Siren Craft Brew: A Modern Brewery of Mythical Repute
"Allow yourself to be tempted"
A lot of breweries name themselves after their locality or a feature of their history – Camden Town, Hook Norton, Loddon, White Horse – you get the idea. Alternatively, Siren Craft Brew have gone for a name with a more ancient pedigree.
Most widely known from Homer’s Odyssey, the sirens of Greek mythology would lure hapless sailors to rocky deaths with their irresistible and enchanting songs. Sirens and their accompanying legends have a sort of moralistic fable to them as with Icarus and the sun – the dangers of temptation and the inevitable shortcomings of those without the willpower to resist.
We met with Andy Nowlan at their site on the Hogwood Industrial Estate to find out more about a brewery that, having only had its fifth birthday in March, has amassed a set of dedicated disciples profoundly faithful to their unending creativity and quality. Firstly, why ‘Siren’, not the Finchampstead Brewing Company or Wokingham Craft?
The idea, Andy explains, came from founder Darron Anley. “He was working in IT, he sold the business and was supposed to take some time out – I think that was the plan – but he’d recently got into modern flavoured beers.” So the notion of the Sirens came because, no matter how hard he tried, “he kept getting drawn back into beer”. So like the sailors of mythology, drinkers are to be drawn in by the enticing flavours and beautifully designed Siren characters that adorn each of their core range of beers – just as Darron was drawn away from retirement to brewing. It’s important to note at this juncture that ‘core range’ should by no means imply that these beers are ordinary. They range from ‘Broken Dream’, a 6% velvet stout gently smoked with strong wisps of coffee and chocolate, to their most recent addition, ‘Yu Lu’ – a beguiling 3.6% loose leaf pale ale with bergamot orange flavours deriving from Earl Grey tea, with lemon zest accentuating the clean freshness of high hop notes.
Within Yu Lu one finds a microcosm of Siren’s internal process as well as their attention to detail. Lu Yu was the author of Ch’a Ching or Tea Classic, in 780 AD, the first known work of its kind dedicated to the art of tea making. The Siren that manifests this beer reflects this legacy and, if you look closely enough, the fan that partially obscures her face looks conspicuously like a slice of lemon. In terms of artwork this sort of attention sets Siren apart from some breweries for whom branding appears to be an afterthought – a clip-art mishmash of fonts and logos without any form of creative direction. The development of Yu Lu into a core beer also displays Siren’s uniquely flexible, collaborative and creative ethos. Before its final incarnation it was called ‘Vermont Tea Party’ and before that, ‘Love of Work’. “Even that’s got a great story behind it,” Andy explains. “Love of Work was a beer that Ryan Witter-Merithew [ex-head brewer] brewed in Vermont at Hill Farmstead, and from that spawned our own culture of yeast that is unique to us; now we use it in loads of beers.”
Collaboration and competition are often assumed to be antithetical. Colonel Sanders’ original blend of herbs and spices is apparently inscribed on a piece of paper kept in a vault in Louisville, Kentucky, guarded by cameras and motion sensors. The brewers at Siren couldn’t be further from this sort of myopia. In the brewery itself, amongst the towering machinery, is a white wooden board signed by visiting collaborators with one inscription simply reading, ‘All for the love of beer!’ – Can I get an Amen?
Another of their collaborative efforts, this with Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, was called ‘Caribbean Chocolate Cake’. This is a beer that, true to form, has an almost mythical reputation. A fifth year edition has been made to mark their birthday, and I could name two dozen friends of mine that will be falling over themselves for a sample. It contains specially imported Dominican cacao nibs, experimental varieties of hops and ‘about a forest’s worth of Cypress wood’. Harnessing the particular expertise of Cigar City master brewer Wayne Wambles the Cypress wood spirals are incorporated into the beer using what Andy and the team affectionately term the ‘Spinbot’. Describing in layman’s terms for my less than mechanical mind Andy tells me how the Spinbot “allows you to circulate the beer through the wood and any sort of adjuncts and make sure that you’re getting as much contact with the actual liquid as possible – as opposed to dropping stuff in the top of the tank and seeing what it can get on the way down”. The results are astonishing and, even though it was “fabricated solely for Caribbean Chocolate Cake to begin with, it’s become integral to lots of beers”.
So, onto the hardware. Andy took us across the estate to the brewery proper – where the magic happens. Being shown around the churning monolithic steel was breathtaking and evoked a rather gorgeous harmony between the physical and digital, the high-tech and the nuts and bolts. Seeing beer during every stage of its creation was particularly enlightening for me as I’ve tended only to witness the part where it meets my mouth. The impression I was left with after beholding the brewers at work was something between Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and NASA mission control. The sheer precision with which they execute some of the most insanely flavoured beers is astonishing. Nothing Siren have ever made could be called ordinary, and their process goes a long way to explaining that fact. Everything is monitored, recorded, updated, adjusted and scrutinised at every stage. An entire wall of their lab is covered with clipboards, data, percentages and parts per million. You could be forgiven for thinking you were on the trading floor of the Nasdaq. Opposite the graphs are test tubes and beakers in which the proto-beer is studied, tested and analysed.
One could feel an almost giddy sense of adventure to everything being done – eventuating in beers like ‘Turkish’ which Andy says “literally came from our head brewer drinking Turkish coffee and thinking, ‘What can we do with that?’” The result? A beer into which coffee was added at no fewer than three separate stages and put through the aforementioned Spinbot with orange zest and vanilla. A beer with every conceivable layer of flavour found in a Turkish coffee, finished with no less than 420 kilograms of figs – all of which might seem like ostentatious overkill. But the only reason they are able to make products like this is because of the incremental growth in knowledge, technique and capacity maintained over years by people who quite simply, studiously and seriously love beer.
The barrel-ageing process is the final chapter for many of their products and, as with the use of adjuncts, one could spend an entire day just having this explained. Row upon row of barrels take up an entire floor of one of their buildings. Here time shakes hands with flavour. One particularly memorable and uniquely crowd-splitting beer that saw this process was ‘Acid Jam’, an imperial strength kettle-soured beer aged in bourbon and red wine barrels. “We could have blended it in a way that would have been more subtle,” Andy concedes, “but we wanted to make an impact with it. We thought, ‘What’s the point in doing an imperial sour if it’s not going to give you something?’” The balance between the consistency of their core products and the constant exploration and innovation of new beers is an invitation to potential beer enthusiasts to go on a journey with Siren. Start somewhere accessible and allow yourself to be led towards the smokier, spicier, sourer or sweeter periphery of your own beer knowledge. Siren Craft do what they do for the love of beer – to establish it alongside wine as a beverage worthy of time, scrutiny and craftsmanship. If you ever happen upon the call of one of their Sirens, allow yourself to be tempted and start your own love affair with the beer they make, as I have. The liquid you will consume will have been carried along its own Odyssey just to get to you – as you embark on one of your very own.
You can sample Siren’s beers fresh from the source at their gorgeous Tap Yard open Fridays 12-8pm and Saturdays 12-7pm. They also do brewery tours and tasting sessions every first Saturday of the month.
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