Julio Moncada’s life took a decisive turn the day he first walked into a London pub. “I saw these things on the bar, these handpumps,” he says. “I'd never seen them before. I said to the barman: ‘What is that? Can I try it?’
"It was completely different to what I was used to, so full of flavour and aroma. It just blew my mind. From that day on, I have been drinking cask ales, I have been trying different beers all the time. I haven’t stopped since.”
That was in 2001. 12 years on, Moncada is not only a keen drinker of cask ale but a producer, too, having set up his eponymous brewery in Kensal Green just under two years’ ago. It’s not something that the 35-year-old would have predicted when he left his hometown of Villa Mercedes in the Argentine province of San Luis. That part of the world is better known for its wine: Moncada grew up near to Argentina’s most famous wine region, Mendoza.
“Becoming a brewer was an accident more than a plan,” he says, smiling. “I didn’t think I would ever own a brewery. [After I came to the UK] I was a homebrewer for five years: I was more into cooking, I wanted to become a chef. I did different courses and worked in different restaurants around London to get experience. But it was very demanding ...
“With my wife, I decided to open a deli. I thought it would be nice to have the brewing equipment behind the counter and to produce my own beer for the deli. That was the first step, when I thought it could be a business.
“It was after a course at [brewing training centre] Brewlab in Sunderland that I decided to just be a brewer: on the train back, I phoned my wife and said: ‘Forgot about the deli. This is what I want to do’.”
If brewing English beer (Moncada currently produce seven beers, all of them in traditional British styles) in London is an imaginative choice for an Argentine, it seems plenty of his countrymen have also been converted to craft beer. Moncada is a regular visitor to his home country – where Quilmes, a flavour-light pale lager, is ubiquitous - and made his latest trip home in April.
“I think the spread of good beer is everywhere,” he says. “I think there are probably 200 microbreweries in Argentina now, opening up everywhere. Patagonia is quite a big area for microbreweries: there’s lot of European communities there.
“There’s actually a town in Cordoba, they do the Oktoberfest, it’s a German colony. They start exactly the same day as in Bavaria. That was one of the first places I really enjoyed beer, I went when I was 17. After that, I was going every year.”
Moncada is now a Londoner. The beer may be improving in Argentina, but he has no plans to return. “I’m established here,” he says. “My kids were born in London. This is my home. I don’t see myself moving out.”
It’s an exciting, confusing time for beer in London, as Moncada acknowledges. Barely a week goes by, it seems, without a new brewery opening. “When I decided to open a brewery, I got a phone call,” he says. “The first person who called me was Paddy Johnson from Windsor and Eton, he explained to me what the London Brewers’ Alliance was about, and that I was brewer no 14. How many do we have now? 40, I think.
“At the last LBA meeting, we had another 10 planning applications to go ahead. By the end of this year, there should be at least another five new breweries. In 2014, there will be more. It keeps going up and up.”
A number of these breweries are and will be in West London, where craft beer is yet to fully take hold as it has in the Eastern half of the city. It’s an interesting peculiarity (perhaps explained by the relatively high cost of living in West London), but the overwhelming majority of London’s best places to drink beer can be found in its eastern half.
“It is more difficult in West London,” Moncada admits. “Often, we need to do business over there [in East London], but there are lots of microbreweries there, too. I’m like a foreigner!”
With the business thriving (Moncada, who along with brewer Sam Dicksion does all the work for now, is aiming to increase capacity and take on new staff soon), says this presents a problem. “Our biggest challenge now is to find and convince new pubs around here to stock our beer,” he says. “We have the problem with the tied pubs, there are so many around here.”
Perhaps some new beers will convince local publicans to take a chance on a local brewery. Although Moncada concentrate on English styles for now, that won’t always be the case. “We don’t want to get stuck in a routine,” says Moncada.
“I always want to experiment and try something new. I’m always happy to try something new. What we like to do is try something and give it to people, to see their reactions. With our porter, for example – we wrote three different recipes, gave it to a pub, gave it out for free. The punters voted for which one they liked best.”
If that sounds like fun, it clearly is. Moncada is soon to open a bar at the brewery (initially one Friday a month, but perhaps more often depending on demand) and the atmosphere at the brewery is happy and optimistic. “I’m really having fun,” says Moncada. “This job has stressful elements – we want it to be a success, to stay in business for many years to come - but I’m having a good time.”