Tastings School - Star of the East (Adnams)

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Star of the East (Adnams)

Few breweries dominate their locality the way Adnams does in Southwold. Adrian Tierney-Jones visited it

Early morning in Southwold and a massive plume of white steam pours from a tall chimney at Adnams. The first brew of the day is underway, supervised by head brewer Mike Powell- Evans and assistant Fergus Fitzgerald.

The sweetish aroma of gristy maltiness hangs in the air. Elsewhere in the brewery yard, lorries have been loaded with casks and the clang of metal has rung through the air since 7am. So starts another day at one of England’s best-loved breweries.

Adnams’ beers have always enjoyed the sort of princely reputation lesser breweries would sell their chairman for. The eyes of ale connoisseurs light up at the mention of their stupendous Best Bitter (3.7%) with its distinctive dry-hopped character and the magnificently complex Broadside (4.7%), while the cold winters of Suffolk are warmed by nips of its rare and noble barley wine, Tally Ho.

The fact that Adnams still resides in the middle of the community also catches the imagination of the discerning drinker.

An image of Southwold Jack, a copy of the popular clock-striking medieval soldier found in the town’s church, keeps watch from an alcove in the brewery wall. Meanwhile, certain days see hefty carthorses pulling drays around the town where all the pubs serve the beers in sparkling form.

So far so romantic, but brewing is not just about the romance of burnished copper, papal-like white steam and wood-lined mash tuns. There is change in the air here.

For a start, managing director Jonathan Adnams becomes chairman in 2006, while the evocative ‘Beer From The Coast’ ad campaign has given the brewery much recognition and a cool and hip image. Further signs of progress include a new state-of-the-art brewery due to be installed by 2007.

Advances in brewing are such that by then the sight of white steam escaping into the air will be a thing of the past (apparently, that sort of thing is very wasteful on the energy front). Working along with his young team, Jonathan Adnams is preparing to hit the future.

“It’s a tough trading environment at the moment,” admits the latest member of the brewing family to step up to the plate.

“However, we are investing in our infrastructure and looking to the long-term.”

Managing director-elect Andy Wood takes up the theme: “we feel that there is a vibrant market for cask beer.

“There are short-term difficulties, but in the long term the future is sunnier.”

That confidence is why Adnams has commissioned the German firm Huppmann’s to produce a completely new brewery. This process of change kicked off four years ago when they invested a couple of million in a new fermenting room.

Visit it and you encounter a symphony in gleaming stainless steel — pipes, ladders, railings and the metal vessels where Adnams’ beers undergo that alchemical change courtesy of its yeast.

“The brewery is going to be here long term,” says Mike Powell-Evans, head brewer.

“All these changes mean that we are working very hard on sustainability. The brewhouse is clapped out and the efficiencies are awful, so the thinking is that the new brewhouse will be here for the next 50 years.

“This will mean that we can carry on brewing our core beers but also look to other styles.

“I want to use the best raw materials but also want to get the best out of them.

“I always say that the brewing process is simple — get good raw materials and pay attention to detail.”

Jonathan Adnams continues: “We are passionate about brewing. But we live in an uncertain world and have to ask ourselves hard questions, such as will quality malts from the United Kingdom be still available in the future?

“Mash tuns don’t lend themselves to other cereals so we need a different style of plant.

“This means we will be using a mash vessel, a lauter tun, steep condition milling and 90 per cent of the energy usually lost will be recovered (hence no steam).

“We have no worries about replicating the flavours of the beers in the new plant. In 10 to15 years time I would like people to say that Adnams thought well ahead.”

Explorer is one of Adnams’ more immediate changes. It emerged in 2005, 4.3% in cask and 5.5% in bottle.

The brewery has always been known for its richly malty and uncompromisingly hoppy bitters, so the use of US hops in the copper for this blonde headturner marks a departure.

“Explorer first appeared in cask as part of our seasonal range of beers,” says Powell-Evans, “it was meant to be a contrast to our present range and we also wanted it to have an echo of US pale ales. English hops give off a lemony, citrusy, marmalade-style character and we wanted a grapefruit rush with this one.

