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Andy Hepworth: From Biking To Brewing

Andy Hepworth

Published 1st July 2016

I was born in Epsom in 1954. My parents ran a fish and chip shop called Chish & Fips on Kingston Road, Leatherhead, so I was extremely well fed! That is probably why I’m six inches taller than anyone else in my family.

After my parents separated, my mum carried on running the shop and I would help out. I can still gut a cod or haddock with ease. I enjoyed working there as I met all sorts of people. Peter Sellers’ mother used to pull up in her Rolls-Royce, usually wearing a fur coat, and would always cut straight to the front of the queue!

I went to St John’s School and was reasonably athletic, so I was in the rugby and swimming teams. Academically, I was not the brightest, as I have dyslexia. I later discovered a lot of brewers are, as we do sums in our head whilst making beer. 

I have always loved rugby. I was never a great player, but I loved the social side of the sport. My first beer was a shandy after a school rugby game when I was about 13 years old. It was part of the culture, as the Sixth Form had a bar. 

I was placed in a class for ‘The Removed’ and wore that like a badge of honour. Still, I came out of school with three A-levels. I didn’t gain good grades, but they were enough for University.

As a schoolboy, I’d been a cadet, so I wanted to be a pilot. Having passed some preliminary tests, I discovered I was slightly colour blind, so couldn’t go any further. I needed something else to do. As I was strong at Science and Maths, I decided to study Microbiology at Reading, even though I didn’t really know what that entailed. 

I was like a boy in a sweet shop at University. I played a lot of table football and honed my drinking skills. After two years, I was told that I was going to get a poor degree even if I started working hard. I was too embroiled in outside activities, like the motorcycle club that I formed. I thought ‘I’ve loved University, so why ruin it?’ So I decided to drop out.  

My first taste of riding was on a friend’s Yamaha, which I promptly ran up a tree! When I was 16, I bought an Aerial Arrow and have enjoyed bikes ever since. If you survive to the age of 21, you learn how to ride safely, but sadly not all of my friends made it that far. 

For a time, I worked for a motor insurance company, processing accident claims. I discovered that all of those Jasper Carrot jokes about ridiculous claims are actually true. We would pass funny ones around the office. But mostly it was boring and poorly paid ,and office work didn’t suit me. 

I had no real ambition. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The old H & G Simonds Brewery in Reading, which had by then amalgamated with Courage & Barclay, had an opening for an assistant. I went along for the interview and they said I was too highly qualified.

Two weeks later, the phone rang, just as I was heading out the door for The Isle of Man, to watch the TT for the first time. I nearly didn’t answer the phone, as I needed to catch the ferry in Liverpool. It was the brewery, which had an opening for a shift supervisor. I told them that I couldn’t come in for two weeks as I didn’t want to miss the TT! The chap paused, then said ‘Okay. We’ll see you then.’ A lot hinged on that decision! 

Courage was a huge brewery with 1,200 employees. I was given a job as shift brewer, so I first had to shadow another brewer for three months. When it came to brewing, something just clicked with me, as a lot of the work was based on mental maths. Although most of brewing is down to science, 20% is craft, which makes the job fascinating. I like that idea that you need to use your wits and experience. 

The drinking culture at Courage was phenomenal and some brewers couldn’t work without four or five pints inside them!  

I’d been there for four years when Courage built a new brewery out of town, the biggest in Europe at the time. I opted not to move, partly because the redundancy package was brilliant, but also because I would be watching a computer do my old job. I liked smelling, seeing and feeling the hops and yeast, and making decisions based on those factors. One of the key lessons I’ve learned in business is that people have a tendency to jump into new technology without considering the down sides. 

I was a long-haired motorcyclist back in 1980, so I was surprised to land a job at a conservative brewery; King & Barnes in Horsham. Quite honestly, I only went there because I needed another job, but my father lived in Capel, so I knew a little about the town. 

It was a far smaller brewery than I was used to, but it was interesting as King & Barnes had recently rebuilt its brew house, so although it was a company with a lot of history, the directors were willing to invest and improve. So I thought the brewery offered me good prospects.  

After four years, Fred Martin retired and I became head brewer. At the time, I was possibly the youngest head brewer in the country at the age of 30. I was surprised to be given the role, as I expected them to bring in someone with more experience. But they backed me, and at that point I really started taking the job seriously! Soon after, Christie and I had our only daughter, who is now a scientist based in Norwich.  

When I first joined King and Barnes, we brewed only two beers; Mild and Bitter. Gradually, we added more to the range. The first beer I introduced was Broadwood Best Bitter and we ended up making 18 seasonal ales.

After the brewery invested in a bottling machine, we had the ability to do more. We brewed and developed beers for other companies, including Banks of Barbados, so I flew out to the Caribbean to taste the beer! King & Barnes was instrumental in reviving Worthington’s White Shield, which became possibly the best-selling bottle conditioned beer in the country. 

I had the freedom to develop beers and new ideas and effectively be my own boss. We implemented some innovative ideas which won us several awards and accolades. Drinks that are now coined as craft beer, King & Barnes were doing back in the 1980s and 90s.  

