“Do you mind if we watch the football?” Richard Burhouse, founder and managing director of Magic Rock Brewing Co., asks me. “I know you’ve come to take photos and do interviews and stuff, but I thought we might just have a few beers and watch the game.”
It was a fair question. England was about to play its rival, Wales, in the group stage of the 2016 European Football Championships, and it turns out that neither of us were prepared to miss it.
Burhouse has been an acquaintance of mine for a while. I used to order beer online from his previous business, a mail order beer company called My Brewery Tap. In 2010 he was importing beers like Odell IPA and Sierra Nevada Torpedo, which, back then, seemed positively exotic compared to the UK market at large. But the UK’s come a long way in a short time. I still remember the excitement I felt six years ago when he announced on Facebook that he’d be opening his own brewery in his hometown of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and that it would be focusing initially on hoppy, West Coast American-style beer.
If a Yorkshire brewery focusing on vibrant, West Coast U.S.-style IPA sounds weird, that’s because it is. Yorkshire has a strong, traditional beer culture of its own. Breweries such as Timothy Taylor’s, Black Sheep, and Kelham Island all typify the bitter and balanced ales of the region, with that signature Yorkshire minerality in the finish. But Burhouse, like many of us in the UK, is obsessed with the more intensely flavored Pale Ales that originated on the U.S. West Coast.
So here we are six years later, Burhouse, head brewer Stuart Ross, and myself, sitting crowded around a laptop in the Magic Rock taproom while we stream the game. I grab a half pour of Cannonball, a heavily hopped 7.4% American-style IPA, and the beer that has helped Magic Rock become the darling of enthusiasts throughout the UK. It wouldn’t seem out of place if it were on tap in a San Diego bar.
Burhouse goes for a pint of Ringmaster, a cask Pale Ale that has proved to be equally important as his brewery has grown and grown. This 3.9% classically pale and bitter ale has helped Magic Rock to sustain itself locally while it grows internationally.
“We sell five 18-gallon casks of Ringmaster a week in the taproom alone,” Burhouse smiles. “That’s about 720 pints, give or take.”
Burhouse’s family runs an unusual business in Huddersfield, a semi-precious gemstone wholesaler called The Rockshop. If you’ve ever been in the UK and picked up a slice of agate or a chunk of quartz in a museum gift shop, it may well have come from these guys. As a homage to this, when Burhouse first opened the brewery at the site next door to The Rockshop, he named it Magic Rock.
Before we head to the brewery’s current site, where it moved in 2015 after a lengthy expansion process, Burhouse takes me on a tour of the original location. “That blew down a week after we moved out,” he says, gesturing toward a collapsed structure in the yard, outside the former brewery building, which used to hold the brewery’s fermentation vessels. As we tour the compact, slightly ramshackle site, I find it difficult to envision some of the most highly rated beers in the country, let alone the world, being produced here.
It’s not just beers like the crowdpleasing High Wire Pale Ale and Cannonball IPA, either. In 2013, well before it felt like every brewery from here to Atlanta had to make a Gose, former Magic Rock brewer Giada Simioni—who now works for Molson Coors—created a gooseberry-infused Gose called Salty Kiss. It’s subtle and dry with a tart, refreshing acidity, leaving just the faintest hints of fruit and coriander seed around the edge of your palate.
“The crossover potential of Salty Kiss is amazing,” Burhouse says of the Gose’s universal appeal. “I mean, my mother-in-law drinks it, and she won’t touch any of our other beers.”
Salty Kiss was meant to be a one-off collaboration with Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of Carlsberg and the founder of Nørrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen, Denmark. But it proved so popular that it’s now an essential part of the brewery’s core range. Its neon pink can has become one of the most instantly identifiable beers on a bottle shop shelf. And because of its immediate popularity, Burhouse and Simioni decided to enter it into the 2014 World Beer Cup.
It took gold in the fruited wheat beer category.
“Giada said, ‘I’ve had a look at the categories and it won’t win in traditional German sour, so I’ve put it in fruit wheat beer because it fits that profile better.’” Burhouse recalls. “I got to stand on stage and get the award from Charlie Papazian! That was amazing. In the next competition year we entered into the same category and the paperwork came back saying, ‘Rejected—this is a Gose.’ There wasn’t even a Gose category when the beer was first entered in 2014.”
A couple of years in, Burhouse realized Magic Rock would need to expand, and quick. Meanwhile, the brewery was still searching for its identity. In metropolitan hotspots such as Leeds, London, and Manchester, Magic Rock was becoming known for experimenting with modern, American-style beers like Double IPAs and rambunctious, barrel-aged Imperial Stouts like its Grand Marnier Bearded Lady.
But this sort of beer was not proving as popular in rural Yorkshire, or in its smaller towns such as the brewery’s native Huddersfield. This is the cask ale heartland, and this heartland is driven solely by price. To put a pint of 7.4% IPA on the bar at £7 ($10) a pint will result in the inevitable Yorkshire cry: “‘ow much!?” Opinion is changing though, slowly but surely, and breweries like Magic Rock are the catalyst.
“Craft beer isn’t an opportunity to profiteer, despite that being the stick it gets beaten with by the real ale fraternity,” Burhouse says. “I love real ale, that’s the culture I grew up with, and I wanted it to be at the core of what we did and allow us to do other things. I’m hoping that people are willing to trust and enjoy the product enough that they’ll pay a little more for it.”
Recently, Burhouse made the crucial decision to raise his pricing structure slightly, from wholesale right through to the price per pint in the brewery’s own taproom. A vocal minority made it pretty clear that they weren’t happy about this. “You’ve got a situation where people refuse to pay more than £3 for a pint of Ringmaster locally but down in London they’d consider that incredibly good value,” he says. “But the same person will happily go to a restaurant and pay £4.50 for a pint of Peroni. I don’t understand how that mentality has evolved.”
“Our price rises have had practical reasons behind them,” Burhouse continues. “They allow us to make the business what we think it should be. I don’t think the market should be responsible for keeping you in a position where you are unable to pay your staff well, or invest in new processes and equipment.”
Burhouse is not the kind of person to mince his words, but his actions speak with even greater volume. In 2015, Magic Rock expanded into the premises they now call home. Once in, they were able to expand capacity, install a state of the art canning line and build what is one of the finest examples of a brewery taproom in the United Kingdom. It was also able to add skilled staff to its team, such as Nick Zeigler who came from Brewdog, who joined Stuart Ross on the brewery floor.
“It was the people and the attitude: friendly, interested in quality and enjoyment and exposing the public to new and different beers,” Zeigler says of his decision to join Magic Rock. “[They’re] all about doing it right before doing it big, taking care of the people who make the beer and trying to ensure that their work-life balance allows them to make the best beer they can [instead of] worrying about world domination.”
It’s one thing to produce a world-class IPA on a small scale that gets consumed very quickly. In the early days of Magic Rock, high demand for certain beers such as Cannonball on draft meant that bottles were temporarily sidelined. That’s why, when the new facility came online in 2015, canning was at the heart of the agenda. But it wasn’t easy.
Scaling up a recipe to a 30-barrel kit isn’t as simple as just adding more ingredients. Canning isn’t as easy as just feeding the beer into a machine and letting it do its thing. When the first release of Cannonball cans landed, beer geeks could hardly contain themselves. Unfortunately for Magic Rock, a small amount of cans hit the market with faults such as lack of carbonation and high levels of diacetyl making the beer taste drastically different than it should.
“I have this constant relationship with Cannonball because I know when it’s on it’s as good as anything,” Burhouse says. “It tastes about 4% and I think, ‘Fucking hell, that’s good.’ And it’s not always like that. This is why we’re hiring people like Nick [Zeigler] to help us nail it now that we’re brewing on the bigger kit.”
If there’s one thing head brewer Stuart Ross excels at, it’s designing hop-forward beer. He brews the kind of beer he wants to drink a lot of, and he’s very good at it. But with more beer comes more problems, so Burhouse set about hiring people who could solve them. “The cans of Cannonball we released which had diacetyl in them, contained it because there was an issue with unhealthy yeast,” he says. “There was a chemical present called alpha-acetolactate, apparently. With a scientific mind like Nick [Zeigler] on the team, we were able to solve the problem.”
With its spacious, concrete interior, lengthy bar top, focus on keg beer, and heavy duty oak and metal furniture, Magic Rock’s tap room looks as though it could have been transported directly from California or Colorado. The beer list could be from any American taproom, too—with heather-honey IPA sitting alongside grapefruit-infused Pale Ale. They even have a rotating selection of food traders camping out in the beer garden on weekends. But there at the end of the bar are three hand pulls serving cask ale. A small but stark reminded that you are, in fact, still in Yorkshire.
So adamant was Burhouse in his ambition to capture the spirit of the American beer scene in his new facility that he took his in-house designer, Rich Norgate, to the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon.
“We visited a lot of breweries to pick up on not only the atmosphere, but the interiors,” Norgate says. “The biggest thing for us was how relaxed and community-driven the taprooms are in the States. People tend to tour a number of taprooms either sampling the beer or dropping in to fill their growlers—this was something that we wanted to create in Huddersfield. The service is also very important. What was interesting to see was how the bar handled complex beers with customers. We want to turn people on the different beer styles, and this starts with the level of service and knowledge you provide.”
It’s obvious that recreating the North American beer environment Burhouse loves so dearly is at the very heart of his ambition as a British brewery owner. And clearly, he didn’t just want Rich to see that culture. He wanted to bottle a little bit of it and bring it home in the hope that it spreads.
“I wanted him to get a sensibility of what American tap rooms are like,” Burhouse says, his tone changing, his shoulders opening, his brow unfurrowing, as he cracks a large smile.. “Y’know, feel what it’s really like. The culture in the U.S. is just so much more natural than our own. That’s just how it is and everyone accepts it. They buy into it—growlers, merch, all that stuff.”