Mattias Sjoberg was just 16 years old when he started becoming interested in the biological and chemical processes that are involved in brewing, and determined to make it his career he enrolled in a BSc Honours Degree in Distilling and Brewing. After graduating from Herriott-Watt University in Edinburgh he worked for Munton’s Malt in Suffolk and Scottish and Newcastle in Reading, but decided to set up his own brewery for a very special set of reasons.
Like many immigrants to this country, he viewed the British beer and ale industry as hugely diverse and interesting. Mattias comes from near Stockholm in Sweden, and wondered whether by cherry picking different production techniques from all over the world, from across history, and blending the very best ideas with the four essential ingredients that make up beer (malt, hops, yeast and water) he could create new and innovative flavour combinations.
Based near Oxford, in Compass Close, he decided to call the business Compass Brewery and his byline is “An exploration in flavours”. I have come to meet the man who is going to steer me through the beer maze, but the venue is not as I expected.
On the outskirts of Bourton-on-the Water, one of the prettiest of all the Cotswold towns, down an unmarked track, surrounded by pastures, trees and sheep, in a barn, I am standing with Richard and Emma Keene, the owners of The Cotswold Brewing Company (see our other article) and Mattias. I am surrounded by a myriad of large stainless steel vessels, pipes, beer kegs, bottles, sacks of malt and brewers’ paraphernalia, with the hiss of machinery, the running of water and the sound of the radio filling the cavernous space.
Mattias explains how he and another brewer, Peter Scholey of Ridgeway Brewery, are cuckoo brewers, because they are renting space in Emma and Richard’s brewery, so whenever there is spare capacity available in their production schedule he can brew his own four beers.
I ask Mattias how the name came about, and he replies “It’s because a cuckoo will just fly in and lay its eggs in another bird’s nest. I could not afford the vast sums of money needed to set up my own brewery, so this system allows me the sort of flexibility and economic benefit I need at the moment.”
When he first decided he would launch his own beer, he took a map and drew a 30 mile radius round the city of Oxford, where he and his wife and two young children live, and discovered that there were 30 breweries within that region. That may seem a great number, but Mattias was trying to target a very specific group of customers.
The demand for tasty, unusual and flavour layered beers has been growing steadily for the last decade, with the ever increasing interest in the provenance of well sourced, well produced local food. The Thames Valley corridor is affluent and international, affording Mattias with a population of consumers, food shops, small supermarkets and wine merchants who were keen to learn more about the young Swede’s alchemy with malt and hops.
“In November 2009 I launched “Baltic Night Stout”, brewed on a double decoction, where some of the grain and water are boiled, left for an hour, and the liquor (water) then added to the liquid that is drained from the mash. Using the Belgian and German techniques, the boiling fluffs up the grain, so that the starches are converted to sugar more quickly.” This stout is packed with flavour, and has a very deep and rich aroma, a meaty backbone and a dark colour. It’s very delicious.
Taking inspiration from American pale ales, Mattias created “Isis Pale Ale”, originally made as a one-off bespoke beer. “I think I am probably the only artisanal brewer in Britain that offers bespoke brewing as a facility for those that want to create their own special taste, whether it be lemony, light, rich, with more malt or more hops: the combination is engineered and customised entirely to the drinker’s tastes.” As bottled beer keeps for at least a year, one father from Mattias’ daughter’s school ordered 3000 bottles, which he then kept for entertaining, and enjoying with family and friends.
His latest creation, the “Symposium Beer”, a traditional Bavarian wheat beer, has been created with summer in mind: it has notes of fresh ginger and lemon juice, and lends itself to summer barbeques, Mediterranean food and outdoor picnics. It has a full and complex flavour, with a pleasing estery tinge on the hop finish.
Mattias believes that beer is a drink that more people should enjoy with food. “Wine seems to have a monopoly on the dinner table, but there are so many really well made, artisanal beers that taste wonderful with food. For example, Isis Pale Ale goes so well with chilli, seafood and grilled fish. The King’s Sipment Indian Pale Ale, which has been hopped with oak chips, to simulate oak barrels, is really delicious alongside roast chicken. Cheese, olives, chocolate: you can pair every single one with beer or ale just as successfully as you can with wine.”
