Sunday, 30 August 2015
Beer In Essex
Four Coggeshall Pubs
On a warm Saturday morning a few weeks ago we were stuck for an idea of what to do or where to go. It was one of those late Spring - early Summer mornings where you really feel that you'd have wasted the day if you didn't get out of the house and do something positive. Searching for inspiration, my wife turned to the internet and consulted one of those 'days out in...' guides that can easily be found. A National Trust property in Coggeshall, Paycockes House and Garden, caught her eye, and as I neither of us could recall ever having been there, or indeed having ever been to Coggeshall itself we duly set off pleased to have found a suitable destination.
My only recollection of Coggeshall prior to this was that the late eighties, early nineties television show Lovejoy was filmed in the area, and that the previous owners of our current house had moved there when we bought it from them.
Consulting the Good Beer Guide for a suitable lunch recommendation upon our arrival, we headed to The Chapel Inn, of which more later, for some very good food and a couple of very well kept pints from the local Red Fox Brewery. Paycockes House was just around the corner, and well worth a visit. Beautifully kept and respectfully restored it is a fine example a 15th century wool merchants house, and the children were particularly delighted to be able to play croquet in the garden, but it was the walk around the unspoilt town that provided me with the desire to find out more about it and this was subsequently the inspiration for this piece of writing.
The origins of Coggeshall itself, as well as its name, are lost in the mists of time and it has been referred to with many different spellings through the years. Growing up at the intersection of the River Blackwater and the Roman Road of Stane Street that linked Colchester to Ermine Street, the main Roman Road north, it is referred to in the Domesday Book as Cogheshal, a settlement of some sixty men, with ploughs, horses, oxen, sheep, and even a mill. It prospered from the mid-Fifteenth Century as the local monks were able to breed sheep with particularly high quality wool, from which the famous Coggeshall White cloth was made. It also had a regular Saturday market. With the decline of the wool trade, the economy was centred around silk and velvet, but by the late Nineteenth Century it had also become renowned for the quality of its brewing.
In Ian P. Peaty's excellent Brewery History Society Publication, Essex Brewers: The Malting & Hop Industries Of The County, a constant source of reference for me, eight pages are devoted to the breweries and mentions of brewing in the town, only Chelmsford and Colchester have more, such was its importance in the county.
As wool was such an important factor in the growth of the town it is natural that I should start with one of the pubs that takes its name from the trade itself.
The Woolpack (91 Church Street) dates from the 15th century, and is the oldest secular building in the town. Originally built as a home for a prosperous wool merchant, by the early 16th century it had become a hostelry catering to those in the same business, with wool auctions being held there regularly and there is a record of an Albert Emmings roasting a whole bullock there at a Shrove Tuesday party. Within the space of some fifty years however it had returned to its original use as private dwelling.
In 1665 it was purchased by Thomas Lowery, previously vicar of the church next door, St Peter ad-Vincula (which my Latin translator tells me is St Peter in chains), who had been ejected from the Church of England over his Puritanical views following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. He continued to preach despite this, and independent congregations would gather under his roof to hear his words, and this is commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall of the pub itself.
Speaking of the church I have found an anecdote in several books that concerns a group of men (the number varies from four upwards) who, having spent the evening in the inn next door, became convinced that they could move the church by pushing against it hard enough. Having tried in vain, and after removing there jackets, they came to the conclusion that the reason that they were unsuccessful was that they were pushing against the wind. After going round to the other side and pushing with all their might for a short while, they went back to see if they had made any impression at all. Finding their jackets gone they reasoned that they must have pushed the church right on top of them.
After the death of Thomas Lowery the building passed to his son, Jeremy, along with the vast sum in those days of £900, and upon his death it passed to his son Jeremiah Lowery. By 1708 Jeremiah had converted the Woolpack was back to an inn, who in turn sold it to a George Long and it was known as the Punchbowl for a short time.
Its half-timbered frame was covered in plaster in the early 19th century, but a refurbishment in the 1930s this was removed, the building restored to the state we see it in today, with a magnificent brick fireplace discovered behind a boarded-up wall during the same work. It has suffered from some subsidence during the years, indeed its floor sloped by eight inches from the centre to the walls at one point, so a false floor was laid in the 1950s and this remains.
Today it still retains plenty of character, a memory of a bygone era, it really is like stepping back in time. A row of four cottages once stood in what is now its car park, so there is no excuse not to spend a little time there should you happen to be passing by.
If you continue towards the town, almost facing you near the very end of Church Street you will find The Chapel Inn (4 Market Hill). As its name implies it is built on the site of an old chapel (although evidence of Roman drainage aqueducts can be found in the beer cellar), however I have found some conflicting evidence regarding its origins.
The pubs website states that the original chapel was erected in 1256, and there is reference to the home of one John Sewell Sheriff of Essex in the reign of Richard II, owning property there, which was either the chapel itself or certainly very close by. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381, his home was looted by the rebels, although the current pub's assertion that he was decapitated on the premises at the time seem a little improbable as there are possible references to him as late as 1389.
The Will of Thomas Hall, a local resident, dated January 15th, 1499 has the following passage:
"I bequeath towards the edifying and making of a chapell within the said Towne of Cokesale (Coggeshall) XXS to be paide when the said chapell is werkying."
Whether this is a new chapel, or a modernisation of the earlier one is unclear, however construction certainly took place, and there are references to it as "an olde chaple" in 1549.
In 1588 the property was conveyed to the fullers and weavers of the town before being demolished in either 1787 or 1795 depending on which account you read.
The current property, which had been known as Ayworth's, Edgworth and Seals (Sewells) after previous owners is mentioned as being sold (along with The Woolpack above) in 1828 following the bankruptcy of the brewer of the Coggeshall Brewery at The White Hart (that we shall visit shortly),Mr. I. Brightwen, with two floor maltings being a feature of the yard at the rear.
At some point the building was a hotel as well as an inn, and featured a brewhouse being run by a Mr Walter Green, and in more recent times was owned by the Ind Coope brewery, which had its origins much nearer London though still in Essex, having been founded in Romford.
Today it is a friendly community pub and, as I noted earlier, boasts Coggeshalls only entry in the Good Beer Guide, and one in which you will find beer from the nearby Red Fox Brewery regularly on the bar. I can also recommend the food having eaten there on a recent visit so make sure it's on your itinerary, particularly if you're after some Essex brewed beer.
Turn right out of The Chapel Inn and down Market Hill for a few short paces and directly in front of you you cannot mistake the pale frontage of The White Hart Hotel (Market End).
Parts of the building date from the late 15th century, although it may have been built on the site of a much earlier building as it situated alongside the old Roman road. A former coaching inn, and one in which you may still stay the night, it was once the only staging post on the Colchester to Braintree route.
It is also known that the Coggeshall Brewery was situated at the rear of the building as in 1837 it was up for sale, being described thus:
"Coggeshall Brewery, including an excellent brewhouse: 3 floor malting house ... malt, barley and seed chambers ... the whole forming a frontage of 95 feet in Stoneham Street; at the back is an enclosed yard and an excellent garden. The property is supplied from an inexhaustible spring rising in a small garden a short distance from the brewery. The population of the town and neighbourhood (is such) that an intelligent merchant with moderate capital must succeed."
A company of gypsies stayed at the inn for a while in September 1842, although it appears that they were confined to the out-buildings as one of their number, Cassello Chilcott aged 28, is recorded as having died in the stables after suffering a long illness. She is buried in the churchyard of St Peter ad-Vincula, here gravestone being one of the first you see if you climb the path to the church itself.
Today the White Hart Hotel is run by Olde English Inns, the hotel arm of Greene King, and is said to be haunted by the unnamed ghost of a young woman, although this may not be that of Cassello Chilcott as there have been reported sightings even before she died there. Looking on the website it gets good reviews for the friendliness of the staff although the rooms themselves appear to be a little small and in need of some renovation. It would be a good base from which to explore the town and the surrounding area, so might be worthy of consideration should you wish to visit.
The fourth a final pub on my tour of Coggeshall is, I'm afraid, no longer an inn but a private house, but one that I feel is still worthy of attention.
The Fleece (27 West Street) is attached to Paycocke House, being purpose built some five years afterwards in 1503, for wool merchant Thomas Paycocke's son as an inn and stables.
Whilst not as grand as the White Hart Hotel it still gained a good trade from its location on the old Roman road, albeit a little out of the main town, with its rear being home to the Gravel Brewery, founded in 1870, before this moved opposite the Cricketers pub, like The Fleece no longer trading, somewhere between 1875 and 1897. The brewery itself was started as a sideline by the renowned seed growing company Kings Seeds, a business that is still in existence today.
The Fleece itself is described as having one bar with an enormous fire place in which log fires were kept constantly burning during the winter and must have provided some much welcome warmth for a weary traveller on a bitter evening.
In later years it was bought by Greene King, who in turn closed and sold it in 2013 although the sign still remains, as does much of the brewery branding on the exterior wall. It is a fine building and it is not difficult to imagine the sound of conversation and laughter coming from it in days gone by.
Visiting Coggeshall is like going back in time, to the days of Pepys or Dickens, when the coaches thundered along the main street of this once thriving town. It is places like this, that contrast almost completely with the hustle and bustle of my corner of Essex, that fill my heart with joy and truly make me believe that I live in the best county in the country.
Essex Brewers & The Malting & Hop Industries Of The County - Ian P Peaty, The Romance of Essex Inns - Glyn Morgan, Alka-Seltzer guide to the Pubs Of Essex, Titbits and Tales of Essex Inns - Mavis Sipple, A Pub Crawl Around Essex - Graham Dover, The Essex Chronicle, The Chelmsford Chronicle, Borrow's Gypsies Blog website, Olde English Inns website, The Chapel Inn website
Saturday, 15 August 2015
A Tale Of Two Sittings
The Knowledge And The Secret Bar
Drinking Beer With Meantime And Sharp's
Having just returned from Paris (about which I'll post about separately soon) this was a title that I simply couldn't resist. You might think that it's one that I've used simply for literal effect, but there's more than clever wordplay behind it. as sitting, drinking and talking was very much the order of the day on each occasion.
Both breweries are now owned by multi-national national drinks firms, with SAB Miller acquiring Meantime earlier this year to much consternation, whilst Molson Coors bought Sharp's from the founder and owner Bill Sharp back in 2011. I was interested in getting both breweries perspective on what some have seen as selling-out and was pleasantly encouraged by what I heard from both parties. I'm jumping a little ahead of myself here however, and it was Meantime to which I was invited first of all, so that's where I'll start.
So it was, one Thursday evening a month or so ago, I made my way to their brewery in Greenwich, a fifteen minute walk from London's O2 arena, for the launch of The Knowledge a series of beer appreciation courses for those wanting to delve a little deeper into this liquid that we love.
We were met at the new Tasting Rooms which were opened shortly before the buy-out was announced, by the current Beer Academy Beer Sommelier of the Year, Rod Jones. He was our host for the evening and gave us a brief tour of the brewery before we made our way to the upstairs Brewhouse bar, home to some of the late beer writer Michael Jackson's astonishing bottle collection.
On our way there we were treated to a view of Meantime's small but interesting barrel-ageing area, home to a very small batch of the much missed and much sought after Thomas Hardy's Ale. Originally brewed by Eldridge Pope from 1968 until 1999 when they ceased brewing completely, it was briefly revived by the Devon-based O'Hanlon's Brewery. After only five years they too stopped brewing it as it proving too expensive for them and their limited resources. Sadly the bottles from the cask we saw won't be seen in the UK however, as they we be shipped of to Italy, however it was hinted that a very limited amount may be made available. I live in hope.
We also got to see the first contribution SAB Miller has made to Meantime as Rod proudly introduced us to four shiny new fermenting vessels that inhabit the brewery yard. Standing proud and tall like the buildings just across the water in London's Docklands, they were certainly an impressive example of what investment can bring.
Finally, when we are all seated and have a full glass of Meantime beer (what else!) in front of us, Rod proceeds to tell us about the reasoning behind them taking this initiative.
"We have wanted to do this for some time, and indeed have been doing so on a limited basis" he began " and it's something we are hoping to roll-out to the on-trade shortly, as well as those who sell our beer in places like Waitrose"
"The thinking behind this, particularly for trade customers, is to educate them. It's about reclaiming working in the licensed trade as a career path, educating and helping them promote better beer. It's about realising that beer is not going to go back to the 'old men in pubs' thing."
"The industry is renewing itself constantly anyway. Bottles of light ale, the traditional pale ale and Mackeson have all-but disappeared from pubs. We think that there is plenty of interest in beer now, ... and we want them to come in and experience a working brewery ... and learn something about beer, This is a genuine education programme within the industry."
He then went on to explain the two levels of courses on offer.
The first level is split into four 'mini-courses': Beer Appreciation/How to taste beer; How beer is made; London beer history; and Beer and cheese, the latter being an informal talk and tasting of Meantime and other world class beers paired with various cheeses, with the aim of bringing out the best in both.
The second level consists of the Masterclass, a one-day five hour course that includes lunch and a full beer tasting, and covers all aspects of beer, including it's evaluation, identifying faults, serving temperatures and beer and food.
A limited level of knowledge is assumed when people come on these courses we are told, and should you be interested in finding out more about any of these, or would like to book yourself on them, then you can follow this link which will enable you to do so.
We talked about beer for quite some time with Rod impressing us all with his detailed level of knowledge. He talked to us on a wide range of beer related subjects from the simple and complex sugars in barley and malt, to the ancient Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh (in which beer plays a part in creating the first man), to hop oils, and the history of brewing in London.
There is one subject on which he won't be drawn, and that is on the SAB Miller acquisition itself. I ask him if it was larger company that approached Meantime or if there was any courtship on their behalf. Rod deftly side-steps this issue by stating that he wasn't party to the deal so cannot comment on it, however he is keen to stress the benefits that the larger brewery will bring, from increased distribution and investment to a wealth of industry knowledge. Most importantly though, for the time being at least, Meantime is being left largely to it's own devices and continuing to do what it does best, brewing good beer.
I finished the evening in good company and with good food and plenty of Meantime beer, talking more informally this time with Rod, along with Pete Brown and Jerry Bartlett before I had to drag myself away. It had been a very satisfying and informative evening and being issued with a certificate to say that we had completed the course was a rather nice touch.
A few weeks later, it's the first Saturday in August and I've just finished work for a couple of weeks annual leave. Rather than going straight home I change in the office before heading up to Finsbury Circus, a short walk from Moorgate tube station to attend the annual London Beach Rugby event as a guest of Sharp's Brewery.
You may think that the city of London is an odd place for a beach rugby tournament, however as I approach the venue it becomes clear from the noise level that quite a lot of people think this is very much the place to be.
The London Beach Rugby tournament was held in Covent Garden in 2013, and has been sponsored by Sharp's from the beginning. It moved to London's Docklands last year, but this year the Finsbury Circus venue became available and I gather that it will be held there next year too. The format is basically five-a-side touch-rugby on sand, but should you wish for a more detailed version of the rules they can be found here. The Sharp's team was coached by former England Tighthead Prop Phil Vickery, and it was my pleasure to meet and chat with him a little later in the day.
