Tastings School - East Anglia: Full of Eastern promise

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East Anglia: Full of Eastern promise

East Anglia has emerged from the shadow of one large brewer and is producing some of Britain's most exciting beers. Andrew Burnyeat reports

You could have counted breweries in East Anglia on the fingers of one hand in the 1960s. Dozens of small breweries closed as Watney’s Red Barrel ruled the brewing waves.

But since the 1980s there has been a marked revival, and there are now almost 50 breweries in the region, from the regional colossus which is Greene King to one-pub outfits such as Green Dragon.

Thirty brewers have banded together to form the East Anglian Brewers, a co-operative formed in 2002 to promote beers made from local barley.

In this way, they hope to promote the concept of ‘East Anglian Beer’ and encourage tourism, tasting, ‘ale trails’ and enthusiasm about beer generally.

The co-operative has its own shop, where you can buy beers made by the 30 member breweries.

Funding from the East of England Development Agency made possible this excellent venture, so pats on the back to them. Because of the abundant sunshine and low rainfall, farmers here can grow some of the best malting barley in the world. To some, this explains why so many brewers from the region have won awards.

Recent examples include Cambridgeshire’s Oakham brewery with Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, which won the Champion Beer of Britain award, and Suffolk’s Oulton brewery, which was pipped at the post for the same award in 2003.

The region produces an extremely diverse range of beers, from smooth, dark stouts and porters to refreshing lagers or specialised seasonal beers.

Through the co-operative, brewers work with farmers to make their ales available to local communities through farmers’ markets and community shops.

So, let’s meet some of the leading players and a selection of the dynamic smaller brewers.

GREENE KING.

Greene King probably makes more beer than the rest of the breweries in East Anglia put together, but it only makes about six of the estimated 300 beers made in the region.

The brewery supplies pubs all over the United Kingdom with favourites such as IPA and Abbot Ale.

Some years back it bought a brewery in Oxfordshire, Morland’s, and started brewing its soaraway success of a beer, Old Speckled Hen.

Soon afterwards, it bought Ruddles brewery in Rutland and transferred a couple of its beers there, too.

Although Greene King openly changed the recipes of these beers, it was criticised for keeping their names and it ran in to dispute with the Campaign for Real Ale. Its recent closure of Ridleys has further incensed real ale lovers.

Although its brewing heritage goes back centuries, it only began brewing Abbot in the 1950s. IPA (India Pale Ale) is older, boasting a 100 year history.

Greene King’s speciality beer is Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale, which is a blend of Old 5X, a 12% beer, and BPA, a dark beer. The result is a fruity, oaky ale which weighs in at a more modest 6% ABV.

This is not to be confused with Suffolk Strong, which is brewed by Adnams, more of which later.

As well as beers, Greene King owns several large pub chains, namely Old English Inns, Greene King Inns and Hungry Horse.

The Greene King Visitor Centre welcomes individuals and groups seven days a week and there is a small charge to enter the excellent museum. There are guided tours, evening tours and buffets, which must be pre-booked.

ADNAMS.

Adnams finds itself in the simply beautiful surrounds of Southwold on the Sussex coast. A relatively wellknown tourist destination, it remains peaceful thanks to its remoteness, accessible via roads of the single-track variety, where it’s common to find frustrated London motorists fuming behind yet another agricultural vehicle.

If you’re planning a trip here, get used to it: time proceeds at half the rate after you leave the A14. After all, isn’t that what you came for?

Adnams delights in its Southwold setting, which it says it responsible in many ways for the success of its beers, the best known of which is possibly Broadside, a 4.7% beer with a distinctive sail-shaped pump-clip. The company says sales of the beer almost trebled after the old, rectangular pumpclip was replaced.

Broadside can be found all over the South East, East Anglia and beyond – it’s one of England’s very best. Others Adnams brews include Regatta, Adnams Bitter, Fishermans and Suffolk Strong Bitter, a hoppy, 4.5% beer designed to be served cool.

One of the best times to visit the brewery and Southwold is at Christmas, when the entire town is transformed into a Santa’s grotto, complete with festive parades and parties. Local hotels specialise in catering for families with children, especially at this time of year. Some even organise babysitting.

Adnams owns more than 80 pubs, most of which are in East Anglia. One, The Assembly, can be found in Tower Hill, and it overlooks the London Assembly building.

GREEN DRAGON.

