From Who to brew: what does Roger Daltrey’s beer taste like?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Both The Who frontman Roger Daltrey and his 40-year-old son Jamie have eyes that are astonishingly blue. Framed by pretty lashes that lend them an almost permanent twinkle, they crinkle up merrily each time they laugh. And there seems to be a lot of laughter in the Daltrey household. From the moment I arrive at their 600-acre family farm in East Sussex to the moment I leave several mud-splattered hours later, the banter between Roger, Jamie and a whole cast of relations, in-laws and colleagues is almost constant. This is a family – or maybe a better word would be clan – that is clearly very tight.
The Daltrey HQ is Holmshurst Manor – a Jacobean pile overlooking the rolling fields and forests of Wealden in East Sussex. Roger and his wife Heather Taylor bought it, and subsequently the surrounding farm, in the 1970s as an escape from London life. It’s where they raised their children. And it’s also where Roger built a 25‑acre trout fishery called Lakedown, which has been open to the public since 1981.
I meet them at a secluded fishing lodge overlooking one of the four spring-fed trout lakes that meander through the bottom of the valley. Recently renovated (in large part by Roger himself), the lodge has now been designated the Taproom for their latest venture, The Lakedown Brewing Co, the micro-brewery that Roger, Jamie and Jamie’s brothers-in-law, Christopher Rule and Des Murphy, launched quietly this year.
The Daltreys may be rock royalty, but the Taproom is resolutely un-fancy. With its clapboard walls, corrugated-iron roof, and stacks of chopped logs outside, it looks more like a hunting cabin than a Farrow & Ball country pub. Inside, it’s also comfortingly spit-and-sawdust: furnished with just a few wooden tables, a wood burner, a chalkboard with the beers on tap and a couple of glass cases displaying some vast prize trout. Today it’s full of people in wellies and overalls bustling around moving kegs, making tea and fielding calls about cattle and beer deliveries. Over at a table by the window Roger watches the rain lashing down outside. He wears a tweed baker boy cap and holds a battered shepherd’s crook (“I bought it in the Lake District in 1974 when we were filming Tommy”). On the table in front of him is a mug of tea with a Union Jack on it.
“Come and sit down!” he says, beckoning me over with a smile that’s immensely charming, but also clearly not to be messed with. I pull up a metal chair and someone brings me tea as well. “Just look, isn’t it beautiful?” he says, gesturing towards the lily pad-covered lake. “I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done.”
I know from reading Daltrey’s entertaining autobiography, Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite, that he did actually build this network of lakes himself; a former sheet-metal worker, he’s always been pretty handy. He digs out some faded photos of him and a pal in yellow diggers, excavating the sticky Sussex clay. “We made a mess,” he says with a happy growl, “but it was a wonderful one!”
At the height of The Who’s success, that hard graft was a vital antidote to the “insanity” of life on tour, he says. “It kept me sane, kept me out of trouble. Made me sleep at night.” By the time Jamie was born, in 1981, the days of wild partying and driving Rolls-Royces into swimming pools were largely over. And life, according to Jamie anyway, was pretty idyllic.
“Dad was around a lot more than people might think when I was growing up,” says Jamie. “Some of my earliest memories are of him carrying me around these lakes on his shoulders,” he recalls as we slide our way through the sticky mud between rainstorms. “Having all this nature and freedom, the animals and tractors and diggers when I was growing up – it was really pretty amazing.”
There was the occasional famous house guest: “I remember loving Linda McCartney because she was the only one who’d play Monopoly with me,” says Jamie. But despite the abundance of rock-star anglers, the Daltreys have kept the fishery at arm’s length from the music biz: “Eric Clapton’s been down,” says Roger, “but that’s about it. Pete [Townshend] has been to the house, but he’s never seen the farm. He’s never seen what I do with my spare time.”
These days you’re more likely to find father and son fishing at their favourite spot on lake No 4 with Lakedown’s veteran instructor Ted Conklin. “Early morning or at sunset, when the light’s beautiful,” says Jamie. “Just three guys sitting on a bench taking the mick out of each other and chatting the world away.”
Jamie left his job in post-production and moved back to Sussex five years ago to help run the farm and fishery. His brothers-in-law Christopher, a film and advertising creative, and Des, producer of the Teenage Cancer Trust gigs at the Royal Albert Hall, which Roger is a long-time patron of, also both live locally with their families. They were already spending a lot of time together before the idea of a brewery was born.
