Interview with Stuart Ross of Magic Rock Brewing

It was two years ago at CBC, where after tasting the Pedro Ximenez Barrel aged Bearded Lady we went to the Magic Rock stand and said “dude, we need to talk to you.” And now, finally, we have talked to Stuart Ross, bearded gentleman of Magic Rock.

Let’s start with our traditional opening question: Which of your beers would you have served to the original beerhunter, Michael Jackson?

I would have loved to get him to try our IPA’s.

A specific one?

All the Cannonballs. Mainly because I am very proud of our IPA’s and I think they stand out very well in our core range.

Your core range is very balanced, featuring styles ranging from Gose to Pale Ale to Stout. Is this due to external necessity (people want variety) or internal necessity (I need to brew different things, or I’ll go bonkers)?

Our range of beers started out as beers that we like to drink: Pale Ales, IPAs, Stouts below 6% and also bourbon aged Imperial Stouts and Amber Ales. We then added other interesting style such as the Gose, which we’ve been making for nearly four years, kettle style Berliner Weisse, Wit, Black IPA.
We like to keep trying new styles and techniques because it helps in keeping the brewery interesting for us and for the customers. But we don’t make a lot of new beers, usually one or two different seasonals per month, which are quite often old favorites that are popular and customers ask for regularly.

What is the next beer style you want to tackle?

Fruit fermented sours is something we are playing with right now.

Sours as in Berliner or mixed fermentation?

We are using Berliner style kettle soured wort as the base for these at the moment.

Do you think you’re particularly strong in one particular style?

I think all of our hoppy beers stand out as being very clean, balanced and easy to drink. Definitely the IPAs stand out to me though.

What would you advice homebrewers – or basically any brewer – to pay special attention to if they want to brew a good IPA?

Clean fermentation is key for us. We want the hops to shine through, therefore be careful with the hops, stay away from the earthy woody ones and buy good quality fresh, and well packed – vacuum packed – hops.

Are you working mainly with US hops or also British hops?

We are mainly using US hops, but we do use hops from all over the world depending on the style.

Do you have a favorite, or one that you’re happy others ignore because this keeps the price in check?

Price is never considered.

How many people work at Magic Rock now?

17 in the brewery and eight in the taproom.

The location of your brewery is closer to Burton upon Trent, the spiritual home of the pale ale, than London. Have you ever thought about that and has it left its mark?

I haven’t thought about that, no. We had a lot of breweries in the area already making very good hoppy pale cask beers. But our influence was more from the US west coast.

In what way are you treating your water?

Our water is very soft – unlike the water of Burton. It is like a blank canvas. So we add a variety of different salts depending on the style of beer and how we want the mouthfeel and flavour to come through in the finished beer.

You mentioned the US before and you mentioned your taproom before. In the US the taproom is very important – as mentioned by Ryan of Funky Buddha in our interview. What role does the taproom play for the brewery?

The taproom is a great space for us to showcase our beers in the best, freshest way possible. It also provides the opportunity for people to be able to buy cans and have a growler filled to take home. The location is also very close to the train station here in town so people can travel very easily from Manchester and Leeds to visit us.

You seem quite happy to do collaborations. How do you approach them or what’s a typical process how a collaboration happens, from the beginning to the end?

We usefully arrange collaborations after meeting other brewers at festivals and events, chat over email and choose a style and recipe together, then visit the other brewer and help with the brewday.

We are big fans of the Bearded Ladies. There are many treatments of it, what is the “regular version”?

It’s an Imperial Stout. We haven’t released any of the straight Bearded Lady for nearly two years, but we do plan to release some soon.
We have done a Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady, Bearded Lady Dessert Edition, which was developed from the Bourbon Aged version, a Grand Marnier Barrel aged version, which is also known as Bearded Lady Chocolate Orange and we have also done a Pedro Ximenez Barrel aged Bearded Lady.

How many times do you re-brew a treatment?

The frequency has changed quite a lot over the years. But we usually have one of them available at all times.

What’s the reason behind the name? Nightmares? Secret desires? Nickname?

Magic Rock comes from a family business where the brewery started. The family sells rocks crystals and minerals, including some healing stones or “magic rocks”.
The beer names mainly come from the circus, side show, magic theme that was developed by our founder Richard and his friend who drew the characters in our branding

Have you ever brewed with hot rocks to heat the water? Too gimmicky?

No, that is not something that would be easy to do for us.