This brew-pub in Bungay, Suffolk, started out in 1991 under the leadership of Rob Pickard, who is happy to show people round on request. Its main beers are Chaucer (3.7%), Strong Mild (5%) and Gold (4.4%), and there’s a curry night each Wednesday.

CROUCH VALE.

Olly Graham set up Crouch Vale in 1981, making it, and this is quite a sad fact, Norfolk’s oldest surviving brewery. He bought a pub in 1985, the Cap & Feathers, which quickly became Camra’s National Pub of the Year.

Today, the brewery owns the Queen’s Head in Chelmsford, which has also earned the title pub of the year.

Eight handpumps can be found there, including Brewers Gold, the 4% ale which was narrowly beaten in the Champion Beer of Britain contest a few years ago by Harviestoun Schiehallion.

Gold has won the East Anglian Beer of the Year title.

The brewery produces around 60 barrels a week, but this will double under expansion plans involving a new site. Crouch Vale’s monthly seasonal ales have also proved popular and generated much interest. The brewer supplies more than 250 pubs.

OULTON ALES.

This Suffolk brewer is just 12 years old but its beers have established a strong reputation in the region.

Roaring Boy, which weighs in at a massive 8.5% ABV, was voted Best Barley Wine at the Peterborough festival, the UK’s biggest outside of the Great British Beer Festival.

This successful brewery supplies more than 100 pubs and needs to expand – work is under way on a new building. Tours are by appointment only and brewery manager Wayne Moore tries to ensure these are made available to serious beer enthusiasts only, rather than day-trippers or tourists. Don’t blame the messenger! .

REEPHAM.

Another one of Norfolk’s oldest breweries, Reepham was revived in 1983 by Ted Willems, who, ironically, was part of the Watney Mann Truman brewing empire which saw off so many smaller rivals back in those dark old 1960s, including, still more ironically, Reepham.

Willems said Watneys taught him ‘what not to do’. He’s making good these days, and Willem’s Way (5.2%) is the 2004-05 Champion Beer of Norfolk.

It’s a fascinating beer with a deep red cherry colour, thanks to the raspberries used in the brewing. It comes as no surprise to learn that Willem’s ancestors are from Belgium.

Look out for Reepham’s new natural lager WTL, an unpasteurised 4.4% beer which will be out on a trial basis in the next few months.

MAULDONS.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury opened Mauldons’ new brewhouse earlier this summer to double the capacity to 100 barrels a week. The beer uses whole hops and stresses its methods will not change in the new plant.

In the 1800s, Mauldons owned 30 pubs in Suffolk but it was bought by Greene King in 1960.

Its resurrection occurred in 1982 and 10 years later its Black Adder (5.3%) beer was named Champion Beer of Britain.

But the Mauldon family sold up in 2000 to Steve Simms, a former Adnams free trade sales manager. He has rebadged the brewery and beers now have a listing at Waitrose locally, which partly explains the need for a new brewery.

Beers tend to be named along Dickensian lines, including Bah Humbug, Pickwick and Micawber.

Mauldon’s is a member of the East Anglian Brewers, and is keen to promote ‘traceability’. Simms says: “We want people to be able to walk through a field of barley and know that this is the barley which they will be drinking in their beer. It’s localisation instead of globalisation.” .

ST PETER’S.

Best known for its medicine bottle shaped range of wonderfully distinct and varied beers, St Peter’s supplies a large number of pubs and supermarkets and also exports to 15 countries.

It’s one of the few ales you can find in Britain’s top hotels and restaurants, and it has a listing at the Ritz.

Supermarkets where you might find its beers include Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Booth’s. It’s also in 107 Waitrose branches.

With the co-operation of its wholesale customers, a list of outlets which sell St Peter’s is about to become available on its website. Just tap in your postcode and you’re off.

St Peter’s has just brought out a one-third pint glass on a stem, designed to boost the image of beers and encourage drinkers to savour them. This is in addition to the flute glass which carries the St Peter’s logo.

Award-winning brews include successive Gold medals at the International Beer Competition in 2004 and 2005.

St Peter’s is well worth a visit as there’s a bar and restaurant which is about to launch a beer-and-food matching menu.

St Peter’s is one of six UK brewers which support the Italian Real Ale Society, a welcome if unlikely outfit whose members enjoy a drop of ruby beer. St Peter’s Ruby Red Autumn was made especially for this market.

Space doesn’t allow to cover all the excellent breweries in the region, but below is a list of them and specialist beer shops.