Terroir and history are the two pillars upon which this Suffolk microbrewery is built.Read More
It’s been quite a rise to fame for Newport’s Tiny Rebel brewery. In less than ten years, the brewery has gone from two men producing two beers out of a converted garage to a 60-employee strong organisation, brewing on a dual steam 30-barrel brewhouse and exporting beer to over 20 countries around the world. Along the way, the Welsh brewery has found favour among craft beer geeks and traditional real ale enthusiasts alike, but undoubtedly the key moment in its history came in August 2015, when its flagship 4.6 per cent red ale, Cwtch, took home the ‘Champion Beer of Britain’ at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.
“The week after we won the award I think we brewed Cwtch six times out of eight,” laughs Niall Thomas, the brewery’s Regional Sales Manager. “It was just Cwtch cask after Cwtch cask…but you’ve got to give the people what they want!
“Winning Champion Beer of Britain was absolutely huge for us; we’re the youngest ever brewery to have won it, and the only brewery from Wales. It’s the top brewing award in the country and to have won it so quickly after opening is an enormous achievement. A lot of breweries can only dream of it.”
Tiny Rebel’s journey began in a similar way to that of many other breweries in the industry. Brad Cummings and Gareth Williams (Gazz) were thrown together after Gazz married Brad’s sister and the duo became brothers-in law. Gazz, a keen homebrewer and cask ale lover, roped Brad into his brewing experiments in a converted garage on the weekends. After receiving some positive feedback from friends and family, the two men invested in a fifty-litre homebrew kit and began to perfect their recipes.
In February 2012, the brewery officially launched with two beers, Fubar, a 4.4 per cent pale ale, and Urban IPA. These were swiftly followed by Cwtch and Dirty Stop Out, the brewery’s 5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout.
“It was a pretty quick rise from there,” admits Niall. “The first year we were eligible, our beers took a one, two, three at the Great Welsh Beer Festival – the first time any Welsh brewery has taken gold, silver and bronze at the same festival – and the year after that, we won gold again, which was the first time anyone has defended a gold.”
The following year, Cwtch won Champion Beer of Britain.
With interest in their beers soaring, Tiny Rebel were soon struggling to cope with the demand. “We’d already been at capacity at the old brewery before we won at GBBF,” Niall explains, “and when you win an award like that you’re the biggest news in the brewing industry for the next couple of months. It can put a huge strain on production.” To cope, the brewery squeezed two more fermenting tanks into their old site, and switched to shift patterns, brewing twice a day, ten times a week.
Eventually, however, a new site was needed. Plans were drawn up and investment sourced for a new £2.6m brewhouse site, ten minutes away from the old brewery. The new brewkit was installed in December 2016, and production moved at the start of this year. “All the profits for the past five years have gone into the new site,” Niall says, “the new brewhouse is a dual stream 30 barrel; each stream can brew 5,000 litres and they can run virtually side by side. Going forward if we really wanted to we could go back to a shift pattern and brew four times a day, but at the moment we’re brewing at most twice a day.”
The new brewhouse is certainly an impressive sight, with on site canning and bottling lines, as well as plans for a glass-fronted taproom overlooking the Welsh valleys. So what has been the secret behind Tiny Rebel’s rapid ascent to success?
“I think the key for us has been organic growth,” Niall explains, “We’ve never tried to run too fast; we wait to see where the demand takes us, and we’ve found that whenever we’ve grown, the demand grows, probably quicker than we can. We’re producing as much beer as we can, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to the demand for it, which seems to be a sign that we’re doing well.”
“We’ve also got a really good and talented team. We like to promote and utilise those resources as best we can. I joined the sales team from one of the bars; the management teams in the bars were all previously existing bar staff. We like to foster skills and reward people.”
Looking to the future, the brewery’s focus is on finishing work at the new site, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be releasing any new beers anytime soon. Indeed, one big new release is planned in the next month or so, but is still very much under wraps, so much so that we are forbidden from taking photos or writing about it. “We love experimenting,” Niall says, “Last year alone we released 30 new beers. The new brewery site obviously takes a bit of time and attention away from that sort of thing, but hopefully soon we’ll have the time to do a few more exciting things.”
