The Mild One — How Boxcar is Finding Headspace in London
“I have a memory of going to a pub in Reading that had a mild festival on,” Boxcar Brew Co’s co-founder and head brewer Sam Dickison recalls with a smile. “I didn’t really know what mild was at the time.”
Although this young East London-based brewery’s imminent move into a bigger site will give it some breathing space, it’s also an opportunity for Sam to tinker with his beloved dark mild. A style with which, recently, the brewery has become somewhat synonymous.
“Every pint we got was this dark brown to black, frothy, sugary, three-point-something pint of deliciousness, and I remember loving that so much,” he continues. “The memory is nicer than maybe how some of those beers were, but now I’m making our beer based on that memory.”
Like so many brewers before him, years of working in pubs fostered an interest in beer, eventually becoming a home brewer. For Sam, the transition from amateur to professional brewing was a simple one.
“My mate, who I was home brewing with, got a job driving for Moncada Brewery,” he says. “I rocked up with my home brews and said ‘can I help out?’ Somehow I managed to become head brewer there.”
Eighteen months later, Sam moved on to become head brewer at North London’s Hammerton Brewery. A year later, he moved on again, looking to swap a high workload for greater creativity—something he soon found at The People’s Park Tavern, a brewpub in Victoria Park, East London.
Another year-and-a-half on and Sam was approached by Vagabond Wines founder Stephen Finch, who was looking for a brewer with whom to open a brewery. It took a little convincing, but “eventually, I agreed,” he says. “That’s been Boxcar ever since.”
While the hazy, juicy style of beers Boxcar is known for are seemingly de rigueur for the beer world of late, Boxcar has never jumped on the hazy train just for the sake of it.
“They are popular because they brew hoppy beers,” says Duration Brewing co-founder and brewer Derek Bates, a close friend of Sam’s. “But it’s because they brew delicious, well-made hoppy beers with an understanding of how they are made—not just the act of throwing a bunch of hops in them.”
More recently, however, Sam has been drawn to other, less conventional styles. One beer in particular has curiously gained somewhat of a cult status—both knowing smiles and good-natured groans often meet the mention of Sam’s dark mild.
“People call me the mild guy,” he says with a chuckle. “Random people, across the country. It’s really weird.”
Whilst not necessarily the polar opposite of the New England-style beers that put Boxcar on the proverbial map, dark mild is a departure from those juicy, hazy, hoppy beers. It is, however, very much in keeping with Boxcar’s ethos.
“We’ve gone in the hoppy directions because I love those beers, but equally, I love dark mild, so I said ‘let’s do a dark mild”, he says, with a typical quiet smile.
Softly spoken and always thoughtful, Sam’s considered but direct conversation reflects his appearance: a long, tied-up pony tail and wispy goatee suggest a certain wisdom and patience. Not one for conversational frippery, each word appears chosen carefully. “I love dark mild,” he reiterates, all at once excited about everything while simultaneously being zen as fuck.
For the two years or so since Boxcar set up shop in Hackney—the first six months of their operation was spent getting bits of kit together, and figuring out its recipes—every beer has been brewed on “a wacky home brew kit, in terms of quality,” Sam says.
“We’re moving to super-professional, touch screen and everything.” The shiny new brewhouse will afford drastically greater capacity with a batch size nearly eight times bigger than before, with significantly greater fermentation capacity, too, allowing the opportunity to double brew.
“The kit we’re getting is vastly greater in terms of quality control, so I’m really excited to be able to put a reasonable amount of effort in to get so much more beer out—it’s the same amount of work, almost, brewing 200L as brewing 1,500L,” he says. “It’s going to be of higher quality because the equipment’s far better. I’m just impatient to get on it.”
Though London boasts a greater number of breweries than anywhere else in the country, Sam doesn’t feel the pressures of a crowded market: “I still think there’s plenty of room for good taprooms,” he says. “There are so many people just getting into smaller-scale beer, and taprooms out in the middle of nowhere seem to do alright.”
“There’s not a chance in hell I would open a brewery in a city now without it using a brewpub or taproom model,” Duration’s Derek Bates says. “There is just no margin otherwise on what it costs to be there: quality; equipment; etc, versus the amount you can make. I think [Boxcar] will be ahead of the curve in that respect and have already built a following before doing so.”
Around the corner from Bethnal Green station, the brewery’s new two-arch site backs onto an alleyway you could easily miss, one that Old Street Brewery and Renegade Wines also call home.
“I’ve already been hanging out with Old Street Brewery quite a bit, using their wifi when I’m waiting for things, you know. We’re already friends,” enthuses Sam. “I’ve been chatting to the Renegade guys—they’re really excited we’re moving in.”
“More people doing interesting things in the area is a good thing,” Warwick Smith, founder of Renegade Wines tells me. “We do the occasional collaboration and are game to collaborate with more local breweries—it’s friendly.” Renegade have worked with Affinity Brew Co, Brixton Brewery, Redchurch Brewery, and Anspach and Hobday, as well as with cider maker Hawkes, and the East London Liquor Company.
“We can only really all add to each others’ value,” Sam says. “The more that there is in an area, the more likely people are to come and visit.”
Whilst Bethnal Green might not immediately seem like a beer destination in the same way Bermondsey might, a beer community has existed there for some time. A stone’s throw from Boxcar’s new site sits pioneering bottle shop Mother Kelly’s, and if you head west away from Bethnal Green station, you’ll soon enough reach established pub The King’s Arms. One Mile End used to brew beneath the streets at The White Hart. Whilst the broader London market might, at times, feel crowded, Bethnal Green certainly doesn’t yet.
While Dickinson’s quiet confidence seems somewhat rooted in his decision to settle in an area with room to grow into, much of it stems from his belief in himself and the brewery. “If you make really high-quality beer in a good location, people will come to you. I don’t think there is a particular USP, it’s just: always high quality. Focus on quality.”
“It’s always about providing something other people don’t provide, whether that’s quality or beer styles: we’re always aiming to try and only release really, really, really good stuff, of a style other London breweries don’t focus on so much,” he says. Aside from the famous dark mild, Sam’s keen to keep looking for those other styles.
“I want to do a bitter,” he says. I think it’ll be a lot harder than dark mild in keg, but if you use a big, full, stinky old English yeast strain—really maximising all the flavours and textures out of that—I think that’s step one to doing a good keg bitter. That’s where I’m heading with the dark mild now, really focussing on the yeast strain. But I want to do a bitter.”
“Mild in a 440ml can. I’m going to love it.” Though Sam wants to build excitement for a style close to his heart, he has no intention for a one-man mild renaissance: “I don’t want to say ‘we’re bringing back mild’ or ‘making mild good again’—there are good milds out there—they’re just so hard to come across.”
Intent aside, presenting a less-popular style in a modern packaging format—with pink lasers on the label—can only be a shot in the arm. To some, this could appear risky—putting so much love and effort into a style that not only is hard to find, but that in Sam’s eyes they simply don’t buy.
Not that it matters. Sam’s fervent love-affair with everything dark mild will see Boxcar explore every avenue to ensure the beer’s success. Despite such a passion for the style, Sam’s outlook remains, of course, characteristically philosophical.
“I want to throw it out there and see if it will catch on as something people regularly pick up as a session beer,” he says. “You can only go in that direction and see what happens.”