An interview with Matthew Curtis

I met beer writer Matthew Curtis in London and asked him how and why he does it. He gave me a tale of ale, passion and persistence.

Don’t know quite why, but this shot is so very London to me. Taken from the spot I met Matthew Curtis, beer writer, near Bermondsey’s Brew By Numbers.

A beer writer I’ve long admired is Matthew Curtis, a fellow Englishman (from Lincoln, now lives in London) who’s been writing enthusiastically about beer since about 2012.

What I particularly respect about Matthew is his determination, and his tendency to get on with things.  Through arrant passion and force of will, he’s progressed from hobby blogger on the nascent London craft scene to a full time writer and photographer, regular contributor to established outlets such as Good Beer Hunting and Ferment, and something of a figure in the British beer industry.

Matthew will be the first to admit he has his fair share of detractors, and he’s not afraid to get amongst it on Twitter.  But his proprietary blend of refreshing candour, impressive commitment and, frankly, no small amount of talent, has fast built him an audience.

Although I’ve visited an almost unhealthy number of breweries and beer bars in the States, it recently dawned on me that the only experience I’d had of my home country’s craft “scene” was a quick lunch in the Edinburgh BrewDog.  (On my fleeting visits to the motherland I usually head straight for my favorite uber-trad pubs and order pints of Guinness and London Pride.)

These days it’s hard to escape the buzz about British craft beer, even if you live in Los Angeles (you, dear reader, have surely heard of the likes of Cloudwater, Beavertown, Magic Rock and The Kernel – BrewDog to one side), so I decided I should actually taste some of the stuff.

A Cloudwater beer on a bar taken by Matthew Curtis

A pretty sweet shot taken by Matthew Curtis on site at Cloudwater Brewing Co. in Manchester, England.

Before a recent trip to London I reached out to Matthew Curtis and asked for some pointers.  With what seems characteristic hospitality, he swiftly set me up with a visit to Brew By Numbers, a fast-growing experimental brewery housed in a railway arch in London’s Bermondsey.

And he offered to come along and say hi.  In exchange for this interview, I bought Matthew lunch at a crafty pub (ahem) near said railway arch, The Draft House. (Woah, woah – junket alert!)

“This place is pretty representative of trends in London, I’d say,” Matthew explained, as we ordered halves of Beavertown’s Gamma Ray pale ale.  The spacious bar didn’t feel like an American craft bar, and it didn’t run the playbook of the Scandi-esque Creeping Global Hipster AestheticTM.  But it didn’t feel like an English pub either.

The menu at The Draft House, Tower Bridge.

“It’s probably been the last two or three years that the British craft industry has taken off. It was good for a while before that, but it was always playing catch-up to the US. Nowadays I know I can go two miles from my home and have a delicious fresh IPA that’s as good as anything,” he confidently asserted.

As we settled in and ordered burgers and tacos (“One thing I’ve never seen an English kitchen master is a crunchy taco,” Matthew said, in between mouthfuls of a very flimsy pastry shell) I wanted to find out more about this man’s inexorable beer odyssey.

“I never had a formal reason to get into beer,” he told me.  “I was just an enthusiastic fan who needed a creative outlet, which turned out to be Total Ales. I’d blogged a bit about music and guitars before, so it was sort of my latest obsession.  Only this one seems to have stuck.”

The first piece of Matthew’s work to hit my radar was an article about BrewDog for Good Beer Hunting, in July of 2015.  Matthew’s style and the house style of GBH seem to be a natural fit, as he contributes to the site on a regular basis, and hosts the occasional UK-focused episode of the Good Beer Hunting podcast.

“Good Beer Hunting has been a breakthrough for me in a couple of ways,” Matthew said as his tacos pretty much crumbled into dust. “Probably the first time I had an “aha” moment reading a beer blog was the first Good Beer Hunting piece on Hill Farmstead, which really blew me away.  It was similar to the first time I drank an American IPA; just transformative as an appreciation of what beer writing could be.  So when Michael Kiser got in touch and asked if I would write for his site, it was full-circle.”

Matthew’s mesh with the GBH style is driven by his love of stories, and his desire to find an angle with his writing.  Another helpful attribute is his skill behind the lens.  In fact, I’ll be as bold as to say Matt’s probably the best brewery photographer out there right now.

My lunch companion smiled when I gave him this awkward fawning praise.  “That’s kind of you.  It’s really not something I set out to do, but I like to write long pieces and you need visuals to break all the words up.  It’s a cliché, but a picture counts for a thousand words.  You can get so much more across with some great shots than you can with words alone.”

