Tastings School - Norfolk's big hitter

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Norfolk's big hitter

Norfolk brewery Woodforde's is a long-surviving and much-respected boutique brewery now selling nearly four million pints a year. Dominic Roskrow looks at what has made it so successful.

Nobody needs to tell us that it’s pretty grim out there. Day after day wave after wave of negative news lets us know in the starkest terms that tough times are here or just ahead. It’s going to be a long and hard winter whatever the weather does.

And yet read the papers and you could easily form the impression that life as we know it is over, so heavy has been the tone. You’d think that nobody’s working any more, nobody’s going out, nobody’s spending and society has ground to a complete and utter halt.

This isn’t how it is of course. Take the Norfolk car company Lotus, for instance. It’s never been busier, for the simple reason that as the wealthy forgo their Porsches and Ferraris they’re ‘trading down’ to Lotus. And it’s not just at the top end that this is happening. If you want a new car then they’ll give you full finance, zero interest and a repayment holiday. They are, quite literally, giving new cars away, and still no-one wants them.

But if you want a car a year or two old, it’s a different story. You can hardly find them, let alone get yourself a pucker deal, and that’s because like you, people are trading down from new to nearly new.

This is most certainly the case in the hospitality industry. People don’t stop going out, they just go out less often. And they may choose to miss out on their favourite, but expensive, restaurant and eat more modestly.

This doesn’t mean going cheap – it means going for value for money, choosing places where you will feel warm and welcomed, where an outstanding going out experience is pretty much guaranteed. If you want cheap you get a take-away and a few cans and stick on Sky.

Recession, then, might be a threat to the hospitality business in general, and to pubs in particular, but it can also provide an opportunity. Good quality food, a fine pint of beer and a convivial atmosphere may be just what the doctor ordered.

On the very day we most recently dined at the Fur & Feathers, brewery tap to Woodforde’s Brewery, Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill addressed this very issue.

“The first rule following a recession is that worried people don’t start by amputating bits of their lives, they downsize them first,” he wrote. “When you’re frightened you put all your effort into not panicking.

You don’t make desperate decisions, you make little, sensible, parsomonious changes and hope that maybe the fear will go away.” Gill goes on to give some tips to the hospitality industry on how to ride out the economic downturn.

All but one of his five points could have been written for a good quality freehouse with hearty food and great beer. He cites good hospitality, comfort food and value for money.

“Set lunches are good, as are two-fors, children’s menus and drinkable house wine by the carafe,” he writes. “Comfort food, stuff that makes you feel warm and loved.” Early Sunday lunchtime in recession-hit Britain and while the Fur & Feathers isn’t exactly heaving, business is brisk. Given the fact that to find the village of Woodbastwick, where the brewery is, you have to negotiate a series of side roads that lead you in to the heart of the Broads while avoiding the Broads themselves, this is impressive. The bar area is alive with atmosphere and conversation, and the Woodforde’s is flowing from wall-set casks.

This is a pub and not a restaurant, so you order at the bar. But there is an emphasis on home cooking and the varied menu doesn’t boast rock-bottom prices. A large filled Yorkshire pudding at £10 isn’t cheap. No matter. The portions are sizeable, the quality good, the beer, unsurprisingly, outstanding.

This is the brewery’s rock face and is a visual representation of all that is good about the Woodforde’s story. The pub and brewery are linked as one, and you park across the yard from the warehouses where kegs are stacked up and a liveried lorry is parked against the brewery’s shutter doors.

Now at the risk of being shot on the spot, I must admit to the fact that the production side of the average brewery does nothing for me. It’s all cold and concrete, damp and chill, a sterilised beer factory with none of the heart of, say, a whisky distillery. For me great British beer is not about the brewery, it’s about the brewery tap next door.

This is the place when the product becomes beer, a living product free of the cask and breathing in the glass.

Woodforde’s knows this. So the visitor is presented with both options side by side, the brewery representing the engine room, the pub the entertainment centre. In recognition of the success that Woodforde’s has enjoyed over the years, there’s a smart visitor centre and shop on site, too, to enrich the visiting experience of what is to all intents and purposes a glorified craft brewery.

