Brewmaster Series: Ryan Witter-Merithew – Siren Craft Brew
You don’t have to ask Ryan Witter-Merithew how dedicated he is to brewing. You just have to look at him. He looks like a brewer. He’s got a massive beard and plenty of tattoos, one of a hop cone on fire etched into his forearm, and another of King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of beer and brewing, staring at your from his shoulder. This tall, 31 year-old American has worked up quite an illustrious reputation. While at his last job in Denmark he was responsible for producing a whole range of spectacular brews for hotshot nomad brewers like Mikkeller, Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Evil Twin, to name just a few.
Last year Brodie’s even put on a complete Witter Fest at King William IV – a tap takeover dedicated just to Ryan’s concoctions. About half a year ago he quit his job at Fanø in Denmark and came to the UK to head up Siren Craft Brew. Located out in Finchampstead near Reading their brewery takes a bit of trekking to get to. After an hour-long train ride and a spin in a taxi through some narrow countryside roads, we found Ryan cooking up a test batch on a home brew kit. Their brewery is all new and shiny, and in the back they’ve got a whole bunch of barrels ageing some of Ryan’s latest brews. We sat down to chat about the details of his journey through beer, how the hell he ended up in the UK and why a professional brewer like himself would spend his Saturdays messing about with a home brew kit.
Ryan grew up in North Carolina, famous for NASCAR, BBQs, Pepsi Cola, moonshine and, back in those days, not very nice beer. “My brother had a party one night and I drank a bunch of Corona. I threw up everywhere. It was disgusting. To this day the smell of Corona with a lime just makes me gag.” He felt he was done with alcohol. That might have been the end of the story, hadn’t it been for the fact that by the time he’d reached legal drinking age (21 in the States) he’d moved to Colorado, which just happens to be one of the birthplaces of the craft beer movement in the States. “You would go to the store and you’d just see walls of beer. Just different beers everywhere. So I decided, every time I go to the store I’ll try a different one.” The interest was ignited.
A couple of years later he packed up and moved to New Jersey, bringing his new-found interest along with him. He was getting more and more into the good stuff, until one day he had his brewing epiphany. “Some friends took me to my first brewery, and it just changed everything for me. It was an open house and the brewer was very inviting to everyone. It was that day, at that event, I thought, I’m going to be a brewer. I’ve got to be in this industry.” It was the first time he’d met people who were into beer in the same way that he was into beer. “I just walked away from that totally blown away and I started home brewing. If I wanted to get a job I needed to know what I was doing. If not, no one would ever hire me.” About a year later he felt ready to start applying for jobs. He sent applications wide and far. If someone was willing to give him a job, he was willing to move there. “I didn’t have career opportunities ahead of me. When you first get into brewing you work tons of hours and you make no money. I didn’t care, because I already made no money. It wasn’t a big change for me.”
His first interview was with a brewery in Pennsylvania called Weyerbacher. “I took it very seriously. I’d put on a tie and a button up shirt. I looked like I was there to work in the office, not in the brewery.” He didn’t get the job, but they did sort out a sales job working for their distributor. “I hated it. It wasn’t for me. I did that for 8 months. During that time I kept sending out résumés. I never once again wore a tie.” He wanted to brew beer, not sell it. The next opportunity came from Duck Rabbit, back in North Carolina. He flew home and his dad drove him the three-hour journey to the interview. This time he got the job. “I’m so happy that was the first place I worked at. Usually when you first get into this industry you do shit for three years. You’re the guy who just cleans kegs, you don’t get to do anything else. Luckily at Duck Rabbit they had so much to do and so few people to do it. Everybody had to do everything from day one.”
Ryan has no grand illusions of the romanticism of brewing. He’s a plainspoken, down-to-earth kind of guy. Brewing, he tells me, is a lot of hard work and routine. And the reason newbies have to do the really shit jobs is to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s a strategy Ryan’s applied himself. He recently hired his first brewer, Gordon McKenzie, after he passed his initiation as an intern. “I’ve seen so many people who think they want to be in the brewing industry. And then they start doing this stuff, and it’s not what they thought.” Although he got to do a lot of brewing at Duck Rabbit, it’s a lesson taught to him by the head brewer there. He told him “90% of what you do is to be a janitor. Don’t have dreams of writing recipes, about making new beers, we don’t do that here, you’re gonna be a janitor in a dirty facility.” Duck Rabbit only makes dark beers and didn’t offer many opportunities for a young Ryan to express himself, although it did make him an able brewer. “It was brewing inside a box. You had these parameters. You can’t do anything different. It gave me a real appreciation for the process that you have to follow, and the consistency you need to shoot for.”
