Category Archives: Brewery Visits/Tours

A bicycle made for brew: from London to Holland via beer

By Liz Dodd

Covered in mud, bleeding from thorn scratches, and with pins and needles shooting along the suffocated nerves in my hands, I sat back in a French ditch and brushed melting hail from the can of beer I’d brought with me in my bicycle pannier from London.

It promptly exploded, probably because shortly beforehand I’d thrown the pannier, bike and myself down a sheer embankment to escape the motorway I’d cycled along since Dunkirk ferry port. When best friend Miranda and I decided to embark on our first foreign cycle tour, to pin it to our favourite Belgian breweries, and to wild camp along the way, we’d expected more Sideways and less Saving Private Ryan.

Before we set off a few people said to me how much they wanted to do a beer tour of Belgium by bike. The country’s excellent cycling infrastructure and sublime beer make perfect sleeping bag fellows. And after we’d ironed out the creases and got into the rhythm of touring, it was glorious – even in March’s freezing conditions.

Our route took us the 250 miles from Aylesford in Kent to Sluis in Holland and back again, with stops at some wonderful Real Ale pubs on this side of The Channel; and on the other, Westvlteren to try the best beer in the world, Rodenbach’s brewery to try more of the best beer in the world, and the beer halls of Bruges.

I’ve included a map in case anyone else wants to recreate the trip or try a leg themselves. Miranda and I are not pro-cyclists (I commute about 100 miles a week by bike), as you’ll quickly realise, although we are pro-drinkers, and we didn’t find this ride a struggle at all. After we’d figured out how to use a compass and what the French sign for “motorway” was.

For details on our bikes and gear scroll to the end

Aylesford to Thurnham (6.8 miles)

An immediate hiccough as we got tired after six miles and stopped for the morning/afternoon/night/following morning in the absolutely glorious Black Horse Inn (Thurnham, Maidstone ME14 3LD; 01622 737185; around £80 for a double)

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Sat alongside the Pilgrim’s Way, which I’m sure is a lovely cycle path in summer but is muddy Hades in winter, its 18th century bar was thick with the smell of woodsmoke and the hop bundles that covered the ceiling.

A better place to neck pints of session ale, amend your ferry booking and rain down curses upon Google Maps I could not imagine. Onwards!

Thurnham to Dover (39 miles, with pushing)

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Refreshed (ok, hungover) we blithely forged on along the Pilgrim’s Way, which shortly turned out to be a BMX track and No Way whatsoever. We escaped to the peaks and troughs of the A20 across a field whose primary crop was bicycle-clogging clods of clay, then on to the roaring fires and well-kept pints of the White Hart pub in Hythe (71 High St, Hythe CT21 5AJ; 01303 238304).

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A race along the seafront through Folkestone brought us to the suburbs of Dover and the foot of the White Cliffs, where I took a wrong turn then insisted we climb a strange iron staircase to the start of a 300ft trail up the cliffside.

Friends, I will gloss over this part, except to say that I had gone so totally insane by the time I had dragged my 40kg of bicycle and equipment slipping and sliding to the top of that fucking cliff in the rain and the dark that I survived only by singing “you are my lucky, lucky star” over and over again like Ripley in Alien. Then amended the ferry booking.

Once you have sensibly taken the road up the hill, and not the mud slide, make sure to visit The Royal Oak (Capel-le-Ferne, Kent, CT18 7HY; 01303 244787). A wonderful little pub at the top of Dover Hill, which we cycled blindly into after scaling Dover Mountain and setting up camp in a nearby field, the staff are friendly, the darts are loud, and the ale Real and very well kept. It’s also mindbendingly cheap (£2.40 a pint) and serves £2.50 lunches.

Dover to Dunkirk (15 miles, plus motorway) (and ferry)

Dawn broke as rudely as the frost on our tent and we rolled downhill to Dover, where M got a puncture and it transpired we hadn’t booked the second bike onto our much amended ferry. No matter! After an administrative kerfuffle, three minutes to sail’o’clock found us crunching full-speed up the ramp to supportive cheers from the Dfds crew, and into a nook between the parked HGVs.

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We entered Dunkerque on the motorway. A non-driver, I mistook the hard shoulder for a cycle path, and spent seven miles waving to horn-bashing lorry drivers before I realised M, behind me, was not, in fact, whooping for joy, but was actually screaming: “we’re on the bloody motorway”.

Around three miles later the cycle lane shoulder folded into itself over a bridge ahead (“FUCKING STOP!”) and, faced with either the SOS phone or a steep drop into a farmer’s field, we opted to fling our luggage, bikes and selves down the embankment into what transpired to be a river. On its banks, in a hailstorm, we failed to dry and sat enjoying the cans of Purity‘s new black ale, Saddle Black, which I’d brought with us for – er – just such an occasion.

Testament to the greatness of this beer, which was conceived on a bike trip hopefully better planned than our own, was how much we enjoyed it in our sticky trench. A nutty, pitch-dark ale, it rolled dark fruit and coffee; thick like a stout but lifted by a bit of fizz (although that might have something to do with rolling down an embankment) and zingy hops.

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Dunkirk to St Sixtus Abbey (22 miles)

I don’t know whether it was the night in a hostel in Dunkirk that revived us, the novelty of better weather or the sudden, luxuriant cycling infrastructure, but we gambled into Belgium alongside quiet fields, dipping into farm shops for supplies and gaffa-taping baguettes to our cross bars.

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St Sixtus Abbey (Donkerstraat 12, 8640 Vleteren, Belgium; 00 32 70 21 00 45), one of six Trappist breweries in Belgium (the others being Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Westmalle), and home to The Best Beer in the World, Westvleteren 12, sits among copses in flat Flanders fields. It’s well signposted and, far from being the crumbling, Gothic artifice I’d imagined, is tucked behind tall redbrick walls accented with white statuettes. The visitors’ centre (where the bar and shop are) is sharp and clean and glossy; it serves the monks’ beers and snacks including abbey cheese.

Of course, we went straight for the WV 12. We’d almost hoped that it wouldn’t be the best beer in the world, that we’d hipster ourselves out of enjoying it. But oh, it’s good. So good it invented its own class of beer – the Abt, or darker, quadrupel – and still dominates the league tables for that style. It’s rich and sweet but not overpowering; bursting with Christmas fruit and spices and chocolate; but so well-balanced it leaves you with just a ghost of mouthfeel and a massive thirst for more.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s 10 per cent and the abbey is in the middle of nowhere amid poorly lit country roads. Be warned: if you drive there nominate a designated driver and then buy them a whole case of the WV12 (which you can buy in the gift shop and supposedly nowhere else in the world) to make up.

In the interests of JOURNALISM we drank our fill of the 12 then camped (passed out under some tarp) in a nearby animal shed thing. We woke with dawn to shake the tent free of some asbestos that had fallen on it in the night and set off for Roeselare – home to Rodenbach.

(Coming in part two: Rodenbach; In Bruges)

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Gear Geekery

Liz (I) rode a 2011 Ridgeback Speed hybrid (really!), with handlebar extensions, handbuilt wheels from The London Cycle Workshop (Mavic rims, Deore hubs and 36 spokes); a Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyre on the back and mystery tyre on the front; a Tourtec pannier rack (rear) and two 20L Ortlieb panniers. She slept in a Wenger Chasseral sleeping bag, on a Neo Air X-Lite women’s Thermarest, inside a Vango Banshee 300 tent. With cooking gear (meths, a single Trangia pan, an Aeropress and a beer can stove) and clothes (merino everything) I reckon I was carrying 15-20kg plus bike.