Despite playing well, the Sharp's team only made it to the semi-finals, with the eventual winners being a French team who are apparently the dominant force in the game, having won every year so far. Spread over two afternoons it's a thoroughly enjoyable way to watch competitive sport up close whilst working your way through Sharp's core range, so if it sounds like your thing then keep an eye out for it next year.
I had been promised a very special tasting experience and I'm met by Lara from Red Consultancy who has set this meeting up and she introduces me to James Nicholls, Sharp's Senior Brand Manager.
I immediately warm to James and his easy going manner. He is friendly, knowledgeable and most of all passionate about the brewery he has been with for over twenty years. Having started washing casks and helping out in his spare time, he has worked his way up to a senior position in the company but this hasn't jaded him in any way shape or form. The Sharp's fire still burns fiercely inside him.
We talk about beer in general and about Rock and the area of Cornwall where the brewery is based. It's an area I know well as I used to visit every year from 1988 until 1993 as, along with a group of friends, I'd spend the summer surfing and drinking in and around nearby Polzeath.
Inevitably the conversation turns to brewing in Rock, and when I ask him about the recent revelation that some Doom Bar isn't actually brewed in Cornwall he gives me an honest and straight-forward answer.
"I know this has caused a lot of fuss" he says "but It's only the bottled version that's brewed by Molson Coors in Burton upon Trent, and this only accounts for 15 per cent of production. It's all a question of resources, and the remaining 85 per cent, which accounts for all of the cask production, is still brewed in Cornwall."
This actually makes a lot of sense, and having discussed this with a few people whose opinions I respect since then, I've come to the conclusion that if you're going to have your beer brewed elsewhere then Burton upon Trent, with its rich and historic brewing tradition, is certainly the place to do so.
It appears that Sharp's have largely been left alone by Molson Coors, with the multi-national bringing investment, distribution and industry knowledge, in fact exactly the same answers I got from Rod at Meantime.
The only difference between the two that I can see is time.
Remember that it's been nearly five years since Sharp's were sold, and in that time it cannot be denied that whatever you think of Doom Bar, its profile has been raised significantly and it has attracted a huge army of fans who actively seek it out. I myself have friends who talk about it in almost hallowed terms, and it's the one beer that they look out for if they want a pint of 'real ale'. Publicans undoubtedly know this and they will tell you that it always sells well, so much so that it has become a regular fixture on bars up and down the country. This of course raises the issue of consistency and I'm assured that even though this is hard to ensure on a practical level, Sharp's tries its hardest to make sure that this is so. It's clearly a brand reputation they're very proud of and very keen on protecting.
The reason for my visit was a VIP tasting, and I was soon led over to a mobile home-style vehicle towards one corner of Finsbury Circus. This, I'm told, is the 'Secret Bar'.
James says he'll be seeing us in a minute or two and promptly disappears whilst Lara and myself are ushered into the back of the vehicle and some fairly and quite cramped seating, but there is a partition door slightly ahead of us. The main door is closed, and with it the sights, sounds and smells of the rugby tournament beyond fade into memory. The partition door is rolled back and the 'Secret Bar' is revealed ...
Unfortunately that's as much as I will say as I have been asked by Sharp's not to reveal exact details about the bar itself suffice to say that it is designed in such a way that you whole focus is solely on the beer.
James is there of course, assuming the guise of barman, and I am served beer, as you might expect, and more besides. He is very keen to hear my opinions and those of Lara, as well as offering his own and we evaluate the beer as we go and talk about the flavours we find and the way they are brewed. It is a fascinating and enlightening experience and we are in there for some considerable time, nearly two hours, and though I'm told that this is a fairly new thing for them as well as me, they are normally in and out in around twenty minutes.
We emerge into the sunshine with the rugby tournament into its closing stages. Beer tokens are pushed into my hand and I'm given a hessian goody bag full of Sharp's beer. I'm not left to my own devices however and even though the tasting is over James and other members of the brewery team are attentive and on hand to talk about beer, answering any other questions that I have.
Several pints later it's time for me to leave, and although the rugby has finished the party will be continuing long into the night.
On the train home I reflect on the day the relative experiences I have had with both breweries. Meantime obviously had a product to sell, The Knowledge, and even though they were genuinely friendly the feel was a little more clinical than the easy-going charm that I felt from the staff at Sharp's. The events themselves obviously went some way to contribute towards this, and whilst Sharp's were obviously very comfortable with the role their parent company held in the day to day running of things, I didn't quite get that same feeling at Meantime.
Time will of course tell, so let's hope we continue to be drinking good beer from both of these breweries for may years to come.
I'd like to thank Rod and James at Meantime, and James from Sharp's for entertaining me and my questions and answering them in an open and honest way. I'd also like to that Don at Hope And Glory and Lara at Red Consultancy for inviting me along to their respective events. I had a great time at both and everyone without exception was extremely friendly.
Addendum: Some of you may have read this week, this article on the Beer Insider site regarding Grolsch, one of SAB Miller's other brands, now comprising 10 per cent of Meantime's London Lager. Whilst this is obviously a worrying development as it shows that the larger brewery is already influencing production, it might not be a huge cause for concern yet. It does however make me think of those four shiny new fermenting vessels that had recently been delivered and what beer they might contain in a few years time.
Sunday, 2 August 2015
Beer In Essex - Quick Reviews
Church Street Tavern, Colchester
Tucked away down a side street, albeit one that will be instantly familiar to anyone that has been to the Colchester Beer Festival is the Church Street Tavern.
Head inside, turn left and head towards the bar with its shabby but strangely alluring frontage. You will think it looks rather bare surmounted as it is by two stainless-steel multi-tap keg founts, one at each end, but take a closer look and you might find something just a bit more interesting.
The taps, the last time I was in there earlier this year, weren't especially inspiring but different enough in this part of the world to be worthy of a mention. Both Calvors Lager and their Premium featured, Meantime's Red Ale, Brewdog's Brixton Porter, alongside Adnams Spindrift and their Dry Hopped Lager, which seems to be cropping up all over the place at the moment and that's no bad thing. It is however the bottle selection which is the real draw here, and on closer inspection you'll see why with Brewdog and Wild Beer Co. (a selection of four different) next to US favourites from Flying Dog and Brooklyn, and a few Belgian and German classics in the mix for good measure.
The decor is equally interesting with a seemingly randomly arranged and mismatched array of armchairs, sofas and occasional tables that reminds more of a furniture showroom in a department store than a bar. It's fun, it's quirky and I rather like it.
I'd certainly recommend a visit to the Church Street Tavern as it's relaxed, the staff are friendly and the beer range is different enough in this part of Essex for it to be worth a little of your time. It's a place you'll feel equally at home with a group of friends or on your own with a good book, and that suits me just fine.
The Church Street Tavern can be found at: 3 Church Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1NF
Website: churchstreettavern.co.uk Twitter: @ChurchStTavern
Saturday, 25 July 2015
Beer In Essex - Quick Reviews
Bishop Nick Brewery - Revelry 4.5%
As I'm currently writing some longer posts about this fair county of mine, I though it would be rather fun to do the occasional quick review of Essex beer, Essex pubs, and anything generally beery in Essex that I deem fit. This will enable me to post more quickly as required, given an up to date account as things happen whilst I continue to work on writing that requires a little more research.
