Happy As A Hog
Written by Richard Croasdale
Written by Richard Croasdale
Although it bears many of the hallmarks of a modern craft microbrewery, at 25 years old Hogs Back predates the UK’s craft era by some considerable time and – in its quaint and deeply rural Surrey farmhouse home – feels far more like a traditional English brewery than the chic hipster hangouts of Bermondsey.
To a great extent, this is reflected in the brewery’s beers, which are mostly on cask and led by its excellent flagship bitter, TEA (Traditional English Ale, just to hammer the point home). Scratch the surface though, and one finds an ambitious and experimental streak woven into the traditional brewing values that have made Hogs Back a CAMRA favourite.
This is particularly true since industry veteran Rupert Thompson took over the business in 2011. Rupert has a track record spanning more than 30 years, and a reputation for injecting new life into existing (but often tired) brands including Carling, Lowenbrau, Old Speckled Hen and Brakspear.
“I bought this business because I felt that TEA is a very good brand,” recalls Rupert. “Having developed Old Speckled Hen and then Hobgoblin I saw potential in TEA to become much bigger. I’d also always wanted to launch an English craft lager, which nobody else was doing at the time, and Hogs Back was the right brewery to do it.”
The move turned out to be prescient, the UK’s nascent craft beer revolution really took off in the following couple of years, and Hogs Back has undoubtedly enjoyed some benefit from the growing interest in high quality ales. Rupert isn’t convinced recent changes have all worked in Hogs Back’s favour though, and has concerns about the current shape of the market.
“The explosion of craft microbrewers, has undoubtedly changed our business,” he says. “We’ve doubled in volume, but for all the good things we’ve done I would have expected to triple or quadruple. In all my past experiences, that’s how it’s been. I think the market will consolidate again, to the businesses who have stayed true to their identity and shown consistent high quality and good business ethics.
“There are a lot of good brewers come through, which has been a good thing for the industry because quite a few were resting on their laurels; it’s been a good shakeup. Now it’s probably time for a bit of stability again. We believe TEA will eventually really start to grow, because it’s in that sweet spot of being an easy drinking bitter, with a bit more to it than some of its competitors. Among all these really cool brands – which we could never be, as much as we’d love to – many people really like what we do. There’s an appetite for tradition, authenticity and honesty, which are the values we stand for.”
Rupert has made several important changes to the business since taking it over in 2011. Perhaps most significantly, he appointed a new master brewer Miles Chesterman in 2012, bringing a wealth of experience and fresh ideas into the business. The following year, he also executed a long-standing ambition to establish a hop garden in the adjoining field, giving the brewery a truly unique selling point.
He also expanded the brand to include Hogstar, an intriguing craft lager, a cloudy cider and the highly sessionable and well-balanced Outback pale ale. Like Rupert, Miles is as proud of the new beer as he is of the more established, traditional lines.
“When we started doing the lager and the cider it did raise a few eyebrows,” he says. “But ultimately it’s been well received. The quality of the product has been key – we’re very proud of the lager and the keg pale ale, and some of the seasonals we’ve done. Having previously been very traditional, to suddenly start coming out with rye beers, different hops, chocolate lagers I think surprised a lot of people. I’d say we’re quite an innovative brewer now, while at the same time it’s keeping true to that core of good traditional ales; you can’t forget where you’ve come from.”
Having made hops such a focus for the brewery relatively early on has put Hogs Back on a good footing with the UK’s alpha-obsessed craft crowd, but Miles is keen to emphasise the brewery doesn’t plan to rest on its laurels.
“Hops being the focus has put us in a good position. The US hops are getting a lot more accessible, so a flood of Cascasde and Centennial is being planted. While hoppy beers stay popular, people will always be looking for the new hop, always on to the next thing. So there’s a while to go in this yet! My hope is that we can expand the hop garden in the next couple of years, and look at working with some of the exciting new British hops being developed by people like Dr Peter Darby at Wye Hops. We want to be on the cutting edge.
“Tastes tend to be cyclical though. I’ve been in brewing 18 year and seen a fair few changes. One thing that’s happening in the US just now is lot of golden ales; sessionable ales that are hopped well, but balanced, with a lower abv. Those beers show more skill and maturity, as very heavily hopped beers can hide a multitude of sins. The beer world’s a big place, and I think tastes in the UK will come back around to more nuanced characters too, and that’s where we can shine.”
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