It’s been a tough year in many respects thanks to Covid-19, and the brewing and pub trade has taken some serious knocks. Lockdown closures and subsequent restrictions and curfews have resulted in substantial job losses and falling sales. For the big chains – Wetherspoons*, Greene King, Marstons, Fullers etc – sales are down about a third on the same period last year. As for already struggling independent pubs it’s not looking good for that particular cornerstone of British conviviality.
All of which makes it all the more impressive that brewer and food writer Danny Tapper successfully open a brewery and taproom in the midst of lockdown.
The Beak, based just outside the East Sussex county town of Lewes, opened its taproom just after the long lockdown eased in August 2020. We hiked over the Downs with the kids (it’s child- and dog-friendly) on Saturday 15 August and enjoyed a sunny afternoon sitting on benches in the carpark of an industrial estate, drinking Danny and brewer Robin Head-Fourman’s beers and eating food from a pop-up by Kitgum of Brighton.
“We signed a ten year lease two weeks before lockdown”, says Danny with understandable bemusement. They were setting up the brewery in March 2020, just as the country shifted into the new reality of lockdown. “It was a big leap of faith.” Not only given the pandemic, but also the fact that, after a fruitless search for a rural location for his brewery, Danny had visited “this not very inspiring industrial unit” in Cliffe Industrial Estate. Although it’s only a 10-15 minute walk from the centre of Lewes, they had no idea if people would come, walking via a busy road (in desperate need of a toucan crossing) to an industrial unit.
The site, however, is actually rather special. On a sunny evening, the magnificent chalk cliffs behind the brewery radiate light, while gulls, corvids and even peregrine falcons wheel around. On a more practical level, as the other businesses in the estate are generally closed over the weekend, there’s room for Beak visitors to spread out, with socially distanced tables on the shop floor and in the carpark, under shelters as necessary. “A space like this has been a blessing during lockdown,” says Danny.
For anyone who knows British beer, particularly in the south of England, Lewes is renowned for its strong brewing heritage. For years the town has been synonymous with Harvey’s. The Beak offers a very different experience – a young microbrewery compared to a heritage brewery (which dates itself back to 1790); kegs and cans versus casks and bottles; a craft beer outfit versus a real ale one (though that’s painfully reductive, and personally I prefer to say “real beer” for anything not brewed by the industrial giants). But their relationship seems cordial, you can’t argue with choice and variety and historically Lewes had a dozen or so breweries.
Most of all, Danny’s business had an agility that’s enabled it to prevail against the Covid odds.
Although the taproom offers a great social experience and enables visitors to develop a bond you don’t get when simply buying a beer from the supermarket or even a pub, 85 per cent The Beak’s business is in direct sales, mostly in the form of cans.
Danny and Robin’s output is currently from three fermenters, each able to produce 15 barrels or 2,000 litres. So a total of 6,000 litres (or 60 hectolitres), which equates to around 10,000 cans. Danny started homebrewing in his early twenties, before switching to nomad brewing so he could produce commercially. He created The Beak brand in 2016, and says previously he’d “probably do in a year what we do in a week here.”
Of the beer they brew, kegs are mostly used at the taproom and a few other local venues, like The Patch and Depot, where Danny first met Robin, who was working at nearby Burning Sky. Danny says the taproom sells about 700 pints on a Saturday. Most of the rest of the beer is shipped around the country – to London and Leeds (where Danny used to be based), Brighton, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle. During his nomad brewing days, Danny not only worked with various renowned breweries, like North Brew Co, Partizan, Beavertown, Burning Sky and Northern Monk, he also personally drove around doing his sales and deliveries, creating a network. As a business model, it was a “great way to build a brand, but a crap way to make money.”
Danny says they’re also talking to exporters. He’s got plans. When they set up, they planned to be able to double capacity. They’ve already ordered a fourth fermenting vessel. “It is a big step for us,” says Danny “We didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.” They’re now also opening the taproom on Fridays, with the plans for “plant-based Indian street food” on offer. On Saturdays, meanwhile, the pop-up food options will keep on changing. Danny says, “we’re mixing it up all the time”.
So while the brewery will have a core range – Lulla 3.5% session table pale, Parade 6% IPA, Strangers 5% IPA – Danny and Robin like to keep experimenting. As an agile microbrewery, they enjoy what Robin calls the “scope to be creative”. They “want the beers to be quite playful”. So while Danny has stepped back from the brewing, they work together on recipes. “Like any good relationship, we talk a lot,” he says. For Halloween 2020, for example, they’re using some refurbished casks from the 40s or 50s to age and inflect some Pencil, Beaks’ 6% India porter.
Further ahead things get even more exciting, with Danny having ordered a concrete fermenter from Italy. Traditionally these vessels are used for natural wine making. Danny and Robin will be using them for mixed fermentation beers, an equivalent to natural wines. As they’re surrounded by the South Downs National Park, with Southerham Farm Nature Reserve on the hills above those cliffs, they plan to harvest wild yeasts and create a “mother beer” – not unlike a sourdough madre (mother) or kombucha scoby** – for blending using the Solera method.
The mother beer will be something that’s unique to The Beak, and, alongside their use of London Fog yeast, will further define the character of The Beak’s output. Realistically Danny hopes those beers will be arriving in Spring 2021. Watch this space for my coverage of The Beak’s “These Hills Sing” project. And – geographical and pandemic factors willing – try and visit The Beak taproom for a dynamic real beer and fun food experience. And if you can’t make it, order some from the site. “People always want beer,” says Danny “It’s just figuring out how to get it to them.”
The Beak Brewery
Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, BN8 6JL
* I don’t think I’ve visited a Wetherspoons since I worked in London’s Leicester Square circa 1997. It remains a place I’ve no interest in visiting a) given the alternatives and b) given the founder’s frequent obnoxiousness, but in particular his encouragement of Britain’s absurd departure from the EU.
** Scoby means “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeasts”. For those who still haven’t encountered kombucha, it’s a drink made by fermenting sweet tea that may have originated in Manchuria. I first had at Old Man Mountain, my New Zealand home in the mid-90s. It’s been popular in certain, shall we say, more hippy-healthfood circles for decades.