 

Miranda rode a Marin Muirwoods MTB with a Tortec Expedition Pannier rear rack, two Altura Arran 36L Panniers and handle bar extensions. She slept in a Snugpak Softie 9 Hawk bag on a Thermarest Prolite Plus, also inside the Vango Banshee 300.

Beer writing – past, present and future

20141023_152154As we approach Hook Norton Brewery in rural Oxfordshire, the Victorian tower brewery comes into view through the trees, its five storeys looming above us. We are here for a seminar jointly run by the British Guild of Beer Writers (BGBW) and the Brewery History Society on the topic of “beer writing – past, present and future”, and this historic setting of the 160-year-old brewery could not be more perfect.

Our education begins with an introduction to beer writing in the Victorian era by Dr James Sumner, who has recently published a book on the history of brewing science and technology between 1700-1880.

James informs us that although there were a few publications about beer prior to 1800, these tended to be few and far between. When cheap mass printing took off with the dawn of the industrial revolution, everything changed, and there was a much wider scope to print about a variety of topics. One organisation who took advantage of this new technology was the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a Whig-supporting organisation who created pamphlets to educate the increasing numbers of literate members of the public on a variety of subjects. This included the 1829 publication The Art of Brewing, and marked a point where it could no longer be assumed that the basics of brewing were common knowledge, especially for those living in a more urban environment. Another example of this came in 1851 when Percival Leigh – commissioned by none other than Charles Dickens to write for Household Words – wrote The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer. This light-hearted piece used a comic narrator, Mr Saunders, to subtly pass on information whilst not appearing to question the reader’s level of understanding:

“Now for the malt. What is malt? Not many of you, I suppose, are such Cockneys as not to know that malt is barley, steeped in water, laid out on a floor, let be there till it is just about to sprout, and then dried on a kiln, at a heat high or low, according to the colour you want it to be; pale, or amber, or brown.”

f4Another trend during the Victorian era was that of brewers and engineers writing to promote their inventions, and these took the form of very long, technical manuals such as William Tizard’s Theory and Practice of Brewing (1850) and Henry Stopes’ Malt and Malting (1885). There was a sense at this time of the professionals drawing together against outside forces such as taxation, the temperance movement and the “pure beer movement” which claimed that beer was a bad and potentially dangerous product. In 1852 Allsopp’s were forced to defend themselves in print against claims that their beer contained strychnine. In 1900 there was an arsenic poisoning epidemic in Manchester when brewers sugar bought from Bostock & Co sugar refiners turned out to be made from sulphuric acid containing the poison and this lead to further writings, including humorous cartoons in Punch.

James reminded us that at this time there was no real national distribution of beer – it was nothing like today where we can be anywhere in the country and drink the same product. So a lot of the writing focussed on overall quality and safety rather than specifics. We were still a world away from tasting notes or reviews.

Ray Anderson, President of the Brewery History Society, took the baton from James for his talk on beer writing between 1900 and 1960. Apparently a staggering 500 books on beer were published over this period, with over half of them focussing on pubs. Specialist journals also began to take off during this time, including trade titles such as Brewers Journal and Country Brewer’s Gazette, and also technical titles such as the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. So there was definitely an increase in the amount being written about beer.

Ray pointed out that the people really making a living from beer writing at this time were the consulting brewing chemists such as Edward Ralph Mortiz and Alfred Chaston Chapman. The arsenic poisonings of 1900 meant that brewers had to start analyzing their beer, so there was plenty of work for the chemists. They were prolific in their writing during this time, with Mortiz writing more than 40 scientific papers, and Chapman a staggering 120.

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Pubs were certainly the hot topic during this period. While a lot of urban pubs had degenerated into either “gin palaces or hovels”, country pubs were still written about and regularly appeared in idealised forms in literature. In an attempt to reform the pubs, in 1916 the government began the Carlisle Experiment, taking control of five breweries and a total of 363 pubs. They changed these dramatically, making them bigger, providing table service and food, gardens and sporting facilities such as bowling greens, and even pull ins to encourage more middle class customers to visit by car. There was a huge backlash against this, as many people found the “improved pubs” austere and lacking in personality. The Journal of the Institute of Brewing launched an attack in 1932 stating that many historic pubs were being torn down for rebuilding in the new Carlisle mould, destroying heritage. This led to a trend for writing sentimental nostalgia about the traditional English inn, such as Maurice Gorham’s The Local (1939). Publican’s memoirs also became popular during this time, both genuine and fictional, with John Fothegill’s Innkeeper’s Diary (1931) being one example.

Between the two World Wars, British beer was in a dreadful state. Compared to 1914’s beer, 1933’s brews were 23% lower in gravity, and had 20% less hops in them. Both breweries and pubs were run down and failing. This seemed to galvanise writing on what was going wrong with the product, such as John L Shimwell’s series of papers on brewing microbiology between 1935-39. He stated he wished to bring “order out of chaos”, and explained in scientific terms why beer went bad, and what to do about it.

Towards the end of the period we finally saw what we might be able to call the first real piece of beer writing as we know it now in the form of Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer (1956). Interest definitely seemed to have grown in the topic by this point, to the point where The Times ran a special edition about beer in 1958.

At this point Ray Newman, one half of blogging duo Boak & Bailey and co-author of the recently published Brew Britannia, picked up the reigns as we passed into our final period: 1960 to the present day. Here, Ray told us, the trend began to drift towards writing for popular audiences, with less technical information. Most writing was sponsored by the industry itself, and after a rough ride through the two world wars, there was a desire to raise beer’s profile with the public without encouraging anyone to be too critical of the product.

untitledIn 1963 the Chancellor removed the requirement for home brewers to have a license. This led to a dramatic increase in popularity for home brewing as people sought to make their own cheap beer at home, and there were a huge number of manuals published during this period. Some, like Ken Shale’s Brewing Better Beers (1967) boasted sales of over 250,000 copies on covers of subsequent editions, and went on to sell even more. There was also a sense during this time that the accountants at the breweries had too much control over what was available, so home brewing was seen as a rebel alternative.

The 1970s, of course, marked the birth of CAMRA, and sparked a revolution in the beer world, holding brewers to account and highlighting the closures of so many family-owned regional breweries and pubs. In 1974 CAMRA published the first edition of the Good Beer Guide, which of course is still published annually today. From the 1980s this began to include beer essays on the issues of the day, which provided a valuable outlet for beer writers who were struggling to get their voices heard elsewhere in print.

Another big turning point for beer writing came when Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer in 1977. It was the first time that someone had talked with authority about the taste and quality of beer and the first attempt to elevate beer to the status of wine. Many books throughout the 1980s mimicked Jackson’s style, and although there was nothing ground-breaking or particularly new, the community of beer writers had begun to grow. In 1988 the British Guild of Beer Writers formed, bringing with it a statement of intent – a demand that beer would be taken more seriously.

The 1990s saw a cultural shift as beer’s image continued to evolve. Laddish, blokey travelogues heavy with beer references had their moment of popularity as beer continued to raise its profile. After the millennium, interest had grown and list-based books such as Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die!, really took off. This style seemed to suit beer, and publishers quickly snapped up variations on the theme. They were light and engaging, with tasting notes which were brief enough not to alienate more casual drinkers. Pete Brown’s writing, starting with Man Walks Into a Pub in 2004, really nailed it in commercial terms, showing personality and humour could engage even those without a deep interest in beer. This really set the template for a lot of beer writing which has come since.

Across the pond in the USA, Garrett Oliver published The Brewmaster’s Table (2010), the first book on beer and food pairing. It was a sign that beer’s reputation was beginning to change, and in 2011 the drink was finally honoured with its very own Oxford Companion. Although many complained that it was full of inaccuracies, it was a sign or respect for the craft of brewing.

Ray wrapped up by pointing out that the renaissance of ebooks has been important for beer writers, as now there is less of a barrier to getting work out there – no reticent publishers. Beer blogging has also taken off in a big way, with many authors such as Pete Brown and Mark Dredge writing blogs as well as books.

Beer sommelier and broadcaster Marverine Cole took over at this juncture to ask whether beer is getting its fair share of voice in the media today. In her view, she said, a lot of people have stopped reading print media. Now the focus is on radio, TV and web content, and beer is not being sufficiently represented.

Marverine’s belief this that there is still a misconception that beer is loutish and uncouth whereas wine and spirits are more sophisticated. While the passion is obviously evident in the industry – there are huge numbers of events and festivals across the country – there is not enough pressure on the media to get that message across. She went on to share some insider tips on how she felt fellow writers and broadcasters could maximise beer’s coverage and begin to affect change in how it is perceived in the media.

historypinAfter a quick lunch break we return to hear from Nick Stanhope from HistoryPin, a new website where contributors can pin photos, videos and anecdotes on an online map to share history and foster intergenerational relationships. Nick said that in their work they’ve noticed how pubs have time and time again been focal points of communities, and that the loss of so many pubs over the past few decades has been a recurring theme in their research. They have recently been working with over 5,000 pictures rescued after the closure of the Charrington Brewery and investigating how the information can be used to help pubs reconnect with their lost history.

Our final activity for the day was a panel discussion on how we can ensure that beer writing has a postitive future. This featured all of the previous speakers and was chaired by BGBW Secretary and author, Adrian Tierney-Jones.

Adrian sparked off the discussion by ask pointing out that beer writing is a renaissance of sorts, incorporating many different subject areas such as travel, food and history. Ray Newman pointed out that there have not really been any breakthrough books on beer in past few years, and that much of the writing tends to be a variation on the same old material. He wondered whether we need to accept that it will never be a mainstream subject and just address the niche, or do we need to challenge ourselves as writers to come up with something new and refreshing, as Pete Brown did so successfully in the mid-2000s.

Marverine agreed with this point, saying that what we needed to do now was engage young people. The craft beer movement has introduced a whole new generation to beer, and what is needed now is for them to take on the mantle and try to put more pressure on the media to show that the interest is out there, and get more coverage. She pointed out that we have to start shifting our focus to digital mediums such as ebooks and the internet.

Adrian asked whether the panel thought that it was our role as beer writers to act as a cheerleader of sorts for beer, and educate the public. Marverine believed that it’s important to mix education with entertainment in order to remain engaging, and cited Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s Thinking Drinkers as a good example of this – mixing comedy and beer, and presenting something different.

Ray Anderson pointed out that it was very difficult to convert an enthusiasm for beer to actually reading about it. He had just returned from a trip to Berlin where he went to a bookshop and found a mere seven books on beer in the whole shop, despite being in the beer capital of Europe.

James said that in his experience as an academic working on the topics of brewing and beer, he found that people tended to be dismissive and treat it as a bit of a joke. It was only when he could show them the academic hooks and connections in history, industry, or science that they begin to be drawn in and begin to take it seriously. He believed that a key to gaining a larger audience was to get more academics on board to help give the subject more gravitas.

Nick agreed with the idea that beer has to be seen as inextricably linked to our history and society. He said that his experience with HistoryPin has shown that people don’t just want facts, but that stories, history and a narrative thread are powerful tools to engage people.

imagesAdrian pointed out that, like HistoryPin, digital appears to be the way forward, with apps such as Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London proving hugely popular. Ray Anderson agreed that he tends to go to Google before he goes to the bookshelf nowadays.

At this point the debate opened up to the floor, where one contributor pointed out that in the UK we have become “far too good at celebrating orthodoxy”. He believes that we celebrate beers that are of poor quality and that there is still a feeling that we push cask as being best when it is not always true. Ray Anderson agreed with this, saying that we now have as many breweries in the UK as we had in 1929, but it’s a similar situation – many are small and producing a substandard product.

Ray Newman said that it was certainly true that beer writers do not generally challenge the brewers on beer quality and have a tendency to keep writing light and positive, which could have contributed to this “celebration of orthodoxy”. Adrian acknowledged this but said that it is very difficult for beer writers to maintain independence. If breweries send them samples, it is hard for a writer who does not want to damage their relationship with that company to be critical of the product. Ray responded by saying that the Guild needs to push back collectively, and let the brewers know that they have to grow up and accept criticism. They could also be reminded that controversy breeds interest.

It was pointed out from the floor said that with the advent of beer blogging there is actually a huge amount being written about new beers and breweries, but it doesn’t seem to be influencing public interest all that much. Marverine said that we have to remember that quality varies a lot online, and this could be part of the reason why the movement has not been more influential.

Another contributor said that we are shying from controversy. If breweries invested more in their PR they could get more coverage in the media, like the wine industry, rather than relying on advertising. This could change beer’s image and also increase its profile.

20141023_152553After the debate we broke into groups to take the opportunity to tour the magnificent Victorian tower brewery. This remarkable building was powered by an enormous steam engine on the ground floor, installed in 1899 and still in use as recently as four years ago. This powered the machinery all the way up the tower and even provided heating for the brewery workers. While there have been many modern innovations over the years – including the abandonment of the vast copper flat cooler at the top of the building – the incredible Victorian machinery and architecture is still evident throughout.

After climbing up and down all those stairs, we retire to the Visitors’ Centre to enjoy a few well-earned glasses of some of Hook Norton’s offerings, including Old Hooky (4.6%) and Flagship (5.3%).

We thoroughly enjoyed the seminar and learned a huge amount – massive thanks to the BGBW and the Brewery History Society for organising it, the speakers for taking part and giving such informative talks and to Hook Norton for being such gracious hosts.

If you wish to visit Hook Norton Brewery you can find details of their tours on their website. You can also find information on the Brewery History Society and details on how to join online.

– PS

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Brewhouse, in the middle of our street

We get it ripped out of us here in Islington. People make fun of our biodegradable yoga mats, our bespoke tofu and our eco-friendly soap nuts. Yes, we love our green initiatives as much as we love our hummus. So where better to open up a pub where the booze travels beer-millimetres, instead of beer miles, from tank to tankard?

In fact – why not open two?

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That’s exactly what Simon Bunn and Kris Gumbrell, the team who pioneered street-level brewing at The Lamb in Chiswick and The Botanist in Kew, intend to do. They opened London’s first Brewhouse pub at the Angel this week, with a second planned for Upper Street, about a ten minute walk away, in 2015.

