Matthew Curtis interviews Jonathan Hamilton

Pellicle Magazine’s Matthew Curtis talks to Jonathan Hamilton.

When I was asked to guest edit The Drinks Trust newsletter I spent hours racking my brains over who I should interview. The beer industry—where most of my work as a writer is focussed—is full of fascinating, creative people who work hard to make beer as delicious and engaging as it is accessible, and I wanted to speak to someone who embodies each of these traits.

I found myself thinking about how beer and hospitality are intimately connected—one cannot function without the other. And so the person I interviewed would have to be someone who understood both, someone who has worked long hours both at the front of house, and within the guts of a working brewery. It was then, like a bolt from the blue, it struck me…

In May 2019 I set up a brand new, independently owned drinks publication called Pellicle with my longtime friend Jonathan Hamilton (or Jonny, to you and me.) The first time I spoke to Jonny was almost a decade ago, when he was studying his masters degree in brewing and distilling at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University. He was part of a special project as part of the course called Natural Selection, which grouped together five students to design, produce, market and sell a beer. Jonny took charge of the marketing, and as I had recently started blogging about beer in my spare time, he reached out to share details of the project. 

Things have come on a bit since then. I quit my job to become a full time beer writer in 2016, and Jonny has, for the most part, worked as a full time brewer. Out of university he landed a job at Edinburgh brewpub The Hanging Bat, before moving to London to take on a production role at Beavertown Brewery, then based in Tottenham. He spent three years at Beavertown, initially as a shift brewer, but eventually he was promoted to run the brewery’s small batch project, called Tempus. I was also a Londoner at this time, and it was around this time that we became good friends, bonding over our mutual love of beer and food, as well as music and film.

It was in late 2018 when I bumped into Jonny in a favourite local haunt of ours, and he opened his bag to pull out stacks of wine magazines he’d been pouring over. “Why aren’t there more beer magazines like this” he asked. And so the seed for what would eventually become Pellicle was planted. 

In late 2019 Jonny moved back to Edinburgh to help start a brand new brewery called Newbarns. Its focus was intended to be mostly on trade, producing pub friendly, draft pale ales and lagers designed to be enjoyed by the pint. While he waited for the brewery to be installed he spent some time working front of house at Spry, a neighbourhood wine bar, which allowed him to indulge another of his many passions. The brewery weathered the pandemic by pivoting to canned beer, and is now in the process of working its way through another financial storm in the cost of living crisis, again demonstrating how much the beer and hospitality industries rely on one another for support.

Running a magazine with Jonny means that we speak almost every day, but for various reasons he’s never someone I’ve sat down and interviewed as I regularly do with other brewers. There are few people I know who have a better grasp on the relationship of beer within the on trade, partly because Jonny is a great brewer with experience in both camps, but also because he loves the pub as much as I do. There’s rarely a weekend where you won’t find him in his local (which you can read about here in a piece he recently authored for Pellicle.)

With me based in Manchester, and Jonny in Edinburgh, we caught up for a couple of hours over Zoom, and I dug into his motivations for becoming a brewer, as we charted his career over the past few years.

It was in late 2018 when I bumped into Jonny in a favourite local haunt of ours, and he opened his bag to pull out stacks of wine magazines he’d been pouring over. “Why aren’t there more beer magazines like this” he asked. And so the seed for what would eventually become Pellicle was planted.

Why did you decide to become a brewer?

I moved to Edinburgh from Northern Ireland, where I’m originally from, to study a masters in chemistry that also had a year’s industrial placement built into it. In 2011 I moved from Edinburgh down to Stevenage to spend a year working for GlaxoSmithKline, with the intention of going to work for big pharma once I had finished my degree. However a few weeks into the placement I realised it was not what I wanted to do at all.

At the time I was just getting really into beer, including some locally brewed craft beers as well as some really interesting stuff that was being imported from the [United] States. I was lucky to travel to the US East Coast and to Canada where I tried beers from breweries like Allagash, The Alchemist, and others like them. The scene in the UK at the time was quite young in terms of our modern craft beer industry, so I’d never really experienced breweries like that before. 

I’d done some homebrewing in the past, but with tins of [malt] extract poured into a bucket with water and yeast. Despite my chemistry degree I made a very poor attempt at beer. But I also started reading a lot of beer blogs and getting excited about beer. It felt like something was about to kick on, and I wanted to be a part of that, so I started homebrewing again. Then I realised that there was a brewing and distilling course in Edinburgh [at Heriot-Watt] and I applied to that. 

What made you decide to take an academic route into brewing?

It was lucky that I was studying my masters in chemistry in Edinburgh. I finished my first degree, which felt like the smartest thing to do, even though I had realised chemistry wasn’t for me. I applied for the course as soon as I moved back to Edinburgh, and went straight into it once I’d finished my fifth year of chemistry.

I didn’t have a plan in terms of getting a job after it. I wanted to work in the [beer] industry but it wasn’t like there were 100s of jobs on the table. At the time, in Scotland, around 2012-13 there were a handful of breweries including BrewDog, Cromarty, Tempest, and Fyne Ales and not a great deal more than that. But I was reassured by a tutor at a careers fair that brewing is basically chemistry, and that it was a good use of my degree, which felt validating. 

Were you able to find a career in brewing right away?

I’d already lined up my first role in brewing around the time I graduated, which was probably the most perfect place to start my career as a brewer. It was at a small brewpub in Edinburgh called The Hanging Bat, which is still going but is under different owners now. At the time I had a couple of close friends who worked there and I’d bring in my homebrew samples for them to try, with the idea being that I was already eyeing up brewing on their in-house kit. 

I had to learn how to brew professionally by making mistakes. The [brewing and distilling] course was very academic—there were practical elements to it and I was lucky to be part of a project where I got to make some beer, but a lot of people on the course didn't have that opportunity. In my first few years of brewing I’d often think “why didn’t we get shown how to fix a broken pump”. We were taught all the maths and equations to work out the brewing process but no one explained how to take a heat exchanger apart and put it back together!

What was your experience like of moving to London and becoming a shift brewer at Beavertown?

It was amazing. A lot of my career involved a lot of hard work, but also some elements of luck with just being in the right place at the right time. I had a really good year at Heriot-Watt and met some really great people while I was there, who’ve become lifelong friends. 

I’d never lived in London before and with the momentum that Beavertown (which was fully acquired by Heineken in 2022) had at the time, I feel like I made the right choice. I was part of a brewing team of five when I started in 2016, and by the time I left in 2019 there were well over 100 people working there—and many more than that now, I imagine. 

It wasn’t long before you were tasked with running Beavertown’s Tempus small-batch project. What was that like?

We had about 100 former wine and spirit barrels, and a couple of foeders (large oak vats used for fermenting a maturing beer, wine or cider). I had experience of brewing one off batches at The Hanging Bat, but I learned to brew consistently by making Neck Oil and Gamma Ray all the time. It was quite nice going back to making these one-off, experimental beers. 

We bought more barrels and I started developing a core range of beers which included an IPA that was 100% fermented with Brettanomyces (a type of slow-fermenting yeast that gives beer funky, fruit flavours) a Gose aged in amphora (giant terracotta pots) and a mixed-fermentation Saison. The main purpose of [Tempus] was experimentation, using barrels, mostly that have been used to make wine, and playing around with lots of interesting yeast and bacteria strains. A lot of beer actually ended up going down the drain, as is the way with those kinds of projects. It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun!

I’d never lived in London before and with the momentum that Beavertown (which was fully acquired by Heineken in 2022) had at the time, I feel like I made the right choice. I was part of a brewing team of five when I started in 2016, and by the time I left in 2019 there were well over 100 people working there—and many more than that now, I imagine. 

What motivated you to move back up to Edinburgh to help start up Newbarns?

After the Heineken sale my job became—not redundant—but certainly less interesting. A lot of the stuff I was doing at the time was collaborations with other small breweries that didn’t want their brands associated with a multinational corporation. We even had to take their names off some of the beers we released. Something that was completely out of my control was affecting my day-to-day.

I already knew (Newbarns co-founders) Gordon [McKenzie], Emma [Mcintosh] and Fred [Bjerkseth] and I also knew that, despite their best intentions, they wouldn’t have time to run the company and do all the brewing. I felt Edinburgh pulling me back too, so I kind of wrote myself into their business plan and forced my way into the company! 

Tell me about your role at Newbarns.

It’s me and Emma doing the brewing. There’s not really a “head brewer” so to speak. At the moment I do more cellaring, packaging and centrifuging, while Emma does the majority of the wort production. I also do a lot of scheduling, which my experience at Beavertown really helps me with. Having to meet a demanding production schedule with very little room for error will do that! My job involves a lot of lists, a lot of paper, and a lot of whiteboards. 

There’s six of us working at the brewery now, which is exciting, and fingers crossed by the time you read this article our taproom will be open so you can join us at the brewery for a beer.

How would you describe the kinds of beers you’re making at Newbarns?

The whole idea behind the company, even before the four of us worked together, was drinking together at the pub. We’d pretty much hang out every week and drink pale ales and lagers—so our idea was that we’d make these kinds of beers, designed specifically for drinking in the pub. There was no intention of producing bottles or cans, it was all going to be draught. 

How did those plans change when the pandemic struck?

We didn’t actually start brewing until summer 2020. We were paying rent, had everything ready to go, but we couldn’t brew because Scottish Gas wouldn’t connect our supply, as it was deemed “non-essential”. Thankfully we were able to work with some friends in the industry; The Kernel in London (were Gordon and Emma previously worked) and Burnt Mill Brewery in Suffolk, where we were able to brew our first batches under contract. 

A few weeks on and we still couldn’t brew, so we started brewing at other local breweries, and bringing the wort back in a van so that we could ferment and package it on site. I think we finally started brewing on site in September 2020, and since then we’ve brewed over 200 batches of beer. 

Why do you think it’s important for those in brewing to support people in hospitality?

It’s a scary time. There are people out there who still f**king love [working in] hospitality. It pays off to treat people with respect, because then they’ll treat your product with respect too. Everyone plays a role, and without everyone pulling their weight then the industry ceases to be fun. I wouldn’t be into beer if it wasn’t for the pub, and I don’t want to lose the pub, so it's in my benefit to support it, not just personally, but in terms of our business.

Are there any downsides to being a brewer?

I rarely drink our own beers outside of the brewery, which I think might be healthy for me. When I drink our beers I find it difficult to switch off because I’m in work mode, so I leave the tasting of the beers to work, because as interesting as being a brewer is, it is my job to make sure the beers are tasting right.

I love going into the brewery on a Monday and seeing where we’re at, and checking everything’s tasting how it should be. But if I do drink our own beer outside the brewery I do it in a very particular way; tasting it very scientifically, scrutinising it, comparing it to some previous batches, and then pouring most of it away. Outside the brewery I like to drink Augustiner [Lager], and then maybe a Negroni—the one beverage I haven’t ruined for myself by trying to intellectualise it! 

OK last question, what’s your favourite style of beer to brew?

Whatever gets me out on time! [Laughs].

Matthew Curtis is a freelancer writer who’s been focussed on beer and pubs for over a decade. He’s author of two books, including Modern British Beer (CAMRA Books, 2021) and is the co-founder of Pellicle Magazine, an independent, reader funded drinks publication. He’s based in Manchester, where he’s currently working on his next book, and you can usually find him in one of his locals, trying to decide whether he wants a pint of mild or an IPA. He’ll end up having both.