One thing Tiny Rebel won’t be doing, however, is turning their backs on cask beer, as other breweries in the industry have recently done. “For us personally, we see cask as our personal origins,” explains Niall, “it’s what Gazz was brought up with and what sparked the idea for the brewery. But also it’s the origin story of beer in the UK; it’s a very British style and we see it as an integral part of the beer scene here.”
Nonetheless, Niall is keen to emphasise that the brewery don’t begrudge any of their fellow brewers turning their backs on the style. “It’s their business at the end of the day and they know their customer base better than anyone,” he says. “It would be silly to commit to something that’s going to lose you money, and from a beer perspective you’ve got to brew what you like brewing.”
“It’s down to local preference, but the key is to brew what you love; that’s the only thing we can do.”
*This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*
Following a dream often requires sacrifices, and the young Italians behind Brewheadz have sacrificed more than most in pursuit of opening a brewery. To finance the cost of their four-barrel kit and eight-barrel fermenters, the four friends all moved into a one bedroom flat in Angel, brewing in the kitchen and taking it in turns to sleep on the floor. “We didn’t have that much money,” head brewer Gianni Rotunno recalls, “we needed to make that sacrifice… we’re still living there, although just two of us now!”
It’s been quite a journey for Gianni, who couldn’t even speak English when he moved from Fondi, a municipality between Rome and Naples, to London ten years ago to study business management. After making the Wenlock Arms near Old Street his local, Gianni fell in love with beer on a trip to CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in 2007. “I just went mad for it,” he says, “without speaking English I was just going around asking for ‘hops, hops, hops.’”
Inspired by the beers he tried at GBBF, and a bottle of punk IPA from the then-newly formed Brewdog, Gianni enrolled in a Masters in Brewing & Distilling at the famous Herriot Watt University in Scotland. One by one, his friends became to come to London, and he proceeded to “infect them” with his passion, eventually convincing them they should set up a micro-brewery together.
“We were brewing every week in our small flat. We decided to move from brewing different recipes to just three recipes. It was pretty boring but we just wanted to make sure what we were making was consistent.”
Once the four friends had secured a site in Tottenham Hale, just a stone’s throw from Beavertown, One Mile End and Redemption breweries, those three recipes were scaled up, and released into the market at the end of last year.
“The reason why we’re just making three beers now is because we wanted to go out into and test the market, and get our name out there,” Gianni explains. “We have other recipes already done; I work on recipes all the time on my homebrew kit. We want to put out a Black IPA and a session IPA in a few months, then we want to start to do sours as well.”
At present, Brewheadz range is made up of Electrobeat, a 5.4 per cent American pale ale that Gianni describes as a “low bitterness, juicy and hop-forward beer that is easy to drink”, Fired Up Donkey, an aggressive 6.6 per cent rye IPA, and Kitchen Porter, a 5.2 per cent chocolate porter.
“Porter is a classic London style, and we wanted to pay tribute to that,” Gianni says, “the reason it is called Kitchen Porter is because when we started out all of us used to work in some kitchen or another!”
Despite being taken with the culture and history of British brewing, Brewheadz remain firmly proud of their Italian heritage. On the day of our visit, the four friends are excitedly opening a care-package sent by Gianni and Stefano’s parents, and insist we try the Grappin and Olives produced on their farm back home. The brewery also plans to pay tribute to their roots by producing a beer using ingredients sourced entirely from Italy in the near future.
Set up alongside such esteemed company as Beavertown and One Mile End in Tottenham, it would be easy for Brewheadz to feel daunted. However, their neighbours have been nothing but helpful, according to Gianni. “We were a bit scared when we first decided to move here,” he says, “but straightaway Simon from One Mile End was really helpful. He talked to a local newspaper saying he was hoping we would open a taproom to attract more people to the area. All of them have said ‘if you need any help, or if you run out of ingredients just let us know’, so it’s been pretty great.”
It can be hard to stand out in the increasingly saturated London beer market, but with their distinctive cartoonish branding and colourful bottles, Brewheadz are hard to miss. “Sometimes people have judged us for being too flashy and colourful,” Gianni admits, “l but I don’t really care to be honest. We wanted to do something different.”
