On a wet and windy day, we made our way down from the Midlands to a part of the world which is renowned for fantastic fresh produce. Our destination was Hairy Dog Brewery located just north of South Downs National Park and Ditchling Common, Sussex. The brewery was initially set up by Sussex born and bred Jim Nolan, who is also the owner of Black Dog Hill Vineyard. He was later joined by Managing Director David Collard and Head Brewer Russell Lee, formerly of Brick Brewery in London.
Upon walking into the 12 barrel brewery, we saw the epic kit lined up. Their homemade taproom bar adds character to the brewery, creating a welcoming ambience. There was a wall of EcoKeg cases with David and Jim working away behind them, and after grabbing a coffee we sat down with them to find out where it all began.
“The plan was to expand the vineyard and make different wine, but then we realised that with the demand for local produce there was a real opportunity for a craft beer brewery that was perhaps a little more related to wine in terms of ethos and high quality,” said Jim, leaning back slightly on one of the assorted dining chairs they use in their workspace.
He continued: “We wanted to ensure that it was [brewed] locally on a farm, and sustainability is really important to us. The building that we’re now in was a derelict cowshed, and although we wanted to keep the same rural aesthetic to fit in with the farming community, we still had to modernise it and get it clean and smart.”
This was a challenge, as Jim explained: “It wasn’t entirely easy getting the money together. To begin with we raised some by issuing share capital largely to friends, family and local people which was a nice way to get things going.”
David added: “Those people who have invested are, in the main, local Sussex folk, so it’s very much a sense of local community with this brewery.”
Jim continued: “After that, we then had to source the right kit which was all hand-built to spec. It took four and a half months from getting the kit to having it up and running, which was a little bit longer than expected.”
Next, they needed a brewer as Jim explained: “As a winemaker, I know that 90% of wine is about the winemaker and with beer the brewer is just as important, so it was key for us to find the right person who was in it for the journey. We’d spoken to a lot of people, but Russell from Brick Brewery was the standout candidate.”
“Our next step was immersing ourselves in the community. The taproom is open every Friday and it brings in lots of local people which is brilliant. We have a lot of farming folk that come in here as well as local business people and I think that they all feel that they own a tiny bit of it. Some of them actually do through shared investment.”
David continued: “We also try and support local events when we can. We’ve run beer tents this year at charity cricket matches, ploughing matches, church fetes, school events (for the parents!) as well as fundraising days for local hospices and other charities. We’ve got a bit of a local following now which is lovely and we’ve started to run events here at the brewery too. The location really helps.”
Jim explained: “We had a great seafood lunch event over a weekend with locally sourced shellfish. As a rule of thumb, we always try to buy things nearby if we can find them. Russell had brewed a special beer called ‘Bite’ to pair with the seafood, and he also made a delicious stout which went down a treat with the local oysters. All this is part of our original concept of pairing beer in the same way that we do wine. Our next event is a late Oktoberfest on 26th October which we are really looking forward to.”
The brewery has made a lot of progress, as David revealed: “At the moment demand outstrips supply which is a nice position to be in. We recently opened up our 100th account and I think much of it is down to having a brewer who makes really great beer. Without good beer a brewery will get nowhere regardless of equipment or marketing. We’ve just seen a big expansion in our catchment area for deliveries and so we’ve set the wheels in motion to increase brewing capacity with new vessels arriving soon.”
Hairy Dog are also really going for sustainability in brewing.
David: “Our spent grain is fed to the cattle on the farm, we’ve got solar panels on the roof and our wastewater is fed back to a reed bed [A filtration system where wastewater is used to irrigate crops.].
Jim concluded: “There’s plenty of local craft breweries around us, but we think that there’s room for everybody and that we should all work together to promote Sussex and British beer. Overall we’re driven by wanting to create good tasting beer and so far so good…”
We then met Head Brewer, Russell, who gave us a short tour and poured us some of his latest creations. Russell was originally a photographer who landed himself a job at Brick Brewery while he was there on a photography project.
“The first malt delivery had arrived and there was no one there to take it off, so I slung some malt sacks over my shoulder and got stuck in. When the owner arrived, the welder that was there said to Ian that he didn’t know who I was but he needs to give me a job and that was the start of my brewing career!”
“I’ve been [at Hairy Dog] since November, I’d worked at Brick for 5-6 years and saw it from the genesis moment. I had a really good time there learning the do’s and don’ts of brewing but I was gagging to get out of London.”
“So far, all the recipes are doing well and I’m particularly proud of the stouts we’ve brewed. I still love my hops but I think I’m loving my stouts even more as I get older. Our pale ale has 6 different malts and specialty grains, I’m always wondering why people don’t celebrate their malts more?”
“Word is that lager is coming back full circle. I rediscovered lager last summer, but it’s a tricky one to brew. On the pilot kit we’re doing a dark rye beer, and we have some Christmas beers planned for a Christmas beer box.”
So next time you’re heading towards South Downs for the weekend, pop in for a tipple and keep a lookout for them on tap.
Great work guys!