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‘Regenerative brews are the future of beer,’ says James Rylance

Tastemakers James and Nia Rylance talk to Jessica Mason about Ideal Day Family Brewery and how regenerative brews are the next step for beer.

If you try to imagine the best start in brewing, you’d possibly want to mirror James Rylance’s experience. Beginning at art school and the homebrewing scene had led to him trying a beer from The Kernel and heading directly to Bermondsey to meet Evin O’Riordan to find out more.

“The Kernel had just opened and it was one of those serendipitous moments where I met Evin and I was just like: ‘This is amazing!’ He took me on as a sort of an apprentice, just to learn and it was such a privilege to be there literally from the start. Then I spent probably about 18 months there,” says Rylance, remembering it all fondly.

He explains: “Evin had met a guy called Logan [Plant] and introduced me to him, who was literally just setting up his own brewery himself [Beavertown]. I think they had done just two brews or something at Duke’s Brew & Que. And yeah, I then set sail from there. Really, my heart was at The Kernel, but I kind of knew I had to go off to come back if you know what I mean. So, I got the job at Beavertown in the pub as the first employee, head brewer – if you could be a head brewer with only one employee. It was amazing, an incredible time. I was there for three and a half years, going from brewing in the pub then over to Tottenham. Writing all the recipes and developing every single beer and going from hand-bottling to seeing them on a line.”

In terms of beers people may recognise that have Rylance’s hand stamp on them, Beavertown’s Gamma Ray was really the one he influenced. “Gamma is really my kid. Gamma was everything that I wanted a pale ale to be at the time,” says Rylance, explaining: “I was taking ideas and structures from The Kernel’s recipes, but taking them in the direction I thought would be interesting.”

By 2015 Rylance left Beavertown. “It had already become too big for me” he admits, remembering how “it was at the stage where we were building this massive brewery and there was a conversation that was like: ‘Do we want to be The Kernel? Or do we want to be BrewDog?’ And I wanted to be The Kernel and I knew that the place didn’t want to be that. The place wanted to be BrewDog – well, in terms of its aspirations and I was pretty knackered and I could see where things were going and I didn’t want to take it there. So, I went to Burgundy and I made wine for a little bit and just took some time to think about what I wanted to do next.”

Really, for Rylance, that time was a huge reawakening for him. He got back in touch with what he wanted to do and why he had been so interested in flavour in the first place. He hadn’t been interested in churning volumes, he was more interested in piquing interest with mixed fermentation and looking back at the land and what it could offer.

“After Burgundy, I went to Redchurch and basically said: ‘These are the beers that I want to make, because I want to take how people drink beers forward. I don’t want to make them just drink more of it. And that’s what culminated in Urban Farmhouse, which was, for me, the first time I really got to express myself.”

And so it goes, that it was as his truest self that he first met Nia Moore [now Rylance] and the two of them fell in love. He remembers: “We met at the end of Redchurch times. About six years ago” and “as soon as we met we wanted to leave London”. Being together and mirroring one another’s hopes and dreams helped them both crystalise what was truly important to each of them – living a life that felt authentic and good. The first stage was moving away from the faster pace of the city and the next steps were working out what to do and where. But together, it felt natural to want to just enjoy life and to slow down. Each brought passion and ambition, but the specifics of what they wanted to create had never been based in money-making but something that simply paid for them to continue to do what they loved. And what they loved was being together and working alongside people who shared common goals.

Rylance recalls: “When we were thinking about where to go after London, you go through this process of trying to understand yourself. And eventually, you realise it was there all along. I think we just remembered what was important to us. The aim was always to find somewhere that we wanted to stay forever and have kids. To put it into context, [after leaving Beavertown] I’d had a few job offers. One was in the north east of Scotland, [Six° North] one was in the north west [Buxton] and then one was out in Cornwall [Harbour], so we pretty much covered the whole country”.

