On the face of it, Falmouth isn’t the type of place you’d expect to find one of the most exciting and hyped new breweries in the UK.
This sleepy Cornish university town has a population of just over 20,000 people, and is better known for its distinguished maritime history - Charles Darwin’s HMS The Beagle docked in the town at the end of its voyage around the world in 1836 - than for its proud brewing history. The town is near impossible to get to with any regularity via public transport, and you would struggle to imagine the majority of its population enjoying sipping on turbid, juicy New England IPAs.
Nevertheless, if you venture away from the bustling docks and potted lanes around the harbour front and head towards the top end of the town, you will find a small bright blue shipping unit, nestled away on a quiet industrial estate, where Verdant Brewing Co call home.
Arriving at Verdant HQ, it’s hard to believe that some of the most sought after and exciting beers in the UK has been conceived here; the brewery is little more than a large shed, a far cry from the enviable spaces and shiny brew kits owned by the likes of Cloudwater and Lost & Grounded.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, and none more so than in the case of Verdant. The brewery has taken the market by storm since its inception, producing a range of hoppy, full-flavoured beers that have earned plaudits at home and abroad. In February 2017, the brewery was awarded the accolade of the Best New Brewer in the UK by US beer website RateBeer.com, a remarkable feat considering it was only just over two years old at the time.
“Unlike a lot of brewers I do pay attention to things like Untappd and Ratebeer,” Verdant’s head brewer James Heffron tells me in the small office space at the back of the brewery’s site. “From a brewing perspective it is quite important. I like RateBeer because you are meant to actually write something, so that can be quite useful, especially when you can tell that people have really sat down and thought about it.”
Alongside friends Adam Robertson and Richard White, the tall, silver-haired brew master has built Verdant up from nothing to become one of the UK’s highest rated small-batch breweries. But how exactly did the trio get where they are today, and why did they choose the town of Falmouth in which to build their business?
Verdant’s story begins in a similar vein to many of the hundreds of new breweries that have sprung up in the UK over the last five or so years. Heffron was inspired to start homebrewing by the eclectic brewing culture and bold flavours he discovered on a trip New Zealand around seven years ago, and hasn’t looked back since.
“It seemed like a really cool job; they seemed like nice places and nice people involved,” he says. “I remember driving through the Nelson region on the south island and literally driving past fields of hops and falling in love with the romantic vision of it all.”
Returning to the UK, Heffron put his background in catering to good use, tinkering with homebrew recipes to add more hops and experiment with the flavours he could produce. Satisfied he was onto something good, he quickly roped in Robertson and White over one too many drinks in the pub after football training, and the trio quickly set to work, renting a shipping container in a quarry – which White fitted the electrics for - to hone their skills.
Initially, Heffron decided to focus purely on brewing single hop pale ales, a decision that has undoubtedly influenced the ethos of the brewery today. “We did like 20 single hop pale ales, all based around the New England style,” he says. “Straight away we knew that was what we wanted to do.”
After moving into new, larger premises in early 2015, Heffron and co. resolved to try and make the brewery into more than an expensive hobby. Switching from top cropping an English Ale yeast over to a dry US strain, Verdant built up a core range of beers: Lightbulb, HeadBand, Bloom and Pulp. The bezers were launched in Spring 2015 and proved to be instant hits.
“Right from the off it was bonkers; people were really enjoying them and we couldn't brew anywhere near enough,” Heffron recalls. “We were producing like twelve 30 litre kegs a week but the response was great. It was going to Bristol through Small Bar, Belfast through Brewbot and to London, not just a few places in Cornwall.”
By the end of the year, the three friends packed in their day jobs and went full time at the brewery.
Offering a percentage of the business to their friends and family, Heffron, Robertson and White raised enough money to move again (to the brewery’s current location), blag their way into some hop contracts and purchase a new brew kit. One year on from the first brew at the new site, it’s difficult to say the decision has been anything other than a success, but that doesn’t mean the trio are letting up.