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ICIP is used to our craft bars being stuffed into tiny converted local boozers, so we were blown away, when we visited Brew House in Angel on its pre-opening opening night, by the sheer size of the joint. So blown away, in fact, that the magnificently conceived interior gave us pause: was there something of the chain about this enormous craft bar? Don’t get us wrong, we loved the atmosphere, but was it a bit too themed? Quaint, reclaimed and bespoke: diners and drinkers can huddle into street-level wooden booths or perch around enormous tables. “Tables” doesn’t do them justice: the enormous, circular tabletops are actually glass-topped wedges of hops and barley. Staring down at them through your crystal-clear pint, you could hardly get closer to the roots of your drink.

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Except you can: because look up, and you’re seated in the middle of the magic. Right in the brewery. Like its predecessors in Portsmouth and Dorchester, the Brew House’s core range of original beers are all brewed in open view – and this is what takes it above and beyond your average well-funded craft initiative.

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Having your kit bang in the middle of the bar is a lovely concept  – and, as we found out in conversation with head brewer Pete Hughes, it’s much more than just decoration. Here, Pete brews Brew House Islington’s core beers on site, often at night, three times a week.

And what a core range.

Arc Angel, a 3.6% English bitter, poured a mouth-puckering pint that mellowed into a British classic. Dominated by (we think!) Goldings and Fuggle hops, it would sit well alongside anything from the Fullers range. “A nice dad beer”, ICIP decided.

Myddleton, a 4.5% blonde IMG_20141002_211739ale, with its bright white, lasting head and sweet, banana-and-clove aroma, was a lovely Belgian-style brew.

Spandau B, the pub’s 4% session IPA, was so popular it ran out by 9’o’clock. One of our favourites, its floral, Mosaic and Amarillo dry-hop packed more punch than we expected from its (relatively) low ABV.

Watchmaker‘s deep caramel colour gave it away as a deliciously easy-drinking amber ale; this strong, 5.5% bitter was smooth, well-balanced and surprisingly sweet.

Finally ICIP was a huge fan of Black Swan, a black IPA, with mouthfuls of roasted nuts and enough fizz not to taste overwhelmingly chocolate-y or smooth.

(The menu promises a couple more that we didn’t get to try – Britton, a 5% American brown, and Chaplin, a 6% IPA.)

These were early days for Brew House: while this, the core range, will remain mostly the same, two of the pub’s eight taps will be dedicated to seasonal and special beers when it opens to the public. At the moment these include Suffragette Ninja (this could become ICIP’s signature beer), a 4% milk stout, a spicy winter beer called Vlad and a smoked porter. The Angel pub will continue to be dedicated to cask beers – its sister on Upper Street will handle the kegged side of business.

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“They gave me complete freedom,” says brewer Pete Hughes, of the core range. A man who has literally just landed his dream job, he dreams big: of pressurised vats to brew lager in, of specialised and novelty brews. Which is what you want in a head-brewer, really. Chairman of the London Home Brewers, Pete worked in construction and brewed at home before a friend suggested he apply for the Brew House gig.

IMG_20141002_204003“Really I’m just a home-brewer who’s been allowed an outlet for my hobby,” he tells us.

And what an outlet: “If we wanted to brew something crazy we’d do it,” he promises, when I wonder if the range might include some riskier numbers. “They’re [owners Simon and Kris] more adventurous than I am. I’ve had some impractical requests!”

The beers are totally handmade, he explains, making the set up much closer to homebrewing. This is something Brew House looks set to capitalise on: for £99 you can buy a Brewing Experience Day, which includes a crack at the various pieces of kit, a tasting, lunch and a 5litre keg to take home, and for an undisclosed sum you can commission your very own beer.

“This can be as diverse and darlingly difference as chamomile flowers, lavender or even horseradish,” the press release promises. But don’t get too nuts because the minimum buy is 750 pints, and even ICIP isn’t sure it could get through 750 pints of horseradish beer.

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ICIP walked in ever-so-slightly worried and walked out converted. Our corner of north London is stuffed with great craft beer pubs, and normal pubs, and we wondered where this would fit in.

Lovely beer-loving Brew House spokeswoman Su-Lin Ong painted us an attractive picture of an Islington crawl, taking in the Hops and Glory, the Earl of Essex, the two Brew Houses and the local branch of Craft.

Even the ladies' loos were a beery work of art.

Even the ladies’ loos were a beery work of art

We might not survive that, but we’ll certainly be back to the Angel brewpub. Yes, it has all the trimmings: good food (high on the manifesto), acres of space and a well-thought out theme. But more importantly, at its heart is a passionate home brewer. And he won’t even be working behind the scenes – he, his brew kit and his beers, take centre stage.

Brew House Islington opened on Monday 6 October. You can find it next to Angel tube, on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street.

– ED

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Malt: getting the grist

The Reinheitsgebot would have you believe that the raw ingredients needed to brew beer are very simple. On paper, it’s just water, barley, and hops (and yeast, they begrudgingly conceded in 1993). Basic raw materials transformed through the magical process of brewing into our beloved tipple of choice. Or so it seems.

After ICIP’s trip to Stocks Farm in April, we learned that the humble hop is anything but simple. There were lupulin glands, alpha acids and myrcene levels to learn about, extensive scientific breeding programmes being developed and multi-million pound hop picking machines chugging away beyond the hop yards. We were amazed by our own ignorance about what we thought was a simple component of the brewing process, and it made us wonder where else our knowledge fell short.

Enter the Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB), who kindly organised for us to tour Bairds Malt plant in Witham, Essex. This is the largest plant under the Bairds umbrella, producing nearly 50m tonnes of malt a year, mostly buying in barley from the “granary of England”, East Anglia. We meet with MAGB’s Executive Director Colin West, who is going to be our teacher and tour guide for the day. It soon becomes apparent that we have a lot to learn.

DSC_0002Giving us a bit of a background to the UK malt industry, Colin explains that we’re pretty unique for having the two big markets of beer and whisky: “whisky around the rest of the world is usually made from other things, whereas Scotch legally has to be made of malted barley, so it’s an important market.” Malting has historically been an active and productive industry in the UK, and the MAGB itself is around 180 years old. “When it was founded, every village and every town would have had a maltings or two, and the 1,800 members were only a fraction of the malting industry in the UK at the time,” says Colin. “There was a malt tax in place and the government were imposing more and more regulations, causing disruption to the production process, and the maltsters were pretty aggravated about this. It took them a while, but they managed to get rid of the malt tax by the early 1880s.”

While we are aware of the decline in British hop farming over the years, we are still surprised to hear that despite the recent beer boom, the malting industry has not grown in recent years. “The maltings sector in the UK is almost exactly the same size as when I joined the industry in 1976,” says Colin. “I remember in those days we grew 10m tonnes of barley in the UK, and 2m tonnes went for malting and the rest went for animal feed. Now we grow about 6m tonnes, 2m still goes for malting and a smaller amount goes to animal feed because they use wheat for that more now. There’s been rationalisation: smaller plants have closed, we’ve got fewer companies than we used to have, and we just haven’t expanded.”

But in the same way that Germany and the US have overtaken us in hop-growing, our continental cousins have been expanding rapidly in the grain business. “The two largest malting companies in the world are now French: over the last 40 years the French have grown between ten- and twenty-fold,” says Colin. “A lot of the grain trade marketing in France was run by farmer’s cooperatives, which were strong through CAP after the common market was formed in the 1950s. They realised that milling wheat into flour or malting barley were ways of adding value to the grain, so they took a long-term view and invested in malting capacity. They own companies all over the world now. I don’t think we could grow quite that big, but it’s a bit of an oddity that we’re exactly the same size after all this time.”

