Getting to know BREW: Beak Brewery
Updated: Mar 19
Moving on from being a gypsy brewer or cuckoo brewer takes a lot of consideration as well as patience and a good amount of investment. But sometimes the only way you can achieve your goals is by jumping with both feet forward.
That’s what Danny Tapper, Founder of Beak Brewery based in Lewes did when he realised that brewing in someone else’s brewery just wasn’t going to work.
We caught up with Danny to find out what the biggest challenges have been for him during 2020 and what he’s got planned over the next 12 months.
Q. Can you tell me a little about your brewery?
I started my life as a food and drink journalist and was inspired to make food and beer myself. I’ve always had a love for beer and real ale and I got into home brewing for a few years and thought, why not turn this hobby into a business? I started brewing beer using a small 100-litre nano-brewery set up where I would brew a few hundred bottles and deliver it myself around Leeds in my VW Polo.
I was living between London and Leeds and had a few great bottle shops and restaurants as customers but demand exceeded the nano kit, so I decided that I should either buy a brewery (not really an option) or start nomadic brewing.
I started collaborating with breweries around the North such as North Brew Co. That’s how and where I learnt to brew on a much larger, professional scale. Northern Monk used to let me use their packaging kit, which I did for a few years but nomadic brewing is really difficult as you are always looking for spare capacity to brew your beer. You have less control of the process and they have less capacity for you to brew on their premises.
During my time as a nomadic brewer, I started brewing a lot of bespoke beers for restaurants and demand kept growing and in the end, I looked at investing in my own kit, raising money and planning my dream brewery.
We're now in Lewes where we’ve built a 15-BBL neighbourhood brewery and taproom with a mixed-fermentation project and weekend street food canteen.
The food element to our taproom is also really important. Every Saturday we have a different chef or restaurant set up a pop up stand outside the brewery which is exciting for a small town like Lewes where there isn’t a proliferation of places to eat. Our customers get to try a new food every week and it also helps the chefs using the pop ups. We don’t charge a plot fee for this so every week a chef or restaurant can sell around 300 dishes without having to pay us anything, which especially during covid has been a great help to the businesses we’ve hosted.
The name Beak is a nod to our beginnings as a Cuckoo brewery.
Q. How is your beer connected to the local area?
We picked Lewes as our base of operations as I visited the town during their bonfire event and totally fell for the place.
We moved to Lewes around 3 years ago and built the brewery at the beginning of 2020. It was kind of intimidating as Harveys is so well established in the area but even they gave us their full support as they let us store our stock for free when I was nomadic brewing. Everyone has been really supportive and we had no objections from the local area.
Our initial concern was whether there were enough craft beer drinkers in this little town to sustain our taproom but actually, we’ve been blown away by the number of people who keep coming down every weekend. We’ve had people walk and hike in from Brighton and cycle from London to come and visit us. It’s really good for the town too as it’s becoming a bit of a destination for beer nerds and because we run our taproom in sessions we find that once our customers have finished their session with us they are then going to other pubs and restaurants in Lewes.
When we launched the taproom we also launched what we were calling a ‘disloyalty’ card which is where we reward people with free beer if they can show that they have been supporting six other independent businesses in the town. We like to do little things like that to help support other local businesses and have found that they have been supporting us too by stocking our beer.
We’re also doing various food pairing events with local restaurants.
Q. What do you think is unique about your beer and your brewery?
We wanted to create a brewery that is not like a regional brewery, as our background is from the north and London, we didn’t want to restrict ourselves and create something that is just focussed in Sussex. We see ourselves as a national brewery and collaborate with chefs and breweries from across the UK.
Q. How do you decide on what new beers to brew?
Our head brewer, Robin Head-Fourman, used to be the lead brewer for Burning Sky. He has brought a lot of expertise and skills with him and we have very different styles and tastes to each other. I like big, hoppy NEIPA and Yorkshire bitter styles and Robin is really into lagers, saisons and cleaner style IPAs and I think we have met somewhere in the middle with deciding on our beers.
