By beerrevhay, Jul 19 2017 08:24PM
This piece first appeared in Ferment Magazine.
There was a moment - or the several moments it took to drain a one-third pint tasting glass - at last year’s IndyMan Beer Con when it seemed like a sunbeam had pierced the nightclub-like gloom of Manchester’s Victoria Baths.
I was drinking Keller Pils from Bristol’s Lost and Grounded, and after a couple of intense hours ravaging my tastebuds with murky hop bombs and barrel-aged stouts, it stood out as a beer of understated beauty. Undoubtedly, I was in safe hands.
Six months later, I’m stood in the cavernous old engineering works Lost and Grounded have made their home, marvelling at the apparent spontaneity of their arrival on the UK’s craft beer landscape. It feels almost as though they’ve blinked into existence in the same way as their northern counterparts, Cloudwater, two years ago, statements of intent written large in sculpted stainless steel.
Of course, none of this happened by accident: A long-standing fascination with European brewing history, and years of brewing experience honed over countless homebrews, tenures at Australia’s Little Creatures and London’s Camden, plus a graduate certificate in brewing and a Master’s degree in Business, have culminated in Alex Troncoso and partner Annie’s considered pairing of traditional European styles to cutting-edge, 21st century technology.
Yet it all began, inauspiciously, in the shadow of Coor’s behemothic brewing complex in Denver, Colorado, where a young Alex was studying chemical engineering, destined for a career working in oil refining.
“The university was right across the road from the brewery and every Friday afternoon we used to take what we called ‘the short tour’,” Alex laughs, “Up the back stairs at the end of the brewery tour, and straight into the bar for a free beer. They didn’t really care.”
Mass market market lager is far removed from the unfiltered German and Belgian-influenced beers that make up Lost and Grounded’s core range, but Alex’s journey to the craft side began with homebrew experiments devising American and English pale ales, taking influence from the first US craft boom and the new breweries springing up around Colorado.
For his 21st birthday, he celebrated with a keg of the now legendary Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, special-ordered through his local bottle shop. His interest in beer blossoming, Alex began to ponder how he might turn his passion into a career.
He says: “I realised a lot of the guys who worked in some of the bigger breweries had backgrounds in things like engineering, or chemistry, or microbiology, and I thought maybe this was a job I could actually do.”
Returning to his childhood home of Australia, (Alex was born in Guatemala to a Chilean father and American mother) he was stonewalled by the big beer duopoly of Fosters and Lion Nathan, and it took several fruitless years knocking on doors to land a job brewing.
“Part of that job involved making cream liqueur, putting all sorts of different emulsifiers, flavours and creams through homogenisers. After so long trying to break in, it was pretty soul destroying,” he chuckles.
But just six months later, he and Annie were on the move again, relocating to Fremantle in Western Australia where Little Creatures had noisily established themselves as the nation’s craft beer upstarts. Thrown in at the metaphorical deep end of their harbourside brewhouse, Alex quickly learned to swim, and over the next eight years helped steer the company through a series of expansions that saw their output increase ten-fold to 10 million litres per annum.
By 2013, when the couple pitched up in London for Alex to take the Brewing Director job at Camden, he was well acquainted with the demands of larger scale brewing, and also the German-built Krones Steinecker kit he would later use to equip Lost and Grounded. It meant that when he and Annie decided to make the leap to brewery founders, they were well positioned to leap big, to do it once - and do it right - from the outset.
Remembers Alex: “Annie said, ‘It’s now or never, and if we’re doing it, we’re doing it properly’.”
Ploughing in their life savings, and bringing in old Little Creatures comrades as silent partners, they put together the fully-automated Krones plant, a precision set-up defined from the outset by the very specific styles of beer Lost and Grounded have chosen to create.
In a scene largely dominated by hop-laden pale ales and IPAs, the decision to make their signature brew a Kellerbier - unfiltered, hazy pilsner - might seem like commercial suicide. But in fact, it is the heartfelt, liquid embodiment of the company’s founding principles.
Alex explains: “We started with a clear vision of the kind of beer we wanted to make. We knew we wanted certain technology to help us deliver quality, and to be surrounded by a diverse and energetic team.
“At seven months in we feel that we have a solid team as a great foundation to build upon. We’re a living wage employer, and eventually we want everyone who works here to be a shareholder, and for them to help us establish a nice regional brewery.
“I remembered going to a hop harvest in Tettnang a few years ago. I hadn’t really thought much about unfiltered beer until then, but I was drinking this Kellerbier - it was rich and slightly resinous and I was struck by how good it was.
“So we thought, why not do everything unfiltered - raw - and do a Keller Pils? Maybe we’ve made life harder for ourselves by picking leftfield brewing styles, but I like the challenge of making lager, because it’s really quite difficult! It needs time, and love.”
Achieving the same depth of flavour of kellerbier meant borrowing from the style’s originators, who use sour malt and lactic acid to reduce the pH of their wort, creating a more refined, embedded hop bitterness.
At Lost and Grounded, an in-house lactic acid plant inoculated with lab-isolated bacteria from Weihenstephan delivers a constant supply, and a little is added to every brew to tame Bristol’s hard water.
Says Alex, 42: “Good beer is a combination of a lot of things. To be honest, we're all using similar ingredients, so it's all about the little nuances of individual breweries, and the techniques they use. That’s what makes every brewery unique.”
Their interest in European brewing traditions piqued, Alex and Annie looked to Belgian styles to complete the brewery’s opening line up. Hop Hand Fallacy borrows techniques from wit, or ‘white’ beer, and is gently spiced with coriander and bitter orange for a citrus and floral nose. No Rest for Dancers is secretly a Belgian dubbel masquerading as a red ale. It is ripe with fruity yeast esters but the style’s often cloying malt profile has been deftly side-stepped with the judicious use of dextrose. And Apophenia, their new Belgian-style tripel, is oily and fragrant, again dosed with that perfect pairing of coriander and bitter orange.
Says Alex: “The concept of balance and drinkability has been drummed into me since those early days at Little Creatures - and that doesn’t necessarily mean simple, it just means everything is in its right place.
“With our beers, you can either think about them, or not think about them - which is perfect. If everything is in its right place, you can just drink a beer and enjoy it, but if you want to go a little deeper you can give it some thought and start deconstructing it.”
The same applies to Lost and Grounded’s ‘friendly and curious’ - as Alex puts it - approach to branding.
Eschewing the highly-stylised, graphic design of many new wave breweries, Annie - the brewery’s creative lead - plumped for an illustrative slant. The brewery’s hippo and globe logo is emblematic of their outlook and personality.
“It’s a humble creature,” says Alex. “It’s not like the rockstar of the animal kingdom, the hippo just gets on with his day. But he’s also a bit of a dreamer - if you work hard enough you can carry the world.”
He sums up their ethos in a couple of words, recalling a recent visit by Colorado’s Odell Brewing and being overwhelmed by the kindness and openness of founders Doug, Wynne and Corkie.
“Be nice,” he says before joking: “But maybe I do need to get a bit more bastard in me!”