‘It’s full of stress, a lot of sleepless nights, but I love it, I’m not joking, the brewery’s my life, my girlfriend, my everything. It doesn’t feel like work, even though I work at least seven days a week’
So says James Davies, 31, from Halstock, between Beaminster and Yeovil. James is head brewer at Tapstone Brewing Company, which he set up in January, though the title of head brewer doesn’t really do justice to his efforts. He built the brewery himself, on an industrial estate in Chard, and he does almost everything else, including deliveries — he takes care to carry his casks upright and steady, rather than roll them around on the ground, so the beer settles quicker in pubs’ cellars.
Tapstone’s informal brewery tap is The Bottle Inn in Marshwood, where James used to enjoy drinking when he lived in Broadwindsor.
Nigel Blake, landlord at The Bottle, says: “It’s nice to see a local, young innovative brewery. The type of pub we are, we want to see fresh, innovative beers and Tapstone just covers the whole lot; nice fresh flavours, nice and hoppy, good balance and he’s working on them all the time, trying to improve them all the time, which is always a good thing.”
Tapstone is part of the surge in recent years of small breweries across the country, and part of the shift towards more adventurous tastes inspired by so-called “craft brewing” in America. It’s an intriguing phenomenon to observe locally, because this area is still predominantly a traditional bitter drinking region, with a particular style of South West bitters, slightly sweet, and long-established breweries specialising in that type of beer.
But James is a fan of American hops. Right now he’s mostly using Chinook, Cascade, Simcoe and Centennial.
He says: “American hop-growing is a lot more advanced. English hop-growing is sort of stuck in the 1970s and there hasn’t been much development in the hops so they use classic ‘best bitter’ types of hops. I prefer more flavourful beers, not Doom Bar and stuff like that. There’s no reason why you can’t grow decent flavourful hops in England, we’ve got a beautiful climate.”
He has begun growing American hops on his allotment and next year he wants to start a hop farm
“The end-game is to have brewery, hop farm and pubs,” he says. “I want to be like an American craft brewery, a big one, for the South West, and in terms of public perception, a very, very hop-forward brewery, making consistently good beers.”
James used to be head brewer at Dawkins Ales in Timsbury, not far from Bath and Bristol. He started Tapstone because he wanted his own business.
But can he do it?
“I haven’t got an option but to do it,” he says. “Sunday I was there till 10 o’clock, Monday it was 9 o’clock, it’s like that all the time, but it still doesn’t feel like work, mainly because it’s creating systems and once the systems are in place I can see that in a few months it’s going to be a lot easier.”
In person, James is inspiringly energetic, and he’s using his knowledge well. For example, building his own brewery meant he could tailor it to some unusually specialised techniques, such as a quicker method of cooling the wort to 80°C (hop oils vaporise above 80°C so it’s important to get the heat down fast).
Still, it can be very difficult for the founders of companies to recruit staff who share their values, vision and sheer physical willingness to slog away. James hopes to lure the right people with the promise of shares.
It’s also possible that the trends which have so far boosted James and many other new micro-breweries may shift. Back at The Bottle, Nigel says that tastes are changing again. In New Zealand, for example, he says: “The craft ale revival over there really started in real light New Zealand hops, very light beers, but now people are trying stouts, porters, they’re going into traditional-style bitters over there, looking at different areas, and it’s going to happen over here.” On the other hand, it’s likely that in West Dorset, East Devon and South Somerset, the so-called craft brewing revolution has still got a long way to go.
James’ instincts and tastes do seem to be sound. Take the name Tapstone, for example. He says: “There’s a road in Chard called Tapstone Road, right next to the brewery, and I always really liked the name, it sounds good, like a beer tap, and then I also did a bit of research and I found out that a tapstone is a piece of medieval brewing equipment so I was like, ‘Oh wow, bang, that’s the name.”
After he opened, locals in Chard told him that there used to be an old brewery on Tapstone Road.
So the omens are good.
Tapstone Brewing Company currently produces four beers, Barn Storm (ABV 4%), Sea Monster (ABV 4.2%), Wild Woods (4.5%) and Voodoo Juice (ABV 4.8%). They mostly go to pubs in Bristol, Bath and London, although James has just struck a distribution deal with Forest Wholesale in Piddlehinton near Dorchester.
Nigel’s favourite is Voodoo Juice — a red IPA, “an excellent beer, a bit more bite to it which suits my palate down to the ground”. All four have sold out straight away at The Bottle. Nigel says: “We’re fortunate enough to be able to sell the same sort of beers you can sell in Bristol. We have got a clientele that likes pretty much any type of beer here. We can sell the strong stouts, we can sell the porters, we can sell the milds. It’s an ideal place to test a beer.”