DSC_0003This seems strange when the brewing scene at least appears to be booming globally, but according to Colin total beer consumption is falling despite the proliferation of new breweries. And while cask ale is the winner – growing from 9% to 12% of the market – it’s the big name lagers that are noticing the drop off. He also points out “in some markets they use other materials. As an example, Budweiser in the states has 40% rice in it. Once you’ve got that rice in, and you’re a brand the consumer knows, you don’t change it back at that point. At that point, the customers know what they want.”

The maltings industry is having to adapt to accommodate the new breed of microbrewery, putting in packaging lines to produce 25kg sacks of product rather than sending off 29 ton lorries, and installing mills to provide grist for breweries who cannot mill their own malt. “What Bairds has done recently is set up an autonomous subsidiary, Brewers Select, which mills separately in order to service the craft market. It doesn’t change the way anyone services the big market, they just have to service the smaller guys too,” says Colin.

WIthout further ado, we’re thrown into the science bit. Colin starts us off with Beer 101: at the brewery, enzymes in the malt break down the starches into sugars, which the yeast uses to make booze. The barley’s job is to provide nutrients for fermentation. The reason we malt the barley is that in it’s raw state it doesn’t have the enzymes it needs.

We move on to a very complicated cross-section of a barley grain. This is a seed, and there is an embryo of a new barley plant inside as well as the endosperm, which is a food store which will feed the plant until it has leaves and can get energy from the sun.

In short, and avoiding a lot of jargon – the energy in the endosperm is mostly starch contained in rigid cell chambers. When the seed germinates the embryo sends out a signal asking to be fed, and enzymes are produced which break down the cell walls to release the starch and begin to convert the starch into sugar. This has to be kept in check because the maltster wants to deliver these starches and enzymes to the brewer, so the process cannot be allowed to go too far. This is why although you may see rootlets on barley when it is being malted, you never see any shoots. Indeed, in ye olde times the maltsters would sometimes judge whether the malt was ready by breaking open the grain and seeing how far the shoot had grown inside before making an appearance.

DSC_0017Basic knowledge acquired, we don hi-vis vests and hard hats and intrepidly set off to follow the grain’s journey around the site. We begin at the barley intake, where they do quality control on the incoming lorry-loads of barley. Gatekeeper Maggie explains: “I use an automated scoop to take a representative sample. I can check some things visually – I want to make sure it’s the right  variety and I want to make sure I’ve got malting barley and not another type of grain. I also look for a fungus called ergot, which is hallucinogenic, so we don’t want to see any of that in the barley!” She gleefully shows us a little pot of the offending substance, conspiratorially adding: “this is our personal supply!”

“If you see one piece of ergot you’ve got to reject the whole truck,” says Colin. “The maltsters have rejected about one load in 150.” This isn’t the only instant rejection, as Maggie explains: “There are insects that would damage the grain by eating away at the embryo inside, like weevils. which are tiny. If I find any one of those – alive, dead or a body part – it’s an instant reject. All would suggest there had been an infestation somewhere along the line.”

After this initial inspection, things get more technical, and Maggie has a proper mini lab in her office. “I look for moisture and nitrogen levels using the infrared machine. There’s also a machine which gives us a breakdown of how many whole corns, broken corns and extraneous material like husks there are. If it falls outside the parameters we take a bit of a claim against the cost, but if it’s way off, we start rejecting the lorries.” And there’s more… “That is a grain stain machine – we cut a corn in half to reveal the embryo and the machine stains it bright red. As it degrades or starts to grow, it becomes paler to the point of being white. If it’s white, it’s dead, so if you haven’t got a red embryo, we can’t do the malting process. We look for a 98% parameter on that and we reject on anything less.” It’s beginning to sound like some sort of barley X-Factor. “It is frustrating, and ultimately it’s the final customer, the beer drinker, that’s paying the extra transport cost for the rejected load,” says Maggie. “So if we can work with the merchants and farmers to make sure everything’s accepted, that suits us. It keeps the maltsters’ costs down which helps when the breweries are negotiating to get the malt price down. But we could be losing half of what comes in, we just happen to be extremely good at it!”

DSC_0009As we move towards the huge conical steepers, Colin points out Bairds’ water recycling plant. Bairds is only the second maltings site in the country to recycle its water. There have been problems with attempts to do this in the past with remnants of materials in the water used for steeping which meant that it could not be reused, but treatments have been developed to solve this issue. “The expectation is that processing waste water will become more expensive in the future,” says Colin, “so this will make a huge difference. All maltings use fresh, drinking quality water for the steeping. At Bairds they also use a barley washer to pre-steep and to get dust off the grain.”

It can take almost two hours to transfer a batch of grain into the giant steeping conicals. Bairds has six of these, each holding 35 tonnes of barley. The reason the capacity is split is to help spread the hydrostatic pressure on the grains more evenly to encourage it all to accept moisture and germinate. “Each batch is four thousand million grains of barley and the aim is to make sure each grain sees the same conditions as the next,” says Colin. “It’s impossible… but you try your best!”

DSC_0033When the barley goes into the steeper, it is usually at about 12% moisture. It is then covered in water, drained and covered again, and in between these wet periods it also has ‘air rests’ where it is allowed to breathe, absorb some of the moisture and begin its biochemical processes. Air is also bubbled through the water for a few minutes every half hour while the grain is steeping to keep it aerated. “When the maltster takes the batch out to steep, he’s looking to raise the moisture content to about 45%, that persuades the embryo that it’s been rained on and that it’s time to grow into a baby plant,” says Colin. This process takes two days. “By the end of those two days, the respiration rate has gone up quite a bit and each grain is generating heat from its own metabolism,” says Colin. “In bulk that’s quite a lot of heat, so it’s important the maltster can move that into an environment where he can accurately control the temperature.”

This marks the beginning of the second stage – germination. “In the germination vessel, the whole point is to keep in at a constant temperature,” says Colin. “If it was left in a steaming heap, it would go well above 60°C. So we both blow air through to keep the temperature down but we also keep up humidity so that it doesn’t dry out. The aim is to make the air 100% humid.”

DSC_0057Traditionally the malt would be spread in a thin layer on the floor and raked over by hand. Today the grain is still turned, two or three times a day, but it’s now done mechanically by a boom that sweeps around the circular vessel. “The goal is to make it flat,” Colin points out. “The resistance at 1m is different from that at 1.1m so you’ll get more air coming up and it’ll affect the grain differently. Obviously, as all the grain moves around, it’ll average out over the 4 days it’s in here.

From around of 3 days onwards, the rootlets realise there’s no extra nutrients out there, so they start thinking about withering.”

During the four days of germination the enzymes are produced, the cell walls begin to break down, and the malster has to stop the process at the right time. “There’s not much the maltster can do during this process to see how it’s going, so he’s relying on experience,” says Colin. “They are constantly testing the end product in the lab, so they can tweak the next batch to correct anything that didn’t go as well last time.”

