Oxfordshire now hosts a number of independent breweries but few can claim to be applying as much forward thinking to the real ale market as The XT Brewing Company, one of the county’s newest additions. Gareth Xifaras and Russell Taylor both ditched careers in IT and finance in favour of starting their own microbrewery on the eastern border of Oxfordshire near Long Crendon. The lease on their unit at Notley Farm, deep in the picturesque Chilterns, started in July of last year and the first brew was finished by mid November. XT already have 100 pubs serving their beers on rotation, while Russell and Gareth hope to have bottles in Oxfordshire off-licenses in the near future.
The microbrewery is confident that a dedication to quality will aid its development. All equipment was custom-made in a workshop in Burton as specified by the two entrepreneurs, who both accrued a number of years of brewing experience before starting this enterprise. They also resolved not to cut corners when obtaining raw ingredients, the finest of which are sourced from all over Europe.
The XT team have already notched up some notable plaudits for their ales – ‘Number Four’ won the ‘Best in Festival’ award at the Aylesbury Beer Festival late last year. Gareth believes that they are not alone in committing to excellence, and consequently the British beer industry is becoming progressively healthier, making it a great market to be setting up in. “There are more smaller players now and more competition, which means higher quality products. People are interested in quality nowadays, the big breweries charge more and their ingredients cost less, so people are losing interest in them,” he said.
I sampled a number of XT’s beers, poured straight from the cask. The moreish ‘Number Two’ is fruity and aromatic, with a bouquet of melons and peaches which hints at long English summer days. ‘Number Three’ is a more adult brew with a strong hoppy finish. But the highlight for me was the award-winning ‘Number Four’; it has a comfortingly deep and familiar ale flavour but also displays elements of something more aromatic and Bavarian, a hint of intense maltiness which gives the beer a lift.
The pair are approaching the business from a unique angle. Firstly, while many of the more established breweries emphasise variation in the use of hops, at XT, having taken inspiration from brewing techniques in America and continental Europe, they are developing beers with the focus on malted barley. A recent one-off concoction named ‘Number Nine’ was brewed with nine different specialist malts, while the flagship pint, ‘Number Four’ also displays experimentation in the use of barley, its distinctive tang being down to a specialist European malt called Melanoidin.
This creativity is due to a broad minded and outward looking approach to brewing and this points to XT’s other main focus – bringing real ale into the 21st century and escaping what the brewery’s owners see as the suffocating grip of British beer’s past. Gareth and Russell are striving for modernity and progression in a market which they believe is synonymous with syrupy nostalgia. This is evident throughout all of XT’s branding. There are currently nine beers brewed on rotation, each is simply named by a number, with the palest being ‘Number One’ and the darkest ‘Number Nine’. The logo is bold and clean – a British flag manipulated to spell ‘XT’.
Gareth explained their philosophy, “We are trying to take away some of the complexity and elitism that surrounds real ale. We wanted to do something a bit modern, get away from the steam engines and goblins. Sometimes you have no idea what a beer is, the imagery is so old fashioned. What can put off people is that they have no idea what they will get so they might go for a safe choice with a continental lager” he said. XT are even hesitant to use traditional terminology in reference to the different kinds of beer. “We don’t like to use words like stout or mild, it’s a beer so we call it a beer” added Russell. XT are aiming to create beers which clearly display their characteristics to the customer, stripping back all excess imagery and concentrating on colour, flavour and strength.
At a time when British drinking establishments find themselves in an evolutionary period, attempting to find a solution to the conundrum that is pub survival in a tough modern era, XT’s direction appears both shrewd and refreshing. Their eagerness to break ties with Britain’s time-honoured brewing traditions is surprising at first, but XT are pulling the pint out of the past and into a present where real ales are both more accessible and exciting.
This article appeared in the Oxford Times magazine, ‘Limited Edition’ in May, 2012.