Getting to know BREW: Alphabet Brewing Co
Manchester has a vast array of long-established, top-quality breweries. If you were to type 'MANCHESTER BREWERY' into Google you can see just how fierce the competition is.
For many of you who are craft beer aficionados, Cloudwater Brew Co is one of the most recognised craft beer breweries in the Manchester area and probably the country. Setting yourselves apart from such a well known business is challenging, but that's what Alphabet Brewing Co have set out to do by aiming to offer something different. Not many breweries have teamed up with a well known comedy podcast about hilariously bad pornography...but ABC has.
We caught up with Alphabet Brewing Company's Operations Manager Alex Parkinson to find out everything from how their recent collaboration with ‘My Dad Wrote A Porno’ came about to the importance of non-alcoholic beers in the craft beer industry.
Can you give me a little bit of history about Alphabet Brewing Co - How are you involved and what’s your role?
The brewery was founded in 2014 and was known in the early days for making some pretty out-there, adjunct-filled beers. Treacle & Black Pepper Porters, Chocolate Almond & Coconut Pales and even a Beetroot & Horseradish Saison were brewed! We’ve toned that down a bit in the last couple of years (with some noticeable exceptions) and have focused on hop-forward, sessionable, and accessible beers as well as some classic styles from UK and European brewing culture. As for me, I’ve worked for Alphabet for nearly three and a half years, and my current role is Strategy Manager. I used to be a brewer here full-time but now only really get involved with recipe development and quality assurance on the production side. Apart from this, my role includes everything from business development, sales, marketing, events, collaborations - basically anything that involves growing the company from a financial, qualitative or reputational standpoint, I’m there.
How is your beer connected to the local area?
It’s hard when Manchester has such an embarrassment of riches beer-wise! When I first started here, our beer sales were spread very thinly around the whole country, which meant that someone in say Sheffield or Bristol could have our beer once, and then not see it available anywhere else locally for a matter of months. It’s a great way to initially grow as a company, but not the best way to convert casual drinkers into die-hard Alphabet fans. I really value locality and whilst I want to (and continue to) see our beer sold from Inverness to the Isle Of Wight, I want us to be known as a Manchester brewery. We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years to secure some key accounts around Manchester, making it easy to grab a pint or pick up a can of our beer wherever you are in the city.
What do you think is unique about your beer and your brewery?
We’re probably one of the only breweries in the UK to have a fruit beer be our biggest seller! Juice Springsteen, our Session IPA with Mango, Guava, Passion Fruit and Pineapple was first brewed in early 2017 as a one-off special release. It was so popular that it continued to be rebrewed and rebrewed, introduced into our core range, and in 2019 it made up 40% of our entire output.
How do you decide on what new beers to brew?
It relies on a number of factors - we look at what is missing from our current range, how well a style has sold in the past, the time of year. But most importantly, we brew the beers that we want to drink, or the styles we want to be known to be good at brewing.
Are there any beer styles you are looking at tackling in the future that you can tell me about?
Well, before the pandemic hit, we had planned to start doing a small amount of cask beer by the end of 2020. In the last year, whilst everyone was missing those traditional styles, we took the opportunity to brew some of the beer styles we would be interested in eventually putting into the cask. We brewed a couple of bitters and session pales, a red ale and a smoked porter, and released them almost exclusively in can. Now that things are slowly returning to some semblance of normality, we’re hopefully looking to get the cask ball rolling again by the end of the year.
How important do you think collaborations are - with other breweries or businesses?
Very important! They can be an opportunity to learn new skills, share best practises and make some new friends in the industry along the way. They can also be a force for good. We recently brewed a collaboration IPA with fellow Manchester stalwarts Blackjack, as part of IPA for India, where 14 breweries have teamed up to raise money to provide much needed oxygen and PPE for the rural areas of India that continue to be so hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
How did your recent collaboration with ‘My Dad Wrote A Porno’ come about?
Jair, our Managing Director, was drinking with friends one Saturday. They were playing around with pop culture-inspired beer names, and My Dad Wrote A Porno came up. She messaged me the idea to do something with them, and I thought it was a winner. So, I quickly found out who managed them, sent an email and the rest is history! The MDWAP gang were a real pleasure to work with creatively, and it’s given us great exposure to a number of people who may have never heard of us before, whilst also lending the opportunity to try some interesting stuff out in the brewhouse.
What efforts do you make to be environmentally friendly?
A huge effort! We’re currently working with the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub, part of the Henry Royce Institute at the University of Manchester, on ways to make our beer greener; looking at everything from packaging materials to logistics to ingredients. Another consideration with making traditional beers is that we can use more UK-grown hops - most of the hops we use are grown and shipped over from the States and that’s a major contributor to our carbon footprint.
What have been your biggest challenges over the last 12 months?
Being able to plan in advance! With guidance, lockdown dates and tiers changing every minute, it’s been hard knowing what to brew and what to pack it in. We went from putting roughly 65% of our beer into keg, to 100% cans at the start of the pandemic. This has massively changed again but it’s still hard to get the keg/can split right now. We weren’t sure how busy venues would be once measures started to loosen, or how many people would still prefer to drink at home/in public spaces and that’s left us with much more can stock than we’d like and not enough kegs! We had the opposite problem before lockdown two, where we’d kegged a load of great beer, only to see it being poured down the drain months later.
What are the biggest problems you run into in producing beer?
Trying to keep to a production schedule when beer doesn’t ferment at the pace you expect, you can’t package the beer because there’s still hops in suspension, and you can’t brew because the hops haven’t arrived when they were supposed to. It’s a constant juggling act for our Lead Brewer Sam to deal with, especially when production feeds everything else in the business.
