It was a little shard of vibrant green glass, angular and luminous, glowing in the autumn sun. Only, it wasn’t glass at all, it just had that appearance, as if it had dropped out of a stained glass window from the nearest church. As I bit into it lime and vodka burst from within it, it was a chocolate unlike any other I’d had before and it was only to be found in Bruges, Belgium. The taste of that chocolate and the experience in trying it stayed with me and proved to be one of the reasons for my return to the city a few years later, and I wasn’t disappointed. I can get Belgian chocolate in the UK of course, but I can’t get that one. I returned for the beer as well, because despite being able to drink many Belgian beers at home, there is something quite special about drinking them in Bruges, especially the city’s own De Halve Maan beer. There’s something to be said about quality products defining a region and making them a destination.
Back here at home there are breweries out there with a small distribution, that are still very much a part of the region that they’re based in, perhaps not known to everyone in the same way as breweries that have nationwide distribution or even supermarket deals and one thing that strikes me when drinking beers from these producers is this; would I travel to drink these beers? Is there something special about them that they demonstrate a sense of place that I want to learn more about? Of course beers from breweries with larger, nationwide distribution or supermarket deals can also demonstrate a sense of place- and make me want to travel to drink the beer at source- but that can be lost when just picking them up on a whim when wondering the aisles or scrolling through the online retailers for example. But, if I am able to drink a beer that’s a bit more difficult to get my hands on, or a beer that I can only get if I happen to be in the region it’s brewed in, would I travel there or be tempted back again for that beer? If I ever moved away from Sussex I know there’s plenty of beers I’d miss, plenty that’d be difficult to get hold of if I couldn’t just pop in to the brewery or local bottle shops or farm shops, and plenty that I’d travel back to the region for and that’s testament to the strength of the beer scene in Sussex right now.
A couple of years ago I started the Sussex, Beer, Now series of blog posts to focus on what was happening in the region and showcase some of the highlights. I started with an introduction, shone a light on my favourite cask and bottled beers, looked at Brighton as a beer destination and realised the boom in quality available in my hometown, Horsham. These posts have been slow and steady, I’ve sat back somewhat in a bid to see just what’s going on, but the pace hasn’t slowed, in fact the scene has just about exploded and it’s been hard to keep up with it at times.
As I write this I have a can of the Dark Star & Harbour Brewery collab on the go; Hopfenweiss; a hopped wheat beer that could have tasted muddled but is instead a juicy, well balanced, clean and refreshing beer throughout and the first beer of 2018 that has had me going back for repeats. Dark Star has kicked of the year in style, starting as it means to go on, I’m sure, with releases of the latest Hophead variant using Loral and a 3.1% Table Beer, a savvy January release when many are predicting 2018 to be the year in which lower abv beers become more prominent. Dark Star isn’t the only brewery to have kept up the pace of late, with many of the local breweries having new beers, new branding, new taprooms and new equipment to show off. In fact many of the breweries are relatively new too, with many coming onto the scene in only the last couple of years, or months even. Such is the evolution of the Sussex beer scene that the beer-scape is very different to when I first started these Sussex specific posts. That in itself is a win, that the scene has grown and moved on and not become stagnant, that there is more to write about than I can keep up with, the positives outweigh the negatives by a large margin.
