Tastings School - The beer that time forgot (Hook Norton)

Tastings School

From basics to more advanced topics, the Beer School has all the info to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of your beers, ales and lagers.

Categories

The beer that time forgot (Hook Norton)

Hook Norton in Oxfordshire is part visitor attraction, part brewery. It also makes great beer. Sally Toms went for a look round

Mention Hook Norton to a real British beer enthusiast and watch what happens. Their eyes will mist over with fondness and they’ll stare off into the distance.

“Ahhh, Hook Norton,” they’ll murmur, smiling to themselves as if remembering a long lost love.

By all accounts, this is a rather special brewery and a place of pilgrimage beer lovers.

So it was with a great amount of excitement that I drove across England to Oxfordshire on the shortest day of the year (and possibly the foggiest, which might explain how I managed to get so horribly lost).

The area is one of contrasts: busy motorways, ugly cities, stress; then all of a sudden you’re in the Cotswolds, home of Britain’s prettiest villages. These are little stone and thatch settlements with cute names like Wigginton, Hinton-in-the-Hedges, Chipping Norton and, well, Hook Norton.

Then the brewery is upon you: a huge puffing Dickensian pile, towering out of the grey fog like the Addams family holiday-let. It is beautiful, you couldn’t imagine one more picturesque.

Hook Norton Brewery was founded by John Harris in 1849. As with many breweries, the site was first a farmhouse with maltings. It even had its own spring, so things couldn’t really have turned out any other way.

The passage of time has been kind, and the brewery has stayed in the family (now in the hands of James Clarke, John Harris’s great great grandson). Though the business was named after the village itself rather than the family name, as it was believed people would relate to it more.

Today, Hook Norton is in full production, brewing 100 barrels a day. There are 15 draught beers and seven bottled, as well as 46 pubs within a 50 mile radius – still delivered to by dray.

Traditional tower breweries such as this were designed so that all stages of the brewing process flow logically from floor to floor: mashing at the top, boiling in the middle, fermentation and racking at the bottom. Strictly speaking, Hook Norton is a semi gravitational brewery, which means the beer goes half way back up again, but the principal is the same.

As a consequence, a tour of Hook Norton is effectively conducted backwards.

The first thing you will see is also what makes the brewery famous. Hook Norton’s steam engine was added in 1899, and is now the only working brewery steam engine left in the country. More than that, it is the last steam engine in Britain still in daily use for its original purpose. Quite impressive for something that is 108 years old. For you steam junkies: it’s an oil fired (though it was originally coal) single piston, 25 horse power engine driving an eight foot fly wheel, a drive belt and numerous cogs.

Nearly everything that moves in the brewery is powered by this engine.

On a wall nearby are two tank indicators almost as old as the engine itself. Two cords attach to floats in the water tanks at the very top of the building, as the water levels go up and down, so do the levels in the indicator. Simple, but effective. Like the brewery itself.

The coppers are on the first floor: one opentopped original, and one much newer. The large new copper was dropped in through the roof by crane; every slate of this important listed building had to be numbered and removed, then put back exactly in its original place. The slates are arranged in such a way so that when the coppers are boiling away, clouds of steam can escape through the roof.

The fermenting room is also on this floor.

Tours are not allowed in, but visitors can watch a video of the process from outside. From here the beer is racked into tanks on the ground floor where it is allowed to settle for several hours before being put in to casks. At this stage a handful of the best dry Goldings hops are added to each cask. A traditional practice, known as dry-hopping, but one that is becoming less and less common.

The mash tuns are on the second floor. At five am every day, brewing starts here. Like the coppers, a new version sits alongside the original. In modern vessels, after the wort is drained and sent downstairs to the coppers for boiling, the spent grain is dried automatically and expelled thorough pipes. The older vessel, still in every day use, requires an unfortunate brewery worker to climb into the mash tun and scrape out the sludge through a hole in the bottom.

Also on this floor is the maltstore. Today, the most used malts (Maris Otter for example), are stored in steel silos, but special requirements are brought in via the ancient sack hoist and stored here.

Up and up you’re led. Look out the ancient lead lined windows and you’ll see the jarringly modern malt towers, casks in the yard and dray horses grazing in the field.

The third floor houses the huge grist cases, where grain is stored before being fed to the mash tuns below. There’s another relic of brewing history on this floor, a huge flat opentopped cooler.

After the hop back, the beer would sit in this tray to cool before moving on to a second cooler on the floor below. The windows in this part of the bulding are slatted and can be opened or closed to allow the air to circulate. Until only a few months ago it was the only open-trayed cooler in use anywhere, but now its only purpose is as a reminder of days gone. Today the brewery uses a less romantic but more efficient dairy-style heat exchanger.

Logically, the mill is near the top of the building. Grains are cracked by rollers and graded into two sizes. It’s a monstrous great thing reminiscent of another age, still doing its job perfectly well but horrendously noisy when it gets going.