But, he admits: “I love Cornwall. I used to come here as a kid, you know, on holidays and kind of really loved it and my Mum absolutely loves it too. My grandad was an artist and we all used to go to St Ives a lot. It’s kind of written into family folklore, a bit and Nia had never been to Cornwall. It felt like an adventure.” Rylance explains: “A lot of people have come from outside to come in, and they’ve all made a very specific decision to move here. Moving to Cornwall is quite a drastic thing to do, because when you’re here you’re miles away from everything, but what you’ve got to remember is that if you’re in London, you can go to lots of different places from London. But when you’re in Cornwall, everywhere is Cornwall. Plus, you’ve come here for a reason. You’ve probably taken a massive pay cut or financially scuppered yourself because there are more important things in your life than that. And I think you see a commonality through the food scene of people who are really bloody lovely, and doing things because they love it and just sort of doing it and trying to work it out. So it’s really supportive.” In essence, Cornwall offered the authenticity they both sought.

The Harbour offer was on the table and certainly the most attractive option at the time. “It was through the year of Urban Farmhouse that I met Eddie Lofthouse at Harbour. I had known Eddie for years before, but towards the end of the Urban Farmhouse time we started to talk about a project at Harbour. Nia and I were both ready to get out of London. And Eddie just basically said: ‘Look, I love what you do at Urban Farmhouse, do you want to come and do it here?’”

Describing the move from city to farm living, Nia Rylance remembers how Rylance was already halfway there in what he was creating, with his beers resembling more of a presentation of the land than anything else. It had just taken the Harbour offer to really give them both the relocation push they had been seeking.

Nia Rylance says: “I think that at Urban Farmhouse you were already finding ingredients and foraging but I think you always imagined being able to make those types of beers with different ingredients from a farm. And that’s what Harbour offered – hops based on farm and in your first few weeks there, you were growing the herbs that were going to go into the beer. And that’s what you always wanted to do at Urban Farmhouse but you were in the city.”

For James Rylance, there was also another reason to leave the frenetic hectic side of the London brewing scene – it was no longer aspirational for him. If anything, it had become a bit ego-driven and craft beer in general didn’t chime well with the slow food movement he admired. If anything, it had become directly opposed to beers from the land. Milkshake IPAs were kicking about on fluorescent cans, after all.

“I think the whole beer scene has gotten very bro-y and very frat-party and I found it gross,” says Rylance, admitting it was no longer something representative of who he wanted to be and what he wanted from life. Meeting Nia had changed his outlook, not just in terms of partnership, but for his future. Becoming a parent also changed things. At a time when the pandemic was generating more rules and introducing limitations, Rylance and Nia Rylance slowed their lifestyle right down too. Amidst pregnancy and parenting, people change and their needs change. People, love, land and friendship were top of the list for the pair along with a reinforcement of family values. It’s why they knew that the word ‘family’ needed to be integral to their next step.

Rylance considers: “You know, even before we met, we were making decisions that were family orientated, and now we’re making them together. And it’s only now that we’re realising we’ve made those decisions all along to get us to this point. We had been trying to work out a name for our future brewery and I was like ‘well, whatever it is, it’s gonna be a ‘family brewery, because it’s what we are’.” Rylance explains that the term family brewer has never really felt fitting when describing big historic national brewers because those families were unrelatable. Because of this, he wanted to ‘take it back’ as a term and reignite it with meaning and align it with a real family – a small group of people who wanted to make a simple honest living.

He clarifies: “I felt a little bit like I wanted to call up that name.You know, I kind of wanted to be like, the word ‘family’ and ’international mega business’ has always felt a little bit weird. I felt like sometimes maybe the word ‘family’ was trying to make them seem a little bit sweet when they really weren’t. It’s like the word craft, isn’t it? It doesn’t fit the scale of some businesses.”

Nia Rylance points out that her role has always been to make the best of creatives, essentially being good at managing talent towards a future that unlocks the kind of life they want. She mentions: “My background is more within business and logistics. I studied entertainment management at university. I always enjoy meeting creative people, and then figuring out how to bring structure to them.”

Nia Rylance describes how, in the past, she would manage bands and “they would be great and amazing, but they couldn’t get themselves somewhere and they couldn’t figure out how to write contracts and I realised how I can do that”. In Rylance, she found both ambition, talent and a best friend. And, really, everyone wants to work with their best pal, right? SHe remembers: “When James and I met, even really early on, he said: ‘I want my own brewery’. And I’ve always wanted my own business. And James has that creativity and ability to make beer, but I’ve got the ability to keep that business going.” Some might observe that Moore’s talent is just that – being transformative, industrious and turning an idea into a reality, a true skill.

