The Welsh brewing scene, over the past few years, has been electric. Our Battle of the Breweries currently live over on Twitter proves that with Tiny Rebel, Flowerhorn, Boss Brewing and more, standing out as some of the hot favourites to go the distance. The stand out brewery for me in that part of the UK though, is Polly’s. They’re experts in brewing a pale ale and hop forward beers and with the launch of their augment series, they took their brewing to new levels, making them one of the UK’s top breweries. I caught up with Arron Fellows, their Head of Sales to talk all things Polly’s.
Welcome to Halfway 2 Nowhere, let’s start with Polly’s Brew Co., what is the story behind Sean setting the brewery up?
Pleasure to be part of this! So Polly’s came into existence back in 2018 as LOKA POLLY, after Sean our owner had grown weary of running a cask-led brewery with his previous operation, The Black Brook Beer Co. The genesis of LOKA POLLY/Polly’s was definitely evident in the beers Sean was brewing under the Black Brook name, but in a market as traditional and primarily cask-focused as North Wales, hazy beers just were proving too divisive amongst the cask drinkers, and chiefly too expensive to produce.
The decision to liquidate Black Brook came within around six months of operating, and he decided to rebrand and refocus his efforts, to produce beer in exclusively keg and can, with a focus on fresh, modern, hop forward beers. After convincing his parents to subsidize the cost of some shiny steel tanks from China (and then a holding-in-port fee after the Chinese manufacturer put the tanks in boxes four inches higher than specified), LOKA POLLY came roaring into the world in January 2018.
And the name? Where did that come from…
The original LOKA POLLY name was actually an amalgamation of the two previous uses of the original brewery. Sean’s twin brother James had a graphic design project based in there, named Loka Island. Previous to that, the space was a working stable house, where the family horse, Polly lived. After dissolving Black Brook, Sean wanted a name that was intentionally ambiguous in terms of geographical ties. LOKA POLLY sounded like it could have been based in North Wales as much as it could have been based in London or Scandinavia.
After a phenomenal first year where our output trebled in size, and we had begun exporting to mainland Europe, we came back to work in early March, shortly after launching our Augment range, to find a cease and desist letter from a Swedish multinational company, Spendrups. The LOKA POLLY name infringed on one of Spendrups umbrella brands, a canned soft drink called Loka. With no leg to stand on, we negotiated a deal to run down our existing branded products, and rename in May 2019 as Polly’s Brew Co. Being sentimental home boys at heart, we were willing to lose the Loka part of our name, but losing Polly was just a bit too much!
You used to pride yourself on your Originals range, what was the trick behind brewing with such consistency and popularity?
Sad as it is to admit, we’ve actually retired our Originals now. It was a heartbreaking decision to make, but one that was right for the future of the brewery. When we first came up with the Originals range, it was something in the way of a homage to our brewing heroes, Cloudwater and The Kernel. The idea behind the range was simplicity and transparency; we wanted to make sure as a new brewery there were no gimmicks to our beers – just water, malt, hops and yeast.
We’re extremely lucky to have a very talented brewer in Sean (although he’ll never admit it himself!), and he knows his brew kit like the back of his hand. I think having a brewer so intrinsically in tune with their brew kit, paired with the bold and striking can designs really helped us in our first year when we were just brewing what was the Original range beers. We didn’t hit the ball out of the park every time with those beers, and we’ll be the first to admit it, but I think having that range to brew on such a consistent basis laid some really good foundations for where we would eventually get with our beers.
For me, your Augment series produces some exceptional beers including Nada and Livewire – how does it feel having this flexibility and creativity to brew some new flavours?
That’s definitely our pride and joy now, for sure. I think our first year certainly helped lay the foundations for the Augment range, and it came around just at the right time when the Originals range was starting to wear itself out a little. I feel that in 2018 we were a lot of people’s favourite new brewery, and many were waiting to see how we could advance our brewing techniques in our second year, once the shine had faded a little.
As with everything else we do though, the Augment range was six months in the planning process before we were happy to release it. Pouring next to the elite breweries in the UK at several big festivals in 2018 had us questioning what we needed to do to rattle the branches a little and climb the ladder to sit amongst them. To say it was a gamble though would be an understatement – we plundered so much into the first Augment beers, that they simply had to be successful or it was game over. Thankfully, the praise was near-universal from drinkers and industry folk alike, and it’s allowed us to continue experimenting to this day; bringing in the wonderful Lally from Magic Rock to branch out into sour beer, making the occasional imperial stout a thing, and being able to add all kinds of interesting things into our beers.
You say you have one mission “Brew our favourite beers, and have a good tito never stop improving me” – of all your beers – which are your top two you’ve brewed and why?
Ach, making me choose between our beers is like making me choose a favourite child – it’s too heart wrenching! At a push though I’d say the first version of Citra Simcoe IPA we brewed in 2018, and then spent nearly seven months trying to replicate as it happened completely by accident, was absolutely phenomenal. As the sales guy, when I tasted that beer only a few weeks into working with the brewery, I knew at that point I was part of something special.
Second would be the first version of Spur we brewed. I love all versions of Spur we brew in general because I feel you can’t go wrong with the Azacca, Citra and Simcoe combo, but I have a special sentimentality for the first version because it was an absolute NIGHTMARE to can – blocking our mobile canning company’s canning machine multiple times throughout the canning run. I think I’m just a bit of a sucker for a naughty beer!
One thing I love about the brewery is the branding of the business; who decides the names of your beers and how they’re marketed and what’s the process?
I think our branding is key to the brewery. We obviously brew great liquid inside each can, but in a market where there are so many incredible breweries producing hop-forward beers, it definitely helps to be able to stand out on a shelf in a fridge.
We design everything in-house though. We paid for a graphic designer to do the basic layout and font for the brewery, but with the strict instruction that the background imagery be interchangeable. All of our imagery is sourced from free to use photography websites and manipulated to fit with our layouts. In terms of the names, it’s developed from simply naming after hops, to a bank of really cool sounding words we liked when launching the Augment range, now to little “isms” we hear around the brewery, or song lyrics/names we really like. “It’s Only Forever” came from our brewer Scott on a particularly long canning day, as an expression of boredom, for example. Whilst “Block Out The Sun” came from an LCD Soundsystem song I always play in the van when I’m out delivering. They really do come from the strangest and at times simplest sources!
This time period in life is obviously a challenge, how have you felt its impact at Polly’s?
It’s been tough, there’s no beating around the bush about it. All of our brew team are currently furloughed for example, and the day to day running of the brewery is being taken care of by myself and Sean. The chief concern for us is the cold store full of kegs with no home for the foreseeable future; their likely destination being the drain as it stands. Likewise, we’re working through it at the moment, and we have some absolutely incredible people working with us who are keeping us informed every step of the way, but the number of pre-Covid19 invoices now sat in the red is extremely scary.
I think if ever there was a time for reform of the credit system between breweries and trade customers, it’s now. I know there are several brewers for whom this could be financially crippling, to the extent that they may not make it out of this with an active brewery because the majority of their beer is sold on credit terms which can now not be fulfilled. We’ve felt the pinch in a similar manner, and are going to be reviewing the way we sell beer to people going forward, even if it means producing less beer.
It’s not all doom and gloom at the brewery though, we’re still brewing exclusively for can at the moment, and routinely selling out within half an hour of a list release going live. A small section of drinkers are even calling our lockdown beers some of the best we’ve brewed yet, which is nice! I think we’ve weathered the worst of the storm at this point, and are only on an upward trajectory from here – our first brewer will be coming out of furlough at the beginning of June, and I’m hopeful we can bring the other three out shortly after that as demand increases.
A question I ask all brewers and owners, for those that haven’t tried your beer – what would you say makes it so special?
I think the thing that makes our beers special is that we give careful attention to paying homage to the beers we grew up drinking. Yes, we’re a hazy, hop-forward brewery, but we also like to remember to add a touch of the old school to our beers. Our first introduction to craft beer was through the likes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (my personal favourite beer of all time), Punk IPA, and Lagunitas IPA; beers with a piney and resinous kick to them. We don’t go nuts on the IBUs in our beers, but we do enjoy making sure there’s an element of that old school present within them, to show that we’re very much still students of the game, showing where beer has come from and is going.