“We used Columbus in the copper and dryhopped it with Chinook. The name came from the use of New World flavours and, of course, the Columbus hop. It’s been really successful.”

Honey gold in colour, there is a fresh burst of breakfast grapefruit on the nose with a hint of lime and even honey in the background.

In the mouth, luscious tropical fruits bang on at the front of the palate with a whisper of freshly baked bread in the background giving the malty balance. Think grapefruit marmalade on toast.

The bitterness surges in during the Saharalike dry finish with more fruit making a welcome return. The higher strength in bottle marks it out as an imperial golden ale.

Whether is is drunk on its own or as an accompaniment to a delicate dish such as lemon chicken this is a gorgeous drink and a tribute to Powell-Evans and his team.

Let us not forget the other beers though. Adnams Best Bitter is a global great. It is a muscular best bitter that showcases the qualities of Fuggles and Goldings, whose earthy and scented orange characters are counter pointed by the rich and urgent biscuity maltiness.

Then there’s Broadside, a tangy and complex strong bitter with plenty of citrus and spice on the nose and a satisfying palette of flavours.

Other beers produced on a seasonal basis include the light-coloured summer ale Regetta (4.3%) and the excellent autumn ale Fisherman (4.5%), which has a whole Cadbury’s tray of chocolate on the nose, followed by plenty of warming flavours.

It’s an excellent digestif after a meal in one of Southwold’s wonderful pubs.

The Sole Bay Inn by virtue of being across the road from the brewery can be seen as its tap.

Its interior is bare wood, fashionably Spartan, filled with wooden furniture and a bank of handpumps like the fleet in review standing on the bar.

Another favourite is the Lord Nelson, one of the greatest pubs in Adnams’ 80 plus pub estate.

On a winter’s day the cosy interior beckons with its log fire. Dogs and locals bustle about, to be joined by the second homeowners who have in recednt years colonized and pushed prices up in Southwold.

It’s a mix that could spark off social tension but such is the magical atmosphere of the Nellie (as it is known) that everyone gets on.

This is the sort of pub my wife is glad I don’t live near.

We started this feature off by talking about Adnams as it is now, in the heart of the town. But change is on the way.

Brewing will continue there but the familiar early morning clang of casks will be no more as a new depot is built outside town.

Distribution centres sound as sexy as a slap with a slice of haddock (which reminds me, don’t forget to try the divine fish and chips at the brewery’s Harbour Inn), but Adnams have looked at the Eden Project for their inspiration rather than B&Q.

In 1997 they bought an old gravel workings outside the town and their depot is planned to be incredibly ecofriendly with a grassed roof and sustainable wood.

Great beers, forward thinking, fantastic pubs and a sense of investment in the environment mark out Adnams.

As brewing gets more computerised, its mythic power is being stilled, but I would argue that the romance lingers on in that magical liquid in the glass.

After all, we all want a great beer we can trust in and also believe that it has a story and an indefinable specialness. Tradition is all very well but the beer in the glass is the measure of a brewery’s greatness and on that level Adnams is a national treasure.


Southwold burns down in 1659 and the Swan’s brew house moves to the back of the inn where the current brewery resides.

Dutch sailors trounce the Royal Navy at the Battle of Sole Bay, leading to the launch of Broadside a couple of centuries later.

The Swan and its brew house, the Sole Bay Brewery, is sold to maltster William Crisp.

George and Ernest Adnams buy the Sole Bay Brewery.

Tally Ho is brewed for the first time.

Jack and Pierse Loftus acquire a stake in the Sole Bay Brewery.

Local breweries Rope & Sons and Flintham Hall & Co are bought.

The Sole Bay Brewery is enlarged and modernised.

Mike Powell-Evans arrives as head brewer.

Adnams Extra wins Champion Beer of Great Britain.

New fermentation room developed.

New bottle designs are launched for Broadside and SSB.

Broadside is voted Champion Strong Bitter at the Great British Beer Festival.

Explorer is launched and plans for a new brewery announced. Watch this space.