Meeting Dan Cox was the kicker though. For both of them, finding both a friend and a neighbour who shared their views on the environment and life and a love of food and flavour gave rise to the prospect of their own brewery.
“We’d known Dan since we moved to Cornwall and had met him through friends of friends,” says Rylance, explaining: “We were chatting to Dan who’d been having a really rough time through Covid plus trying to start the restaurant and he’d put a brew kit into it. He said that he had quickly realised that it was actually probably too much for him to handle – I mean, he had the restaurant and the farm and the brewery as well. So, he said to me: ‘Look, we’ve got this kit, we’re not using it and you really want to open a brewery, so, do you want to do it here?’ And we just jumped.”

Rylance believes “it was just one of those amazing moments where we were walking around and Nia was probably about nine months pregnant and we had been looking at sites and having ideas and had already spoken to lots of people and then, eventually, landed at Crocadon Farm at Dan Cox’s farm.”

According to Rylance, it was fortuitous, but it made so much sense to work together. “It all lined up nicely with me talking to Dan. he shares a lot of the same ideas as I do about how agriculture can play such a massive part in environmental restoration and in how our food system needs drastically rethinking. I was talking to him and, upon realising that we both share these same urgencies, it became a real heads-coming-together moment. He was like: ‘We’ve got the space.’ And I was like: ‘I’ve got the ideas’ so let’s run with it, and we’ll see where it ends up.’”

Rylance, when describing the farm and the people he works alongside, gets hugely passionate. “It’s amazing because the work that they’re doing on that farm is just unbelievable,” he explains, adding: “Our neighbours just down the road, they’ve got a cider company called Ripe, who are making amazing ciders. Cameron and Georgie are co owners and husband and wife and they have lived with Tim and Claire who are farmers on Crocadon Farm and those guys know all of the farming crew in the southwest. It’s very interconnected, but very collaborative and cooperative. There’s a real sense of working cooperatively with each other.”

The farm itself is what Rylance describes as “an amazing spot” and a place that shows how “there’s a different way of making food and that it’s not just about big, industrialised chemical systems, because at Crocadon Farm it actually more about how all these things can feed into each other and how there is a really symbiotic relationship between all the elements. For example, we’re growing our grain on the farm, then that grain will be milled on the farm and then go to produce either beer or go to a bakery that will be created on site at some point in the future. Then, the beer will be sold on the farm and the spent grains will go to feed the chickens, pigs, chickens, sheep and cattle and so will our mushrooms and they then fertilise the fields through really careful and meticulous grazing where they get moved around”. He insists: “There’s no overgrazing and the grass is allowed to grow properly and the animals then fertilise the fields which are then used for growing more grain. So, everything’s completely held within one place.“

When speaking about Cox and his background, Rylance describes a similar path of having witnessed someone heading up something hugely successful, but wanting to dip out of it and choose a different lifestyle. He explains: “Dan was the head chef at Fera at Claridges. He was basically right hand man to Simon Rogan throughout his whole kind of group and he took on Crocadon in about 2018 and it was a farm that has got livestock, but was also arable, as well as a market garden, as well as a dairy as well as a restaurant as well as a cafe and a brewery. He was making loads of progress and literally building it by himself. But then Covid hit and it really took its toll.” As many during that time will have felt the pinch of uncertainty, so too did Cox, but as Rylance attests, he never gave up.

“Coming out of the pandemic, he came out really strong,” says Rylance, revealing that Cox had gained “new investors and everything was good, but he had realised that he still needed to get people in to do all of these roles. So that is what he has done, he’s found us all and it has just been flourishing ever since. The restaurant has just opened and that’s already become a big hit in Cornwall. It has a beautiful courtyard and the farm surrounds all of the brewery and the restaurant.”

Nia Rylance agrees: “There are a lot of people working really hard to make really delicious things.” Rylance also echoes this: “They’ll have a positive impact. There can be a better future for our food system. A lot of the work Tim Williams, who farms the land there, does is minimum-intervention and polyculture, so there is lots of different genetic diversity within one space to avoid pests and diseases.”