For the first of these I've opted for a beer that I picked up only yesterday at Ales By Mail and is the eighth and latest limited edition ale from the Bishop Nick Brewery. I briefly featured Bishop Nick in the first part of my review of Essex bottled beer with a single offering, their 1555 which is a gorgeous tawny-red ale with some delicious light cherry and toffee caramel flavours. All of their beer I've had previously has been of a very high calibre, which is as you might expect when you consider their pedigree so I'm looking for something rather special here.
Revelry is brewed with the dual purpose Rakau hop from New Zealand balanced against the British Archer hop all "packed in like tents at Glastonbury" as it says on the bottle. It was launched at the breweries own festival this year, Revelry Day, that too place on the 21st of June, Fathers Day. There was a hog roast and barbecue, a bouncy castle assault course and magician, with wine from the local Felsted Vineyard (which is also the home of the Felstar Brewery) as well as plenty of the brewery's own beer. It is a celebration of summer, and this Revelry is aimed squarely summer festivals so let's see if it's glorious sun-soaked weekend of a beer or a total wash out.
It pours a golden amber colour, like highly polished copper that glows in the sunlight, and this is topped with a tight off-white head. The aroma is initially earthy, characteristically British which surprises me somewhat, but floral fruitiness pushes its way through, most noticeably mango, peach, passion fruit and gooseberry, that hint at what might be just under the surface. It's quite full bodied, which catches me a little off guard, and a good varnished wood bitterness is followed by gentle notes of raspberry, apricot, pear and pine, but these disappear almost as soon as you spot them, washed away with a little toffee apple caramel and finishing with that earthy woodiness once more.
With its blue and yellow pump clip / bottle label design (along with a distinctive white cap) it's certainly a beer that stands out on the shelf or bar, but for me it doesn't really deliver that tropical fruit punch that I was expecting. It may well be a taste of summer, but it's a peculiarly British one, with the occasional day of warm rain and turning a little chilly in the evenings, not quite the scorcher I was hoping for.
Tuesday, 9 June 2015
Beer In Essex
Bottling It - Part Two: George's / Hop Monster to Mersea Island
The time has come for me to launch the second part of my journey into the bottled beer available in Essex at the moment. I'm assuming that you're already familiar with the format I'll be taking but if you'd like a reminder, or if you missed it previously, you can catch up with Part One here.
I have already been delighted by the quality and diversity of the beer bottled by Essex brewers as it is far more accomplished and interesting than most of the beer that the majority of the county's pub are able or willing to take, and hope to find some more gems in this instalment. I shall continue alphabetically as before and hope to feature examples from all the breweries that currently bottle their beer, so in this vein the next brewery is George's, or should that be Hop Monster?
If that last sentence caused you some confusion then I should explain that George's Brewery and The Hop Monster are two sides of the same coin, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if you will, with George's being the more traditional English ale side of the business whilst Hop Monster is more outward looking face, influenced by and using hops from the US craft beer scene and beyond. Established in 2010 by Mark Mawson in Great Wakering, four miles east of Southend, the brewery is named after Mark's father, George, who introduced him to real ale when he was a teenager the first beer, Freak Show, a 4.2% Golden Ale intensely hopped with Amarillo and Cascade was brewed on 11th May 2011. Beers released under the George's banner display a knight in full armour and have names you might expect, such as Broadsword, an ESB, and Merry Gentleman, an Old Ale, whereas the Hop Monster beers have more ghoulish names, Warlock is their Black IPA, Rochford Banshee their Porter, all featuring the image of an undead character who goes by the name of Hendrix the Hop Monster. Both George's and Hop Monster beers are available in bottles, and although I've yet to find the latter I'm told they're not for the faint hearted, and the brewery has promised me some when I visit soon. I've managed to grab several armfuls of George's bottles however in order to give their beer a thorough appraisal.
I'm starting off this glut of George's with Wallasea Wench (3.6%), the beer with the most questionable name and definitely the least acceptable label art. The story behind it, so the website states, is that the name started as a bit of a joke from the manager of The Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, Hillary Hunter, and the name stuck. For me that doesn't make it acceptable, wench is after all an archaic word for a prostitute, and although I am fully aware that the brewing industry uses this type of imagery from time to time it really is no longer socially acceptable. I will judge this beer on its merits, that is the purpose of this post, however I believe a reconsideration of the name may be in order. Pouring a light amber with a near-white head, not the golden colour of the beer shown in the glasses on the label, it has crisp caramel and pithy lemon citrus aroma. It's light in body as the abv might suggest with a good level of carbonation, and whereas it is low in bitterness but it most definitely isn't lacking in taste. Smooth to drink, there's a hint of burnt sugar flowing through the hedgerow earthiness provided by the hops. It's very refreshing and not challenging in any way which means its slips down incredibly easily, and that's certainly no bad thing. It is in the finish where the bitterness becomes most apparent, nibbling at the edges of your tongue with just the right amount of dryness to draw you back to the glass to slake your thirst once more. A beer that's equally suited to lazy sunny evenings or cold winter nights huddled round the fire, it is rather fine and I have certainly no issue with it on that score at least.
Wakering Gold (3.8%) is described as a session ale and is brewed year-round using English and American hops. This is a bottle-conditioned beer, and holding it up to the light reveals quite a lot of sediment in suspension towards the bottom, so pour carefully if you wish to avoid a muddy glass. Despite my best efforts mine poured a cloudy golden orange with a thin white head and has a dry pithy citrus aroma, slightly spicy, a smell I associate with the presence of a saison yeast. Deliciously dry over the tongue with flavours of orange peel, tangerine juice, lime zest and crushed coriander seed flood the mouth, centring themselves in the middle of the palate and leading into an arid finish, but one that's absolutely chock-full of all of that lovely citrus bitterness. I confess that this is the first time that I've had this beer, and I'm honest I was expecting a fairly generic Golden Ale rather than a dry punchy Saison-esque beer. Bottles of this are definitely going to be found regularly in my fridge this summer and I advise that you stock up too. (I have since discovered that Saison yeast was not used in the brewing of this beer, but despite my best efforts I couldn't persuade the brewery to part with any more information).
Boats and warfare, whether it be ancient or modern feature on many of the George's Brewery beers but Dreadnought (4.1%) manages to combine both of those. There is also common date that links them as HMS Dreadnought, the most advanced ship in the Royal Navy at the time, was launched on February 10th which is also Head Brewer and Managing Director Mark Mawson's birthday. There were of course many years difference between the two events, the battleship was launched in 1906, but it is certainly worthy of note and worthy of a beer. A thin white head sits atop a beer of a dark amber hue in the glass sending up an aroma of toffee mousse punctuated with dabs of peach juice and grated orange zest. It glides over the tongue with a gentle ripple of carbonation releasing a gentle but sustained fruit salad sweet flavour with hazelnut and fudge cutting through it and building in intensity as I drink and it slowly warms in my hand. The finish is fluffy hazelnut nougat chewy, delicious and comforting, bringing back childhood memories of mini milky way bars sneaked from the fridge and surreptitiously consumed in the shade of the garage on a warm summers day. I like this beer far more at my last sip that I did at my first. The flavours built wonderfully into a chocolatey sweet shop of flavours that I simply adore, and I think you might too.
Inspired by a trip to Iceland, Valhalla (4.2%) is brewed with British hops and described as "as golden as the shields that form the ceiling of Odin's Lair". In truth it's more of a burnished copper colour with a barely-there off white head and a heady wet meadow aroma with an earthy fruitiness featuring over-ripe crab apple, golden raisin and muddy grassy earth. It's bold and bitter up front, almost overwhelmingly so, before a big caramel apple sauce flavour sweeps it away, and while this fades rather quickly it re-emerges in the initial stages of the finish. There's more sharp bitterness, dry and with a grain or two of white pepper throughout the length of this beer, and although it ends drily there's a haunting flavour of Calvados that leaves me licking my lips and craving an apple brandy before bedtime. British hops often get a bit of a bad press, but when they're used this way it's very apparent just how good they are.
