Eddie Gadd is engineering a better future for the East Coast cask stalwart
Saturday 03 June 2023
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At the eastmost point of the Kent coast, on the wide peninsula known as the Isle of Thanet, Ramsgate has the feel of a town long subject to the tidal ebb and flow of summer tourism, and the changeable tastes of the London crowds. In its heyday, it had been a favourite of Queen Victoria, who used to holiday here as a child, and its historical military importance – it was a key garrison town during the Napoleonic wars – is commemorated in the names of its streets and public buildings. It was also a beer town, with one pub to every 82 residents (including children and the clergy) and 15 breweries.
By the time Eddie Gadd decided to set up a brewery here in March 2002, Ramsgate was, in his words, “on its uppers” – all faded glory and boarded-up shop fronts. Hardly an obvious launch-pad for brewing glory.
Eddie grew up by the sea though, and was drawn to the water, Ramsgate’s proximity to continental Europe, and the opportunity to brew on his own terms. His first site, a seafront restaurant that had lain derelict for more than 27 years, was still a huge leap of faith. With the brewery in the back, a bar out front, and a plan to focus exclusively on Real Ale, Eddie was almost certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time; a view that local pub magnate Frank Thorley took great pleasure in sharing with Eddie during their first meeting.
A very Kentish revolution
“Frank was a bit of a local legend,” recalls Eddie. “First time I met him, he walked into my building site in his tuxedo and black tie – it was Saturday night and he was going to the pier casino opposite, with his wife and friends – and asked me what I was doing. I said I'm building a brewery. He asked what kind of beer, so I told him Real Ale. He paused for a moment, then shook his head, looked me in the eye and said ‘no fucker drinks that around here son’.
“And you know what? He was absolutely right.”
Undeterred by the fact that there were indeed only three pubs in the whole of the Isle of Thanet that even might take cask from an independent brewery, Eddie finished his construction project and began selling Gadds' own cask beer through his seafront bar.
“Our place got really busy, we sold a lot of beer,” he says. “And then in 2006, we organised the area’s first CAMRA beer festival. And it just went mental after that. That beer festival sold out in four hours instead of three days, and then the following year, they moved it to Winter Gardens in Margate, which is a massive venue, with maybe 250 casks of beer over two days. And then the micropub revolution happened, centred around East Kent, which was very much Real Ale led.”
Even Frank Thorley eventually came to accept that some fuckers might want cask, largely thanks to one of his own managers, who was a token Real Ale lover in the Thorley pub empire. Though Frank recently passed on to the great casino in the sky, he and Eddie remained friends to the end, and Gadds' is one of only two permanent cask suppliers to the chain.
Over its 20 years, Gadds' has dabbled in small-pack (mostly bottle) but has shied away from keg, meaning its business has stayed relatively local to Kent, Sussex, and a handful of lines in London. This area is so committed to cask though, that Eddie was able to steadily but surely grow his business, finding new customers and increasing his volumes without troubling himself with national distributors. In that time, he also moved out of the seafront location, and set up a new brewery tap on an industrial estate in the heart of Ramsgate.
Everything was grand until 2020, when Covid hit, and pub-led breweries up and down the country – including Gadds' – suddenly faced up to a very grim future.
I love making beer just because I like making beer, but the really special thing is I get to make people happy
Reflect and rebuild
An ex-engineer, Eddie did what he does best: he worked the problem, setting up a web shop and starting home deliveries in his electric van. It was undeniably a stop-gap, and the business was still hit hard, but the experience turned out to have a far greater benefit than simply keeping the lights on.
“During lockdown, at least four times a day people would say to me ‘you’re a hero Eddie, we look forward to seeing you, you're the fifth emergency service',” he says. “Every single person greets you with a big smile at their door. And that just filled my heart with joy. I realised that this is the upside for me; I love making beer just because I like making beer, but the really special thing is I get to make people happy.”
Having focused for years on growth (a strategy that Eddie says was necessary because of his lovely but commercially unfortunate habit of hiring anyone who walked into the brewery) he began to question everything. By the end of lockdown, his workforce had naturally shrunk, with people moving on and not being replaced, so he had an opportunity to step off the carousel and refocus Gadds' into something he could really believe in again.
“When we came out of lockdown, I went into the office and said ‘look, I've got a new business plan, and it's this: find me 50 customers. They must buy beer at least every two weeks in good quantity. They've got to be reasonable people. I don't want those idiots that say I'm only in between 2 and 2:15. If any of them have been rude to you, or given you trouble with payment, just get rid of them.’ And the 50 customers on that list, we bend over backwards for them and do whatever they want us to do.”
It took a couple of weeks for the team to accept that Eddie was serious, but eventually the list of 50 was whittled into shape, and he was ready to reveal Phase 2 of his plan.
