Initially brewing out of a shipping container in Tottenham Hale, Affinity Brew Co.’s first year as a commercial brewery has been as eventful as it has successful. Having recently moved to the railway arch in Bermondsey vacated by Partizan Brewing, I arranged to meet co-founders Ben and Steve last month to discuss growing pains, future plans and politics. The interview took place on my birthday, which I had no hesitation in spending in a cold railway arch in south London. As I exited Bermondsey station under oppressive, leaden skies, my mood was conversely bright as I anticipated a beer and warm welcome. Once seated with a beer in hand, I started in a formulaic fashion by asking Ben and Steve to summarise the last year.
In short, 2017 was the hardest year of their lives, but also the best. The financial pressures inherent in starting your own business are obvious, but it was the day-to-day running of it that proved most challenging. It sapped what Ben referred to as Affinity’s ‘natural creativity’, and while they are grateful to Five Miles (hosts of the aforementioned shipping container), it was always a temporary arrangement. It was an embryonic period that allowed Affinity to experiment, establish its identity and finance the move to a bigger, more practical brewery. In terms of highlights, for Ben it was being invited to the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF), which he described as ‘fucking unbelievable’. ‘When Greg (Wells) invited us I was blown away, I nearly cried,’ he added. ‘There were two festivals we wanted to be a part of and were going to push for in 2018,’ Steve continued, ‘LCBF and IndyMan, and we were asked to be part of them both this year.’
The move to the new location came about when Partizan posted a photo on Instagram of a set of keys for its new premises. Ben and Steve didn’t waste time and immediately declared their interest, and with a new brew kit secured from Long Arm, negotiations with Network Rail, owners of the arch, began in earnest. Ben recounted: ‘we told Network Rail that we had an absolute maximum budget that we would not go over under any circumstances. However, when they responded “you’ll pay the asking price otherwise it’s going on the market”, we instantly went over budget by several thousand pounds.’
When I first met Affinity in December 2016, they told me that they don’t view the brewery as being associated with a particular geographical location. I asked them to elaborate on this, and wondered whether it has implications for Affinity’s future development. They initially considered opening a series of brewpubs but this was swiftly rejected because of licensing issues and the lack of control they would have over the final product. The alternative is both fascinating and exciting, as Ben revealed: ‘The next stage of development for us is to open a series of taprooms, all served from here, and the dream is for them to be in coastal locations.’ While the timescale for this is as yet undetermined, the plan is to open at least one site in 2018 – summer holiday anyone?
The conversation then turned to the subject of freshness and the supply chain. Ben is firmly of the opinion that the buck stops with breweries in ensuring their product reaches the consumer in the best possible condition. ‘I can’t see how it’s not. If as a brewery you’re being placed under pressure by a distributor to extend the shelf life of your beer, just don’t work with that distributor’. Steve continues: ‘there are customers [retailers] who won’t take product with more than three months (shelf life) on them, but if your process is good enough that shouldn’t be an issue.’ What if a supermarket came calling? Would they consider extending the current three-month shelf life of their hoppy beers? ‘I’d be willing to have a discussion about six [months],’ Ben told me, ‘but I wouldn’t be overly comfortable with it.’ This is not to say they aren’t aware of the role of distributors and retailers, but it’s refreshing to find a brewery that readily accepts its responsibilities and is willing to be held accountable.
Affinity has produced some memorable beers in the last year including my summer beer of choice, Breeze, an effervescent saison brewed with lime zest and coriander, and ‘For The Many’, a session IPA with a title that brings us nicely to politics. Both Ben and Steve are politically partisan and vocal supporters of the Labour Party and its leader. To declare this so freely is unusual for a commercial business, and I asked whether they have concerns about alienating potential customers. ‘It’s not about spurning customers who don’t share our beliefs,’ Ben states, ‘rather, it’s about being true to ourselves. What I learned from the last year is that while I can be forthright in my views, if you engage people, there aren’t many whose minds can’t be changed, at least partially. The Conservative Party’s agenda is to stifle debate, so anything we can do to counter that has to be worthwhile. It’s about opening up a dialogue, and yes, we wear our heart on our sleeves, but politics is so important.’
