Basing your brewery in Brighton is a great idea, from a marketing perspective. It’s a popular summer destination, so you have that association going for you; it’s well known for its bohemian character, so there’s that, too. There are recognisable landmarks like the Laines, or the skeleton of the burned out pier that now eerily shadows the slick, pointless i360 tower. You could draw on these in your branding.
Not such a great proposition financially though. Rents are high, second only to London. So you can see how one might form a dastardly plan to claim, or at least heavily imply, to have a brewery based in Brighton, whilst taking care of the inconvenient of business of brewing beer somewhere cheap in the Sussex countryside.
To be clear, there are a number of excellent local breweries who don't actually brew in Brighton and have never suggested that they do. They have made the city their primary market and have become associated with it. I have no problem with that whatsoever. Gun, Franklins and Downlands are amongst my favourites.
But the strategy I describe is increasingly familiar, and brings about various questions about contract brewing and transparency. It might be worth making a distinction between contact brewing – where beers are made to your specifications at a third party brewery, such as Missing Link in East Grinstead – and cuckoo brewing, where brewers don’t have their own site but do the hands-on work on other breweries’ kit. The former isn’t ideal, but can be an important step towards breweries establishing themselves in their own permanent home. The latter is preferable in terms of transparency; the ownership of the stainless steel is less important than the understanding that the group of brewers representing the brand name on the can, or bottle, or pump clip, rolled their sleeves up and made the beer you’re drinking.
But there is also the question of authenticity and a sense of place. If I’m told a beer is from a certain place – be that Brighton, Brussels, Berlin – then I expect it to have been brewed there. It is an important factor, one of the intangible things adjacent to whatever’s in the glass, that means something.
Assuming it means something to others, too, I thought I should pull together a small directory of the breweries who actually brew in Brighton. I can't guarantee it’s complete - these things move fast. Still, if you’re in Brighton and want to legitimately drink local, here’s some options.
Brewing since 2011, Brighton Bier is the city’s original craft brewery. For a good while they were the only full scale commercial brewery in the city, and have been known to speak their minds about those breweries claiming Brighton heritage whilst brewing elsewhere. Before setting up at their current Kemptown brewery, they began life at Hand in Hand brewpub just down the road.
Their flagship pale ale, simply named Bier, typifies what they do so well. Endlessly drinkable, it crams a lot into its 4% ABV, with lots of fresh lemon and pine and a moreish bitterness. Their cask beers are also excellent – find South Coast IPA in good condition and you won’t want to drink anything else. Their output can feel a little samey at times – a lot of pale ales at around the 5% mark - but regular beers like Grand Havana, a beautifully smooth cask porter, and No Name Stout balance things out.
The beers used to be available in cans, but that seems to have stopped, and whilst they do make it outside of the city, they’re at their best in one of the brewery’s excellent pubs. Brighton Bierhaus, the most central of the three, is designated as the official taproom, but the equally excellent Haus on the Hill and Freehaus in the Hanover area of town are also highly recommended.
I wrote a profile on the Hand in Hand brewpub back in 2018, and much has changed in the time that’s passed. The ‘idiosyncratic’ brewing set up, which necessitated a kind of ‘make do and mend’ approach, has been expanded and modernised and, most significantly, Hand Brew Co. has outgrown the premises. A new brewery and tap room in Worthing is set to open soon, which is exciting news. The beers have always been impressive, but have grown increasingly accomplished over time. Most recently, I was seriously impressed by the Hans Pilsner, a dead ringer for a herbal, bitter Bavarian pils.
The new operation in Worthing doesn’t, however, replace in-house brewing at the pub. Head brewer Jack assures me “we’re still brewing at the Hand and always will.” As is blindly obvious, the best place to find these is the pub itself, happily also one of Brighton’s most characterful boozers.
BRZN has apparently existed in some capacity for over a year now, but completely passed me by until a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled across their new venture on my way home from the shops. Initially operating as a cuckoo brewer, they moved into a shipping container in what’s known as the ‘Cobbler’s Thumb’, just up the road from Preston Circus, in May. Their model of selling beer directly to pubs was challenged by lockdown, so now they open their doors every Saturday for takeaways.
The beers are pretty inventive, ranging from fruited sours to imperial milk stouts, and they seem to make liberal use of the magnificent Voss Kviek yeast. I was hugely impressed with Modern Solutions, a Voss-powered pale ale with cold brew coffee from the superb Pharmacie roastery in Hove. Combining both foam bananas and the little pink shrimps that shared their pick ‘n’ mix bag, sweet orange, zesty and floral coffee notes and a gentle, refreshing acidity in the finish, this is an incredibly flavoursome beer for a relatively low ABV of 4.5%. On the strength of Modern Solutions, I’ll be back at the shipping container pretty soon.
Unbarred began life as a homebrew operation, before setting up commercially through the aforementioned Missing Link. They now have a permanent home in Brighton, having taken over a great purpose-built brewery and taproom space from the now defunct Holler Brewery last year. For me, the beers are far more consistent these days.
It would be reductive to say that Unbarred specialise in wacky adjuncts, but they’re certainly not averse to them - it's part of the 'anything goes' approach to brewing implied by their name. These range for the tasteful - pale stout with Nicaraguan coffee cherry tea - to the... decadent. Take Bueno Shake, a hazelnut milk stout inspired by a certain European chocolate treat, or Dip Le Donut, a coffee and doughnut white stout which uncannily reproduces both the sweet bready quality and the gooey glaze of a Krispy Kreme.
If the thought of all that makes your teeth hurt, then look to something like their Casual Pale, an aptly named easy-going pale ale, full of refreshing lemon and pine notes on a faintly biscuity pale malt based that’s made for multiple laid-back pints.
I've been slow to investigate Larrikin because of shellfish. The brewery operates out of the basement of The Urchin, a Hove pub specialising in shellfish, a cuisine to which I am extremely averse. However much I want to support what is by all accounts a lovely pub and a small Brighton-based brewery, the thought of sitting sipping beer in a room that hums of mussels is not my idea of a good time.
I was excited, then, to see that Larrikin had started selling cans to take away and drink in a neutrally-scented environment. This seemed perfect until I opened them. I have to assume that something is going wrong in the canning process, because all three beers (IPAs of various iterations and ABV) were the same unappetising brown colour, like fruit left out to go oxidised. They also all tasted remarkably similar, with a sweet fruity note recalling boiled sweets, and some fresher melon notes that were reasonably pleasant.
It's hard to believe these beers were as the brewer intended, but then ideally, I think the brewer intended for them to be drunk in the pub and I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm exaggerating about the shellfish thing for comic effect, but according to those whose opinions matter (i.e. people who can stand to be in the same room as a prawn), the place is excellent. And yes, they do brew an oyster stout - it would be mad if they didn't.
Loud Shirt is probably the Brighton brewery I'm least familiar with. Hence the lack of relevant photo; hopefully this snap of kids TV icon and loud shirt trailblazer Dave Benson Phillips will suffice. They have been brewing since 2016, but I’m not sure how long they’ve occupied their brewery in Whitehawk.
I may as well acknowledge that, even if unconsciously, the name and general ‘embarrassing dad’ vibe of the branding has probably been a barrier to investigating their stuff. I did once encounter their Ecstasy Stout at a local CAMRA festival; rich and chocolatey but with an unusual clementine note (is it Sorachi Ace?), I liked it enough to forfeit the ticking potential of such a setting and went back for more.
They do bottle and can, but I was unable to find anything for my important research, so Loud Shirt remains a bit of an enigma for me. Some of the beers sound very appealing; Hallucination Brune in particular - I'll be keeping an eye out for more.