Spending time chewing the cud with someone who is passionate about and loves what they do is always a pleasure. Genuine passion is infectious. And Andy Hepworth of Hepworth’s Brewery appears to be as passionate about Sussex breweries, brewing, and beer today as he was when he joined the industry over 40 years ago. So, as someone who doesn’t know a huge amount about beer, its processes or its history, I wanted to know what inspires great brewers and what goes into making really good beer!
A quick re-wind
For those that don’t know, Hepworth’s Brewery just south of Billingshurst in West Sussex has become an iconic part of this area’s brewing history. Horsham has had breweries since 1880, most notably and recently in the form of King and Barnes who finally closed their doors in 2000, having made beer since 1905, and before that as two separate companies, King & Sons and G.H. Barnes and Co. At the time of closure, Andy Hepworth was their head brewer.
The birth of a beer legend
After the closure of King and Barnes (one of our most well-known Sussex breweries), and in a need of a job, Andy set up Hepworth’s Brewery, and in the years since, Hepworth’s has gone from strength to strength. A quick look around their website or meeting room shows a whole host of awards that they’ve won for their beers including most recently the Beer and Cider Award for their organic beer (The Right Stuff) at The Great British Food Awards and the Food and Drink Awards 2020, for The Most Dedicated Craft Brewery in West Sussex “showing dedication to Customer Service and an ongoing commitment to excellence“.
So what inspires a brewer?
It’s always struck me that beer is a beast of precision, much like good wine. You need the right terroir for the ingredients, the right weather, the right temperature, and in beer’s case, the right quantities of yeast, hops and barley. But Andy, who is clearly very hands on, quickly disillusions me and explains precision is exactly what it isn’t. “While you can line up all your ducks in a row as precisely as possible, you can never exactly recreate what has gone before. The art of good beer making is not just making good beer” he explains, “but making good beer every week. And that’s what I love about it. However precise you are, you’re still working with an ecological system that changes all the time, so there are constant challenges and you’re always learning and problem-solving. It’s important to bear in mind that when you do something right, you then have to go back and work out what could go wrong. There’s still a lot of experimentation. But you’re also creating something that people enjoy and brings pleasure, and that’s a buzz in itself. Making beer is definitely a vocation and a way of life. You’ve got to love it, after all, it involves long hours and poor pay.” he expands.
I didn’t expect history to be an important ingredient in the beer-making process but once again, Andy is quick to point out that the system of brewing today is pretty much unchanged from that used 500 years ago. It’s a system designed by practice and experience and it holds good. And as Andy is at pains to impress, it’s important to understand the history of beer-making in order to make informed decisions about brewing today. Hops were introduced into beer in England primarily in the 15th and 16th centuries by Dutch and Flemish settlers. Prior to that, hops weren’t added to ale in England although they were in Europe. Instead, beer was made at home by the women in a household, who would add anything that they had to hand to add flavour and limit the bitterness. But hops are both anti-bacterial and help preserve beer as well as improve the taste, and by the 19th century, you might have said that nearby Kent wasn’t just the Garden of England, but possibly the Beer Garden of England as the trend for a hop beer had well and truly caught on.
Andy rewinds some more to explain that going back further, Edward II banned the use of wheat in beer during the great famine of 1315 -17 so that there were more wheat supplies to be used for bread. And when Elizabeth I couldn’t stop the use of hops in beer, she taxed them instead! Bringing me more up to date with a history that I hitherto had delved into, Andy touches on Indian Pale Ales and the origins of bottled beer arriving in military encampments in India as a comforting taste of home. And explains the impact that pasteurisation had on flavour. “And it’s with this understanding of the background, you can start to understand the why and the how of beer-making processes. Everything we do is guided by history and an understanding of the drivers for change.”
A thoroughly Sussex beer
Hepworth’s beer is Sussex through and through. The hops come from Bodiam (yes right up by the Kent border but still in Sussex) and they are award-winning hops. Andy’s known the farmer for many years, and together they walk the hop fields and talk through any issues. Understanding the hops and the growing conditions is an essential part of making good beer. And the barley? That comes from Goodwood and West Marden and is treated in the same manner as the hops. Andy knows the farmers of old and visits the fields where the crops are grown. It endorses the Hepworth approach that you have to start in the right way, by investing in high-quality ingredients at the outset. Andy also explains that Sussex grows the best barley (well, of course, think I).
Quality of process
As we walk around mash tuns and casks, Andy’s enthusiasm is palpable. “We need automation in moderation,” he explains. “We’ll always need people, we’re still always experimenting and we have our own unique processes here. We use a traditional floor malting process, which is slower but naturally encourages the breakdown of starch to sugar. We take our time over flavour development and conditioning which ensures it is naturally more stable. We’re meticulous about our filtration to avoid any damage to the taste of our beers. Every step is thought through, scrutinised and perfected. The result is that we take three weeks to do what the big brewers can do in about three hours.”
Evolving through Covid
Covid had the potential to hit Hepworth’s hard. Overnight, Sussex breweries and their market had to shut down. But to coin a Boris expression, they built back better, brick by brick. Their shop has almost quadrupled in the last 18 months. It’s no surprise … the shop is a happy place to be, stacked to the rafters as it is with craft beer and other local produce. They’ve expanded their range and now supply local cakes, juices, wines and more. During lockdown, they also allocated their lorries to do home deliveries which they’re carrying on now. They hold pizza nights once a week and even give away beer in competitions.
Your Christmas tipple
Their range of beers is reassuringly eclectic and it’s hard to know where to start when recommending a Hepworth’s beer. There’s the temptingly named Conqueror and Charger but as it’s Christmas and as we’re all about Sussex, my recommendations would have to be:
Sussex. A traditional Pale Ale and thoroughly Sussex. It’s also gluten-free and described as well hopped.
Noel. Described as “classic barley wine style, with a rounded palate sensation; well-hopped“, it’s probably a bit of a must for your Christmas celebrations.
Old Ale. For those cold winter nights, this beer is described as “full of roast malt character balanced with both luscious sweetness and the bitterness of Admiral hops“. You can even serve it slightly mulled. Now that’s an idea!
Spartan. Well, it’s a local alcohol beer and at this time of the year, sometimes, needs must!
And what about Andy’s favourite beer and how he’d like to be remembered?
Well, perhaps like any true connoisseur Andy explains his favourite beer will depend on the time and the place. “I like a lot of beers. In winter, for example, it’s got to be a classic old ale in front of a roaring fire in the pub“.
An increasingly important player in the Sussex breweries scene, I will remember Andy as passionate, approachable and at the top of his game and when asked, he’d like to be remembered for Hepworth’s being local, traditional and for their craftsmanship. And I’m pretty sure he’s already succeeded in that.
If you like this post about Sussex breweries, you may also like: