Words – Rach Smith | Photos – Rach Smith, Mike Smith
Travelling across this small, rural county from West to East, following the path of tree-lined back roads, I was discovering parts of Sussex I’d never seen before. Under the bluest sky on the first warm weekend of spring I found myself eyeing the distinct charm of the Sussex countryside, whilst being gifted new, unfamiliar views. Taking this road trip with travel buddies, the day took on a kind of holiday atmosphere; one part chilled vibes and one part happy anticipation of what we’d find. We drove through small villages; Cross in Hand, Three Punnets, well aware that whilst these roads were new to us, they were full of history; we were approaching 1066 country; Hastings wasn’t far away, but soon enough we found our primary destination: The Three Legs Brewing Co.
The sign on the main road lets us know that we’re in the right spot, following that and we find ourselves in front of a small-ish unit with the brewery branding set up out front, assured and welcoming, as are the brewery founders, Ben and Sam. The brewery itself seems just as small and tucked away as the villages that lead us here but set up only a few years ago in 2013 it has already seen a loyal community of fans build up with it. This is due in part to the wonderfully crafted beers, but is also as a result of the welcoming nature of Ben and Sam who are keen to engage people in the beers. “The only thing we insist upon is that people taste the beer”, Ben later tells me.
Indeed, after swift but warm introductions, the fridge is opened, bottles are lined up, cask beers are also poured, and Ben talks us through the range, clearly passionate about the beers that they are producing. As he does so a steady stream of folk rock up at the unit. The front counter and benches that spring up act as a small taproom, samples are handed out among hand shakes and laughs, people are clearly engaged with The Three Legs Brew Co, as they sample, chat about and ultimately buy the beers on offer, beers that have a clear identity.
The characteristics of the beers work as an extension of the brewery brand (and vice-versa), and the vibes in the taproom that afternoon are another source of what you can expect from this outfit: subtle class and modernity, a twist of familiar tradition, a down to earth nature and ultimately genuine with a confidence that never becomes arrogant. There aren’t that many taprooms operating around Sussex, tours and open day options are utilized more, but the small taproom set-up (which seems adopted from US culture) really works here, “There’s no doubt that many Brewery Taps have been influenced by the US brewing scene,” Ben comments. “but for us its more about where the beer tastes best and hospitality, when we were in the wine industry we were lucky enough to travel to lots of different producers and always got a great reception from other winemakers usually resulting in great tastings with a sense of place and the exchange of ideas, because we were “industry” we often got experiences that didn’t revolve around marketing but around a common interest, these are the experiences that inspired us to open our brewery. We feel that to really get the best of something you have to be as close to it as possible so we want to open our doors to anyone who is interested on any level. As a result of opening the brewery we have made lots of new friends, and old friends have bumped in to each other whilst picking up the weekly beer ration on a Saturday morning. Seeing people connect or reconnect over our beer is the highlight of the whole journey so far and has become an integral part of what we do. Although it was never part of the original plan its now indispensable to us and an idea we are looking to explore much further.”