Your beers starting to show up on shelves and taps in Switzerland and a new shipment just arrived at Biercafé Au Trappiste. Is this due to your increase in capacity?

Yes, we doubled the capacity of the brewery when we moved to our new site in July 2015.

What changed for you, the brewer, with the increase of capacity?

I have a lot more paperwork to do and more staff to manage.

Obviously the dream of every brewer. What’s the most fun of your more routine work?

I like to run the canning line. I’ve discovered that I have a magic touch with our line and find it very satisfying when we have a very good run with low wastage.

How has your life changed since you won best beer award?

World Beer Cup? Salty Kiss won Gold in the style. It was very nice to be acknowledged at that level of competition. I think it was something that helped a little with the sales and our decision to have Salty Kiss in our opening can range.

Actually, and damn you auto-correct, I meant “best beard award”. How did that change your life?

Ah yes, I was beard of spring 2015. It was great, but just lighthearted fun. I wouldn’t take it too seriously. I’ve had a few comments from locals in the taproom though because it did feature in the local paper.

Do you regularly try to get feedback on your beers – entering it in a competition being one option? How do you get the feedback?

We don’t really enter beer competitions.
We do see comments on social media and rating sites. Sometimes people send us messages. It’s always nice to over-hear people in pubs and bars commenting on our beers.

There are these funny videos of brewers reading mean Untappd reviews. What has been your favourite feedback you’ve got that stood out for a reason?

Yes, I have seen those videos. But I don’t read many of the reviews.
Sometimes I see the ratings on ratebeer and laugh, because they have rated the wrong beer – which I’ll be able to tell, because we either haven’t brewed it for a long time or because I know which beers went to the beer festival. And the reviewers tasting notes will match our description of the beer, even though they didn’t actually have that beer with those flavours.

What can we expect from you at this year’s CBC?

We have some old favorites, a couple of new beers and a fruit fermented sour.

Obviously not the detailed answer we were hoping for. Is there some sworn secrecy involved?

We would like to keep some surprises, but I guess I can tell you we will have a new Bearded Lady and the Unhuman Cannonball is fresh. We also have a beer in cask. [the list has now been published, look here – ed.]

Is there a beer you’d get in line at a festival for?

Never wait in lines. Except for food [smiles].

How do you approach a festival, meaning the challenge of serving something very special every time?

We like to always have a mix of our regular beers and some new interesting ones. New and unusual beers are rarely the best beers a brewery makes: Most brewery’s best beers are the ones they have the most experience making. So I’m always happy when we can do a festival where our standard core beers can be shown off with the rare special beers.

True. And it’s unfortunate that punters often forget about them, consider them pedestrian – as not rare – and as a consequence ignore them. Irritating or just a fact of life?

I guess it’s just a fact of life. People at CBC seem to only be interested in beer that is only a small part of our production.

How much of an element of chance is there actually involved, if you do one-ofs? Or do you test-batch everything?

We have no test brew plant at the moment. We are very careful with all our recipes. The first time will always be a little scary, but we usually get it very close.

I’m actually not sure that blending styles like IPA is a thing, I guess not because you don’t want to age it. But have you done blends? Could blending be expanded to other styles? And yes, I came up with this question in connection to possibly salvage batches that are a bit off.

We’ve done nothing like that with the IPAs, but we have blended barrel aged beers before. We quite often blend Bearded Lady batches to achieve the right character, also some of sour beers.
But no, we’ve never had the need to blend a brew that wasn’t good enough on its own.

In an interview in 2011 you said – if I remember correctly – that it takes 20 minutes to come up with a recipe. Is that still the case?

I can’t remember that, but yes, for a beer with only malt, hops and yeast it can be that quick. Especially with a good spreadsheet that will do the calculations for you. Sometimes an idea will pop into your head and you know straight away how to do it and that it will work.

And finally, our traditional last question: which five beer would you suggest to us to drink before we die? Can be yours and/or anybody else’s.

Orval: try it at different ages. It can be amazing at two months old and amazing in different ways at two years old.
I’m a big fan of US west coast IIPA like Mongo from Port Brewing and Pliny The Elder from Russian River.
Bell’s Two Hearted is also a great IPA.
And Oude Quetsche Tilquin à l’Ancienne is amazing too.

Actually, our final final question: Is Leicester going to win? Or are you more a Great British Bake Off kinda guy?

I hate football and competition cooking TV shows.

This interview took place via e-mail in April 2016.

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