When Music and Beer Collide: An interview with Robert Middleton
Next week we’ll be donning the bikes again for a midweek ride over to Orbit Beers in Walworth near Kennington. To get an understanding of everything they do ahead of that ride we’ve been chatting to Robert Middleton, Founder of Orbit Beers, about everything from lockdown cycling to touring with Brian.
Orbit are a great brewery who have been quietly perfecting some of London’s best European inspired beers. They mix their love of music with a love of brewing to create some really complex yet easily drinkable brews.
Today, Robert explains to us where the name Orbit comes from (it’s good), how he’s cycled to every London football stadium during lockdown (yep, including Vicarage Road in Watford) and what the team get from their annual beer pilgrimages.
Q: Hey Robert, we love your story about touring the breweries of Scotland in a Campervan, can you tell us a bit more about this and how the brewery came to be?
A: I left my office-based job in 2010 in order to travel and to try to engage in something completely new.
After two years of traveling I had no idea what that new something was. But, I had bought a Dutch campervan called Brian and was enjoying blogging my travels.
I needed another travel/blog project. Randomly, I met a guy who gave me Iain Banks' book Raw Spirit about his travels around Scottish distilleries. I'm Scottish, so this really appealed, but he'd done whisky and there's no wineries, so I opted to travel around every brewery in Scotland instead.
The story of that trip is captured in the book I wrote 'Tealeaf Paradox'.
The key point is that a travel/blog journey became a journey of discovery in the beer world. I loved the people, the process, the industry, the range of styles etc. and so my future had been decided.
I then came home to London and created Orbit (named after my childhood nickname, coined for not being able to pronounce my own name!)
"A journey of discovery in the beer world [started it]. I loved the people, the process, the industry, the range of styles etc. and so my future had been decided."
Q: Music is clearly a huge influence on what you do at Orbit, in my head I’m imagining there's a classic vinyl player that spins records every day as you brew (please tell me I’m right). How does this love of music feed into the beers you brew?
A: Ha! We do listen to music all day, but it's mostly Spotify (or lately FiP radio).
My earliest memory is records, record players in the 60's era and especially the spindle adapters. Listening to music, going to gigs, traveling to festivals etc. is still my main love alongside beer.
"The beers are all named with a musical reference - not always obvious - and we seek to bring beer and music together whenever possible."
The beers are all named with a musical reference - not always obvious - and we seek to bring beer and music together whenever possible. So, the beers sit alongside our love of music, but aren't necessarily inspired by any given artists or songs.
Q: How has the lockdown affected business for you? How have you reacted and engaged the local community over the last 3 months?
A: We took a big hit, as more than 80% of our beer was sold in keg to pubs.
We reacted by looking after our staff and doubling down on bottle sales – we’re one of the few breweries doing bottles not cans - and creating a web shop to drive retail revenues.
When lockdown happened we were on the verge of investing in an expansion that would have doubled our capacity. Luckily we hadn't signed the lease, but we do want to hopefully make this happen at some point.
Our taproom had been closed by the Council at Xmas, so opening an off-sales facility was a real boon for the local folks.
Q: It’s great that the locals were able to get your beers again. I'm interested in hearing more about your annual beer pilgrimages, where did they begin and what do you get out of them?
A: We wanted to do something that allowed us to have fun together as a team, but also provide a better/richer understanding of the classic European styles we focus on.
We went to Cologne/Dusseldorf, Bamberg, Cologne/Dusseldorf again, Brussels then Prague.
We have learned about the provenance of our favourite beer styles, tried many examples of each style in each city, met local brewers, learned about how to choose the perfect glass, make the perfect pour and appreciate the beers more deeply.
And we’ve had a blast each time!
Q: Imagine one of our cycle club members is visiting the brewery for the first time, what beer are you recommending they try first?
A: I'd always ask them about their style preferences and work from there - start on familiar ground, then broaden out.
If I had to choose for them, then I might try Peel.
It's not what people expect when they see the word 'Belgian' on the bottle. While the flavours are strongly driven by the Belgian yeast strain, it also has new world hops and offers plenty of body and flavour despite being only 4.3%.
Q: I’ll make sure to grab a peel on our ride next week as I’ve not tried it yet. Ok, so this is a toughie in the current climate, but what does the future hold for Orbit Beers?
A: As I mentioned before, we want to use this strange time to build new strengths like the web shop, stay close to customers and be ready to serve them when things take off again.
"We don't have ambitions to grow too large, as we would rather focus on the beers, our customers and our amazing team."
If we manage to get our production back to where it was then we would wish to make the expansion happen - that would double our capacity and also bring a new and better tap room.
We don't have ambitions to grow too large, as we would rather focus on the beers, our customers and our amazing team.
Q: Final question, if you're going on a long bike ride, what bike are you riding and what beer are you drinking when you finish?
A: I love cycling. One benefit of lockdown has been quieter roads in London.
I've cycled to every London football ground to keep me amused, including Watford. I've been on cycle trips in Iceland, Cuba, Vietnam and Spain and always try to cycle wherever I am in the world, especially when touring in Brian. I'm not a bike geek so my Trek FX2 is just fine.
The beer I'd want would be Nico to cut through that thirst and set you up for whatever is coming next!
Thanks for the interview Robert, we’re really looking forward to visiting the brewery for the first time and trying out a few great beers. If you want to get your hands on some Orbit beer, you can order from their webshop here.
Here at Tour de Hops we run small group cycles to independent London breweries and post about it every other week. Each write-up includes ride highlights, beer reviews and snippets from an interview with each brewery.
We spoke to Robert ahead of our Tour de Hops cycle club brewery ride on Wednesday 8th July 2020. Keep an eye on the blog later this week for the full write up..
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