*BEEP*, *BEEP*… *BEEP*, *BEEP*
It’s five forty-five am on a Thursday morning, and I’m rudely awoken by the unpleasant sound of my alarm clock, jolting me out of a deep slumber. I groan, haul myself out of bed and into the shower, before getting dressed and slipping out the back door at just gone half six. My destination is the brewery of Tunbridge Wells based Pig & Porter, located on a small industrial estate a few minutes from High Brooms station. I’ve volunteered to help out on a brewday in exchange for the opportunity to learn more about the brewery, and to observe the process of brewing on an industrial scale.
The story of Pig & Porter isn’t a simple one to map out, having no real definitive beginning or official start date. “It wasn’t the most planned of businesses from the word go,” Robin Wright, who runs the administrative side of the brewery, admits, “I’d known Sean (Ayling) for twenty odd years through cricket. He was a keen homebrewer and used to keep foisting various different brews upon me. I was living in a very remote part of East Sussex, running a Recruitment business and also getting quite involved with all the activities in the local village; flower shows, fetes etc., and I just thought to myself; burgers and beers might be a little bit more interesting than this!”
Sean, meanwhile, was struggling to make ends meet in the sales industry after changes to his company’s pay structure. Finding it cheaper to brew than buy beer in the supermarket, he started to produce more beer in the hope of selling it with Robin at the Ashburnham village fete. “We got some of Sean’s beers in on a very small scale,” Robin recounts, “we then we started getting asked to do barn-dances, peoples weddings, and we started to think to ourselves ‘is there some mileage in this?’”
Around this time, Robin went blind in one eye. “All of a sudden I woke up one day having lost the sight in my right eye,” he recalls, “It required a series of operations to fix and gave me a load of time off work” Whilst recovering, Robin came up with a plan alongside Sean to take the business further, hoping to run an event catering business that produced a little bit of beer, thus giving birth to the Pig & Porter name. “We started to really get things off the ground late in 2012 as a registered business,” he says, “and around that time we were ringing around various different breweries asking to brew on their kits. A couple of them said yes and they explained to us that what we needed for events was a fraction of what even a microbrewery could produce, but that we may as well do a full brew and sell the rest to pubs.
So on New Years Eve of 2012, Sean brewed Pig & Porter’s first proper beer, a tried and tested homebrew recipe called Red Spider Rye, a 4.8 per cent red ale with rye malts that still makes up a part of the brewery’s core range today. The beer was a huge hit, with Robin managing to sell it to local pubs that were interested in their fledgling brewery. “We brewed at about six different places, including at one point brewing more than Bedlam brewery were on their own kit,” Robin tells me with a smile, “but I think we only did about eight brews up until the end of the summer whilst we were doing the event catering business. We were just too busy.”
Around the end of that summer, Sean and Robin were made aware that the Old Tunbridge Wells Brewery site was available, having been sat idle for some time. They agreed a deal to share the 10-barrel site, which still remains their home to this day, with Tumanny Albion Brewing Company. “Sean wasn’t able to give up his day job at this point so that meant brewing on a Saturday,” Robin continues, “which also rather conveniently meant we had to make a decision about the food because all the events were on the weekends.” In the end, Pig & Porter decided to focus on the beer, relinquishing the catering side of the business, although their love of food remains as strong as ever, evidenced by the almighty fry up Sean cooks for us after mashing in the grain.
After around a year of sharing, it became clear that both breweries needed to expand, and Pig & Porter eventually took over the entire Tunbridge Wells site themselves. “That was the point where Sean had to make a decision about the day job and we had to decide to take the plunge ourselves and try and make this work as a business,” Robin says, “and since then we’ve been full time and reached capacity some time ago.” In May, the brewery added a shiny new 15-barrel fermenter from China to the existing three 10-barrels they already had, and they now produce around 80 casks a week. “We’ll reach full capacity again at some point soon, and then its really a case of working out how big we want to grow and how we do that organically,” Robin says, “We didn’t come into the industry with any track record or any master plan, and it really has evolved quite quickly.”
