Malton is a small market town in North Yorkshire, that has in recent years, been given the accolade and title of Yorkshire’s Food Capital. The town has taken great leaps in the food and drink industry, with independent businesses, Groovy Moo Ice Cream, Rare Bird Distillery, Roost Coffee and many more becoming key establishments that have made Malton a real visitor attraction.
At the heart of it all though, is the town’s beer scene; Beertown is one of the north’s stellar beer festival, Bad Seed Brewery continues to win awards, but leading the charge, is their town centre brewery, Brass Castle. Combining the best in traditional and modern brewing styles and flavours, Brass Castle is one of the UK’s leading, wholly vegan and gluten-free brewery. As a huge fan of the brewery and core range (including Bad Kitty and Fruit Lupe) it was to my delight that founder Phil Saltonstall, gave me some time to answer some questions about the brewery, how he got into brewing, how the current pandemic is affecting their brewing schedule and much much more. Thanks to Phil for getting involved, do what you can to support them via the web shop right here.
Let’s start nice and simple, it’s been a barnstorming few years for Brass Castle, putting aside current situations, how do you guys feel right now to be one of the UK’s leading breweries?
I don’t really think of us in that way. I think of us as a slightly niche brewery, with a surprising range – particularly given our focus on vegan and gluten-free beers. We range across very traditional styles and formats, as well as mixing-up some often surprising flavour combos or style variations. We’ve always been better evangelists of beer than we have been business folk. So, we haven’t just set out to make what is marketable, replicating the same reduced range of beer styles over and over. Instead, we’ve been keen to introduce new and different things to the beer market place. Most recently, we’ve done that with our own-brewed kombucha. We’re still the only brewery in the UK making gluten-free NEIPAs, Imperial Stouts, sour beers, DIPAs etc. We like to challenge ourselves by going slightly beyond the mainstream. We certainly have plenty of evidence that we’re good at what we do,
Your core range is one of the strongest out there, from Bad Kitty, to Misfit, how has your core range come to be what it is?
It’s been pretty much organic and the core range changes year-on-year. Bad Kitty set the tone early. It was the second beer I ever brewed on our garage nano kit and it won the York CAMRA Festival Local award. Nowadays, there are still many people who know us as the Bad Kitty brewery, before they know us as Brass Castle. Our current core range has a session IPA, a Helles Lager and NEIPA in it – none of which were there at the outset. I think it’s important that for a brewery to be identified with some core beers, which cover a range of options for people but also help to set the tone for everything else that we do. It’s sort of like a football team though – if there are better players available in those or equivalent positions, then they’ll become the spine of the team instead
Being based in York, Brass Castle has been part of my drinking life for several years, how important have the towns and cities within Yorkshire been to your success?
The towns and cities are all very individual and often quite different landscapes for beer. Most of the people in our team hail from York, which has helped to ground much of what we do and we understand the drinking culture there quite well. Some of us are more familiar with Hull for instance, which is a totally different dynamic and a much larger population – and one that has recently been on its own beer journey. We have links into Leeds too, which is arguably the most progressive beer town in Yorkshire, if not the North. We’re out in relatively rural Malton – Yorkshire’s Food Capital – alongside Bad Seed Brewery. Our rural location has definitely contributed to our desire to make approachable traditional ales – while the proximity of York and Leeds means that we can easily find a more experimental beer crowd.
Every time I’ve visited the Taproom, or Beertown, there is a smile on everyones face at Brass Castle, how have you created such a great culture around the place?
We’ve always been about community, because we think that beer is community. It’s the basis of our logo: the ambigram is designed so that two or more people sharing a drink across a table will both see the same logo on a drip mat. Beer should be fun and inclusive, and an ice-breaking remover of barriers to conversation. That’s written through everything we do, and the BEERTOWN festival. And I think that our community responds to that.
One thing I love about BC is your Crowler Club, what’s the story and thinking behind the scheme?
The Crowler Club began as part of a crowdfunding action to bring a Crowler machine into our Taphouse. At the time, we didn’t have a canning line and wanted to be able to package our keg beers direct to customers. Crowlers are a great way of doing take-out beer. The beer stays fresh longer, and can go with you to places that glass bottles cannot – like music festivals and the beach. So everyone who contributed to the Crowler machine purchase became Club members by default
Now the Crowler Club is an access point to exclusive brewery deals, in our Taphouse and online. Plus, we do an annual Club party in Malton, where members pour their own beers for free. It’s our way of thanking them for being part of our community.