Opened in 1981, Woodforde’s was at the forefront of a trend towards highquality but small local brewers. It has become a darling of the beer enthusiast, has won countless awards and is recognised as a home of fine English ale, and yet it has enjoyed something of a cult following, never sacrificing quality for quantity or expanding far beyond its roots. It can be enjoyed far beyond the Norfolk county boundaries – it was at Glastonbury this year – but it has never grown to large regional brewer status. It is the beer world’s equivalent of The Smiths – loved, critically acclaimed but never growing to super group status.

Everything about the brewery from its rural location to its compact buildings, reflect that it is a small brewery doing well. The names of the beers celebrate its Norfolk heritage, from Woodforde’s Wherry, named after the flat-bottomed and tall-masted boats that first traded and then offered pleasure cruises on the Broads, to the references to Nelson.

And yet it’s forged a reputation way above its station. UK store Marks & Spencer has chosen it as just one of four suppliers of bottle-conditioned ales, Woodforde’s can be bought across the whole of Britain, and the brewery now produces nearly four million pints of its delightful beers each year.

Sharon Chatten is marketing manager for the brewery, and she says that the business is going from strength to strength.

“Last year we had our best year and sales just continue to rise,” she says.

“We hope that will continue and we think that it will because it may be that in a recession people will drink less but they’re prepared to pay for good quality and they know that they will get that from us.

“We have never compromised on quality in terms of buying the best malt available and sourcing the best hops. We will only continue to grow if we can maintain that which means we will probably never be up with the big boys. But then who knows? A few years ago we were hardly known at all, and now go in to most Norfolk pubs and you’ll see the Wherry pump clip.

We’re known around the county here and increasingly further beyond too.

“We’re now the biggest brewer in Norfolk.” As a result the brewery is investing heavily to expand. It has put big sums in every year for four years, and last year £1.5 million was spent in the brewery plant.

“We’re investing in everything,” says Chatten. “We’re expanding the brewery plant so that we can continue to increase output and supply.” Woodforde’s approach to brewing is impressive. On the front line are regular beers such as Wherry, golden ale Sundew and the respected mild Mardler’s. There are some weightier premium ales such as Admiral’s Reserve and Norfolk Nog. And then there are the speciality beers – Headcracker, say no more, and Norfolk Nip, an 8% barley wine based on a 90 year old recipe from defunct Norfolk brewery Steward and Patteson and included in Roger Protz’s list of 300 Beers To Try Before You Die.

It’s a heady mix of styles, the perfect team of beers to cover most palates, and the list of national awards indicate that the brewery is easily straddling the two worlds of happy punters and hard to please industry experts.

But, says Chatten, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“There can be no doubt that the brewery’s reputation is growing,” she says. “We have a club that’s free to join but which offers members discounts and news updates. It’s now got 12,000 members and growing, and they’re not just all over Britain but from overseas as well. That’s impressive for a small brewery like us.” Too right. And with business good in the Fur & Feathers it seems the public are voting with their feet and their wallets.

With or without a recession.

Tasting notes
Classic rich-flavoured and hoppy quaffing
ale, with a distinctive bitterness and some
pleasing fruit
Rich and full ale with some roasted malt
giving it a chocolatey and treacley body
with a smoky almost chicory coffee after
taste. Outstanding
Full on but very easy to drink bitter, with
some summer fruits among a strong malt
base and pleasant and defined hoppy
finish. Robust but still sessionable
Warning - deceptively easy to drink. This
is a traffic light beer, starting with a
delightful grapefruit and lime marmalade
burst, changing to some ginger spice
and then finishing with a hoppy and
drying conclusion
A Jekyll & Hyde hard-hitter. Jekyll is
innocent cherry cola and fizzy lemon and
lime, Hyde is, dark treacley barley wine at
its richest and most potent. What an
awesome combination
Woodforde’s Ltd, Broadland Brewery,
Tel: +44 (0)1603 720 353
Email: info@woodfordes.co.uk
Web: www.woodfordes.co.uk