It may be one of the lesser-known travails of beer blogging – having to go up to total strangers in pubs and ask something like “Oh, hi – are you Mike?”. After arranging to meet a brewer in a pub, my personal record for the number of men incorrectly approached is three. Unless they are wearing some kind of merchandise, it’s a pulse-quickening guessing game that I’ve pretty much lost count of the number of times I’ve played. But when meeting up with new brewers following a period of emailing, short of appending photos to your Gmails (which I am no longer allowed to do, for legal reasons) what other way is there?
This crossed my mind moments before a pub-meeting with Jaan Ratsep, co-founder of Edinburgh’s Black Metal Brewery – surely one of the first black metal and blacksmith-influenced beermakers in the country. However, when a tall man appeared soon after, head to toe in black and with a mane of hair and plaited beard, I pretty much had my first potential approachee (also, he was carrying a clinking box of beer under one arm). Jaan – after a furious handshake and a trip to the bar for an (of course) black IPA, strode back and began talking – I started where I always do, by asking him how he got into brewing.
“I’ve been homebrewing for many years,” he answers. “Recently I’d been making mead, and I gave a couple of bottles to the beekeeper. The beekeeper knew someone with a farm and a secret herb garden just outside Edinburgh, so I thought we will bring the brewery here. Instinctively, I mean, I didn’t plan for it to happen.” Jaan talks a lot about fate, and things happening for a reason; time and again during our conversation his eyes widen as he mentions ‘happy accidents’ – occurrences that lead him down a certain path, or prevent him from heading down another.
One such occurrence was wandering into a new bottle shop he’d seen as he passed it on the way home from University (Jaan is currently studying for a PhD in molecular biology). Inside was Michael Hopert of Top Out, doing a tasting. A fellow European – Michael is German, whereas Jaan is Estonian but grew up in Russia – they also both like metal and brewing. Jaan told of his recently-found difficulty in the herb garden project; having built a 100 litre kit, he could not get the premises licenced – Michael listened, and then offered a spot contract-brewing on Top Out’s 1,000 litre kit. Jaan started in May, and is already putting his beer out in Edinburgh bottle shops.*
* Jaan officially released his Black Metal Brewery beers on Sunday, just gone, in Cloisters (I met him the week before).
“When I first got to Scotland, I didn’t drink for 7 months,” he continues. “My first impression of Scotland? I went to a pub and asked for a cup of tea. A lad turned to me and said ‘you’re asking for cup of tea in the pub mate? What the hell?’ [Jaan’s Scottish accent is pretty good] ‘I’m not drinking; I just came from Russia, where I did a lot of drinking as a teenager’ ‘Not drinking? You came to the wrong country, mate,’” he bursts out laughing. He then tells me how Russians make ‘bad drink’ – wiring a washing machine to spin continually at 30ºC, before adding yeast, sugar and water and leaving it for twenty-four hours to distil into alcohol.
Black Metal’s two launch beers are slightly more complex; Will o’ the Wisp – a 6% juniper smoked ale, and Yggdrasil, a 6.6% Pale Ale, dry-hopped with Amarillo. Even a few seconds spent chatting to Jaan, you realise he’s going to do things his way; launching with two beers over 6% doesn’t faze him in the slightest. “I feel that I belong to traditional styles, to heritage,” he says. (Yggdrasil is named after the world tree of Norse mythology). “Heritage can be anything from genetic, to spiritual, to cultural, and that’s always been a reference. My vision is traditionalism. I toyed with paganism quite a bit. Every complex problem is built of small, simple things.”
I have to ask him about the metal, and how he got into it. “I didn’t know about black metal, I went to a lot of gigs, gathered with the subculture, with the groups. The background was quite diverse. People say ‘ah, I grew out of metal’ – that doesn’t happen. There are other things in life, but with age, the last ten-fifteen years I have only grown into metal. I’m searching for roots, for the influences. It is pure, uncompromised.” How does metal translate into the beer? “It’s a liquid soundtrack. For me it is a synthesis of everything. I don’t use the word belief, because I’m not a believer. I just know.”
Throughout our conversation, Jaan drops things in that seem scarcely believable – such as his first job as a lab assistant in Russia; obtaining dog skeletons for research, or later, that he used to milk transgenic rabbits. Yet, at the same time, he talks about the difficulty of learning finance law and brewing legislation, and his desire to sell beer in the ‘most metal countries’ like Norway. He got so much into the idea of working with metal (in the non-musical sense) that he took classes in smithing. It’s clear he’s utterly serious about making his brewing career work – the PhD is on indefinite hold. I ask if science is useful to him.
“Oh yes, the analysis of things. Science is a tool which you learn to use; observe, analyse, make conclusions and act accordingly. Applied to brewing it works very well. Of course, there’s a lot of chaos – which is important, as well.” I finish as I usually do, by asking him what the endgame will be for the Black Metal Brewery. Usually when I ask prospective brewers where they would like to get to, they talk about bespoke 20bbl kits, or kegging, or whatever. But when I ask Jaan, he stops for a minute, before bursting out laughing.
“Where do I want to end up? Dead. In Valhalla!”
He elaborates. “I cannot foresee! [what the future will bring] Well, maybe I could but I don’t want to. The fight is now. Battle is now. Where I end up – what chaos brings me, I have no bloody idea. And I don’t want to have – because that distorts your perception. I want to see clearly. I need to deal with what is in front of me right now.”