Dave is the bearded one. He usually wears glasses and a big smile. Tom is the slightly taller one, with a generally more composed appearance. They are Dave Seymour and Tom Hutchings, two seemingly average guys. They are in fact brewers extraordinaire and have acquired quite a reputation in London, and beyond, with their brewery Brew By Numbers. They’ve grown from humble homebrewers to fully fledged brewery in record time.
I first came across them on a liquid night at the Craft Beer Co in Farringdon, their monochrome labels taunting me from the fridge. I bought one and have been back for many many more since. They were a part of the original trio of the Bermondsey Brewery Experience, along with The Kernel and Partizan. We’d been itching to talk to them for a while so when they invited us down to Bermondsey for a chat and a drink we were quick to accept. The guys had just finished up for the day when we turned up, and they invited us to help ourselves to beer.
Giddy by the prospect of free beer we grabbed a glass of their freshly made cucumber and juniper saison, and sat down to find out how they ended up being the talk of the town.
The guys met on a rock climbing tour in China. A meeting that would seal their fate, and bring much alcoholic pleasure to a lot of people. They carried on traveling through Asia together, riding motorcycles in Vietnam and Thailand. After that Tom went back to the UK and Dave ended up in Cairns, Australia. “I was introduced to a brew pub there, called Blue Sky. Seeing all these different beers, lined up from one brewery, it started to open up the possibilities for what could be done. I remember I saw this chart. On the left was warm fermentation, on the right was cold fermentation, on top was malty sweet and the bottom was hoppy bitter, and plotted onto it was all these different beers. It sparked an idea of what makes beers taste in certain ways.” From then on Dave was hooked. He visited microbreweries and he drank a lot of beer. He then moved to New Zealand and got a homebrew kit. He even tried getting a job in a brewery. He didn’t get it, but the seed of starting his own brewery was sown.
Meanwhile Tom was in the UK. He’d always had an interest in food and flavour, something he puts down to growing up in his howtown. “I grew up in Ludlow, Shropshire, which is renowned for its culinary skills and Michelin Stars. I’m really into food because of that.” He’d been visiting Dave in Australia, tasting what they had to offer in the crafty beer department. Tom’s also a long time friend of Toby Munn who had just landed a job at a little brewery called The Kernel. “He started bringing me these beers that he’d been making. I was just absolutely blown away by the flavours they were getting out of the simple, new world ingredients. I tried their Galaxy IPA, thinking Jesus, what is this? Where is all this pineapple coming from? That was the turning point for me. I was thinking how much I would love to be able to do something like that. And experiment with these things.” So the stage was set. The guys had both discovered the beauty of beer, and they both harboured a desire to be able to brew full time. A lot of beer nuts find themselves in this situation, but very few actually take it to the next level. But that’s exactly what Tom and Dave did. When Dave got back from New Zealand they met up, formed a plan, got some money together and bought the necessary kit. A friend of Tom had a basement they could use, and that was it. They were on their way, and as Dave puts it, “we’ve had the blinkers on ever since then. Get it done, get it done.”
They started out brewing part time, with both of them holding down other jobs. Tom was a freelance sound engineer. It paid well and he could be very flexible with his time. He was attracted to brewing because, unlike just recording sounds, he could make something much more tangible. Basically, he wanted to make things for the mouth, instead of the ears. Dave has a degree in product design, but he never really enjoyed the work when he left university. That’s why he went travelling. “The plan was to find out what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, where I wanted to live.” After a few failed jobs, pushing hot dogs and slaving away in a couple of kitchens on the other side of the world, he found coffee. He got really into it and spent a summer learning to be a barista. And that’s what he did for money while they learnt to brew – brewing coffee in the day, brewing beer in the evening.
They started brewing July 2011, three years after meeting in China. Starting a brewery from scratch, with zero experience, has obvious drawbacks. There’s so much to learn. But the guys also see some benefits. “We could play around with ingredients, we could try different things, push our boundaries and figure things out. We had more freedom to experiment.” And they weren’t completely in the dark. Dave had befriended Andy Smith at Partizan, and Tom made sure to use his contact with The Kernel to the max. “We’ve always stayed in touch with other breweries. And we’ve been the bearers of many many text messages, all day long, saying how do we do this, this has happened, how do we get out of this? They were happy to help.” Tom also spent time helping out at Kernel. “I was just enthusiastically washing bottles and asking them lots of annoying questions. Things like that really helps.”
