It's hard to ignore the rising interest in beer culture. Many of you are diving into the stories behind independent brands and trying out new and unique beers. We thought it was a good idea to grab a good old-fashioned catch-up with widely respected and committed beer enthusiast Matthew Curtis.
Matthew is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer based in Manchester and is the co-founder of Pellicle Magazine. His work has also appeared in publications including Ferment, Hop & Barley, BEER and Good Beer Hunting, where he formerly served as UK Editor.
- A bit of a different year right, Matthew? Your past articles spoke a lot about discovering new and exciting breweries in the past. How has lockdown changed the way you research and share new beer brands?
Matt: I’m fortunate enough to have sat on some stories I’ve been working on since late 2019/early 2020 so for the early part of pandemic life I was able to pretty much carry on as normal. As well as features this has involved working on two books. The first, An Opinionated Guide to London Pubs, is due to launch on April 8th (just before pubs reopen!) I’m also currently working on my manuscript for a book called Modern British Beer, which is due out later this year.
As the pandemic became more of a lived experience rather than something that was just “happening” it did begin to influence my work more and more, however. You can’t talk to a brewery or anyone in hospitality now without talking about its huge effect on our lives and livelihoods. However, I’ve tried to keep telling positive stories about people doing great things as much as I can regardless, because people are still out there doing them despite everything that’s going on.Matt Curtis, co-founder of Pellicle Magazine.
- Which brands are you particularly fond of right now?
Matt: I try not to pick favourites because there’s over 2000 breweries in the UK, many of whom are doing amazing things. I relocated to Manchester after 15 years of living in London last year, and I’ve been enjoying a lot of the local breweries, particularly Cloudwater and Marble. Just outside of the city is a relatively new brewery called Rivington which has really hit the ground running. I’m a huge fan of a brewery in Sheffield called St. Mars of the Desert, and Burning Sky down in Lewes Sussex. I should probably give a shoutout to a London brewery too. I miss drinking Five Points Best in the Pembury Tavern, and Boxcar is making some of the most exciting beers in the city right now.
- We have seen a significant shift towards more consumers wanting beer and wine delivered straight to their door. What are some beer trends you have noticed over the past year, and what are you excited about moving forward? Apart from April 12th!
Matt: From a personal perspective it took me a while to embrace Zoom and virtual events, but now I feel we’ve got used to them they’re starting to get a lot slicker and more engaging. Beer in the UK can be hugely city centric, particularly in terms of bigger cities such as London or Manchester. Virtual events help people outside of these places feel more connected than they would previously, so I think these are now here to stay! I also think they’ll continue to get better as people find new ways to innovate and invest in some of the more affordable broadcast equipment out there. Sellers of cameras and microphones must be having a field day right now.
In terms of retail, I think a lot of people have enjoyed being able to purchase directly from breweries and other specialist bottle shops. Not going out certainly gives you a bit more disposable income, and I don’t see pubs filling to capacity like they used to until maybe 2022 or further beyond. I think the convenience of online retail will have a pretty heavy effect on hospitality, which in turn will need to find its own ways to innovate to get business back to where it was.
I can’t wait to go back to the pub though, I’ll be sat outside somewhere on the 12th with a pint for sure. Right after I’ve had a hair cut!
- More of our consumers have started asking about sustainable brands. How are craft breweries embracing sustainability?
Matt: We are seeing a positive shift from small and medium sized breweries in terms of sustainability. It’s not a new thing for some, with the likes of Stroud Brewery, Good Things, Purity and Black Isle up in Scotland operating this way for many years. Stroud is also a certified B Corp. Love them or hate them, however, BrewDogs increased focus on sustainability has really brought this closer to the fore of consumer consciousness, which for me is a huge positive. The more people we can get talking about it and acting on it the better. Brewing is a hugely inefficient process that uses a lot of water and energy and creates a lot of waste. Every brewery should be making an effort to be more sustainable.
