John Gilbert was a pioneer of the new wave of microbrewers that appeared in the early 1980s, running the Battersea and Brixton Brewing Companies.
In 1986 John decided to strike out on his own, so sold his house in London and bought a traditional street-corner pub in Salisbury from Ushers of Trowbridge. The Wyndham Arms suited John’s needs perfectly, with a large cellar and yard for a microbrewery, two cosy bars, accommodation and a private room for events.
John adopted the carved cornerstone above the front door, the laughing face of Dionysus (Greek god of wine, winemaking and general good times!) as the logo for his new venture, the Hop Back Brewery (us!).
From the beginning, the quality of the beer and the ambiance of our first pub proved a hit with local drinkers and The Wyndham Arms has appeared in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide every year since.
In addition to a strong local reputation, national awards (including Champion New Brewery 1989) led to demand from wholesalers, free houses and tied pubs. This success encouraged John to expand and he purchased a second pub, The Waterloo Arms in Southampton, in 1991.
Further awards from beer festivals spurred demand beyond the capacity of The Wyndham’s cellar. Hop Back Brewery Ltd was formed in October 1991 and we moved to a small industrial unit in Downton, just south of Salisbury. After refurbishment and installation, brewing on the new 20 barrel plant started in June 1992. The following August, Summer Lightning brewed on the new site won the award for Best Strong Beer at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.
Although output had increased to 350 barrels per month, demand continued to grow and we leased a second adjacent unit to allow for warehousing and (desperately needed) office space. In 1993, under the Business Expansion Scheme, we raised over £500,000 from individual subscribers and the following year acquired a further industrial unit with space for more fermentation vessels. Barrelage increased to 500 and then 1000 barrels per month by 1995.
In this time, we acquired two further pubs, The Sultan in Wimbledon, South London and The Hop Leaf in Reading, both traditional friendly local watering holes.
Success continued in 1996 with a win at the Brewing Industry International Awards for the session beer G.F.B. (Gilbert’s First Brew), claiming Gold Medal both in its class and the overall Championship, beating 232 other cask beers!
With an eye on the increasing demand for quality bottle-conditioned beer, in 1996 we invested in a bottling line and the following year Summer Lightning was awarded the Gold Medal for Bottle Conditioned Beer at GBBF and Cask Ale Brand of the Year from the Morning Advertiser.
We celebrated our tenth anniversary with a party for over 400 shareholders and customers, using the event to launch the adventurous Crop Circle, brewed to a complex recipe including malted barley, wheat and maize along with a selection of English and continental hop varieties.
Building on the success of our bottle conditioned beers in the mid 1990s, including a CAMRA Gold Medal, we struck a deal to make bottles of Summer Lightning (link to ‘Summer Lightning’) available in Tesco stores nationwide. With the growth in sales of bottle-conditioned products, we acquired yet another industrial unit to provide additional storage space and we further expanded the range with the lemongrass-infused Taiphoon, marketed to off-licences and supermarket chains.
We continued to innovate, introducing monthly special brews to add variety to the cask range and were rewarded with some further prizes, including Gold Medal from the National Hop Association for Summer Lightning, local awards for seasonal beer Winter Lightning and bottle-conditioned Crop Circle winning the Tesco Spring Challenge, gaining national exposure and availability.
In the early 2000s, we continued investing in the brewhouse, with a new copper and fermenter and a new, larger capacity bottling line to accommodate increasing demand, particularly from national pub chains. Between 2002 and 2005 we also grew the Hop Back pub estate further, with the acquisition of four more pubs. We now have pubs in six counties from our base in the South West to Shropshire and Staffordshire in the Midlands.
While we may be most famous for our trademark pale hoppy beers, our brewing team also pride themselves on the quality of our darker beers. This quality was recognised at the 2011 CAMRA Winter Beer of Britain awards, where Hop Back Entire Stout was named Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain.
In 2012 Hop Back celebrated its 25th birthday, having retained John’s original philosophy and passion for beers that he would want to drink. Brewing great beer requires enthusiasm, knowledge, great raw materials and attention to every aspect of quality. The brewing team is three strong with John Gilbert very much hands-on with recipe design and raw material selection. Head Brewer Steve Wright and brewer Rich Beal have both been with Hop Back for many years and between them have done just about every job on offer in the brewery! The brewers are ably assisted by brewery and packaging plant operators, warehouse and delivery team, administration team and a small salesforce. Not bad for a company that started in the back of a pub!
2013 saw the 25th birthday of our flagship beer Summer Lightning. This trend-setting golden ale has won more than 70 major awards since first brewed, making it probably the most awarded cask ale in Britain.
We have recently undergone a major refurbishment at Hop Back, with the installation of a steam-powered heat- exchanger and a new wort boiling system.
This is much more energy-efficient and shortens the time taken to brew. This also means that at peak production times, we can brew more beer in a shorter time-frame – good news all round!
Brewery-conditioned summer Lightning
In response to customer requests, we’ve introduced brewery-conditioned Summer Lightning. The beer is now conditioned before bottling, and therefore achieves a much more consistent level of condition in the bottle. It also means that you can enjoy the full content of the bottle, and don’t have to wait for the beer to settle before pouring. We have not, of course, made any changes to the original award-winning recipe!
Gluten-free and Vegan beer
For those of you who have customers with specific dietary requirements we have:
Crop Circle at 4.2% which has been accredited gluten-free by Coeliac UK, and
Entire Stout at 4.5%, suitable for vegans.
Both are available in bottle-conditioned format.
2017 sees the 30th Anniversary of the first brew by John Gilbert at the Wyndham Arms and the early beginnings of The Hop Back Brewery. 2018 is the 30th birthday of Summer Lightning, our flagship and most awarded beer.