I recently visited the Two Towers brewery, attached to the Gunmakers Arms pub in Birmingham’s Gun Quarter, and grabbed a few minutes to chat to Mark from the brewery and find out what inspired the team to choose to brew vegan beer.
All the beer and cider at Two Towers is vegan – all the cans and bottles – and they regularly have vegan events, like the beer festival for Birmingham’s Viva! Vegan Festival (review here) and The Real Junk Food Project’s vegan takeover (review here).
What was the motivation for Two Towers to host vegan events and offer vegan brews?
What we try to do is develop the products as something we see as more developed and more progressive and more advanced, I suppose. Where there’s an opportunity of a product like ale that doesn’t necessarily need a certain ingredient in it to be a good quality product, and at the same time embracing another sector of society, that was just an opportunity for us.
I’ve got a real resentment about large producers producing products using low cost short cuts. Now if we introduced isinglass to the beers, yes it would be cheaper and it’d be more effective, but that’s not necessarily the kind of end product we want and not the process we want to take either. I don’t think it’s necessary to use those kinds of ingredients.
People see the use of isinglass as traditional, suggesting the beer isn’t the same without it.
People have latched onto that as a way of justifying the use of it, but that’s the only justification because, yes it is a very effective way to clear beer and it’s cheaper to do but only because there’s a large supply chain in place for it.
Yeah it is traditional but only because it was done in the past. It doesn’t mean it’s any better a product for it at all. In fact, you could argue that by using isinglass and stripping out a great deal of the content of an ale, you’re actually stripping out a lot of the characteristics of the product as well.
Really, by bypassing the finings process, the traditional finings process, you’re actually producing a more whole product, one that’s more wholesome. It’s less processed.
I think attitudes are changing for beer really, because there has been a view that unless a beer’s clear as a crystal it’s not right. I’ve had landlords hold a glass up and say I’m proud to serve that in my pub, judging the quality by the clarity of it. But it’s nonsense really because hazy beers, there’s nothing wrong with them. In fact some would argue that they’ve got more flavour as consequence of more particles in it.
Thankfully I think attitudes about appearance are actually changing, because that same pub that quoted that to me are now putting up notices by their beers saying unfined beer – may be hazy, to tell people that just because it’s hazy it’s not necessarily wrong.
Is your process as traditional, despite not using isinglass?
Oh yes we’re a very traditional brewer really. Everything is pretty well much done as it was 200 years ago really. We started off using isinglass because that’s what everybody else did but then you learn about the business.
That was what sparked it – the idea of doing a vegan festival. We produced vegan beers and then we thought well why can’t we do this with all the beers? The bottles have always been vegan.
That seems to be the case for a lot of bottled beers – but it’s not something that’s publicised really.
I suppose if you put vegan beer on the bottles you it might lead people to thinking all [the beers] are vegan and that wouldn’t necessarily be the case if they went into a pub. The only reason there’s no isinglass in bottles [and cans] and why they’re vegan is because if you do put isinglass in the bottling process it does actually produce a problematic beer.
In bottles you can keep it in there for a lot longer than you can in a cask. There’s a year shelf life in a bottle, so after about six months the isinglass will have settled one hell of a lot of sediment so you’re going to get a quite thick cloud of sediment at the bottom. It wouldn’t be very nice, you’d tip it up and you’d get this swirling sediment, it wouldn’t be a marketable product. It’s a totally practical reason.
You mentioned the word progressive when you talked about veganism – why do you think that?
I see a movement like veganism as an indication of a greater sophistication of society. I do see it as a progression. And consistent with that if you’re producing a product that doesn’t need something in it, why put it in?
I suppose it’s a reflection of people being more discerning of what they eat. That wouldn’t necessarily have been a consideration ten years ago, that’s why I think it’s progressive because it’s evolved over time. It’s a consequence of people being a bit more choosy.
Does producing vegan beer make good business sense for you?
Producing vegan beer, it isn’t necessarily going to exclude any particular set of drinkers really because brewing vegan beers, we’re not actually changing perceivably the beer we’re producing, it’s still going to taste the same. Whereas if you produce a vegan plate of food it deters some people. But with our beer you’re not excluding anyone. You’re just embracing another set of people. In that respect it makes a lot of sense.
What you do have to trade off though is the trade that you’re losing because you don’t want to supply beer off against the extra trade you get from the vegan community coming in and buying the beer.
In terms of the consequence of beer not having isinglass in it, even if you put a vegan substitute in it, it’s never quite the same or as effective. One of the consequences is that we as a brewery are much more reticent about supplying beer to the trade, to other pubs. Especially when we know that they’re not necessarily concerned about the extra care you need and the time you need to serve it. So that does actually deter us.
We’re reticent about supplying beer to trade unless we know for sure that they’re going to treat it properly. Because what we hate is a phone call a couple of days after we’ve supplied it saying your beers hazy, there’s something wrong with it, it won’t settle. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just give it more time. People just don’t know how to manage it so that’s why we don’t supply many pubs at all really.
Do you get a good number of vegan drinkers coming in to make up for that?
Yes we do get a consistent number of people really pleased that they’re able to access vegan beers. It’s not just events; it’s run of the mill time in the pub. It’s not that people make a bee line here necessarily except for the events. What’s great is that we’re now an accepted host for several vegan events.
We’ve got our own vegan beer festival in July, it’s the third year now.
What do you think will happen with the brewery and the pub in future, especially in terms of your vegan customers?
From a business point of view it’s going to be a larger market for us in the future. And one thing I’ve noticed actually about supplying vegan beer and dealing with vegan consumers is that they’re very loyal. They’ve got real loyalty, which is what a lot of companies through their branding are desperately trying to achieve. We also want to develop the retail side, where we actually physically sell beers direct to customers.
Check out the Birmingham Vegan Beer Festival at Two Towers on 20-22 July.
You can also taste some of Two Tower’s superb ales in their pub, The Gunmaker’s Arms, currently undergoing a refurbishment but opening again on 2 June. And if you want to find out even more about the brewing process, you can book a brewery tour here.