Monday, 6 May 2019

Thornbridge’s future in 2006

I never get a press pack through the post anymore, always emails, which I rarely keep, unless I think there is something of value for future work. It didn’t used to be like that — when I started writing about beer towards the end of 1996 (What’s Brewing, a feature on Moor Beer, which of course was under a different owner and based on a farm then), I kept the majority of the press packs that came my way, including ones from brewers no longer in the game (King & Barnes) as well as ones that have changed and kept up with what has been happening in beer. 

Moving stuff around yesterday I came up on a press pack from Thornbridge around about 2006, 18 months or so after they’d started in 2004. I had visited the place sometime in 2005 and wrote something about the Hall (see below), which is where they were then brewing (with a Scottish and an Italian brewer), in my book The Big Book of Beer (bloody awful title). Given their current status (IMO) as the godfathers of the modern Brit beer scene, I find it interesting to see the direction that they seemed to be going in. Yes, there is Jaipur and St Petersburg, Wild Swan and Lord Maples, but then there is the future…which seemed to be beers made with dandelion, strawberry or herbs, all I seem to recall being grown on the estate. I wasn’t that excited to be honest, having given my heart and soul to Jaipur. These beers didn’t seem to happen and Thornbridge took the path that still excites me today, but if there’s one point I want to make here is that whenever one tries to predict the future of beer, it’s never that easy, in fact we could. be talking about various futures rather than just one. 

and here’s the extract from the book
Thornbridge Brewery, Ashford in the Water, Derbyshire
A trip to Thornbridge Brewery, based at Thornbridge Hall in the village of Ashford in the Water, is as much a visit to the land of Homes & Gardens, as it is to see and taste the fruits of John Barleycorn. The Hall boasts sweeping staircases, high-ceilinged rooms, gorgeous views over ornate gardens and windows by William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones. It also houses a new 10-barrel brewery which has been set up by local businessman Jim Harrison (who owns the house with wife and entrepreneur Emma), along with Dave Wickett, the owner of the Fat Cat pub and its adjoining Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield. Initially used to brew Kelham Island ales to cope with increased orders after Pale Rider’s championship title at Olympia 2004, the brewery is now producing Thornbridge’s own brews including Craven Silk, an aromatic, rich and fruity session bitter whose palate is enlivened by the addition of elderflower into the mix. The elderflower is part of Jim’s brewing plans as he hopes to use other herbs, flowers and fruits from the estate to create Thornbridge’s special beers. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

On a visit to a brewery

The space/place/location is where we imagine ourselves living; imagine ourselves being part of, imagine how each morning we will look out of the window and reimagine how the day will go — the aroma of the wood smoke awakens within memories of a place that we didn’t really visit, but we feel that somewhere in our lives we were there. We mourned for the dog hit by the car, we scowled at the cat and imagined its role in our lives; we drank the beer our employees, whose names we know, but whose names we don’t really know, make, the beers that they package, the recipes they devise; we belonged and yet we didn’t. The land across which we looked towards the small white-washed chapel is not ours, the land in which the brewery is placed is not ours, but yet we feel for that one sparkling sunny Monday morning that we are part of it. We drink the saison, the dubbel, the farmhouse IPA, the wood-aged noir and we know and bask in the nuances and nourishment of the beer inside these sturdy bottles. We feel and field the flinty vinous notes, the shades of vanilla and coconut, the bitterness and the dryness and chocolate and coffee and dried fruit and wood and we grasp the nature of this brewery to which we feel for that brief morning in the middle of Ohio we felt we belonged to (and as we leave the brewery a fleet of empty yellow school buses trail along the road going from who knows where to god knows where, it was that kind of morning). 

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Belonging #earlydoors

The Craft Crow, Nottingham 

The deep sonorous tones of the church bells speak like an authoritative headmaster from the age of pain, announcing the onset of 11 o’clock in the morning, a regular, furrowed brow airburst of sound, eleven times the angel Michael with sword in hand, announcing that somewhere in this town a pub is opening for early doors. Which is how I find myself in the Crafty Crow in Nottingham, Magpie Brewery’s tap, a shining city on a hill glass of their bracing Best in front of me, figurative in the shapes the barley and the English hops make on my palate, the kind of beer that shapes the day ahead of me. 

