Sussex at the peak of the craft beer explosion

PUBLISHED: 15:16 19 January 2017 | UPDATED: 15:17 19 January 2017

Bedlam Brewery's five bottled beers: from left Porter, India Pale Ale, Pilsner, Benchmark and Golden Ale

Bedlam Brewery's five bottled beers: from left Porter, India Pale Ale, Pilsner, Benchmark and Golden Ale


There is a beer for everyone – and anyone who says they don’t like beer hasn’t tried the right one yet. That’s the opinion of the people putting Sussex at the peak of the craft beer explosion, as Duncan Hall found out

Until the age of 21 Robert Parker didn’t really like beer. That was until his future wife’s family encouraged him to try a bottle of San Miguel. “I maintain that in certain situations San Miguel is the perfect drink,” he says. “After that I was willing to try anything and started to wonder why beers tasted a certain way. I was boring people silly getting them to try different things.”

Southwick-based Robert began a voyage of discovery, eventually qualifying as one of only 150 beer sommeliers in the country after a series of tough examinations by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. The 34-year-old has now launched beer consultancy Beer & Brew, which not only runs tasting courses, but also offers advice to brewers looking to capture certain flavours, or restaurants wanting to add to their beer offerings. He is following a rising interest in beer over the last decade, which accelerated with the introduction of craft beer from the US.

Someone who saw that explosion first hand was Paul Reed, one of the co-founders of the popular Dark Star, and now an adviser to the fast-growing Albourne-based Bedlam Brewery. “The world is completely different today,” he says. “Back in the mid-1990s when we started Dark Star there were about three other brewers in the county. Now there is something like 60.”

Dark Star began after what Paul describes as “a moment of madness” involving a tiny Brighton pub. In 1994 The Evening Star in Surrey Street started creating its own home brews in its cellar. “The little brewery didn’t make any money, didn’t employ anybody, didn’t supply any beer outside the pub. It used to brew about 50 to 60 gallons of beer a week,” says Paul, who came in with two business partners and a plan to build a new brewery offering 20 times that capacity. They were helped by then Chancellor Gordon Brown halving the amount of duty on beer for small brewers in 2002, and the 2000 takeover and closure of Horsham brewer King and Barnes by Hall and Woodhouse leaving a gap in the market.

When Paul left Dark Star earlier this year the Partridge Green brewery had an output of 10,000 gallons a week. “I had achieved more than I had ever set out to do there, and worked with some of the greatest people in the industry,” he says. His retirement was short-lived, as Dominic Worrall, founder of Albourne-based Bedlam Brewery came calling three weeks later. “He asked if I was bored of catching up with my DIY,” remembers Paul. The pair met at Dominic’s pub, The Bull in Ditchling, where Paul heard about the plans to massively expand the brewery.

Bedlam is one of the new breed of breweries which has appeared in Sussex over the last five years – mirroring the craft beer revolution. Robert says the US picked up the brewing baton 10 or 15 years ago following the UK’s 1970s homebrew experiments and pioneering work of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). CAMRA was formed to fight the rise of gassy mass-produced beers which were taking over pubs.

“The US has such a diverse range of climate and arable land in every state,” says Robert. “Foreign hop varieties which might be difficult to grow here have been taken on by the US, which now has an enormous range of beers.” The arrival of premium products such as Budvar from the Czech Republic and the vast range of fruity Belgian beers saw a growing interest in different beers in the UK. “There was a desire for more diversity,” says Robert, adding that this led to more experiments on UK soil.

And Sussex was key – something Paul puts down to one major Lewes brewery: Harveys. “It was what my father and my grandfather drank,” he says. “It has a great tradition and has made Sussex such a great place for real ale brewers. The support and knowledge is there from local consumers.”

Now real ale lovers can benefit from another phenomenon which has grown in the south of England over the last decade. There have always been smaller, more intimate pubs in the UK – Brighton’s Hand in Hand for example – but in 2005 The Butchers Arms, in Herne, Kent, ushered in the micropub. Beer-focused, these pubs generally serve small batch brews direct from the cask without the distraction of music, quizzes, family dining and fruit machines. Instead patrons are encouraged to talk to each other and make new friends over an ale. Worthing is home to three micropubs – Anchored in West Buildings, the newly opened Green Man in South Street, Tarring, and the Brooksteed Alehouse in South Farm Road, which was named CAMRA’s 2016 Surrey and Sussex Pub of the Year.

After a 2013 fact-finding exploration of the Kent micropub scene Nick and Paula Little opened the Brooksteed Alehouse. The pair took five months to transform a former hairdresser’s into an intimate all-seated table service micropub which opened in September 2014. “Previously I had worked in bars just as a sideline,” says 45-year-old former IT manager Nick. “I had spent two nights a week in a real ale pub, so I had got used to handling ale. I’ve got a photographic memory which can be quite useful for customers – I have the information to hand about all sorts of brewers.” In December Brooksteed celebrated hosting its 1,000th ale by brewing its own with Haywards Heath brewer Top Notch. The Brooksteed 1,000 is a US-style pale ale, reflecting the most popular style in the pub. “We generally have five casks on the go turning over 10 barrels a week,” says Nick. “Even when the pub is really busy it has a good buzz – there is no aggression. We offer drinks you don’t get anywhere else in town.” Sussex beers are a staple, with Nick ensuring there is always at least one available. Favourites include the Downlands Brewery range from Small Dole and Greyhound Brewery in West Chiltington. The pub also has an extensive range of bottled beers. “We started with a few classic Belgian beers and the range just grew,” says Nick. “Our customers drove that part of the business.”

Over the past two years he has seen friendships grow among his customers. “We were like a catalyst,” he says. “People would come in and get to know us, then we introduced people to each other.”

That concept of a pub as a centre of the community is at the heart of national campaign Pub is the Hub –which launched in East Sussex at Boreham Street last April. “There are two new pubs opening every day,” said chief executive John Longden at the launch. “We can offer landlords a small amount of money to inspire them and bring together other organisations.” Rural pubs are encouraged to host libraries, Post Office counters and support social clubs. It helps combat loneliness and mental health problems in remote areas, as well as recognising the importance of the pub as a social centre and community resource.

But beer is at the heart of a good pub. As Robert Parker puts it: “Beer has always been the universal drink. It’s affordable and made everywhere. I don’t want anybody put off by pretentious snobbery about beer.”

Dominic Worrall, landlord of The Bull in High Street, Ditchling, and managing director of Bedlam Brewery knows firsthand the importance beer plays in a pub. Founded in 2012 with its own self-sufficient brewery on the Albourne wine estate, Bedlam will undergo a major revolution in 2017, overseen by Dominic and guided by Paul Reed. By April 2016 Bedlam was growing its own hops and powering its brewery with solar panels on the roof. Its output, under the watchful gaze of brewer Fabio Israel, is based around five main beers: IPA, Benchmark, Golden Ale, Porter and its Pilsner which was launched in the summer of 2015, as well as a kegged Pale Ale launched in 2016. After smashing a £500,000 Crowdcube appeal with the help of 290 investors the brewery is moving to an as-yet unconfirmed location and upping its production levels in a similar way to Dark Star almost 15 years before. “Bedlam’s current set-up gives me a massive sense of déjà vu,” says Paul. “I can remember putting something similar in for Dark Star and thinking how big it was, how hard we were going to have to work to pay the rent. It’s great to go back.” It won’t be possible to make the new Bedlam wholly self-sufficient, as the solar power won’t provide enough juice for the brewing process, and they will need more hops than can be grown at present. But he is hoping to offset those compromises with other compensations elsewhere in the brewing process. The plan is still to keep to the basic five beers, with Fabio insisting on keeping the quality of the brew high.

“Quality and consistency are important,” says Paul. “A drinker will not forgive you if their pint of beer suffers. We aren’t going to have 10 different beers a week – we will always focus on our core range.”

That idea will be music to Robert Parker’s ears. Over the past few years he has watched breweries across the world race to create stronger beers, with unusual flavours and unique selling points. He feels it is time breweries focused on creating the best possible individual beers. And Sussex could lead the way.

“There is a huge amount of local pride along the south coast,” he says. “It adds a sense of belonging to a place. If you have something excellent on your doorstep then why look to the other side of the world?”


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