Tastings School - Where the heart is (Central England)

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Where the heart is (Central England)

Dominic Roskrow sees what's brewing in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire

There are a band of counties in a commuter belt round London that don’t fit in to any discernible regional area.

They occupy a no man’s land somewhere between the South West of England, North West London and The Midlands, and they epitomise the suburban towns and rural communities that define middle England. They do not have the iconic status of Yorkshire or Lancashire, or great sporting teams or thriving cities. They are, at first glance, a somewhat featureless bunch, comfy counties with little to set them apart, give or take the odd Royal palace or top university.

They are, though, home to a number of intriguing and exciting brewing businesses and can now boast one of the country’s biggest regional brewers, one of the prettiest, and one of the most progressive. Or rather, two on the same site.

It’s an area rich in breweries that have grown from small beginnings in to sizeable and respected businesses.

Indeed, it is unlikely that any other region can point to so many beer producers who have set up in old farm buildings or stables. Dig around these counties and you’ll find some great pubs and some exceptional beer.

When Charles Wells of Bedford and Young’s of Wandsworth announced plans to merge the decision was understandably greeted with trepidation. It was no secret that Young’s had been put under pressure as the local council looked to redevelop the region, but the decision to move out of the capital was greeted with shock.

Brewing had been carried out on the site for 525 years, making it Britain’s oldest continuous brewing site, and the passing of an era was met with emotion.

Although a public company, Young’s maintained its character as a family firm and in John Young had the oldest chairman in the industry. He sadly passed away last year, further emphasising the closing of a long and distinguished brewing chapter.

Wells, though, could prove to be a worthy partner.

The company was Britain’s biggest family-run brewery before the new partnership, and it says much about its growth as a business that it is the senior partner in the deal.

It owns more than 250 pubs and it is committed to cask conditioned beer, with about 90 per cent of its pubs serving it. It’s a progressive company, too, and produces a number of overseas beers under licence at its Eagle Brewery in Bedford.

The two companies share many values, not least their Englishness, and Wells can claim to have played a major role in reclaiming the Cross of Saint George back from the extremists and making it a positive symbol for proud Englishmen.

It’s far too early to make any judgement on how the new company is bedding down, but observers remain optimistic. We’ll be taking a closer look at the company in the near future.

While Wells & Young’s is now one of Britain’s biggest brewers, this central region also contains the pretty Hook Norton Brewery near Banbury, Oxfordshire, which is featured on pages 16-19 in this issue.

And Oxfordshire can also lay claim to one of the country’s most intriguing businesses – that of Rupert Thompson’s Refresh UK and the two breweries the company owns on the edge of the Cotswolds.

Wychwood Brewery was founded more than 20 years ago on the same site that had once housed the local brewery’s maltings. The beer is made without additives using local water and although small, shoots above its weight through clever marketing and the odd splash of controversy – it has named one of its beers Dogs Bollocks.

The site is now also home to the highly-respected local brewery Brakspear. The brewery was given its own fermenting room with its original vessels as part of a major refurbishment of Wychwood in 2004 and all its old beers are brewed at the site.

Also within Oxfordshire’s pretty borders is the Loddon Brewery; a 90-barrel operation housed within a 200 year old brick and flint barn. Its bottleconditioned beers include Hulbaloo (4.2%) and Ferryman’s Gold (4.4%).

Over in Hertford is McMullen. Founded in 1827, it is Hertfordshire’s oldest brewery but is still on the mend after a bitter dispute three years ago.

Despite that it is a classic example of an integrated brewery and pub estate company and it has invested in new equipment to help it produce its core range and smaller specialist runs. It has an estate of some 130 pubs all of which serve cask-conditioned ale, and it serves a number of other free trade accounts across a sizeable area.

At the opposite end of the age scale in Hertford there is Red Squirrel, a brewery with ambitious expansion plans. The brewery is adding a cosmopolitan air to the county by experimenting with American beer styles. The brewery is serving a growing number of outlets in the region.

Across in Buckinghamshire the Rebellion Brewing Company is continuing to grow after it originally brought brewing back to its region after a five year gap caused by the closure of Wethered’s.

Rebellion relocated in 1998 and has been expanding ever since, with several expansion projects undertaken two years ago. It now supplies more than 200 outlets with its core range and a large number of seasonal ales. Its range includes Treacle Miners Tipple.

The county is also home to the Vale Brewery, which was set up by brothers who had worked for various regional brewers in the area and now serve more than 200 outlets with their beers.

There are far too many breweries in the region to go through them all in any depth, but we’ve listed a few of them.