Mattias regularly runs food and beer matching evenings at a Greek delicatessen, Manos Food Bar, in Walton Street, Jericho, Oxford. Lots of different dishes are prepared and eight beers are tasted, of which two are produced by Compass and the rest are specifically chosen by Mattias for their appropriate food-enhancing flavour notes.
Despite his passionate beliefs that “all that matters is the taste”, Mattias is business savvy enough to know that marketing and social media now play an extremely important part in the selling process of any artisanal start-up. He had his labels designed by Opta Design of Cambridge, and he has signed up to both Twitter and Facebook. “With Facebook I have a more one-on-one interaction with individual customers, but with Twitter I have found that there are a lot of businesses with which to engage, create a relationship and pursue opportunities. Without Twitter it would be virtually impossible to get to know so many contacts in such a short space of time.”
His beer is now sold widely in and around his catchment area, from farm shops, farmers’ markets, festivals and specialist food shops. He produces 2000 litres every month, and works every hour not just to produce the beer, but also to sell it, do his marketing, accounts, administration and PR.
We walk into the actual brewery so that Mattias can show me the process from start to finish. This is a job of immense physical and mental dedication: tall ladders need to be climbed to see inside the vessels, huge sacks and containers need to be carried to pour the malt, hops and yeast into the vats. The hours are long, the building is cold and the concentration and timing must never falter, because customers want consistency in their flavours.
Milled malt is stored in a giant hopper and through a hatch falls into the mash tun. This then rests on a sieve bed at the bottom. The malt is mixed with hot water, and when we open the vat door I can see a very cloudy, steamy liquid that smells very grainy and starchy.
After an hour a valve is opened so that the sweet wort liquid runs into a kettle where it is boiled. The hops are added and the liquid is re-boiled, but this time on a long, rolling boil. This makes the beer more stable. The bitter wort liquid is pumped through the heat exchanger and cooled with water, which tomorrow will be the warm brewing water for the next brew.
In the fermentation vessel yeast is added, and the liquid remains there for anywhere between 4-10 days, whereupon it is cooled, and the yeast falls out of suspension. In the maturation vessel more hops are added to the Indian Pale Ale (this is called dry hopping) and after anywhere between 3-14 days liquefied fish bladder called isinglass is added. The beer will now be clear, as the yeast completely drops out of the solution, and it goes to be bottled in the Forest of Dean. The bottles are labelled, packaged, transported back to the brewery, stocked and sold.
The empty vessels are then completely cleaned out and made sterile. Richard, Mattias and Peter work in rotation, making beers, ales and lagers which they sell to completely different markets. Mattias sells mainly to specialist food shops, whereas Richard sells mainly to pubs and Peter sells mainly to the export market.
I ask Mattias whether he misses Sweden at all, and whether he ever contemplates returning home. His wife is American, he has two small children and despite finding the cost of living and housing in the UK completely baffling, he believes that the future for micro brewing is much more exciting here in Britain.
“In Sweden the government is still very much in control of sales of alcoholic drinks. Here I am finding there is a great deal more freedom, and new brewers are able to enter the industry and make their mark, if they work hard and find their niche. I have had such a positive and enthusiastic reception from all my customers. They really appreciate my craft, and more and more people come up to me at food fairs, at markets and are even contacting me online, wanting to know all about the various flavour combinations, asking questions and showing curiosity and a need to learn. All I want to do is make great beer, interact with the customers to teach people how well it goes with food and get more foodies to embrace the drink as a really refreshing and flavoursome alternative to wine. I only play with four ingredients, but when it comes to flavour combinations, the sky is the limit.”
6 Compass Close
Oxford OX4 3SX
E-mail: [email protected]
Follow Mattias on Twitter: @compassbrewery