Mad Dog Brewing Co.

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So, a couple of weeks ago Poggles and me set off on a road trip to discover all that we could about one of the UK’s best craft breweries, Mad Dog Brewing.  After a journey fraught with danger and intrigue, or as they’re commonly known Sat Nav issues, speed camera’s and motorway tailbacks, we finally arrived and sat down with owner and head brewer Alex Jones for a chat about all things beer and Mad Dog. And this is what he had to say…

Interview by Tim Cundle & Rhodri Dawe

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MM: All stories start somewhere, so what made you want to be a brewer…?

Alexis:  Well, it all began with home brewing.  I watched some YouTube videos about home brewing, decided to give it a bash myself and started out extract brewing (the small can kits). I got bored of that very quickly and decided that I wanted to do all grain brewing and experimented with different things with that. I was doing that for about two or three months and then decided that I wanted to turn it into a job and make it my career. So, basically that’s what I did. I got myself a job working with another Welsh brewery and then went and did a course at BrewLab in Microbiology in Beer and then a short time after that I started Mad Dog.

MM: So you took the traditional brewers route…

Alexis: Yeah, doing things that way gave me a lot of insight into not only how a brewery is run, but it also gave me experience working in a brewery. Which was good, as I didn’t go straight from home brewing to operating a brewery.

MM: Was it easier to make the transition as you were already working in the industry…

Alexis: Yeah, it was a lot easier. On the one hand it’s okay to do that, but I’m still learning how to actually run a business (laughs)

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MM: Are you approaching your business from a craft beer perspective?

Alexis: Yes. There’s a lot of debate out there, about what it is and what actually defines it…

MM: It’s done with a passion for the art of brewing rather than basing the model solely on fiduciary gain…

Alexis: Yeah. For us, it’s more about the ingredients that we use and the research that we put into them. We also use as many natural ingredients as we can, whereas some other breweries, some of the bigger ones, they use flavourings and their ilk and we don’t do that.

MM: That was one of the things that struck me about your beer, it was very natural, very fresh and there was zero chemical after taste. So what’s you take on the whole craft beer revolution? Was that what inspired you to make beer?

Alexis: Yes. It all came about, with me, since I turned eighteen and could drink legally and searching bars for that beer really grabs you, the one that makes you think “I’ll drink that all the time”…

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MM: Which is originally what drew you to home brewing as well I’m guessing…

Alexis: Yeah, when I was a kid, in the area I was brought up it was mainly Brew XI or Bass or ore regular lagers like Carling. So, it’s all about bringing it to a different level and enjoying, if you like, real ales. There’s lots of them out there and they all taste roughly the same thanks to crystallised malts and British hops and none of them really try anything different. Now you’re getting the smaller craft breweries who are coming along and changing the way things are done and getting really good at it.

MM: Do you think that there’s a discernible shift away from the mainstream breweries as people become more aware of the craft brewery way of doing things…?

Alex: I think that there’s still a lot of catching up to do, but the bigger breweries are now cottoning on to what’s been going on and they’re trying to get in on it.  They’re not doing a very good job, because they’re still mostly doing their usual run of the mill low hop stuff, but the even bigger mega breweries, the larger corporations are seeing what’s going on and they’re swooping in and buying up the smaller craft breweries…

MM: That’s what’s happening in the US, with companies like Anheuser-Busch buying up smaller breweries, or buying a controlling stake in the smaller breweries, giving them a much wider distribution, then stepping back and letting them do their do their own thing while watching the profits roll in…

Alexis: I wouldn’t say that they’re leaving them alone to do what they want, as at the end of the day they’re only interested in money, so at some point they will turn around and say things like “You need to make this kind of beer and you need to reduce the amount of hops you’re using by 10%”, because they’ll want to see the same amount of beer being produced but at less cost.

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MM: Terrapin just sold a large stake in their brewery and there was a backlash against them, accusing them of selling out, but on the other hand, if someone offered you millions of dollars and a deal that would secure the future of your company beyond any shadow of a doubt, it’s got to be a tough thing to say no to or turn down. I don’t think I could…

Alexis: Don’t get me wrong, if the offer did come my way, which I don’t think it ever will, it would be nice to know that I was in a position for companies to be coming to me with those kind of offers, but I wouldn’t do it.

MM: No?

Alexis: Definitely not and I’ve said that right from the start. For me, it’s all about building this brewery up from nothing at all and doing it steadily. Which is why I’d never get another investor involved.

MM: So what’s your flagship beer?

Alexis:  I would say Bohemian Hipster, it’s our pale ale. We’ve got four beers, Third Eye Blind which has got American and New Zealand hops in it, we’ve got Now in a Minute which is a Welsh Red Ale and we’ve got a Black IPA as well, which is called It’s All Propaganda.  The IPA has got coconut, lemon and that sort of thing going on as well as its chocolate malt…

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MM: What then, do you think, personifies a Mad Dog beer?

