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Horsham, Britain's brewtown

by Roger Protz, 02/05

The fall out from the closure of King & Barnes brewery in Horsham, West Sussex, has given this small town of around 60,000 people, not one, but three new breweries.

WJ King

Bill King has downsized with a vengeance. From managing director of King & Barnes, a major regional brewer, he now runs a micro, WJ King, using secondhand equipment from a Firkin home-brew pub. But at least he's still making beer. That seemed unlikely back in 2000 when King & Barnes of went out of business. The company dated back some 200 years and had a deserved reputation for both its cask and bottled beers served in its 57 pubs.    

But then Shepherd Neame from Kent came a-courting with an unwelcome takeover bid. King & Barnes rejected the bid but the shareholders agreed to a merger with Hall & Woodhouse of Dorset. The Horsham brewery didn't survive. Hall & Woodhouse closed the site and began to serve its own Badger beers in the former King & Barnes pubs.

Bill was badly damaged by the collapse of his much-loved family business. "I was fed up with the brewing industry," he said, "and took over the former King & Barnes fruit machine business. That was a big mistake: I knew nothing about fruit machines. A lot of people told me to get back into brewing, as many local drinkers didn't like the Badger version of our Sussex Bitter."

   Not wanting to be involved with a brewery run by shareholders again, Bill opted for a micro that could grow organically as trade developed. He went to Doncaster where AB Bottling sells brewing kit it has removed from former Firkin Inns, that closed when Punch Taverns bought the chain of brewpubs from Allied Domecq.

Bill took away a five-barrel plant and cask washer and installed them in 2001 in premises in the Foundry Lane industrial estate in Horsham. He didn't want to follow the path of many micros by making dozens of beers. He did some trial brews until he was satisfied with the flavour of just one beer and then announced the arrival of Horsham Best Bitter.

"I launched it in May 2001 and then thought 'Where can I sell it?'" He had the good fortune to bump into David Mallard, the former King & Barnes tied trade manager, who not only offered to sell the beer but also said he didn't want to be paid until sales took off. "David had great knowledge of the pub trade in the area," Bill said, "and within a year we grew to 30 barrels a week and now we're doing 50. There are a lot of pubs in the area owned by Enterprise, where the publicans are allowed to take guest beers. There are also seven or eight Wetherspoon pubs that have become good customers and where the managers have considerable freedom of choice."

Bill has 200 accounts, which include 40 regulars. He has bought one pub, the Lamb at Lamb's Green, which he runs as a showcase as a country pub serving good food and beer. David Mallard has retired but Bill now has a brewer - which gives him freedom to run and expand the business --and has full- and part-time sales people.

His spick-and-span brewhouse, with wood-jacketed mash tun and copper, has grown to 10-barrel capacity. He has expanded the product range and, as well as the 3.8 Horsham Best Bitter, Bill now brews a 4.8% Red River Ale, named after the local river that runs through the town, seasonal summer and winter beers, and five bottle-conditioned beers. Bill has added a small bottling line and will start to sell beer by mail order. With beers bursting with rich malt and hop character, using the finest Maris Otter malt and English Challenger, Goldings and Progress hops, Bill has restored the good name and good taste of King to Horsham and the surrounding area, and is enjoying life again. As he says, it beats looking after fruit machines.

Hepworth & Co

The biggest of the new brewers in Horsham is Hepworth & Co, based in premises called the Beer Station on tracks and sidings alongside the main railway line. The tracks once belonged to a company that sprayed the train lines with weed killer and brewery founder Andy Hepworth admits there had to be a good deal of cleaning up before beer could be produced on site.

Andy was head brewer at King & Barnes but he left before the closure, having seen the writing on the wall.
"I vowed never to own a brewery but then three other ex-King & Barnes people told me they were keen to start brewing again." The three - Paul Webb, John Tewson and Tim Goacher - had skills in production, engineering and bottling, and Andy realised they could form a team with all the necessary skills to produce good beer in a modern brewery.

Right: Paul, Tim, John and Andy.

Andy knew the beer market inside out and realised the cask sector was fiercely competitive. He spotted a gap in the bottled beer market and decided to concentrate at first on packaged products, which meant a brewery with a top quality bottling line.

"The capital involved in building a brewery and bottling line is enormous," Andy said. "We got support from local people and industry: people felt affection for King & Barnes and wanted to help us. Our shareholders include an electrician who carries out wiring for us and a label designer." A brand new and multi-functional brewhouse capable of producing ale, lager and stout was built in Scotland to Andy's design. A fast and reliable bottling line was imported from Italy. The beers are currently bright and are sterile filtered.