We’ve been trying to play around with the styles and since we’ve opened we have made produced a clean, resinous, grapefruit West-Coast beer (Horses) and several NEIPAs which although they do have the tropical fruit characteristics also have a robust bitterness. All of our beers, even the New Englands such as Parade and Self Portrait, have a different side to them.
We’ve got a few stouts in the pipeline, an ESB, a saison and a lager. We want to keep our followers on their toes by trying different styles and being playful and creative with them.
Q. Are there any beer styles you are looking at tackling in the future that you haven’t done already?
We’re keen to build a mixed fermentation project which will be based around concrete fermenters which we’re importing from Italy. The reason we’re going for concrete is that the concrete doesn’t impart any oaky flavours so you start with a blank canvas so even though it’s mixed fermentation there won’t be any input from the actual vessel itself and concrete is porous so you get micro-oxidation which allows the mix to ferment and thrive.
Once we’ve got our base mixed fermentation beer we’ll be racking it off into barrels to produce very short runs of mixed fermentation beers with fruits and herbs and various other local ingredients like grapes.
It’s very early days but we have been talking to Westwell wines who are an amazing wine producer who do a lot of natural, skin-contact and organic wines.
We have been talking to a few local coffee roasters about producing a coffee imperial stout.
Q. How important do you think collaborations are with other breweries?
We want to collaborate with as many people around the UK and beyond as possible to learn other ways of making beer. However, we don’t want our collaborations to just be mutually beneficial business deals. After being a nomadic brewer for so long I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve had to brew beers with people I haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye with and it’s not a fun position to be in so I vowed that when I owned my own brewery that I will only collaborate with people who we’re friends with.
[Brew Did That note: Beak discussed some very exciting collaborations they have planned but it’s a little too soon to share with the world as yet so watch this space.]
Q. What efforts do you make to be environmentally friendly?
We’re moving away from plastic kegs. As a start up brewery, they make total sense as you don’t know how many kegs you’ll need and you can react quite quickly to changes in demand, as seen with lockdown. We’re now in the position where we’re able to move over to stainless steel kegs.
We’ve always been really careful with our water consumption too.
The fact that we mainly use cans is also more environmentally friendly than the use of bottles and kegs.
Being such a tiny brewery with low scale production our carbon footprint is naturally much smaller than other breweries that produce more beer than ourselves but we know that as our business grows our environmental impact is something we’ll need to think about more.
It’s very hard for a new micro-brewery to genuinely and realistically sit down and create a water-tight environmental policy so I think it’s probably something we’ll look into more as we develop and grow once we’ve got our feet on the ground.
Q. What have been your biggest challenges over the last 12 months?
We signed the lease to the brewery two weeks before lockdown so we very suddenly had to completely rework our business model because our original plan was to sell 100% through distribution and then overnight the pubs and distribution networks closed down.
As a result of lockdown we’re doing about 85% direct to shops and members of the public and then around 15% through distribution.
We’ve only got 2 full-time members of staff so it’s been a lot of work to package and distribute that many orders and then to also have to deal with members of the public which was never in our original plan so it’s been a steep learning curve. However, as lockdown happened so early into the start of our business while our staffing levels and overheads were still relatively low it’s probably been a benefit when compared to more established businesses so we feel fortunate to have been able to do as well as we have.
It feels like everything has fallen into place since we opened the brewery.
The planning and bureaucracy of setting up the brewery whilst still working a full-time job in the 18 months before that was the hardest time for me. We did so much planning, and Robin and I are into the details of everything whether it be the artwork we use, the recipes, the cleanliness of the brewery, etc. We want to get everything right and we’ve planned for so much that it’s paying off.