DSC_0060Using a long cup on a pole, Colin fishes out some grains from both the two- and four-day-old batches of germinating barley. “If you pinch off the end of the corn to get rid of the embryo, then squeeze out the contents and rub it between your fingers, you can feel the texture,” he says, passing us a four-day-old grain. The contents comes out like toothpaste. “That’s perfect. That means the protein and cell wall are gone and what is left is pure starch.” We repeat the process on the younger grains, and the contents are much firmer. “It’s coming on, it’s just not quite as smooth. The maltster will do maybe six to ten corns from different places to get an idea,” Colin explains.

The final stage is kilning, which stops the germinating process. “We started with 210 tonnes of barley, we added 80-90 tonnes of water, and then in the kiln we’ll drive off the added water but also bring down the moisture content from 12% to 5%, so we’re evaporating around 100 tonnes of water!” says Colin as we enter the sweltering kiln. “It has to be a gentle drying process because the enzymes are temperature sensitive, even more so when there’s a lot of water around.”

DSC_0073Below the drying grain is a chamber about 6ft high which helps balance the pressure: “what you don’t want is the grain nearest the fan to get more airflow, so if the fan blows into a big area it equalises the pressure across the bed so the air comes up evenly,” says Colin. “So you start between 50-65°C, and because moisture is evaporating the grain is cooler than that, around 25°C. After about 12 hours of blowing the air through, the temperature in the grain starts to increase, but because the moisture has reduced to about 15%, the enzymes are more stable, so it’s safe to bring up the temperature.” Coloured malts can be made in the same kiln by upping the heat, and the maltster ends up with a grain with a moisture content of about 4-5%.

At this stage the little rootlets (or ‘culm’) on the grains drop off, and they are collected to be sold for animal feed. Astonishingly, they contain more protein than the original raw barley, and this is all extra income for the maltsters – very important given the huge outlay in energy costs. “Traditionally, everything was manual,” says Colin. “Shoveling, barrows, raking, water it with cans, feel it by hand… but now you could run this whole site with just a few people. It used to be labour was the second highest cost after barley, but now energy is far higher. It’s mostly heat, but it’s also electricity on driving the fans.”

DSC_0086The final stage of the malt’s journey is the roasting plant. “At Witham they have a roasting plant so they can roast in much smaller batches than in the kiln. That takes 210 tonnes of barley whereas the roaster takes just two.” Each type of malt gets a different treatment in the machines, which are based on the same technology used for roasting coffee. “You take white malt and then take the temperature up to about 180°C for brown malt and 220-230°C for chocolate and black malts. This makes it very dark and bitter,” explains Colin. “Colour is the critical control, and the guys here have got decades of experience. They take samples; and at the end of a darker roast they’ll be doing that every few minutes because the end point is critical. They’ll grind some into a flour and compare them against standardised samples which have been tested in the lab.”

The oddball is crystal malt, which is treated a bit differently. “You take green malt, direct from germination, and raise the temperature up to 65°C, which is the equivalent of the brewer mashing it. Each grain is its own mini mash vessel – it’s got a moisture, enzymes and starch in there, so when the enzymes break the starch down so you end up with a liquid package. It’s like liquid caramel inside. The temperature is increased up to about 130°C and the moisture is driven off, and that’s what gives you the lovely toffee character of the crystal malt.”

Our heads spinning from our quickfire introduction to the world of malting (and the ever pervading scent which is making us crave Horlicks and Maltesers), we remove our hard hats and decamp to The White Hart in Witham to enjoy malt in its most delicious form – a pint.

Just as after our hop farm visit, we’re amazed at how much history, technology and science has gone into this basic building block of our favourite drink. We’re glad we took the time to expand our knowledge – the next time we visit a brewery and they casually make reference to their mash tun, we’ll understand exactly what’s going on in there, why, and what all the work that had already gone into those little grains.

Now, someone, please… get me those Maltesers.

-PS

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He ain’t heavy, he’s my brewer

Sometimes the Twitterverse throws you opportunities too good to pass up.

In October 2013, ICIP and the – at the time, very new – Little Brother Brewery started following each other. We said hi, felt a pang of disappointment when we realised they were based over the North Sea in Norway, and made some wistful comment about coming to visit if we were ever feeling flush.

Eight months later, we had booked a Scandinavian jaunt which was going to include a stay in Oslo, Little Brother’s hometown. A few emails later, and we were on for a visit.

littlebro1Founded in mid-2013 by brothers Andrew and Cameron Manson, the brewery has just been granted its production license and is now officially the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo. “I was brewing in uni in Brisbane in the laundry with my brother and some flatmates,” Cameron reminisces. “When I moved to Europe, I got back into brewing. When I first moved to Oslo, my neighbour gave me a bottle of homebrew which really impressed me. So I decided to pick up the hobby again.”

lilbro5The ball is just starting to get rolling for Little Brother. “We got our first order the other day, actually,” Cameron tells us, proudly. “We have three orders now! It’s Oslo beer week next month and we’ll be selling some kegs to the organisers, Grünerløkka Brygghus.” They will also be releasing a bottled beer which will be sold in local pub, Cafe Sara. “We’ll be hand bottling, and we’re using 750ml bottles because you pay a tax per bottle in Norway. You have to pay a recycling company because they are then responsible for cleaning away all the rubbish. So you choose big bottles to get the most out of each one. If you have a container over 4 litres then you don’t pay, so the key kegs are going to be important.” It sounds like a lot of red tape for a small company starting out. “It’s costly and it takes time, but getting the kegs will help a lot. That’ll save time, then we can just do bottles for restaurants.”

The brewery still isn’t the day job for Cameron, who manages a bar at an upmarket Oslo hotel. “I plan the roster so that I can work in the brewery. It’s hard work, but now we’re getting a few orders in, and we’ve got our license in place, it’s working out.” With interest in the brewery picking up, he is hopeful that he may be able to focus more on Little Brother as time goes on: “maybe in a year’s time I can even think about this being a full time thing.”

lilbro3Despite coming from London, home of very expensive craft beer, we’re still reeling from the prices of beer in Norway. “Ah, sure, it’s pricey, but then wages are pretty high here as well. If people weren’t profitable they couldn’t make a good business – everything’s costly, but then again, I think minimum wage is about 140NOK (c. £14).” We’re stunned by this – we’re pretty sure the minimum wage is about half that in the UK. No wonder we’re finding everything more expensive in Scandinavia. The other issue is where the beer can be sold. You can only buy beer up to 4.7% in shops (and at limited times). Any alcoholic drinks over this percentage are sold exclusively at the government-owned Vinmonopolet. “I’m going to brew this wheat beer to about 4.6% so I can try to get it into the supermarket,” says Cameron. “I’d go higher if I could, but then it would never make it into the shops. The IPA will never make it into a supermarket!”

Despite the costs and the bureaucracy, craft beer seems to be booming here, maybe even more so than back home. “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” Cameron agrees. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out. The one I go to has gone from two to thirty employees in two years.” On our trip, we saw a huge range of styles available – everything from European pilsners through to a Cassis Tripel that nearly finished us off (thanks, Nøgne ø). Is there a particular style that sets Norwegian hearts racing? “Definitely IPA. The first beer that we’re going to release is an IPA; we’re playing it safe there. I think the core range will be the IPA and a wheat beer.”

lilbro4But Little Brother clearly won’t be content to stick with the basics. “I’m trying the wheat beer four ways; the same grain bill, brewed with local honey and then with a different yeast for each one. I’ll dry hop with a couple of different varieties of hops. In one I’m going to try adding the dried skins of coffee beans. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, it’s more of a tea flavour. So I’m gonna add that with the dry hops and leave it for seven days.” And Cameron has other plans up his sleeve. “I’m also going to do an imperial coffee stout – I’ll coarse grind the Mexican coffee I’m using, then bag it and then just stick it in like dry hops. This will be mashed at a high temperature and there will be lots of residual sugar, then I’ll referment it with champagne yeast in the bottle so it’ll have a sweetness and a malt backbone that’ll handle the acidity. The coffee has dark berry flavours, so it’ll go well with the chocolate and coffee flavours from the beer.”

lilbro1So where does Cameron get his inspiration for such creative brewing? “I do surf the net a lot. If I like a beer I’ll look for some sort of clone recipe to try and find out what hop or yeast is used. I try a lot of different beers too; lately I’ve been trying single hop ales because you really get the profile of the hops without having to brew with each one, and really understand flavours.” Cameron’s passion for brewing is obvious. “I always remember the first time I tried beer was in the pub with my dad, and I hated it. I thought: ‘I’ll never like beer’. Now I realise that it was just shit beer, and I still don’t like it now!” It seems unlikely that a young adult growing up in Norway would have the same problem. We’re staggered by the choice here.

Despite the brewery still being very much in its infancy, Little Brother has big plans for the future. “Right now we’re looking at getting some funding to get some large equipment – we want two conical fermenters, a palette of kegs and a palette of bottles so we can really start operating. What we’d love to aim at a beer cafe, similar to what Mikkeller has done. We’re going to do a beer club here at the brewery as well, hopefully. We’ll get fridges, and we already have a hop-back so we can serve beers through the fresh hops.” And what of worldwide domination? “Well, my brother is back home. He’s an architect and photographer and he does all of our design and the website. In the distant future we’d like to open up down there. Craft beer is becoming bigger there now too.”

littlebro2It’s been exciting to witness the birth of a new brewery which is already doing some really innovative and exciting things with their beer after just a few months, and with such great plans for the future. We can’t wait to see what Little Brother come up with now they have their production license – we can only hope they’re prepared to ship overseas!

Want more? You can read more about our boozy trip around Denmark and Norway.

– PS

When a plan comes together: Camden Town and Adnams collaborate

In the distant future, as robots pour space pints of synthahol in bars run by a be-hatted Whoopi Goldberg (is the top line too early for a Star Trek reference?), people will look back on the beer boom of 2013/14 and wonder why everyone got so het up about cask vs keg. Why couldn’t we just get along? Camden Town brewery (hip hopsters based in North London) and Adnams Brewery (established alesters from Southwold) have had enough of the fight. They’ve collaborated over a new ale – called South Town – and decided to throw it a party at Camden HQ.

That’s on ICIP’s doorstep, so on a balmy Saturday afternoon we meandered through the North London sun (no, really!) to visit Adnams in their new, temporary home. And hadn’t Adnams made themselves at home. We were greeted by the sight of Camden’s long beer garden, sandwiched between gritty industrial plots, dotted with Adnams’ deckchairs; something of a change of scene for them, used as they are to sunset behind a lighthouse rather than sunset behind a graffitied Amy Winehouse tribute.

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South Town (would you believe it’s taken me this long to realise the beer is a mash-up of the locations of the two breweries) was served at a dedicated cask bar, accessible only if you shelled out £12 for a six-stamp card (a half was one stamp, a pint two, so at three pints for £12 a bargain in this part of town) (also fun because stamp cards, like loyalty cards, make me inexplicably competitive and OCD along the lines of: WE’VE GOT TWO AND A HALF STAMPS LEFT IF WE ADD UP THESE TWO CARDS YOU CAN’T LEAVE NOW I DON’T CARE IF YOU CAN’T SEE).

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South Town pours a long, amber pint. It’s approachable and drinkable, and at 4.9% the perfect pint to go with the hours of rugby with which the party happened to coincide. A first glug gave way to SO MUCH much hops (Topaz, Summer, Ella and Galaxy), which resolved in the kind of mellow sweetness you expect from an ale. This was achieved by using four different malts – Pale Ale, Light Crystal, Crystal Rye and Golden Naked Oats. I could drink pints of South Town (I did drink pints of South Town!) and not get bored (I didn’t get bored!) which is more than can be said for many ales.

“Camden are cool in a very cool way and we’re cool in a cask ale way” – Adnams’ Fergus Fitzgerald

South Town was brewed at Adnams’ brewery in Southwold. They picked up the cheque and agreed a retail price with Camden, who buy up and sell stock as they see fit. Beer nerds that we are, we wanted to know more of the story behind the brew: why did Camden, who don’t do cask, want to brew with Adnams, who exude old english ale from their idyllic seaside brewery? We tracked down head brewers Alex “Camden” Troncoso and Fergus “Adnams” Fitzgerald to find out more about what brought these two together.

“We’re both cool in different ways,” Fergus explained. “Camden are cool in a very cool way and we’re cool in a cask ale way. So it was a good way to get together.”

Ideas and recipes flew back and forwards across the interwebs. An idea for a stout and a porter eventually evolved into a hoppy ale.

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Alex Troncoso

“We used a huge amount of hops,” Alex agreed. “More than two times the amount Camden’s pale ale is hopped.” Of course, this made the brew expensive – those hops don’t come cheap.

We were delighted to hear (I MEAN OF COURSE WE COULD TELL JUST BY TASTE) that South Town was brewed with Adnams’ famous yeast. “Part of the collaboration is that we both add something to it, so most of what we add is the yeast,” Fergus tells us. “With our own yeast we’re relatively confident what it’s going to do. Then you can use it as a base and paint a new picture on top.”

“It’s like making 20,000 litres of soup and hoping it will taste OK!” – Camden’s Alex Troncoso

Fergus Fitzgerald

Fergus Fitzgerald

Using a familiar yeast, Fergus added, can be a helpful constant in a nerve-wracking project. “You’re changing so many other things – you want something that you possibly could rely on. If you do enough one-offs, eventually something will go wrong and you’ll end up dumping it. You can’t do that many experiments and not expect to have a failure. You have to accept that’s going to happen.”

“Because South Town was brewed at Adnams, most of the stress was there,” Alex says. “This end … we’ve been in this situation before. It’s like making 20,000 litres of soup and hoping it will taste OK!”

Well, ICIP is happy to relate that this batch of soup definitely turned out ok. Were Fergus and Alex happy?

“Stoked,” says Alex. “It tastes like I’d hoped,” Fergus agreed. “This was more stressful for Alex because I could test it! It’s got elements of Camden and Adnams.”

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Channelling Paxo, ICIP lands the difficult final question: What’s your favourite beer from the other’s brewery?

“My trip to Southwold changed my opinion,” Alex admits. “My favourite used to be Ghost Ship – now it’s Adnams’ Oyster Stout!”

“Camden Hells Lager,” says Fergus, without missing a beat. “It’s the one I’ve drunk most, but you learn with brewing there are a couple of difficult things to brew: low alcohol beer and good lager. It’s really difficult to brew, technically. You’ve got nowhere to hide – you haven’t got enough flavours to hide the little inconsistencies. You’ve got to get everything right.”

