Words and pictures by Ben McCormick.
A reluctant sun is doing its best to hide behind the kind of brooding, grey clouds only weathermen could love as I traipse up the Regents Canal to one of my old drinking haunts, The Palm Tree.
The waterway’s twinkling shimmers are gently tickling away a hideous hangover, while on the towpath, a pair of surly Canada geese are shooing away a trio of over-familiar Chinese tourists. Swans do what they do best, looking threatening and imperiously graceful in equal measure as they glide effortlessly across the water’s surface. Moorhens squabble their way along the canal’s edge. Spring is doing its level best to spring in the face of determined winter resistance.
I’m on my way to meet Mike Siddell, violinist in The Leisure Society, whose narrowboat is moored mere spitting distance from the Palm Tree. It’s aboard this canal-going craft that Mike is now brewing beer, often using ingredients he’s foraged from his surrounding area.
His latest batch is a cross between a US and English-style IPA called Brewed Aboard The Ark, which is being launched to coincide with the release of the band’s third album Alone Aboard The Ark and uses the album’s artwork as its label design. While interested in what direction the new album will take, I’m more keen to find out how Mike got started brewing in the first place, how on earth he finds the space to do it on such an appropriately named vessel and whether or not it tastes any good.
“A few years ago, I lived in a tower block in Poplar and didn’t have a great deal of cash,” he said over a foaming pint of dark brown ale in the pub. “Finding free stuff was something my girlfriend and I did as a matter of course and, as there weren’t really many pubs in the area either, it seemed a logical step to try and find a way to drink for free as well. I started out making wine, which wasn’t always drinkable, then moved on to the boat and had to cut equipment back due to space constraints. As beer takes less time to mature, I decided to brew that instead.”
After serving an apprenticeship with a local brewer, Mike set about brewing beer aboard the boat. He found wild hops growing in Walthamstow Marshes, nettles almost everywhere and an abundant source of yarrow, which was used to brew beer before hops became the more fashionable bittering agent. Using as many foraged ingredients as possible, he then brews in somewhat rudimentary, improvised equipment that includes a cool box for the mash tun, a saucepan on the stove for the kettle and a five-gallon plastic fermenter.
“As I’m doing this on a small scale, I get the chance to experiment, which suits my style of brewing completely,” he said. “I like revisiting older, established beer recipes with a mixture of more modern and traditional ingredients and that’s something I admire in some of our more forward-thinking breweries such as The Kernel, Brodies or Moor. It’s also a relaxing way of getting back down to earth after what’s generally a hectic gigging lifestyle. There is even talk of trying to acquire another narrowboat in future that we can use to brew beer exclusively, something my girlfriend’s keen to encourage.”
After finishing our Palm Tree pints, we repair to the barge to sample some of Mike’s brews. As he’s been relatively modest about his operation, I’m not expecting much more than glorified homebrew.
But sat aboard and being rocked gently back and forth in the cosy confines of the ark, I find Mike has been playing down his brewing prowess. He pours a lively nettle wheat beer that captures that style’s distinctive medicinal smell but adds a zesty sting, making it infinitely more palatable and less cloying than is usual with such beers. I’m not generally a huge fan of wheat beer, so it’s all the more surprising I’m downing this one with such enthusiasm.
Brewed Aboard The Ark is a bronzed English-style IPA infused with American hops and some of the wild ones Mike found in Walthamstow. The bottle we sample is perhaps a bit young and tastes fairly sweet as a result, but it’s clear there’s some degree of skill gone into making its contents all the same. If anything, the slightly maltier flavour helps it slip down more easily.
I leave clutching a bottle of the wheat beer, sporting a huge grin on my face and thinking Mike’s got a promising future in brewing should he decide to hang up his violin.
The Leisure Society album Alone Aboard The Ark is out now and available in the Caught by the River shop priced £10. An 11-date tour of the UK starts on 12th April.
Read more about life on the narrowboat here.