Tastings School - Putting the ales into Wales

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Putting the ales into Wales

Jeff Evans discovers the beers and breweries of Wales

Growing up in South Wales in the 1970s, my interests were rock music and beer. Sadly, there was not much to shout about locally on either account.

The big bands seldom crossed the Severn Bridge and there was little of indigenous musical note. It was the same with beer. I might have acquired a taste for beer but I went thirsty looking for it in a valley where all the pubs served factory-brewed fizzy keg bitter.

Thankfully, time is a great healer and, like my spotty face, the complexion of both bands and beer in Wales has improved immeasurably. Indeed, there is a strange analogy between the fates of the two subjects. In the late-70s/early-80s, local music heroes were like flattened hedgehogs – rigidly middle of the road. There was Shirley Bassey, and Tom Jones, before his rehabilitation into the rock fold.

If you had a good memory, there were also Amen Corner and Man, and if you could bear the rasp, Bonnie Tyler. One-hit wonders such as Racing Cars revved up the charts and then roared off into the distance. A lot of people liked Shakin’ Stevens, but I always wondered why he couldn’t shake his own.

Today, on the other hand, Wales is one of the United Kingdom’s rock hotbeds. The Manics, Stereophonics, Feeder, Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Lostprophets, Bullet for My Valentine, Funeral for a Friend – pretty impressive name-dropping for someone uncomfortably the wrong side of 40, don’t you think? – have put the Principality well and truly on the world’s rock atlas, and the exciting thing is there is just as much activity in the brewing world. Whereas 30 years ago all we could count on were a handful of regionals to alleviate the tedium of national keg, now there are more than 30 breweries putting the ale back into Wales. Well-established family concerns like Brains and Felinfoel are still rocking and rolling, but we now have an Indie scene as good as anywhere in Britain.

After years of brewing sunsets, dawn has broken again for Welsh beer. During the 20th century we lost some famous companies. Hancock’s – once Wales’s biggest brewer – and Wrexham – as long ago as the 1880s a pioneer of British lager production – were just two of the high-profile casualties.

Interestingly, some of these nostalgically-poignant names have been brought back, as we shall hear later, ceremonially revived by the new generation of Welsh brewers. So where did it all go right? Inevitably the dramatic changes in the pub world brought about by the Beer Orders of the early 1990s, which saw restrictions on brewery ties on pubs and the introduction of the guest beer law, played a huge role in encouraging would-be brewers to take the plunge, and the arrival of progressive beer duty has kept them comfortably afloat. These have been significant changes for the industry, creating a playing field that is a lot more even than that trotted onto by brewing hopefuls in the 1970s and 80s.

In those difficult days, small brewers such as Sam Powell, Gwynedd, Afan, Silverthorne and Pembrokeshire popped up then sank without trace. Only a handful survived long enough to enjoy the relatively bountiful days we have now.
Plassey, for instance, was set up on a caravan park near Wrexham in 1985, and is still steaming away. Bullmastiff had the temerity to challenge Brains for the title of Cardiff brewer when it rolled out its first cask in 1987. The casks are still rolling. Such arrivals have been joined by a plethora of micros producing ales that would have made me weep for joy if only I could have found them while I was young and thirsty.

‘It’s Brains You Want.’ That was the legend I remember plastered on the side of Cardiff buses on my occasional forays to the great metropolis. Brains, today, however, is more than just a Cardiff brewer. It has aspirations to be the national brewer of Wales and is well on its way to its target, thanks in no short measure to the shrewd sponsorship of the Wales rugby team.

There are two cult beers in the Brains stable. The first is Dark, a traditional mild eagerly sought out by lovers of the style. The second is SA, a beer with the unfortunate nickname of Skull Attack. Therein, however, lies a social revelation. SA is by no means fearsomely strong. Its alcohol measures only 4.2 by voulme (ABV). But, thanks to the area’s industrial past, when refreshment rather than ruin was at the forefront of the mind after a dusty day in the pit, drinkers in Wales have grown accustomed to beers that are light in strength. Miners attuned to the blandness of 3.3% keg Allbright Bitter – Bass’s spiteful legacy to the Welsh – suddenly found their heads spinning after a few pints of SA. SA is still a big name locally, but Brains has not managed to export it very far, because of its – for the rest of the UK – somewhat meagre alcohol content. So it was that the brand was extended last year with the launch of SA Gold, a gloriously hoppy beer at 4.7% ABV.

Head up the A470 from Cardiff and you’ll shoot past one of Wales’s newest breweries. The Otley Brewery was set up in 2005 by members of the Otley family, who have been running pubs around here for 50 years. They currently have three in the Pontypridd area and, because they liked drinking beer themselves, decided to open up their own brewery. The equipment is housed in an industrial unit at Cilfynydd and the beers are already winners. O8, the mighty 8% barley wine, was last year’s CAMRA Champion Beer of Wales, and the brewery also picked up category firsts in the contest with its O1 golden ale and OG strong ale.

Further up the same road, you carve through the once-industrial Merthyr valley – home to the Rhymney Brewery, a micro founded in 2005 and recalling a much-missed regional brewery in its name – and open out onto the outstandingly wild and beautiful Brecon Beacons. On the fringe of the town of Brecon stands Breconshire Brewery. Like Otley, it’s a brewery born out of pub retailing, with the small pub company and beer wholesaler CH Marlow tagging on its own production arm in 2002. Here too is a Champion Beer of Wales, Golden Valley winning the top honour in 2004.