We then moved on to what is a ‘hot potato’ in beer circles, the price of cask ale. Steve’s stance is straightforward: ‘It’s simple – pay what the beer’s worth. It’s 40 litres versus 30 litres. The only reason for paying less for cask is because ‘someone’ has campaigned for that – there should be a Real Campaign For Ale. It’s hypocrisy to say ‘save our pubs’ on the one hand and demand discounts on the other.’ It’s arguably a system that, due to economies of scale, punishes smaller producers: for every young brewery that asks for a fair price for its cask ale, there’s a regional or national brewery able to supply the same volume for less, regardless of quality. ‘If you care about the product,’ Steve continues, ‘and accept technological advances such as CO2 blankets, then it’s only fair to pay for what the product’s worth. There needs to be a fresh approach to cask ale from breweries to retailers, because when it’s good, it can be the best beer you can have.’
A sound argument, but given their politics, I asked whether they have concerns over people being priced out of ‘craft beer’ (whatever that is), regardless of dispense method. Steve responded by telling me that Affinity’s aim is to price its beers as fairly as possible, to be competitive but also to make the beers relatively affordable. They believe that establishments exists that use zeitgeist (my word) beer styles as an excuse to overcharge, and while beer pricing at retail is a complex matter, they are adamant that it is a discussion that is needed (I’m reminded of the time Brewdog Shoreditch had For the Many priced at £6.50, an astronomical mark-up that, if I remember correctly, caused Ben to exclaim ‘Jesus fucking hell’ when I informed him.)
Regarding the aforementioned zeitgeist beer styles, both Ben and Steve are fans of NEIPA when done right, but believe that there have been too many poor imitations in this country as breweries clamour for kudos. ‘Take a beer with a shelf life of three weeks that’s dry-hopped with 30 grams per litre, for example,’ Steve says. ‘The fact that it is opaque can be used as an excuse for beers with obvious faults such as yeast bite or with a massive amount of sediment. Beers are being rushed through production and you’re not getting a particularly refined beer. I would prefer the beer to spend more time in the tank and not have a crazy amount of hops; that they [brewers] got that flavour from better utilisation of hops and better processes as opposed to wasting a huge amount of very expensive, exclusive hops. I want someone to brew a huge, juicy Double IPA and brag about how it was made using 5 grams [of hops] per litre rather than a beer that tastes like hops and more hops and ruins your palate for the rest of the evening. No. Let’s celebrate good process, let’s celebrate caring about beer and how you achieved such great flavour with so little.’
I ended the discussion by asking what projects Affinity are excited about in 2018. The Calendar Project, featuring a new, seasonal beer release each month, begins with a ‘Dark Ruby Coffee & Walnut Mild’, while February sees the release of a rose and champagne Berliner Weisse. Returning to the issue of cask ale, they are very excited about ‘Cask 2018’ due to take place on the weekend of 7 to 8 April, with 26 breweries signed up, including Brew By Numbers, Fyne Ales and Wild Beer Co. Each brewery will supply two casks of beer which Affinity will pay £200 for (£100 per cask) regardless of style or ABV, which will be sold for £5 per pint. ‘If anyone from CAMRA turns up asking for a discount, we’ll politely point out that they’re entirely missing the point of what we’re trying to do,’ Ben quips. ‘As with politics, it’s about opening a dialogue; we want to generate a discussion about the value of cask beer.’
It’s clear to see Ben and Steve are proud of how far they’ve come this last year, and while they are aware that they are ‘green’ in what is an increasingly competitive market, they are positive about what’s next. They plan to open the taproom on Friday evenings contributing to what is an altogether more enjoyable way to enjoy beer in Bermondsey, and also plan to construct a mezzanine level at the taproom. With this, Cask 2018 and a potential additional taproom they have plenty to look forward to. Who knows? We may even see Jezza take the keys to 10 Downing Street this year. He’s reportedly teetotal, but I know what beer I would celebrate with.
Disclaimer: I have an affinity (har har) with this brewery and passionately want it to succeed, hence the optimistic tone of the post.