In the short tine they have been open, the brewery have certainly made an impression, appearing at Craft Beer Rising and the London Brewers Market, and hosting numerous tap takeovers at Brewdog bars across London. They’ve also recently opened an on-site taproom. For a brewery that is under six months old, their growth has been astonishing, and after tasting their beers, this doesn’t come as a surprise in the slightest.
*This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*
With business rates climbing ever higher, Brexit forcing up the price of imported drinks and young people drinking less than ever before, could this be the end of the British pub as we know it?
By all accounts, it ought to be a golden age for British pubs. In 2016, the number of UK breweries rose by 8% to number around 1,700, whilst almost 50 new gin distilleries opened in the UK in 2015 alone. Fuelled by the growth of independent, small-batch ‘craft’ producers, one would expect the industry to be booming. So why are pubs in England and Wales still closing at a rate of 21 a week?
The most immediate threat to the British pub is the much-publicised hike in business rates. The rates, the commercial equivalent of council tax, are being reset to take into account rises in property values this April, and it is pubs, which generate 0.5 per cent of turnover across the economy yet pay 2.8 per cent of the business rates bill, and small independent businesses, that will be hit hardest by the changes.
According to rates and rents specialists CVS, 17,160 pubs will have to pay more in business rates from April, and this is just the start, with rates expected to rise by £421m in the next five years. This hike means that pubs will need to pour an extra 121 million pints to fund increases in property taxes paid to councils. CVS estimate that high business rates have contributed to one in five pub closures in England and Wales over the last six years.
Sean Hughes, landlord of The Boot pub in St Albans, said his rates are set to soar by nearly 300% in April from £14,000 a year to £52,000. "It leaves us in a very difficult situation,” he told BBC Radio 4's You And Yours programme, "we've worked out we'll have to sell an additional 22,000 pints of beer a year just to pay for the increase. I can't see how we're going to do that. It'll have a huge impact on our family run business.
“It makes you wonder if it's worth it."
The backlash against the surge in business rates does appear to be growing, however. Wetherspoon Chairman Tim Martin, who faces paying £8,000 more per pub in rates, has questioned why supermarkets are expected to receive further rate reductions in April, whilst UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge has also warned that the rise could risk undoing the good work of ending the beer duty escalator – which put the price of a pint by 2% above inflation every year – if it is too punitive. Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested he may take measures to ‘soften’ the impact of rate rises in the Budget, after The Association for Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) asked for more transitional relief for the sector.
Business rates aside, however, another threat looms on the horizon for British pubs, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in June of last year. The resulting fall in the value of the pound has sent the cost of imports spiraling. The impact of this on pubs is twofold. Firstly, producers using imported ingredients in their products are likely to hike prices to absorb the higher cost of their raw materials, cutting into pubs margins. Secondly, pubs that import goods directly will face higher prices. Italian wines, Belgian beers and French brandy have all become more expensive for British pubs, which either have to suck up the increases or pass them on to their clientele.
Alex Greig, owner of Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, has already had to increase the price of his Belgian lager by around five per cent since last June in response to the Brexit vote. “About 30 per cent of my sales are of products imported from Europe,” Greig says, “and hence our prices have risen as a result of the exchange rate tumbling.”
“I want to be investing in the business and in my staff, so ultimately it’s meant I’ve had to pass that price rise on to consumers in order to achieve those goals.”
It’s not just small-batch, luxury products becoming more expensive for pubs. Just last month, International brewers Heineken and Carlsberg became the latest beer makers to raise prices, following Carling and Budweiser in attempting to compensate for the value of the pound. Martin, an active supporter of the Brexit campaign, suggested in November that Wetherspoons would consider switching to British drinks brands if prices continued to rise.
However, not everyone thinks Brexit will necessarily be a bad thing for the industry. In a letter to the Guardian, Roger Protz, beer writer and editor of The Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Good Beer Guide, insisted that encouraging UK breweries to use more British grown ingredients could mitigate for the weaker pound. However, whether these savings would necessarily be passed onto the pubs actually purchasing the beer remains uncertain.