Alexis: Good question that (laughs)…  Largely what we try to do, especially with our speciality beers is we look to see if it’s been done before and if it’s been done lots of times, then we won’t do it.  We did an all-day stout that had breakfast granola (cereal) we had to stop doing it because the price of the granola went up and it became cost prohibitive to make it. But at the time, it was possibly one of the best beers that we brewed, but we have done other things since then. We’ve brewed Saison’s and all other kinds of stuff. It’s all about experimenting with different ingredients and coming up with something good that works. Everything that we do is brewed on a small pilot kit first so that we can check to see if it does work, and if we’re not happy with it the first time, it gets brewed again and again until we get it right.

MM: Has being a brewer made you a beer snob?

Alexis: It did to start with, but not so much now. Because there are still the original classic ales that I enjoy, Timothy Taylor Landlord being one of them. If  want a classic ale on the weekend, I’ll go to the supermarket and buy four or so bottles of that. That said, there are other breweries that I dislike, which is entirely down to personal preference… When I first got into brewing, I joined that group, along with a lot of other people, who called everything shit and crap until I graduated from home brewer and became a part of the brewing industry and then one day, I just thought ‘Hang on a minute, why am I calling this shit?” Is it purely because I dislike it or is it shit because it’s got an off flavour in it? With the beer industry, more so in this country than in the US, it’s about educating people about what they’re actually drinking. We’ve only just started with it, and it’s about moving people on from this old type real ale which is traditionally sort of bland and boring.

MM: What were the greatest difficulties and challenges that you faced when it came to setting up your own brewery?

Alexis: The biggest things were all the regulations that come with it, and they still are if I’m honest. You’ve really got to be on top of your game and know what you’re doing and from initially setting up to brewing my first beer took eight months because of all the red tape that literally has you jumping through hoops.  You’ve got to be licensed by, and registered with, HMRC to sell your beer and you’ve got to go through all the necessary food hygiene training, the same as any other food company has to, there’s Health & Safety and all other kinds of stuff. I could just keep going and going (laughs)…

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MM: Was it more difficult and different to what you thought it would be like?

Alexis: Yeah, it was a lot different.  Before I started the brewery I went on a lot of courses to try and prepare myself, but even so there was a lot of filling out of paperwork, but the relevant authorities are there to help you, so if you’re not clear about something, there’s someone in the right department there to help guide you through it. It did take a lot of time, and then there was getting into the market the right way and making sure you publicise your beers to the right people.

MM: How did you feel when you saw your beer in a bottle, with your logo on it for sale somewhere other than the brewery…

Alexis: It was quite an emotional moment to be honest. Depending on where we go these days, or how big the customer is, it still gets to me…

MM: It must make everything worth it at that point…

Alexis: It does, but it makes it even more worth it when you get customers reviewing your beers on sites,  giving them good reviews and keep coming back to drink your beers. And it’s even greater again when these people actually come to you, physically, or send personal emails to say how much they enjoy the beer. That’s what I really enjoy… (laughs)

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MM: From a purely personal perspective, what are your top five beers of choice?

Alexis: Oh crikey, now you got me thinking… Well, my favourite brewery is Mikkeller and with I’m pretty much good to go with anything they produce.  Cloudwater, their DIPA v6 is pretty bloody good… Oh, I dunno, it’s pretty bloody hard being put on the spot.

MM: Are you more of a fan of UK or US style craft beer…

Alexis: Pretty much American style. I like hoppy beers, but what I do drink is down to my own palate. When I was a teenager, I ate a lot of third rate curries and pretty much ruined my taste buds and palate (laughs). It’s really interesting to see how certain breweries are using hops in beer, because it’s not just about putting them in to get the aroma and taste. The ones that really know what they’re doing fully understand the science behind what they’re doing and the role that they hops play in the whole thing and it can be really tricky sometimes, but it all comes with experience and I’m still learning (laughs) With brewing, every single day is a new learning curve and the good things is that brewers learn from each other. It doesn’t matter how advanced or how professional you are, you never stop learning in this business as there’s always something new that crops up.

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MM: If there’s anything that you’d like to add, speak now or forever hold your peace…

Alexis: We enjoy what we do and we’ve got some really interesting stuff in the pipeline…

MM: Anything that you can tell us about?

Alexis: Well, we’ve got a double IPA which is sitting in the tank at the moment and should be ready to go at the end of this week, maybe next week. It seriously hopped, and at the moment it’s just over 7.5% ABV. It’s called Petronius and that’ll be out soon. We’ve just done the Halloween beer which is called I See Dead People, which is pumpkin spiced and has nutmeg and cinnamon in it as well, just for good measure.

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Hops & Barley

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