Houses of Craft

Painting Outside the Lines – Brew By Numbers in London, England

A few years ago you’d have had little reason to walk down the back streets of Bermondsey. The gritty London borough lies just south of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from iconic landmarks such as Tower Bridge, The Shard, and foodie paradise Borough Market. Its landscape is made up of tightly packed apartment buildings and industrial estates, framed by grey skies and overhead railway lines, which cut through the mass of buildings like meandering brick and metal creeks.

The spaces beneath these arches have long been home to a collective of budget mechanics and other assorted industrial businesses. These streets were not the kind you’d feel safe walking down alone in the middle of the afternoon, let alone at night. But thanks to a program of refurbishment by UK transport authority Network Rail, these compact spaces at the wrong end of town have become gestation pods for all sorts of small businesses. Businesses like the three-year-old Brew By Numbers. It makes sense that, as a borough, Bermondsey now contains the highest concentration of breweries in London, and that none of them are more than six years old.

These days Bermondsey is an epicurean hotspot, home to cheesemongers, natural wine merchants, compact artisanal restaurants, and a whole lot more.  The first brewery to arrive on the scene was The Kernel, which was set up by former cheesemaker Evin O’Riordain in 2010 on Maltby Street, the heart of the area’s foodie culture. O’Riordain was inspired by the technicolor flavors he found in beers when visiting the United States. In turn, The Kernel’s varied and flavorful Pale Ales, Porters, and Stouts quickly began to inspire a brand new generation of brewers, including their friends at Brew By Numbers.

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Dave Seymour and Tom Hutchings met while traveling around Asia in the late 2000s. They went from China to Vietnam to Thailand, before Seymour split off to Australia and then New Zealand, while Hutchings returned home to the UK. In New Zealand, Seymour discovered an emerging craft beer culture and started homebrewing with malt extract kits. Back in London, Hutchings reunited with his friend Toby Munn, who had recently taken a job brewing at The Kernel.

“Toby used to bring his beers over to our place and they were amazing,” Hutchings says. Hutchings grew up in the Shropshire countryside to the west of England, and looks every bit the displaced farm boy with his tall posture, short, scruffy hair, and thick woolen sweater. “We were blown away by the flavors that they got from the new-world ingredients.”

His friend and business partner Seymour looks more like the archetypal South London brewer, with his thick-rimmed glasses, sharp haircut, and even sharper beard. “When Dave returned to the UK maybe a year or so after I did, and after seeing what was going on in other countries, he was really keen to set up a brewery,” Hutchings continues. “So we clubbed together and started working things out timing-wise.”

At the time, Hutchings was living with his girlfriend in an open-plan basement whilst working as a freelance sound engineer. Seymour was working part-time in a local coffee shop. They started homebrewing more seriously in their spare time.

“The fact that I was freelance and Dave was part-time was important because we could properly invest our time into making beer,” Hutchings says. “While I was learning about beer I was also helping out at The Kernel and asking them loads of annoying questions about how to brew.”

The pair had a penchant for recipe experimentation and were keen to quickly iterate on their ideas. They decided to get creative. “In order to come up with something that was more unique to ourselves we’d take a basic recipe and we’d split it into different batches,” Hutchings says. “For example, we might have tried a different type of yeast, or different regimes of dry-hopping. We might also add other ingredients to it such as coffee or, well, whatever we had, really!”

Each brew and the resulting split batches were numbered accordingly. This left them with two numbers: one for style, another for each variation on that style. From this simple system for rapid experimentation both the name and ethos of Brew By Numbers was born, and things began to progress quickly.

“We pushed each other hard to make it happen,” Hutchings says. “We developed our brand and launched our beer from the basement doing 60-liter batches. We tested our beer in the marketplace, finished a business plan, gained investment, moved out of the basement and into the railway arch.”

While Brew By Numbers were establishing themselves on Enid Street, The Kernel was completing an expansion and settling into a new home nearby at a location called Spa Terminus. The Kernel had also donated its old brewhouse to another new brewery called Partizan that was setting up just a little further down the road. Just like that, in a few weeks, Bermondsey’s brewery count tripled.

“It was great when Partizan and Brew By Numbers opened,” Kernel founder O’Riordain says. “We’ve known both of them for a long time before they launched their breweries, and were excited when it finally happened. It’s great to have good friends, and proximity makes that so much easier. We all help each other out.”