The top floor is home to the water tanks and a cracking view. These 10 tonne behemoths are built directly on top of three walls of the tower, distributing the weight engine in Britain still in daily use for its original purpose. Quite impressive for something that is 108 years old. For you steam junkies: it’s an oil fired (though it was originally coal) single piston, 25 horse power engine driving an eight foot fly wheel, a drive belt and numerous cogs.

Nearly everything that moves in the brewery is powered by this engine.

On a wall nearby are two tank indicators almost as old as the engine itself. Two cords attach to floats in the water tanks at the very top of the building, as the water levels go up and down, so do the levels in the indicator. Simple, but effective. Like the brewery itself.

The coppers are on the first floor: one opentopped original, and one much newer. The large new copper was dropped in through the roof by crane; every slate of this important listed building had to be numbered and removed, then put back exactly in its original place. The slates are arranged in such a way so that when the coppers are boiling away, clouds of steam can escape through the roof.

The fermenting room is also on this floor.

Tours are not allowed in, but visitors can watch a video of the process from outside. From here the beer is racked into tanks on the ground floor where it is allowed to settle for several hours before being put in to casks. At this stage a handful of the best dry Goldings hops are added to each cask. A traditional practice, known as dry-hopping, but one that is becoming less and less common.

The mash tuns are on the second floor. At five am every day, brewing starts here. Like the coppers, a new version sits alongside the original. In modern vessels, after the wort is drained and sent downstairs to the coppers for boiling, the spent grain is dried automatically and expelled thorough pipes. The older vessel, still in every day use, requires an unfortunate brewery worker to climb into the mash tun and scrape out the sludge through a hole in the bottom.

Also on this floor is the maltstore. Today, the most used malts (Maris Otter for example), are stored in steel silos, but special requirements are brought in via the ancient sack hoist and stored here.

Up and up you’re led. Look out the ancient lead lined windows and you’ll see the jarringly modern malt towers, casks in the yard and dray horses grazing in the field.

The third floor houses the huge grist cases, where grain is stored before being fed to the mash tuns below. There’s another relic of brewing history on this floor, a huge flat opentopped cooler.

After the hop back, the beer would sit in this tray to cool before moving on to a second cooler on the floor below. The windows in this part of the bulding are slatted and can be opened or closed to allow the air to circulate. Until only a few months ago it was the only open-trayed cooler in use anywhere, but now its only purpose is as a reminder of days gone. Today the brewery uses a less romantic but more efficient dairy-style heat exchanger.

Logically, the mill is near the top of the building. Grains are cracked by rollers and graded into two sizes. It’s a monstrous great thing reminiscent of another age, still doing its job perfectly well but horrendously noisy when it gets going.

The top floor is home to the water tanks and a cracking view. These 10 tonne behemoths are built directly on top of three walls of the tower, distributing the weight.

TASTING NOTES

HOOKY GOLD, 4.1% ABV
This seasonal bitter proved so popular during the summer that it’s coming back full time. It was designed to attract lager drinkers, and is the palest of the Hooky brews. A crisp beer with a distinctive hoppy character (the first Hook Norton beer to feature American hops). A fruity aroma and a pleasant, light taste

HOOKY BITTER, 3.6% ABV
Eminently drinkable and flavoursome for its strength. Subtly balanced, golden bitter, sweet malt and hoppy to the nose, malty on the palate. Represents 50 per cent of the brewery’s output

OLD HOOKY, 4.6% ABV
Essentially a stronger version of the Hooky Bitter, and the leading Hook Norton in supermarkets. Represents one third of total output. Beautifully balanced and fruity with a well-rounded body and just an echo of crystal malt

HOOKY DARK, 3.2% ABV
A dark chestnut coloured ale, full of roast malt flavours and complemented with superb dry-hop aromas from East Kent Goldings

SEASONAL DOUBLE STOUT, 4.8% ABV JAN/FEB
Made from a recipe dated 1917, brewed again in 1996. Dark, dark brown with a toasty flavour and certain amount of dryness. Smooth and flavoursome

303AD, 4% MAR/APR
The regular that was replaced by Hooky Gold. Has become a seasonal to celebrate St George’s day (303AD being the year he died, if you were wondering). A fine beer made with First Gold hops. Dry and crisp with a hint of citrus

COTSWOLD LION, 4.2% MAY/JUN
A pale ale hopped with Fuggles to give it a fruity/citrussy aroma

HAYMAKER, 5% JULY/AUG
A strong pale ale of distinctive taste. Plenty of Goldings hops during the brewing give it a certain something extra. A pleasant, summery beer

FLAGSHIP, 5.3% SEP/OCT
An IPA style beer originally brewed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Very hoppy with a full fruity mouthfeel, and a sweet aroma

TWELVE DAYS, 5.5% NOV/DEC
The first of Hook Norton’s seasonal beers. A strong, dark brown beer offering a dominantly malty palate with nutty overtones. Sweet finish, would go well with cheese

Contact
Hook Norton Brewery, Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, OX15 5NY
www.hooknortonbrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1608 730 384
Open Mon-Fri all year, Saturdays soon.

Two hour brewery tour is currently priced at £8.95, including admission to the museum, tasting of 5-6 beers and branded glass to take home