South Town gets a lot right, so we were excited when Alex and Fergus left the proverbial brewery door open for another collaboration brew. Come winter, I’m holding out for a Camden Wold stout.

You can buy a mini keg of South Town from Adnams or try it at any of the pubs listed here, or at Nicholsons Spring Ale festival.

Want more? Check out our posts on the Camden brewery tour and our day out brewing with Adnams.

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The lighthouse family: ICIP learns to brew with Adnams

It takes something special to get It Comes In Pints out of London.

While Pip grew up with actual countryside animals at the end of her garden, Liz mistrusts anywhere that doesn’t have 3 4G; a source and back-up source of over-priced whole foods; and enough hilariously-named Wifi networks to keep her entertained on a commute.

But some invitations are enough to convince even Liz to venture beyond the north circular. Invitations like the one we got from Adnams’ Belinda Jennings recently. Pay us a visit in Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, she said, have a crack at brewing beer and take one of the brewery’s much-lauded tours.

Faster than you could say: “HOWTHEHELLISTHERETHISMUCHTRAFFICTRYINGTOGETTHROUGHTHEDARTFORDTUNNELATTHISTIMEINTHEMORNING”, ICIP and our intrepid chauffeur and photographer, Mr ICIP, found ourselves in a place with no 4G (no 3G!); fields full of pigs (pigs live in fields?!); and where yawning craters – treeholes from last month’s storm – still pockmark the forests.

It helped that Liz hadn’t known where Southwold was when the journey began.

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Appropriately ICIP followed an Adnams lorry into Southwold itself (which was useful given that map apps DON’T WORK IN THE COUNTRYSIDE). We were met by Belinda, who is Quality Manager and a Brewer at Adnams, and who had invited us here to the glorious Suffolk coast to try our hand at some micro-brewing. Somehow intuiting that ICIP are rabid hop-heads (I can’t imagine what gave her that idea), Belinda had suggested we brew a 6.7%-ish IPA, bursting with some of our absolute favourite hops – including show-stoppers Amarillo, Citra and Galaxy. An ICIPA!

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By the time we had navigated our way through the wilds of east England, Belinda had run off the wort and got the brew boiling. We headed straight for Adnams’ micro-brew set up; an impressive kit, tucked away beside its much bigger sister, that the brewery (and Belinda) use for the occasional, experimental one-off bottled beers.

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Yes, it took a while to wrestle the delicious hop pellets from ICIP, but finally convinced they would be better off in the beer we summoned up our best scattering skills and late-hopped our IPA (eee!). Time, then, to leave them in peace, to flavour the beer, while ICIP took a look at how the experts do it. 

Girls on Tour

Brewing on the same site for centuries  –  Adnams was established in Southwold in 1872, but traces brewing there (by women!) as far back as 1345 – poses some unique challenges; pitting the need for expansion against its duty to the environment, architectural and natural. Bulldozing rows of picturesque houses to make way for a shinier, greener brewery would, we imagine, not have gone down well with visitors to one of England’s most popular coastal spots. Nor would it have been popular with Southwold’s citizens – many of whom can trace their own history alongside that of the company. Southwolders work in the brewery; grew up breathing air heavy with its malt; and drink pints of its beer in one of the town’s many lovely pubs.

Adnams did expand, substantially, in the 1970s; but – as we found out on our tour – it did so with profound respect for its Victorian surroundings. Its ultra-modern kit – installed recently – is all towering, smooth-surfaced, rounded cylinders and mazes of glossy pipes; surfaces so shiny you can see yourself and your beer-blogging buddies in them.

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But, from the outside, you’d have no idea there was a brewery in-situ at all. It hides away on Victorian street-level; completely unobtrusive, tucked behind ghost-house fronts that you think are homes until you notice the doors are glued shut. Take a virtual trot down Church Street to see what I mean – see if you can spot the fake houses.

As you walk around Adnams you wonder what the cheery-faced brewers of the 19th century – who peer out at you from the black and white pictures dotted around the site – would make of the flat-screen computers and the temperature gauges and the two bloggers using smartphones to check into their buildings on Facebook. Maybe they’d feel right at home: as Belinda explains, the faded paperwork from the 1900s that Adnams preserves under a glass case in one of the reception rooms is not too dissimilar to the paperwork she fills out now.

Also worth noting is Adnams’ impressive commitment to eco-friendly brewing. The modern kit, installed in 2008, recovers 100 per cent of the heat and steam from each brew, Adnams says, 90 per cent of which is recycled to heat the next. That same year the company produced East Green, the UK’s first Carbon Neutral beer. It has won multiple awards for its sustainable development.

As we tour Adnams’ site, weaving in and out of the brewery’s different buildings, its beers’ evolution unfolds quite literally under our noses. From toast-y malt via hot, soup-y hops – we cross the tiny, picturesque street a final time to be greeted by huge vats of fermenting beer and the unmistakable, overpowering smell of booze. We sneak a cheeky look inside one of the vats, and a waft of carbon dioxide temporarily blinds Mr ICIP.

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It’s a good point to head back to ICIP’s own brew; itself hopped to bursting and back and giving off delicious, hot wafts of citrus and spice. (With Belinda’s help) we cool the wort and run it off to ferment, prepped with a vial of Adnams’ famous yeast.

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With that, ICIP’s (invaluable and chaotic) part in the process is done. The fermenting dalek (not a technical term) is wheeled outside to chill, and we head to The Lord Nelson pub to do the same. It’s an Adnams pub, and where better to enjoy pints of Gunhill, Broadside and Ghost Ship? There’s something particularly wonderful about the moment on a brewery-tour when everything comes together in one well-kept pint; you’ve followed the beer from tiny grain to noisy-cask room and, now more than ever, a generous glug unwraps a history, a malt, a bit of salty sea-air, fresh water, yeast and hops, that’s suddenly familiar because it’s all around you.

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It’s almost time for ICIP to head back to the Smoke, but not before Belinda reminds us that Adnams is more than just a beer brewery. It started distilling gin in 2010, and this month unveiled its own whisky.

If beer isn’t your thing (WHY HAVE YOU READ THIS FAR? ARE YOU RELATED TO ONE OF US??!) you can, at the Southwold site, have a crack at being a distiller for a day. Adnams provides the booze, you pick the botanicals. The gin itself is born in the shadow of the brewery, inside another super-glossy wing. It climbs up the inside of outstretched chrome towers that look a bit like octopus tentacles [ed. put down the Ghost Ship and get over the the nautical references]

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After a quick (rewarding) swing through Adnams’ sampling room (like the most wonderful supermarket IN THE WORLD), ICIP bids farewell to Belinda (and our ICIPA) and hits the road.

Ok, we took a quick detour to look at the lighthouse; had a debate about whether we would make successful lighthouse keepers; and played with phone settings we didn’t understand trying to capture the gorgeous seaside panorama.

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Throughout the four-hour return journey we regretted not arranging to stay overnight to enjoy a few more pints of Adnams as it was meant to be enjoyed – with a nip of sea air and lit by the flashes from the lighthouse. But for now, at least, we’ve cans of Ghost Ship to enjoy and a tantalising message from Belinda. She says ICIPA is fermenting nicely and “smells soooo good!”

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Adnams runs brewery tours most weekends for £12 a go. Check availability on their website here. They book up quickly so plan in advance!

– ED