How did you first get into brewing?
Steve: I started at the age of 14 - those were different times! Boots homebrew kits were the catalyst for me developing an interest in microbiology and fermentation, and I eventually went to university to study biotechnology.
Fast forward to my mid 50s, and I'd had enough of corporate life and living in airline lounges and hotels. I had averaged more than 130 days per year overseas for more than 30 years.
The Godstone Brewers officially launched in 2015. My 'hobby' needed some risk capital but now it pays its way. It is hard work and I couldn't do it alone. Now that the structure and discipline of corporate life has gone, I need someone to push back and support when needed.
Having been at university together many years ago, Anne and I met again when we were attending an award ceremony for my eldest son. It turned out that she had taught all my children at Oxted School. The rest is history…
Anne: As a teenager, I grew to love drinking beer - unlike most of my friends. I started brewing while at university while studying food technology. I also initially used Boots kits, but progressed to mashing from grain.
My dad and later my youngest son were also inspired to start brewing their own beer, and my mum developed a love of beer too. I continued to homebrew for many years, only stopping while I had young children.
In 2014, I entered The One Show's Brew Off competition and was encouraged that I reached the finals with my spicy summer ale containing chilli, lime and ginger. This gave me confidence in my brewing capabilities and inspired me to take it further, particularly once I had met Steve again and appreciated his passion to take it to the commercial stage. I was happy to join him in this dream.
After 15 years of teaching food technology (my second career after working in product development in the food industry), I took the plunge and left to be a full time brewer! I haven’t looked back.
Were you inspired by any other brewers?
Steve: I never knew any brewers all those years ago - just my favourite pints. Whilst working in Japan I met Bryan Baird of Baird’s brewery. He was making flavoursome and unique ales with interesting narratives. I had also developed a liking for Gadds' beers, from Ramsgate in Kent, while visiting family where I grew up as a child. Totally different approaches but they both showed me what was possible. These days, I am developing a taste for specialist Belgian beers: the DIPAs, Tripels and Quads!
Anne: I haven’t really been inspired by other brewers. I grew up on Greene King's Abbot Ale and Fuller’s ESB, but my tastes in beer are now very varied. I have a preference to produce new and interesting beers rather than trying to copy any existing ones.
Do each of your beers share similar characteristics or are they all unique?
Steve: Tastes vary and even on our Fresh Beer Fridays at Flower Farm Shop in Godstone, where we brew, we cater for people's different preferences. Some aspects of our beers bear similarities but we are always learning our trade, what with the challenges of scaling up and still achieving consistency. At some point we will have to be more disciplined and focus on a core range, but one of the virtues of being independent is that not everything is driven by profit, efficiency and conformity – we can brew what we fancy brewing regardless of season and convention.
Talk us through how you develop new beers for your range...
Steve: There's honestly no single approach. For example, we recently developed a session “red ale” for The Hatch in Redhill. We outlined the brief and agreed it with Anthony from the pub. Having researched it further, we then did a small batch of about 100 litres with a few tweaks using different dry hopping regimes. Finally, we tested two casks head-to-head in the pub to let the locals decide.
On other occasions we can be impulsive. Oishi, for instance, draws on both of our talents as experimental cooks. We wanted a pale ale that had additional refreshment impact and would work well with food. Plus we wanted something that wasn't constrained within a local narrative. Using citrus fruits is obvious – vis-à-vis, Elvis Juice from Brew Dog using grapefruit. Using both the zest as we chill the boiled hopped wort and fresh juice direct to the fermenter with the dry hops optimises the freshness. The addition of Japanese green tea (sencha) with lemongrass to the final hop boil provides a smoothness and character that truly compliments Asian food. Hence, Oishi! Translation: delicious.
On a standard brew day we often take off some of the wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process) and produce an experimental mini batch to explore different hop regimes and styles of beer. This allows us to have fun whilst still producing a standard batch of beer for sale.
How did Oishi's Japanese influence come about and is there a beer culture in Japan?
