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Traditional brewers of Britain

by Roger Protz, 10/05

The Hook Norton Brewery was featured prominently in an earlier profile on beer-pages and remains an excellent example of British brewong tradtition. Just a short ride from Hook Norton brings you to another brewery in Oxfordshire with a system of fermentation that if not unique, is certainly rare.

Brakspear is one of the oldest breweries in England and was based, until 2002, in the riverside town of Henley-on-Thames, famous for its annual boating regatta. W H Brakspear had been brewing since the late 17th century and the family is distantly related to Nicholas Breakspear, the only English-born Pope. The brewery's remarkably hoppy Bitter and Special were considered to be among the finest beers in the country.

It seemed the beers would be lost when the owners announced that they planned to close the brewery as the site was worth around 9 million as real estate. Fortunately the owners of the Wychwood Brewery in Witney bought the brands and the brewing equipment, and extended the Witney site to accommodate them. The centerpiece of the brewery is the "double drop" fermentation system, once widely used in Victorian times. The vessels - built of wood but now lined with plastic -have been saved for posterity and continue to produce beers with the true Oxfordshire taste of Brakspear.

Tradition and history intertwine at T D Ridley's brewery in Essex. The brewery at Hartford End is only a few miles from the major town of Chelmsford but, in common with Hook Norton, is almost lost down quiet lanes. The brownstone site with its tall chimney dates from 1842 when Thomas Dixon Ridley, a farmer and maltster, added the brewery. He came from a family that can trace its roots back to the 10th century. Its most famous member was Bishop Nicholas Ridley, who was burnt at the stake by the Tudor queen known as Bloody Mary when he refused to renounce his Protestant faith. The present chairman of the company is called Nicholas in honour of his forebear. In summer 2005 Ridley's was sold to the Greene King company, so the future of this venerable building as a brewery is, perhaps, in some doubt.

The passage of time has forced Ridleys to replace some of the original vessels but there are still eight wooden fermenters lined with copper and a cast-iron mash tun. Sacks of malt - once again Maris Otter, the preferred grain of craft brewers - are lifted by chains from the ground floor to the malt store.

A machine that weighs malt and hops dates from the 19th century and is one of the oldest pieces of brewing equipment in the country. Fuggles and Goldings, the most traditional of English varieties, are used along with Styrian Goldings from Slovenia.

   Traditional values at three English breweries include coopers who still build wooden casks. Wadworth, a family-owned brewery dating from 1885 in the market town of Devizes, not far from the Stonehenge, still delivers beer in oak casks by horse-drawn drays to local pubs. It's a substantial brewery capable of producing 2,000 barrels a week from the redbrick Victorian site.

The leading brand is the nationally available 6X, a name that recalls the medieval time when monks blessed casks of ale with crosses, the greater the number of crosses the stronger the ale. The growing demand for 6X keeps the resident cooper busy building and repairing casks.

Theakston's brewery in Yorkshire is famous throughout the world for an old ale called Old Peculier. Peculier is a Norman French word that has nothing to do with being odd but recalls the time when the town of Masham, where the brewery is based, was outside the jurisdiction of a bishop and was known as a peculier. The brewery was founded in the late 19th century and survived successfully under family control until the 1980s, when the national brewing group Scottish & Newcastle bought it. Last year, S&N, now a global brewer that owns the major lager brand Kronenbourg and has massive interests in Russia and the Baltic, returned Theakstons to the family. The site includes a delightful brewhouse and fermenting area with traditional mash tuns, copper boiling kettle and high-sided wooden fermenters, a fascinating brewery museum, and a cooper's shop where wooden casks are repaired.

Coopers are also busy at work at another Yorkshire brewery, Samuel Smith in Tadcaster, a few miles from York. Sam Smith's beers include a porter, oatmeal stout and imperial stout. Horse-drawn drays deliver draft beer to local pubs, beer that has been fermented in vessels known as "Yorkshire Squares". These are two-story vessels, linked by an open porthole. As fermentation starts, yeast and carbon dioxide drive the liquid from the bottom to the top story. A rim round the porthole traps the yeast while the liquid runs back into the bottom story via pipes.  

