Words – Rach Smith | Photos – Mike Smith, Rach Smith.
It all started with a borehole. A borehole because of the desire to collect his own Sussex spring water, so, when enquiries were made into getting a steel container for said spring water the question, “Are you building a brewery?” was posed.
And so the seed was planted.
That was around two years ago now and with just one year of developing recipes on a 60l test kit, and one and a half years of commercial brewing under it’s belt, Gun Brewery has already seen great success, quickly building a local fan base and a strong reputation for great beers, all on the back of some of the best US inspired pale ales Sussex has to offer and all, of course, brewed with that Sussex spring water. This is a part of the story of Gun Brewery recounted to me by Co-Founder Toby Smallpeice, as he walks Mike and I through the converted barn that houses the brew kit, the mobile canning crew are inside utilising every inch of space to fill 330ml tins with fresh Project Babylon, he grabs a handful of beers, and walks us over to his veg patch.
Our visit that afternoon sprung from a podcast, when Steve & Mark asked me to co-host a Sussex special of The Beer O’Clock Show, I chose Scaramanga as one of the beers to showcase what the county has to offer and after a back and forth via email with Toby’s fellow Co-Founder, Mark Berry, finding out a little more about the beer I wanted to showcase, an invite to swing by the brewery was extended.
So we travelled East, because it’s East Sussex that seems to be at a creative high right now, turned into Gun Hill (after which the brewery is named) and rolled up to a gate with the instantly recognisable logo of the brewery, sat looming over the driveway in an almost tribal-like way and stating “Man With Gun Lives Here”(taken from the Hobo Ethical Code). Or rather in this case, “Man With Gun Brewery Lives Here”.
We ventured to the other side of the gate and were confronted, not by a man with a gun, but by the most idyllic farmland; converted barns, a bohemian marquee and big sky. An oasis in fact, and one that wouldn’t look out of place in a lifestyle guide. If wedding reception venues sporting festival chic style or idyllic glamping in a shepherd’s hut is your thing then look no further, this is the farm you’re looking for. We were here for something on the hoppier side of life though, so we did venture further, taking the track down the hill, following those ‘Man With Gun…’ symbols like we were on a hunt, and pulled up outside the brewery.
The hissing and clunking of the canning unit mixes with rolling thunder and bird song to create a soundtrack to the afternoon as we sit on a bench in the middle of Toby’s veg patch, surrounded by ominous grey cloud, sipping our way through samples of the Gun core range and a couple of the latest limited edition specials. We start with a tank-fresh smoked rye, the latest of the limited edition small batch brews to be scaled up. The beer displays a defined three-part profile over the palate with the smoked character first to greet, followed by a citrus bridge leading to a peppered rye ending. It’s a bold, eminently drinkable beer, perfectly balanced and never overwhelming. It’s the kind of beer that wouldn’t seem out of place in either a trad Sussex pub or a New Wave beer bar. In fact, the same could be said for all the beers coming from this outfit, and something I can’t help but think has become a key part of the team’s success.
With a quick hiss and crack the can of Scaramanga is open and samples never hit the sides. This, Gun’s core extra pale ale, and best seller, is another showcase of how the brewery’s beers straddle trad and new wave, with its crisp citrus snap, well balanced bitterness and low abv it fits the bill for both modern and repeatedly drinkable. Charged with Chinook hops it has, in a short period, become a leader of the pack as Sussex brewers portfolio’s across the county swell with pale ‘n hoppy ‘n sessionable. This is a go-to beer, an opinion Mark echoes, “When we started Gun Brewery we knew that there were two beers that we really had to have in our portfolio. An IPA (the beer style that kind of defines craft beer) and a lowish ABV Pale Ale. These are the beers that we love drinking. Our go-to beers. So we really had to get them right! Scaramanga went through numerous iterations to get where it is today and is still to an extent a work in progress. As the alpha acid %’s vary and the taste of the hops alter slightly from harvest to harvest, as hop availability changes, etc. etc. so we adjust the recipe. The really important thing is to make sure it just keeps on improving. We offer it both in cask and keg. For the kegged (and indeed canned) version we do a little extra dry hopping to make sure the flavour and aroma really sing, even when it is served colder than it would be in cask.”
