Downlands Brewery Interview: “Beer is Supposed to be fun”
You can perhaps be forgiven for missing Downlands beers on your travels. You won’t recognise their brand on can-wraps from fridges or beer clubs because they kick it old school and sell all their cask and keg directly into pubs. But, you’ll be sorry that you have up to now as Downlands are quietly churning out a collection of brilliantly flavoured beers
We met up for a pint in the Evening Star with founder, owner and brewer widdi, and quickly realise just how down to earth Downlands and their successful creations are a result of passionate brewing and widdi’s ‘don’t take life or beer to seriously’ attitude
So tell us about the origins of Downlands Brewery
The brewery started in 2011 and it’s a complicated story that that basically stemmed from my divorce. I was selling a previous business and someone asked me to come and help with a brewday at their brewery. It turns out my skill set from working in kitchens translated quite well to brewing and that’s where my journey started. I cuckoo brewed for a year somewhere else before we bought our own kit and started brewing in Small Dole (where we are now) in 2012. We’ve put 4 extra fermentors in since we started and every time we expand production we sell more beer.
There came a point in 2014 we stopped trying to be a trad local brewery and started the journey to where we are today. We haven’t finished and we’re still going to continue evolving, you need to otherwise you’ll die.
Take us through the current Downlands range?
Cask wise we’ve got 3 core beers. Highlighter, a 3.8% Pale, Beast, a 4.1% best and Bramber, a 4.5% american hopped amber with lots of mosaic.
Then we have 3 different dark beers that we brew in rotation. A lot of breweries have a constantly changing pale but fewer brewers produce dark beer in the summer and as a result we sell even more dark beer in the summer.
Brunch, a breakfast stout at a low 4.5%. 1984 at 5.5% which is packaged like a cigarette package warning with lots of silly text on the bar clip. Finally the Devils Dyke Porter at 5% was the second beer recipe I ever wrote in 2011 and second beer we ever released. We tried to stop making it a few years ago and our customers just wouldn’t let us and made us carry on making it. We’ve made it every single year since we started and will continue to make it. I fell out of love with Devils a bit but now we’re making other dark beers I’ve fallen back in love with it again.
And we’ve seen some keg of yours round as well, The Next Step was perfect in the sunny garden of the Brunswick not long ago.
Yeah, we started kegging in 16/17 and started experimenting with cask beers dropped into corny kegs and gassing it up and seeing what worked and what didn’t. It helped us get to a point to release a commercial keg beer and The Next Step was just that, our ‘next step’ from a cask brewer into keg brewing. It’s a 4.3% session IPA that does what it does very well. Recently was the first time in 4 years that our best bitter hasn’t been the biggest seller, for the first time it’s been overtaken by The Next Step.
At the moment I’ve only got 3 tanks I can make keg beer which can be limiting. That said our current offerings include a cryo mosaic 4.5% pale called Little Tiles and Reach For The Lasers, a cryo Citra IPA 6.5% that we brewed just before lockdown with Cobbetts Micropub in Dorking. We all went out drinking afterwards and the whole thing was amazing fun. They managed to sell the whole batch of it over lockdown.
We also make a beer all year round called CAM-RAA and the Masters of the Brewniverse. That’s a 7% chocolate vanilla stout, oh and a Stroopwafel caramel waffle stout. With keg beers, more so than cask, you need to be giving bars something different each time to keep them excited.
From the range and all your special edition beers, do you have an all time favourite?
Oooh that’s a really tricky question… Probably a beer that you can’t get now because we made it once and it’s all gone and wont ever come back.
So the idea for CAM-RAA and the masters of the Brewniverse came from a cask beer I made 5 years on the 31st December also called CAM-RAA. It was all the malt we had left in our malt cellar I was never going to use for anything else. It was filthy and it was dark, it was 7% and it was absolutely delicious.
I was sat in the Evening Star when it was on, and every single person that asked for a taster of it then went on to drink a half or a pint and it was one of the most satisfying things.
