Tastings School - Green & Pleasant Lands

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Green & Pleasant Lands

Hampshire, Dorset & Wiltshire form an impressive pyramid of brewing, where traditional production and modern techniques exist side by side. Dominic Roskrow reports.

At first glance banding Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire together in one group makes little sense.

They make uneasy bedfellows, each fiercely independent and with a history and personality of its own. They do not constitute a collective region as, say, the East Midlands counties might do, or East Anglia, or the North East.

Hampshire, in particular, glances to its eastern neighbours for identity rather than those to the west, a wannabe home county where affluence from the London overspill combines with the rural bliss of cricket greens and old-fashioned inns. Hampshire shares a border with Dorset and Wiltshire but it looks to Oxfordshire and Sussex to claim status as a bastion county of middle England.

But closer inspection reveals that the trio have more in common than might be imagined.

Collectively they form a pyramid at almost exactly the midpoint between Kent’s east coast and Cornwall’s west one. They share geography, and if you follow the small roads which arc through North Devon, through the south of Wiltshire and through the centre of Hampshire you’d be hard pressed to find any part of England to match it for consistent heritage and beauty.

And then there’s the brewing. For all three counties can boast breweries stretching back through the centuries, and coaching inns where thirsty travellers during the years have downed tankards of ale and eaten hearty English fayre, and yet all three are home to dynamic and evolving new brewing businesses that are combining the very best of brewing tradition with the latest technology.

All three counties are at the frontline of a ruthlessly competitive brewing industry and in the two years since Beers of the World last visited the region several brewers have ceased operating or been taken over, while several new businesses have started brewing.

The current economic climate, the social changes affecting the pub trade and the continuing impact of the smoking ban have presented regional brewers with their sternest challenge in decades.

In Wiltshire, certainly, the effects of the consumer downturn have hit home, and it may be that this recession will finally see the demise of Swindon brewer Archers, which went into administration and stopped brewing at the end of March. At the time of going to press negotiations to sell the business as a going concern were well advanced and there was hope that it would be back in business by May.

It is the third time the brewer has gone into receivership in its 30 year history, the last time just two years ago in May 2007. At that time local entrepreneur John Williams took on the brewery as a going concern but despite his best efforts he has been unable to turn it around.

It’s a sad development for the county’s brewing industry, but a glance elsewhere around the region gives a less pessimistic picture. Despite all the gloom, it seems, there remain strong trading opportunities for those prepared to seek them out.

Hop Back Brewery is one of two brewers in Downton near Salisbury and it is cautiously optimistic about the future. It has 11 pubs of its own but sells beer to pubs as far away as London and Staffordshire as well as across Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire. The brewery is helped by the fact that it has one of the most established and respected region ale beer brands in the country in the form of Summer Lightning, which this spring turned 21 years old.

According to sales manager Greig Futcher the brewery has taken stock of the tough trading situation and responded accordingly.

“It is tough out there and we are all working harder and doing everything to cut costs,” he says.

“But overall we’re doing okay. It could be better, but overall it’s pretty good.

“It has to be right at every level – from the salesman going through the pub door, to the telesales staff, the quality of the beer, and the price.

Pubs can do well in a recession because after a hard day’s work people want to go for a nice relaxing pint. They may not be going out for five course meals but they will still want a pint in the pub.

“I know there are some pubs closing but it’s my opinion that they are doing so because they have not done enough to bring people in. And the result of those closures is that the good pubs will get more trade.” For Hop Back having a genuine point of difference from the competition had put it in good stead.

Summer Lightning and the increasingly popular Crop Circle are helping drive sales, but the economic downturn has influenced overall brewery behaviour, too.

“We have launched a range of monthly ales, each a single varietal hop beer,” says Futcher. “All the ingredients are British because we want to support our own in these tough times. And it helps with our carbon footprint.

“I now catch the train to wherever I’m visiting and then cycle around the pubs. I’m doing about 45 miles a week. Not only is that good for costs and the environment but I’m out on these lovely spring days in my shorts, cycling for work. It doesn’t get better than that.” Spotting an opportunity in the market and grabbing it quickly would seem to be key to surviving in a ruthless beer industry just now. Hop Back is benefiting from the fact that it is small enough to react quickly to economic indicators.

So can being too big be a problem?

Many of the larger regional brewers have disappeared or been taken over by other companies as they have been squeezed by microbrewers on the one hand and the economies of scale that the biggest and national brewers and pub companies enjoy.

Over in Swindon, the town’s biggest brewer is Arkell’s, an example of an old family-owned regional brewer which has maintained all its tradition while adapting to a rapidly changing marketplace. A visit to the brewery site is like stepping back in time, but at every stage of its development it has demonstrated progressive thinking.

