Thursday 26 May 2011

A visit to Hook Norton

Arcadia itself. Birdsong, cows lowing in the distance, a tall late-Victorian tower brewery lifting itself to heaven in front of me, pagoda like, greenness all around, the sour-sweet smell of brewing like spindrift in the air, I could only be at Hook Norton. This has to be one of my favourite breweries in England — hidden away in a beautiful village, down Brewery Lane, past the old maltings where now a Visitor Centre dispenses packs of beer that include Double Stout, Flagship and Haymaker, as well as being home to a compact but highly effective museum about Hook Norton, both the brewery and the village. I’ve been to the National Brewery Centre thrice in the past few months and nothing has given me as much a tingle about our national drink as the one long room at Hook Norton. The cheesy, Gorgonzola like smell of old hop sacks, a shelf of books from the early decades of the 20th century, guides to the breweries of England, old photos and artefacts, a pride in family, an old wort cooler, wooden barrels — there was something about it that inspired Proustian, Madeleine cake moments reaching back into my past, bringing up the innocence that accompanied my first discoveries of beer (it wasn’t campaigning that got me into cask beer but the flavour, the pubs, the Joycean-like evocation of community, the feeling of coming home, just like the first time I cooked from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, a time when the earth was young).

I stand there chatting with Hook Norton’s avuncular MD James Clarke, with whom I have shared several pints in the last couple of years, a great guy, a beer man who has a tremendous pride in his family’s brewing heritage (we’re due to visit some pubs later). His great-grandfather built the brewery that stands so solidly in a dip in the village. Six stories high, a place of steps, whitewashed walls, wooden floor, banisters, and brewing equipment, a landscape of puzzles and conundrums and surprises — what’s behind this door? Oh, it’s the fermenting room, with open vessels. Rare these days. I remember the smell and sight of them at Young’s in Wandsworth and — conversely — Zywiec Porter in Cieszyn on the Czech Polish border. Why open? Does it help the flavour or the production? The answer — it’s always been done this way and why not continue this way? It works for Hook Norton and why shouldn’t it continue this way? There is a sort of Constructivist/Brutualist beauty about brand new stainless steel, but I also enjoy the air of a brewery that seems to have grown organically over the years, like a city that was once a settlement beside a river. Rus in urbe.

And then the beer: I have always loved Old Hooky,  a hint of mocha coffee, bossed about by bold citrus fruitiness and ending with a biscuity, cracker-like dryness; Double Stout, chocolate-coated coffee beans and a sensuous, luscious, creamy character. For those long hot sunny days, when it hasn’t rained for a while and the smell of dried hay in a barn is a tonic of its own, there’s Haymaker: bruised gold in colour while the palate is reminiscent of the tang of tangerine kept in line with a thrusting bitter note. The brewery used to produce a beer called Haymaker towards the end of the 19th century, just for the agricultural community — a saison perhaps? Then I had Flagship, lemon, sherbert, pungent and a plunge into the hopsack. An IPA? I asked James. He nodded. It’s not new (2006/07 I think?), but this one had passed me by. I dither and take a detour when offered a lot of bottle conditioned beers but Flagship was and is a glorious exception to the rule (I drink one now and think it on a par with White Shield). And as I sit here in another glorious part of the countryside I think of how far beer is from its rural roots — even though beer starts in a field its link to the countryside is broken as soon as those precious seeds of barley leave for the malting — and take myself back to the birdsong, the lowing of the cows and above all the spindrift of brewing in the air. Et in Arcadia ego.


  1. You'd best restore them to being your main picture then! I once spent a day at Hook Norton: lovely people, lovely brewery and lovely beer!

  2. Oh I like to have a rolling roster of pix, the current one is Burton Bridge’s Tap, I think Hook Norton will be returning!
    On looking at the old original brewhouse yesterday (the one before the pagoda was built, noticed a window out of keeping with the rest of the building, we speculated it might have been a survival from John Harris’ original farmhouse.

  3. Really loved this post Ad, there's a romanticism to breweries like this which I think you evoked really well.

    On a more practical note I would love to try their 'Flagship' IPA, on par with White Shield? Hi praise indeed

  4. Thanks Neil, Flagship is brilliant, I bought a case of it, a quarter is already gone, I must age some to see how it does.

  5. Very nice piece, especially the point about rural roots. It's a rare treat to visit there, I went down there for a visit last autumn - a lovely experience, and I have to agree with you about Flagship - lovely drop.
    And having been in the Burton Bridge only last night I am happy with your picture just as it is!