A pint of Best, the world tilts on its axis

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Belonging #Fullers

You start going to a pub, which you call your local, even though you might have to get a bus or a taxi or cycle to it, or just walk around the corner, but you start to belong. You start to get to know people, you start to get to know which ones are the bores, the ones you say hello to quickly and move on, straining to avoid talking about the news or whatever sport they like or even the weather; you get to know the ones who are drunks but quite funny until you get bored (and worried you’ll become like them and sometimes think you have become like them); you get to know the belligerent ones who dislike the fact that you might have the wrong kind of voice and haven’t lived around here long enough and that their hard-earned friends are pally with you and sometimes, much against your better judgment, you try to make friends with the belligerents and eventually do; you get to know the beer experts (and keep your mouth shut); you get to know the drinkers who like dogs, who comment on the book you are reading, who ask you what football or rugby team you support or whether you like cricket (‘sorry mate, bores the pants off me’); you get to know the wastrels, the wasted, the strait-laced, the frayed and the afraid whose eyes widen when you tell them that once upon a time on your travels you drank a 25% (or thereabouts) beer — ‘not in pints mind, gold-flecked thimbles’; you get to know the dead ones, whose photos (or sometimes boots) hang on the walls or in alcoves; you get to know who is in at which time of the day and doubtless if someone else is keeping count you are time-checked and put on the rota. 

You belong, beer and pubs make us belong, maybe not make as that sounds like a three-line whip, but beer does help us belong, in the way you tip the glass and say cheers to a complete stranger who you will never see again; or the conversation in between swigs of Gold with the man in the paint-stained overalls who hears you mention a town you (and they) used to live in; then there are the brewer’s parents who are keen on what you think of their proud prodigy’s pints; beer helps us belong, engage in confidences about sport, business, the weather, the street you live in and also agree that religion and politics have no place in the bar (unlike that loudmouth over there); you become a fixture, as immovable as that stuffed owl under a bell jar that old Cyril (remember him?) claimed to have found by the side of a road when he came back from the Korean War (or was it a stint with ENSA?). 

You belong. Beer helps us belong. 

Which is why I felt sad about Fuller Smith & Turner’s demise as an independent brewery. I’ll get over it, we get over things us adults, and after all as long as ESB, London Porter (in keg for me), Vintage Ale, the wisteria, the brewery yard across which hundreds of workers have ambled and gambled on a life in beer and that tumble-down dusty room of bound brewery archives exists I will feel I belong. But if it changes and the seas of corporate ways take the brewery into a dark valley of a different landscape and a memory of what once was, I won’t belong. Until then…

Monday, 3 December 2018

Schneider Brauhaus

The ambience of Schneider Brauhaus is wood panelling, antlers, wrought iron fixtures and black-and-white prints from the past. A Bavarian version of the mood of many of our own taverns and inns, which usually bake a cake called Ye Old English Pub, and whose ingredients include tally ho, peasants working in the field and bowler hats as everyday wear. I have to ask the question for both Bavarian and English pubs: what past is it? Here, as I sit amidst the bustle of Schneider trying to catch the attention of a dirndl-and-DMs-attired waitress, all these images seem like an imagined past of nature and woodland, hunters and ancient ancestors — a kind of ancestral magic past? Deep down in our subconscious, submarined in our psyche, perhaps places like this Brauhaus add a kind of magic to our lives (providing we are the sort of person who wants to push the buzzer on the door marked ‘magic, please enter’), the kind of magic that our ancestors (you know the people we never heard about) over-dosed on until the coming of the Enlightenment, Darwin and Marx. On the other hand, perhaps you could say that there is still magic in our lives, as we continue to make music, write poetry, fall in love and salivate like a broken cistern as the thought of a great meal or magnificent beer. We are still in search of magic, which could be one reason why beer halls like Schneider’s are so popular (the beer isn’t bad either), and maybe a place like this, where I spent plenty of time over three days in Munich in June, gives us our fix of magic. Maybe all our great beers and meals have a similar magical focus, and we just have to give into this kind of magic. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2018


