Tradition and history intertwine at T D Ridley’s brewery in the county of Essex in eastern England. 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 honor of his forebear.
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.
Ridley’s offers a full range of beers, from a pale ale to a dark Witchfinder Porter (“witches,” usually religious dissenters, were ruthlessly chased, arrested and put to death in the 16th and 17th centuries). Ridley’s never brewed porter in the 19th century, as the beer was an urban style associated with London, Bristol and eventually Dublin.
Country brewers preferred to brew strong and well-matured brown beers and Ridley’s produces a 5.1% ABV Old Bob, named after a former director, which is firmly in that style. For many years, Old Bob was only sold in bottle but demand has led to it being made available in draft cask-conditioned form.
Six Crosses Strong
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 in Wiltshire, not far from the Stonehenge prehistoric burial stones on Salisbury Plain, 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 in the north of England 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, which include a porter, oatmeal stout and imperial stout, are widely available in the United States, where they are distributed by Merchant du Vin in Seattle. 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 flavors of malt, hop resins, citrus fruit and the famous waft of sulfur from Burton’s salt rich wells.