Founded in 1843 by John Arkell, the brewery remains in the hands of the family but has consistently shown a propensity to adopt successful business models to survive. Founded just as Isambard Kingdom Brunel was making his decision to base his Great Western Railway business in Swindon, Arkell’s has ridden on the success of the town ever since.

During the years the brewery has expanded gradually and only when it has been able, built a pub estate bit by bit by acquiring houses from failed brewers in the region. Today it has an estate which numbers more than 100 pubs, stretching up to Oxford, Newbury, Chipping Norton and east into the Thames Valley and the suburbs of London.

Meanwhile the brewery is enjoying growing success with its bottled beer range which includes Bees Organic beer and Kingsdown Special Ale.

Another family brewer with a long tradition but which has adapted to thrive and survive in the modern market place is Dorset brewer Hall & Woodhouse.

The brewery was founded in 1777 and has grown into a multi-faceted business, with strong brewing and retailing arms and a substantial pub estate comprised of more than 200 tenancies and 60 managed houses, stretching from its base at Blandford St Mary across the home counties and as far away as Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

It, too, has proved adept at responding to the changing demands of the market place. This summer, for instance, it will be promoting seasonal ale Lemony Cricket and two beers ideal for hot weather, Long Days (4.5%), a delightful fresh summer ale with a hint of raspberries, and Golden Champion (5%), described as the perfect accompaniment for barbecue eating.

Hall & Woodhouse’s master brewer Toby Heasman agrees with Greig Futcher about meeting the demands of customers but argues that diversity in business helps, too.

“We’re finding that good pubs are buoyant and doing well,” he says. “Those companies that were borderline before the recession are struggling, but our pubs are well equipped to deal with the downturn.

“But we are also finding that there are sectors of the market that are doing well. Bottled beer, for instance, is buoyant. If you have a cask, keg and bottled business as we do then you have the flexibility to respond to the sectors that are doing well.

“We have 17 bottled beers now so we have a portfolio that can respond to whatever customers want, from core brands through to specialist beers such as our organic nettle beer Stinger or our fruity beers, which appeal to people who could not be classed as traditional ale drinkers.” The other main player in the region is of course Wadworth,whose copper coloured ale 6X is a particular favourite across the south.

The brewery has an extensive network of 263 pubs to rely on when times get tough, from Dorset all the way up to Worcester (an area it cleverly markets as Wadworthshire).

The brewery is well established, founded in 1875, and has a few unique selling points which ensure its popularity among beer drinkers, recession or no. It is in effect, both a working brewery and living museum: the traditional dray pulled by shire horses can still be seen trotting around Devizes delivering beer every weekday morning; the traditional red brick Victorian tower brewery welcomes visitors; and Wadworth is one of the few remaining British breweries to employ a master cooper.

“Breweries need to remain distinct in their presentation and their beers to engage with their customers,” says marketing director Paul Sullivan.

“Everything we do is underpinned by craft, that of the brewer, the sign writers, the master cooper, the horsemen looking after our shire horses and the craft of the publicans keeping and serving a perfect pint. There is a taste of this living heritage in all our beers.” At the time of going to press the future of Archers was still in doubt, and even the temporary the loss of any brewing business is a cause for regret and concern. No doubt others will run into similar financial dire straits in the coming months. But the arrival of new concerns such as Three Castles Brewery at Pewsey in Wiltshire and the Andwell Brewing Company in North Warnborough, Hampshire, indicates that the brewing industry here will continue to reinvent itself.

“People haven’t stopped living because there’s a recession on,” said a pub licensee recently. “They still need to relax over a drink, to meet together and cheer themselves up. It’s a classic glass half full, glass half empty situation. You can look at what’s going on and see it as a problem. I prefer to see it as an opportunity.” Fine words indeed – and ones no doubt shared by brewers, publicans and beer drinkers across these three fine counties.

