‘Do you want something to drink?’ Andy Smith welcomes me wearing a woolly hat and a medium to heavy hangover. It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Bermondsey and I’ve just stepped into the brewery of Partizan Brewing under the arches in 8 Almond Road. One side of this little brew den is decked out with tanks and tubes, the other side is covered with tall stacks of boxes, presumably containing bottles of Andy’s most excellent brew. Scattered around are small rickety benches ready for the weight of the ever-growing group of thirsty beer fans making the pilgrimage out here to try the beer. If you’ve ever been to The Kernel, a 10-minute walk westwards from here, you know the drill. Show up, sit down, drink some delicious beer, buy bottles and go home a tiny bit more animated than you were.
Andy, and his business partner Andy (there are a lot of Andys in brewing), are busy setting up shop for the day. ‘We open at 11 but people usually don’t show up until about 1’. I take him up on his offer of a drink and he makes a special brew just for me, right there in his brewery. It’s a Yorkshire Gold. Yes tea, not beer. That comes later. Who the hell drinks tea in a brewery I hear you say? Well, brewers do, for the most part. ‘I ride a bike home and I’m usually not too drunk to do to that. Might have a bottle with lunch and maybe a couple at the end of the day. I’m trying to be careful out there’. He tells me that it’s the back and the liver that gets it the worst when you’re a brewer. It’s good to know that he’s looking after himself. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to this jovial and bearded northern lad who has quickly become one-to-watch on the London brew scene.
‘It’s going quite well for us now. The beer is selling quickly. We sell about 70 cases a week and I’ve only got about 45 cases on site, so sometime next week we’ll be out of beer’. Before you start pulling out your hair in desperation over the prospect of not having any Partizan beer available, know that Andy is brewing at maximum capacity. ‘We’re only supposed to brew once a week but at the moment we’re brewing three times a week’. It’s fair to say that Andy is doing really well. Especially considering that Partizan has only been around since November last year. ‘It’s kind of amazing, I can wake up every day and there are lots of nice comments on Twitter. We seem to be getting good feedback from everybody. I go on RateBeer to check the comments there. It can be quite obsessive. I try not to check too often’.
So what’s the secret? Why’s Andy doing so well after just a couple of months of brewing? Well, for starters he’s not new to brewing. He’s learnt the craft under the watchful eye of Andy Moffat at Redemption. He’s also been an avid home brewer, first in Leeds, before he moved to London, and then while he was at Redemption. ‘My first brew was from a starter kit. I brewed it with a friend because we didn’t have much money and wanted to get drunk. I remember I thought it tasted surprisingly nice. Then I had a brew kit at Redemption. Sometimes I would just have to flip a switch and wait six hours, so I had some time to experiment’.
After two years of helping out at Redemption he got restless. ‘Andy [Moffat] is such a nice guy. He would almost literally push me out the door at the end of the day. So it ended up being a 9-to-5 job. He also wanted full control in the brew room so there wasn’t much room for me to grow there. We had a chat and he recommended that I either go to a more technical brewery, like Thornbridge, or that I start on my own’. In the beginning this idea of going at it himself was foreign to him. I guess it’s a daunting prospect for any young brewer who feels like they need some change. But then Evin O’Riordain at The Kernel offered him his old brew kit, free of charge. Let’s just say that Andy’s working hours are now a lot more flexible. Goodbye 9-to-5, hello brewing my brains out.
And that’s the second clue to why Andy is doing so well. He seems to know the right people. And these right people seem to be eager to help him out. Which is a testament both to his skill as a brewer and the fact that he’s a really nice guy. ‘I’ve got a lot of backup from both Andy and Evin. I can always walk over to Kernel for a cup of tea and some advice, or some ingredients’. This just reinforces my impression of the brewing scene in London at the moment. A lot of dedicated brewers, young and old, all helping each other out to make amazing beer. It makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.
The range of beer on offer this cool and sunny winter Saturday was a pale ale, an IPA, a stout and a porter, all of which are seriously delicious. But this range is not here to stay. ‘I won’t have a set range. At the moment I think it’s only the stout that’ll stay. What I brew will be decided by what ingredients I can get. I want to be free to experiment and brew what I feel like’. This focus on ingredients and drive to experiment hints at something rooted deep in Andy, something I believe is the third thing that counts greatly to his advantage. Andy used to be a chef. Without any formal education in catering he worked his way up as a line chef, toiling away. ‘I think being a chef taught me good routines and organisation. It gave me good work ethics. Working as a chef can be really hard and you have to work long hours. I once worked a 23 hour shift’. But he also says there are some big differences. ‘With cooking you can taste as you go along, so you have more control. With brewing you can’t taste it until it’s finished. Actually it’s the yeast that does all the work. Our job as brewers is to make the wort, and then the yeast do the actual brewing’.
