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Desert island beers
Island is one of the most recognisable and best-loved brands in music, having discovered, developed and supported artists as diverse as Bob Marley, Nick Drake, Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey and U2. However, it is probably fair to say the label is less well known for its craft brewing pedigree. With the launch of two critically acclaimed beers – a session IPA and a porter – that could all be about to change.
This seemingly improbable story begins back in July 2014, when Glenn Cooper of Island Records invited some friends round to celebrate his birthday, including home craft brewer Robin Pearson, who brought some of his latest creations, including a (then) relatively new style adopted from the US: the session IPA. Beers were drunk, chat was had and then much to Robin’s surprise, Glenn got in touch a few days later and asked if he would be interested in developing a bespoke brew for Island Records for a 500 bottle trial batch.
“I knew I had to get the beer right for Island Records,” recalls Robin. “I wanted a classic IPA character with a good malty backbone – something I think a lot of session IPAs lack – and big tropical flavours from New World hops.”
The first batch was delivered to Island’s Kensington’s offices in November 2014, for a special tasting by the core team, senior execs and a handful of artists. It went down so well that discussions began over the next few weeks about the possibility of scaling production to a commercial level, including finding the right brewing partner and developing a brand identity for the new beer.
“At this stage I was still brewing in my shed and bottling in my kitchen,” Robin continues. “So it was clear we’d need to partner with an actual brewery to take things any further, but it was also really important to us that we work with someone who shared our values and understood what we were trying to achieve.”
Glenn was introduced by a friend to Boutique Bar Brands who then came on board to help play what he describes as a “Cilla Black role” in the search.
Glenn says: “Robin and I didn’t have detailed knowledge of the range of breweries and brewers around the country, so Boutique Bar Brands joined the team and conducted an exhaustive search. They explored a lot of options, but I then got a very excited call one day, basically saying we’ve found the perfect partner for you.”
The partner was Two Tribes Brewery in leafy Sussex, run by Justin Deighton, an ex-DJ who used to head his own record label. It was, says Glenn, “a match made in heaven”.
Justin picks up the story: “As soon as I met Glenn and Robin, it all just clicked. Robin had created a great beer and we worked with him to develop the recipe to make it scalable, much like a record producer works with an artist. I also feel there are a lot of similarities between what was going on in the 90s with the music industry and what’s going on in the craft beer world now; there was a big independent movement challenging the corporate machines that were churning out their product. The independents created a whole new scene, because you suddenly had all these people making music in their houses, just like the craft brewers are today.”
Glenn, obviously warming to the theme chips in: “People were making music, particularly dance music, pressing up white labels and going round in vans to all the indie record stores. If we’d gone to other brewers, they just wouldn’t have understood what we were trying to achieve and how important that crossover between music and craft beer is.” “That dynamic has continued,” adds Robin. “All three of us are very much involved in all the detail of every element. The beer, the brand, the print, the packaging – we all work together and sign off together, it’s a great team.”
Without wishing to burst their bubble, there’s something that sits a little uneasily for me about Island Records, part of the media giant Universal, getting involved in a garden shed craft beer. So I ask, as gently as I can, whether this is just cynical brand extension into a fashionable and potentially lucrative new market.
“This obviously had to make sense from the perspective of Island Records’ brand,” says Glenn. “The whole concept of these two beers ties back to Island – the session IPA and Jamaican porter are like a tropical ying and yang, day and night. But this started with the beer and that’s still what drives us – all the branding, the packaging, the marketing… it’s all important, but it all came out of the beer.”
Justin adds: “We knew from the o utset that we’d have to be bold, because we’d constantly be fighting against the assumption that this is just a big corporation jumping on the craft beer bandwagon, which it isn’t.”
“For me, this had to be capable of standing up as a great craft beer without the Island Records branding, and I believe it does that,” says Robin. “Some of my favourite reviews and social comments say ‘this beer is so much better than I thought it would be’. Because some people’s expectation is that it will be design and marketing over substance, and they’re pleasantly surprised when it isn’t.”
And there are other ways in which record labels and craft brewing may be more complementary than one might first assume. For example, Robin as a brewer was “signed” to Island in much the same way as a musical artist might be. This enabled him to set up his own craft beer development company, Soundwaves Brewing ltd, with payment in advance and royalties on the beer’s profit. This, explains Glenn, recognises his talent and allows the company to develop him and his beer.
“For example, there was a moment when we were in talks with a major multi-national supermarket about stocking our beers,” he says. “I took the proposal to Darcus [Beese, the label’s President] and he turned it down, because he sees the beer as a ‘five album artist’ – he didn’t want to throw everything at it and destroy the brand within 18 months.”
This approach seems to be validated by the beers themselves, which really are very good. The Session IPA is appropriately quaffable – the tropical fruit is all present and correct, though I would say orange is the dominant flavour here. It’s certainly hop-forward, with Eldorado giving it a long spicy finish. The net effect is a beer that’s at the bitter end of what you would normally expect from a session IPA, but well balanced by a pronounced maltiness.
The Jamaican porter is rich and strong at 6.2%, and successfully evokes island nights with rummy molasses sweetness, vanilla, coconut, roasted malt and dried fruit. The sweetness is offset by gingerbread bitterness and a dry, spiced finish.
As the three had hinted several times, there are more Island beers in the works, and Robin eventually revealed he is working on a Nordic-style pale ale (inspired by his relocation to Denmark in January 2016), scheduled for release in February 2017.
I love Island as a record label – Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left has been a constant friend to me over the years – but I must admit I went into this one with a degree of scepticism. I left, however, thoroughly infected by Glenn, Robin and Justin’s enthusiasm and commitment, and convinced by the quality of the beer itself (which I deliberately avoided tasting until the day I went to meet them). With no sign of artistic differences to slow things down, I hope we can look forward to many more great beers from Island in the future.