INTERVIEW: Moor Beer Co’s Justin Hawke 

Moor Beer’s supremo Justin Hawke in his own words. Interview by Adrian Tierney-Jones

 

How does it feel to be the British Guild of Beer Writers’ brewer of the year?

It was quite a fantastic moment. Getting beer awards is always nice, but this one was quite emotional and it felt like a lifetime achievement. It was also special coming from the Guild as my inspiration for beer came from my dad’s reading of Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, whose books I have on my desk here. To have Roger there shaking my hand, that was a fantastic thing.

You went to Croatia the day after the awards, what was that like?

It’s fascinating for me to go out to these countries and watch the beer scene explode. I was in Italy in its early stages and in Spain.

Is Spain the new Italy?

Not yet, but it does have some amazing places, but Italian beers are just fantastic.

I agree, though I did have a dreadful Puglia beer with artichokes in it a couple of years ago. Just why? Why?

I like artichokes and I like beer, but not together. I call such things gimmick beers or shock beers. I can’t stand so much of the crap coming out these days, it’s not my thing at all. We tinker around the edges, but these are always things that will enhance the beer. The mango tea pale ale we have done, the beer was designed around it and it all worked, but we are never going to put caramel syrup or whatever in beers.

Modern real ale is what you call your beers, was this a conscious decision to use that phrase?

Our philosophy has three core components: there’s the Californian one, where everything has to have a lot of flavour; there’s the German one, what is called naturaltrub, unfined hazy beers. By the way, I wish I’d never made up the word unfined. I hate it. When I tried to change it to natural beer it didn’t stick. As for the third component, because I love real ale and its drinkability, that came from the UK. Those three things to me made it modern.

Why did you want to get into brewing?

My dad started me on drinking when I was a kid. Not drinking drinking, but the culture and the flavour. He lives in Las Vegas (pulls a face), but on the outskirts and never go to the strip. He had a business in LA selling antique prints and framing them and they travelled back and forth to the UK and that’s where my love of this country came from. They were selling high value stuff to actors and the like but they then got into reproducing it and selling it to hotels out there.

I remember him and my uncle drinking Paulaner Dunkel one day and my dad said, ‘if you’re going to drink you should know what the good stuff tastes like’ so I had a sip of beer. I was around five, I liked it, he used to give me sips. Then there were Michael Jackson’s books. We would also go to liquor stores and look at bottles. That’s how I learned about beer. As I got older, I didn’t think I could brew beer, you thought someone else could do that but when I was at West Point my tac officer (he was a captain responsible for discipline for a group of us) was a home brewer. There was a time when we had to do a formal dinner at his house and he pulled out his home brew and it was amazing and he was like, ‘yes I made it’. He also had home brew catalogues and the like and that was my inspiration and I realised I wanted to brew.

The funny thing I saw his photo in the news a couple of months ago. He’s a major-general now and responsible for the disaster relief in Puerto Rico and coincidentally I knew someone who was deployed out there and I got in touch to ask him if he ever saw Buchanan. He replied that he did now and again. So I asked him if he would do me a favour and go up to him and tell him that because of his inspiration I got into brewing. The next day he ran into him and he took a photo together and he loved it.

So was there a lightbulb moment when you thought, I want to do this?

Yeah, that was when I learnt to home brew and like every home brewer I wanted to open my own brewery. In the UK it is so easy, probably the easiest in the world. This is good and bad, I get where everyone is coming from cause I had the same journey, but the beer world is different now, you have to have quality, it’s not enough to want to be a brewer.

I was living in San Francisco when I learned to home brew. The Speakeasy brewpub was a big inspiration and I was originally going to take a job at Steelhead. They were Oregon based but had several brewpubs around San Francisco. I was a business consultant at the time and earning good money and I was offered a job as an assistant brewer, which was $8 an hour. My friend who was head brewer said, ‘save your money and when you have enough go and open a brewery’, so I took his advice.

I had always wanted to do it in England, so my wife and I moved to England, and we saved money for 10 years, still working as business consultants. I was also a CAMRA member. I remember seeing a brewery in the West Country for sale in What’s Brewing, so I went down and saw the place, and the owner told me that he just wanted to sell it. We talked and discovered that we had a lot of similar ideas and I somehow got him re-inspired and we were going to work together. Then I was in Germany seeing a customer and he gave me a call — this was before we’d done all the paperwork and money — and he said that I had had him all fired up, but that he knew that within a month he would want out again. He didn’t want to drag me and my family down to the West Country and then pull out.

It was a good thing of him to do it, but I had come down to the area and liked it and then I read about an award-winning brewery up for sale or partnership. This was Moor as it was then. So I met the owner and he told me about his plans, about making the brewery site, which was a farm, a retail outlet and there were some good ideas. The brewery was shut at the time and there was nowhere to drink the beer, but new kit was being installed. So it all seemed good until I moved down. This is the beauty and the problem of the UK, someone who had no background in professional brewing, who had been playing around on other kits, I didn’t know any better, I would open up the back door to do cask washing and there would be a bull looking right at me. From the outside I saw champion winter beer, the vision and new kit, this all made sense for someone who was keen but it got sour.

That was then. I was pleased to read about Moor’s new tap room in Bermondsey.

We are not going to brew there, it will be for our barrel ageing projects. We will grow organically — at the moment we produce 6000 h/l a year, though we have the capacity to do 9000 or even 10,000, beyond that we will see what the steps are from there.

What’s all this thing about Star Wars, your office seems to be plastered with posters?

Who doesn’t like it? I’m so looking forward to The Last Jedi.