But being so close to their friends at The Kernel was not always part of the plan. “Initially we thought we didn’t want to be near The Kernel because we’d already relied on them so much for advice, as well as raw materials and we wanted to distance ourselves from them a bit,” Hutchings says.

Originally, they’d put in an offer on a railway arch in nearby Battersea, but the deal fell through.

“At that point The Kernel were like, ‘Well, why don’t you come and join us in Bermondsey?’” Hutchings continues. “And we thought, all right, that makes sense! At the time, there was only Kernel, Partizan, and ourselves here. Just the other week they borrowed some chemicals off us. If someone needs a bag of malt or some hops, we’re here for each other.”

Wilf Horsfall of nearby co-op homebrewing space UBREW concurs.

“Being a brewery in Bermondsey has its advantages,” he says. “It's not massively uncommon for us to lend a hand to each other when we're in a jam. The other day our bottle supplier failed to make a delivery ahead of the weekend, and The Kernel very generously lent us some bottles to get through the dry patch. Similarly, we let Brew By Numbers make use of our grain mill a little while back when they ended up with uncrushed Maris Otter by mistake. It's a nice ecosystem.”

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With its eye-catching branding, bold, flavorsome beer, and close proximity to the already well-established Kernel, Brew By Numbers quickly became a popular spot for the beer in-crowd—especially on Saturday afternoons when they transform the front of their arch into a makeshift taproom.

It wasn’t just the attention of beer geeks that they managed to capture though. Brew By Numbers also turned the head of one Mr. James Watt, owner and founder of Brewdog. Watt invested £50,000 into Brew By Numbers under the guise of a plan he called the Brewery Development Fund. However, after becoming dismayed with the increasing prevalence of brewery takeovers, 18 months later, Watt sold his stake in the brewery back to them at cost.

“We loved the guys, loved the beers, and wanted to support them as best we could,” Watt says. “As well as investing we helped out with equipment advice and distribution. With recent developments in the craft beer industry, we felt it was no longer right for us to hold equity, even a small and non-controlling stake, in another craft brewery. So we sold our stake back to Tom and Dave, at cost, giving them a great deal and ensuring both they, and us, were 100% independent.”

Regardless of his u-turn, the effect of Watt’s initial investment was permanent, and Brew By Numbers received a boost that positioned them as one of the leading young lights in UK craft beer. It also gave them the leverage they required to give their investors a little more faith, and has allowed them to gradually expand into a second arch and recently order a brand new bottling line, which will be installed in a matter of weeks. The latter’s a big deal, too—until now, the Brew By Numbers team has been laboriously bottling by hand.

When The Kernel opened in 2010 they started with a taproom so their customers could stop by and buy fresh beer from the source. In the U.S., this is fairly commonplace, but in the UK it was still quite unusual at the time. Saturday afternoons at The Kernel were a huge draw—for what was then just a small and cliquey crowd of beer enthusiasts.

It made sense that when Brew By Numbers and Partizan opened they did the same thing. But quickly, these chilled-out, weekend-only taprooms spawned a monster now known colloquially as the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Seven breweries now crowd the area, including the slick and savvy Fourpure (now the largest brewery in Bermondsey), young innovators Paul Anspach and Jack Hobday and their eponymously named Anspach & Hobday, the traditionally minded and cask ale-focused Southwark Brewing Company, and UBREW.

“Anything that’s successful like that becomes a victim of its own success,” Hutchings says. “And I think the beer mile is a good illustration of that.”

Following loads of positive media coverage, the Beer Mile spilled into the mainstream. Suddenly the quiet streets of Bermondsey overflowed with people on a Saturday afternoon. Bachelor parties became common, and they’d guzzle glasses of strong IPA as they crawled from taproom to taproom. The foodie crowd from the nearby Maltby Street market began to cross into the realm of beer, and tourists soon realized that great beer was just a stone’s throw away from the landmarks they were there to see. Shit got crazy, and fast.

In September 2015, struggling to provide the atmosphere and level of service they craved, The Kernel decided to close their taproom and only sell retail bottles for off-premise drinking instead. The beer geeks, such as the tightly-knit London RateBeer community who often drank together at The Kernel, felt cheated by the mainstream.