You pride yourselves on your vegan and gluten-free brewing, is this something you set out to do from the start, or something that’s evolved over time?
When we began, we were keen to show that great cask beer could be made without recourse to isinglass. In 2011 rural Yorkshire, haziness was something that we had remove from our beer without animal finings. We found a way to brew by culturing our own highly flocculent house yeast and conditioning for longer. Having worked through this challenge and produced many award-winning beers, we looked for other challenges – and gluten-free beer was one of them. It’s in line with our desire to bring more people to beer, that beer should be as inclusive as possible. So, just as vegans/vegetarians could drink our cask ale, so we wanted to be able to make beer available to people with gluten-intolerance too. It turns out that you can do that too, and the beer is still out there winning awards against other beers that are not gluten-free. You might say that we like to make our brewing life more difficult than it needs to be. But we’re proud that we can brew great award-winning beer, that also happens to be vegan and gluten-free.
Looking forward to 2020, what new beers and flavours can we expect to come out of Brass Castle?
We started the year with a full list of fun beers for our ongoing Bigger Picture treasure hunt project. It affords an opportunity for our brewers to really spread their wings. Unfortunately, for the time being we do not know where the project stands, as we have had to scale brewing operations back for the COVID pandemic. In amongst the Bigger Picture beers, we were looking forward to a collab with a Belgian brewery on a lambic, a kellerbier, a sour fruited IPA, a peanut stout… And so on.
This time period in life is obviously a challenge, how have you felt its impact at Brass Castle?
We’ve furloughed 7 of our 13 staff as our supply to pubs and bars has dried-up. Like many breweries, we’ve become mainly an online beer retailer, and we’re doing free deliveries in our local area. Meanwhile, our brewers are looking after our house yeasts and some of the beers that are lagering. If now’s a good time for anything, it’s ageing beer. The name of the game just now is to safeguard our staff and make sure that there is a business for them to come back to when the COVID situation is over. That means that we need to also be worrying about our pub customers and how they will get through this time period too.
In York, with Brew York and other places, there’s been a rallying sense of community and people supporting their local breweries, have you felt that with the Malton and North Yorks community?
Absolutely – this shared experience has actually reinforced local community, while we imagined initially that COVID would smash it. We’ve been bowled-over by the goodwill and support that we have received. We couldn’t be more thankful for all the help they’re giving us.
How can people continue to support you during the coming weeks?
Super simple – get online and buy some beer from us for delivery. Don’t come to the brewery, as we have to safeguard our staff. Let us deliver to you and then you just need to enjoy the beer.
To finish, a couple of personal ones. What was it that made you take the leap into brewing, and set up Brass Castle?
I was working as a negotiator at the UN Security Council in 2007 and was wrapped-up in the US craft brewing scene at the height of the hop crisis. I went from being a diplomat to interning in a local brewery, before deciding to head back to Yorkshire and establish a cask ale brewery. I’d been a home brewer forever, and just needed the nudge of seeing how it was done in the commercial world. So Brass Castle was established as a nano brewery in the garage of my house on Brass Castle Hill, and I scheduled brewing around my day job as a Coastguard Search and Rescue Coordinator.
And of all of the beers you’ve brewed, what’s your top brew to date?
My favourite changes all the time. But I really like our ‘Heretic’ saffron Belgian Blonde Ale and our super-simple ‘Emergency Bitter’. In terms of the best ones that we do: Our Helles was UK Champion Lager in both 2016 and 2017, while our Burnout smoked porter was UK Supreme Champion Cask Beer in 2015. Bad Kitty continues to win awards almost once a month and has twice been a GBBF finalist.
A question I ask all brewers and owners, for those that haven’t tried your beer – what would you say makes it so special?
It’s vegan and gluten-free – and you don’t even notice. And our range is bigger than many breweries much bigger than us. Plus, the beer is great – winning more awards against regular beers than it has a right to, on paper. From a small brewery in a North Yorkshire market town.
Cheers – thanks for your time!
Cover Photo Credit: https://beertoday.co.uk/brass-castle-bigger-picture-1218/