Another huge worry for landlords and publicans is the news that people, in particular those under 25, are drinking less than ever before. The latest statistics from the ONS show that spending on alcohol and cigarettes has almost halved in 15 years as Britain seeks to become a more clean-living nation.
Dr Richard de Visser of Sussex University 's Centre of Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth, has suggested that fewer young people are drinking due to having greater opportunities for socialising in non-alcoholic environments, and not having enough money after covering the costs of studying. With more than a quarter of Britons under 25 now teetotal, pubs find themselves increasingly struggling to stay afloat.
Lucy Barron Reid, who has been forced to close two of the three pubs she runs with her husband in Kent in the last six years years, said she believed changes in the way young people socialise have contributed to the decline in fortunes of British pubs.
“People just aren’t coming to the pub in the way they used to socially,” she says, “when I was growing up we used to go to the pub to meet people as our first port of call, but for youngsters nowadays their first port of call is on their telephone, via Snapchat or Instagram, and consequently we’re not finding that next generation of people interested in coming to the pub.”
“Combine this decline with the huge tax levies that the Government put on the sale of alcohol in pubs, plus the costs of heating the building and paying the staff, and there isn’t a great deal left in the pot for the publican.”
It’s little wonder, therefore, that CAMRA, an organisation long committed to protecting pub from closure, remain concerned by the threats posed to Britain’s watering holes. With the UK brewing and pubs sector supporting nearly 900,000 UK jobs, the rate of pub closures remains a huge concern. Campaigners have called on the Treasury to reduce beer duty by 1p a pint in next month’s budget, in the hope of mitigating against rising costs. Tom Stainer, CAMRA’s Head of Communications called on the Government to do “whatever it can” to help pubs survive.
“Pubs are facing numerous threats which make it more difficult to survive in an already difficult market,” he said.“With high taxation, changing consumer drinking habits and the recent review of business rates, the government needs to do whatever it can to help them survive.
“A duty cut is essential as it will offer a saving for customers - more than half of which perceive the price of a pint as ‘unaffordable’. Limiting further cost increases will encourage pub going and boost pub business.
“It will also boost confidence in the industry, promoting growth and investment in pubs and creating more jobs.”
Ultimately, however, beer duty reduction or not, pub owners still face a huge struggle to overcome the challenges they face in the 21st Century. It’s not quite kicking out time yet for the British tavern, but if things continue to deteriorate, it won’t be long before the landlord is calling time at the bar.
*BEEP*, *BEEP*… *BEEP*, *BEEP* It’s five forty-five am on a Thursday morning, and I’m rudely awoken by the unpleasant sound of my alarm clock, jolting me out of a deep slumber. I groan, haul myself out of bed and into the shower, before getting dressed and slipping out the back door at just gone half six. My destination is the brewery of Tunbridge Wells based Pig & Porter, located on a small industrial estate a few minutes from High Brooms station. I’ve volunteered to help out on a brewday in exchange for the opportunity to learn more about the brewery, and to observe the process of brewing on an industrial scale.
The story of Pig & Porter isn’t a simple one to map out, having no real definitive beginning or official start date. “It wasn’t the most planned of businesses from the word go,” Robin Wright, who runs the administrative side of the brewery, admits, “I’d known Sean (Ayling) for twenty odd years through cricket. He was a keen homebrewer and used to keep foisting various different brews upon me. I was living in a very remote part of East Sussex, running a Recruitment business and also getting quite involved with all the activities in the local village; flower shows, fetes etc., and I just thought to myself; burgers and beers might be a little bit more interesting than this!”
Sean, meanwhile, was struggling to make ends meet in the sales industry after changes to his company’s pay structure. Finding it cheaper to brew than buy beer in the supermarket, he started to produce more beer in the hope of selling it with Robin at the Ashburnham village fete. “We got some of Sean’s beers in on a very small scale,” Robin recounts, “we then we started getting asked to do barn-dances, peoples weddings, and we started to think to ourselves ‘is there some mileage in this?’”
Around this time, Robin went blind in one eye. “All of a sudden I woke up one day having lost the sight in my right eye,” he recalls, “It required a series of operations to fix and gave me a load of time off work” Whilst recovering, Robin came up with a plan alongside Sean to take the business further, hoping to run an event catering business that produced a little bit of beer, thus giving birth to the Pig & Porter name. “We started to really get things off the ground late in 2012 as a registered business,” he says, “and around that time we were ringing around various different breweries asking to brew on their kits. A couple of them said yes and they explained to us that what we needed for events was a fraction of what even a microbrewery could produce, but that we may as well do a full brew and sell the rest to pubs.
So on New Years Eve of 2012, Sean brewed Pig & Porter’s first proper beer, a tried and tested homebrew recipe called Red Spider Rye, a 4.8 per cent red ale with rye malts that still makes up a part of the brewery’s core range today. The beer was a huge hit, with Robin managing to sell it to local pubs that were interested in their fledgling brewery. “We brewed at about six different places, including at one point brewing more than Bedlam brewery were on their own kit,” Robin tells me with a smile, “but I think we only did about eight brews up until the end of the summer whilst we were doing the event catering business. We were just too busy.”
Around the end of that summer, Sean and Robin were made aware that the Old Tunbridge Wells Brewery site was available, having been sat idle for some time. They agreed a deal to share the 10-barrel site, which still remains their home to this day, with Tumanny Albion Brewing Company. “Sean wasn’t able to give up his day job at this point so that meant brewing on a Saturday,” Robin continues, "which also rather conveniently meant we had to make a decision about the food because all the events were on the weekends.” In the end, Pig & Porter decided to focus on the beer, relinquishing the catering side of the business, although their love of food remains as strong as ever, evidenced by the almighty fry up Sean cooks for us after mashing in the grain.
After around a year of sharing, it became clear that both breweries needed to expand, and Pig & Porter eventually took over the entire Tunbridge Wells site themselves. “That was the point where Sean had to make a decision about the day job and we had to decide to take the plunge ourselves and try and make this work as a business,” Robin says, “and since then we’ve been full time and reached capacity some time ago.” In May, the brewery added a shiny new 15-barrel fermenter from China to the existing three 10-barrels they already had, and they now produce around 80 casks a week. “We’ll reach full capacity again at some point soon, and then its really a case of working out how big we want to grow and how we do that organically,” Robin says, “We didn’t come into the industry with any track record or any master plan, and it really has evolved quite quickly.”
Another huge step in the brewery’s growth came with the appointment of George Fisher as assistant brewer on a full-time basis (also in May), enabling Robin to focus on the administrative side of the business. “I’ve done assistant and helper to Sean, and I find the process of creating new beers really interesting,” he says, "but that’s really his area. He runs the brewery and I run the business.
“George coming on board was another big step because its just taken the sheer exhaustion out of it, and the slightly split shifts we’re operating means that Sean doesn’t have six 5 am starts on the trot which is a bit much!”
Far from just being an extra pair of hands, George leads the brew on the day of my visit, with Sean having to rush off to make some deliveries. The beer in question being brewed is Dance First, a 4.2 per cent Stout with crystal, chocolate and black malts. Whilst we wait for the kettle to boil, we busy ourselves by putting some Weird Pig, a 5.5 per cent Californian Common Ale originally brewed in collaboration with Weird Beard, into kegs outside. The brewery has also collaborated with numerous other breweries across the country, including Blackjack and Runnaway brewery in Manchester. “I think there’s a lot to be said for doing collabs,” Robin enthuses, “you’re making something that’s a one off, two heads are definitely better than one, you share a lot of information and you have a lot of fun doing it”
“I think they certainly helped us a lot at the start, particularly when we brewed with Blackjack. It gave us a foothold into some of the most famous bars up there, and a soft introduction to that area by a brewery that people know and like.
“We haven’t done quite as many recently, but they’ve helped position us slightly differently in the market as to what kind of a brewery we are – as a small little brewery coming out of Kent where there isn’t a lot of ‘craft’ so to speak – we wanted to get ourselves out there and say ‘this is the kind of brewery we are, these are the kind of beers we’re making.’”
