About five years ago I visited the USA and decided to try some of the lesser known beer brands I'd heard so much about, like those created by the Stone and Sierra Nevada breweries.
Trouble is, when I returned to the UK, I couldn't find beers that tasted as good. Lager was a lost cause to me so that didn't leave many options. OK, Fuller's were brewing a few like Wild River and an IPA but they were still very much English based drinks. For me, they didn't really push the hop flavouring or the envelop at all.
Two years later, I went back to the US and that's when I really decided these were the beers I wanted to be drinking. The truth dawned on me then - I either moved to North America or if I wanted to drink craft beer in the UK, I'd have to brew them myself.
It's a family affair
I spent about six months researching the market and the art. Finally, and with the help of my soon to be Father in Law (thanks Geoff), I made my first fermentation chamber. In brewing, achieving a constant temperature is vital. This we did with a fridge at one end, tubular heaters inside and the whole 'Heath Robinson' thing being run by an STC1000 temperature controller.
Our first proper brew - an English brown extract kit - was in November 2015 and it was a 'home brew' in every sense. It was quite a mission to get 30 litres of water up to and maintained at the right temperature, Using just our kitchen's gas hob. Not only that, it made a lot of mess which didn't go down well with the missus. So for the sake of my relationship, the next brew was done in our garage.
Working small, thinking big
We're a small team but with quiet ambition. As I've run big operations teams of around 150 people in the past, over many locations, this will stand us in good stead as I leave the crafty art to my deputy brewer and I concentrate on growing and managing Tap It. My business partner already runs several businesses and not only shares my passion for brewing craft beer but has also provided finance and much needed support stuff; business administration, marketing and of course tasting. I mean, someone's got to do the essentials.
If you're not making mistakes, you're not making anything
So far I've only had one beer I had to throw away. In my early days I'd been used to brewing in 25 litre batches and decided to have a go at a 50 litre batch. So I simply doubled all the quantities and stuck an extra hour on the process - an easy mistake to make. The result? A beer that was far too bitter and, ultimately, it was worth far less than the bottles it was in.
Now I brew all grain, fully understand the process and pitfalls and have not had to throw any more beer away. I'm delighted with the quality and taste of the beers we produce (as are those 'volunteers' we've tested them on!) and the fact that we've got real consistency now.
It's a labour of love
Firstly, we wanted to brew the beers we love – we knew our passion would go into every glass and others would love them too. Secondly, we wanted to cover all the popular bases and we've got about 15 great recipes we're totally delighted with. Thirdly, however, we want to stick with known styles which we can reproduce consistently to the same exacting standard. But watch this space - look out for new beers coming to The Taps in due course.
Talking about The Taps, it's another enterprise that's very close to our hearts. It's in Oxford Street, Southampton, and the planned opening date is Summer 2017, so look out for that!
More without the less
At the moment, our beers are still being brewed in my garage, generally in 25 litre batches. We tend to stick to the 25 litre quantities as we have a four tap system and our fermentation chamber can take five times 25 litres. The sums mean we can aim to produce that amount every four weeks.
But next month we move to our new brewery premises in Southampton. The new set up we'll have there - based on a 8BBL system with 4 fermenters, and 2 brite tanks - enables us to focus on keg beer, as the brite tanks allow us to carbonate the beer before we keg. This is important because historically where beer has been added to a cask and then left to carbonate naturally the process could take weeks to complete. Using the brite tanks we can achieve this within two or three days and get a more consistent level of carbonation.
Better still, the system will give us 1300 litres per brew. And as we don't use finings, it means vegans and vegetarians can enjoy or craft beers, too. In some cases the beer will be cloudy because of this, but it doesn't mean it's bad or off. In fact, you'll find a non-fined beer can have more flavour and hop aroma.
Exciting times ahead
So we have the new brewery facility opening in March, and our first bar - The Taps - opening Summer 2017, both here in Southampton.
We're planning for the The Taps to provide us with a 'lift and shift' business model, so we can expand the idea to more locations based on the success of our first bar.
And, naturally, we're constantly searching for innovative new beers for people to enjoy, brewed to our same exacting standards. No doubt we'll be producing smaller brews of some of these and trailing them out of our new brewery unit.
We'll keep you posted on our progress on all fronts right here and through our social media pages.