“We were sitting out here by the lake during the first lockdown, having a beer and discussing how all our industries had ground to a halt,” recalls Jamie. “And Dad floated the idea that there might be a lot of second-hand brewing kits up for sale. We looked at this amazing place and realised it would be the perfect place to do it.”
“Yes the idea for the brewery was all my fault!” interjects Roger, with a wheezy guffaw.
Lakedown’s head brewer is Steve Keegan, a straight-talking 39-year-old from Middlesbrough. “When they first told me about their idea I tried to talk them out of it,” says Keegan. “Craft beer is so full of vanity projects.” He was already busy with his own brewery, Only with Love, but he was attracted by what he describes as “the incredible low levels of bullshit”. The pilot brewery is currently located some 30 minutes’ drive away – but their hope is to give it a permanent home on the estate in the future.
The range features six beers (four of them gluten-free), which are all pretty classic in style. “Our aim isn’t to be a trendy craft brewery,” says Jamie, “it’s to make beers we want to drink.” The quartet of “international” beers made with British and American hops includes a crisp, clean Pilsner; a sessionable American Pale Ale; an IPA with riper, more tropical hop characters; and a hazy, full-bodied New England IPA with punchy notes of lemon curd and pine. There are also two bottle-conditioned “local” ales made with British ingredients: an aromatic English Pale with a mellow, malty bite, and a deep-amber Best Bitter.
East Sussex is traditionally Best Bitter country – so they had to be on their mettle when making this last one. Brewed with seven English malts and hopped with UK Pioneer, Cascade and Jester, it’s biscuity, with a creamy head and a chocolatey bittersweetness. So far, says Jamie, their proudest moment has been seeing neighbours down the local pub choose it over their regular pint.
Roger is the self-appointed director of the Taproom. He painted the ceiling, built the tables and coloured the logos with a Sharpie pen. “What we’ve learned from this whole process is: if Dad suggests an idea, go with it, because if you don’t he’ll end up doing it anyway,” says Jamie. “The day before we opened we came down here to find him with a sledgehammer knocking the wall down.”
By all accounts, it’s been a hit with the neighbours. “It’s really brought everyone together,” says Roger. “And in the end, community’s all you’ve got, isn’t it? Baubles and bangles, it’s all shite. We’ve got stuff coming out of our ears. The people around you are everything.”
Everyone treads gingerly around the topic of Brexit – a subject that has got Roger, a prominent Brexiteer, into hot water in the past few months. But there’s plenty else for the 77-year-old to grumble about instead: the decline of local hop growing, poor husbandry in the fish industry; the pretensions of rewilding; the modern obsession with mobile phones and the tyranny of health and safety. He’s pessimistic about the outlook for the Covid-ravaged live-music industry. And, indeed, despite his desire to get back on the road, shortly after we meet he cites “ongoing concerns about the uncertainty of the Covid-19 situation” as the reason for cancelling a tour planned to start this month. But he continues to make plans, instantly rearranging the tour to kick off in June 2022, while the next Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall is set to make a return in spring.
When I ask him if he’d ever consider a beer and music festival at Lakedown, he roars, “No, it would wreck the place! Not in a million years!”
There won’t be amplified gigs in the Taproom: “I will have no loud music!” But if the neighbours allow it, he says, he might return to his roots with a skiffle band or two. “You know anyone who plays the tea chest?”
By the time I leave, the clouds have lifted and the lakes are glittering in the sun. Along the water’s edge, giant blue dragonflies are buzzing back and forth between the bulrushes. Jamie offers me a lift to the station in his Land Rover. As we climb to the top of the hill, past the Manor, I turn to get one last look at the view that won his father over 50 years ago. With its undulating hills, little copses and daisy chain of lakes winding through the valley, it is, as Roger says, absolutely beautiful.
Jamie pauses for a moment and looks out too. “When most people think of my dad they think of The Who,” he says. “But when I think of him I think of this. For me this, rather than anything else, will always be his legacy.”
To buy Lakedown Brewing Co beers or to book a table at the Taproom, visit lakedownbrewing.com. Lakedown has also just launched three-, six- and 12-month beer subscription boxes (six- and 12-month subscriptions include a Taproom visit)