“Welcome to Brigadoon,” Stewart Main, the head brewer at Hook Norton said. As a Scot, he is well versed in the story of the mythical Highland village of Brigadoon that featured in a Gene Kelly movie. The village appears for a single day once every hundred years and bewitches all who come across it.
Hook Norton stands as a magnificent piece of history and a brilliant example of craft brewing at a time when many modern plants are run not by people but by soulless computers.
The Hook Norton Brewery isn’t a dream but you have to pinch yourself to believe it exists. It stands in a small town of the same name, with chunky cottages built of mellow stone. Although it’s only a few miles from the major Oxfordshire town of Banbury, Hook Norton is hidden down winding country roads, and suddenly emerges from a dip in the gentle hills. Putting God before Mammon, first the tall and imposing church tower appears above the hedgerows, followed by a second tower that is part of the brewery.
You find, with the help of friendly locals, Brewery Lane and suddenly the full force of this architectural gem is upon you. Hook Norton is a Victorian “tower brewery,” standing six stories proud, with the brewing process flowing naturally from floor to floor.
It seems remarkable that this imposing stone and wood building should exist in an isolated rural area. But in 1849, with the industrial revolution going full throttle, brewing was turning from an innkeepers’ sideline into a major business that quenched the thirsts of factory and farm workers. Hook Norton not only had farm laborers in abundance but industry as well: an ironstone quarry produced building materials between 1884 and 1948, and the railroad came to the village in 1887, the line dug out of the hills by an army of navvies with an insatiable need for refreshment.
Both quarry and railroad have long gone, but Hook Norton Brewery survives as a working brewery museum. If you clamber up and down the narrow stairs and walkways in the brewery, you will catch not a glimpse but a full and inspiring picture of brewing in the 19th century. Managing Director James Clarke, whose family owns the company, is at pains to stress they are not running some quaint piece of folklore but a modern business. Nevertheless, Hook Norton stands as a magnificent piece of history and a brilliant example of craft brewing at a time when many modern plants are run not by people but by soulless computers.
The brewery’s history dates from 1849. John Harris set up in business as a maltster in the village, supplying grain to local pubs where beer was still made on the premises. It’s likely that Harris also brewed for his family and farm workers. In 1856 he installed fermenters and other equipment on the farm and became a serious brewer as well as maltster.
Harris the brewer flourished. By 1872 he had built a three-story brewery on the farm and when the business passed to his relations, the Clarkes, they commissioned the leading brewery architect of the time, William Bradford, to construct the present majestic site.
Fittingly, the new Hook Norton brewery came into operation in 1900, celebrating the birth of a new century. All the equipment was run by a 25-horse power steam engine built by Buxton & Thornley of Burton-on-Trent for around $250. The engine is still the heart beat of the brewery today, huffing and puffing as it drives the malt mill that grinds the malt, then sends brewing water and grain to mash tuns, coppers and fermenters.
Some of the original pieces of equipment—a stone malt mill and copper, for example—can still be viewed in the brewery. But many vessels have been replaced over the years. The current mash tun, where the malt is mixed with pure hot water to start the brewing process, came from Ruddles of Rutland. The copper, where the sugary extract is boiled with hops, came from another defunct and famous brewery, Flowers of Cheltenham.
The most astonishing piece of kit lies beneath the brewery roof. It’s an open wort cooler or “cool ship” that must surely now be unique in Britain. When the wort is boiled with hops, the liquid has to be cooled before fermentation. With the help of that amazing steam engine, the wort rises to the top of the brewery and settles in the large open pan. Louvered windows allow cool breezes to enter and lower the temperature.
The wort then drops down several stories into fermenting vessels. They are a joy to behold, circular wooden vessels known as “rounds,” the staves held in place by great iron hoops.