As Pig & Porter have grown, their repertoire of beer has expanded quite significantly from their initial core range, having recently brewed Pig Cubed, a mango saison to celebrate Birmingham Beer Bash, and Double Think, an 8.6 per cent double IPA. “We’ve produced a lot of new beers recently; we’re also looking at making a very full on imperial stout,” Robin tells me, “but unfortunately we cant keep brewing new things with only a limited amount of fermenters. There’s a point at which we have to keep regularly brewing the ones that are becoming established, such as the Skylarking (a 4 per cent session IPA).” Nonetheless, the brewery are also planning to start ageing some of their beers, doing limited bottling in-house, and recently launched a new single hop pale ale series.
As the brewday comes to a close, I ask Robin what he thinks the best bit about being a part of the brewing industry is, and what the biggest challenges Pig & Porter face are. “I love the variety and the people in the industry,” he says, “compared to any other job I’ve had it’s a really nice industry; very open, very friendly, very collaborative – even if you don’t get out much to actually talk to all these lovely people!
“I’d say the biggest problem is keeping the plates spinning as you’re growing; you’ve got to think long term about where you’re going as a brewery but there’s hardly ever any time in the week for that. We’ve got sales, brewing, distribution, keeping the cashflow going, and taking a step back from all of that is really hard work. I thought I got my weekends back about a year and a half ago but it never really happened!”
Looking forward into the future, Sean and Robin are on the lookout for new investment to help further grow the brewery site, “you might find it hard to believe having just spent a day here but we reckon we can squeeze one more 15-barrel fementer in here at this site,” Robin chuckles, “but after that we’ll be looking at some possible alternatives.
“It’s been an interesting experience brewing on a kit that we didn’t commission; we would never have started with this if we’d had the vast investment that some breweries have had, but it’s helped us to learn a lot about all the different systems and processes. I think we’re going to try and source some funding for a new place in about two years time somewhere a bit closer to home (Sean lives in Whitstable and Robin is from Hastings), maybe in the Ashford area”
With plans to move into canning their beer sometime in the future, as well as eventually having a taproom at a new site, it seems unlikely Sean, Robin and George will be getting their weekends back again anytime soon…
In return for my agonisingly long day of back-breaking manual labour, the guys at Pig & Porter provided me with a traditional brewday breakfast, a growler of Skylarking pale ale and four bottles of their Gothic Imperial Stout to take home. Seemed like a fair trade to me!
“I like it because I can drink several pints of it and not fall over on the way home,” laughs Alex Grieg, as he takes the first sip of Kent session pale from a jug. We’re sat on a pair of slightly tired looking red sofas in the back-end of Fuggles Beer Café, the artisan pub-come-bar owned and run by Alex in Tunbridge Wells. Approaching it’s third birthday in November, Fuggles has become one of the most popular haunts in the town, as well as gaining a reputation for having the most varied and exciting beer selection in the South-East outside of London. The pub now boasts over a hundred beers on tap and in bottles and can rightly claim to be at the very forefront of the craft beer movement. I sat down with Alex to ask him about exactly why he thinks Fuggles has been so successful, and what he has in store for the future. Alex’s story is similar to that of many within the beer industry, having worked in the trade for over twelve years. Starting out working in an off license at the age of eighteen, before moving up through the ranks of Pitcher & Piano, Indian Pale Ale wasn’t a term he had even heard of in his twenties. “I was a lager drinker like most of us probably were – Kroenenbourg was my tipple of choice at the time,” he tells me, “but then, when I was working in Chester, I had my first craft beer – a Brooklyn lager.” However, it wasn’t until the second beer; Goose Island Honkers, an English style bitter that Alex was truly converted to the cause; “I’d never tried anything like it; it was well hopped, it was well balanced. It was fantastic at the time.” Enthused, Alex left Pitcher & Piano, came back home to Tunbridge Wells and took a job in a pub called The Wells Kitchen: “that’s where the craft beer thing really started for me.”
Now a passionate advocate about the merits of good beer, Alex needed an outlet. Working at St. John’s Yard, he began to plot an escape. “I’d worked with some not particularly nice people (although not at St. John's Yard) and it got to the point where it was getting me down and I wasn’t happy,” he says, “so I had to do something for myself.” That something, as it turns out, was Fuggles. With £40,000 scrapped together – half from his Mother and Grandmother, half from a Government backed loan, Alex rented a run-down shoe-shop in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, and turned it into a “fairly threadbare” beer café, opening its doors to the public in November 2013.
