Sure we went to London to drink beer, but we also went to talk to the people that make the beers we love an appreciate so much. Meet Gregg Irwin, Director at and half of Weird Beard Brew Co. – the other half being Bryan Spooner. We had a quick chat at the London Craft Beer Festival from beer geek to beer geek. And we’re happy to share our conversation with you below.
Let me ask you our traditional first question: Which of your beers would you have served beer hunter Michael Jackson?
That’s a tough call. I know which beer I would rather drink myself, but which would I have served Michael Jackson? Well, I would want him to try one of our really impressive ones, so maybe our Barrel Aged Double Perle, aged in Macallan barrel. I think it’s currently our highest rated beer.
There were only 200 litres of it ever. Macallan is such a gentle whiskey. And the barrel added such a nice note of oakiness and whiskey. I really think it’s the best barrel aged beer we’ve done.
Apparently that’s not the beer you would like to drink the most though. What would that be?
My beer heritage is in Lagers and Pilsners. So I really like our Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja, which is a Citra Pilsner. If I was asked which of our beers to drink, I would ask for a pint of that one.
So what happened between you being a Lager drinker and now being one half of a craft brewery?
I went to America.
Where so many of us had the same epiphany.
Well, when I say America, I actually really mean Canada. We were in Toronto, Canada in a pitting rain storm. So we ran into the nearest bar. And it turned out to be a forty tap craft beer bar, which I didn’t know existed. And they were offering flights of Dogfish Head beers. I had one and upon tasting the beers I was like “wow, this is beer? What do they do with it?”
This must have been five, six years ago. And after coming back to the UK I tried to find beers like that. Back then there was nothing in London, Kernel hadn’t started. There was only eight or nine breweries in all of London. So I started homebrewing.
I was using the online resources by the American Homebrewer Association. I started listening to Jamil Zainashef’s podcast on the Brewing Network. All the people on there are people I really look up to in a homebrewing kind of sense.
I was working as a photographer at the time and I was mainly doing graduation photography. That is mainly happening during the summer. Hence I had ten months in a year when I was doing nothing. So I had a different project each year and homebrewing was the project of one year.
Eventually I realized that I can make some pretty good beers at home. And as the homebrewing went well, moving the homebrewing to commercial brewing was the project of the next year.
When was that?
We started brewing in February 2013. We started with planning the brewery around November 2011. It was quite a long birth.
Who is we?
Me and Bryan. Bryan is my business partner and he’s the face of Weird Beard. He has the weird beard.
I was just about to say, your beard is not that weird.
Yes, at all meet the brewers, I introduce myself as: “Hello, I’m Gregg of Weird Beard and I’ve got the sensible beard.”
But you will never, ever be able to shave yourself clean again.
I keep joking about the fact that my beard is actually insured for a million dollars. But of course, not really.
Unlike the Samantha Fox boobs, which tells you how old I am.
Exactly. I remember that [laughs].
Weird Beard: Why?
People used to take the piss with Bryan, calling him Weardy Beardy and things. He just kind of turned that around and threw it back into people’s face.
What are the responsibilities between you and Bryan?
It started out that we both did everything. But as we’ve gotten bigger and started expanding, Bryan’s in charge of the brew house and I’m in charge of the business side, events and marketing. I’m kind of the voice of the brewery, I guess, and Bryan’s the face of the brewery. But he’s actually the guy that makes all the beer and I’m the guy that sells all the beer.
And he seems to be quite good at making the beers as you’ve had to expand.
Yeah. We are actually a very good team. We’ve got lots of guys who are homebrewers and who work for us. So there’s a lot of creative ideas coming through.
We have got a couple of changing hop beers. Every now and again we are giving one to our brewing assistants and say: “this is your Little Things That Kill.” Plus I still get very much involved in the recipe development, myself. I have a bit of a chemistry background, so things like water treatment are all kind of second nature to me.
Which I guess becomes more important when you have a brewery than when you are a homebrewer?
I think it is very important for anybody brewing beer.
So even for a homebrewer?
Water treatment is quite important, yeah. If you want to get your beer tasting right, then yeah.
But that’s some next level homebrewing.
Yes it is, but you can go as far as you want with homebrewing. There’s some homebrewers in the UK who are brewing better beers than most commercial brewers. And they are people who pay attention to water treatment, fermentation temperature, etc.
I’m not disputing that at all, but I think it’s more likely for a homebrewer to just hope that the water works out.
And if you’re in London and you’re brewing a dark beer, you’re probably going to be alright. But if you’re in London and you want to brew a light beer, you need to do something to the water for that beer to work. You taste a lot of so-so homebrews in London, brewed with London water, who don’t treat the water.
Which area of London is the brewery located?
The brewery is in West London. It’s in an area called Hanwell, but nobody will understand where that is unless they know Marshall amplifiers, because it’s also the home of Marshall amps. But if you’re flying to Heathrow, Boston Manor is the tube station. So about five stops from Heathrow. And we’re about a 20 minute walk from the tube.
Can people visit the brewery?