After three years of dark beers Ryan was starting to get itchy feet. He’d gone from an eager sprout to being a semi-professional and hard-working brewer, and he was ready for the next challenge. He landed a job at a small brewery in Fanø, a remote island in Denmark. He was keen on getting away from the US and to see what impact he could have on the craft beer boom happening in Europe. In the beginning he expected he would only be able to brew Fanø’s standard range of lager for the hordes of German tourists that flock to the island every summer. Instead he found himself with a lot of spare time. Practising his thumb twiddling skills wasn’t really his style, so instead he set up a little side brand, called Grassroots, along with Shaun Hill from Hill Farmstead and Claus Winther, the manager at Fanø. “Shaun saw this gap in the European market for American style beers. Claus and I would run it, while Shaun and I would develop recipes and invite people for collaborations. That’s really where it all started.” What it started was Ryan’s chance to really get his mitts into some serious experimentation, something he’s been doing non-stop since. Grassroots was a non-profit venture, put into existence with the sole purpose of brewing amazing beers. And it worked. Soon he was both collaborating with and contract brewing for Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Jeppe Bjergsø, famously known as Mikkeller and Evil Twin.
Experimentation is an integral part of Ryan’s modus operandi. His approach seems very much to be the ‘fuck-it-lets-just-try-it’ method. It’s something that seems to be working really well, because the man has brewed some pretty incredible beers. And he’s constantly thinking about new ideas. “The weirdest thing can set me off sometimes. It’s like an ear-worm when you can’t get a song out of your head. Sometimes I’ll eat something, or I see something, or I drink somebody else’s beer, and then it’s just in my head, and I gotta get it out somehow.” Which is why he’s so happy to have a little home brewing kit in the brewery. It allows him to put ideas to the test without brewing a full batch. Once he has an idea he does a lot of research, on ingredients and techniques he can use. But he’s not into the science. “I don’t claim to be a smart man. I don’t know anything about water chemistry, or beer chemistry, or anything like that. I know how to turn ingredients into beer. I know the process. I want Gordon to do all the lab stuff. You can always ask other people about the science questions.” He’s got plenty of experiments going on at the moment. One of them is called ‘Funky Feet’. It involves beer and wine and, well, you should hear it from himself really.
So now Ryan’s brought all his love for making amazing beers over to the UK, more accurately Siren Craft Brew. He loved living in Denmark, but he wanted a different challenge, so here he is. Darren Anley, the founder, wanted to have a brewery making American style beers, which is what Ryan loves more than anything. He actually hates English hops and has no desire to brew any traditional styles, whether English, Belgian or German. He’s also not keen on brewing sours, mainly because it’s the vogue thing to do at the moment, and he doesn’t want to do what everyone else is doing. Simple as. By joining Siren he also had the opportunity to be a part of something from the beginning, something he can help shape and put his mark on. He’s also really excited about the incredible boom in the UK beer scene. “London is like an on-going beer festival at the moment.” But he’s also identified a problem with so many new breweries opening at the moment. The main issue being that they’re not always producing really good beer. “So you’ve got your Joe Shmoe average consumer going into a pub going “I’m not going to drink my Doom Bar today, I’m gonna try something different”. So he tries a pint from some brewery that might not have a full grasp on what they’re doing yet. “Why are people getting so excited over this?” and then he goes “Nah, I’ll go back to this”. They say rising tides lift all boats, but that’s not always true.”
Siren might still just be taking their first steps, but they’re off to a flying start. Their branding looks professional and they’ve got a range of delicious beers ready to be poured into people all around the country. Siren is actually built with expansion in mind. At the moment they’re only brewing at half capacity. But Ryan hopes that once their beers starts getting popular, and I’m confident they will, he can start filling the tanks to the rim. “We have aims to be a large brewery. We want to hit a broad a market as possible. The other goal is to not grow bored, and become complacent. Keep trying to challenge yourself, while growing.”
Ryan is a wizard. He loves experimentation, and he loves collaboration. He’s the kind of brewer you can approach with an idea, and if he likes it he’ll be well up for giving it a go. It’s this open mind-set that has given him so many opportunities, a lot of friends (no one is as well connected as Ryan), and allowed him to brew with some of the most amazing brewers out there. Although Siren’s only been around for half a year he’s already done a pretty mental experiment with the incredible chefs at Nordic Food Labs in Copenhagen. They’re on a mission to make insects something people would want to eat in a Michelin starred restaurant and Ryan brewed them an oatmeal stout flavoured with a kilo of mealworms.
He’s also got a bunch of other projects on the go. He’s doing a homebrew competition in Sweden with Henok Fenti at Omnipollo, where the winner gets to come to Siren to brew a beer with them both. I’m sure that will be available in a pub somewhere soon. He’s also instigated a colourful Rainbow IPA brewing session with some of the best and brightest breweries in the UK. Each of the breweries have to brew an IPA based on a colour. What they’ve come up with will be revealed at King William IV in Leytonstone on the 21th of September. Put that down in your calendar now. Ryan got the colour red, and it’s one of his ideas for the IPA that he’s trying to get up to a boil on the home brew kit on this sunny Saturday afternoon. At the moment it’s all very hush hush, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be tasty. That’s what Ryan does best. He makes tasty beer. As we set out on our journey back to London, retracing our steps that took us there, I’m filled with a childlike excitement as to what Ryan will be doing next. What kind of crazy and delicious shenanigans will he get up to? Whatever it is, it’s bound to be amazing.
Photos by Josh Smith