“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.
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.
Traditional but Flirtatious Brewing
Brewing is achingly traditional. Maris Otter, the choicest and juiciest malting variety, is preferred. The hops are whole flowers—no pellets or extracts here, if you please. Again, the varieties are sturdily English: Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings. The new “hedgerow” variety, First Gold, which grows to only half the height of conventional hops, is used in some seasonal beers.
Stewart Main, who trained at the Heriot Watt brewing and distilling school in Edinburgh, doesn’t stint on his malts, using not only conventional pale and crystal but also amber, chocolate, black and even peated malt from the whisky industry for one seasonal ale. “We’re flirtatious with our malts,” Stewart explained.
A new reception area next to the brewery is based in the original maltings. It houses a shop, a small museum dedicated to the brewery and the village, and a bar where visitors can sample regular and seasonal beers. The first commercial beer produced by John Harris was a mild ale and mild still features in the Hook Norton portfolio, a 3% ABV dark beer with a fine biscuity aroma. Stewart Main describes the 3.4% Best Bitter as an “aperitif beer,” with a lemon fruit note from the hops and pleasing juicy malt. Generation (4%), brewed to mark the birth of James Clarke’s latest addition to the brewing dynasty, uses a chewy amber malt for color and flavor, and First Gold hops.
The strong Old Hooky (4.6%) has a rich malty aroma while Cooper Ale (4.8%) was brewed to celebrate the brewery’s 150th anniversary. The standout beer for me is the 4.8% Double Stout, with a burnt fruit, licorice and spicy hops character.
Hook Norton is by birthright and belief a cask beer brewery. Just 2% of production is bottled and the company can proudly claim that it has never produced a filtered and pasteurized keg beer. Horse-drawn drays still deliver casks to local pubs.
One of England’s Oldest
“Unique” may be an over-blown term but 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 attractive 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—no longer members of the family — announced in 2002 that they planned to close the brewery as the site was worth around $15 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.
The fermenters are ranged on two stories, one bank above another. Fermentation begins in the top bank and after a few hours the fermenting wort is literally dropped down one floor to the second bank by opening the bases of the top vessels. Dead yeast cells and unwanted protein are left behind, encouraging a faster and cleaner fermentation on the ground floor. The complex inter-relationship between the house yeast and the maltose sugars from Maris Otter and Pipkin malts produces a bi-product known as diacetyl that gives a toffee or butterscotch note to the finished beers. Most brewers tinker with their fermentation temperatures to keep diacetyl out of their beers, but the brewers at Brakspear and now Wychwood believe it is part of their beers’ signature and allow it to remain.
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.