The breweries
DORSET BREWERS
ART BREW
Bridport
www.artbrew.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)7881 783 626
CHOICE BEER Art Nouveau, 3.9%
DORSET BREWING CO.
Weymouth
www.dbcales.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1305 777 515
CHOICE BEER Durdle Door, 5%
DORSET PIDDLE BREWERY
Dorchester
Tel: +44 (0)1305 849 336
www.dorsetpiddlebrewery.co.uk
CHOICE BEER Yogi Beer, 4.9%
GOLDFINCH
Dorchester
www.goldfinchbrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1305 264 020
CHOICE BEER Flashman’s Clout, 4.5%
HALL & WOODHOUSE
Blandford Forum
www.badgerales.com
Tel: +44 (0)1258 452 141
CHOICE BEER Tanglefoot, 4.9%
ISLE OF PURBECK
Studland
www.bankesarms.com
Tel: +44 (0)1929 450 227
CHOICE BEER Studland Bay Wrecked, 4.3%
JC & RH PALMER
Bridport
www.palmersbrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1308 422 396
CHOICE BEER Tally Ho, 5.5%
SHERBORNE BREWERY
Sherborne
www.sherbornebrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1935 817 307
CHOICE BEER 257, 3.9%
SMALL PAUL’S BREWERY
Gillingham
Tel: +44 (0)1747 823 574
CHOICE BEER Wyvern, 4.4%
HAMPSHIRE
ANDWELL BREWING COMPANY
North Warnborough
www.andwells.com
Tel: +44 (0)1256 704 412
CHOICE BEER King John Pale Ale, 4.2%
BALLARD’S BREWERY
Nyewood
www.ballardsbrewery.org.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1730 821 362
CHOICE BEER Wassail, 6%
BOWMAN ALES LTD
Droxford
www.bowman-ales.com
Tel: +44 (0)1489 878 110
CHOICE BEER Wallops Wood, 4%
CRONDALL BREWERY
Crondall
www.crondallbrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1252 319 000
CHOICE BEER
Mitchell’s Dream, 4.5%
THE FLOWERPOTS BREWERY
Cheriton
www.flowerpots.f2s.com
Tel: +44 (0)1962 771 534
CHOICE BEER
Stormchaser, 4.2%
GODDARD’S BREWERY
Ryde, Isle of Wight
www.goddards-brewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1983 611 011
CHOICE BEER Fuggle-Dee-Dum, 4.8%
HAMPSHIRE BREWERY
Romsey
www.hampshirebrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1794 830 529
CHOICE BEER Ironside, 4.2%
IRVING & CO.
Portsmouth
www.irvingbrewers.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)23 9238 9988
CHOICE BEER Invincible Premium
Bitter, 4.6%
ITCHEN VALLEY
Alresford
www.itchenvalley.com
Tel: +44 (0)1962 735 111
CHOICE BEER Hampshire Rose, 4.2%
OAKLEAF BREWING CO. LTD
Gosport
www.oakleafbrewing.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)2392 513 222
CHOICE BEER
Hole Hearted, 4.7%
PLAIN ALES
Warminster
www.plainales.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1985 851 080
CHOICE BEER Innspiration, 4%
RED SHOOT INN BREWERY
Linwood
www.redshoot.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1425 475 792
CHOICE BEER Tom’s Tipple, 4.8%
RINGWOOD BREWERY
Ringwood
www.ringwoodbrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1425 471 177
CHOICE BEER Fortyniner, 4.9%
TRIPLE FFF
Alton
www.triplefff.com
Tel: +44 (0)1420 561 422
CHOICE BEER Pressed Rat &
Warthog, 3.8%
YATES’, WHITWELL
Isle of Wight
www.yates-brewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1983 731 731
CHOICE BEER
Holy Joe, 4.9%
WILTSHIRE BREWERIES
ARCHERS
Swindon
www.archersbrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1793 879 929
CHOICE BEER Golden Ale, 4.5%
ARKELL’S
Swindon
www.arkells.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1793 823 026
CHOICE BEER Moonlight, 4.5%
BOX STEAM
Colerne
www.boxsteambrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1225 858 383
CHOICE BEER Dark and Handsome, 5%
DOWNTON BREWING CO.
Salisbury
Tel: +44 (0)1722 322 890
CHOICE BEER
Chimera Wheat Porter, 4.4%
HIDDEN BREWERY
Dinton
www.thehiddenbrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1722 716 440
CHOICE BEER Old Sarum, 4.1%
HOP BACK
Downton, Salisbury
www.hopback.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1725 510 986
CHOICE BEER Crop Circle 4.2%
KEYSTONE
Berwick St Leonard
www.keystonebrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1747 870 307
CHOICE BEER Large One 4.2%
MOLES
Melksham
www.molesbrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1225 708 842
CHOICE BEER Molennium, 4.5%
RAMSBURY
Axford
www.ramsburybrewery.com
Tel: +44 (0)1672 541 407
CHOICE BEER Provident, 4.5%
STONEHENGE
Netheravon
www.stonehengeales.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1980 670 631
CHOICE BEER Danish Dynamite, 5%
THREE CASTLES
Pewsey
www.threecastlesbrewery.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1672 564 433
CHOICE BEER Tanked Up, 5%
WADWORTH
Devizes
www.wadworth.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)1380 723 361
CHOICE BEER 6X, 4.3%
WESSEX BREWERY
Norton Ferris
Tel: +44 (0)1985 844 532
CHOICE BEER
Beast of Zeals, 6.6%