An Interview with Panda Frog

Behind the traditional facade, in the deepest, darkest recesses of the famed Mordue Brewery, there lies a dark side. A place where twisted genius reigns supreme, where creativity knows no limits, where anything goes. Meet the Panda Frog, it has beer.

With a legacy dating all the way back to the 19th century, Mordue is one of the country’s most storied breweries. Originally situated on Wallsend Village Green and ran by Joseph Mordue (a brewer of great distinction back in his day), his legacy lives on in the brewery today. Over 100 years later, the Fawson brothers revived Mordue’s superb ales while paying tribute to a member of brewing’s rich history when Mordue Brewery was effectively reborn in 1995.

Since then, the past 20-or-so years have been an inspiring tale of success for the brothers Fawson and their tributary brand. After outgrowing two breweries, Mordue now brews out of a huge facility in the Tyne Tunnel Estate in North Shields where they produce award-winning ale after awardwinning ale. Picking up plaudits right from their very first beer back in ’95, Mordue has gone on to become one of the UK’s most successful craft breweries of the past two decades with a certain knack for winning both national and local beer awards – including CAMRA’s prestigious Supreme Champion Beer of Britain award for their best bitter Workie Ticket.

Behind this impressive exterior, however, there lies something darker, something different, something much more mysterious.

In the deepest, darkest recesses of the brewery is a place where there are no rules, a place where everything and anything goes. It is here that the Panda Frog resides and it is here that Mordue’s most warped desires come true. Created from the twisted genius that is head brewer Robert Millichamp and the occasional rationality of the Fawson brothers, the lair of the Panda Frog is where Mordue Brewery lets go of all inhibitions and brews some of their most daring, different and delicious beers.

“The Panda Frog Project was Garry and Matt Fawson’s idea in response to the growing interest in craft beers,” explains Robert Millichamp. “The brothers have always had a very different approach to brewing and are hop geeks at heart so I was privileged to be allowed free reign to brew pretty much anything I wanted to and they marketed it.

“In a nutshell, it is Mordue Brewery’s experimental side arm where everything goes as long as the quality is there.”

At this point in the craft beer revolution, it goes without saying that a certain amount of bravery is required to succeed. The courage to try new things. The valour to experiment with different recipes and ingredients. The fortitude to take the beer industry by the horns. As evidenced by Millichamp’s explanation for how the project got its name, the man surely isn’t lacking in bravery.

“I named my pilot brew kit after a nickname for my wife,” he states. “She got the nickname Panda from an unfortunate incident with her eye makeup. And also her love of frogs. When Mordue adopted the Panda Frog concept, it eventually became The Panda Frog Project”

Long before the Panda Frog was born, however, and like so many great brewers and distillers before him, Robert’s road to brewing fame began at the legendary Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh. He tells us: “I had always had an interest in homebrewing and decided to complete a degree in Brewing and Distilling.

“After this, my first job was brewing at Daleside Brewery in Harrogate which I thoroughly enjoyed but, as I was based in Alnwick, Northumberland, I realised that I needed a job nearer to home. Up stepped Mordue Brewery.

“Mordue happened to be looking for a new head brewer and even though I had not a lot of experience under my belt, they gave me a chance to show what I could do. That faith in me has been repaid as it led to the Panda Frog Project, consistency in their award-winning range of beers and multiple prestigious awards for the brewery”.

This knack for award-winning extends beyond Mordue’s core range; the Panda Frog Project has etched its name on its own fair share of gongs over the years – starting with the very first beer ever brewed under the label, Pandazilla. Most recently, on August 18 2017, Panda Blood (a Blood Orange IPA that the Flavourly community will be enjoying this month) picked up a gold medal at the SIBA North East Independent Beer Awards 2017 in York in the Specialty Light Beer category.

Millichamp describes Panda Blood as “a beautiful IPA, hopped with Mosaic, Citra and Summit, and matured on a bed of pulped blood oranges. The result is an amazingly refreshing but highly hopped IPA.” While the stars of the show in Panda Blood are the blood oranges and the way in which they complement the heavy hop characteristic, all of the Panda Frog Project’s beers start with the goal of showcasing an interaction between certain ingredients.

“Whereas Mordue’s core range is formed by a beer style first and details later,” Millichamp explains, “Panda Frog beers are devised in reverse to this process and can be two difficult styles mashed into one great end result. The key is being able to master the different style first before deciding which ones work best together. One thing is for sure, it is always an interesting journey making a Panda Frog beer.”

Just as interesting as the journey and the contents of the kegs, cans or bottles, are the Panda Frog Project’s bold, striking label designs. They catch your eye before the taste of the beer inside ever captures your heart. The road to this signature look all began with a little bit of Pandamonium.

“The artwork for the Panda Frog Project is designed for us by Garry and Matt’s good friend Oliver; Matt went to art college with him,” Millichamp says. “Garry had an idea for Pandamonium, which was a West Coast IPA, and started thinking about LA culture. Firstly, he thought about the Latin custom scene with the artwork on the bikes and cars before looking at street graffiti where a lightbulb switched on.

“Olly took the design brief from there and came up with the weird and wonderful designs that we associate with Panda Frog. We all have a passion for rock music and Olly always makes sure there is a famous guitar from the country that the beer style is influenced by.

“We also have a very twisted sense of humour and some of the characters are a parody of famous and infamous people through time, not forgetting the robot bar code character in all of the Panda Frog range.

“Panda Frog beers are quite over the top so we thought they deserved some artwork to reflect this and would stand out on the shelves at the same time.”

Mordue’s Panda Frog Project celebrated its fifth birthday earlier this year (with a commemorative beer, of course) and it’s safe to say that they have carved out a well-formed identity for this experimental side arm over the past five years. The Panda Frog Project is rock ‘n’ roll. It is sick and it is twisted in all the right ways. It is colourful, over the top and uncompromising. Above all else, though, the Panda Frog Project is amazing craft beer. And, even five years in, it shows no signs of slowing down.

“The current aim is to try and stay ahead of the curve as far as beer styles and recipes are concerned. We will always be pushing the boundaries with our Panda Frog beers and also with the artwork.

“New beers on the horizon include an interesting and different sour beer, an East Coast double IPA and a smoked, rye saison but we may just chuck a few more interesting ideas into the mix. Watch this space.”

Originally published in Issue 7 of Flavourly Magazine. Written by Kevin O’Donnel.

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