It’s worth considering, however, that small breweries, even BrewDog, make up a relatively small part of brewing here in the UK. 72% of beer in the country is made by just five giants, and is those companies we need to be pushing for greater sustainability in order to see real, tangible progress.
- Tell us about your magazine, Pellicle. You cover all of the things we love, food and drink!
Matt: Pellicle is a joy to put together. The idea was actually my co-founder’s Jonny Hamilton—who is a brewer, and a talented one at that. He’s also a huge wine-head, and we both love cider, so we decided to create a publication that brings these worlds together, as alone they can be quite insular and there are many parallels between then we feel could make them less so.
We generally focus on telling positive stories via our website and podcast about producers and the amazing things they make. We also cover a little bit of food because that’s as much a part of this world as beer, wine or cider. We’ve been going for almost two years now and do intend to challenge ourselves a little more in terms of publishing stories that deal with social justice and the lack of equity in the industry. We have a big announcement to make on our second birthday, May 19th, regarding our efforts to push on in this regard, but at the same time won’t forget our core message is to publish joyful stories that make people hungry and thirsty.
We’re also proud to be predominantly funded by our readers via Patreon, this gives us full control of our editorial. People who would like to support us can do so at patreon.com/pellicemag
Okay, before we let you go, can we go back to beer basics and ask you some questions that most people would be afraid to ask.
- Before we start investing in new additions for outdoor garden gathering, does glassware really matter?
Matt: I don’t believe it does. You should take as much joy from swigging directly from a can or bottle as someone else might a highly polished chalice. Beer is something you should make your own, so I try not to dictate how people should or should not enjoy it. I like drinking beer from a glass because it helps those aromas come through, which makes the sensory part of drinking it more enjoyable, but you do you.
- To some, IBU may look like a random number. Why is it important to pay close to it, and what does it mean?
Matt: No, IBU, or international bitterness units, does not matter. On a technical level it helps the person who makes it understand how much isomerised alpha acid is present within the beer, but there are so many other factors that affect how we perceive bitterness, so to the typical drinker the number is utterly meaningless. About a decade ago breweries were locking horns over how many IBUs they could cram into a beer, which was an utterly pointless endeavour and ultimately turned a lot of people off some great beers for a little while. Bitterness is back though, which is good, because for me, good beer should be bitter.
- Does the kind of hop matter?
Matt: Only in so much as the grape variety matters in your wine, or the kind of apple in your cider. If these things matter to you then yes! There are hundreds of varieties, each with their own flavours and characteristics. Sometimes you can get beers made using just one variety, or more often you get beers made with blends of different kinds to create a tapestry of flavour. Hops from different countries will taste different too, just like in wine. It’s pretty exciting to me how varied the kinds of hops out there are now, and I certainly have my favourites (Simcoe, Amarillo, and East Kent Golding, for those interested.)
But it doesn’t have to matter. What matters is that the beer you are drinking is delicious. Not forgetting that hops are just one of four main ingredients. Water, malt and yeast have just as much effect on the flavour of the beer you’re drinking. It’s totally up to you how important any of that is though.
- If people don't know what they like, what's the best way of finding out?
Matt: Ask! Beer can seem like a super intimidating place and discussions among enthusiasts can get pretty heated online but there are plenty of folks out there, myself included, who are always happy to answer your questions, no matter how silly you think it may sound.
- When we can finally go back into a pub and order that pint. Is it rude to give it back if you don't like it?
Matt: It’s important to recognise the difference between a beer you don’t like and beer that’s genuinely faulty. A good pub should always have staff that can recommend something that’s to your taste, and also offer samples before you buy. A good sign that it’s not a great pub is if they refuse to let you taste the beer before you buy it! Obviously it’s not good courtesy to take advantage of this generosity.
Just as with a corked wine, or an undercooked meal, you absolutely should return a beer if you do think its faulty. But if you’ve declined to try it or ask for advice first and you end up with a perfectly good pint you’ve decided you don’t like, well, bottoms up!