Mike Marcus is a beer brewer based in Manchester. But he wasn't always. Once he was a fine artist and filmmaker living in London. He liked beer but you wouldn't have called him a fanatic—he'd drink socially, for enjoyment, and usually old fashioned real ales. He dabbled in a bit of home brewing and thought it was something he might like to take further, without having any concrete plans.
Then one day six years ago, he tried a beer brewed by Kernel Brewery, and everything changed.
"I was blown away," remembers Marcus. "I never knew what hops could do—it was a revelation."
So Marcus went out and bought every single Kernel beer he could find and drank them all. For most people, this would lead to a chronic case of brain pain and a heartfelt desire to never drink anything made from hops ever again.
But not Marcus. Instead, he picked up the phone and called the guys at Kernel.
"I said, 'What you're doing is amazing and I want to brew like you. Can I come in and work for free?'"
They said yes and the rest is history.
Marcus learned all he could about brewing, moved to Manchester (where rents were lower and there was not an established craft brewing culture), and now runs Chorlton Brewing Company. The brewery has since built a reputation across the UK as specialists in sour beer.
Sour beers are pretty much what the name suggests—beers that taste sour.
"Hops are traditionally used to give bitterness but sour beer uses a technique called dry hopping," explains Marcus. "Normally you create your mash, which is the grain and hot water, and then you add hops to that when you boil it. But with dry hopping, you add lots of the hops during the fermentation process at the end instead.
This process changes the flavour of the beer.
"It means you don't have the bitterness that you normally associate with beer," says Marcus. "Instead it tastes sour and you have all these mad hoppy flavours. We use sour flavours to balance out the sweetness of the hops, and it works just as well as bitter flavours for that purpose."
Marcus decided to brew sour beer for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives Chorlton Brewing Company a unique selling point—something important in the crowded world of craft beer.
"If you're making an IPA—well, so is almost everyone else," says Marcus. "So unless you have a story to tell, you are going to get lost in the noise. Yes, we are using a German tradition that goes back 500 years, and no, we are not the first brewery to bring this to Britain, but we've focussed on it in a way that no one else has."
The other reason was down to the tastes of Marcus's then-girlfriend, who didn't like the bitterness of beer.
"After I'd been to Kernel, I was on a journey of discovery to find out the kind of beer I wanted to brew," he explains. "My girlfriend at the time didn't like beer and I was trying to work out why. She said: 'It tastes beery' and I would ask, 'Well, what is beery? What does that mean?' Eventually I discovered she hated the bitterness but loved the hoppy flavours. Sour beer is a solution for that, because you keep the hops but lose the bitterness."
And Marcus's ex isn't alone in thinking this—a lot of people don't like beer for exactly the same "beery" reason.
"I wanted to make something everyone could enjoy," continues Marcus, "and by getting rid of the bitterness, it opens up beer to a far wider audience. Some people think we are a brewery for beer geeks and hipsters, but I don't think that is what we are. I want our beer to end up in the hands of a housewife from Basingstoke."
Bottom line: sour beer is accessible.
Indeed, the first thing I notice about Chorlton Brewing Company beer is that it doesn't taste like beer at all—or at least, it doesn't taste like what I expect beer to taste like. It stings your tongue with its sharpness, and feels far closer to cider than a pint of best bitter.
Then the hops kick in, and they taste almost like tropical fruit—mangos, melons, lemons. If I were to get all Jilly Goolden on you, I'd say I was getting "the breath of pine trees, the sparkle of Haribo Tangfastics and a whiff of Um Bongo."
So how can hops—the crops responsible for creating the great British brown ale with its tannic tea-like taste—be responsible for so much flavour?
Explains Marcus: "English hops were bred for bitterness, and you didn't want too many flavours getting in the way. They had varietal differences, but were all understated. Then in America after Prohibition, people went crazy and started breeding all these crazy flavours. It is kind of like the thing that has happened in Amsterdam with cannabis, where you get strawberry this and blueberry that. It isn't bred just to get you stoned but for different tastes. That's what has happened with hops."
Now Marcus tries to find new, novel, and never-before-tried hops and use them in his beer. He keeps the base of the beer—the grain part—the same, but adds in a different hop variety. Some are so new they don't even have a name yet, like a can he offers me that is labelled "ADH529."
"We can do a decent sour beer out of any hop, but with some you get something special," he says. "We're moving away from the printed cans to label cans where we can be more flexible and do smaller runs. Finding new hops means keeping your ear to the ground and listening for whispers. But it is also about a technical understanding. Every hop has a spec sheet online and if you know what you're reading you can guess what it might taste like."
Finding these new hops is, for Marcus, part of the fun. But Chorlton Brewing Company's small-run, high-change model is not what he originally set out to do.
"Originally I wanted to have our main beer, Amarillo Sour, in every off-license. But the craft beer market is obsessed with novelty, and that has pushed us in this direction, he says. "There are a lot of breweries vying for attention but the market's focus on novelty has affected us. It isn't a bad thing that we use different hops each time, but it isn't what I originally envisioned."
Ironically, when I visit Marcus, he isn't actually brewing sour beer—he's trying something new with a stout.
"One of the advantages of being small is you can make experiments," he says. "Some of our best stuff has come out of us doing something new, making mistakes along the way, and accidentally creating something interesting."
The company now brews its own lagers and, yes, even an IPA.
"We are making IPAs now, but we're putting our spin on it," says Marcus. "People are so focussed on the label IPA that if you want to stay in business it is hard to avoid using it."
Which leads me to wonder what the future might hold for Chorlton Brewing Company. Will Amarillo Sour ever end up in your local off-license, or will Marcus continue to diversify and try different things?
"It is a struggle because it tends to be the beer geeks and specialist beer shops who are our main customers," admits Marcus. "We've not worked out how to get to those people who have no preconceptions about what we are doing and just want something that tastes good."
Finding a new audience isn't Marcus's only problem—he faces increasing competition from within the craft brewing industry, which has expanded enormously in just a few years. When Marcus began Chorlton Brewing Company some two years ago, it was only the second brewery on a small strip of industrial units located under a bridge near Manchester's Piccadilly Train Station. Now, there are "eight or nine" packed into the area, with others popping up elsewhere too.
"All we can do is focus on our product," says Marcus. "We're not going to do gimmicks, we're not going to shout about who we are or make it all about the image. We just want to make good beer."
By the taste of that Amarillo Sour, it seems like they've succeeded.