Megan Abbottfood, beer, London

4 Men and 40ft: A Hackney Brewery

Megan Abbottfood, beer, London
4 Men and 40ft: A Hackney Brewery

Originally published on lifeandthyme.com

On warm summer days in London, when offices wind to a close and people flock to wide, green parks to roll up their sleeves and bask in the evening sunlight, one collective sentiment floats through the air – “Why would you want to be anywhere else?”. It is the kind of thought that everyone has for their home town from time to time, yet is one that evades Londoners for most of the year. But this summer has been a good one. The mood is bright. There is a lot of beer to be drunk.

I meet Steve Ryan, co-owner of 40ft Brewery, in a cafe not far from his house in Dalston, East London. It looks out over a newly developed square of apartments, big red brick affairs encircling a row of water fountains. Two men in biker jackets watch their kids block the spouts before jumping back and letting a cool jet of water rush into the air. The café is tiled, with distressed wooden tables and copper-dipped light bulbs swinging above the bar. It is the kind of café that East Londoners can find on every corner.

This once deprived part of London has seen monumental changes over the last couple of decades. It is the area that my West Country grandparents would have avoided on their bi-annual trips to the capital. And yet here we are, high up in the East where Turkish barbershops live beside coffee breweries and the local market sells trotters and plantain in front of a tiki bar with live jazz music and craft burgers. Along with the influx of moneyed outsiders, speciality food and shabby allotments converted into art studios, East London has also become one of the most prolific producers of craft beer in the country. In an act of artistic rebellion against the giants of the food and drink world, small businesses have brought the focus back to slow, careful production. The coffee is roasted in-house. The meat is locally-sourced. The wine is natural. And East Londoners are lapping up every last drop. 

But after a few minutes with Steve, who arrives and swiftly orders a green tea (“I drink so much beer, I’ve got to give my body something good.” He laughs.), it becomes clear that this is a subject he takes little notice of when it comes to his own company. “London is certainly setting a very high standard.” He remarks, before steering the conversation elsewhere.  

Perhaps this slight resistance comes down to the sheer number of small businesses operating in East London. And the slight backlash from the rest of the country for it. “Hipster” has become a dirty word for many people, not least for Steve himself. “I don’t ever want to be called a hipster.” He says. “In my mind, hipsters don’t do anything. They’re just forlorn and float around and don’t contribute. Someone said it to me the other day. I’m a photographer from Dalston with facial hair, making craft beer. There’s nothing worse than that.”. I laugh. I think back to a coffee shop down my road, where the wifi password is “buy a fucking drink” and the guy behind the counter was so preoccupied with practicing his twerking that he failed to notice me standing there, waiting to order. “These hip places can be so unfriendly.” Steve says, echoing my thoughts.

Steve launched 40ft Brewery two years ago. Originally from Dublin, he grew up drinking “shitty, shitty beer” in local pubs, becoming “immune” to the four or five core beers that eclipsed British drinking holes after the 1950s. “Your options were few and far between. I got used to drinking lagers that tasted like fizzy water.” It was not until he began travelling back and forth visiting a friend in LA that he got a taste for real pale ale. “He’d take me to these bars with thirty taps of beer. He and his friends just assumed I would know all of these amazing European beers.” He explains. “But I didn’t know any. They were so disappointed and I felt disappointed in myself, too!” Learning the “basic” process of beer making from his friend in LA, Steve returned home and began experimenting with brewing. “The first time I drank American IPA it revolutionised my way of seeing beer. This wasn’t just beer. It was something more.” He says. “I needed to bring it home.”

This was in 2011, a year after Steve had moved to London. He lived and worked with a Swedish photographer called Andreas Pettersson, whose brother Fredrik joined them soon after. Inside their London house, the three started brewing together once a week, experimenting with different shades, flavours and strengths of beer, “getting high on our own supply.” It was not until they met Cologne-born Ben Ott, a brewer at the colossal Truman’s Brewery. After that, their hobby became a craft. “We were basically just drunken artists before Ben came along.” Steve says. “He is an artist when it comes to beer. He’s just exceptionally talented. He gave us that legitimacy. It suddenly became more real and serious. We were all quite naïve at the beginning. Naivety is bliss, I suppose. I wonder if we would have still done it if we’d known what we were getting ourselves in to…?” He ponders for a second before deciding. “No, we definitely would have.”

The group began searching for a permanent space to make their beer, when the car park behind Steve and Andreas’ office freed up. With Hackney council on a mission to reduce road usage, the car park was turned into a start up park, with low-priced shipping containers up for grabs. They moved into two 20ft steel containers, one stacked on top of the other like building blocks, and named themselves 40ft Brewery. Two Swedish brothers, a German brewer and an Irish photographer, making beer in a reclaimed container in East London. From the outside, 40ft is the epitome of all that is ‘hip’ about East London. But to the four friends, who come together inside the narrow walls of the container and create one of the area’s finest beers, trend is unimportant. They are in it for the love of beer, and for the unending possibilities of this historic craft. 

