The small East Sussex town of Lewes once had a dozen breweries. In the 19th century, these included Harvey’s, Southdown, Lyells, Beards, Verralls, Ballards, Bear Yard, Cliffe (then South Malling Steam Brewery). The latter burned down, the former still majestically dominates the centre of town – architecturally and olfactorily. All the rest are gone too. But the story of the region’s brewing reflects the wider story of Britain’s brewing.
The 20th century saw the decimation of diversity, the reduction of enormous regional variety and its replacement in pubs, largely, with interchangeable industrial lagers. A few real ales hung on, defended by CAMRA. Then, around the turn of the millennium, new ‘craft beer’ breweries began to appear; with the advent of 2002’s Progressive Beer Duty1, they started flourishing.
I don’t really like the real ale/craft beer distinction, especially as the latter has no accepted definition. But what I do like is the restoration of diversity with the emergence of innumerable new breweries. The number of breweries in the UK is now at its highest in 70 years2.
In the Lewes area, we now have Burning Sky, Gun, Long Man, 360, Isfield, among others. They were even microbrewing out of the Elephant and Castle pub and the Pelham Arms has its new Abyss Brewing operation. Excitingly, we’re getting another new brewery now near Lewes. It’s called Holler Boys, a name that’s sure to connect with the area’s Bonfire boys and girls, as it comes from a Bonfire prayer3.
Old hand, new brewery
It’s being set up by Steve Keegan, an old hand in the booze industry: he was at the forefront of setting up pubs that sold craft beer, before he borrowed £700 on his credit card and set up Late Knights Brewery in Penge, south London, in 2012. It was his night job, but Late Knights quickly became very successful, with them opening up a half dozen bars, including the Brighton Beer Dispensary. They ended up with a £2.2 million turnover. Then, in Autumn 2016, it all came to an end. While Steve’s relationship with their investor was getting difficult, he injured his head badly playing football and was laid up with labyrinthitis, barely able to talk. Steve and his girlfriend and creative collaborator, Bethany Warren, are also expecting – indeed, the baby is due this month, around the same time as the first batch of beer.
It was through Bethany, a local girl, whose father has a vineyard near Crowborough, that Steve met Anthony Becvar. Anthony’s Czech granddad immigrated here in the 1930s – “a military man who knew what was coming,” says Anthony – and starting to farm at Little Goldsmiths, near Blackboys. He’s the third generation to run the farm.
Not only has Anthony switched away from dairy to arable, he’s another example of a farmer diversifying. Farm buildings are used for all sorts these days – from soft play to brewing. Holler Boys is being set up in the building that once was used for milking, and is still partly used for storing bales. They’ve put in walls, creating the brewing space, cold room and office so far, with the latter to be fitted out to host tastings.
What’s in a name?
Originally Steve planned to use the name Ironstone, a nod to the bedrock of his home turf around Middlesbrough, but also to the Blackboys area, which gets its name from the sooty faces of the charcoal burners and smelters who once toiled here. It turned out Molson Coors had it copyrighted though, and weren’t forthcoming when he tried to negotiate. Then a small backroom brewery in Staffordshire started using it too, so they found a new name. Bethany is involved in Bonfire, a member of Cliffe Bonfire Society, so would understand full well the potential local resonance of the name.
When me and my friend Alex Markovitch (of Kabak Food, who knew Steve from Penge; Steve’s also provided beer for Alex’s Festival of Jim over several years) visited in late February, Steve was busy brewing up a batch of Golden Ale. He says, “The past two months we’ve been plumbers, electricians and painters” so he was excited to now be brewing. The Golden Ale is using NZ Pacific Gem (for bittering) and Kentish Goldings (for aroma). He explained that many of the big flavour US hops favoured by craft brewers are all bought up by the big boys so he’s almost forced to innovate with the hops, malts and even the yeasts that are more available. This particular beer is based on an 1890 recipe which he found after being inspired by Peter Haydon, a director at Meantime Brewery, writer and former General Secretary of the Society of Independent Brewers, to research.
He’s also doing tests for an English IPA and a black lager, as well as planning a “crisp, easy-drinking” session IPA, 4-4.2%. Steve also gave me and Alex a chocolate milk stout and a Flemish red beer (made with Belgian yeast). I always feel chuffed to get beers from brewers even before they’ve finalised their branding4: a bottle without a label is strangely exciting. We really enjoyed the Belgian Red, a beer that has both a hoppy crispness and a warm, full body. Steve explains, “with the craft world dominated by the hop side of things at the moment, there is certainly going to be a shift into what we can do with malt and yeast. The Flemish red is my way of showing what a Belgian yeast can really do.”
I’m looking forward to seeing some of Steve’s beers appearing in the pubs of Lewes. He said the brews should be ready later this month. Initially he’ll be focussing on bottling and casks, which he plans to sell “within half an hour of here”, to places where the beer is well looked after. Down the line there’s talk of kegs, can, even venues, as that’s Steve’s background – when he started Late Knights he was running places in London, Oxford and Brighton and had been an operations manager for Fullers. But as Late Knights grew so fast, he’s keen to pace himself better this time, get the brew right, build up slowly, retain control. He says, “I’ve turned down a lot of investment… actually I want to do it myself.” Unlike with Late Knights, he even has a proper lease with Anthony for using the farm buildings.
Steve and Anthony talk about growing hops, keeping bees, and maybe even trying barley (though Anthony says, “It’s not the best ground for barley”). The farm has “plenty of space” – 200 acres (81 ha or 0.8 km2) – for such projects. Time will tell. It’s all rather thrilling, to taste these beers after having a previous acquaintance with Late Knights, then be able to sit back and see what happens next. Steve, Bethany and the baby, with assistance from Anthony, production in tanks dubbed Wayne, Long John, Jake and Ellwood, are initially aiming for 100 casks5 a week, with a range of English IPA, Golden, Session IPA and Stout.
1. Under Gordon Brown, the taxation of breweries was changed so that smaller companies paid less tax on the beer they were selling. Wikipedia gives more detail.
2. Peter Brown, in this (undated) article.
3. It comes from this verse of Bonfire Prayer. The full prayer can be found here.
“God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match,
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!”
4. Labels etc are being designed by Brighton-based illustrator Billy Mather, billymather.co.uk.
5. There are 73 imperial pints in a cask, so 7,300 pints; that is about 37.5 hectolitres.