Broadsword (4.7%) is, as I mentioned above an ESB, brewed to resemble English ales of old, particularly those common around the end of the Second World War. It is one of George's biggest sellers, and is a beer that I have come across on many occasions up and down the county. This is a chestnut coloured beer with ruby red highlights and a thin beige head, I'm finding more chestnut in the aroma alongside a sugary lactose smell that reminds me of those small milk-bottle sweets that got me through my a-level exams. Surprisingly thin bodied with a good level of bitterness, there's more chestnut in the taste (I'm sensing a theme here) there's a hint of raspberry peeping out from behind it adding a decent level of background fruitiness which is very welcome, and rounds the beer off rather nicely. Slipping into the finish, which is a touch oily on the tongue, that lactose re-emerges but only briefly before a woody caramel, again with a little fruitiness lingers for quite some time. This may well be a taste of old England, although my limited research has been unable to ascertain if it is based on an old recipe but it is a very good beer, and one that you will find particularly pleasing you if like a good honest traditional English bitter as I know many of you do.
Many breweries thought it appropriate to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War by brewing an anniversary beer, and quite rightly so. George's Brewery were no different, except that they brewed two, donating £5 from every cask of The Fallen, and this beer Lest... (4.0%) to the Royal British Legion. Brewed using nine different malts, from England, Germany and the USA, as well as a blend of five hops, from the USA, UK, Germany and Slovenia, this promises to be an intriguing beer. It pours a chestnut amber with a creamy off-white head with the aroma of mandarin orange and peach, perhaps a twist of lime, with some tart dry white grape hovering expectantly at the back. There's a really good level of carbonation and it has quite a full mouthfeel releasing an exploding shell of pineapple, white grape, tart peach over a shallow meandering stream of caramel maltiness. The finish snaps shut rather quickly, almost as if your tasting time was up, but thankfully there's still some delicate dabs of fruity caramel lingering awhile like the fading reverberations of the guns after the armistice. You might be lucky enough to pick up a bottle or two of this as I still occasionally see it around, however the hop character is starting to fade so if you have one then best drink it soon. In three and a half years time it will be the centenary of the guns falling silent, although sadly not for the last time. I hope we see this beer again.
This space is reserved for some bottles from the Harwich Town Brewing Company. I travelled up to the brewery, the most north-easterly in Essex, only to unfortunately find it closed. Brewer Paul Mellor has promised me some beer and I plan a return trip to Harwich soon with yet another blog post to follow, so you'll just have to wait until then.
After more than a quarter of a century of home brewing, Phil Evans decided that the time was right to see if his beer would cut it in the commercial world so, in October 2013, he registered the Hope Brewery name. With a tiny quarter barrel plant producing a firkin at a time the first beer, Dark Demon, was jointly launched at the Halloween mini-festival at The Miley in Rochford and at The Welcome Club in Stanford le Hope at the end of his first month of trading. The smallest commercial brewery in Essex (with the possible exception of Watts & Co. in Colchester) brewing is currently limited to four times a week, with additional brews being squeezed in on an ad-hoc basis, but due to the popularity of the beer a new 2.5 barrel plant should hopefully (no pun intended) be online soon. Initially cask only, bottles of the beer have only recently been made available and I have four of them to get through so I'd better open the first one now.
SX Gold (4.2%) is, you probably won't be surprised to hear, a Golden Ale brewed with Marris Otter pale malt, Caramalt and torrified wheat and honey, and hopped with Saaz and Brewers Gold. Although this is far from my favourite style I am rather partial to the Brewers Gold hop, so I'm interested to see how this beer pans out. It pours a beautiful golden amber colour with an off-white head, but my beer had been over-primed and it took around ten minutes to settle with careful pouring, with glass and bottle being filled exclusively with foam at first opening. There was a definite honey aroma when the bottle was opened, but now it has settled this has been replaced with grassy pineapple, grapefruit, freshly cut peach and a twist of lime. Sharply bitter over the tongue, it fills the mouth splendidly but despite a strange space-dust like tingling on the tongue the flavours promised in the aroma are present but subdued, seemingly caught in a sticky, gooey bitterness. The finish is more defined, tasting almost exclusively of dry white grape skin and this is far more pleasant than it actually sounds. I was hoping for that spicy blackcurrant taste that I associate with the Brewers Gold hop, but the grassy Saaz has seemingly distorted it somewhat. This is still eminently drinkable, and I would make a bee-line for this if I ever saw it on cask as I think it would be a real winner.
Going a tad darker we find SX Devil (4.4%). Another beer brewed using Brewers Gold hops, this time in conjunction with Fuggles, and the addition of black and chocolate malts alongside those used in the SX Gold. Unsurprisingly this beer should not be confused with the fan-assisted PC gaming hardware case of the same name that my search engine thought I was enquiring about. It pours a bright tawny amber with a thin beige head covering its surface and has the aroma of a spicy fruit cake, thick with golden sultanas and blackcurrants. This too has a good level of vibrant carbonation and a decent mouthfeel, although it does feel a little heavy when it hits the back of the throat, but it does release loads of that Brewers Gold blackcurrant flavour, dark rich and slightly spicy, and this works really well alongside the earthiness of the Fuggles and a good level of background chocolate from the malt. The finish is smooth and lingering with plenty of that blackcurrant and chocolate, I'd venture milk chocolate here, and resonates beautifully for some time. I have to say that I enjoyed this beer a great deal, in fact I drained the glass more quickly than any beer I've written about in some time, and that should say as much as you need to know. I'll have another just to be sure.
The Olde Dog Inn, a pub that's well worth a visit if you're in the area. Despite its similar name however I think that this beer SX Demon (4.4%) may turn out to taste completely different as its list of ingredients appear to be identical to that of the SX Devil I've just finished. Seeing as there's only one way to find out its best that I get that bottle opened. This is a deep chestnut brown beer with ruby red highlights, a creamy beige head and a fruit bread aroma majoring in blackcurrant, liquorice, raisin and cherry with a twist of black pepper, it's a rather alluring smell. Notably thinner than the previous two beers, and smoother over the tongue with a light prickle of carbonation, and as the colour of the Demon is darker than the Devil, so the flavour is darker too. There's a chocolate wafer biscuit malty backbone underpinning a fig and blackcurrant fruitiness leading to a slightly tart and concentrated wine gum flavour with maybe a hint of bitter chocolate playing around the edges. I like this beer, but not quite as much as the other two and even though it's undeniably well-brewed, something that I'm coming to realise is definitely a characteristic of Hope Brewery beers, it's just not quite to my taste. Time to get the last of my quartet out of the fridge.
The final beer is the darkest of them all, at least that's what I would deduce from the name. SX Dark (4.2%) is made with chocolate and dark malts and, from the earliest Untappd check-in I could find, I think was first brewed in July-August 2014. I honestly can't find out anything more about this beer, but I suppose there's only one thing that really matters and that is what it tastes like. Pouring a deep dark brown with the faintest glow of dark amber coming from its depths, all surmounted with a creamy beige head and an aroma that's full of coffee, chocolate, blackcurrant and black cherry, so I'm guessing that the Brewers Gold hop is making an appearance here too. It's rich and luxuriant but reminds me more of a Red Ale than a Stout texture-wise. Raisin, and blackcurrant fruitiness is beautifully balanced by some delicious fruitcake malts that combine to make a quite delicious beer. It dries quite slowly, with all those flavours gently receding until it wraps itself up rather nicely indeed. This, and in fact all the beers I've had from Hope have been very accomplished, and whilst they might not be the most adventurous or ground-breaking you'll taste this year they certainly are tasty and you won't regret seeking these out one bit.