Another huge step in the brewery’s growth came with the appointment of George Fisher as assistant brewer on a full-time basis (also in May), enabling Robin to focus on the administrative side of the business. “I’ve done assistant and helper to Sean, and I find the process of creating new beers really interesting,” he says, “but that’s really his area. He runs the brewery and I run the business.
“George coming on board was another big step because its just taken the sheer exhaustion out of it, and the slightly split shifts we’re operating means that Sean doesn’t have six 5 am starts on the trot which is a bit much!”
Far from just being an extra pair of hands, George leads the brew on the day of my visit, with Sean having to rush off to make some deliveries. The beer in question being brewed is Dance First, a 4.2 per cent Stout with crystal, chocolate and black malts. Whilst we wait for the kettle to boil, we busy ourselves by putting some Weird Pig, a 5.5 per cent Californian Common Ale originally brewed in collaboration with Weird Beard, into kegs outside. The brewery has also collaborated with numerous other breweries across the country, including Blackjack and Runnaway brewery in Manchester. “I think there’s a lot to be said for doing collabs,” Robin enthuses, “you’re making something that’s a one off, two heads are definitely better than one, you share a lot of information and you have a lot of fun doing it”
“I think they certainly helped us a lot at the start, particularly when we brewed with Blackjack. It gave us a foothold into some of the most famous bars up there, and a soft introduction to that area by a brewery that people know and like.
“We haven’t done quite as many recently, but they’ve helped position us slightly differently in the market as to what kind of a brewery we are – as a small little brewery coming out of Kent where there isn’t a lot of ‘craft’ so to speak – we wanted to get ourselves out there and say ‘this is the kind of brewery we are, these are the kind of beers we’re making.’”
As Pig & Porter have grown, their repertoire of beer has expanded quite significantly from their initial core range, having recently brewed Pig Cubed, a mango saison to celebrate Birmingham Beer Bash, and Double Think, an 8.6 per cent double IPA. “We’ve produced a lot of new beers recently; we’re also looking at making a very full on imperial stout,” Robin tells me, “but unfortunately we cant keep brewing new things with only a limited amount of fermenters. There’s a point at which we have to keep regularly brewing the ones that are becoming established, such as the Skylarking (a 4 per cent session IPA).” Nonetheless, the brewery are also planning to start ageing some of their beers, doing limited bottling in-house, and recently launched a new single hop pale ale series.
As the brewday comes to a close, I ask Robin what he thinks the best bit about being a part of the brewing industry is, and what the biggest challenges Pig & Porter face are. “I love the variety and the people in the industry,” he says, “compared to any other job I’ve had it’s a really nice industry; very open, very friendly, very collaborative – even if you don’t get out much to actually talk to all these lovely people!
“I’d say the biggest problem is keeping the plates spinning as you’re growing; you’ve got to think long term about where you’re going as a brewery but there’s hardly ever any time in the week for that. We’ve got sales, brewing, distribution, keeping the cashflow going, and taking a step back from all of that is really hard work. I thought I got my weekends back about a year and a half ago but it never really happened!”
Looking forward into the future, Sean and Robin are on the lookout for new investment to help further grow the brewery site, “you might find it hard to believe having just spent a day here but we reckon we can squeeze one more 15-barrel fementer in here at this site,” Robin chuckles, “but after that we’ll be looking at some possible alternatives.
“It’s been an interesting experience brewing on a kit that we didn’t commission; we would never have started with this if we’d had the vast investment that some breweries have had, but it’s helped us to learn a lot about all the different systems and processes. I think we’re going to try and source some funding for a new place in about two years time somewhere a bit closer to home (Sean lives in Whitstable and Robin is from Hastings), maybe in the Ashford area”
With plans to move into canning their beer sometime in the future, as well as eventually having a taproom at a new site, it seems unlikely Sean, Robin and George will be getting their weekends back again anytime soon…
In return for my agonisingly long day of back-breaking manual labour, the guys at Pig & Porter provided me with a traditional brewday breakfast, a growler of Skylarking pale ale and four bottles of their Gothic Imperial Stout to take home. Seemed like a fair trade to me!