Hand Brew Co
Toad licking, synths and serendipity on the Brighton seafront
Saturday 03 June 2023
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The light is low and hazy, and it’s too hot for a jacket, so we peel off layers for the first time in 2023. We’re both coated in a thin film of all the cities we dragged rucksacks through, and all the delayed trains endured to reach the campervan we’re renting, so we are far from fresh when, after shoehorning the volkswagen into an on-street parking spot, we spill out onto the seafront. Brighton is fucking beautiful.
Slipping through a long, narrow alley between old Victorian buildings on the edge of Kemp Town, we see a cloud of smoke rise slowly from a flurry of colour and sound ahead. A long line of locals – some leathery, others inked, dyed, or dressed up – lean against the west-facing wall of The Hand in Hand pub, soaking up the sunshine from stools and benches of varying heights. Someone even brought their own deckchair. Everyone has a pint in hand.
Inside is a riot. The pub is small, busy, and while I later learn the story behind every tiny detail in the decor and design, there’s a delicious lack of visual consistency between the clothes line of patterned ties hung between wall and bar, the neon 3D-printed and plaster-cast tap handles, the newspaper turned wallpaper, gig posters and stickers, framed black and white photos (hung from the ceiling) and toad ornaments. I feel at home.
Jack Tavare, Hand Brew Co’s managing director, and Clark Left, marketing director, greet us at the bar like old friends, welcoming us through to the living room. The Hand in Hand found Jack and Clark as much as they found it. In addition to hosting (possibly) the UK’s smallest commercially working tower brewery, the pub has been selling beer long before either were born, and has now been operating as The Hand in Hand for 150 years.
“Jen and I bought The Hand because we loved The Hand,” says Clark. Jen is Clark’s wife, with whom he’s very obviously besotted. The pair were once musicians and found the pub through the live music scene that coursed through The Hand, on account of it becoming the unofficial after-work boozer for artists playing at the Concord 2, just down the road. Jen worked at the pub for a number of years before the opportunity to buy it came up, and the pair – questioning their sanity – took up the baton.
“I actually kept my job, and only quit last year”, says Clark. “So I've actually worked the whole time in a corporate marketing job. We did that because, you know, this is a kind of small place, and Jen and I have slightly different ways of doing things, by which I mean she’s much better at this than me. Jen runs this place, and makes the magic happen, because that's what she's brilliant at.”
It was shortly after Clark and Jen got the keys, in 2015, that Jack – just finished his diploma in Brewing – started picking up some shifts at The Hand. Prior to the buy-over, The Hand’s brewery, which is spread across the building’s four narrow stories, had been run by Brighton Bier for four and a half years. It migrated to another premises just before Jack arrived, leaving the opportunity wide open to a brewer keen to cut their teeth in a real world setting.
One thing led to another, and before any of them knew it, Jack and Jen were cutting an enormous hole in the pub floor to swap old open-top square fermenters with plastic lids and no insulation for reconditioned tanks that they essentially had to rebuild the pub around. “We had to drag the piano out into the street to make space for the tank installation,” says Jack. “One of our old regulars who’s a honky-tonk piano player turned up for his pint and found us cutting a hole in the pub, so he sat outside playing ragtime while we fitted the tanks.” Classic Brighton.
Jen, Clark and Jack also had to get a crane to install the cooling system on the balcony of the building’s top floor, which used to be the flat Jen and Clark lived in. These days, the loft is a music studio equipped with all manner of instruments, including a keyboard kindly donated by Chumbawumba. Every item in the pub has a story like this behind it, not least the genuinely famous ‘Toad in The Hole’ table situated beside the bar.
“Toad used to be more of a Lewes pub game, you didn’t really see it in Brighton,” says Jack. “Then about four or five years ago, a couple of us from The Hand went on a little canoeing tour that ended at a pub in north Lewes with a toad table. We started playing it of course, and eventually got chatting to a guy who had one in his garage, and said he would give it to us for free if we’d use it.
“It wasn’t until quite a while later that Jen found his number in her phone, gave him a call and was like ‘hey, do you remember me from a year and a half ago, when we were drinking with you in that pub? Do you still have that Toad table?’. So we picked it up and started our own little league here at The Hand. Now you see Toad tables all over Brighton.”
With the pub having such a dedicated and long standing cult following, it’s easy to understand how apprehensive Jen, Jack and Clark were about expanding operations. “When we bought the pub in Worthing, there was this temptation to try and make it The Hand in Hand, but The Hand is a Kemptown, Brighton pub, with a Kemptown Brighton community in it, so it would have been presumptuous of us to dive in and think that’s what the Worthing pub, Toad in the Hole, would be like.
“So we just said, you know what, let's not declare what this is yet. People will come and make it what it is, and funnily enough, without any intention of trying to create a particular atmosphere, it kind of naturally happened. The Toad has become a nice extension of what’s happening here,” Clark concludes.
The Toad opened its doors in 2022, just two years and a couple of miles from the production facility Hand Brew Co built in 2020, to take the pressure off the original and very tiny tower brewery, above the pub. From humble beginnings, Hand Brew Co’s production facility boasts a 2000L brew kit with six 4000L, and two 2000L fermenters, two bright tanks, and an automated canning line. Specials are still brewed at The Hand.
“We’ve now got a team of three; our head brewer Kate Hyde started with us behind the bar, everyone starts behind the bar here,” Jack jokes. “She joined during lockdown, and was helping Jen serve pints out the door, but was a brewer in Paris before that. She'd come here, in part because she just needed a job after moving to Brighton, but more obviously she knew about the brewery and wanted to integrate herself into the brewing industry here. Before we knew it, we needed a new brewer, so Kate came on board and went from brewer to production manager to head brewer, and she kind of runs the whole show now.
“It's nice having someone we feel totally confident just to hand everything over to and know she's gonna run the brewery and run the team to the standards and ethos that we hold ourselves to,” Jack concludes. He’s happy for the pieces to fall where they may, for operations to grow and change organically, and for the beers to represent the interests of a team that sprung up around The Hand, in line with the unique authenticity and creativity it attracts.
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