Have you produced a beer that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to - either better or worse?
Oh definitely! I don’t think any of us would openly admit to a beer being better than expected (our egos wouldn’t allow it!), but we’ve certainly had beer that wasn’t up to scratch. Touch wood, but I think only a couple of batches of beer have been infected in the time I’ve worked at Alphabet (we were able to quickly trace the source of infection and make sure it didn’t happen again), and we’ve had to make the painful but correct decision to pour those batches down the drain. We also had to recall the first NEIPA we ever brewed because it ended up being horrendously oxidised! A tough way to learn a lesson but the important thing is lessons have been learnt.
What has been your favourite beer you have produced at Alphabet Brewing Co?
I think it’s got to be Just To Wet The Whistle, our Köln-Style Beer. I visited Cologne a couple of years ago and became OBSESSED with Kölsch; the variances between the different breweries’ outputs, the drinking culture around it, and the delicate esters and endless drinkability of the style.
It took me a year of nagging to convince the rest of the team to try to brew one ourselves, and I’m happy I did. It’s proven popular with the brewers and the customers alike, so much so that it now sits in our Alternates range, a collection of beers that we brew multiple times a year but not at the frequency of our core range. I’m on the label as a Köbe, the traditional Kölsch waiter serving Stange (20cl pole-shaped glasses) to a bunch of thirsty goats!
How important do you think branding/package design is for your beers?
It’s certainly important! We’ve been working closely and exclusively with illustrator Nick Hammo (aka Hammo) since we set up nearly seven years ago. His wonderful illustrations are synonymous with our brand, and makes us stand out from a lot of other breweries on the shelf. That being said, it’s no use having a great brand and a mediocre product. People might buy your beer once because it looks cool and the name is great (naming the beers is one of my favourite tasks at Alphabet!) but they won’t buy it again if the quality of the beer doesn’t hold up to that same standard. We certainly think it does, but then we do spend a considerable amount of time making subtle tweaks to our core range to make them better and better each time we brew them.
Do you feel that non-alcoholic beers have an important part to play in the craft beer industry?
I think it’s very important that we all constantly access our relationship with alcohol. It’s something I’m passionate about producing, but I’m very aware of its dangers and the need for moderation. This is something that we consider when making our beer. Do we need to brew a DIPA when we can brew an IPA instead? Can we make this Pale Ale 4% instead of 5%? There is a glut of no and low alcohol craft beers being produced in the UK now and it’s something I welcome. Personally, they’re not for me. Alcohol is a flavour component that I miss in these beers - I’m more likely to drink a kombucha or a soft drink if I want to skip the booze. I think there’s some great alternative options out there for people now. As an alternative to NA beer, interest in kombucha seems to have grown massively in the past few years and I expect will push on even more. There’s some great soft drinks brands on the market too - our neighbours at Steep Soda make a Hibiscus Lemonade that’ll blow your mind.
How important do you think reviewing platforms like Untappd are for you in the industry?
I think they’re really damaging to the industry! If I have to see another stout rated two stars out of five, with the comment “Don’t like stouts”...
I hear of some bottleshops choosing their stock exclusively from Untappd ratings, which makes absolutely no sense when some of the best breweries in the world don’t get great scores because they don’t make certain styles of beer. Look at Orval’s ratings and tell me the system works.
We’re really looking forward to the full rollout of the Brewer’s Eye App, where consumers can check-in their beers to keep a record of what they’ve had before, but any feedback about the beer is privately sent to the brewery to assess.
What’s next for you over the next 12 months?
Honestly, with how the last 12 months panned out, who knows? What I can say is that I’m really proud of my colleagues and the work we’ve done since the start of the pandemic; we kept afloat, reacted quickly to an ever-changing scenario, and made the best beer Alphabet’s ever produced. If we can continue to push forward in that same vein, we’re going to have a great year ahead.
What’s your Favourite Pub
In Manchester? Port Street Beer House without question. Fantastic beer selection, nice vibes and so many great memories. I moved last year and now it’s only a seven minute walk away from my front door, which is super convenient and dangerous in equal measure!
In the UK? I love The Queen’s Head just round the corner from King’s Cross. It’s a must-visit if I’m ever in London. In the world? In De Wildeman in Amsterdam - it’s my happy place.
Favourite beer style
So hard to pick one! West Coast IPAs were what made me fall in love with beer, there was a time when I was obsessed with bretty pales, and I’ve already told you how much I think about Kölsch! Nowadays I’m more interested in my surroundings when drinking as well as what’s just in my glass - so if it’s boiling and I’m sitting in a beer garden, Helles is perfect, but if it’s a cold winter’s night and I’m in good company, it’s hard to look past sharing a bottle of Gueze with friends.
Favourite Hop to brew with
Sorachi Ace. It imparts a very much love-it-or-hate-it flavour to beer, reminiscent of both coconut and lemongrass, which means we don’t use it as much as I would like! We used it sparingly in a Black IPA (Dank Matter) we brewed a couple of years and very generously in a pale ale (Akihabara) last summer, and they were two of my favourite beers we’ve made in my time at Alphabet.
Favourite snack to have with beer
I’m a Snyders Jalapeño Pretzel Pieces guy, through and through. A bag of Salt and Vinegar Chipsticks is up there though!
About Alphabet Brewing Co
Address: 99 North Western Street, Manchester, M12 6JL
Tel: 0161 272 6532
Alphabet Brewing Company,
99 North Western Street,
Manchester M12 6JL