It was in 1986 that Hop Back history began, when John and Julie Gilbert purchased the freehold of The Wyndham Arms, a public house on the outskirts of Salisbury in Wiltshire. The space in the cellar of the pub and its backyard enabled John Gilbert to begin brewing quality ales for sale at The Wyndham Arms.
Within two years, the beers were achieving recognition at CAMRA's beer festivals and in June 1991 a second public house, The Waterloo Arms in Southampton, was purchased by the partnership.
The beers produced by John Gilbert were sold in these two tied outlets and, largely because of their reputation and the support of CAMRA awards, began to be sold direct to wholesalers, free houses and tied houses as guest beers. The beers won further awards at festivals and exhibitions, helping to stimulate demand to the point where brewing at The Wyndham Arms reached full capacity. To cope with this increase in demand, Hop Back Brewery Limited was formed in October 1991 to substantially increase the scale of brewing operations. The new Company acquired the lease of a factory unit at Downton, between Salisbury and Southampton, and after refurbishment and installation of equipment, commenced brewing in June 1992.
In August 1992, the Summer Lightning bitter brewed at Downton won the award for "Best Strong Beer" at CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) at Olympia.
Output at the Downton site was, at this time around 350 barrels a month. With a view to increasing capacity, to satisfy unfulfilled demand and to accommodate projected growth in sales, the Company acquired the lease of a second factory unit adjacent to the present brewery, for warehousing and offices.
In 1993 the Company went for expansion through the Government’s Business Expansion Scheme, raising a total of £565,000 through individual subscribers. In March of the same year the Company acquired the freehold of The Sultan in Norman Road, Merton, South West London, which started trading at the end of May.
In June of 1994 the Company took the freehold of a third factory unit at Downton (output now rising to around 500 barrels per month). This acquisition enabled the storage of more fermenting vessels, which in turn allowed the brewery to increase capacity to around 1000 barrels a month over the next year. In July, the Brewery acquired the freehold of its fourth pub, The Hop Leaf in Southampton Street, Reading, which opened in March 1995. A small court-yard at the back of The Hop Leaf allowed the installation of a small brewhouse enabling it to brew house beers on the premises from the end of March 1995.
In March 1996 the session beer G.F.B (3.5% ABV), its initials taken from its full name of Gilbert's First Brew, was entered in The International Brewing & Technology Awards held in Burton-upon-Trent. The beer gained Gold Medal in its class and also won the overall Gold Medal, beating over 300 beers to the title. In August, the brewery gained its fifth pub, The Jolly Farmer in Weybridge, Surrey. The brewery finished its financial year with sales 25% up on the previous year.
1997 was another successful year for the brewery. In April, Summer Lightning was awarded Cask Ale Brand of the Year 1997, sponsored by the Morning Advertiser and Licensee. May saw Hop Back Brewery celebrating its tenth anniversary with a birthday party held for over 400 shareholders and customers, and the event also saw the official launch of Crop Circle (ABV 4.2%).
Then, in August, Summer Lightning triumphed at the GBBF in Olympia, London by winning two awards: Bronze in the Best Strong Beer category and Gold in the Bottle Conditioned Beer category.
1998 began with the purchase of The Bull Hotel at Downton, Hop Back Brewery's sixth public house, and continued in a successful vein with Summer Lightning winning the Gold Award at the National Hop Association. 1998 also saw Summer Lighting becoming nationally available in Tesco supermarkets, and subsequently exported to the USA, together with Thunderstorm. At the end of the year, Hop Back commenced brewing special 'one-off' brews to add variety to the standard product range.