Fuggles was an instant hit. Initially serving four cask ales, ten keg beers and a number of bottles from Belgium and the UK, the pub enjoyed a huge level of success within the local community and was soon expanding to serve a range of spirits and whiskies. The pub now boasts over forty different gins, and a similar number of whiskies, something which Alex tells me was a hugely important factor in the success of the business: “It (the gin) was something at the time which was really growing and I could see that it was a really great add-on to what we already did,” he notes. “As a bar, as a pub overall, it meant we appealed to more people that improved the atmosphere and everything else we were doing, I think.”
As we chat, I order a cheese and ale toastie from the food menu. Made with local farmhouse cheddar and Belgian Westmalle ale, as well as four types of leek and onion, the sandwiches are freshly prepared each morning, and are served alongside a range of cheese and charcuterie boards as the main food offerings in the pub. “All we wanted to do was something that was simple to prepare, tasted good, easy to put on a plate and went really well with the products we were selling,” Alex admits, “it was as simple as that. We never had room for a kitchen, so we had to keep it small.” Nonetheless, he takes does pride in giving a platform to local businesses, with many of the products sold coming from the surrounding areas in Kent. “Local provenance and local products are vital to what we do. We’ve got some fantastic breweries and some fantastic food producers within thirty miles or so of us – that’s amazing, we’re so lucky. It’s not our sole focus, but it’s lovely to have local products and to know where it comes from, and it’s nice to know and support the guys that make it, who are only round the corner.”
Of course, the main focus of Fuggles, is, and always will be beer. Naming the pub after a local hop was a obvious way of ensuring the pub and its bartenders never forget their original purpose, but watching the staff at work, it’s evident that probably won’t ever be an issue. “I’m adamant that staff know what they’re selling and how it tastes and how to sell that to a customer,” Alex says. Now in his early thirties, sporting a receding hairline and an obligatory bushy beard, he very much fits the bill of a craft beer pub owner. Watching the (predominately also bearded) barstaff chat with customers and recommend styles based on their preferences, it’s immediately evident that Alex invests a lot of time in training his staff. “A lot of the time the customers come to the bar and they’ll ask for a beer and they’re not sure want they want,” he explains. “They’ll ask for something light and hoppy for example and we need to be able to interpret that as bartenders and know what they mean by it. It’s largely to enhance the customer experience and service; we have to be able to offer customers the right product.”
On the particular day of my visit, Alex and his staff are busy preparing the bar for that evening’s event; a tap takeover with ten beers from Buxton Brewery. A brewery at the very vanguard of the beer movement in the UK, Alex is excited for his punters to try their new Belgian range. “One of the reasons we really wanted to get them down is that we specialise in Belgian beer and Buxton have just completed their range of Belgian inspired beers. We felt it was the perfect time to get them down to really showcase what they were doing with the influence they’ve had from Belgium alongside their core range and specials.” Amongst the beers available to try from the Derbyshire brewery are their Belgian Tripel and new Double IPA, Kingmaker. “Buxton are without a doubt up there in terms of UK breweries in general. They’re up there in the top ten quite happily sitting alongside Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Dark Star, Beavertown, Arbor, Kernel, Burning Sky etc,” Alex enthuses. “Its nice to give our core beer drinkers something to showcase a brewery that we really respect and really like.”
Alex explains the main reason he initially decided to feature Belgian beers in Fuggles came after being inspired by numerous visits to the country. “There’s almost a theatre around the way the Belgians serve their beer,” he says, “you get the correct glassware, the way the beer is poured and the effort that goes into it. Also the flavours and drinkability of some of the stronger beers just blew my mind and I really wanted to showcase that.” There certainly does seem to be an almost Belgian-feel to the bar, with its dimmed lighting and rustic, cobbled together furniture. A number of signs from various breweries adorn the walls, and dotted on each table is a candle in an independently brewed spirit bottle. Nonetheless, Alex is determined that the focus on Belgian and British beers does not limit Fuggles’ range, and has recently expanded to include beers from breweries such as De Molen and Kees brewery in Holland.