“We all bust our balls to keep this business going,” he says. “We're going to need to start employing at least one, possibly two people very soon. It's a never-ending cycle of beer production, and what keeps me awake at night is trying to make the next beer better than the one before. We aren’t resting on our laurels.”
If you had to use one turn of phrase to describe Heffron, ‘single-minded’ would surely be high on the list. This dogged determination has seen Verdant focus almost exclusively on pale, hop-forward beers, rather than developing a wider range of styles, but the head brewer has no qualms about the direction he has taken the brewery.
“What we don't want to do is feel like we need to brew other beers because that is what we are supposed to do,” he says. “We always make the beers that we want to drink. If someone wants the types of beer that we don't make, then they can buy them from somewhere else.
“We can still make better IPAs, double IPAs and pale ales than we are at the moment, and that's what I think about when I go to bed at night, and when I come in here first thing in the morning. Before totally jumping on other styles, let's just fucking nail the style we are making at the moment.”
Nevertheless, he does let slip that the brewery is planning on making an imperial stout in the next few weeks, and even admits to having a soft spot other styles of beer, including “the much maligned” black IPA.
Beyond brewing exceptionally good, hop-forward beers, a large part of Verdant’s huge popularity has been generated through working with some of the other rising stars of the UK brewing scene, from fellow south-west friends at Lost & Grounded and Left Handed Giant, to the likes of Cloudwater and Northern Monk. Heffron has even brewed double IPA with New York’s Other Half Brewing Company, an opportunity many other brewers can only dream of.
Surprisingly, however, he has mixed views on the concept of collaborations, stating they are only of value if you are able to learn something from the people you are working with. “They definitely vary in their usefulness,” he says. “Sometimes you get the odd one or two where a few emails go around and then it happens and that's it, but some of them can be valuable. The more collaborative they are the better.”
Despite this skepticism, he clearly has some favourites. “Going to Lost and Grounded in Bristol was an amazing experience. Alex [Troncoso] is so experienced globally and has this incredible knowledge about beer. It was a really great couple of days up there; just picking his brains over stuff and playing around on an amazing German brew kit.
“Likewise, going to Cloudwater is fantastic because you get to learn about how dedicated they are to quality control and sensory analysis. They don't skimp on staff, and they are really nice people as well. From a brewers perspective, everything is about process; there's always some way you can improve the way you are making beer.”
On the subject of Verdant’s location, Heffron reveals that it was more through circumstance than by design the brewery ended up in Falmouth, but insists it has not been a barrier to distribution or growth. “We do get a fair amount of comments like 'why are you all the way out here?’” he admits. “But distribution has never been an issue. There's these magical things called pallets and trucks that take it away from here all around the country!”
“My family and I live about five miles away, Rich is two or three miles away, as is Adam, so Falmouth makes sense for us. Only a couple of percent of our beer stays in Cornwall; it's always been like that. We supply a few bars locally and everything else goes to the cities, because that is where people want to drink the beer.”
“The region we have looked to in the States is Vermont, which is also in the arse end of nowhere and people travel there to buy and drink really good beer, so why not here? Cornwall is just a really nice part of England.”
Indeed, looking to the future, the trio hope the brewery can become something of a destination for tourists visiting the region. “It would be great if the brewery was part of people’s itinerary whilst they were in Cornwall,” Heffron says. “A really wild dream would be a bespoke, eco-friendly brewery on our own bit of land where people can come and spend the day, but that’s a shit load of money right there.”
When asked where he sees the brewery in five year’s time, Heffron’s goals are simple. “At the moment I am 85-90% happy with our beers,” he says. “In five years time I would like to be 95% happy with our beers and that is basically it.
This dedication and commitment to beer quality is an admirable sentiment, and one that has taken the brewery a long way in a very short space of time. With a new canning line being installed later this month, and plans to recruit additional staff well underway, Verdant are here for the long haul, and Cornwall is all the better for it.