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Borough Talks: how to join the drinks revolution

Categories: News and previews

Borough Talks, a series of public debates presented by Borough Market, explores some of the most interesting and important issues relevant to today’s food world. This time, our panel of experts shared their inside knowledge of the drinks world

Images: Adrian Pope

Moderator

Angela Clutton: Food writer, historian, co-chair of the Guild of Food Writers and Borough Market demo chef and Cookbook Club host.

Panel

Dave Broom: Glaswegian writer, broadcaster, lecturer and all-round expert on spirits and the art of distilling. Author of a dozen books, two of which have won the Glenfiddich Drinks Book of The Year award.

Tony Conigliaro: Internationally renowned drinks creator, founder of the Drink Factory consultancy and three acclaimed, mould-breaking London bars: 69 Colebrooke Row, Bar Termini and Untitled.

Catriona Felstead: A senior buyer at England’s oldest wine and spirit merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, and the company’s first ever female Master of Wine.

Dan Tapper: Food and drink writer and self-taught brewer who three years ago launched The Beak nano-brewery in his native Yorkshire, creating small batches of unfiltered, unpasteurised beers.

How did you each get into the industry?

Dave Broom: There was a sign on the window in a branch of Oddbins saying ‘help wanted’, so I went in and I got the job. I worked in-store for seven years, then ran a pub while writing about jazz and weird music. Then a job came up at Off License News. I spent seven years writing about all aspects of the drinks trade, then went freelance in 1995. I worked in a winery in Australia for a while because I figured, if I’m going to write about it I need to at least learn how to use a hose, which is effectively what I did. Then I began specialising in spirits.

Catriona Felstead: After uni, I started working for a Spanish petro-chemical company, but importing plastic and rubber wasn’t really floating my boat and at the same time I’d started getting into wine. I began working at Oddbins as a trainee manager and ended up a manager there, before moving to Berry Bros in 2007. I now specialise in buying from Spain, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.

Daniel Tapper: I started out making documentaries for the Guardian. Off the back of that, I fell into reporting about food issues. I eventually got bored and jealous of writing about people making food and decided to get brewing at home. I bought a nano-brewery, making 300 bottles at a time in the Yorkshire Dales, and began delivering that by bus in Leeds and Manchester. Now, it’s a nomadic brewery and I travel around the country, basically hoodwinking large breweries into letting me use their kit.

Tony Conigliaro: I started as a pot washer as a kid, working in pubs, then ended up at art school. I worked in the fashion industry for a few years, which I absolutely loathed, then started working for a friend of mine washing glasses. Everybody thought I was completely nuts; I absolutely loved it. I kept on going, ended up working with some incredible flavourists, chefs, bartenders and characters, and just stuck with it.

Dave Broom

What’s happening in your respective fields at the moment?

Dave Broom: We are in a golden age of spirits. There are new distilleries opening, new questions being asked. Wine, beer and spirits used to be very separate fields, now there’s an awful lot more cross-fertilisation—whisky distillers using brewing techniques, for example. People are fascinated by the science of flavour and there are some amazing innovations going on.

Catriona Felstead: In wine, we’re seeing a movement towards what we call minimal intervention winemaking. Essentially, it’s going back to the way wines were made centuries ago. In certain areas such as Australia it’s all been about the technical side in recent years, but they’re coming round now to the fact that actually, we should step back. And they’re getting better results.

What about the UK market?

Catriona Felstead: The UK wine market is increasingly polarised. The average spend on a bottle of wine is £5.40. On the other side, we’re seeing an increasing interest in the £10+ bottle sector. A lot more people are focused on quality and provenance—people want to understand where it comes from, what the story is, who the winemaker is and what his dog’s called. It’s what makes it interesting.

Dave Broom: People are treating spirits in a much more sensible way. My dad was a whisky drinker, he had a dram of whisky every night, but he never drank wine. Now as a consumer we think, tonight I’ll have a gin, then tomorrow I might have a beer. We’re more willing to try things.

Tony Conigliaro: London’s cocktail scene is probably the most diverse, and one of the most interesting, in the world. We have so many different people here from all over the world, and they all bring something to the table. There’s great communication between us. There are also so many different styles: hotel bars, dive bars, modern bars and so on.

What do you mean by ‘craft’?

Dave Broom: It’s a dreadful word, ‘craft’, certainly in the spirit world, it’s kind of like: argh, how can you say someone like Desmond Payne of Beefeater, who’s been making gin for 60 years, isn’t a craftsman?

Catriona Felstead: The wine term is ‘artisan’. The best wines are made ‘in the vineyard’: if you’ve got the right grapes, grown in the right way, and they are perfect when you harvest them, then the best thing to do when you’re in the winery is nothing at all. It’s almost an art in itself. You have to know exactly when to get involved and when to leave the wine alone. For me, those are the wines that have the most interest, the most terroir: a sense of the place where the grapes were grown.