Twitter conversation about Matthew Curtis the beer writer

Prepare your face and your palm: embarrassing fanboy alert.

“But it winds my partner Dianne up a bit,” he laughed. “She’s been an on-off professional photographer for several years, and I’ve just dabbled in it and seem to get pretty good results.  I’d be awful photographing a wedding though.”

His top-notch photography and a knack for finding an angle has led Matt into the world of paid writing assignments, such as his excellent profile of Pilsner Urquell, published on his own blog last year.  (Matthew is upfront about earning money from promotional writing like this, and that’s cool with me.)  And it’s as a traveling beer photojournalist that he seems to be in his element.  His impulsive, insider/outsider perspective on the (unofficial) second city of the UK, Manchester, is a fantastic example.

“I don’t have any towering ambitions to make millions from beer writing,” Matthew said, as he finished his beer.  “If I can maintain a lifestyle of traveling, learning, photographing and writing, that’s enough for me.  I really just want to follow my passion and see where it takes me.”

Hear hear, as an Englishman might say.

Matthew Curtis the beer writer in a pub

Matthew Curtis, beer writer, blogger, photographer and all-round enthusiast.

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Matthew Curtis, Beer Writer & Photographer

  1. Can you describe what you do in one short sentence?

I’m a full time beer writer and photographer, with a little bit of consulting and event-hosting on the side.

  1. How long have you been doing it?

I’ve been writing about beer for just over five years.  I got my first paid gig about three years ago, and I’ve been full time for a little over one year.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

I probably went on a pretty similar beer journey to a lot of people.

My dad is quite into beer and when I was growing up there would be the occasional Belgian, like Duvel or Chimay, alongside the standard lagers in the fridge.  When I went to uni I got into real ale, Guinness and bitter.  Timothy Taylor Landlord still has a special place in my heart.

But it was my first trip to the US, back in 2010, that changed everything for me.

My dad moved to Fort Collins in Colorado for work, and I went out to visit him.  On our first day he suggested popping into a local brewery called Odell.  I ordered their IPA, fully expecting something similar to Greene King’s IPA, which is a 3.6% ABV lightly hoppy cask ale in England.  Instead I was served this cold, carbonated, strong and unbelievably aromatic and hoppy beer that changed my world in about 15 minutes.  I wasn’t even sure if I liked it, it was so bitter, but it made a huge impression on me.

I went back home and couldn’t stop thinking about the beer, and also the taproom culture I’d seen in Colorado. In London I started drinking as much American beer as I could find, but also seeking out new beers, new breweries and learning as much about beer as I could.  I started my blog back in January 2012 as a vent for my obsession – some of my friends were getting annoyed that all I ever wanted to talk about was beer.

I went to a lot of events, and met not only the brewers who I really respected but the beer writers I was reading, like Pete Brown, Melissa Cole, Mark Dredge and Adrian Tierney-Jones.  The more I wrote, the more opportunities came up.

There are two that probably set me on my current path.

The first was being asked to help write this book/magazine called The 100 Best Breweries In The World, the second was an email from Michael Kiser at Good Beer Hunting.  He was looking for someone to write about the growing UK scene, and that sent things skyrocketing.

For a couple of years I was working at a nine-to-five job and spending evenings and weekends going to events and writing, which wasn’t sustainable. It was like having two full time jobs. So, after conversations with friends, other writers and of course my girlfriend, I decided to knock my old job on the head and do this full time.

It wasn’t what I set out to do, but once things started falling into place it became a choice really: do it, and see where it takes me, or keep it as a hobby.

An almost spooky view of the railway arches near Tower Bridge in London – that’s the Shard looming in the background. The Draft House is just up on the right…

  1. What is your daily routine?

Going freelance is hard.  I’ve always had a regular job, but when you work for yourself you have no structure, no one kicking your ass if you’re slacking.  So I’ve had to learn to kick my own ass, but also to set boundaries. I get up about 7am and the first thing I do is get dressed.  It’s too easy to get to lunchtime in your pyjamas, which is a horrible feeling.  Then I have two rituals.  First I weigh out my coffee beans and go to town grinding them and making a really nice cup of coffee, then I use Headspace to meditate for 10 minutes. Those are like the steps to get ready to start work.

Another principle I’ve learned is to do my least favorite job first, so for example on a Monday morning I do my accounts.  That way you force yourself to get stuff you don’t like out of the way, and you feel like you’ve done something that carries you through the rest of the day. It’s called swallowing a frog.