Part of the reason behind Fuggles’ immense success has been down to the pub’s ability to create a brand for itself, with the beer café now stocking T-shirts, bar-blades and growlers, enabling drinkers to take home up to two litres of their favourite draft beer with a twenty-five per cent discount. “When you open up a business like Fuggles you’re effectively creating a high street brand,” Alex states, “and you have to get your name out there and get people talking about your business; it’s free advertising basically!” Refusing to compare the Fuggles brand to that of high-intensity and outlandish breweries such as Brewdog, who have made a name for themselves through their ‘punk ethos’ as much as through their beer, he prefers to label his own strategy as more of “a slow cooking form of viral marketing.”
Despite being a huge success both financially and with local punters, Fuggles hasn’t always quite found favour with some more traditional beer drinkers, finishing runner up two years in a row in West Kent CAMRA’s pub of the year awards, despite Alex’s frankly obsessive nature when it comes to the condition of his cask ale (as we speak he tests his pint with a thermometer before declaring irritably that it is “just the wrong side of twelve degrees” before sending a co-worker down to the cellar to investigate.) “We’ve had a lot of really good press, we keep coming runner up in various things,” he acknowledges, “which obviously its nice but I’d love to win at some point – West Kent CAMRA if you’re listening, seriously, come on!”
On the topic of CAMRA’s future, a topic that has been the subject of much debate within the beer community in recent weeks, Alex has mixed feelings. He is unequivocally an advocate of promoting cask beer, “I think what’s fantastic about cask is that it’s a uniquely British product – there’s nobody else really doing it - I think it’s an underrated art form,” but questions the policy which has seen the organisation promote badly-conditioned beers on cask over more reliable keg beers. “I wish they (CAMRA) would focus more on cask beer in the marketplace. Generally they’re a good thing for the industry but they’re pushing a product that is so indifferent in so many pubs and that frustrates me," he sighs, "it’s not easy to go up to a Landlord and say: ‘Your beer tastes like shit mate, sort it out.’ but at the same time if the beer is too warm or it tastes like vinegar, I think that as part of the campaign maybe they ought to be mentioning it.” On what he would like to see the organisation do more of in the future, Alex is clear: “I think there’s an educational thing CAMRA could do, it’s members are very knowledgeable and they certainly know how beer should be tasting. That’s what I’d really like to see CAMRA doing – Improving the quality of cask ale.”
Whilst we are on the topic of the future, I enquire as to whether Alex believes the level of growth we have seen in the beer industry is sustainable, and in what direction he thinks the next step ought to be for UK breweries. “I’d like to hope that the industry will keep growing and keep expanding as it has done,” he replies, “and I hope breweries will continue to be more experimental and continue to revive old historical styles of beer.” He does think, however, that there remains room for improvement in terms of the quality of beer being produced by some breweries. “There’s a few breweries out there doing a huge load of new beers and collaborations yet the actual quality of the beer is not great, they’re just trying to get their name out there rather than focusing on making a really good core range and making that really solid and consistent.” Indeed, he warns that unless this standard can be met, some breweries will fall behind. “New breweries are opening left right and centre with a lot of money behind them such as Cloudwater, and the beer has been largely fantastic so far. That’s the benchmark. If you cant keep up with that you’ll struggle to create a long term, viable brewery.”
And what does the future hold for Fuggles? Rumours of expansion have been on the cards for some time now, with the pub having hosted a pop-up bar throughout November last year in Tonbridge Fire-station. “Yes, we’d love to expand,” Alex says coyly, “Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be able to get cracking on Fuggles number two.” On the location of this new bar, he refuses to be drawn, but tells me it will almost certainly be local. In the meantime, however, with more tap-takeovers, a beer club launching and a big refurbishment in the pipeline, the team have more than enough to be getting on with. “It should be enough to keep me busy until Autumn, I hope!” Alex laughs, before excusing himself to prepare for the evening's tap takeover. If I take one thing away from our talk, it’s that Fuggles certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.