Late Knights Brewery founder Steve Keegan reflects on a difficult year that saw him lose his brewery and pubs. However, 12 months he has now launched a new project in Sussex and reflects on what he has learnt during the process.
This time last year, I was in the midst of a battle. 6 weeks earlier I’d taken an almighty bash on my head playing football (it was in the semi-final, and we still won!) This, accompanied by a tremendous amount of stress from some internal wrangles at Late Knights (my old brewery and pub co) set me up for a summer of major uncertainty, soul searching, physical & mental recovery.
The physical side of things I kept to myself as much as I could, as I needed a lot of rest and I wasn’t in a position to even be able to speak or get out of my bed for about 3 months. The whack had messed with my inner-ear and I had lost all balance, 80% of my hearing and given (what I thought was) a permanent migraine (one of the bad ones that make you sick loads). From being a 100% busy-pub and beer-boy, I’d gone to a stage that I couldn’t go into a supermarket without the whole world spinning and needing to sit in the car whilst Bethany did the weekly shop. Getting on a busy train was my idea of a living nightmare.
At Late Knights Bethany and I had created some amazing pubs, from The Ravensgate Arms in Ramsgate, to the Brighton Beer Dispensary and a bunch of great boozers in London. When the Summer was over and I was still in the middle of my recovery we had to let our pubs go, I wasn’t able to give them the support they needed and we had firmly set up our life in East Sussex. It was heart-breaking, but the battle wasn’t worth having anymore. Even from my reclusive state I tried very hard to make sure that the splitting of the company would be done to the best for our people & customers and that each pub would still be given the best chance possible to prosper. We had some great people in place to make this happen, and I’m glad to say that many of the pubs are still going strong.
What we were trying to do in South London (and a few other satellite boozing areas) was to take old buildings that weren’t being used to their potential and add something to the community, and all under the banner of -great beer and great people. Be it taking a sloppy old enterprise pub in Brighton and turning it into one of the best pubs in Sussex, or clapped out old bookmakers in Gipsy Hill & Peckham.
I miss these places, I miss the people who we created these sites with. Lots of them have gone on to do some amazing things and I’d like to think that our audacity helped inspire some people along the way; our youthful naïvety and ambition had created a good business out of not a lot and formed social places that people now called home.
Liam has set up his own soft drinks company in Manchester, Nick has an award winning Vegan Cafe in Berlin, Henry is working with Tool brewery, Andy with Four Pure, Ross with By The Horns & Catherine with Hop, Burns & Black. Matty ran a hostel and finally took up surf teaching. Ben took up the running of the Beer Rebellions, whilst Darren and Sam went to run my old business partners’ side of the Beer Dispensaries. Jon & Theresa headed to Germany to start their own beer bar concept, Mik opened up some market stalls and Aiden is at Brick Brewery. Sanj is working with Utobeer, Fran and Amanda are still winning at life (we were just lucky to have them!) Pete moved to SA to start his own catering company, Roger is working with Gadds, Kiwi Matt has set up his own brewery and Jim and Cody are about the best thing to happen to Brighton apart from their promotion to the Premier League.
This was our first step into working for ourselves. We had opened some very good places for Fullers (Barrel & Horn in Bromley, and the Union Tavern in Westbourne Park) but the move into starting our own company was a big leap into the unknown. As with every first time entrepreneurs there was a lot to learn and over the course of the 4 years with Late Knights I learned more than you ever could at a University course on business studies. I learned a lot about the importance of setting the company structure up properly, of getting the right people to invest in you and of how easy it is to become detached from your core business from growing too fast.
I was 29 when I opened Late Knights Brewery and our first pubs in Gipsy Hill and Brighton, and the rollercoaster was about to set off. Over the next 4 years the people who we met and the amazing things that we have created have shaped the way I want to live the rest of my life. Our pubs had won lots of awards, but the beer never hit the highs that we wanted. This is where my distraction came in. I’d built the brewery and started brewing, but within a few weeks of our first brew I needed to employ someone to do that for me as we were opening pubs every other month. Being a small and unknown company we didn’t have the ability to take on a head brewer and unfortunately we didn’t have the right people in place to focus on the product with any real strategy. We had cobbled together a brewery out of old milking equipment, and the fact that we got the quality of beer we did out of that little back alley brewery was a miracle. But we did, the end product was a bit hit and miss and this is the biggest regret I have from Late Knights, that I moved out of the brewery too soon.
So in October and I had the all clear from my head injury, I started planning what I was going to do next. If LK had inspired so many people to go into business, I was pretty sure that I could take everything that I had learnt and start again but with this all in place. Number 1 was to build a proper brewery in a good space, with room to grow. Number 2 was to focus hard on the quality of the product and work with my initial customers to constantly improve each beer. Number 3 was to have a firm strategy about how I want to develop Holler Boys, and how I can help people learn from what I have done in the past 5 years.
The best thing that I have had over the past year is support, be it from Bethany and our family, medical or alternative therapists or from all of my beery friends (you know who you all are! xx).
I suppose, it isn’t really the ‘what’ I’m doing that will set me apart (I’m on a mission to make great beer that people like drinking - that isn’t too unique & also open some really nice places to drink it in) it is the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that is more important to me.
I’ve been working in pubs and beer all of my life (it is my life) and I want to do something a bit different. I opened the brewery on my mate’s farm and Ant is already planning to be growing all of the pale barley we need to brew with and plant 10 acres of hops - that is cool. We are looking at ways to put solar panels on the whole of the brewery to create as much of our own energy as we can. Our brewery waste already goes through a bio-bed which completely denatures the chemicals before being used on his fields.
I guess that is a little bit of ‘what we are doing’ but we want to be as self sustainable as possible, because if it is possible to do something good for the planet then we bloody-well should. I’m also mainly doing this to earn a living and support my family, as most of us do. But also I want to use this as a way to help, I was lucky that I had so much support and help to get me through some pretty difficult times over the last year, but I know that a lot of people don’t get that help. It is getting easier for people to talk about mental health issues, but it really is still a stigma, I’ve lost 2 pals over the past 3 years who didn’t get that help.
It affects all walks of life, from rich footballers to confused teenagers. Male or female, black or white, rich or poor, it is the one thing that runs through the whole world, but it is something that we can all help with. I’m looking to partner with a few local mental health charities who we can not only financially support (by committing a chunk of all of our profits to) but also open our lovely space on our farm for a bit of a space to get away from it all come and help out here. If you think you know of a group that might fit with us please do put us in touch.
My way of dealing with the anxiety brought on from the head injury (and of course stress!) was to put my focus into something fulfilling, and I was very lucky I had the opportunity to open Holler Boys and from October - February I was based at the farm cleaning, painting, plumbing and building our brew space (with the help from some great people).
2017 has started off very well, I have fully recovered from the ailments of 2016 (pretty much everyone had a shitty 2016!) I’ve created something amazing (well 2 things, as my son Fred was born in April!) and my desire to do something great that gives back to my community is stronger than ever. I’m thankful to the world for giving me this chance to have this adventure, and I’d love to take as many people as I can on it..
This article first appeared on the Holler Boys website, at http://www.hollerboysbrewery.co.uk/