Insurance broking to brewing is not the most obvious career change but after working at Lloyds of London, Julian Hales decided to apply his organic chemistry studies to a teenage interest in making beer and open the Indian Summer Brewery in 2012. Three cask beers were produced (under the Hop & Soul name), a ruddy amber ale called Red, a Porter, and a black IPA that went by the name of Black On Blonde. Based in Saffron Walden, outlets in the local area were supplied, but it was the bottled beer, Bombay Blonde, a beer specifically designed to go with curry that was the biggest seller, and was to be found in a growing number of Indian restaurants.
It might not have escaped your notice that the above paragraph was written in the past tense as it has come to my attention that the Indian Summer Brewery ceased trading earlier this year. I did consider not reviewing this beer, the Bombay Blonde (4.5%) however it is my understanding that it can still be found accompanying curry around Saffron Walden as well as available in local off licences. It pours a bright golden colour, as you might expect, with a bright white head and a spicy lemon, ginger and honey aroma ably supported by a clean biscuit maltiness. It feels quite thin at first and there isn't a great deal of taste initially either, however this is deceptive as it suddenly becomes seemingly fuller bodied as a wave of grassy citrus flavour, tart satsuma and yellow plum, honeyed biscuit and a squeeze of lemon, fills the mouth completely. This falls away in the finish, but is instantly replaced by a white pepper and orange peel bitterness that buzzes and fizzes around for quite some time. I can actually see the spicy citrus bitterness of this beer working alongside a chicken tikka masala or cutting through the carbohydrates of an aloo gobi very well indeed. I don't know whether the brewery is closed for good or if there has been a temporary set back as this is genuinely an interesting and flavoursome beer, one based on Oakham's JHB I am led to believe. Catch it if you can.
Update: I have heard since writing my review that in fact despite ceasing production on site you will still be able to find Bombay Blonde as it will be contract brewed elsewhere. There will however be no more cask ale.
Established in 2002 by Nigel Farmer as an early retirement project, The Maldon Brewing Co. (also known as Farmer's Ales) is housed in the stable yard of the historic Blue Boar hotel in Maldon. A range of beer from the brewery can be found in the bar, all gravity dispensed and only having travelled across the yard to get there. The beers are popular and change regularly, their names often reflecting their local environment, with historic aeroplanes from Essex squadrons last year and barges moored on the nearby Blackwater estuary being featured currently. They are mainly found on cask however a number of their hand bottled beers can be bought from the brewery itself or off-licences in the Essex area.
As mentioned, all the special beers from Maldon's in 2015 celebrate the barges, some of which continue to operate under the ownership of Topsail charters, the East Coast Sailing Barge Trust and the Thames Sailing Barge Trust. Reminder (3.7%) is one of these and the second of this years series. Built in 1929 in nearby Mistley, and much of her early years were spent bringing barley from the Albert Docks in London to Brooks Maltings in Manningtree, but can now be hired for weekend cruising the East Coast with up to twelve guest being accommodated. This golden ale has a spicy citrus aroma reminding me of crushed coriander seed and tangerine juice which, alongside its slightly hazy lemony gold colour and near white head, makes for a very inviting beer. A good bitter carbonation leads to a lemony tangerine flavour that has more than a nod towards Belgian Witbier as it dries beautifully with a clean white pepper finish. This is a wonderfully refreshing beer, perfect for the summer months, perhaps enjoyed in the summer sunshine on the deck of boat such as this lazily watching the world go by. If you're having a party outdoors then make sure this beer is high on your shopping list, your guest will thank you for it.
The label on the bottle opens with the line "Maldon is unlikely to witness the Aurora Borealis, or Northern lights ...", and while that still hasn't happened, in March this year they could be witnessed as far south as Oxford. Aurora (3.9%) is named after the Aurora (also known as Super Styrian) hop, which was bred in Slovenia in the 1970s (back when it was still part of Yugoslavia) and is a cross between Northern Brewer and a wild native variety. Even though it's name would imply there is a connection with Styrian Goldings (a variant of the Fuggle hop - see below) this is not actually the case, and even though it has some similar aromatic qualities its alpha acid content, which is its source of bitterness, is nearly double that of its namesake. It pours a muddy amber brown (although I suspect that mostly down to me - this is a bottle conditioned beer after all) with a scant off white head and very little carbonation. The aroma is rather toasty at first before revealing some milk chocolate and orange peel and this develops more fully in the taste. Even though this isn't as carbonated as perhaps it should be it doesn't really matter, as the orange zest flavour that lifts it towards the finish. Sadly it doesn't have much of an ending as it peters out rather too quickly, leaving a touch of orangey chocolate that slowly fades away. I do like this beer, but not nearly half as much as the one that preceded it although that shouldn't stop you from seeing if the Aurora hop is more to your liking than it is mine.
Fuggles. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of many a craft beer lover, but should this really be the case? It is after all a truly historic hop, first released in 1875 after being cultivated by a Mr. Richard Fuggle of Kent, it was used for both bittering and aroma before falling out of favour with the introduction of varieties with a higher alpha acid content. It has had a bit of a bad press of late, due in large part to its age in a culture that is constantly embracing the new but also, certainly in some cases because of its use as a token traditional hop in many a 'traditional' bitter. You will have by now guessed that this beer, Born To Be Mild (4.7%) uses the hop exclusively in this seasonal release. First brewed in 2014 it returns this year to coincide with CAMRA's 'Mild In May' campaign and is designed to be "smooth and mature", so let's find out. Pouring a thin rich dark chocolate brown with little carbonation, its wispy creamy beige head actually makes it look rather attractive. It has a rather attractive aroma, rather like a freshly baked chocolate brownie dusted with some faintly minty icing sugar sporting a little lactose edge. As thin as you might expect this to be it does fill the mouth with a slightly oily texture, and whilst it is indeed bitter it errs more toward a burnt toast flavour than the chocolate hit I was expecting. It dries nicely from the centre of the tongue outwards but not quite completely enough leaving that oily wetness around the edges and this is where the chocolate is finally revealed, albeit with a faintly peppery edge initially. Its good but not great, and I doubt there's anything here convince the sniffy anti-Fuggle brigade otherwise.
Plough Monday is traditionally the start of the agricultural year, and falls on the first Monday after Twelfth Night, the last day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. In Maldon this is celebrated in the traditional East-Anglian manner of singing and dancing with Molly Dancers (all male, half of which are often dressed as women) a type of Morris dancer, parading the white plough, dancing and generally making merry with blackened faces to conceal their identities. They were mainly out of work ploughmen, and the reason their faces were covered in soot, or even Maldon mud, was that if they wished to gain employment at a later date it was sometime best that their true selves were not revealed. Ploughboys (5.0%) is a stout brewed to fortify their dancing as it is itself fortified with a drop or two of Port. Thick, but not overly so, it pours a deep dark Maldon mud brown with a creamy head and a sweet thin red wine and chocolate aroma. A mouth filling tide of prickly carbonation rises with, and leaves behind, a musty boozy port-like chocolate flavour that develops a blackcurrant wine gum flavour as it progresses towards its conclusion, and it this that lingers long and sweetly to the end. I like this beer a lot, an awful lot actually but I would like it more if it wasn't for that yeasty mustiness in the taste. It has the character of beers far stronger and it could, and should rival those as all the elements are there, and more importantly they are there in the correct proportions. Sort that minor problem and I'd buy this by the bucket full.
