Getting to know BREW: Pillars Brewery
When you think of lager, you probably associate it with being of poor quality, mass produced and a little laddish. For many, lager was the first style of beer they ever drank, so it holds a special place in our hearts, or at least it should do.
Pillars Brewery, based in Walthamstow, were the first specialist craft lager brewery to open in London and since 2016 have been trying to change the negativity surrounding the beer style.
We caught up with Kayleigh Bell from Pillars Brewery to find out if lager has been treated unfairly and is undervalued in the industry, what challenges they face and how important they think the review sites such as Untappd are.
Q. Can you tell us a little about Pillars Brewery?
Gav and Omar met at university in 2006, bonded by an enduring interest in drinking lager. Some years later this led to interest in brewing lager, when they set up an experimental brew shed with Omar’s brothers Eamonn and Samie. Untraditional Lager (now known as Pillars Hop Lager) was soon born and the guys knew they had made something special.
In 2016, Pillars opened as the first craft lager brewery in London. We began serving our beer to the fine people of Walthamstow and the rest, as they say, is history. The brewery has grown, new lagers have joined our line up, and a thriving community has formed.
Q. How is your beer connected to the local area?
Walthamstow is a very community-led area and has been an incredible place to start a business. Residents are very loyal to local businesses and provide us with a humbling amount of support.
We try to give back as often as we can - whether that's a discount for NHS staff, hosting local fundraising events, providing sponsorship and donations, collaborating with local businesses or our partnership with local food poverty charity Eat or Heat. We recently launched a Christmas Gift Box, which includes cheese from a local cafe and spread from a local bakery, with Pillars donating 5 meals to Eat or Heat for every box sold. We also support other local breweries by selling their beers at our taproom and bar site.
Q. What do you think is unique about your beer and your brewery?
Existing as a specialist craft lager brewery is pretty unique in its own right. We were the first specialist craft lager brewery to open in London which is a city filled with many breweries! Most craft breweries produce mainly ales, with a couple of lagers as part of their product range, so their breweries are geared towards ales. As lager specialists we have been able to design our whole brewery around the specific requirements of lager brewing.
We are proud to combine contemporary brewing techniques with traditional brewing principles. Our lager is created within a traditional Bavarian style brewhouse, complete with a specially designed lauter tun. We also tailor the water profile for each brew using our onsite water treatment plant, and complete the process with a minimum of four-weeks cold conditioning.
Q. Do you think lager has been treated unfairly and is undervalued in the industry?
Absolutely. There are definitely a lot of negative associations attached to lager, mainly due to the number of macro breweries who mass-produce cheap, poor quality lager. There aren’t many beer drinkers who are proud to say they enjoy lager, despite it being the most widely sold beer style in the UK. This is something we have always strived to change!
Even within the craft beer sector there is a huge focus upon ale, with lager often viewed as less worthy and sophisticated. In recent times, there has been a steady resurgence of interest in craft lager, and public opinion is beginning to change.
It may taste simple but lager is a refined beer style. To get it right takes practice, knowledge, specialist equipment and good quality ingredients. Lager isn’t always an attractive beer style to brew because it is a time intensive process, with a minimum of 4 weeks is required to produce it correctly. There is no hiding with lager, any mistakes are very obvious, and so you have to get it right with every brew.
Q. Are there any beer styles you are looking at tackling in the future that you haven’t done already?
We have recently invested in a pilot kit and plan to launch a range of seasonal beers in 2021. Our plan is to sell our test batches from the pilot kit (200L) in the taproom throughout the year. This is really exciting for us as brewers as it means we can be more experimental. We have tons of ideas about which styles we would like to try, but are yet to formally decide on these! We’ll keep you posted!
Q. How important do you think collaborations are with other breweries?
Collaborations between breweries are useful to reach new markets and share expertise. We haven't done very many to date, but are definitely keen to do more in the future.
Q. What efforts do you make to be environmentally friendly?
We are constantly looking for ways to reduce our carbon emissions with a view to becoming a carbon neutral operation in the future. The environment has been at the forefront of our mind since we first started out, which is why when we opened in 2016 we invested in reusable, returnable steel kegs (in our signature orange colour!) rather than using key kegs or any other single use kegs.
Since our recent rebrand has involved a move to bottles, we decided the best way to reduce the environmental impact would be to implement a recycling scheme. We are currently in the process of setting up our own recycling scheme with our local council.
Q. What have been your biggest challenges over the last 12 months?
This is an easy one! Undoubtedly the Covid pandemic has been our biggest challenge in the last year. The pub and brewing industries have been hit so hard, and it’s been devastating to see our peers and customers face such difficult times.
For us it has meant having to completely change our business model, and adapt to the new situation very quickly. We have always been a high keg volume business, with kegs accounting for over 90% of our sales. Once pubs and restaurants closed we had no choice but to switch to being a small pack led business.
It has pushed us to develop our offering of packaged products along with an online shop, which although part of our long-term plan, wasn’t something we had been anticipating to do this year!
Q. What are the biggest problems you run into in producing your beer?
Our biggest production problem at the moment is lack of space. Our lager takes six weeks to manufacture which means we need a lot of tanks! As our output increases we are struggling to squeeze in the additional tanks we require. There are some more tanks arriving in March and we will really have to cram them in!
Q. Have you produced anything that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to - either better or worse?
Of course! There was an occasion when one of our experimental brews didn’t meet the standard we wanted so we had to ditch it. This situation was a big motivation when we decided to invest in our pilot kit as it will allow us to experiment more freely in the future.
Q. What has been your favourite beer you have produced?
Eamonn: Hop Lager
Q. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but how important do you think branding/package design is for your beers and what made you decide to rebrand?
We started as a family business and remain a team of family and close friends, driven by a mutual love of lager. Yet so much has changed since we began this journey in 2016, and we could never have imagined how this business would grow. Over the last four years we have matured and developed as brewers and as a business; we wanted our brand to evolve to more closely reflect our core values.
Branding and package design are the most important factors for our products, second only to the quality of the beer itself. The branding and packaging shape drinkers first impressions, and differentiates us from the rest of the market. It tells the story of our beer and of who we are as a brewery.
Q. Do you feel that non-alcoholic beers have an important part to play in the craft beer industry?
Yes definitely, although this is not part of our short term strategy. The majority of non-alcoholic beer is sold in small pack, so as a keg led business, we could only entertain bringing this into our core range when pubs regularly sell non-alcoholic beer on draught.
Q. How important do you think reviewing platforms like Untappd are for the beer industry?
On the whole they don’t reflect popularity across the whole craft beer universe, however they can be useful for some small breweries to get their beers noticed. There is a definite style bias on ratings. Stouts tend to rate very highly, so if a brewery only sold stouts they would almost certainly have a higher rating than the average brewery. The opposite is true for lager breweries.
A good example of this is our seasonal Doppelbock release (pictured above) , a dark lager, which is the 3rd highest rated lager in the UK on Untappd, and the highest rated of all our lager products.
Q. The small breweries relief fund debate is getting a little heated between many macro and micro breweries. Where do you stand on this matter?
We whole-heartedly support Small Brewers Relief as we wouldn't have been able to start out without it.
Q. What’s next for you over the next 12 months?
Our main objective is to continue our new brand rollout. Once this world-altering pandemic is over we have events, a brewery expansion, and the launch of more seasonal specials on the horizon for 2021!
About Pillars Brewery
Address: Pillars Brewery, Unit 2 Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Walthamstow, London, E17 9HQ
Online delivery: Yes