The plan is for the brewery to work directly with hop growers. “We’re actually growing hops on the farm and have planted more this winter,” says Rylance, stating: “The way I see it – hops are a herb – they are a flavouring that goes into the beer. So we’ll be using different herbs and different fruits and, and all sorts of things growing at the farm in our beer, plus a big part of that is going to be the house culture that goes through everything that will make our beer distinctive, showing where it is and giving it a sense of place.”

Rylance says, with anything authentic, you start with a set-up that feels right and admits: “We’re starting off small. Our kit is 400L and it is in a tiny little corner of one of the buildings on Crocadon Farm. it’s super small, but it’s full of character.” He reiterates: “We are a family business in every sense. We are 50/50 ownership and Nia is on maternity leave at the moment, but when she’s off maternity leave, she’ll be in the brewery as well, I’m going to get her brewing. Nia’s dad was repairing the pumps the other day. My mum’s painting us a sign.” This is a joint effort. Everyone is working together.

“In terms of being a family brewery. Yeah, there was a little bit of knowingness in calling it that,” he grins, revealing that the plan is to create some 500ml bottles and also keg some beer too which reflects a philosophy of brewing that reminds people that beer is there to be enjoyed and shared.

“There is a commonality between the beers I make in all the breweries I’ve worked in. It’s ingredient-led, it’s mixed fermentation and there are elements of acidity, tannins and oak. So, a lot of places that will be interested in this kind of thing will be more into 500mls,” says Rylance, adding: “Also, they look cool. We’re going to be doing some mixed fermentation and sour beers but also a lot of small delicious drinking beers that are there to be enjoyed fresh.”

Nia Rylance reminds that her husband’s style of beer has “always been close to natural wine” which is why that size also makes sense to them and the pair divulge that the brewery will “definitely be making sour beers and definitely be making saison-like beers” but if they had to give the beers a style then they would call them “farm-led.”

Rylance laughs: “I know we’re not going to make – Double New England triple-hopped IPAs or anything with the word ‘smoothie’ in it” and observes how “if you look at the beer market and ‘craft beer’ in general, for the past 15 years it took on a lot of new customers to begin with and they were mostly in their 20s and 30s. But, since then, the beer world hasn’t really evolved that much and also hasn’t really invigorated new people into it”. He points out how “that group of people have got a bit older and have sort of done what we’ve done and had kids and settled down. Maybe they’re not going out so much anymore either, but they still want a nice beer that has something interesting about it. A beer made by humans on a small scale. And they still want to sit around and drink together with friends. Well, if I can help with that then that sounds like a pretty nice thing to do.”

As Nia Rylance suggests: “We’re ambitious, but also we just really want a nice life. And we don’t want to get lost along the way.”

What the couple are creating now has a name: “Ideal Day Family Brewery” but it is also the beginning of a new era of regenerative brewing and the start of something exciting. Rylance believes that people have no issues understanding these concepts with other drinks, but with beer there is a mis-step. He says that together, he and his family are set to change that.

He explains: “As a brewer I feel I need to support the farms in doing amazing regenerative agriculture to save our soils and ecosystem. To do that, we need to shift the needle and show everyone that some of the cheapest as well as some of the most expensive beers are still being made with the same chemically-sprayed grains that are causing our soils to erode and wash into the sea.” He implores that, to make a difference, people “need to collectivise and band together as producers alongside the customers to make a real impact”.

Rylance adds: “You know, what’s crazy? If you look at wine, you’ve got natural wine producers and everyone talking about the soil and everyone is talking about the vines. And then you look at cider makers and everyone’s talking about the soil once again and everyone is talking about the trees. But then you get to brewing and people are still just talking about hops from America and what shiny colour the beer can will be or what ABV it will be. And it’s boring. I don’t understand why beer hasn’t grown up and taken up its position on that table of discussing what’s really quite important. Being connected to the land is important. Understanding our ecosystem. Not damaging things. Making things that are good, that’s important. Otherwise, everything we do has an impact, and so all of this matters and it should really start making a difference to the beers we choose.”

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