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Black Iris Brewery’s Director Alex Wilson on Producing Beers for Ten Years

26 February 21 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Curtis Powell

Black Iris Brewery celebrate their tenth birthday later this year. We caught up with Director Alex Wilson to talk artwork, music, history and that time that they raised a smile from Sandi Toksvig and Alan Davies...

So where did it all start? 
It all began, as many good things do, in the Lincolnshire Poacher pub. I finished a politics degree in 2009 and became a barman there, which is where I met Nick. He’d studied chemistry, which is incredibly handy for doing all the sciencey parts of brewing. We lived together and got into home brewing. A couple of years later we decided to start a brewery. The people at Castle Rock were incredibly generous with their time and advice, in particular their brewer Adrian Redgrove. Then we heard about a landlady at a pub in Derby called The Flowerpot, who had a full microbrewery kit that had been mothballed for a couple of years. 

Nick and I asked if we could rent their kit. They agreed and so we set up in business with relatively low capital costs. It was rudimentary equipment, but perfect to start with. Neither of us drove, so we got the Red Arrow bus there and back every day. We spent the summer getting everything shipshape and launched our first beers at their annual Potfest festival, on August bank holiday 2011.

What were those first beers?
Black Iris Bitter, a nut brown 4.3% traditional bitter; Peregrine Pale, a 4.6% Pale Ale; and Iron Gate Stout, a 5% New Zealand hop stout, which is a similar recipe to Stab In The Dark, which we still brew.

Why the name Black Iris?
I studied politics and before we set up the brewery, I was involved in a start-up housing co-operative. It was on the shortlist of names for that and stems from the idea that Iris flowers grow rhizomatically and connect to other plants horizontally, without any hierarchy. It wasn’t chosen, so we used it for this instead. 

Tell us about the team you have now…
There's me and Nick, who are both directors of the company. There’s Reg who’s been involved right back since the Flowerpot days – he started as a driver but now runs our new taproom and bottleshop. There’s Ash who came here as a volunteer many years ago when he was studying brewing. He volunteered so much we offered him a job. Then, more recently, we’ve taken on two new staff, Meg and Dan. Meg has come in to help push all our marketing and merchandise forward and Dan is a brewer who joined us from Castle Rock and has been working some serious magic.

The monochrome art work of Kev Grey has become seminal to your public image. How did you first discover his work, and when did he get involved?
I first saw it growing up in my home city of Sheffield. A lot of areas I used to hang out in were full of his graffiti and I loved it. I also knew him a little bit because we moved in similar circles. When we originally set up the brewery, we used a different artist. His designs were great, but no-one could really read the ornate swirly lettering. When we moved back to Nottingham, we decided to rebrand, but I was keen to stick with a monochrome feel. Then I remembered Kev’s graffiti and emailed him out of the blue. He said yes. 

What was the first design he did for you? And do you have a favourite?
He started with four designs: Snake Eyes, Rose of My Heart, Stab In The Dark and Better The Devil You Know. I still have a real soft spot for the Snake Eyes design. I think it's so well balanced and bold, with this beautiful serpent shape and the two eyeballs that really stand out. Also, I just like all his designs with the snakes, I find they make a really pleasing shape on the can. I also love Bury Me In Smoke, a beer we did as a collaboration with Torrside brewery. It's a burning church, but in his soft cartoony style. 

In 2017 Black Iris achieved a moment of international fame, by failing to organise a Piss Up In A Brewery...
Haha! It's almost like a Greek tragedy where we encouraged our own failure. Piss Up In A Brewery was the name of a regular event we did with I’m Not From London, where we put on bands in the brewery and sold beer direct from the source. We’d already organised nine very successful events under that moniker. But in one of the early iterations of Nottingham Craft Beer Week we invited some other breweries to join us. We initially looked at a few bigger venues for it, but for one reason or another we ended up deciding to do it at our place. For all the other events we’d put all the licensing requests in months in advance, but we totally forgot to do it for this one until it was too late. 

We ended up getting loads of press for it, including being on the BBC TV show QI and on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast. The people from that podcast even came to visit us in the brewery when they toured their show at the Nottingham Playhouse. We made it into their book of the year under ‘I’ for Irony. In the end we were totally rescued by The Lion at Basford, the pub, two doors up from our brewery. They let us use their beer garden and licence for no rent and were just all-round amazing. It turned out to be one of our best events ever, a proper glorious day out in the sun. Ever since it’s one of those fun things that keeps coming back.

Will we ever see the return of events in the brewery?
Quite possibly. We stopped because we became busier selling beer and needed more production time and space. But during lockdown we’ve moved things around and made space for a tap room. Plus we fitted some proper toilets and, finally, got a permanent premises licence. We're definitely looking into events later this year, to celebrate our tenth birthday.

How’s the pandemic treating you?
We’re doing okay. The positives are that we invested in our own canning machine. This has given us a lot more control over our product and getting it to market. We deliver beer around the city (and nationally) to people who order it through our online shop, so we’ve been able to engage more directly with our customers. But the sad thing is that the pub and bar industry, which is a really important part of the country’s economy, has been really badly affected and to a certain extent scapegoated in all this. If we’re not careful, a big part of our community will go to the wall before this is over. 

Music is obviously important to you. Who are your musical inspirations? 
The big two genres for me are punk and metal. So Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Misfits, Minor Threat, Black Flag and then Black Sabbath, Slayer, Tool and The Melvins. Music plays a pretty big part in what we do here, which is why we often weave song titles and lyrics into the names of our beers. 

Seeing as this is a love-themed issue, can you tell us what it is you love most about beer?
I love the Nottingham beer community. From my first week working in the Poacher I realised this was the industry I wanted to work in. I’d lived in Nottingham for three years as a student, but hardly scratched the surface. Since then I’ve met some of the best people and made lifelong friendships. It’s probably the least cut-throat local industry you can imagine. Everyone works together and the strength of the collective is more than the sum of its parts.

Black Iris Brewery website

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