A highlight has been seeing new breweries burst onto the scene with brilliant beers and an inclusive attitude, the camaraderie among the local brewers is another aspect that keeps the scene buoyant. Of those new breweries it has been the beers from Brolly Brewing, Chapeau, Cloak & Dagger, Lazy Lizard and Lost & Found ABL that have really stood out. This year i’m hoping to try beers from Abyss, Lost Pier, Good Things Brewing and Cellar Head among others. Then there’s the likes of Kiln Brewery and Unbarred, breweries that have found a home brewing out of Missing Link brewery and in doing so have upped their outputs and been successful in getting their beers into cans. Indeed, it’s the likes of Unbarred as well as Lost & Found and Gun Brewery too, that have started to push out of the region and I’m beginning to see these names pop up across social media channels, to much acclaim, as craft beer fans share what they’re drinking. This new wave of brewers have found a way with pale ales in particular, experimenting and tweaking recipes to bring to the market a plethora of variants on the style, and doing it well. There’s a thirst for these pale ales and that thirst doesn’t seem as though it’s going to be quenched anytime soon. For a long time I’ve considered Sussex beer to be the home of the Best Bitter and Old Ale, and this is still true, but there’s a new generation of Pale Ales that are becoming increasingly synonymous with this county. These beers are being sought out and enjoyed by fans of both the new wave generation and the more traditional, and that’s where Sussex beer is thriving; having the balance, being home to breweries who can cater for the trad cask market and also for the ‘craft’ camp. Cask is still very much an important part of things here but keg has found a home here too and cans now equal the bottle. There are experimental barrel aged beers, sour beers and blending projects, there’s more lagers appearing and a range of styles being created like never before. Creativity is at an all time high and the equipment is being invested in to bring recipes to life. Taprooms and open nights are being created to host events to celebrate this.
However, it’s not all thumbs-up and high fives. The region still lacks in representation from online retailers and it’s difficult to find Sussex beers to buy online from the popular sites. The occasional bottle of Burning Sky, Dark Star and Harvey’s can usually found but beyond that it’s tricky when compared to how many e.g London beers are available. This is improving with sites like Eebria picking up a few Sussex breweries and Ales by Mail now stocking Gun. Lost & Found, Brighton Bier and Unbarred have recently been spotted online too but in general the county is vastly under represented when compared to other regions and more so when you consider just how many breweries there are producing bottled and canned beers.
The county has lost some pubs and breweries too. In fact, the highlights of bottled and cask beers that appeared at the start of this series now contain redundant info. Naked Beer Co, Turners, Hastings and King Beer are no longer with us. However, taking on the Turner’s site Franklins have increased capacity and have since brewed some of the old favourite recipes of Hastings Beer Co. Likewise, the old King Beer site in Horsham is still being used, having been bought by Justin and Nicky Deighton they have since focused solely on running Two Tribes and The Beer Collective, with Lost & Found also making use of the equipment there. With so many breweries now in operation in the region it’s perhaps likely that we’ll see more closures as competition and rates increase but for the time being things are looking pretty healthy and I’m happy to report that the Sussex drinker is reaping the benefits of an expanded scene; more beers, styles, breweries, outlets, dispense methods and everything in between. It’s all well and truly on a roll in this corner of the country, offering a wide range of choice to the consumer whilst helping to keep the Sussex food & drink scene enriched and appealing.
Gone are the days of needing to travel to find something other than Green King IPA, London Pride, Doombar or Tanglefoot. I can pop into town now knowing that I’ll get a good choice of cask offerings and if I don’t fancy cask then there’ll be a decent keg choice or something sitting in the fridge to tempt (it may not always be Sussex beer, but it’s beer in Sussex). The pub scene is no longer close to that of a barren landscape supplying the same scraps, devoid of an exciting range, discerning beer drinkers hunting down the rare and hidden gems before the barrels run dry. London is not the oasis. The spotlight might not be on Sussex the way it is on the capital, or any other major city, but it doesn’t need to be. What the scene does need and indeed, what it has, is the ongoing support, open mind and enthusiasm of the (Sussex) beer drinker which allows the local brewers to continue doing what they do best; brewing; experimenting, adapting, tweaking, and the scene will continue its pace, gathering momentum, going from strength to strength as the county becomes a beer drinkers destination. For those of you outside of Sussex, if you can, hop on a train and spend a day on the Sussex coast where you’ll find a whole host of traditional pubs, modern bars and an array of micropubs showcasing the best of Sussex. Better yet find some accommodation and spend a few days relaxing among incredible scenery, getting to know this beautiful county, East and West. I promise, you will not be disappointed.
Other posts can be found on Look At Brew regarding Sussex beers including beer reviews and brewery features.