Daniel Tapper: It’s such a hard question to answer because it doesn’t really exist as a concept in the UK—in the US, you have to be certified. A brewery has to make under 200,000 hectolitres and it has to be independent. In the UK, the problem we have now is multinational brands often masquerade as craft beer producers and the crazy thing is it is totally legal to do that, even if it hasn’t been made in a genuinely ‘craft’ way. A craft brewer should be committed to making beers that put quality and provenance before profit.

Borough Talks panel

What makes a good drinks writer?

Dave Broom: Ask why. I have been doing it a long time, but I learn something new with every glass I pick up. You’ve got to be humble, but also you’ve got to do the apprenticeship, the hard work. People assume they know something just because they’ve written a paragraph and their opinion matters. Opinion is a guide, but passing on knowledge is of much greater value.

How male-dominated are your respective fields?

Catriona Felstead: Historically, the wine trade was very male-orientated, but that’s rapidly changing. There are 355 masters of wine in the world and a third of them are women, which is brilliant. There’s no need to be afraid about getting into the wine trade if you’re a woman, it’s very much an open playing field. I do a lot of events and often more than half of our customers are women, who have very good, very valid opinions and are very interested in wine, like I am.  

Daniel Tapper: The brewing industry is a female industry historically: hops are female, yeast is generally female, and traditionally women brewed the beer and men served it. For some reason, over the last few hundred years women were slowly pushed out. But there’s a renaissance going on, some of the best brewers at the moment are female, Jenn Merrick won Brewer of the Year in 2015, Ilkley Brewery has a head female brewer. Women are creating some of the most exciting beers.

Tony, how do the creative and business aspects of what you do marry together?

Tony Conigliaro: When you first start being creative you just go nuts, it’s like unleashing wild horses. Over a period of time, you realise it’s not the most efficient way to work, or to run a business. Experiments cost, the machinery you buy to allow you to do certain things cost, so it’s a question of balance. A very wise friend of mine said, “to create chaos, you need a lot of order”, which is true. The more ordered the Drink Factory has become, the more creative we’ve been.

Tell us a bit about the creative process.

Tony Conigliaro: We start by coming up with stories. One of the drinks you’re going to try later on is called ‘snow’. We wanted to capture the notion of a snowflake landing on your tongue. We looked at flavours that can tell the story of that situation—we use flavour as a language to describe it. That drink took almost two years to make. It gives people something to talk about, even if it’s just a reaction to the drink.

Daniel Tapper: Some of my favourite beers have been barrel-aged. I got hold of some barrels from the Bolney Estate in Sussex and have been ageing a porter in that for the last year, so that will be interesting. We also spent a good amount of summer foraging for raspberries around the outskirts of Leeds and we’ve been ageing a sour beer with them. There are more breweries per capita in the UK than anywhere else and only 20 per cent of people drink craft beer, so as a brewer you need to find a way of setting yourself apart. I use my experience as a food writer to create beers that work particularly well with certain dishes.

Guests tucking into the spread of charcuterie, cheese and bread at the recent Borough Talk

What’s the best way to approach sales and marketing as a startup?

Catriona Felstead: You need to be really switched on to social media. In the past, you didn’t have direct interaction with the consumer, but now you have the option of having your story out there so anyone can google you, look at your site, your Twitter and it’s important to react to what people are saying and keep on top of it.

Daniel Tapper: When you are thinking of setting up a food brand, do not waste your money on a marketing company. In my opinion, it costs a lot of money and you just end up looking like somebody mimicking an authentic brand. It doesn’t look genuine. Consumers aren’t stupid—they see through marketing campaigns and recognise brands that don’t compromise.

Tony Conigliaro: Be creative with your marketing. If you see somebody else doing it, do something else.

If there was one technical piece of kit you’d like to see eradicated, what would it be and why?

Dave Broom: As far as distillation goes, I would say chill-filtering machines. They strip away mouthfeel and there are other ways to get round making a clear spirit—or we could just educate people to say, if you add water it might go cloudy. But removing mouthfeel is a bit daft.

Catriona Felstead: On the mass market side, there’s something called the spinning cone, which spins the wine around and is used to lower alcohol. It spins so quickly the component parts split up and then you put the wine back together and you have a reduced alcohol version. The wine has lost its soul.

Tony Conigliaro: Bad cocktail books. There are books like Dave Arnold’s book, which is just one of the most fascinating cocktail books ever made, but when people take his theories and regurgitate them and spin them around in a way that’s not scientific, I have a problem with that.

Daniel Tapper: I think filtration units in brewing are the devil’s work. I am also dead against finings, which are the dried swim bladders of sturgeon fish—you get them in a vast amount of cask beer. I’d like to see that removed.