK are quite price sensitive. That can affect your sales, for example in the north, where local breweries don’t have the same overhead as we have in London. Whereas other places like Scandinavia are not so bothered about prices as its comparatively cheap for them.
Also from a business point of view, normally with exports you get paid up front. When you’re a small business that’s growing that can be very useful. You can have a continuous stream of money coming in.

In your e-mail signature it says “Co-Founder and Brewer”. You mentioned having hired brewers, so how much do you still brew?

Unfortunately not so much at the moment; I think I last brewed a couple of months ago. At the moment my main project is getting procedures in place for our sales and accounts. Both Dave and I are new to business and we’re still learning a lot. So we are working on making things run smoother, less chaotic. I hope to get to the point where I can step back into the brewhouse. Evin from The Kernel does one brew a fortnight. I hope I can do something like that.
We’re also getting our pilot kit up and running soon, thus we can do more tests and more experimenting. It’ll be like in the basement days. And brewing 100 litres it wouldn’t matter much if it’s a great success or a complete failure, because it wasn’t a big loss. With 2,000 litres, which is what we brew per batch, there’s more risk involved.
So I hope we’re going to get some interesting beers out of that. Like we’re looking forward to use purees, juices and things. We’ve had some success with Belgian beers and aging in French oak barrels. Yeah, there are a lot of fun things to play around with.

How far along is your barrel program?

We’re just starting and it still is in its infant stages. Once the new brewer joins us in September we can expand that program. We’re going to get some foeders as well, two big barrels of four thousand litres. From those we can start blending old with fresh beer, creating an evolving blend, which is kind of exciting.

Other things the expansion will allow you to do?

The main thing is to get business to a solid foundation, to have everybody be happy with their roles and responsibilities they have. Right now it can be at times a bit chaotic and we’re relying on different people doing different things. Syncing that can be rather difficult.
Also having some of our beers in stock all of the time, not moving to a core range, but having more Saisons available for people.

So Saisons are your most popular beers?

Yes, them and the Session IPAs are our biggest sellers. Saisons are what we are kind of most renowned for. And I really want to push that to show how different they can be. There’s still so much scope to play around with flavours. Saisons work well with different hops, also new world hops, fruits, peals, all sorts of different things.

I guess this also is reflected in your numbering system, as style number 01 are the Saisons. I saw an 11|11 today.

Yes, that is our eleventh version of our Session IPA. Some of the recipes stick, as interestingly some work better than others. Like some hop combinations just work perfectly.

So you already gave up on some of your numbers?

Some we tried to brew more than once but they haven’t quite worked out, for various reasons. There’s a level of trial and error. Like you can take two hops that are quite different and think that they could work really well together but they may combine to create an undesirable woody flavour.
What’ll most likely happen that we’ll end up with a core range or a range of numbers that are really good and that we’ll rebrew. But that’s fun. Sometimes it’s just down to fortune that certain things work really well together. And it’s great to just play around with things. Plus if we cannot get certain hops, we can still brew. Like this year we couldn’t get hold of very much Nelson Sauvin which is one of our favourites. It’s getting really rare. But there’s a lot of new really good hops coming through, also European ones, like Hallertau Blanc.

One question we ask everybody: Which of your beers would you have served beer hunter Michael Jackson?

The beer I’ve been most pleased with so far was our first Triple 14|01 aged in Burgundy white wine barrels, released as 12|05. That had a lovely balance, as it aged anyway.
I don’t think all the beer and wine combinations do much more than give some barrel flavour to the beers. But in general that combination is something that I want to continue exploring. Interestingly it hasn’t been done too much, because the Belgians are very careful with doing their beers a certain way. They barrel age a lot of their lambics, but it’s not really been done to triples, singles or dubbles or Saisons even. Therefore I feel this is a field for exploring.

I find the beer style Triple rather under-explored. Often they are quite boring while at times incredibly exciting. Like yesterday we had a very estery and thus banana-y triple.

Triple can be quite hard to get right. The one we make takes six weeks of cold conditioning. That’s really important to soften the beer. Lagering it in a fermenter really allows you to balance out the harsh alcohol and esters reminiscent of pear drops.
But it is a very varied style I’d love to play around with, like add fruits and use different hops. It has a lot of potential.

So that was style number 14. How high do the numbers go, meaning how many different styles have you brewed so far?

I think we’re up to 17 now! But there are some things like a White IPA that’s number 25. Some numbers we jumped, just to make it even more confusing. But hopefully we’ll fill in the gaps eventually. But when we started we thought about certain themes, like IPA is 5, Black IPA is 15 so White IPA is 25.

You chose the number system because you couldn’t be bothered to come up with beer names?

Yes, we save a lot of time not having to come up with beer puns! We have brewed around 90 different beers so far. The numbers just mean that you can be a bit more creative. You don’t have to redesign the labels, come up with a new name or branding for it. It means that we are freer to play around and customers can easily identify style numbers that they tried before and really liked or a number they haven’t had yet.

You mentioned it in passing before, are you aiming to have a core range?

It would make life a lot easier (laughs). But what’s the reasoning for doing this? We could make one or two different Saisons and just do that. But I don’t think any brewer would be very happy doing it and they would get bored quite quickly. And as said, if you are using a certain ingredient that you cannot get hold of, your beer would need to change and people might not like that. So I’d rather have the freedom to play around with things. Also for learning purposes: Like we take a new hop that hasn’t been used so much yet and brew a single hop beer. That’ll give us an idea of the hop and also what we could do with it.

As much as I remember you started out with financing from BrewDog. Is this support still continuing?

Yes, they help us a bit, like getting a hold of certain hops. Also some things on the business side they have been very helpful with. They hold a minority share in our business. The rest is between us and our families. So they don’t have no control in our business. That’s important for the both of us, otherwise it wouldn’t work really well.

Finally, another question we ask everybody: 5 beers you’d recommend people to drink at some point before they die.

It has got to be something from Cantillon – there are so many good ones, maybe Lou Pepe or Vinerone.
Another one would be the Pliny [The Elder]. Ancorage White out, Susan from Hill Farmstead. 3 Fontain Kreek and Heady Topper from The Alchemist

So you’ve had them?

Yeah, people bring it over every now and again and we swap them. And things like Pliny are great to get them fresh.
Also something from Hill Farmstead is always good.
And the Saison from BFM was really amazing.
There are also some great ones from Jolly Pumpkin and Jester King. They both do lots of really interesting beers. It is also interesting that they have large breweries but produce probably about the same amount as we do, 1,000 hectolitres, and sell about 90 percent on site.
Also the UK does some great things, like I’ve had a really good Gose from Howling Hops.

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