Meet Magic Rock's Christa SandquistAndrew Liddle meets Christa Sandquist, Magic Rock’s innovative young head of brewing operations, and talks to her about the beer of the month.
Christa Sandquist, Head of Production and Operations, at the multi-award-winning Huddersfield-based Magic Rock Brewery since 2016, is currently remarkably upbeat. Why not? Pubs have now been given an opening date – and this most resourceful and innovative firm have just released a new beer, a hazy Double India Pale called 'You’re On Mute!'.
“As with all hospitality venues,” Christa says frankly, looking back over the weeks of lockdown, “it's been difficult. There’s been no way of planning anything so we’ve had to take it in our stride, week by week, keeping a close eye on the changing guidelines, trying to prepare as much as possible.”
Christa, from the State of Washington, with an MSc. in Brewing and Distilling from Herriot Watt University, does of course get asked quite often what it’s like working in a traditionally male job. She’s sees the question coming and smiles in anticipation. “I've never enjoyed playing the female in the male world card, throughout my time here and as Head Brewer at Ilkley Brewery and before that at Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland. I’ve just always strived to work harder, better myself and let the results speak for themselves.”
One thing Christa and the rest of the staff are especially looking forward to is being able to control the sale of their own beer in their own premises, their on-site taproom in Holmfirth. “Having a great outdoors space and high ceilings inside means we are able to adapt to Covid regulations easily when it comes to socially distancing tables, sitting people outside and so on.” She is pleased that everything is ready for the grand re-opening. “Our taprooms are Covid-friendly and uppermost on our minds has been the safety of our staff and customers.”
The question much debated at the moment in the pub trade is whether customers will resume old habits, immediately flocking back to the pub, or take a little persuading. “As with the last lockdown, there may still be a lot of hesitation as some will be in different minds about going out and socialising,” she says, thoughtfully. “I think this will ease as more people get vaccinated, but for now I still think most will be cautious before we see a sense of normality.”
Christa has nothing but praise for the resilience of the brewing industry in general and not least the small craft firms. “They’ve found ways to get through and a lot have worked together to support each other - the big question now is how we continue to support the hospitality sector?”
Of course, Magic Rock have been cushioned more than most craft brewers by their tie-up with the Australian giant, Lion. “Yeah, Lion has been great during the pandemic - they've been really clear at communicating and making staff feel supported throughout all of this."
Inspired by local brewing traditions and the vibrant US craft beer scene, Magic Rock Brewing was founded in 2011 by Richard Burhouse in an old out building of the family business in Huddersfield. Within less than a year they were employing a staff of fifty and producing around three and a half million pints a year. Even in the current difficulties, their output has increased by some twenty per cent, not least because of the supermarket sales. The new on-site canning machine can - astonishingly - turn out 18, 000 an hour.
Alongside a distinctive core range, Magic Rock produce an ever-changing line-up of idiosyncratic high-quality beers much in demand. Their latest, 'You're On Mute!' a one-off gluten-free special is a homage to the numerous Zoom calls which are now, apparently, the new normal.
A deliciously fruity DIPA, full of the flavours of mango and citrus fruits, it certainly packs a punch at the same time as it somehow raises a smile. “We're seeing bold hazy 8% IPAs as a real trend at the moment, so we were keen to tap into that while bringing a bit of tongue and cheek to the table,” Christa says, a smile forming on her own lips. “It was a team effort coming up with a light-hearted reactive creation to demonstrate the current climate.”
As always when launching a new beer, Magic Rock took feedback from customers. “Many said they wanted more gluten-free offerings. Some of our core range is gluten free, of course, but very rarely are our specials. We wanted to create a great tasting IPA for this market, tapping into the big hazy trend and highlighting some of the new hops coming out of America.”
Clearly a huge amount of time and effort and experimentation goes into the creation of one of Magic Rock’s beers. “We sampled all the new hop varieties to see what we were able to bring together for a modern IPA – and we've been able to bring together new varieties as well as more well-known hops. For this one in particular, there was a lot of gluten testing to make sure it was 100% gluten free.”
'You're On Mute!' is the Yorkshire Times' Beer of the Month of March.