Do Downlands have a core person or market for their beers?
There’s certainly a diversion of types of drinkers. Some people who want to drink 3 pints of the same thing in their local, and there are people who want to go and try different things and experiment with different flavours. I really like that second group, people who move up and down the bar and try different things.
The modern drinker demands something new all the time, (to the point where I have been tempted to just make the same beer and put it out under a different name and different artwork) but I haven’t yet haha. But we have rotating specials that complement our core range so that we are offering publicans something new. We actually brew less of our dark ales each time now, but as a result we sell more of them because it changes more frequently and people have choice and variation.
If a publican rings up and says ‘What have you got?’ and its not the beer they’ve just had on, it might be something different or something they haven’t had in a while, its just gives more choice. Plus it means we get to brew different things all year round, who wants to go into work and do the same thing every day..? Beer is supposed to be fun.
Someone wrote a blog post I read about breweries who only make a beer once and don’t perfect it, and that constant pursuit of something new is encouraging brewers to simply say ‘we’ll make something, sell it all, then make something else’ without considering how the product could have been better.
I think that skill of adjusting and perfecting a beer might be getting lost and if you are always moving onto something different to satisfy demand, you never build up that consistency, and consistency is really important.
You seem to have quite a 360 model of managing the brewery. How much do you take on?
We had a sales person once and it lasted about a year, but the experience of that made me not want to do that again because they were just so disconnected from the production side of things and what physical stock we had.
From that point onwards every person we have employed has had a multi functioning job role with an element of sales, an element of production, an element of distribution, an element of keeping the building clean, an element of helping with marketing (which is not done by professionals as you may have noticed) haha.
For our brewery it’s more important that if you are a publican and we’re talking to you about a beer, that we can talk to you excitedly about it because we brewed it, or packaged it. Everyone gets to design beers and come up with things, and that creative mix makes life more fun. Last year one of the guys that works for me completely came up with the idea of Vanilliam Shakespeare, they did everything, from designing and brewing it, to dressing up in Elizabethan costume holding a drink for the badge. If I had to do it all it’s just one person’s set of ideas and it’s just gets dull.
And how do you go about planning your next beers, how much is it driven by the hops available?
In March of this year, yes March, we had to sign contracts this year based on the hops we want next year, for the beers we think we’ll make and based on the volumes we want to make. So we’re always contracting 18 months in advance, or you don’t have a contract and you possibly don’t get hold of the hops you want.
Some of the lead times on things are frightening, even malt. If I want to have a beer on a bar at the end of August, I have to have thought about ordering the malt by end of July so it’s in the building and has time to condition.
What does the future of Downlands look like?
The lesson of COVID-19 and lockdown changed my perspective of what it is that I want out of the business and what it is the business needs to do. It made me fall back in love with brewing again, because it had got to a stressy work work work, more more more, lets get it out quick situation. Actually that reset button that was set on the 21st of March, by the floppy haired idiot, really helped me fall back in love with just brewing again because of that change of pace.
But there are changes to the small brewers tax relief coming and that’s going to cause a lot of upheaval in the market and I don’t think that it’s necessarily viable to keep growing bigger, especially with the reduced turnover in pubs as that’s who we sell all our beer to.
Arundel Brewery Interview: Tastemakers
With five beers topping Untappd’s regional charts, a popular new tap bar in its arsenal and loads of experimentation on the horizon, the castle brand seems determined to be the king of the flavour castle.
BBB interviews Arundel Brewery Director Stuart Walker to find out how his family team have turned a ‘twiggy’ traditional brand into one of Sussex’s beery tastemakers.
Introduce yourself, and give us a run-down on the team involved at Arundel Brewery.
I’m Stuart, the Director, and it’s a family affair. My wife Samantha runs The Brewhouse Project, I run the brewery and my son Henry does all the social media and events. We then have the brewing team, a team of eight, and a similar number staffing the brewhouse.
