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Embracing the natural beer haze

Embracing the natural beer haze

by Clare Gazzard 08 March 2016

Clare Gazzard discusses the cloudy subject of natural beer with Julio Moncada – the founder and driving force behind Notting Hill’s Moncada Brewery – who swapped life in Argentina for a craft brewing course and the challenge of persuading customers to love the haze.

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What do you get when you cross an Argentinian-born extreme sports instructor with plans to open a deli and a craft beer brewing course? This unusual combination isn’t the start of a Friday night pub joke, but it’s not too far off the mark. Moncada Brewery in west London is the outcome of this whirlwind career path, and shows how passion and determination can result in both a quality product and a flourishing business. Brewing only ‘natural’, unfiltered beers, the brewery champions local ingredients and vegan-friendly production methods – something a lot of consumers take for granted.

The Eureka moment

The man behind the brewery, Julio Moncada, credits the start of this journey with a trip to a beer festival in Cordoba with his elder brother. ‘I was only sixteen years old and it was my first real introduction to different beers, the incredible range of flavours and styles,’ he tells us. Seeing that there was a world of brewing beyond lager started a ‘never-ending voyage of discovery’ for Julio, that continued with an introduction to ales when he moved to Britain in 2001. However, drinking and enjoying beer as a hobby is one thing – making it a business is quite another.

Hitting a career crossroads in 2010, Julio packed in his role within the extreme sports industry to follow his stomach – training in classical French and Italian cuisine as a chef with the intention of opening a deli. ‘During this time my friends and I didn’t have much money for fine beers so we started to do some home brewing,’ he explains. ‘We would share our recipes and one day a friend asked if I would brew a beer for his restaurant; I did and people seemed to really like it. That’s when I realised that I could probably make a career out of my passion.’

Changing professions once takes a fair amount of guts, hope and commitment in equal measure; changing twice requires a hell of a lot more. Where many people would flounder, Julio took the initiative. ‘I knew that if I was going to become a professional brewer I should first appreciate the science behind brewing,’ he says. ‘So I enrolled on a course to get a deep understanding of how to go beyond simply creating a one-off good beer. The mark of a great brewer is one who can consistently deliver great recipes. I think this is one of the reasons for my success; we brew great beers, but what is equally important is that we brew them consistently.’

Hard graft – Julio cleaning the tanks at the brewery
Hard graft – Julio cleaning the tanks at the brewery
With a growing team sharing in his passion
With a growing team sharing in his passion

Beer as business

Moncada was launched only a year later in 2011 – a pretty rapid turnaround in business terms – but here Julio’s career-hopping proved useful; the research he had done for setting up a deli wasn’t wasted. ‘I had already done a huge amount of homework in terms of acquiring the necessary licenses and navigating the mountains of paperwork involved in opening a food and beverage business here in the UK,’ he explains. ‘So when we decided on the brewery, most of the groundwork had already been done.’

So far so good – with premises secured in a prime position just around the corner from Portobello Road in Notting Hill, this Cinderella story seems almost too good to be true. But it hasn’t been without a lot of hard graft. ‘It started off as a one-man show,’ says Julio. ‘I did all the brewing, cleaning, bottling, selling and distribution on my own. There were many long, long days.

‘We still learn new things all the time,’ he continues. ‘Every day has its challenges and we have to adapt our business to accommodate for those circumstances.’ That adaptability is key to the future success of the business – although Britain is experiencing a huge craft beer revival, this can cause its own problems. ‘We are currently faced with the challenge of sourcing one of our key ingredients – hops. Because of the politics of the beer industry, all of us craft brewers are finding it increasingly difficult to secure a constant supply of hops, so we need to be creative and adapt. At Moncada, we are currently experimenting with new techniques and playing around with sour beers that require far less hops.’

It’s taken five years but Moncada has now grown to include a team of eight, a tap room above the brewery and a wider range of beers on offer. Starting with just three varieties, two remain on the core list today (the Notting Hill Blonde and Amber) but Julio and the team still take the brewing process very personally. ‘We love exploring and experimenting with different flavours and techniques,’ he says. ‘If we don’t personally like a beer, we just won’t ever brew it again. One of the first beers we ever brewed was the Bitter. The public seemed to really like it but it didn’t really do anything for me personally, so I found it increasingly difficult to make – I need to love the beer I am making to be passionate about it!’

With a growing team sharing in his passion
A range of Moncada beers
Natural and cloudy
Natural and cloudy

Natural ethos

Moncada prides itself on several things: brewing naturally, creating vegan-friendly beers, sourcing local ingredients, supporting local businesses and constantly innovating and experimenting. The drive for these choices comes very much from Julio: ‘I believe that brewing is fundamentally very simple,’ he explains. ‘Beer only needs four ingredients – water, hops, malt and yeast. They are all natural. Anything else just makes it over-complicated, so why use it?’

What differentiates the natural brewing process is the lack of filtering, as most commercial beers are ‘fined’ (or filtered) to ensure that the end drink is clear. The push for natural beer has two main arguments; that clarifying the beer removes some of the yeast which affects the overall flavour, and secondly, that the most common fining agent used is isinglass – made from fish swim bladders – making the beer unsuitable for vegans or vegetarians.

Julio firmly believes that natural brewing produces beer with ‘a much fuller flavour’, but the resultant cloudy haze is harder to win people over to. ‘I find the biggest obstacle is old school thinking,’ he says. ‘There is this entrenched school of thought that says if beer is not clear then it must be off. While there was a very positive perception of natural beer as an idea, we had to work hard to overcome the prejudice against cloudiness.’ The growing awareness of isinglass use also means that vegans and non-vegans alike are coming around to cloudy beer, with a London Vegan Beer Festival being held for the past three years.

Although a challenge, it seems an exciting time in the world of craft beer with consumers becoming more open to broader viewpoints. Chefs and restaurants have seen focus shift back to the provenance and quality of ingredients, while organic and biodynamic wines are now appearing on supermarket shelves. It’s now the time for beer, and Julio has some ambitious plans for Moncada. ‘We are expanding and moving into new premises and have an exciting new brand we are about to launch. I think it will be quite revolutionary because it is going to allow us to constantly experiment with new flavours and techniques. I can’t really go into detail right now, but there are some very exciting things in the pipeline. Watch this space!’

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