“I think there’s always going to be a problem with anything in London that doesn’t really require any ticketing and is accessible,” Hutchings says. “We have security on a Saturday now, but before then I remember thinking, ‘If shit kicks off, I don’t really know how we’ll handle it.’”

Hutchings is honest about the importance of the taproom, though, particularly when it comes to protecting his margins.

“It’s a great thing to have, especially for a young business,” he says. “The rent here isn’t exactly cheap, and we find that competing with other breweries that aren’t based in London, especially with exports, can be a bit harder because our running costs are so much higher. So having the taproom is one way we can offset that a bit.”

As Brew By Numbers has grown, so has the number of talented people on Seymour and Hutchings’ team. For starters, there’s Bates (When asked for his full name, he said, “Just Bates.”), a true journeyman, who hails from South Carolina and speaks with a deep southern twang. Bates formerly worked with London pseudo-American restaurant chain Meat Liquor, where he helped design its menu, including the award winning Dead Hippie burger. He prides his skills as both a butcher and a chef, and his penchant for experimentation and ability to accurately dial in flavors have made him an invaluable asset to the brewery. On my visit he’s brewing up 25|05, a White IPA hopped with Citra and Enigma.

“The scene was immensely young here in 2010, and honestly, there were just no opportunities in the beer scene that excited me, so I didn't really dive into any particular brewery jobs,” he says. “I was happy making my own beer, researching, experimenting, and keeping up to date with new tech and methods. Eventually, the UK started catching up with the States, and I got a job tightening up and opening kitchens for a certain Scottish brewery. I made some great contacts, but didn't jibe with the higher ups there, so I left after about a year… I took on an assistant job at Brew By Numbers then, and a few months later, was made head brewer. I’ll be damned, here we are.”

Then there’s my friend and recent GBH podcast guest, Chris Hall. He supports Head of Sales—and Oregon expat—Jeremy Luz in a sales role, looking after the brewery’s media and communications.

Hall pours me a glass of an eminently bright and juicy session IPA. This version, 11|05–11 is the fifth recipe in the series, and is single-hopped with Citra. It sits hazy in the glass with a thin cap of foam, and comes with that unmistabkly catty/grapefruit aroma. Both the bitterness and the alcohol are dialed right down. This beer sits at just 3.8%, really letting the hop shine. It’s the kind of beer of which you could easily cane pint after pint.

Alongside stacks of kegs and bottles are several barrel aging projects. Imperial Stouts rest in Cognac, red wine, and bourbon barrels. At the back of the warehouse, a giant sliding door reveals a warm room. It’s here that Brew By Numbers bottle conditions its beers, which range from the U.S.-influenced styles, to Porters and Stouts, Saisons and Grisettes, to the newly released 14|03, a Belgian-style Tripel that showcases the Australian hop, Ella. It balances the white pepper spice and funk of the Belgian yeast strain with a distinctively rounded juiciness from the Aussie hops.

“Biggest difference between there and here is, to sum up in a word, maturity,” Bates continues. “The scene there is a good decade ahead, there is no more opening with cobbled equipment or a non clear vision of the business. You have to open with your A game in the U.S. You get one chance, no muddling about or putting out half-ass beers, or you'll be dropped like a hot potato. All those new breweries doing things better, more consistent and with an eye to the future nipping at your heels will quickly overtake you.”

“In London we’re trying to do lots of things with chefs and restaurants, that kind of thing,” Hutchings says. “We’d like some of our beers to be considered alongside wine, to be served with a meal. That’s part of the reason why we also do 750ml bottles.”

Recent Brew By Numbers collaborations have included producing a Porter for high-end steak restaurant chain and a Matcha Green Tea Saison for award winning chef Tim Anderson and his Japanese fusion restaurant, Nanban. Future plans include potentially opening their own bar, or at least creating an improved offer to their existing taproom space, which is as popular as ever. But the big question is why Brew By Numbers have eschewed the stability of building a core range of beers, instead choosing to continue with the experiments that began in the basement, just on a larger scale.

“From the onset we weren’t really interested in being a core range brewery,” Hutchings says. “There are so many other breweries that are doing that. If you’re going to do that, you’ve either go to do that better than everyone else or cheaper than everyone else. I think there’s a lot more room for creativity within beer, a lot more styles that people are just starting to get into.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene.

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