“I like it because I can drink several pints of it and not fall over on the way home,” laughs Alex Grieg, as he takes the first sip of Kent session pale from a jug. We’re sat on a pair of slightly tired looking red sofas in the back-end of Fuggles Beer Café, the artisan pub-come-bar owned and run by Alex in Tunbridge Wells. Approaching it’s third birthday in November, Fuggles has become one of the most popular haunts in the town, as well as gaining a reputation for having the most varied and exciting beer selection in the South-East outside of London. The pub now boasts over a hundred beers on tap and in bottles and can rightly claim to be at the very forefront of the craft beer movement. I sat down with Alex to ask him about exactly why he thinks Fuggles has been so successful, and what he has in store for the future.
Alex’s story is similar to that of many within the beer industry, having worked in the trade for over twelve years. Starting out working in an off license at the age of eighteen, before moving up through the ranks of Pitcher & Piano, Indian Pale Ale wasn’t a term he had even heard of in his twenties. “I was a lager drinker like most of us probably were – Kroenenbourg was my tipple of choice at the time,” he tells me, “but then, when I was working in Chester, I had my first craft beer – a Brooklyn lager.” However, it wasn’t until the second beer; Goose Island Honkers, an English style bitter that Alex was truly converted to the cause; “I’d never tried anything like it; it was well hopped, it was well balanced. It was fantastic at the time.” Enthused, Alex left Pitcher & Piano, came back home to Tunbridge Wells and took a job in a pub called The Wells Kitchen: “that’s where the craft beer thing really started for me.”
Now a passionate advocate about the merits of good beer, Alex needed an outlet. Working at St. John’s Yard, he began to plot an escape. “I’d worked with some not particularly nice people (although not at St. John’s Yard) and it got to the point where it was getting me down and I wasn’t happy,” he says, “so I had to do something for myself.” That something, as it turns out, was Fuggles. With £40,000 scrapped together – half from his Mother and Grandmother, half from a Government backed loan, Alex rented a run-down shoe-shop in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, and turned it into a “fairly threadbare” beer café, opening its doors to the public in November 2013.
Fuggles was an instant hit. Initially serving four cask ales, ten keg beers and a number of bottles from Belgium and the UK, the pub enjoyed a huge level of success within the local community and was soon expanding to serve a range of spirits and whiskies. The pub now boasts over forty different gins, and a similar number of whiskies, something which Alex tells me was a hugely important factor in the success of the business: “It (the gin) was something at the time which was really growing and I could see that it was a really great add-on to what we already did,” he notes. “As a bar, as a pub overall, it meant we appealed to more people that improved the atmosphere and everything else we were doing, I think.”
As we chat, I order a cheese and ale toastie from the food menu. Made with local farmhouse cheddar and Belgian Westmalle ale, as well as four types of leek and onion, the sandwiches are freshly prepared each morning, and are served alongside a range of cheese and charcuterie boards as the main food offerings in the pub. “All we wanted to do was something that was simple to prepare, tasted good, easy to put on a plate and went really well with the products we were selling,” Alex admits, “it was as simple as that. We never had room for a kitchen, so we had to keep it small.” Nonetheless, he takes does pride in giving a platform to local businesses, with many of the products sold coming from the surrounding areas in Kent. “Local provenance and local products are vital to what we do. We’ve got some fantastic breweries and some fantastic food producers within thirty miles or so of us – that’s amazing, we’re so lucky. It’s not our sole focus, but it’s lovely to have local products and to know where it comes from, and it’s nice to know and support the guys that make it, who are only round the corner.”
Of course, the main focus of Fuggles, is, and always will be beer. Naming the pub after a local hop was a obvious way of ensuring the pub and its bartenders never forget their original purpose, but watching the staff at work, it’s evident that probably won’t ever be an issue. “I’m adamant that staff know what they’re selling and how it tastes and how to sell that to a customer,” Alex says. Now in his early thirties, sporting a receding hairline and an obligatory bushy beard, he very much fits the bill of a craft beer pub owner. Watching the (predominately also bearded) barstaff chat with customers and recommend styles based on their preferences, it’s immediately evident that Alex invests a lot of time in training his staff. “A lot of the time the customers come to the bar and they’ll ask for a beer and they’re not sure want they want,” he explains. “They’ll ask for something light and hoppy for example and we need to be able to interpret that as bartenders and know what they mean by it. It’s largely to enhance the customer experience and service; we have to be able to offer customers the right product.”
On the particular day of my visit, Alex and his staff are busy preparing the bar for that evening’s event; a tap takeover with ten beers from Buxton Brewery. A brewery at the very vanguard of the beer movement in the UK, Alex is excited for his punters to try their new Belgian range. “One of the reasons we really wanted to get them down is that we specialise in Belgian beer and Buxton have just completed their range of Belgian inspired beers. We felt it was the perfect time to get them down to really showcase what they were doing with the influence they’ve had from Belgium alongside their core range and specials.” Amongst the beers available to try from the Derbyshire brewery are their Belgian Tripel and new Double IPA, Kingmaker. “Buxton are without a doubt up there in terms of UK breweries in general. They’re up there in the top ten quite happily sitting alongside Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Dark Star, Beavertown, Arbor, Kernel, Burning Sky etc,” Alex enthuses. “Its nice to give our core beer drinkers something to showcase a brewery that we really respect and really like.”