This is what I consider to be Andy’s strong point. And only time will tell if I’m right or not. I have a great admiration for chefs. Good chefs that is. Because far down in the substrata of the central core of any good chef-brain is the desire to create – to experiment, to learn new things, change if they have to, carry on through thick and thin, with an absolute focus on ingredients and technique, in a never ending pursuit to create deliciousness. And after talking to Andy I thoroughly think that this is a part of his brewing DNA. The heritage from his chefing days. During our conversation he mentions a few things that make me extremely excited. He talks about barrel ageing and growing the yeast from his friend’s super rare 3 Fonteinen J & J Oude Geuze Blauw so he can use it in a brew. He talks about his Saison Experiments – four different saisons – a straight one, which should be out soon, a dry hopped one, which should be ready in a couple of week’s time, one made with apricots, or raspberries, or maybe something else, and a big bold dark one made with sour cherries, sometime in the future. He also wants to try to create something similar to the Aventinus Schneider Weisse, the first beer that really opened his eyes to the fact that beer could be delicious. ‘It’s eight percent but it’s so easy to drink. It’s amazing’. He’s tried a couple of times already but never been happy with the results. We can only wait to get a glimpse at what Andy’s got up his sleeve, but it all sounds ever so glorious to me.
Andy’s not just eager to push the limits of what he can brew, he’s also keen for beer to get a better reputation, on par with wine. ‘Beer is great with food. It’s so varied and has so many different flavours. The traditional wine and cheese doesn’t really go together. The acidity in the wine dries out your mouth so you can’t really taste the cheese. Beer on the other hand is great with cheese’. Beer might have some way to go before the general public takes it as seriously as wine. One important step towards the goal for Andy is that his beer looks the part. ‘I think it’s important to have a branding that is good enough for fine dining. When I was at Redemption I remember we went to St John, probably my favourite restaurant, and they were serving our beer behind the bar. Seeing it in place like that, and how it fitted in, was really cool’. You only have to take a quick glance at Partizan’s bottles to see that Andy knows what he’s talking about. His labels feature a gang of oddballs contorting themselves to spell out the style of the beer, all beautifully drawn by a very talented illustrator by the name of Alec Doherty. ‘We gave him free reins to do whatever he wanted. I’m really happy with them. We’re planning to have a mural made at the back wall of the brewery. It’ll show all the characters from the labels meeting up together’.
When it comes to the future of Partizan Andy’s taking it one day at a time. He’s planned up until the fourth saison, and not much further. The good ship Partizan is going where the wind blows. The wind being Andy’s desire to experiment. But Captain Smith also sees the need to expand. ‘I have no desire to become a huge brewery. But it would be nice to grow a bit. Get some fancy brewing equipment. It would be great to have staff here as well. Andy [Karran] has just taken a week off from his job to come down and it’s been much nicer having somebody else in the brewery. Usually it’s just myself’. Apart from fighting loneliness, growing a bit also means that he’ll be able to brew more regularly and get a bit of stability. ‘It would make us more secure. If there’s a bad harvest next year we would be in trouble. We’re not in a very secure position yet’. And then he tells me something that frightens the spinal fluid out of me. Something that is a potential threat to the whole craft beer fairy tale. ‘One of the last things Gordon Brown did before they kicked him out was to bring in the small brewery’s duty relief, which means that if you brew less than 50,000 litres a week you pay half the beer duty. Which is the reason all these small breweries have sprung up in these last few years’. Cameron and Osborne, if you’re reading this, I expect you’re both browsing obscure blogs while procrastinating the day away, for the love of everything that is holy, don’t touch this amazing tax cut. It brings us all so much happiness. The thought of a world without breweries like Partizan is dark and horrific as hell.
After our chat Andy pours me a bottle of his porter and I take a pew on one of the rickety benches. I feel privileged sitting in his brewery, drinking this amazing freshly brewed porter, the sun gleaming off the brewery floor. My solitary meditation is interrupted by a car pulling up outside. It’s another customer. He’s after a case each of the pale ale and the IPA. This man obviously loves Partizan and I can tell by the way he talks that he’s excited to be here and to meet Andy. And then Andy invites him to smell the fermenter. He tells him that it smells amazing at the moment. The man shoots me a look and his eyes says “look at me, I’m going to smell his fermenter, I didn’t expect this when I got out of bed this morning, that I would be sniffing fermenters. Here I go.”