Check out The Three Legs Brewing Co website and you’ll be able to read the origin story of the brewery: about how the guys were studying winemaking at uni, became firm friends with Tom (who’s remained in the wine industry, see Paso Primero), about how they all agreed that a vineyard would one day be theirs with The Three Legs branding, and ultimately about how, over time, craft beer and brewing slowly came to the fore and became their main focus. Sussex itself has become something of a hub for new wave, award-winning English wine producers, so much so that it’s chasing a protected designation of origin status (PDO). The chalky subsoil of the area happens to be similar to that of the Champagne region and so Sussex vineyards are attracting attention as they regularly beat the French at their own game when it comes to awards for the sparkling whites. In fact, Sussex has become home to many artisan producers as they harness the agricultural background and rural nature of the county with a modern creativity, an opinion Ben later echoes, “The beer scene in general is great at the moment and Sussex is no exception. We really like the fact that Sussex has both traditional breweries and more modern producers, there seems to be a good healthy market for most styles and a lot of interest in Sussex produce, wine, cider and beer.” The Three Legs range is relatively small still, but there’s a precision to these beers, a distinct direction and I wonder, just how much of that winemaking background influences what decisions are made here? “With regards to our winemaking background it almost certainly affects the way develop our recipes,” Ben says, “We have been making wine far longer than we have been making beer so that has certainly had an impact on the flavours we value, wine for us is often more about delicacy and subtlety with less being more and I think this is reflected in the recipes we develop, the beers we enjoy making and drinking tend to not be overworked for example, I can’t see a day when we would be adding way out ingredients to a beer, then inoculating it with Brett, then barrel ageing it, then dry hopping it, then cellar ageing it. All of these techniques used individually with a delicate touch make for great beer but if you mess around with things too much or make too many interventions you can loose clarity of flavour and style which we always believed in when making wine and so we still believe in when making beer.”
That clarity of flavour the beers carry within those on-point styles is something they’re getting absolutely right, whether it be the staple session beers of Pale and Amber or the current trio within the Makers Series; Dark, Wheat and English IPA. There’s a regional aspect to wine making though, an assuredness of where it has come from and where it represents, Terroir being the industry jargon for such a notion, of course this is a concept that is transferable to the beer industry (just as it is coffee, tobacco, chocolate etc) and something the guys are keen to play to, utilising Target hops from the local hop farm just minutes from the brewery for the English IPA. “We believe that produce is as much influenced by where it is produced as they are influenced by the people who produce them.” Ben comments, “For example the English IPA is brewed with hops grown less than 2 miles from the brewery up until we had access to these hops that beer was floating around a bit, we had done a few test brews but never quite hit the spot. The hop supply from the hop garden that we drove past on the way to the brewery gave that beer an anchor. The variety grown and the alpha acids were right for the beer and just as importantly we know the area where that raw ingredient and flavour was produced which gives another dimension to the experience of drinking that beer. The nature of those hops will change this year with whatever the growing season has to offer and as a direct result so will the beer.”
It’s the cask English IPA that steals a place in my heart that afternoon, sitting on a bench in the yard, chatting away, soaking up the early spring sun, that beer fit the moment well. I’ll admit though, I’m one for the American influenced brews, you know the ones, with the prominent tropical fruit aromas and big pine hits. I’m often guilty of overlooking the English IPA style. The Three Legs Brewing Co version though, well, if there’s a beer to shine a light on the delights of the original style then this is it with its medley of candied pineapple, dates & dried apricot, sticky honey & orange marmalade, a hint toward tea, a whisper of smoke and a smattering of chewy toffee. It’s smooth, it’s robust, it’s bold yet it retains an elegance and provides an easy going refreshment. “The English IPA is an attempt on our part to realign the style with its roots”, Ben tells me, “Using English hops in serious quantities balanced by a maltier style grain bill and alcohol to carry the bitterness we have tried to reclaim the term IPA for a more traditional style initially it just had IPA on the label and people didn’t understand the beer until we added the word English. When people see IPA these days they expect a modern style packed with American hop varieties big tropical or resiny aromas and a paler malt bill. We love these beers aswell but felt it was worth developing an English IPA if for no other reason than for it to act as a counterpoint to the American style. The English IPA has now become our most popular beer by far and a style we would like to see gain more traction in the future.”