I had left Courage because of computers, but to a degree I did introduce automation to King & Barnes. By automating the cleaning systems, we could make bottled beer free of contamination. That meant beer could travel further and had a longer shelf life, which opened up new opportunities.

Computers are great when they are used the right way. What they are not good at is accepting variables. Hops and yeast do not always behave exactly as you think they might and you need the flexibility of well-trained, experienced people to recognise that. 

There was a drinking culture at King & Barnes, although not quite to the same level as Courage. We had a ‘walkabout’ which started at one end of town and very rarely ended at the other! The idea was that we would try out our beers in all of the pubs to see how it was kept. We’d go to The Kings Arms, The Green Dragon, The Queen’s Head, Stout House, Tanners Arms and pubs like that, and on the whole the landlords were all very good.

I was head brewer until 1999, 18 months before King & Barnes was bought (by Hall and Woodhouse) and the brewery was closed. There was some bitterness as it is never nice to be made redundant. You’re called into the office and that’s it, you’re gone, after 19 years.  

King & Barnes was a good brewery to work for. Nobody told me first-hand what happened at the end. All I can say is that I think circumstances in the industry at the time were against breweries, in that businessmen were being told to invest in Dot Com firms instead. Also, King & Barnes was left with a huge void when Peter King passed away, as he was extremely hard-working. 

There was a gentleman’s agreement amongst regional brewers not to bid for each other unless there were signs that offers might be welcome. Perhaps, through various moves - including selling its free trade arm and ending the wines and spirits distribution – King & Barnes put those signs out there, intentionally or not.  

I had always said that I wouldn’t set up my own brewery, because it’s too much like hard work. So instead, I became a brewing consultant. But I didn’t enjoy it.  

When the brewery closed, people would literally stop me in the streets and say ‘If you’re going to try and revive brewing in Horsham, we will help you.’ It was phenomenal. I met with Tim, John and Paul, all of whom I had worked with for many years at King & Barnes. We all thought, ‘Can we not do something?’ We were all willing, and had the ability. So in 2000, our friends and family offered support and we put our redundancy money together to form Hepworth’s.  

We were all brewers and engineers, not salesmen, so we knew we would lose a sales race. At the time, it was my opinion that 15 breweries in Sussex was more than enough, although there are now 60! So we decided to invest in a bottling facility so that we could brew and bottle beers for small and large-scale clients.  

We were initially able to work with some of the companies that King & Barnes had provided contract brewing for. Gradually, we’ve been able to build up business and now two thirds of our work is contract brewing, with a third attributed to Hepworth’s own beers.   

The first of our own beers was our bitter, Pullman. I think Horsham Rugby Club was the first place to take it on, as I’ve played there for years! There are a few pubs out there serving Hepworth’s beers on draught, but the vast majority of pubs are tied to breweries. That is why our main strength has always been bottled beers, which does not have those ties. 

From the outset, we also wanted to brew lager, because none of the other breweries in Sussex brew proper lager. We target the things other breweries are not or cannot do, and focus on them. We’ve since introduced gluten free and organic beers, which are technically difficult to make, so we use our knowledge to set us apart. 

In addition to Pullman, we now have a stout (Conqueror), pale ales Sussex and Prospect, and two lagers; Blonde, which is organic and made with Barley from the 

Goodwood estate, and Saxon, which is our best seller. When we first made Saxon, I wasn’t convinced that we could persuade Carling, Fosters and Carlsberg drinkers to move away from those major brands. But if you brew a decent lager, people drink it.  

I do feel that we are part of the cultural shift towards craft beers. We are probably the second biggest craft lager brewery in the country now, so we certainly have played a role.

We bottle beers for many household names, including Marks and Spencer. We brew a Sussex beer for them, so being based here is important, as Sussex is one of the few places where organic barley is grown.  

We’ve now we’ve outgrown our premises behind Horsham Rail Station, where we’ve been for 15 years. Our new brewery is on Stane Street near Adversane, opposite Architectural Plants. It’ll be nicer for people to work in and environmentally-friendly too. Nobody’s too upset about leaving the old site! 

As well as improving our brewing capacity, this new site will have a visitor centre so we can sell merchandise and even some local produce. We’ll also be able to host training sessions for other brewers and run brewery tours for the public. 

I still enjoy riding motorcycles. I have a Laverda and a Norton too, as well as a BSA that needs a bit of work. I’ve been known to ride the Laverda at Piazza Italia events in Horsham, which is an event Hepworth’s has supported with a beer tent for many years, We also support events like Sparks in the Park and Horsham Garden Music Festival. 

For me, Horsham remains a brewing town. There are still breweries in the town centre, with the likes of Welton’s, and many more good breweries around the district. However, I don’t think we’ll ever see the days of large breweries in the heart of town again, as used to be the case with King & Barnes.  

You can find out more about the range of bottle and draught beers at Hepworth’s online at www. hepworthbrewery.co.uk