"It's a much better system than pasteurising," he said, "because it maintains the hop notes in the beer. Bottle-conditioned beers will be a cinch when we get around to them." He is already packaging live bottled beers for several micros, including Bath Ales, Coniston, Rebellion, and Hen's Tooth for Greene King. Packaging amounts to 400 barrels a week on top of 80 barrels a week of his own beers.

A stainless steel mash tun and copper feed four fermenting vessels inside the brewery, with additional 60-barrel conical fermenters in the yard outside, which are used for lager. The local water is soft, which is ideal for lager brewing, and gypsum and magnesium salts are added for ale production. With the exception of lager, all the malts and hops used at Hepworth & Co are sourced from Sussex.

The first bottled beer produced in 2001 was the 4.2% Pullman. "It was the beer we wanted to drink in the brewery," Andy said, "but some people found it too bitter so we added Iron Horse at 4.8%, which is both stronger and slightly sweeter." He third beer is Sussex Light Ale at 3.5%, a successful attempt to recreate a style that was in danger of disappearing. It's a tangy and refreshing beer brewed with Admiral and Goldings hops grown in Sussex. Andy's lager is called Blonde and is fermented with a traditional lager yeast culture imported from Bavaria. It is organic, 5%, and comes in a big 660ml bottle.

Pullman is on sale in Tesco, with Iron Horse in Sainsbury's. A number of independent off-licences stock the beer and the specialist Beer Essentials in Horsham is the single biggest outlet for Hepworth beers. Now, three years down the road, Andy has started to build on the success of his packaged beers by moving into the cask sector, though cask ale was brewed at Hepworth & Co back in 2001 when Ray Welton of Welton's Brewery rented part of the site.


   Welton's has now moved to its own premises, a hundred yards away from Bill King's brewery on the Foundry Lane estate. Ray Welton is a larger-than-life character, full of bubbling enthusiasm for beer and life in general. He started brewing in Dorking in 1995 - "there'll be one hell of a piss up in 2005!" - but his family has been involved in booze for far longer. His grandfather was a cider maker at Newdigate while Ray's father started a drinks wholesaling business in the 1980s and worked for the likes of Eldridge Pope and Ringwood breweries, with sales amounting to 2 to 3 million a year

But company was hit badly by the recession in the late 1980s and when his father died Ray sold the business to the Beer Seller in 1994. A year later, he started his own small brewery in Dorking. "I was mentioned in the King & Barnes company minutes," he chuckled. "They said 'A bandit in Dorking is stealing our trade'."

There was certainly a K&B connection, for Fred Martin, a former head brewer at Horsham taught Ray how to brew. Ray is an engineer by trade and he has used his background to construct a brewery that is radically different to Andy Hepworth's and Bill King's. It's case of something old and nothing new, with fermenters built from old Carlsberg tanks, parts of a mash tun from a brewpub in Croydon, and a copper that Ray found on a dump with a tree growing inside it. "I've picked up bits and pieces from everywhere," he said. "It's the Steptoe in me."

He found it hard to make money in Dorking, in the days before Progressive Beer Duty was introduced for small brewers. Ray mothballed the plant and then moved in with Andy Hepworth when the Beer Station got under way. "I moved to the new site 14 months ago - the split was amicable as Andy needed more space," he said.

Ray is now brewing 40 barrels a week and employs a driver, Mike, to distribute the beer. He doesn't clash with Bill King as he tends to sell beer to old contacts in the Dorking area and south of the M25. The small specialist pub company Brunning & Price also takes his beer for outlets in Cheshire and North Wales. "I'm only brewing cask beer at present - I'm learning to walk before I can run," Ray said. "But I'll be bottling in 2005."

He's no Steptoe where beer is concerned. He has a keen eye on the modern beer market and his bottled beers will be suitable for vegans, made without the use of fish finings. His cask beers use no chemicals or additives. His Optic malts come from Warminster Maltings and range from pale through crystal to amber and chocolate. He even puts Grains of Paradise, used in gin making, in one beer: "That way you get the curry with the beer!" Hop varieties include Admiral, Bramling Cross, Challenger, Goldings, Northdown and organic First Gold and Saaz.

Ray's first beer, which blew a loud razzberry in the direction of the closed King & Barnes, was the 3.5% Kid & Bard. He has since added Sussex Wealden Best Bitter (4%), Old Cocky (4.3%), Horsham Premium (5%) and Old Harry (5.2%) in memory of his cider-making granddad. His most remarkable beer is Pride&Joy at just 2.8%. (Ray doesn't space out Pride&Joy to avoid any visits from m'learned friends acting for Fuller's).

The beer, with such a modest strength, is reminiscent of the "boy's bitters" brewed for agricultural workers in Victorian times. It's wonderfully refreshing, with lots of spicy and peppery hops, balanced by biscuity malt and tangy fruit. What a remarkable portfolio of beers is available in a town that lost one brewery, but gained three.



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