We take a break, to refill our glasses. The cucumber and juniper saison was downright superb. An excellent, and somehow very English, summer tipple. The guys says that they’re also brewing a more classic saison that they’ll fortify with some gin from local Bermondsey distillery Jensen. From experience I know that this is something that you can do at home. Just try some of the cucumber and juniper saison with a shot of gin in it. It works, and it’ll make you seriously merry. Tom washes our glasses with a hose, water splashing everywhere, and we switch to their session IPA. It’s basically their take on a pale ale, but it allows them to pack an impressive amount of hops in there without geeks complaining about it not being true to the style. We sit back down and they resume their story.
The guys were pushing hard to get to a place where they could start brewing commercially. “We were almost tripping over ourselves trying to get it done. We had to learn as quick as we could. Get a business plan ready, get investment, get a brewery, make beer. With the two of us working on it together we could actually push it much much quicker than what either one of us would individually,” Dave says. They didn’t just want to come up with a range of beers and sell those. They wanted to keep on experimenting. This is how Tom explains it, “the way we started to go about it was trying to find new kinds of pathways to things that were more originally ours. Like practicing the shit out of brewing a saison, in many different ways, and doing different things to it, splitting batches, experimenting with different yeasts, different hops, adding things like cucumber and coffee and whatnot. As opposed to having a pale ale and a very standard core range of beers. That’s an integral part of the idea behind Brew By Numbers.” This approach to brewing is what became their concept – The Brew By Numbers, which is basically a cataloguing system consisting of two sets of numbers. The two first digits is the style number, and the two last is the version of it, or the recipe number. The cucumber and juniper saison we were drinking is the 01 03. I ask them if they’ve got OCD. They laugh and say that you probably need to have a bit of OCD to be a brewer. Either way, the system they’ve created is there to allow them to experiment, and to make it easy for drinkers to enjoy their range, and get excited about trying different styles. The first number is for the casual drinker, to decide whether you want a golden ale or a Witbier, the second number is for the geeks, who really wants to get into their beers. This system also has the added benefit of not having to name their beers. “We don’t have to come up with ridiculous puns. We can just allocate them a number.”
Another thing that’s really important for Dave and Tom is drinkability. They want to be experimental, without being mental. “It’s important to have something that is approachable. More thought provoking rather than challenging. Having people think, you can put these ingredients into beer, and they work. It’s all about balance really. Everything should sit nicely on the palate.” They want people to have one of their beers, think it’s great, and then want another. It shouldn’t be a struggle to get through. A large part of the guys focus on drinkability draws inspiration from Belgium, rather than the normal focus on hoppy Yank juice, that inspires a lot of the new breweries. Don’t get me wrong, I love to suck on the hoppy stuff too, and so do Tom and Dave, but for them it’s a way to make them stand out a bit. “There are lots of pale ales out there, so why feel the need that you have to add to that? Are you going to make the best pale ale? Try doing something a bit different,” Tom tells us.
If you go down to see them in Bermondsey, and you really should, you can’t help notice their impressive brew kit. It towers over you, in all its glory. It stands there as a grand trophy for the guys’ dedication as brewers. Especially when you learn that it’s all made bespoke for them, and they had to get really hands on getting it all working. “We wanted to create something rather than just get something off the shelf. The guys who fabricated it put it all together to our specifications. It was a challenging and fun process, and I think we always thought it would arrive finished.” It really didn’t. They had to do all the insulation, the cladding, the fittings and paint all the frames. “It’s something we’re a little bit proud of, that we got it all working. So far we haven’t had to throw any of our batches away. We always expecting something to go wrong. We’re really happy that we’ve created an original brew house.”
Dave and Tom are good guys. They’ve worked hard to build a business, starting from scratch, and just learnt everything as they went along. And they’re not ready to rest yet. Their plan is to keep on expanding, slowly and controlled, and make their beer go far and wide. Maybe they can also get to a place where they can hire more people to help out, especially on the business side. As Dave puts it, “moving half a ton of malt is far more preferable than sending ten emails.” They’re both the most happy when they’re climbing all over their steampunk brew house, brewing exciting and delicious beers for people to put in their faces. Or thinking up new brews to put out there.
They want people to be as excited as they are about different styles of beer, far beyond just pale ales and IPAs. It’s the reason they started brewing, and it’s the thing that makes them stand out. The guys are on a path that is solely their own, and I’m pretty eager to see where that path takes them.
Written by Per Steinar. Photos by Josh Smith.