“I called a shareholder meeting – which was me, my ex-wife, her mum and our kids – and I told them I needed a mandate. I said I could take the business down two paths. One was simply growing the business back to where it was and beyond. The other was spending the next 20 years making it really green and sustainable.” The decision was quick and unanimous.
Once an engineer…
Gadds' drive toward sustainability has seen it recognised as one of the country’s most innovative independent breweries, which is particularly remarkable given its size. It all started with an electric truck – a gift from the brewery’s late chairman, given when its ageing pickup truck finally gave up.
From there, Eddie invested in solar panels for the brewery roof, on the promise of a pay-back period of around six or seven years. “As it turns out solar is absolutely ideal for a brewery,” says Eddie, clearly warming to his theme. “By far our biggest use of energy is keeping the chillers running. That consumption really spikes in the summer, when the sun’s shining, so when you link your solar panels to your chilling system, energy production increases exactly in-line with demand – it’s perfect!” Pay-back, it turns out, is set to be a remarkable three to four years.
Gadds' has also stopped using caustic to clean its brewing equipment, in favour of an innovative enzymatic cleaner. As dull as this might sound to a non-brewer, its impact has been immense. Caustic is awful stuff, carrying a huge carbon footprint, requiring hot water for use and great care in disposal. It’s also a reactive chemical process, so can only be used once. Enzyme cleaners, however, can be used at low temperature, under CO2 pressure (meaning tanks don’t need to be wastefully depressurised) and – possibly best of all – can be used four or five times before needing to be renewed. The system is currently also being introduced at South East Bottling, which Eddie part owns.
We befriended the local hop grower a long, long time ago, and we've been really good mates ever since
Finally, Eddie leads us to a corner of the brewery where sits a tall steel frame, filled with hoses, pipes, insulated columns and rotund pressure vessels. This, he announces with something close to a flourish, is his carbon capture unit. Having grown frustrated with the inaccessibility of this technology – which has for years been restricted to the very largest breweries – he eventually tracked down a Danish engineer who was working on a more affordable, small-scale unit. The pair bonded over a conversation about ground-source heat pumps (naturally) and Eddie put his name down for the first non-prototype unit.
The cunning device captures the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation, which would normally be vented off. It then scrubs the gas of free oxygen and other impurities, before chilling and compressing it for storage in removable tanks. As a cask brewery, Gadds doesn’t have much call for CO2, so the full tanks go to South East Bottling, where they are used for force carbonation by other breweries. Interestingly, the CO2 produced by the system contains less than half the impurities of commercial CO2, which largely comes from the notoriously dirty fertilizer industry. It’s the ultimate win-win.
But what about the beer?
Seeing Eddie get so animated about his sustainability projects is genuinely inspiring, and his parting shot, that “there are genuinely no engineering problems stopping us from tackling climate change, only political ones” has played on my mind ever since.
But he’s still very much a brewer and, in the spirit of saving the best for last, rounds off our impromptu tour with an offer no self-respecting beer writer could refuse: “Squeeze back here and I’ll show you the best East Kent Goldings you’ve ever smelt.”
“When we first moved here, it struck me that if we're brewing in Kent, then we ought to start learning more about hops,” he continues. “So we befriended the local hop grower a long, long time ago, and we've been really good mates ever since. He used to take our spent grain, which I’d deliver on a Saturday morning, and then we’d sit in his office and just chat about hops, and country life in general. I'd see his crop throughout the year, which taught me so much, and I swear that does make you a better brewer.”
Gadds' original hop supplier stopped growing during Covid, so Eddie switched to another local farmer with an excellent reputation, in business for more than 100 years.
“It's a much smaller operation than the original farm, much cuter, and so laid back it's untrue. I mean, the guy's ridiculous – in a good way – and his daughter's fantastic, a great hop grower,” Eddie says, passing me a handful of beautiful, luminous whole hop cones to rub and sniff.
“Having that direct relationship and really understanding the hops as a natural product is so important. So, for example I've learned the intensity of the hop gets better throughout the harvest. And then as soon as the rain comes, the intensity stays high, but some muck comes into the aroma. So we've always bought our hops from the last day before the rain. But this grower, Anna, she keeps a sample from every day, and at the end of harvest, I take her a couple of beers and we'll sit in her garden in the sunshine, and go through the samples together.”
Eddie’s brewed the beer for Anna’s wedding this summer.
This has been my first time meeting Eddie, who I’d been assured by multiple people is the nicest man in brewing, and it’s not hard to see why. But, even aside from the excellent beer (and it really is excellent) you have to admire what he’s created here too. Gadds' has a clear vision of what it is (and what it isn’t) the kind of people it wants to deal with, and what it means to be sustainable in every sense of the word. Part of me never wants to see its pump clip outside of the deep South East, where it’s able to exist without compromise. That same part also wants to return to Kent very soon.
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