Our new issue of Craft Beer – ‘The 100 Best Breweries in The World’ was such a huge piece of work that not everything fitted into the pages of the finished magazine. A few bits and pieces of interesting stuff were regrettably cut for space, so in the interest of completeness, and to give you a taster of the content in the magazine, I’ll be posting some ‘bonus content’ here for the good men and women who read this blog.
First up is an interview with Camden Town Brewery’s Head Brewer and all-round top bloke, Alex Troncoso:
Alex Troncoso joined Camden Town Brewery at the start of 2013, having previously worked at Little Creatures in Australia, where he was Chief Brewer and Head of Brewing Development.
What does brewing mean to you?
There’s a quote from a homebrewing book that I really like: “Art meets Science and has a beer”. I like that it’s highly technical but also creative. It’s greater than the sum of its parts, you know? You can calculate colour, you can calculate bitterness, analyse those and think that’s probably about right. Roughly estimate what you attenuation is going to be, your level of alcohol, but you can’t calculate flavour or exactly what it’s going to be. I like the fact it’s technical, there’s a lot of history, and it still involves artistry in some ways.
Who inspires you as a brewer?
What I like to say is that companies that are grounded, who have a strong commitment to what they’re doing, big ones like Sierra Nevada who are still a fantastic brewery, we can all aspire to be like them. The kind of guys who have been in a brewing company, and made it to a certain level of capacity, they run everything like a military operation, they can control quality, efficiency all that sort of thing. Using all the technology in the world, not to make things cheaply but to make things better.
So that’s what I like about what we do here. It’s very hands-on and we’re very small here. What we’re doing is using a lot of technology to take out some of the less important work so we can focus on the more important work.
How would you describe Camden’s beers to someone who has never had them before?
In my previous life, I worked for another brewery called Little Creatures. Their Pale Ale was at the time, like crazy bitter, but now it’s like normal bitterness – 42 IBUs or something – but at the time I started it was insane.
Regardless of the bitterness level, we always strived to have a certain balance to everything we made, and that’s what I’m trying to do at Camden. Anything we make, even if it’s a bit bigger, like Camden Versus Odell, or the Camden Versus Italy Märzen, even with things like that we try to keep the balance.
At Little Creatures I was used to making bottle-conditioned pale ale, lots of it, so that was a lot of fun but it was also quite complicated. The process of something like Camden Hells is simpler, but in a lot of ways it’s more difficult to make, because there’s nowhere to hide any mistakes! With Hells, it’s very easy for it to be too bitter, or too sweet, and every single beer has its own sweet spot to it.
It’s just a matter of dialling it in and figuring out where it is, but also remembering that the sweet spot might change from year to year. At times, say like this year, Pale at the moment is about 42 IBU, next year we could push it to 45, or maybe it has to be 38, and that can be dictated by the hop crop that year [and what we have to work with].
So anyway, balance. You got to remember, you’re not going to appeal to everyone, but I just want to put something on the bar that looks great, smells great and tastes great.
Which of your beers do you feel is your greatest achievement?
From our one-off beers, I think Camden Versus Odell. It’s bloody brilliant! It was all pretty casual, we spoke to Doug Odell, we’d talked about what we should do, we originally wanted to do a lager, but we had kind of already done a highly hopped lager, with SKA Brewing. They suggested using Cutthroat Porter as the base for a beer, I went back and said ok, but let’s do it as a Baltic Porter, make it a bit stronger. Scaled everything up but used in the same proportions. That was really fun.
And the most difficult?
The one that had me on the edge of my seat was Camden Versus Italy: the Märzen (a German lager beer style traditionally brewed in March and matured over the summer). When we brewed it, it looked great, colour was bang on, bitterness level was bang on. But when I started tasting at the start of the maturation period, it wasn’t right. It tasted bitter as hell, looked like swamp water and I thought “Oh my God!”
We brewed the beer with three different Italian brewers, so they’d each be asking me “How’s the beer coming along?” and I’m thinking “Oh shit.” It got to the point where I thought we would have to dump it. I was really, really nervous. I kept saying to myself “Don’t panic! Give it time,” like every day, checking it. And over time, the flavours gradually came together, getting slightly better every day, until after the three weeks of maturation after fermentation, it just kind zoned in to where it needed to be. Then it ended up tasting fantastic!
I spoke to this German brewer about it, explaining how I was really panicking about it, and he just said “ah, the Marzen takes time,” and I was like “ah, okay.” But it was great for everyone on the team to see how a beer can change and get better, and it reinforced that, with the lager beers especially, we need to give them time.
Since the brewery bar opened, Camden has always had a really strong connection to local street food vendors. Do you have a favourite beer and food match?
Yeah, man: Motherflipper burgers! They’re here tonight and I’ll definitely be having one of those later. I’ll probably slam one of those with a pint of Unfiltered Hells.
Are there any special beers planned for 2014?
We have lots of ideas, so we worry more about how we’re going to be able to do them all! To try and get anything special fitted in, we need to plan quite far ahead, at least 3 months in advance because the tank schedule is just so full. We have about 5 ‘Versus’ collaboration beers in the schedule now and a few other little things, too.
You can read more interviews with the world’s top brewers in ‘Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World’, now available in newsagents and online.