If, on the other hand, you take the M4 out of the Welsh capital and head west, you’ll eventually pitch up in Llanelli and one of the country’s longest-established breweries. Felinfoel has been brewing here since 1878 and holds the honour of being the first brewery in Europe to can beer. That was back in 1935, when the local tin plate industry was in full flow and the resources to make such a breakthrough were all at hand. Still family owned, Felinfoel has taken a lower profile in recent decades, but unlike its close rival, Buckley’s, which was taken over by Brains and closed in 1998, it happily survives, with Double Dragon, its most famous beer, still breathing fire.

The largest city nearest to Felinfoel is Swansea, home of the Swansea m i c r o b r e w e r y, founded in 1996, and also the rather larger concern called Hurns Brewing. This is the company that brews beers bearing the Tomos Watkin brand, after a brewery based in Llandovery that closed in the 1920s. Simon Buckley, a member of the brewing Buckleys, re-created the brewery in 1995, but he now has another ‘revival’ on his hands, restoring the name of Evan Evans to public consciousness after an absence of nearly 40 years. Evan Evans is based at Llandeilo.

The north of Wales has seen similar successes of late. There was a time when breweries in this part of the world came and went with unseemly regularity. Dyffryn Clwyd, Cambrian and Minera were all casualties of an unforgivingly tight pub market.

Thankfully, things have changed. Conwy Brewery has opened in the town of that name, and there’s Great Orme, named after Llandudno’s most famous landmark. The most unusual, certainly in name, is Porthmadog’s Purple Moose, or Mws Piws in the language of Heaven. It’s run by Englishman Lawrence Washington and among its beers is a nutty winter ale called Dark Side of the Moose.

That pun-full connection with Pink Floyd brings us back to the parallels emerging between the newly-vibrant Welsh beer and rock scenes. There’s an even closer connection back down south. At Ystalyfera, in one of the valleys that radiate north and east from Swansea, is a terraced pub called the Wern Fawr.

Its landlord is Will Hopton and he’s a Buddy Holly nut. So when Will decided to open a tiny brewery in the cellar, he paid t he ultimate tribute to his 50s hero, by naming the brewery Bryncelyn (‘Holly Hill’) and linking all the beer names to Buddy and his music. Hence we have Oh Boy, Buddy Marvellous, May B Baby, Rave On and a Christmas beer inevitably titled That’ll Be the Sleigh.

Brains, Cardiff
Special beer: SA, ABV 4.2% www.sabrain.com

Bryncelyn, Ystalyfera
Special beer: Buddy Marvellous, ABV 4%

Bullmastiff, Cardiff
Special beer: Son of a Bitch, ABV 6%

Cwmbran, Cwmbran
Special beer: Crow Valley Bitter, ABV 4.2%.

Dobbins & Jackson, Caerleon
Special beer: NPA, ABV 4.5%

Kingstone, Whitebrook
Special beer: Classic Bitter, ABV 4.5% Otley, Cilfynydd Special beer: O8, ABV 8%

Rhymney, Merthyr Tydfil
Special beer: 1905 Centenary Ale, ABV 3.9%

Vale of Glamorgan, Barry
Special beer: No. 1, ABV 4.2%

Warcop, St Brides Wentlooge
Special beer: Pit Shaft, ABV 3.4%

Webbs, Ebbw Vale
Special beer: Black Widow, ABV 4.5%

Black Mountain, Llangadog
Special beer: Chinook, ABV 4.4%

Coles, Llanddarog
Special beer: Cwrw Llanddarog,
ABV 4.1%

Evan Evans, Llandeilo
Special beer: Cwrw, ABV 4.2%

Felinfoel, Llanelli
Special beer: Double Dragon, ABV 4.2%

Ffos-y-Ffin, Capel Dewi Special beer: Paxtons Pride, ABV 5.5%

Flock Inn, Brechfa Special beer: Ewe-phoria!, ABV 4.2%

Jacobi, Pumsaint Special beer: Light Ale, 3.8%

Nag’s Head, Abercych Special beer: Old Emrys, ABV 3.8%

Pen-lon, Llanarth Special beer: Twin Ram, ABV 4.8%

Swansea, Swansea
Special beer: Bishopswood Bitter, ABV 4.3%

Tomos Watkin, Swansea
Special beer: Merlin Stout, ABV 4.2%

Breconshire, Brecon
Special beer: Golden Valley, ABV 4.2%

Gwynant, Aberystwyth
Special beer: Cwrw Gwynant, ABV 4.2%

Heart of Wales, Llanwrtyd Wells
Special beer: Welsh Gold, ABV 3.8%

Special beer: Herald, ABV 6.2%

Conwy, Conwy
Special beer: Telford Porter, ABV 5.6%

Flint Special beer: Dave’s Hoppy Beer, ABV 4.3%

Great Orme, Glan Conwy
Special beer: Extravaganza Ale, ABV 4.6%

Jolly Brewer, Wrexham
Special beer: Taid’s Garden, ABV 4%

Plassey, Eyton
Special beer: Cwrw Tudno, ABV 5%

Purple Moose, Porthmadog
Special beer: Dark Side of the Moose, ABV 4.6%

Snowdonia, Waunfawr
Special beer: Welsh Highland Bitter, ABV 5%