Back in March 2017 I visited Little Goldsmiths Farm, in the East Sussex Weald, to witness the birth of Holler Boys brewery. That brewery lost its “Boys”, moved to Brighton to create a wonderful taproom, which then became Unbarred Brewery taproom, and Holler founder and brewer Steve Keegan moved on.
Over the intervening years, Steve, a keen footballer, got involved with Lewes Football Club. He plays for Lewes FC’s Vets team, where he met Roger Warner, a former player for Charlton’s youth squads, who had a career in technology and digital marketing but was also a home-brewer, making a batch every Christmas. Both are now LFC board members. As part of their involvement with both football and beer, one recent project they undertook was to create a “Drive Thru” beer shop at the Dripping Pan, Lewes FC’s ground, so people could safely stock up on quality, local craft brews during lockdown.
Socially driven business
The Craft Brew Drive Thru represents an ideology Steve and Roger are bringing to their new brewery, Only With Love, which I’ve just visited – back at Little Goldsmiths Farm, in a bigger space in the same former cow shed where Holler started back in 2017. With the Drive Thru, they brought together the football club, a community organisation, with several breweries. The shop itself helped raised funds for the club. As Roger says, “Community organisations need to partner with commercial organisations to make stuff happen”.
Roger is enthused by this model of “socially driven businesses”, citing Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia as among the biggest, best-known examples. Another plan they have to help raise funds for the football club is the creation of a lager, brewed by Only With Love but branded for the club, sold in the club bar and local shops. They plan to extend this model of collaboration and fundraising to other local organisations, putting “10-15 per cent” of Only With Love’s profits back into the community. They also plan to connect with the brewing community, offering help, advice and facilities to brewers wanting to expand their ambitions.
Only With Love’s facilities not only feature a brewery for ales and lagers, but they’re also producing kombucha and they even have their own canning line. As Steve puts it, they’ve “really upscaled the level of geek” with the new operation, with investment in analytical equipment key alongside the investment in the brewing equipment. For the latter, they have a capacity of 14,000 litres (14 hectolitres, or 85.5 UK beer barrels) in shiny brand new tanks. The plague year hasn’t had many upsides for businesses but Steve and Roger scored with their new brew kit. A Birmingham company exhibited it in March, just before the lockdown started, then couldn’t sell it for its normal £80,000 price tag. Instead, Only With Love got it for half that. It’s good stuff to boot. “It’s the best brew kit I’ve ever worked with,” says Steve.
The canning line can do 700 an hour or 1,500 litres in a day, which is comparatively slow but Steve says they can test more as a result and as such get less wastage. That analytical equipment means they have firm control over cleanliness, CO2 levels and dissolved oxygen levels (which can be problematic, affecting flavour and shelf life). At the back of the brewery is the Booch Room, where Steve is currently fermenting kombucha in 220 litre tubs, though he’ll soon be scaling up to 1,000 litre containers.
The production of kombucha makes for a fascinating contrast with brewing beer. Although both involve the management of yeasts, it’s a very different process. Steve got a bit technical for me at this point, with the sugar percentage, gravities, and how you manage both the yeast and bacteria in the mix. For those who don’t know – still – kombucha relies on a jelly-ish scoby, “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast”, to convert sweet tea into a delicious no- or low-alcohol drink, which can be flavoured and adapted according to the inclinations of the brewer.
Steve – who says their kombucha has an alcohol level of 0.5%, “the same as a ripe banana” and therefore qualifies as a soft drink – is producing Lemon Lifebuoy, a lemonade-like pick me up, and Kickstart Kombucha, the classic. Steve’s been making kombucha for about a decade, and honed his knowledge with a trip to California, where it’s popular (naturally). When I first tried kombucha at Old Man Mountain, where I lived in New Zealand in the mid-90s, it tasted like a fizzy pear drink, but every one is different – as indeed every palette is different. Silly of me to not try some OWL booch.
Beer for the people
I have tried their initial three ales, though, and can happily report they’re of the reliable Keegan quality. Their initial offering is: Dance Every Day, a 3.8% Pale Ale; Let’s Go, a 5.7% IPA; and Love Bug 5.8%, a New England IPA brewed in collaboration with Cellar Head Brewery in the Weald. Next up, they’re going to be doing a 4.5% (ish) session IPA; a 4.5% Pilsner-style lager; and a 6% Porter style dark beer, “quite strong but easy drinking”.
Their business model is based on cans and kegs, but they will also be doing some cask. It’s a very different business model breweries launching in 2020 have had to work with. Lockdown and the plague year in general have made us change our buying habits. Breweries cannot simply pass their wares to a distributor to supply pubs and bars, instead they have to work more directly with customers. “It’s all about the customer” now, with Roger driving local deliveries around himself, or a courier taking next-day delivery orders all over the country. Within a week of launch, Only With Love beer has gone as far as Aberdeen. Roger also talks about “other non-traditional outlets” – like their own Drive Thru.
What happens next year, and whether those kegs and casks can make their presence felt in a more relaxed pub experience (I hope), is unknowable, but for those of us lucky to live in Sussex, Only With Love is another amazing addition to the remarkable brewing scene in this segment of southern England. With both my wife and my kids breaking up tomorrow, we’ll be able to relax a bit more at home, and I shall certainly be opening some more cans of Only With Love. Including these exclusives – like a hip DJ’s white label vinyl, a no label beer direct from that most dynamic of cow sheds.