Our Man In: Blighty Pt 2

July 13, 2012, by Crafty Pint

Our Man In: Blighty Pt 2

Almost exactly a year ago, we ran a feature – Our Man In: Blighty Pt 1 – looking at the changing pub scene in the UK. The intention was to follow it within a few days with a look at what was going on in the brewing world through the prism of the handful we’d visited on the same trip. Then we heard that beers from one of the breweries we’d visited was due to arrive shortly in Oz so we thought we’d hold fire. Then the importing of those beers got delayed. Then delayed a bit more. Then life (more accurately known at Crafty Towers as Good Beer Week) got in the way and the piece never got finished.

Finally, this month, those beers arrived, those beers being Thornbridge’s excellent Jaipur and St Petersburg – soon to be followed by a few more, including Kipling, a beer that features possibly the best use of Nelson Sauvin as a single hop we’ve tasted, and Bracia, an incredible old ale that’s so excessively luscious it should come with a warning.

What this means is we’ve got no excuse but to plunder the memory banks and deliver, 357 days after Pt 1, Pt 2.

Where have you been?

To a handful of the UK’s newer breweries, mainly centred around the Midlands. Other than a visit to a man who was essentially a homebrewer masquerading as the country’s smallest microbrewery for a newspaper article coinciding with CAMRA’s Nottingham Beer Festival many moons ago, these were the first British breweries I’d visited. Yes, despite growing up in the UK (meaning that, somewhat ironically, The Crafty Pint is 100 percent foreign owned, at least until the Pint family gets around to securing its Aussie citizenship…) I’d never been inside a brewery.

Given the way life has turned out in Australia, it seems rather odd and the only reason I can come up with is that good beer was always there and any desire to explore was satisfied by trying every new ale I came across on a bar. As a real ale drinker from the off and with CAMRA enjoying success in bringing it back to prominence it was something that was taken for granted, unlike in Australia where I arrived expecting the worst only to walk into Mountain Goat on a Friday night soon after arriving and think: “Now this is pretty !#$@ing cool.”

Which breweries have you been to?

The aforementioned Thornbridge, of course, as well as the Nottingham brewery responsible for my go-to beer, Castle Rock, Buxton in Derbyshire, and – quite by accident – a tiny brewery tucked in the back of a centuries-old pub in Ashover.

First up was Castle Rock, whose Harvest Pale found a place in my heart not just for its flavour, but also the fact that, at 3.8 percent ABV, I could have a couple of pints when reviewing gigs and still drive home later in the evening. It grew from a group of pubs set up by a former head of CAMRA, starting brewing in 1997 and, especially once the Harvest Pale picked up its first major national gong, has been going from strength to strength since, expanding time and again.

Very much focused on traditional ales, it combines brewing quality ales with operating some of the best beer pubs in the country. Essentially, if you’re in the East Midlands and find yourself in a pub with a wide and excellent range of real ales, great food and, quite probably, a tonne of single malts too, chances are it’s part of the Castle Rock group.

Calling in to Buxton followed a tip off from the man who is now importing Thornbridge to Australia. Opened in the past few years as the British microbrewing scene has exploded, in part due to favourable tax changes introduced by the last Labour government, it was part lifestyle change, part business decision for its owners. (I can’t imagine there are many Aussie craft brewers who saw their move into brewing as a positive business decision, at least not with the current tax setup…) 

With a former Thornbridge brewer at the helm, it has been rapidly tearing up trees in the British beer world with ales bursting with huge flavours, often experimenting with higher hopping regimes and styles, such as the Black IPA, that weren’t commonplace.

As for the brewery in Ashover, a tiny Peak District village, it was stumbled upon while meandering through the hills with my brother.

“It says ‘Brewery’ in the window there!” he yelped at one point, pulling the car sharply across the road and almost through the churchyard wall in his excitement.

And so it did. Inside the teetering wattle and daub building the bar, walls and ceiling were draped with metre after metre of hop bines, while the bar was lined with a number of their ales, from those using American hops to a stout brewed with liquorice. In the minuscule brewery at the back they produced a series of perries and ciders too.

What stood out?

Touring the brewery that made my go-to beer from back in the day was a treat, as was seeing the original method by which they had set up a funnel on the grain hopper: a pair of the brewer’s jeans was strapped in place. Stumbling upon the brewery at Ashover reinforced the stories I’d been reading about the growth of the microbrewing industry, a growth that is taking place at the same time as hundreds of UK pubs are closing every year.

At Buxton, they explained how they made their black IPA. No use of dehusked specialty malts to give you colour without roastiness here; instead they add a layer of darker malts towards the end of the transfer of the wort from the mash tun and run cool water over it to extract the colour without much of the flavour. Better still was the moment they realised they had none for me to take away so pulled one of the casks out and let me sample it fresh as can be.

As for Thornbridge, we were spoilt. I’d met production manager Caolan Vaughan when he was in Melbourne brewing the Thorny Goat with Mountain Goat. He promised to look after me in Derbyshire and was true to his word. In just a few years, Thornbridge has gone from a fledgling brewery operated in outbuildings at the back of its founders' 12th stately home to one that still brews a few specials on the original brewhouse but also has a brand new, purpose built brewery on a much larger scale on what passes for an industrial estate in the heart of rural Derbyshire.

Of the new wave of British brewers who produce craft beer as well as real ales, BrewDog has drawn most of the headlines thanks to the unstoppable marketing behemoth that accompanies its frequently awesome beers. Thornbridge, however, is the one that garners most praise simply for its beers. And with good reason. As Aussies can now discover for themselves, it’s a brewery with a happy knack of doing pretty much everything is does not just well but excellently.

Perhaps most impressive was the way production has transferred from the old stone and timber outhouses to the new facility with the original beers apparently coming out just the same as when they were first sweeping the awards at the country’s competitions. That said, it’s a close run thing as Thornbridge Hall is pretty jaw-dropping too. 

Centuries old and once featuring an incredible hydraulic gate (water was poured down a stone tower in the main building to open the front gates) and its own railway station, it now includes among its attractions ornate gardens and an underground bar / nightclub used for weddings and entertaining. Mention must also go to the boars roaming the grounds as an hour after bidding Caolan farewell armed with cartons and mini-keg I was eating one of their relatives in sausage form while quaffing a Thornbridge ale in a pub in nearby Little Longstone.

Have you learnt anything that you’ll be bringing back to Oz with you?

That, while certain elements of the old school have been trying to place obstacles in the growth of the new wave of British craft brewers, innovation cannot be crushed. And that, wherever you go, brewers are willing to throw open their doors and share their beers with you.


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