The Breweries

BEDFORDSHIRE
B&T Brewery, Shefford Brewery set up in 1981 as Banks & Taylor and now serving an extensive range of pubs and wholesalers with bottleconditioned beer as a contract brewer.
Owns two pubs.
Choice beer: Dragonslayer (4.5%) www.banksandtaylor.com

Potton Brewery, Sandy Sizeable brewery set up by ex Greene King employees at the former Biggleswade Brewery.
Choice beer: Village Bike (4.3%) www.potton-brewery.co.uk

Wells & Youngs, Bedford See main text.
Choice beers: Eagle IPA (3.6%) www.wellsandyoungs.co.uk

BERKSHIRE
Butts Brewery, Great Shefford, Hungerford Butts specialises in organic beers and therefore uses all organic barley and hops. Its produce is certified by the Soil Association and it includes a range of bottle-conditioned beers. Originally it was set up in an old barn and it supplies some supermarket chains with bottled beer.
Choice beer: Blackguard Porter (4.5%) www.buttsbrewery.com

West Berkshire Brewery, Thatcham, Berkshire Now based in an old bakery, West Berkshire serves a range of outlets in Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
Choice beer: Dr Hexter’s Healer (5%) www.wbbrew.co.uk

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
Chiltern Brewery, Aylesbury Set up more than 25 years ago and expanded about three years ago, with new brewhouse and brew plant as well as a cooling plant.
Choice beer: Three Hundreds Old Ale (5%) www.chilternbrewery.co.uk

Old Luxters Farm Brewery, Hambleden, Henley-on-Thames Craft brewery established more than 15 years ago supplying local shop outlets.
Choice beer: Gold Ale (5%) www.chilternvalley.co.uk

Rebellion Beer Co, Marlow Bottom See main text.
Choice beer: Rebellion IPA (3.7%) www.rebellionbeer.co.uk

Vale Brewery, Haddenham
See main text
Choice beer: Notley ale (3.4%) www.valebrewery.co.uk

HERTFORDSHIRE
Buntingford Brewery, Royston Environmentally friendly brewery using barley from a neighbouring farm.
Choice beer: Silence (5.2%) www.buntingford-brewery.co.uk

McMullen, Hertford See main text.
Choice beer: Country Best Bitter (4.3%) www.mcmullens.co.uk

Red Squirrel, Hertford
See main text
Choice beer: Dark Ruby Mild (3.7%) www.redsquirrelbrewery.co.uk

Tring Brewery, Tring This year celebrating 15 years of brewing.
Many of the beers are named after local myths and legends.
Choice beer: Jack O’ Legs (4.2%) www.tringbrewery.co.uk

NORTHAMPTONSHIRE
Frog Island Brewery, Northampton Specialises in providing own label bottlings for about 40 accounts in the region. A range of bottle conditioned beers with unusal names, too.
Choice beer: Fire Bellied Toad (5%) www.frogislandbrewery.co.uk

Great Oakley Brewery, Corby Brewery in old stables.
Choice beer: Wot’s Occurring (3.9%) www.greatoakleybrewery.co.uk

Hoggleys Brewery, Kislingbury, Northampton Small and new brewery supplying about 15 outlets and growing.
Choice beer: Mill Lane Mild (4%) www.hoggleys.co.uk

Nobby’s Brewery, Kettering Amateur enthusiast turned small brewer with some success.
Choice beer: Monster Mash (4.3%) www.nobbysbrewery.co.uk

Potbelly, Kettering Started brewing in 2005 and serving local outlets.
Choice beer: Beijing Black (4.4%) www.potbelly-brewery.co.uk

OXFORDSHIRE
Brakspear Brewing Co, Witney See main text.
Choice beer: Bitter (3.4%) www.brakspear-beers.co.uk

Butler’s Brewery, Woodcote Small brewery in a farm shed supplying about 40 local pubs.
Choice beer: Oxfordshire Bitter (3.6%) www.butlersbrewery.co.uk

Hook Norton Brewery, Hook Norton See main text and pages 16-19.
Choice beer: Old Hooky (4.6%) www.hooknortonbrewery.co.uk

The Loddon Brewery, Dunsden, Reading See main text.
Choice beer: Hullaballoo (4.2%) www.loddonbrewery.co.uk

Oxfordshire Ales, Bicester Started brewing in 2005 with equipment from Picks Brewery and now building a strong reputation for a range of beers.

Choice beer: Marshmellow (4.7%) Tel: +44 (0)1869 278 765 Ridgeway Brewing, South Stoke, Oxford Brewery set up by ex Brakspear head brewer Peter Scholey.
Choice beer: Iron Man (4.5%) Tel: + 44 (0)1491 873 474

White Horse Brewery Co, Stanford in the Vale Former Wychford Brewery employees making beer for more than 100 outlets.
Choice beer: Wayland Smithy (4.4%) www.whitehorsebrewery.com

Wychwood Brewery, Witney See main text.
Choice beer: Fidler’s Elbow Bitter (4.5%) www.wychwood.co.uk