Scraps of conversation swirl in the air, torn pieces of paper, rising, whirling, falling, settling on the ground — sour mango salt two weeks same pale ale cold chain time — phones are handled and deployed, words tapped out, memo to self, this is what I drank last night, the rumble of trains above, deep, brutal, an imagined blow to the solar plexus, the echo inside when I knuckle tap the corrugated metal that lines the walls, reminiscent of the kind of container architectural fantasists might call home and the rest of us a container. There’s a daub of colour on a banner at the back of the railway arch (for this is where I am), with more colour-filled banners tacked to the curved ceiling. The bar in the corner has wood for its counter, but below, its base looks as if it wouldn’t be out of place in a garden centre feature. The beer menu is printed on plain paper, with the beers listed beneath the titles of yeast, malt and hops. I have a 2/3rd glass of the Helles Tettnanger, which with its light grainy malt, clean lemony notes and dry and juicy finish reminds me of fresh Augustiner Helles. I then have the Super Noble, an amber lager brewed in collaboration with US brewery Notch. It’s rather delicious, cool and crunchy, full-bodied and boding well for my soul with every sip. Meanwhile, more drinkers talk and amble and gesticulate about me, a crowd of boots and trainers and the odd pair of brogues and hoodies and pea-jackets and a couple of dogs. Not bad for the first night of the Cloudwater Bermondsey tap.

• Early days I know, it needs time to warm up, it’s a bit cold perhaps, but it’s early days and I will be back

Monday, 19 November 2018

Barley wine

A well-made barley wine is a thing of beauty, a palpitating, purple rose of a beer style, enchanting and heart-felt and made for sipping contentedly by the hearth, while outside the elements screech and preach like the Harpies of legend. A well-made barley wine is proof that the gods are on our side and are sending thunderbolts in all directions celebrating the proof that malt does more than Milton can to justify their ways to us down here on earth. I had a barley wine in my glass in front of me on a damp and drizzly night towards the end of last week, where even the Harpies stayed at home and watched reruns of the Bake-offs featuring Mary Berry. I was in a pub as well, not in my favourite armchair, as drowsy as a dog whose day has been spent chasing rabbits and wading through marshes; I was in the Grapevine, in the we-all-like-to-be-beside-the-seaside town of Exmouth, an evening in the pub, in the company of licensee Ollie Bainbridge, who also brewed the barley wine at the back of the building in his Crossed Anchors brewery. It is a handsome looking bottle, 750ml, with a wax topping that looks like Vincent Price should turn up and start delivering a soliloquy from Edgar Allan Poe. However, instead of Price, who I know is dead, but he did once play a dead man who was kept alive by hypnosis in low budget version of a Poe story, so who knows, Ollie tells me about the beer: ‘I am a big fan of allowing malt to express itself,’ he says as he cuts through the wax, ‘We brewed it in August and Jonny Mills helped me design and brew it. It was a 12-hour brew day and we did a double mash. We used Maris Otter, crystal and chocolate malt, alongside a hop variety called Warrior. This was Jonny’s idea, it gave a very clean and bitter hoppiness.’ 

I saw and I drank the beer and let it conquer — it was as dark as the depths of an old forest where the ghosts of Varus’ legions fell, though gleaming crimson tints at the edge suggested hope. Complexity swirled out of the glass: chocolate, dark fruit, toffee, cherry (cherry liquor even), whilst each taste brought in more chocolate (truffle perhaps), cherry, an alcohol warmth and hints of coconut and vanilla. The bitter finish was firm yet gentle. I took another sip. And another. 

Well-made and not afraid of resting in the shades, Big Red (as it is named) is a well-made barley wine and a thing of beauty. I now need a night of wild elements before I open my bottle. 

* 1000 bottles were brewed with 100 being for sale; the rest will be aged. Next year’s vintage will see 100 released as well as 100 more from 2018, and so on.