It’s a highly approachable beer, from a very approachable brewery and one that seems to perfectly encapsulate the balance between the old and the new, as this beer seeks to reclaim the English IPA it does so with a nod toward tradition and a handshake with modernity. As it does this it echoes what’s happening locally overall; that harnessing of heritage and new wave, and as the beer becomes a flagship for the brewery, it could very well become a flagship for the modern Sussex beer scene too. It even looks the part thanks to the illustrations of Jo Waterhouse, which adorn each of the current three beers in the Makers Series. “We wanted to first try and elevate the drinking experience with a great looking label whilst at the same time create a range of beers that celebrated the creative skills of others”, Ben tells me. Large scale prints of each of the Makers Series artworks can be seen hung, overlooking things in the brewery, each of the designs, with their almost whimsically charming style, adding to the friendly, easy-natured vibe of the place. “The long term plan is to expand the makers series by working with more and more artists and illustrators we admire and commissioning labels with beautiful imagery”, Ben adds, “Jo had been a friend for a while and we both really liked her approach to the idea of beer labels which came from a different direction that you would get from a graphic designer because she didn’t have any traditional preconceptions of what should go on a beer label. The whole process was really enjoyable. There was no backwards and forwards, we just told her about the beer we had in mind and a few days later a beautifully formed image arrived. Even the stuff on the label was hand written which makes the beers feel really unique.”
So with a successful core range and Makers Series underway, what’s next for the guys? “We are really working on Wheats at the moment”, Ben states. Which can only be a good thing, because the current Wheat in the line-up is a superb addition to their range and to the Sussex beer scene as a whole. It looks the part, smells the part, has all the classic flavours you’d want but isn’t heavy with character over the palate, don’t mistake this as being thin though because instead it delivers all the good stuff with a lighter, crisper refreshment. “We are now also producing an American Wheat hopped with Cascade and Summit which has been equally well received” Ben continues, “They are great beers to have on cask at the brewery because they are new flavours for some people in that they are cloudy, unfined, super pale, have clove/tropical character depending on style. If you put a Wheat taster in front of someone with more traditional tastes you can watch the full gamut of responses, initially apprehension because its cloudy and an unusual colour, then on first smell surprise and the first taste generally brings a smile. We’ve had a lot of “I don’t really like wheat beer” converts. The Classic Wheat is also proving a surprisingly good gateway for the lager drinker which is nice.”
Just before we leave, the fridge door is opened once more, as the chaps invite us to sample some locally made cider courtesy of one of their regulars. “We recently met a great local chap with inherited local cider making skill who produces some great naturally fermented ciders from local orchards”, Ben says. The sample was delicious, but the knockout was from the incredible aged version, a truly sensational cider with the character of a fortified wine. It was complex and bold yet showed restraint in its smooth nuances and was truly beautiful. If this is something they could replicate then it’d be a special thing indeed. So I ask Ben if cider making is on the cards, “Cider making is definitely on the cards, we’ve got some amazing oak barrels from Champagne via Burgundy which we have been waiting to fill”, he continues, “so come the apple harvest we’re getting involved in that.”
We depart with a boxful of bought bottles clinking away and head toward Hastings. The guys recommend The Crown as a great place to grab lunch and some more beer, and they’re not wrong, it really is a great find with quirky modern art hanging from dark walls combined with creaking wooden furniture, fresh flowers and a modern pub-grub menu (the foraged herb risotto was a winner for me). As we pull into the coastal town Morris Dancers are doing their thing, entertaining the crowds with their trad displays, images of The Green Man painted onto the wall of a nearby newsagents look on and the promenade is packed with folk enjoying their Easter weekend. It occurs to me then that this is an area rich in history and home to many artists, the Sussex coast has always drawn creatives to its shores and it’s this tradition and creativity, the harnessing of the old and new that’s become a part of the identity of the south coast. This is absolutely evident among the crop of new micro breweries that have sprung up, predominantly in the east of this county. Its this blending of the old and new, the coupling of new experimental attitudes and diversification with a set- in desire for drinkability, for these beers to nestle in to people’s lives with an ease and normality, that’s helping to shape the new era of the Sussex beer scene. With a history of winemaking, a current batch of superb beers in their portfolio and the potential for a future cider, The Three Legs Brewing Co could well become a triple threat, a beacon on the landscape of South Coast brewing.