From there we move on to APA Project Babylon, the beer that wrestles with its lighter sibling, Scaramanga, for best seller within the range. It’s a bolder brew, but every bit as quaffable, still very much a go-to beer and provides the bridge to the even bigger, bolder, hoppier, richer, Zamzama, the 6.5% IPA. There’s a distinct character to all the beers; a crispness, a clarity over the palate, and I wonder if that Sussex spring water has anything to do with that. “Yes in part”, states Toby, “the biggest advantage of using spring water is no chlorine, tap water sometimes has lots of chlorine in and that’s no good for making beer from”.
And what of those names? They’re possibly some of the most stand-out beer names in Sussex brewing right now but, along with the logo, they all fit the theme, as Toby tells me, “the first few were bizarre gun names; the Zamzama was the largest cannon in Europe for a while, Project Babylon was the Iraqi super-gun project, Scaramanga is the villan in ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.”
We move onto the bottles; the limited edition small batch brews that are scaled up from the experimental batches brewed each month; jokes are made about this brewery not having a bottle opener, so a pair of golden handled scissors carefully do the trick instead and Toby is pouring us samples of a new Lemon Wheat, a Double IPA and an experimental Kombucha beer.
For those not in the know, and I’ll admit that it was all new to me until that bottle was produced, Kombucha is a fermented tea. It’s origins are in Japan and it relies on a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY, to ferment the tea resulting in a lightly fizzy, sour drink. The SCOBY forms a layer, one that keeps unwanted ‘bad’ bacteria out, whilst it eats away at the sugars, and keeps eating. Toby’s wife Lisa had been making homemade Kombucha tea, and the idea struck the team that it could be used in brewing beer, “Its slightly sour as a finished drink and as we were experimenting with sour beers at the time and we thought what would happen if we try this way of fermenting?”. It makes sense of course, with the likes of Berliner Weisse and Gose increasing in popularity, I’m surprised that no-one else is really experimenting with this Kombucha method. The resulting beer is a low abv of 1.8%, tart but not overwhelmingly so, and a medley of lemon citrus, ginger and apple skin. It’s refreshingly good and undoubtedly ahead of the curve.
The thundering skies begin to spit, so we leave the veg-patch bench and move back to the barn where the mobile canning crew are on the last of the Project Babylon, finishing up their two-day stint at the brewery. We stand among sacks of malt as Toby tells us some more about the brewery and the kit; conditioning tanks picked up from Thornbridge; these held Jaipur for the first time; it has good heritage and is now double-brewing the favourites from the core Gun range. The tanks were secured by Pete (Dakin), Gun’s Head Brewer who completes the team. They met at Sheffield Tap where Pete was brewing but was keen to return to Sussex and so, in May 2015, he joined Toby and Mark, brewing together for the first time last summer, and pivotal in dialling-in that Scaramanga recipe that put it on the BeerBods ‘Ones To Watch 2016’ selection earlier in the year.
We make our way back to the car, Toby stood by his tractor, mulling over the idea of mowing the field that’s laid out ahead, “this used to be a hop farm”, he states, and apparently hops can still be found among some the hedgerows. I ask Toby if he’s considered using the space to grow his own hops, he has, but those U.S hops that go into creating those distinctive pale ale profiles just wouldn’t be the same, among other things “they respond to the length of the day”, he tells us, “Chinook hops grown over here will taste differently to those grown in America”.
The greyness seems to get darker, closer, and as we depart the skies open and rain down hard, but this place is still idyllic even when surrounded by thunderous cloud. The hops may not be from the land, but this environment surely affects the brews, “of course”, says Toby, “lunchtime is usually a slow affair looking out over the fields. Being on a farm helps set an attitude about slow food, treading lightly on the environment and being firmly in touch with the ingredients we make our beer from”.
I take one last look at the brewery logo as we leave through the gate.
‘Decide Your Own Life, Don’t Let Another Person Run Or Rule You’ – Rule 1, Hobo Ethical Code, 1889 National Hobo Convention.