Justin Hawke It seems is a man who likes a challenge and a bit of a scrap. Since setting up Moor Beer Company almost a decade ago he has taken on a number of battles – all in the name of producing full flavoured, consistently high quality, drinkable beers.
From the outset he championed cloudy – or the more technically termed unfined – beer in the days when drinkers held up their pints to the light and instantly returned it in disgust if it wasn’t absolutely clear.
Although he says there is still a holdout from some old school types, younger drinkers couldn’t care less. They now recognise that it is all about the flavour and Hawke says the added mouthfeel and aroma derived from unfined beer has resulted in it winning more accolades in recent years than pasteurised, filtered beers.
With that battle won he made an early move into producing quality (craft we could say!) keg beers rather than just sticking with cask. Since all his beers undergo secondary fermentation in the end container he argues vehemently that whatever vessel he puts Moor beer into it is the equivalent of real/cask ale. There is no injection of carbonation into any of his beers.
And as much as he loves cask beer – especially for bitters and milds – the reality is that demand for cask has been low of late. Take the smart Moor brewery tap room where 18 months ago Hawke’s policy was to always have at least one cask on among the line-up of 10 beers but he found three-quarters of the cask ale was being thrown away each week. So now it is pretty much all keg beers on at the bar.
With the keg versus cask argument now rightly becoming immaterial – with the winner being simply good beer regardless of the method of storage and dispense – Hawke moved on to championing cans.
Again he was more than willing to take up the early challenge of arguing the case for high quality beer in cans. We are, almost uniquely, talking about Moor beer undergoing secondary fermentation in the container, which in the case of cans Hawke likes to call ‘nano casks’.
Although many others – notably BrewDog, Camden Town,Beavertown, and Four Pure – installed canning lines and promoted the can it has been Moor that has taken on the more challenging route of letting his beers develop their effervescence naturally in the can.
He is particularly proud of his canning facility having taken what he describes as a “huge risk” investing £300,000 in state-of-the-art kit from Germany’s Leibinger. While it can fill 2,500 cans per hour – thereby enabling one of his 14 fermenting vessels to be emptied into cans in only four hours – this is not the clever bit.
Hawke’s reverence is reserved for the modest sounding ‘seamer’. He has installed what is effectively a small version of what Coca Cola uses to put the top of the can in place and seal the vessel. This is the crucial part of the process and where other cheaper inferior canning lines fall down.
He is particularly vocal about the mobile canning lines that visit smaller breweries, which he says produce varying levels of quality. “Large brewers have tried mobile canning and not been pleased. I’m nervous about the quality and that this is potentially then giving canned beer a bad name.”
Such has been the appeal of Moor beers in cans that they now account for 25-30% of the brewery’s output compared with only 5-10% when he was packaging in bottles (admittedly rather large 660ml vessels).
Not only has the taste proven to be superior but there is now recognition of cans as more convenient for carrying, cheaper logistically to shift around and hence more environmentally friendly, and to younger drinkers they are simply cooler.
As he considers yet another battle largely won he admits to not being able to help himself with fighting a cause: “I do build a rod for my own back. I’ve very firm convictions and it’s my way or we don’t do it. We’ll often bear the pain initially from doing things ahead of others,” he says, with some relish – of the fiery variety.
This strategy seems to be working as the brewery’s production is this year expected to bump up from the present 5,000 hectolitres to possibly 10,000hl. And although he has firm views against those brewers producing (often undrinkable) experimental beers for the sake of experimentation Moor typically produces a sizeable 25 different beers over the course of a year. But none are joke beers or made to impress other brewers.
Ten of these will be in the fermenting vessels at any one point, which he says has its challenges, especially since all his beers sit around in the cans, kegs and casks for two to four weeks more than many other brewers’ ales because of the secondary fermentation.
While Nor’Hop, So’Hop and Union’Hop make up a significant level of sales the other Moor beers such as Stout, PMA, Smokey Horyzon, and wheat beer Claudia all have their fan base. Hawke acknowledges that Moor can be perceived as not at the cutting edge in terms of styles and that is to some extent down to his focus on other things. We could call this the little subtle details.
One of these involves carbonation. Whereas many craft brewers will probably end their progression with experimentation with yeast strains Hawke has taken the next step on and his keenly interested in water.
“It’s out of most people’s depths but based on the beer style we’ll adjust the water. Stout water is different to Nor’Hop and for the wheat beer there is more natural carbonation needed,” he explains.
One suspect that playing around with water might not be challenge enough and Hawke admits he is more than up for another fight and to that end he is now becoming more involved with SIBA where he says he is taking a pro-active roll with leadership within the group.
Can we expect some fireworks? Who knows, but what we will probably get is progress.
Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider