Back in August last year, after encountering Siren Craft Brew’s American IPA at the London Craft Beer Festival, I promised: “I shall definitely be drinking more Siren.” I’ve now drunk the brewery’s beers whenever I find them, and I’ve never been so impressed with the products of a new brewery since we started having new breweries in Britain again. There hasn’t been one I wouldn’t score an eight, at least. It should be clear, I think, from the first sip of any of the brewery’s beers that in the 31-year-old American Ryan Witter-Merithew, Siren has found a brewer of supremely rare talent, someone with a “palate imagination” powerful enough to give him the ability to pull off stunts other brewers leap at and fail to achieve.
In particular, he seems to have an amazing ability to blend two ideas together and get a whole considerably greater than the parts. His Whiskey Sour beer contains two of my personal nightmares – beer brewed with actual lemons in it, and beer aged in oak casks sufficiently for the flavour of oak to enter the ale. Yet I find it a marvellous drink, full of depth, totally integrated, the oak, the lemon, the bourbon and the citrussy hops producing a symphony of harmonious flavours: a beer I’m eager to try matching with different foods
I was delighted to get an invite to meet Darron Anley, the founder of Siren Craft Brew at a “showcase” organised by the property agency Davis Coffer Lyons at the East London Liquor Company in Bow Wharf, East London, the first bar-with-a-distillery (actually two stills, beautiful copper affairs) I have seen. It would be very unfair to call Anley a dilettante brewer, since he is clearly serious about what he is doing and it’s not merely a hobby, but like a few others in the modern UK brewing scene, it was making a fortune elsewhere, in his case building up and then selling an IT security company, that gave him the freedom, and the finance, to become a brewer. His previous company was sold in 2011, but Anley’s interest in beer went back a lot further than that, he revealed:
“I’d been into my beers for a really long time, and by 2009 I was a lot more interested in what was coming over from the US, a lot more interested in the more hop-forward style of beer, which at the time when I got out of IT there were probably still only three or four people making those kind of beers. I had never made beer in my life, but I did a lot of playing around and I started thinking, ‘I could do this!’ I wasn’t supposed to be setting up any more businesses, I was supposed to be on a bit of a break. But it kept calling me – I had this nagging feeling, where I wanted to go and create something from scratch, have a bit of fun and do something very, very different. I’d never created a brand before. So that’s where the name ‘Siren’ comes from – I heard the music and that was that.”
Before starting, Anley went to a “brilliant” conference of small brewers in the United States, where
“two of the best bits of advice I got was, one, no matter how good your home-brewing is – and mine was OK, passable, if not quite amazing – get a professional brewer in. It just makes the whole process easier. The other was, whatever size brewkit you’re thinking of starting off with, double it, and if you can afford it, triple it.
“While in the US I met up with a bunch of people, and off the back of that they all sent out various tweets saying, ‘This guy’s looking for a brewer,’ I think I interviewed 12 people through that, and [Ryan Witter-Merithew] was one of them. [He] had been brewing some really cool beers over in Denmark [at Fanø], he’s American, very well-known for his creativity, willing to try almost anything – and that fitted with what I wanted to do. [But] it was the hardest job in the world to try to get an American in for a brand new job, [dealing with the immigration authorities] that was the stuff of nightmares.”
A base was found in Finchampstead, Berkshire, close to Anley’s home, and brand-new kit was acquired from Malrex in Burton upon Trent. Anley is happy to admit his debt to BrewDog in Siren’s line-up of “core” beers, with at least two overtly tracing an influence from brews in the Scottish iconoclasts’ catalogue:
“What we wanted from our four core beers that were going to be about all year round were beers that started off with something that takes you on a nice, easy journey to start with, up to something perhaps a little bit more challenging. So you’ve got Undercurrent, it’s an oatmeal pale ale – not overtly hoppy, not overtly bitter, lot of oats in the grist to give a nice smooth mouthfeel, the hops we use have a herbaceous quality to them, bit of floral, bit of citrus as well. It’s a nice easy balance to get started with. The next thing you’ve got is a West Coast IPA [Soundwave] which is a little bit more like Punk IPA – I’d like to say better, but I’ll let you decide on that. It’s quite aggressive on the nose, loads and loads of citrus, passion fruit, tropical fruit; we’ve gone for a less bitter approach, I didn’t want it to be overtly bitter. We’ve then got a red IPA [Liquid Mistress], and the idea behind that was one of my favourite beers from an early day, my early forays into this market, was 5am Saint, I love that kind of malty play with the hops, so we’ve gone for a much more malty version, a little higher in abv at 5.7%. Again you’ve got that nice malt sweetness and a good aggressive hope note on it. Then our 6.7% Breakfast Stout [Broken Dream] – “breakfast stout’ so you can have it for breakfast – chocolate, oats, milk and (to a response from the audience of “Alcohol!”) alcohol, that’s it. There’s a little bit of smoked malt in there to give you that slightly meaty quality, the chocolate, obviously, from the grist, milk – we add lactic sugar, to give that nice, smooth unctuousness – is that a word? It is now. The idea is to make sure we’ve got those four core, staple beers there all the time and then add a good range of things to play around with.
“Part of what we do is about cores and stability, the rest is trying to help people explore the flavour palate of what beer can be, so the first beer we brewed on our system, before we brewed any of our core beers, was a project called Maiden – the reason for the name was that it was the first beer, so a maiden voyage. It was a big barley wine, 11 per cent, we separated it out into various different barrels, including Bourbon, brandy, Armagnac, Cognac, rum and tequila. After a year we got some help from some wine guys, and Compass Box Whisky, who make some fantastic whiskies, and know all about blending stuff. The aim was to take each one of these individual components and make a blend that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a great product, and we’re carrying it on, so the first beer we brewed 2014 was the base beer for Maiden this year – we’re got some new barrels to add to it, including some [Jack] Daniel’s, Sauternes and all kinds of different stuff. It’s all about trying to explore different ideas, different tastes, explore the flavour landscape, so that it’s not just about malt and it’s not just about hops. A lot of brewers now, it’s about how much citrus you can get pumping out of a 5 per cent IPA – I do like those beers, personally, but there’s other things to do: there’s sour, there’s barrel-aged, there’s all sorts of things. We’ve done a worm beer for a festival – the guys at Nordic Food Labs [part of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant regarded as the best in the world] did a thing called the Pestival, where every course had something to do with insects, and we were asked to make a beer with mealworms. It was originally supposed to be crickets, but something went wrong and we got sent worms instead.”
For a moment earlier this year it looked as if Witter-Merithew would be returning to the US, but fortunately for Siren, and beer drinkers in Britain, he decided to stay: “There was a period of time when he didn’t settle very well in the UK, they were thinking of going back but they ended up staying. Obviously we would have been gutted to see him go, because he’s a very experimental brewer, very much in the forefront of what we do,” Anley says. And I’d have been gutted, too.
The company turned over £300,000 in its first year, and is on the way to doing £1 million this year, a remarkable achievement for a start-up concern. Siren has now added to the capacity at the brewery sufficiently that it could double what it did this year, “although we won’t be doing double, the idea is to slow down a little bit, the new tanks are much more about making sure the tanks we have got are used to capacity with the core beers, and the rest will be the more experimental, the more fun stuff,” Anley says. Output is split almost exactly one third cask, one third keg and one third bottled, and around half the beer is exported, to Europe and “a reasonable amount” to the US. Little is available around Finchampstead, however: ” We have a terrible local scene – we send one van out a week locally. And we miss out on London because we’re not a London brewery either. We’re doing very well in London but it’s hard to get people to come out.”
I find that reluctance difficult to plumb. In the past few weeks I’ve been trying three of Siren’s experimental DIPAs, Ten Finger Discount, all-Citra and aged on cedar, Ten Toe Discount, same malt bill and hop dosing, again aged on cedar but with Amarillo hops; and Middle Finger Discount, the same again, but with Mosaic hops. Each is full of depth, character and flavour, a snappy retort to those who dismiss American IPAs as simply “too hoppy”, because without the carefully weighted application of masses of hop the experiences here would be weak and wimpy. These are beers made by a man who knows how to get exactly what he wants out of his ingredients, and they deliver an experience it is hard to imagine could be bettered.