The Story of Pale Fire

“Everyone likes a pale ale and we’re no different.” This statement is taken from Pressure Drop Brewing’s website and is an understated introduction to a beer that’s gone on to become one of the most highly regarded pale ales in the country (or at least that’s the view from my hop-scented London beer bubble). Named after the Vladimir Nabokov novel and originally brewed on a 50L kit in a garden shed in Stoke Newington, Pale Fire scores highly on the review sites and demand for it far outweighs supply. So what is it that makes this beer so special? In an attempt to find out, I dropped by the brewery to speak to brewer and co-founder Ben Freeman.

Based at Bohemia Place in Hackney, a small, unremarkable industrial cul-de-sac under a railway line and adjacent to a supermarket car park, it’s a humble setting for such a transcendental beer (granted, railway arches are very de rigueur for London microbreweries). I began by asking Ben how he and co-founders Graham O’Brien and Sam Smith (really) came to form their own brewery. “I met Graham in 2012 while we were both doing internships at London Fields Brewery – he and Sam already knew each other from school. We enjoyed the experience and soon decided that we wanted to start our own brewery, and began brewing once a week on a 50L Braumeister kit in Graham’s garden shed. We must have done 300 brews on that kit – we actually brought it with us when we moved here. However, by November it was getting too cold to brew in the garden, so we found a little unit in Wilmer Place in Stoke Newington and moved the kit in there. We starting brewing every day, and bottled small batches to send out to people in the industry who we respected. Looking back, it was a good way to do it – it enabled us to make connections and find out whether our beer was any good before fully committing. People liked our beer and it really took off; then three years ago we moved here and put in this five barrel kit (along with various hand-me-downs from Beavertown). In terms of investment, the three of us put our savings in so we’re all equal partners – no banks were involved. The kit we have wasn’t expensive – you’ll find kits like this underneath the floorboards in brewpubs and so on, and we could afford not to pay ourselves for the first few months, which was lucky.”

I often bang on about how important social media is for breweries in terms of raising awareness of the beer, but Pressure Drop is not the most prolific brewery when it comes to Twitter etc. I ask Ben why this is, and his answer suggests a brewery completely at ease with itself and its place within the industry. “First of all there are only three of us (and some part-timers) and we make a small amount of beer, so we don’t have the time to be sitting at a desk writing tweets all day long. We don’t have a sales, comms or events team or anything like that; we keep it simple: we’re going to make some beer, and if people enjoy it they’ll drink it, and if they enjoy it enough they’ll tell their friends about it. We do like Twitter, but have to be careful not to go overboard with it. We’re also in the fortunate position that we don’t need to do it, mainly because we don’t make enough beer. We don’t need to promote ourselves at the moment; in fact promoting ourselves only causes us more problems, because we only have so much beer and it’s all accounted for. I can see why breweries that are going through expansion do it, and who’s to say we won’t too one day? But at the moment we just use it as a method of communication rather than a promotional tool.” I tell Ben I sense he, Graham and Sam are wary of becoming too corporate. “Well, we aren’t – that’s the ‘office’ over there (he points to desk in corner surrounded by malt sacks and key kegs).

Returning to Pale Fire, Pressure Drop has a strong core range, but it was this gorgeously zesty, bitter pale ale I fell head over heels for when it first graced the shelves of the Stoke Newington branch of Borough Wines, and I’m not alone. I ask Ben whether he is aware of the love that exists for it, and whether it’s fair to describe it as Pressure Drop’s ‘flagship beer’? He chuckles to himself: “Hmmm, flagship beer…” I can see he isn’t keen on the label, so I clarify what I mean – I realise Pressure Drop doesn’t actively promote it as such, but wonder whether it’s become the de facto flagship beer by virtue of its popularity. “Yes, we’re reluctant to use that word [flagship], but it does account for 75 per cent of what we make and sell, and we’re proud of it because it’s basically the same recipe as we made on that 50L kit. When we were using that kit, we had quite a regimented system of brewing something, changing it, and brewing it again. Some beers came out after two batches; Wu Gang came out first time, the brown ale was no problem, but we had real trouble with the pale – we must have brewed 30 different batches of it. If you’d told me then that it would go on to be so popular, listed on Untappd with the likes of Gamma Ray and High Wire, I’d have said you’re lying! But I guess it is our flagship beer; it’s the beer we try to keep in stock all the time, and everything else follows on from it. Yes, we’re proud of it.” I wonder to myself whether that constant refinement, that struggle for perfection is the reason for Pale Fire’s utter drinkability.

In the early days the hop profile was ever-changing, but is more settled now, with mosaic and amarillo used for aroma and magnum for bittering.  Pale ale is a broad spectrum, and I ask Ben how he would define Pale Fire, if at all. “If I’m describing it myself I’d say it’s a US pale ale because it’s full of US, west coast hops.” And the inspiration for it? “We were aiming to make a beer similar to Kernel and High Wire at the time. We have plans to improve it further when we can get more equipment but the recipe is unique to us. I guess the success of Pale Fire comes from  a combination of a recognisable US hop aroma with a moderate to low bitterness and at a relatively low strength, and that’s what a lot of people are after at the end of a long day at work. I know I am!”

Winding up, I’m curious to know what the future holds – does Pressure Drop have any plans to expand? I for one feel Pale Fire in particular needs a bigger audience. “We’d love to expand at some point, but not at this stage. We started the brewery because we wanted to make beer – the demand is such that you can get carried away, and before you know it you’re back behind a desk looking at spreadsheets and managing other people to make beer.  It’s incredibly tempting, and we don’t want to remain at five barrels forever, but we want to do it on our terms; it has to be in the right location, the right size, with the right vibe without us having to go and foist our beer on anyone. So yeah, we will do something in the future but I don’t know when. Hopefully there’ll be more Pale Fire one day.”

Coincidentally, this article on Beavertown’s Gamma Ray was published the day after I visited Ben. I absolutely love Gamma Ray, but I sometimes feel that Pale Fire exists in its shadow. The prospect of more Pale Fire pleases me, both on a personal level and because I genuinely want more people to have the opportunity to drink this fantastic beer, which along with Gamma Ray and Five Points Pale, represents the very best of the London beer scene’s rendering of American-style pale ale. With Pale Fire, Pressure Drops the mic.

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