At a glance, there appears to be little connection between Austin, Texas and the sleepy town of Edwardstone in Suffolk. The latter is little tiny village, barely made up of three hamlets, whilst the former is the state capital of Texas. Suffolk experiences harsh, cold winters and mild summers, whilst Austin is renowned for it’s humid subtropical climate.
However, when asked where he sought inspiration for Little Earth Project, brewer Tom Norton cites Jester King, an authentic farmhouse brewery on the outskirts of the huge US city. “You can brew a hoppy american style IPA anywhere in the world,” he explains, “but what Jester King have shown is that if you use local barley, hops and wild yeast cultures you can produce something that is very difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world.”
Producing beer that is utterly unique is something Little Earth Project has excelled at in the short time Norton’s brewery has been up and running. An elderberry saison, a wild mint mojito fruit beer and an organic IPA aged in whisky barrels for four months are just three beers in his portfolio, whilst the whole Project rests on the concept of natural fermentation using wild yeast strains from Norton’s family cider making business, which dates back over 30 years.
No two batches of Little Earth Project beer are the same, and indeed it would now be impossible for the brewery to produce beer without infecting it with yeast in the atmosphere of the brew house. “We knew that being in a small building if we started playing around with mixed culture wild yeast we were going to have to go whole hog and do it or not bother at all,” Norton explains.
“We've got to the point now where there is brettanomyces in the building and basically everywhere. We will do a clean fermentation and put it in barrels and then within a week there will be activity again. We know that stuff is being picked up from the atmosphere.”
Norton’s fascination with natural forms of fermentation comes from his father’s cider making business, Castlings Heath organic cider, which he grew up helping to produce by hand from their tiny orchard. The move into brewing, however, was initially in the more traditional sense, when his family bought the local village pub and installed a small microbrewery next door.
Initially operating under the name of Mill Green and producing 95% cask beer to serve the local market, Norton was drawn to the idea of inoculating with wild yeast after the landlady of the pub stopped stocking Mill Green’s beer in 2015, putting any expansion plans for the old brewery on hold. “With Mill Green we were already using locally grown barley and hops that we'd grown ourselves, foraged ingredients and the like,” he says, “and we could see the beer market going more in that direction.”
Enthused, Norton set out to revive a number of historic beer styles using wild yeast cultures from his father’s cider on the old Mill Green kit, buying up as many whisky and wine barrels as he could to store the beer along the way. “I was a history student once upon a time, so I do have that interest and have partnered that with my interest in beer,” he says. “As a family the history of pubs and ale houses, and the history of different beverages and local specialties has always been fascinating to us.
“With our historic beers, the main premise is that over 100 years ago there wasn't such thing as single cultures of yeast, and beer was either drunk very quickly or it was left to age,” he continues. “The stuff that was left to age would have been full of all sorts of types of brett and anything else that happened to be in the brewery. Old IPAs and stock ales and porters were all basically bretted beers, just not done on purpose.”
As a result, Little Earth Project’s beers are often highly complex and acidic, and contain characteristics that could be considered flaws by the more traditional cask beer drinker. Last year the brewery sent a cask to CAMRA’s East Anglian Beer and Cider Festival only to have it rejected on the grounds that the organisers thought attendees would complain the beer was off. Norton admits the experience was frustrating, but stresses he believes attitudes towards sour beer will change over time.
“Our type of beer is very new to the UK really. Ok we have had the occasional Belgian import but up until a few years ago you'd almost never see a sour beer in a pub or a bar,” he says. “It’s just about changing people's perception of beer in baby steps. The more craft brewers get into it the more people's attitudes will change.”
The other major challenge Little Earth Project faces is time, with all of its beers requiring a minimum of three months (and some as long as two years) in barrels before being ready for consumption. Last summer Norton went two months without brewing due to a lack of empty barrels, and he hopes to build a dedicated barrel store on site to prevent further shortages in the future. “We have room for maybe 20 barrels in the building we are now,” he explains, “If we built a purpose built store we'd probably want to be able to store 100-150 barrels in there.”
The space and time constraints involved in the production of barrel aged beer has recently led Scottish brewery Innis & Gunn to design a new production method involving breaking up barrels and circulating their beer with the pieces for between 7-10 days. Norton, however, is critical of the move, claiming the method is not real barrel ageing and stating a tightening of definitions surrounding barrel-aged beers is required.
“I think if it says ‘barrel aged in’ on the label, the beer should have been aged in a barrel,” he says. “It’s fairly frustrating but the problem lies in the fact they are allowed to do it rather than the fact they are doing it. If you leave loopholes open like that then people will take advantage of it.”
“The customers that understand and know our beers probably aren't going to go out and buy Innis & Gunn beers instead so it probably doesn't affect us that unduly, but I think there ought to be a bit of a tightening up of the wording of these things,” he continues. “Their beers are obviously going to not be as intense [as Little Earth Project’s], but its all about educating people and getting as many people to try your beers as possible, and if yours have got a more interesting and stronger flavour then you can hopefully draw people in with that.”
Looking to the future, Little Earth Project hopes to take back control of the pub when the lease runs out next summer, and Norton has plans to turn the site into a destination taproom for people seeking wild fermented beers. “
We've got a campsite here and a couple of holiday chalets on the field so it seems almost the perfect country pub to do as a destination site,” he says. “It’ll be not just our own sour and wild beers but a showcase of other British breweries doing similar things.”
On the subject of expansion, Norton adds: “We're still very small. I think this year we are on target to brew 9,000-10,000 litres this year. Adnams have probably brewed that amount of beer since we started this conversation! We have fairly modest aims of where we want to be, but in the long run maybe we'd like to make ten times that amount of beer, but that may be some time off.”
In the meantime, Norton is happy to continue seeking inspiration from his surroundings and learning through experimentation. “Part of the fun is the unpredictability of it; we are very much on a learning curve ourselves to find out what our beers are going to taste like,” he says. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but that is part of the character and charm of what we do.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 21 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission. The photos for this piece were taken by the supremely talented Cherry Beesley of Simply C Photography, and have also been published here with her permission.