After that it’s a mixture of writing, traveling, interviewing, planning and editing photos.  I try to plan my week out so I can map the work I need to do and prioritise the harder, more involved work for when I have time at home and the easier, shorter tasks for when I’m on the move or don’t have much time.

When I’m writing I generally need silence.  Or if there’s music, it can’t have lyrics. I get distracted easily, and my Achilles heel is Twitter.  I’m a complete Twitter addict.  I allow myself a couple of five minute Twitter breaks in an hour.  I’ll do a burst of work, then five minutes Twitter.

I go to a lot of beer events, either to host them or just to attend.  It’s the best way to meet people, find out what’s going on and stay networked.  It’s probably three or four a week.

I’ve become much more disciplined lately about creating total down time.  I try to do no work at all at the weekend (unless I’m attending an event) and also keep the evenings free.  If your home is your office you need space so you can relax.  I often play video games or listen to music until late at night to unwind.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

My immediate reaction is to say worrying about getting paid, but that’s just something you need to deal with.

I’d say it’s probably the need to be fluent and creative on cue.  Writing is a completely creative process, but sometimes the mind just doesn’t feel that creative.  And that’s compounded by expectations from others.

For example, when I write a piece for Good Beer Hunting I need to produce 50-60 great photos and 2,500 words of great copy.  GBH now has a fantastic editorial team.  The standards are very high.  I don’t want to be the one slowing things down, I want to help push the standards even higher.

So finding ways either to force my brain into the zone, or being flexible with my workplan so I can maximize my creativity, is my biggest challenge.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

People at least need to realise that working in the industry is not easy.  It’s a lot of fun, but it’s very long hours and the pay’s shit.  So anyone who wants to give it a shot needs to be prepared for that.

I think a spirit of openness and collaboration is probably the biggest thing.  You have to give as much as you take, and do a favour for every favour you ask.  Whether it’s in brewing, or writing, or even in business advice, I think you have to be known as someone people can come to, and that you’ll be helpful and that you want the whole industry to prosper.

The Hop Exchange in London

About a mile from the spot I met with Matthew is The Hop Exchange in Southwark: built in the late 1800s when Great Britain bought 3/4 of the world’s hops.

  1. What is success for you?

Just being able to make a fair living doing this job.  This is what I want to do with my life.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to travel more and document what’s going on in beer around the world.

And I’d like to write a book.  My role model is Pete Brown, who seems to knock out books that have something interesting to say about the industry. There are enough books out there that are essentially a beginner’s guide to beer – I’d love to do something long-form that combines my photography and a great story.  That’s my ambition at the moment.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I wish it wasn’t 80-90% white dudes!  The industry’s changed a lot from five and certainly 10 years ago, but it’s not enough.  It’s 2017, and both from an internal and external perspective beer doesn’t reflect the diversity of the wider population.

I think if a brewery is concerned that it’s not growing as fast as it would like, it should take a look at whether it’s doing everything it can to appeal to a broad audience.  If you have jock-humour beer names and labels, you shouldn’t be surprised if women don’t want to buy your beer.

A shot taken by Matthew Curtis at Colorado’s Casey Brewing & Blending.

  1. What are your three favorite beers, and why?

The great thing about beer is that it changes all the time, so this is just a snapshot.

  1. Drie Fonteinen Oud Geuze is probably my favorite Lambic, with Boon and Tilquin not far behind. What I love about Drie Fonteinen is that it’s big and bold but with plenty of subtlety and sophistication at the same time. And I met Armand Debelder, who’s an amazing guy.
  2. Locally, I’d pick Five Points Pilsner at the moment. It came out recently, it’s crisp and fresh and I just can’t seem to get enough of it.
  3. And Beavertown’s Lupuloid IPA is never not in my fridge. It’s a fantastic example of a modern English hoppy beer.

It’s funny, if you’d asked me that question even two years ago I’d probably have given you at least two American beers, but in that time the UK has caught up in terms of flavour and quality.

  1. Where’s the best place to get a beer in London?

I have to be loyal to the Duke’s Head in Highgate.  I work for them and they’ve been very good to me, but I genuinely believe it’s the best pub in town.  They only serve British beer, they have a fantastic selection of cask and keg beers and the food’s always top notch.

A couple of others I’ll mention are the Kings Arms in Bethnal Green, which is like the Duke’s Head only more of a focus on craft and international beer, and Five Points have opened a cool bar called Mason & Company, which is more of a modern keg bar with a sort of Scandinavian feel to it.

I met Matthew on the worst day of London air quality in decades. Terrible for my lungs, but it did allow this hazy shot of the Palace of Westminster on the way home.

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