We have an open day every two months on a Sunday. Because we are so far from public transport, and not in a recognized beer area, we think it’d be pushing it a little bit to be open every week. On those Sunday we get about 100 people down to the brewery.
What are you able to do now that you have expanded?
I’m not convinced we are doing anything different. We are just doing more of it.
When you expand, you have your core beers. And your core beers are basically your bread and butter.
Which are your core beers?
The big one is Mariana Trench. But we also got Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja or other versions of Spreadsheet Ninja and Little Things That Kill and Five O’Clock Shadow.
So these are our bread and butter. And we have to brew them and keep them in stock. And that becomes a hard thing to do. Like Mariana Trench we are brewing four times a month, so once a week. We are not as bad as some breweries, where nine out of ten brews is their core beer. But we are brewing Mariana Trench a lot.
But there’s also a million types of beer styles and a million types of beers that we also want to brew. Every time there’s a gap in the brew schedule, we’re like “what are we going to brew now?” We brew a collaboration here or a new beer here. Or something strange that we’re sticking in a barrel for a bit. This experimentation excites me as I’m still kind of a homebrewer at heart. And if it’d ever gotten to the point where we couldn’t do special one off beers and different beers, then you might as well pay someone else to brew your beer for you. You kind of lose the fun. You’re basically just talking about a business and a brand.
However, I guess it’s a fact for many brewers that the bigger they get the less they are actually at the boiling kettle.
That’s not necessarily the issue. As long as we can play around with the recipes and brew some really interesting stuff, and work with some interesting people, then we’re happy.
What other things qualify you as a beer geek?
I think interest. The only thing that qualifies someone to be a beer geek is that they are interested in beer. And they are prepared to search for beers.
But you’re not doing RateBeer or Untappd or anything like that?
No. I’ve done a couple of RateBeer reviews. I’ve got like six rates. I haven’t even gotten enough rates yet, to make my rates worthwhile.
But what I particularly like is going somewhere new, go to a new brewery. But there’s no point to then go online and rate the beers, because I’ve only gotten so few rates that mine don’t really matter.
But I will go out of my way and pick holidays to somewhere where there’s going to be some good beer bars.
Back when I was a wine geek, I would pick out vineyards and pick up wines. So when I’m going to a Festival in Tuscany, I’m driving down through France. I tried to convince my wife do drive through Germany though.
I think the first time I became aware of the brand was last year at CBC where somebody was wearing a t-shirt?
Bryan was there and he was probably wearing a t-shirt.
So not just you, he’s also a beer geek?
Yes, we are both beer geeks. I mean, I am actually in a sad position where with so many events that we are doing ourselves, I don’t that often get to go to other events and kind of just chill out incognito. Usually we’re kind of involved with the festivals I’m at. It’s absolute pleasure whenever I just get to go to a festival and just drink. Not even wearing a Weird Beard t-shirt, but just go.
But at festival you’re participating, you do have time to try the beers?
Well, when the bar is taken care of then I have time to do that. But I’ve been quite civilized today and I’ve only been around a couple of other breweries, because I’m working tonight. Tomorrow I’ll go around and taste a few more breweries. You gotta be kind of careful so that you’re sober enough to pour beers at the bar.
Then again, there’s a lot of low ABV beers at this festival.
We’re also make a point of having Little Things That Kill on at every festival we pour, just so the brewers have something to drink. You can drink a 3.9% beer and not get too smashed.
Another question we are asking everybody, and this question is probably fitting for a beer geek: Five beers you’d recommend for people to drink before they die?
Oh, you could have given me some prep time for this, couldn’t you? [laughs]
I have to say one Weird Beard beer, because it would be rude not to.
It would be weird, I’d say.
Yes. I’d recommend you get hold of one of our barrel aged Sadako. We barrel aged them in different barrels, but they are all really good and interesting. We hold on to them for about six to eight months before we release them.
The London beer that I’ve drank the most that’s not a Weird Beard is probably Kernel Pale Ale or IPA. So that’s one that I have to put on the list.
The beer that got me into brewing was Dogfish Head, so if you get ‘em fresh, 60 minute or 90 minute IPA are both outstanding.
Then you’re probably ready for something Belgian. I am a massive fan of Cantillon’s Lou Pepe Kriek. I just love that kind of almondy thing you get from the pits of the cherries. I just love that flavour.
Do you also do wild fermented beers?
Don’t really. We’ve got a few little barrels with which we’re doing, let’s say, a mixed fermentation. So we ferment it normally and then put them in a barrel and then interesting things happen. But that’s very much my little side project. We still have no idea how we are going to package these things, so not to contaminate our whole equipment.
Now to get back to your 5 beers question: It will have to be a Thornbridge lager. They did a lager a little while ago called Italia. It was a collaboration with Birrificio Italiano. Thornbride, I think, do the best lager brewing in the UK. And Italia was the best of the one’s they’ve done.
I was so gutted when they stopped doing that beer. It was my go to beer. As said, I’ve been kind of a lager drinker.
So if you want a really, really good lager, brewed by a British brewery, try something from Thornbridge. And if they ever do the Italia again, it’s the one to go for.