Steve: I worked in Japan over a period of 20-plus years, including a stint living there with my family. They embraced US craft beer culture late but are accelerating and passing the UK in my opinion. Younger people like to experiment and have become bored with the big four, Asahi, Suntory, Kirin and Sapporo. Imports originally met the demand but then legislation changed and allowed local versions to thrive – hence my love of Baird’s beers who had a taproom immediately outside my old Unilever office in Tokyo. Bryan Baird and I have spoken about swapping beers into each other’s markets as an exciting collaboration in the future.
Is there one of your beers that's particularly close to your heart?
Steve: I love Polly Paine’s Porter. It is indulgent, a pig to brew and quite unpredictable but has a loyal following - including myself. It is also a great addition to casseroles, pies and marinades. It's nice to think we had our own witch in Godstone. She would have liked it I’m sure... especially the 9.2% Christmas version!
Anne: I can honestly say that I don't have a favourite. I like most styles of beer and therefore different varieties of ours appeal at different times depending on my mood. I do have a tendency to prefer stronger beers, so brewing our ‘specials’ has a lot of appeal, but this cannot be at the expense of producing sufficient quantities of our core range.
With so many breweries springing up, how do you set yourself apart from the crowd?
Steve: We stand out naturally but all breweries share the same challenge to get our cask beers into the dwindling pool of free houses and pubs that are able to offer a rotation of guest beers. Quite often it is a price issue, in which case we walk away. We work incredibly hard for little return; it seems pointless to run faster to achieve the same result.
For those start ups with bigger ambitions (big loans, shareholders and mouths to feed), they may choose to discount and drive volume but that brings more challenges, more working capital and more time delivering from the back of the Volvo.
Our beers are characterful (sometime too much for traditional tastes, where people demand clear filtered and bland alternatives to lager) and the visual impact of the brand is already creating interest, curiosity and trial.
As brewers, we are learning fast to distinguish winners from also-rans and how to make them as good as they can possibly be in a crowded market. Whether it is the bottle label, the pump clip or any of our communication tools, we have a coherent identity that demands attention.
How important are events in helping a microbrewery to spread its message?
Steve: Fresh Beer Fridays have been helping to create our brand and Godstoneberry, which we host at Flower Farm Shop from Friday July 27 to Sunday July 29, also offers the chance to go head-to-head with our peers. It also provides the feedback loop that is missing from pubs sales and bottle sales from the various shops that now stock us like Flower Farm, Majestic and Hartley’s. FBF is critical to our market research and attaining direct consumer feedback.
What are your ambitions for The Godstone Brewers in the coming years?
Steve: We both want it to provide us with a proper income. Not being greedy, but after the initial working capital is repaid we would like to see it as a truly viable craft brewery for the local community and beyond. We want to continue to increase community engagement and, along with the events mentioned above, we had an event called BEEZZA in early March. It was a really quirky night in a barn with live music, fresh baked pizzas and a range of our beers. It attracted about 100 people in spite of a dreadful snow storm that had brought the local area to a standstill. The feeling that night was fantastic, the beers tasted great and we saw so many local people smiling and having fun. It's what we're all about.
Finally, with the ongoing battles at CAMRA, which side of the cask v keg fence are you on – and why?
Steve: We seek good beer in all formats.
We used to be very much cask orientated but, provided it isn’t over chilled and gassy, keg has its place and offers advantages to places where they can't offer a range of cask beers without losing freshness.
Fresh Beer Friday was in part driven by a desire to let people taste our beers at their best and take poor cellaring out of the equation.
On a similar note, we used to favour bottle over can but as the economics change we would hope to be using this convenient format.
We already do a large five litre can during the “party season” but, with the packaging costs being so high, the value for money is poor and consumers are being seduced by cheap supermarket discounts.
In the end, cask and keg are both returnable formats and potentially more sustainable with less waste.
On their day cask beers can be exceptional. We enjoyed “too many” pints of Fuller's ESB at their brewery in Chiswick earlier this year and it was notably good. I can’t remember the last time I had beer this good in a pub. So even Fuller's recognise that freshness is critical to enjoyment. We are just starting to explore kegs. Early days.
- To try Godstone Brewers newest beers, experimental offerings and tried and tested favourites, make sure to visit Fresh Beer Fridays which take place every Friday evening at Flower Farm Shop, Oxted Road, Godstone RH9 8DE.