It is a method devised in the 19th century to clear the new style of pale ale of yeast in order to present a bright and sparkling beer to drinkers. The high level of natural CO2 produced during fermentation gives the finished beer the big collar of foam demanded by drinkers in Yorkshire. A few other Yorkshire brewers use square fermenters but they are made of stainless steel while Sam Smith remains true to vessels built of slate.

Coopers are also employed at Marston's, the celebrated brewery in Burton-on-Trent, the town at the heart of the pale ale revolution in the 19th century. The coopers' job is to repair the giant oak casks in which Marston's Pedigree is fermented. The casks, known as "union sets" as they are linked or "held in union" by trays and pipes, are another Victorian method of cleansing pale ale of yeast. The fermenting wort is driven by yeast and gas out of the casks, up swan-necked pipes and into trays above. The trays are held at an incline: the yeast is trapped but the wort runs back into the unions. The result is a beer that is strong (4.5% abv) but full of light and subtle aromas and flavours of malt, hop resins, citrus fruit and the famous waft of sulfur from Burton's salt rich wells.

The taste of tradition

Hook Norton Double Stout (4.8% abv). Superb aroma of dark, burnt grain, chocolate, licorice and earthy hop resins. Creamy malt, dried fruit, chocolate and spicy hops fill the mouth with a long finish that becomes dry and hoppy but with a solid underpinning of roasted malt, dark fruits and bitter chocolate.

Brakspear Bitter (3.4% abv). Astonishing how much flavor is packed into a beer with a moderate strength. A rich butterscotch note on the nose is balanced by biscuity malt and tart hop resins. Bitter hops, juicy malt and a creamy toffee note fill the mouth, with a finish that is lingering, becomes dry and bitter but with pleasing sappy malt and butterscotch notes.

Ridley's Old Bob (5.1% abv). Burnished brown beer with a ripe malty nose balanced by tangy fruit and gentle hop resins. Rich malt coats the tongue, balanced by vinous fruit and hop resins. The big, complex finish has creamy and juicy malt, vinous fruit and a light lingering hop note.

Wadworth 6X (4.3% abv).Copper-colored beer with nutty malt, citrus fruit and peppery Goldings hop nose. Barley sugar sweetness fills the mouth but balanced by tart fruit and a pungent Fuggles and Goldings earthy hop resins note. The finish is long and lingering with sappy malt, tangy fruit and spicy hops.

Theakston's Old Peculier (5.6% abv). Massive vinous fruit on the nose with biscuity malt and peppery hop notes. Toffee, roasted grain, dark fruit and spicy Fuggles fill the mouth, followed by a big finish with licorice notes developing, overlain by dark malt, dried fruits and earthy hops.

Samuel Smith Old Brewery Pale Ale (5.2% abv). A nutty and malty nose greets the drinker but with a good accompanying waft of peppery hop notes. Creamy and nutty malt fills the mouth, balanced by an orange fruit note and good hop bitterness. Fuggles and Goldings come to the fore in the finish, balancing creamy malt and tart fruit.

Marston's Pedigree (4.5% abv). Complex aroma of sulfur, biscuity malt, sour fruit and spicy hops. Juicy malt, earthy and peppery hops dominate the mouth, balanced by tart fruit. The finish lingers, is spicy, hoppy and bitter with a continuing note of juicy malt and tangy fruit.


Hook Norton Brewery
Hook Norton, Banbury, Oxon. Tel 01608 737210
Brakspear Brewing Co
Eagle Maltings, Witney, Oxon. Tel 01993 890800
T D Ridley & Sons
Hartford End Brewery, near Chelmsford, Essex. Tel 01371 820316
Wadworth & Co
Northgate Brewery, Devizes, Wiltshire. Tel 01389 723361
T&R Theakston
Wellgarth, Masham, North Yorkshire. Tel 01765 680000
Samuel Smith Old Brewery
Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Tel: 01937 832225
Marston, Thompson & Evershed
Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Tel 01902 711811


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