So, the exciting bit, and a homage to our podcast, this it your ultimate beer tasting – so, you can only drink one beer in the below styles ever again, which do you choose and why?
I’m actually a huge sucker for a lager. Last summer after a particularly heavy session of hop-forward IPAs when visiting my girlfriend, we ended up in her local, Red Hand in Dalston. Looking at the board, and taking into consideration that my palate was absolutely zapped from taking in so many hops throughout the course of the day, I opted for an Augustiner Helles, and everything suddenly became right with the world. Sometimes the best thing in the world is just an unfussy, crisp, clean, and well made pint of lager. I’d had it plenty of times before and understood it to be terrific, but this was the moment where I realised “Woah, this is actually one of my desert island beers”.
I think I, along with a lot of other folk inside the brewing industry have come full craft beer circle now, and can appreciate a really really well made lager. Likewise, there seems to be a movement pushing for lagers to become a style much more accepted by craft beer drinkers. I remember walking into my girlfriend’s local in Dalston after sessioning on some seriously hop heavy IPAs and just thinking “All I want is a crisp, unfussy, uncomplicated pint of lager”. I think it’s very easy for the palate to become fatigued after drinking excessive amounts of the other styles, so lager wins out for me on this one – if I can make a request, Augustiner Helles, Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, or anything Donzoko please!
I’ll be the first to admit that porters aren’t usually top of my priority list when I’m selecting a beer. That said, the first time I tried Lorelei from Omnipollo was an absolute game changer. I think it may have been early 2017, and on one of my famous after hours tasting sessions I used to hold in the bar I previously managed, we cracked a bottle to share. I knew Omnipollo’s dark beer game was really good, but this was the one that really kicked it into gear in my opinion.
Easy one this. Kernel’s Table Beer. How that brewery is capable of putting so much flavour into such a low ABV I’ll honestly never be able to work out. It’s just perfect for any occasion; be it a quick after work pint, a beer to knock back in the sun, or a pint when out with mates, nobody judges on the ~3% ABV because it’s just a simply excellent beer. Pair this with one of my best beer friends (and just wonderful friend in general) Lily Waite’s superb write up on it for Pellicle, and you see that it’s a beer absolute revered across the board within the beer industry.
It almost sounds cliché to say now, but Cantillon every day of every year. I was lucky enough to tour the brewery a few years ago, and then even luckier to be able to crack a bottle of Geuze Lou Pepe from 2013. The complexity of the wood, wild yeast, and acidity working off one another was absolutely mind blowing at the time and sent me into a spiral of actively seeking out the best spontaneously fermented and aged beers I could find. We’re finally starting to find our feet in a big way in the UK, but for me the Belgians will always be the kings of sour.
And finally! My absolute gateway beer, without whom I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. I remember when I was in my final year of university and had a little bit of spare disposable cash thanks to the utterly outrageous tips I was getting at my bar job, I would look a few feet further down the aisle in my local Tesco’s beer aisle and pick up the individual bottles of “world beer”; much more expensive, but I’ve always been keen to try things. On one of these days I just happened to stumble upon a beer called Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, packaged in a slightly bigger and wider bottle (350ml!) and with this really interesting green label depicting a lovely green bit of countryside.
When I cracked the bottle and drank its contents, my entire perception of beer changed forever – I simply had to know how they managed to hit that biscuity sweetness, and that bitterness! The bitterness was next level! I reported back to my housemate at the time and we made it our mission to find beers just like this incredible American beer we’d just tried. We were lucky enough to have the now sadly departed Ship in a Bottle in Liverpool to plunder for all things beer, and the slippery slope into the world of craft beer began, with what is in my opinion, the greatest beer of all time. Still just as good as the first time I ever tried it.
Thanks so much for your time, how can people support you right now and what can people expect from Polly’s for the rest of 2020.
Hopefully we’ll be back to our usual operating volume sooner rather than later! I think if anything we’re going to reel back our output from five brews a week, to four brews a week, and just enjoy brewing rather than churning out as much as we physically can. In the meantime, keep supporting independent retailers, buy plenty of Polly’s, and stop asking me about the glassware; we haven’t had any for a year now!