The English have been swigging beer since before the Romans invaded. During the Middle Ages, it was considered safer to drink than water. Real ale courses through our history books, with Trappist monks often sited as some of the first brewers, operating inside the walls of their crumbly stone monasteries. In around the 15th century, hops began being imported from western Europe, deepening the flavour of traditional brews. Possibilities of flavours began to unravel, and hundreds of years of experimentation followed. Hop harvesting provided work for thousands in the 18th century, with much of the crop covering the verdant lands of Kent, in southeast England. Yet somewhere around the 1950s, that time of white-toothed television adverts and microwaves, the quality of beer began to dwindle. “That was when people started getting refrigerators.” Steve explains. “And suddenly it didn’t matter so much about the taste, it was about advertising and getting the consumer to buy for the home. It stopped being about the beer and started being this aspirational product, representing an unobtainable lifestyle.” I ask him if he thinks mega-breweries have lowered taste expectations. Though I think I already know the answer.” After the war we were looking for ways to feed people. So we replaced quality products with mass-produced stuff. We went from artisanal bread to white sliced, for example. It’s the same when it comes to beer. Big breweries have found a way to produce their products on a huge scale. And when you are producing something at that level, you have to cut corners.” At 40ft, there are just two “core” beers. ‘Larger’ – so named for its similarity to traditional lager, but bigger and brighter in flavour, and an American style pale ale, which has a soft, hoppy body and a crisp, bitter finish. Both glimmer from the shelves of local bars in simple, armour-like silver cans. 

For someone who drinks beer like the first shudders of an apocalypse have just broken out, I know very little about the process of beer-making. I ask Steve to tell it to me “in a nutshell.” As it turns out, the process of true beer production is refreshingly simple. 40ft Brewery makes beer in the most modest, stripped back way imaginable. All by hand. One of the containers holds the “bog-standard” six-barrel brewing kit, while five shimmering conditioning barrels stand in the other. They brew three times a week, spending around ten hours on each brew. First, malted barley is poured in to a giant “mash tub” of water. When it is malted, barley is “tricked into thinking it’s in the earth.” Steve explains excitedly. “A grain has all of this energy. It has to sprout from a seed. There is so much potential in that tiny grain!” These two ingredients mingle together to produce “wert”, the sugary water that gives beer its myriad of colours, some as light as straw, some dense and opaque as tar. This mixture is transferred into a “copper” and heated to boiling point. This is when the hops come in, added at the beginning of the boil for “rich bitterness”, and at the end for “aroma and flavour.” This is the garnish of the beer. Playing with quality or quantity of hops allows brewers to get creative with flavours, like shifting the saturation of photographs or turning up the bass on a song. After this, the mixture is brought back down to room temperature, creating a safe environment for the yeast to join in. “Yeast is a living organism.” Steve explains, “After it’s added, it gets all cosy with the sugars and starts eating them. It starts turning the sugar into alcohol and belching out CO2. We leave it to do its work for about three days. And there you have it, beer!” The final step is maturation. Unlike many breweries, 40ft allows their beers to develop in vessels – two days for their pale ale, and three for their larger. For Steve, the finest beers spring from traditional brewing techniques, using only these core ingredients. It is the flavour, scent and depth of beer that those monks would have tasted all those centuries ago. The preparation is done inside their narrow shipping containers, which have become the natural talking point surrounding the brand. “I don’t want the shipping container to be our ‘thing’, though.” Steve says. “I know it’s hard to move away from the reclaimed East London thing. But really, we just want to be known for making great beer.”

When 40ft’s tanks first started bubbling last year, they were the seventy-seventh microbrewery in London. A year on, there are now over a hundred. Compare this to the ‘90s, when there were around six, and it is easy to see how the face of the London beer is changing. Yet most commercial breweries like Steve’s are not vying to outdo the giants of the beer world. To him and many of his peers, small production is the only way to manage quality. “The point is not to compete with the big breweries.” He tells me. “We want to keep growing organically. After a year, we are at capacity. We want to stay local. I do not want to be the next Heineken.” And local, they truly are. Each can of 40ft beer is a snapshot of the local area. The water inside it is from London, the malt is predominantly English and the “spicy, earthy” flavours come from English hops. “We use English ingredients wherever possible. And we feel like beer shouldn’t have to travel far.” Steve says. He laughs, “In fact, if it leaves Hackney we call it 40ft Export.”

Not long ago, 40ft added another container to their little plot. This one acts as their tap room, open on weekends for guests to file in and taste their core beers, as well as experimental brews. “East London bar service can be pretty poor. In Ireland, it’s super friendly, they smack out like 20 beers at a time.” Steve says. “Here, people are checking their Tinder and maybe pulling a single pint at a time. We want to be the antithesis of that in our bar. Everyone who comes in gets welcomed. We’re over friendly, and we give free tours and tasters. We introduce them to the other people in there. It’s such a confined space. We want people to communicate. Beer always helps with that!”

And this is exactly what the craft movement is about. It celebrates the details, the infinitesimal shades of products and the people behind them. It celebrates the art of creating something that will disappear in moments, and is all the more valuable for it. Mega brands provide a comfort to many people. They can never feel far from home if the golden arches appear around the corner, or the condensation is running down the iconic green bottle of their trusty lager. But through small brands, we can travel. They help us to understand the personality of a place. They allow us to eat ingredients grown beneath a different sun, try new flavours, inhale new scents, or drink beer made with the water running through a city. “Local beers should be for local people.” Steve says, as we step out into the late afternoon sun. “When you go to a different town, you want to go to a restaurant that is only in that one town. It begins a conversation about a place. It should be the same when it comes to beer.” With that, we stride off in the direction of the brewery; Steve, Frederik, Andreas and Ben’s very own London monastery.