Alex explains the main reason he initially decided to feature Belgian beers in Fuggles came after being inspired by numerous visits to the country. “There’s almost a theatre around the way the Belgians serve their beer,” he says, “you get the correct glassware, the way the beer is poured and the effort that goes into it. Also the flavours and drinkability of some of the stronger beers just blew my mind and I really wanted to showcase that.” There certainly does seem to be an almost Belgian-feel to the bar, with its dimmed lighting and rustic, cobbled together furniture. A number of signs from various breweries adorn the walls, and dotted on each table is a candle in an independently brewed spirit bottle. Nonetheless, Alex is determined that the focus on Belgian and British beers does not limit Fuggles’ range, and has recently expanded to include beers from breweries such as De Molen and Kees brewery in Holland.
Part of the reason behind Fuggles’ immense success has been down to the pub’s ability to create a brand for itself, with the beer café now stocking T-shirts, bar-blades and growlers, enabling drinkers to take home up to two litres of their favourite draft beer with a twenty-five per cent discount. “When you open up a business like Fuggles you’re effectively creating a high street brand,” Alex states, “and you have to get your name out there and get people talking about your business; it’s free advertising basically!” Refusing to compare the Fuggles brand to that of high-intensity and outlandish breweries such as Brewdog, who have made a name for themselves through their ‘punk ethos’ as much as through their beer, he prefers to label his own strategy as more of “a slow cooking form of viral marketing.”
Despite being a huge success both financially and with local punters, Fuggles hasn’t always quite found favour with some more traditional beer drinkers, finishing runner up two years in a row in West Kent CAMRA’s pub of the year awards, despite Alex’s frankly obsessive nature when it comes to the condition of his cask ale (as we speak he tests his pint with a thermometer before declaring irritably that it is “just the wrong side of twelve degrees” before sending a co-worker down to the cellar to investigate.) “We’ve had a lot of really good press, we keep coming runner up in various things,” he acknowledges, “which obviously its nice but I’d love to win at some point – West Kent CAMRA if you’re listening, seriously, come on!”
On the topic of CAMRA’s future, a topic that has been the subject of much debate within the beer community in recent weeks, Alex has mixed feelings. He is unequivocally an advocate of promoting cask beer, “I think what’s fantastic about cask is that it’s a uniquely British product – there’s nobody else really doing it – I think it’s an underrated art form,” but questions the policy which has seen the organisation promote badly-conditioned beers on cask over more reliable keg beers. “I wish they (CAMRA) would focus more on cask beer in the marketplace. Generally they’re a good thing for the industry but they’re pushing a product that is so indifferent in so many pubs and that frustrates me,” he sighs, “it’s not easy to go up to a Landlord and say: ‘Your beer tastes like shit mate, sort it out.’ but at the same time if the beer is too warm or it tastes like vinegar, I think that as part of the campaign maybe they ought to be mentioning it.” On what he would like to see the organisation do more of in the future, Alex is clear: “I think there’s an educational thing CAMRA could do, it’s members are very knowledgeable and they certainly know how beer should be tasting. That’s what I’d really like to see CAMRA doing – Improving the quality of cask ale.”
Whilst we are on the topic of the future, I enquire as to whether Alex believes the level of growth we have seen in the beer industry is sustainable, and in what direction he thinks the next step ought to be for UK breweries. “I’d like to hope that the industry will keep growing and keep expanding as it has done,” he replies, “and I hope breweries will continue to be more experimental and continue to revive old historical styles of beer.” He does think, however, that there remains room for improvement in terms of the quality of beer being produced by some breweries. “There’s a few breweries out there doing a huge load of new beers and collaborations yet the actual quality of the beer is not great, they’re just trying to get their name out there rather than focusing on making a really good core range and making that really solid and consistent.” Indeed, he warns that unless this standard can be met, some breweries will fall behind. “New breweries are opening left right and centre with a lot of money behind them such as Cloudwater, and the beer has been largely fantastic so far. That’s the benchmark. If you cant keep up with that you’ll struggle to create a long term, viable brewery.”
And what does the future hold for Fuggles? Rumours of expansion have been on the cards for some time now, with the pub having hosted a pop-up bar throughout November last year in Tonbridge Fire-station. “Yes, we’d love to expand,” Alex says coyly, “Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be able to get cracking on Fuggles number two.” On the location of this new bar, he refuses to be drawn, but tells me it will almost certainly be local. In the meantime, however, with more tap-takeovers, a beer club launching and a big refurbishment in the pipeline, the team have more than enough to be getting on with. “It should be enough to keep me busy until Autumn, I hope!” Alex laughs, before excusing himself to prepare for the evening’s tap takeover. If I take one thing away from our talk, it’s that Fuggles certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.