Down an endless-looking country lane, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Devon, lies O'Hanlon's Brewery. It looks for all the world like a muddy farm with a picturesque farmhouse next door, and only the sweet, yeasty smell of brewing gives its true purpose away.
"It's hard to find, and I like it that way," John O'Hanlon says of his family business, which brews its own range of award-winning beers as well as Eldridge Pope brands Royal Oak and Thomas Hardy's Ale, which won the International Beer Challenge 2006.
O'Hanlon lives here with his wife Liz, who handles sales and exports for the brewery, their two children aged 11 and 15, about a dozen dogs, and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Raquel - "after the Trotters". It's a far cry from the centre of London, where he originally set up the brewery.
"I had a very good pub in London and I needed to grow it somehow, so I decided I would get into the brewing business to open the whole thing up and make it a bit more interesting," he says.
"The brewery was sited in Vauxhall, and we initially supplied our own pub in Clerkenwell. We started supplying other free houses, and then we won the Society of Independent Brewers' Wheat Beer Challenge. That gave us a listing in what was then Safeway, so we got into bottling to keep up with that, and that started us off with supermarkets and off-licences."
When the brewery started outgrowing its London site, O'Hanlon realised it wouldn't be viable to get a larger base in London. "The free house market in London is quite scant, so the market there isn't great for a small London brewer. We decided we would sell the pub and the brewery, our warehouse in Oxfordshire and a refrigeration business we had at the time, and in 1999-2000 we sold the lot and moved down to the west country."
The brewery produces some 500,000 barrels a year and is growing by about 20 per cent each year. " Our profile is greater than perhaps our production levels," says O'Hanlon. He is about to expand the brewery with a new bay, new vessels and more equipment, and has recently taken on an apprentice brewer to work with head brewer Alex Bell and assistant Richard Mayne.
tends to leave the brewing to his brewers - but he did invent O'Hanlon's Original Port Stout. "The addition of port to stout is an Irish tradition, but I think we were the first brewery
to do it - although we have had a couple of people copy us."
When O'Hanlon's won the licence to brew 11.7 per cent abv Thomas Hardy's, Eldridge Pope's last head brewer Dan Thomasson came to the brewery to help them get the flavour right.
"He advised us on the recipe, the brewing, the profile and the problems. With Dan's assistance we made huge headway - Alex learned a huge amount from a man who has been in the business a long time . His experience was invaluable."
O'Hanlon's has listings in Morrisons, Thresher, Majestic and regional listings in the south west for its Goldblade wheat beer and Royal Oak in Tesco. It is also brewing a
5 per cent ale for a supermarket own-
"It is a bottle-conditioned, nice, interesting, rich, complex beer. The type of beer that would have been brought about by the new smaller brewers. We've used some quite interesting hops, which have to remain secretive,"
The back labels of all O'Hanlon's beers include a food pairing
and as much about their provenance as possible. The latest release, Goldblade, has notes
by beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on its profile and food matches. "We have as much information as possible to make the product more appealing, whether you are male or female and a beer drinker or not. But we've kept it as simple as possible because sometimes you can get overly complicated."
O'Hanlon says: "The main problem for any small niche producer is access to market. Perhaps a few more in-store tastings would give the small producer the ability to reach the general public in a greater manner than just walking by [products on shelves].
"It is making people aware of the artisanal product, the ingredients that go into it and the care and attention that is taken to make these products - that is probably really where we need to come from."
John O'Hanlon's favourite food and beer matches
"Beef marinated in port stout for the wintertime, served with mash with spring onion. In the summer time, Goldblade is fantastic with any barbecue food or curries
- it has got the hop character to cut through all those flavours, which some beers may not quite do."