My background is in marketing; I lived the big corporate life but wanted to do something more meaningful and more authentic. I was living down here and got into Arundel Brewery beer. I wanted to be able to live and work in the same place and produce a very high quality product. Arundel fitted that change.
You took over the brewery around seven years ago. What was the state of things then?
It’s been a long journey from back when Arundel was a somewhat old fashioned ‘twiggy’ brewery to where we are now, although we still have a long way to go! Interestingly, when we took over the brewery our Untappd score was 3.3. Now we are at 3.62, which doesn’t sound a lot, but we have one of the fastest-growing Untappd scores in the UK. It reflects the huge amount of work (and money) that we have put into the business.
How have you changed things at the brewery and moulded it to your own vision?
First and foremost it has been about recruiting a brewing team who are passionate about brewing the more modern beer styles such as New England IPAs. Secondly it was making sure we sourced the best ingredients, especially the hops, that it is possible to buy. Thirdly it was purchasing the equipment necessary to produce the modern beer styles in the right packaging formats.
Tell us about the decision to launch The Brewhouse Project tap-bar on the outskirts of the town.
The decision to launch a taproom is part of our broader strategy to sell more direct to the end consumer, and we are following this route with the launch of the Brewhouse and our new website. The end-point of this will be when we move the brewery into The Brewhouse and start to produce smaller batch beers. This should happen in the next six months providing we don’t have another lockdown!
What kind of beers will that allow you to make that you don’t currently?
We’re all about flavour and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We’re inspired by brewers like Other Half in New York, who are looking at combining lots of different ingredients. For example we’re looking at a cocktail range at the moment. Can you make a beer inspired by a margherita, but is a Gose, using tequila smoked oak for instance?
Arundel Brewery is mostly visible on the pumps, the classic faves Dark and Gold, but the range has exploded recently to include loads of keg and canned options. Is trad cask still an important output for you, or is your focus shifting towards modern brewing?
The market is definitely moving towards keg and can. We’re seeing more and more people nationally putting our beers on taps and stocking cans, and I can only see that accelerating. We have seen cask reduce from 90% to 50% of our business, and unless the pricing in that market segment changes this will continue.
You recently entered into a collaboration with the Triple Hopped podcaster chaps, producing a hoppy whopper of an IPA at 8.2%. How did that come about?
We’ve been featured on the Triple Hopped podcast a few times. We worked together on this product for our first beer festival event, called Brewfest, which happened at The Brewhouse Project back in January. It was so popular that we thought we should do a remixed version – hence Green is Good!
Do you have other collaborations in the pipeline and if so who with?
We would like to collab with some Northern England based breweries, such as North or Pomona Island, especially in preparation for next year’s Brewfest event. Ideally we want to enter collabs where all the parties learn something from the experience.
You also proudly state that Untappd has five of Arundel’s beers at No.1 in their categories in the South East. We’re getting the impression you’re quite tech media savvy. What drives that modern online approach to your brand image?
It’s vital to know what our customers think of our beers, and we use Untappd extensively to guide our beer development. Untappd does get some criticism, because you inevitably get a few rather drunk ratings occasionally, but so many people use the app that on average it will tell you whether you have a winning beer or not!
What’s your favourite beer in the range at the moment, and why?
I would always go for whatever is fresh off the canning line, and especially for pale ales in those first few weeks after canning. They really show the fruity aromas and flavours to best effect.
Are there places in Brighton and Hove where you can regularly find Arundel Brewery beers?
Our beers are regularly on at the Bison outlets, and also The Pond and Easy Tiger.
What are your future plans, beer wise and for the brewery as a whole?
The next step for the brewery will be starting to produce at The Brewhouse Project, which will give us the ability to do smaller batches with more exotic ingredients. Because we can put it on our own taps there we can make more experimental beers, have full control over it, and also make The Brewhouse more of a destination.
It’s been our overall vision for the business – for customers to be able to see the beer being brewed, and to buy our products as fresh as possible.