‘Look out for a massive black dog if my Dad gets there first. I’m talking HUGE dog’ reads the DM, as I’m checking Twitter, waiting for each half of Carbon Smith Brewing to arrive for a chat. Edinburgh’s newest brewery (since the last one), are based overlooking the Meadows – so a pint in Cloisters was the logical place to meet and find out more about them. When the dog, Torin, arrives, the message isn’t kidding. A colossal Newfoundland, he flops onto the floor like a living rug, literally blocking the door. “He does that” says Neil, the Dad, gamely tugging the chain to move Torin’s bear-sized head to let a couple of tipsy tourists leave the pub, which they do, after stroking the shagpile doorstop.
The other half of Carbon Smith is Ollie; ex of the Bottle Shop in Canterbury, ex-triallist at the Kernel (he lost out to the other guy), and now fully fledged, if fresh-faced, brewer. Neil, in between politely fielding questions about Torin, knocks back a cider and tells me about how he got started. “I set up my own cider still in my kitchen, when I was 15,” he says. “We used a Castrol GTX can on the stovetop. I ran washing up liquid through it first, then we started making cider. Had flecks of metal in from the can, but tasted alright. The problem was how to take it all down quickly when my Mum came home – all the pipework was red hot.”
Ollie also started at 15, and ended up being funded by Kent University to run their beer festivals, and conduct brewing classes for his fellow students. In the meantime, he was busy accumulating degrees in physics (“I’ve got three,” he says, simply). Now, in between working shifts at the Potting Shed, he brews four times a week, on a sixty litre kit in his fourth-floor flat. “We got three units from the bargain bin at IKEA,” says Neil, grinning. “To support the weight of the boiler, we picked up a door for a pound. It all sits on that. We’ve got the kit in a cupboard, and it vents out of the kitchen window with a fan.”
I ask Ollie if he owns his flat. “No, it’s a rental.” What does his landlord think of this? “Oh, I haven’t told him.” But you live there on your own? “No, it’s an HMO, my flatmates like trying the beers, though.” Ollie tells me this is all temporary, however; the father and son duo are negotiating the rights to a small unit in Newington. Importantly, it’s also all above board – everything in the flat is fully licensed; it took Ollie four weeks to get the paperwork sorted, and brewing operations officially approved. With the small scale of their brewkit, and fan-dispersed outflow, they contend you wouldn’t even know they were there.
Until last week, that is, when an articulated lorry suddenly turned up in their road, delivering a pallet of keykegs from the Netherlands. It took Ollie almost an hour to carry them all up the 94 steps to his flat. Now, they sit piled in a spare room, waiting to be filled. For the moment, keykeg is their prime dispense method – with Ollie’s connections at the Potting Shed, they will be able to have Carbon Smith beers on draught there for the immediate future. Bottles will follow – they are busy collecting as many as they can to be sterilised and repatriated.
I think hearing that fact was when it really hit me – what Ollie and Neil are doing is commercial homebrew. That’s not meant in a disparaging way, by any means – they are so small that this is the level they are at. But bargain-bin tech and steeping labels from spare 330’s? This is what homebrewers do, in kitchens and garages all over the country. The difference here, is that they have applied for (and been granted) permission from Environmental Health to legally produce this beer in that very kitchen.
Does this change the game?
Until now, contract brewing has been the main way for those lacking brewery-capital to get their beers out there. Pay someone else to make it for you, handing over control, but whilst gaining an immediate route to market. Yet what’s more immediate that knocking a beer up in your kitchen and selling it? Admittedly, the scale of Carbon Smith Brewing means that they won’t be making cash hand over fist – but equally their overheads are so low that, at this stage, it doesn’t really matter.
Ollie has plans on his own brewkit, well within a couple of years. To get there he needs money, but also he needs people to be aware of him and his brewery. Putting your own beer out in this method – like e-publishing – means that when you can eventually get the money together for a 5, 10bbl kit, or whatever, the market already exists for your products. Like e-publishing, it’s not the route to riches, but it removes that year of contracted beer that isn’t quite how you intended. How many contractees would have wished to control everything, exactly how they would wish, from the very beginning?
“If I balls up a brew, it only costs me twenty quid,” says Ollie. As we talk, Neil asks if I fancy a sample, whilst looking at his son’s man-bag. When I say yes, out come a couple of (actual) Sodastream bottles, brim-full of foamy beer. “I’ll just go and ask if we can do this here,” says Neil, before returning, request granted, with a couple of glasses. The beers are an IPA, which is good, but still conditioning, and a milk stout that is beautiful. Deep, sweet and lactic, it’s really very good. Alongside these two beers, upcoming brews will include a peppercorn Belgian rye pale ale, a cinnamon beer aged on apples, and a beer involving rose petals.
Clearly, Ollie is revelling in the freedom he currently has. Carbon Smith are so small in scale, his ‘trial batches’ are gallon brews. Using these to build up a portfolio, and gain local custom, could be all-important when he, and his father, scale up to a profit-making sized brewkit. By that point, another few breweries will be in Edinburgh, most likely, all going after the same market. Have Carbon Smith got the jump on them? All for the sake of completing a few forms, and having to strip the steam-peeling wallpaper from their kitchen?
Carbon Smith Brewing – Website and official Twitter feed. You can try their debut beer – the IPA – this Friday (the 11th), at the Potting Shed on Bristo Square. However, Ollie told me this is only ‘the softest of soft’ launches – an official launch will take place later in the year. Just look for the HUGE dog.