Q. Have you produced a beer that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to - either better or worse?
Not since we’ve set up our brewery but as a nomadic brewery there were loads of problems. There were some beers I was proud of but some that I wasn’t. Often with nomadic brewing, you have to leave part of the process to the company you’re brewing in, such as the packaging and I had a couple of occasions with oxidised cans which especially with a volatile beer such as a New England IPA completely ruins it. It was after one of those experiences that I decided we needed to set up on our own.
That’s not to say that we’ve been 100% happy with the beer we’ve produced because I think when you start to think that then the quality goes down. Robin has now introduced a weekly tasting panel to objectively and analytically go through the beer we have. We want our staff to be able to tell us if they think a beer isn’t up to scratch or if they think something should be changed. We want it to feel like the beers are always going to be a work in progress with room for improvement.
Q. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but how important do you think branding/package design is for your beers?
We work with one artist, Jay Cover, on all of our artwork. He’s an incredible illustrator who’s been helping us since the very beginning. Our brief to him when creating our logo was to create something that didn’t look like a brewery logo. A lot of brewery marketing is quite macho and that is not at all what we’re about so he created something which in our eyes looks more like something you’d expect to see on a wine bottle from the ’80s or ’90s which we immediately fell in love with and now he also designs all of our label illustrations. We also have an award winning graphic designer, Ollie Shaw, who designs our labels. Jay and Ollie are friends of mine and they both did a lot of work for free when we were first starting out and now we use them for all of our labels.
Q. Do you feel that non-alcoholic beers have an important part to play in the craft beer industry?
I love table beer which is something we’re going to brew a lot of but I’d also be keen on brewing 0.5% beer as I think it would be a huge challenge. There are some incredible low and no-alcohol beers available.
Q. Do you have a favourite beer that you have produced?
I think Parade is the beer I’m proudest of. The first two batches of that were so spot on.
I’m also really proud of Lulla which is our 3.5% table beer. We are so happy with that beer, it’s sessionable, refreshing, it’s got a good mouth-feel and body with a really delicious yellow colour, loads of layers and hoppy aromas. I think it’s a really good expression of Robin’s skills too, to be able to create a beer with such low ABV and yet so much flavour. Paul from Cloudwater even praised Lulla on Instagram and to get recognition like that from brewers we respect is so important to us.
Q. What’s next for you over the next 12 months?
Something we were planning anyway but in reaction to Black Lives Matter we are working with Diversity Lewes to create an inclusivity policy. We are very aware that we live in a mainly white middle-class town and the beer industry already is very white, male and middle-class. We are trying to create a space that will feel more inclusive for people who don’t fall into the usual beer category. We already actively try to encourage black-owned companies to make use of our restaurant pop up at the brewery to support business and introduce people to different cuisines.
Q. How important do you think reviewing platforms like Untappd are for the beer industry?
I think a lot of professional breweries despise untapped. Beer is so subjective so unless you’re cicerone certified or someone who has studied brewing and understands the flavours you have to take anyone's review on untapped with a pinch of salt. But I’m not in the category of people who thinks it’s completely useless.
We want to create beer that both we and other people will want to drink. In that respect, it can be awesome to hear what people think of your beer and if you sift through the comments some of them really do make a fair point. I think you just have to make sure that you don’t get carried away with all of the positive reviews because it is so subjective and I get really concerned with hype and the expectations and it’s something we don’t want to encourage.
I think Untappd can be a good barometer sometimes if there are any issues with the beer.
Extra: Small breweries relief fund debate
It’s very concerning for our friends in the brewing industry who are producing more beer than us, like Burning Sky, and we’re worried on behalf of them but for us, we’re so small that we’re a very long way off from getting to that point.
I have signed the petition to make the government aware that there are a lot of livelihoods at risk if they do go ahead with their proposals and I sincerely hope that there isn’t any erosion of the small brewers' relief because it has been a lifeline for us and it feels ridiculous to bring up the drawbridge, and alienate and suppress the growth of lots of small great breweries out there
About Beak Brewery
Address: Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, BN8 6JL – a ten minute walk from the end of Cliffe High Street.