American-style Pale Ales have been regularly copied by British brewers in recent years, but with some notable exceptions they generally straddle a thin line between an English Pale and the US East Coast version of the style. This mid-Atlantic hybrid is neither one thing nor the other, with US hops substituted for the traditional home grown varieties and, on some occasions, they can be very malt forward rather than emphasising the hop or hops. Having said this however, I must state that this is purely my observation on beers I have had and not a reflection on this bottle as I have yet to open it, and those beers are in no way bad or or any less tasty but I feel that calling them American Pale Ales is a bit of a misnomer. Essex Strong Pale (5.3%) is described as a "development of the classic IPA", brewed with El Dorado hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State I'm hoping for some of it's big tropical fruit punch character. It pours a beautiful golden amber colour, slightly hazy (probably due to bad pouring again) and with a beautiful bright white head. It has the most gorgeous zesty lemon citrus aroma, with grapefruit, peach and pineapple also in evidence, but there's also a hint of spicy white pepper adding a touch of dryness to the mix as well. Light, with a good prickle of carbonation and refreshingly bitter over the tongue, I'm delighted that my fears have not been realised as I am hit with a wave of tropical fruit, with mango, pineapple and peach juice very much to the fore, with a solid crispbread malt backbone carrying the whole thing along. The hops have been used skilfully and to their fullest effect here as this beer is clean, crisp and beautifully hoppy, in fact everything I would expect from an American Pale Ale. This El Dorado hop is not an intense dank variety, it's light and fruity and if any of you remember BrewDog's use of this in their IPA Is Dead series in 2013 you'll be pleasantly surprised with this beer as I believe this is a far better use of the hop. The finish is dry and lemony, this really is a super beer, one I could drink an awful lot of. Where can I put in a bulk order?
My final Maldon Brewing Co. beer, Wrecked (7.0%) is their version of a German Bock style lager, and is one of the series of Buoy Beers they produce. Brewed with Tettnanger and Saaz hops, this isn't the strongest beer in regular production, that is the 7.4% The Wallet a strong Golden Ale and another of the Buoy Beers, but I felt that this one was unusual enough for a mention. Pouring a dark brown amber colour with a creamy white head, this beer has a deliciously sweet burnt sugar aroma with perhaps a hint of cinnamon it really is very inviting and certainly characteristic of the style. Smooth over the tongue, the carbonation prickles the roof of the mouth but with a very low level of bitterness. The flavour mirrors the aroma with more of that burnt sugar sweetness, but there's a molasses and fig edge to it too that is very moreish, dangerously so considering its high abv. Unsurprisingly the finish is remarkably similar too, and even though this undoubtedly a sweet beer it isn't cloyingly so and is incredibly drinkable. Overall this has been quite a mixed bag from Maldon's, and although there wasn't a bad beer among them if have to say that the first beer and the last three rose quite comfortably above the others. This is a brewery that clearly knows how to brew good beer and isn't afraid to try something different, and for those two reasons alone they should definitely be worthy of your consideration.
The last brewery in this part of the journey is the Mersea Island Brewery situated on Mersea Island on the Blackwater Estuary connected to the mainland via a causeway that floods at high tide called The Strood, and is some nine miles south-east of Colchester. Founded in 2005 as a natural diversification project on the established Mersea Island Vineyard, it is a family owned business with cask versions of there beers featuring at local pubs and beer festivals while the bottles are available from the brewery itself, selected off licences and East of England Co-Operative stores in the north Essex area.
I have three beers to choose from here, so will start of with the weakest first and see how things go. Island Yo Boy (3.9%) is described as a golden session beer, similar to an old fashioned Light Ale, it is brewed with East Anglian malt, Marris Otter and Crystal Malt in this instance, with four hops; Fuggles, Challenger, Phoenix and Cascade, providing the flavour and bitterness. All bottles are bottle conditioned, as are nearly all of the bottles in this part of the guide, and as are the vast majority of the bottles produced by Essex breweries in general. It pours the colour of golden syrup with a tight, billowing near-white head, and has the aroma of fizzy lemon and grapefruit sweets, juicy and sharp, so much so that a big sniff will make your eyes water and your nose buzz. There's also the faintest smell of grains of paradise and a back beat that reminds me of the the aroma of the Nelson Sauvin hop, fresh and vibrant. It skitters across the tongue with a rush of fizzy carbonation, bringing with it a clean, if subdued, watered-down satsuma fruitiness that's slightly sticky as it dries before it settles down into a pleasant pithy finish that's not overly bitter but stays for some time on the tip of the tongue. This is a lovely beer, with the aroma most definitely the star, but it will keep you going back for more time and again until it's all gone. Then you'll want another, just as I do now.
Island Gold (4.5%) is made using lager malt and hops, and is brewed as a lager alternative that's ideal for barbecues and summer parties, or so it says on the website. Pouring a honeyed golden amber and sporting a decent white head there wasn't much initial aroma, however I suspect I had served it a little too cold for as it warms slightly it develops a spicy, grassy, honey character akin to that of a Belgian Golden Ale. It fills the mouth with a zesty peppery carbonation full of honey and orange peel, and its dry as well, beautifully so with a crisp malt snap, and surprisingly different from the description that wasn't really giving much away. Expanding like a bubble, before bursting and fading the flavour lingers like a soapy echo, this really is astonishingly good. Two out of two so far for Mersea Island isn't bad at all, both very refreshing and refreshingly different with the last beer having the aroma take your breath away and this one filling the mouth with its golden goodness, it's time to find out what the third and final beer has in store.
The final beer of the trio, and the final beer of this part of the series promises a very different animal. Island Skippers (4.8%) is brewed with Fuggles hops and five different malts, so I'm expecting a very malt forward beer. The most traditional of the three, it is described as a Best Bitter, a once popular style but now often frowned upon as being stuck in the past. Sliding gracefully out of the bottle, this tawny coloured beer with ruby red highlights throws a creamy beige head and has a crisp, fresh aroma full of peppery salad leaves and raspberries with the faintest hint of liquorice. Like the beers before it, it fills the mouth with a dry bitter carbonation before the fruity, malty flavour slides in to take its place with some dabs of raspberry juice and damson. These are swallowed up by the dry bitterness that fades quickly, but leaves haunting echoes of chewy damson in its wake. This is another very drinkable beer, and in contrast to my initial thoughts it is remarkably similar in character to the other two, and I'm impressed that this brewery's beers have a similar feel to them, almost a terroir, but this makes much more sense when you consider that they are brewed in a vineyard by a family used to producing wine.
So ends the second part of my Essex beer journey, not quite as diverse as the first part but not far off. If I consider this particular selection as a whole then the words flavour and character spring immediately to mind. I hope that I've shown that Essex breweries have an awful lot more to offer than you might have thought, and I assure you there's plenty more to come.
I hope that you can find some of these beers, and urge you to try them if you ever come across them. I'd love to hear your thoughts of these, or indeed any beer from Essex, or in fact your opinion on the state of beer in Essex at the moment. You can leave a message in the comments section of this post, or find me on twitter at @1970sBoy Either way I'd be delighted to hear from you.
Monday, 4 May 2015
Beer In Essex
"I Want This To Be A Beer Destination"
Essex Brewery Company
Within half an hour of arriving at the Essex Brewery Company, Ian Chisholm, the straight-talking owner and brewer was outlining the plans he has for the site, and he has big plans indeed. Although still very much in the early stages, when this fifty-five year old ex-market trader and duck egg farmer talks about the future for his brewery and the outlying land then it suddenly starts to become clear that not only does he have the tools at his disposal, he also has the drive and ability to actually pull it off.
If you search for the Essex Brewery Company on the internet, as I did when Ian contacted me with an invitation to come and have a look around, you won't find a lot of information out there.
"This is deliberate," he tells me "I want to launch with a bang, to hit the ground running, come out of nowhere and take people by surprise". We are standing in what will be the brewery shop, surrounded by bottles, crates, hops (from Charles Faram), sacks of malt and wood, a lot of wood. Ian's son is welding in the corner of this two-storey building, and the upper floor will eventually be an on-site apartment so that he keep an eye on things. When you plan to have more than three thousand bottles of real ale from breweries from all over the country then having your security literally living with the stock seems sensible option.
I had been picked up by Ian at Blackmore, six and a half miles north of Brentwood, and a ten minute drive had taken me to Norton Field Farm. Whereas you won't find a lot about the brewery on your browser, the farm itself throws up a whole set of results regarding the giving away of his stock of ducks due to a legal dispute with the supplier. I ask him if this was the reason he decided to switch to brewing but I'm told that it was always a plan just that this legal altercation, which is still going through the courts, made the decision a whole lot easier
The brewery itself is exclusively a bottle-only affair, and whereas Ian has feels no immediate need to put his beer into casks and see his pump clips on bar tops he realises that this may have to happen some day in order to promote the brand.
When it come to the beer itself he's not afraid to experiment either. The first bottle he opens for me to try has yet to be named, but the aim was to get as close to a chocolate orange as they could. It's brewed with cocoa powder and marmalade, and whilst I only get chocolate up front after a few minutes of drinking it the orange flavour emerges and carries it onward to a pleasing citrus finish. This was followed by a lychee wheat beer which had a classic lemony wheat beer flavour cut through with the sweet grape-like flavour of lychee. In fact he has brewed a whole host of wheat beers, and in addition to the lychee that I had there are mango, morello cherry, lemon, lime, strawberry, white peach, a plain wheat, and a fruity mixed berry version that I tried a little later on.
"This" he tells me, "is where I'm going build my beer destination."
The plans are certainly ambitious. Not content with an indoor brewery, he wants to have an outdoor brewery too with demonstrations of 'hot-rock' brewing on a semi-covered outdoor area also able to stage barbecues and beer festivals. Indoor beer festivals are also a possibility with enough space in one of the outbuildings for hosting in the colder months, or to deal with the vagaries of the English weather. If that wasn't enough he plans facilities for camping, a potential accommodation block and even a children's playground. A local connection to fairground ride owners opens up other avenues of entertainment for young and old alike.
We move back inside and open another bottle of beer, this time it's the APA brewed with US hops, although Ian is at a loss as to which ones when I enquire. It's smooth and moderately bitter with those tropical fruit flavours I've come to associate with the style present, but disappointingly muted. Wild & Green is the next beer opened, and the first brewed under the Essex Brewery Company name. Despite being around eight months old it's clean and fresh tasting with loads of grassy hop character, a real winner.
Glancing at my watch I realise that I've been there just over three hours and I have another beer-related appointment, interviewing Steve Hindy the co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery and Logan Plant founder of Beavertown Brewery, in a few hours time and need to make a move. Before I leave however, Ian wants to show me one thing more. Taking me to an adjacent building he unscrews the lid of a fermenter, dips in a measuring jug and pours a golden liquid into my cup. This is his lager, and although it's still a touch raw and not yet primed for carbonation in the bottle, the flavours are all there, slightly spicy and fruity with a dry finish, and promises to be something rather special.
On the bus back to Brentwood I reflect on what Ian has told me, and although he is under no illusions that there may be a few hiccups along the way he is determined to make them a reality, and he has certainly impressed me. The first stage, the beer shop, should be open towards the end of June and I'll be back soon to see how things have progressed. Time will of course tell, but we could well have a purpose-built beer destination in the heart of the Essex countryside in the very near future. Remember where you heard it first.
Sunday, 26 April 2015
Beer In Essex
An Open Letter To All Who Work In And Run Essex Pubs
Dear Essex pub owners, landlords, landladies, tenants and staff,
Firstly please excuse the unwieldy headline. I realise that it is a bit of a mouthful however I wanted this post to be inclusive and know that running a successful business is a team effort. I have never run a pub or a brewery for that matter and I don't profess to be an expert on such things, but I have been a active pub-goer for more than a quarter of a century. If I come across as pompous or patronising then that is certainly not my intention either. I have no wish to tell you how to run your business, that is certainly your affair, but if you have a passion for great beer I would ask that you at least consider what I have to say. Many of you are already doing a fantastic job promoting the beer that Essex has to offer and if I can help raise it's profile as well as that of its pubs and hard working staff even a little then I achieved what I set out to do.
I'd like to hope that you'd agree with my reason for writing this as I would like to see Essex pubs leading the way in offering drinkers from all over the country somewhere that they would chose to go for excellent beer and awesome hospitality.
I also am not naive to think that I have a quick fix, and I know that many of you already run highly successful pubs that delight drinkers week in week out with a fantastic choice of beer and aren't afraid of trying new things in order to attract a diverse clientele. I know this won't be possible for everyone, indeed there may only be a small minority who have it within their power to act upon any of the things that I mention here, but if it makes you think, starts a discussion or provokes a response then, in the long run, I believe that will be no bad thing.
Before I continue I'd like you to read or in some cases re-read this Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries that I wrote back in January of this year. It did provoke a reaction and it is as a direct result of the feedback I received that has prompted me to expand on what were my initial thoughts in a new year and is partly my motivation behind writig this post today.
I'd also like to add, and I believe that this clarification is important, that I am not trying to start a rift between Essex pubs and Essex breweries, quite the opposite in fact as I am convinced that co-operation and conversation between both parties is the way forward for both parties. My original post raised issues that I hadn't previously considered and I hope that this will do the same. There are two sides to every coin and it is necessary to let all parties have their say in order to evaluate and make an informed decision. This is the next stage in my attempt to do so and is a reaction to my observations up to this point.
I'm not going to pull any punches here and I'll jump straight in and talk about beer choice. I'm not necessarily talking about a range of beer from all over the UK, or from all over the world, fantastic as that would be from a personal point of view but having a range of styles and strengths, whether they be on cask. keg or in bottles and even cans makes my heart sing wherever I find it. By choice I don't mean mass-produced lager or cask ale from the big pub-swallowing supermarket staples as it is my opinion that part of the reason that pubs have been losing drinkers is that they can get the same beer more cheaply and in bulk when they do their weekly shop. Conversely I have heard drinkers opt for a beer that they bought 'just for a change' in an off-licence or in the craft beer section of their supermarket because they like it, and if you have just had a large intake of breath when you read the 'C' word, that is craft beer, and you have switched off then I urge you to take a trip to your local Marks and Spencer and look at the range of beer they have on offer. The variety of styles available should give you some idea of what people are buying, and they all without exception have one thing in common, they all taste of something.
There are hundreds of new breweries up and down the country producing some amazing beer, and there number is growing all the time. We have twenty-nine breweries in Essex yet I often find it difficult to get local beer in many of the pubs in the county and it is almost impossible to do so outside of it. Are we giving our brewers a chance?
When I wrote the letter to the brewers one recurring response was that they would actually like to brew different styles and experiment with different ingredients but they were hesitant to do so as pubs simply weren't buying them. There is a proliferation of Golden Ales, so I am told, as some pubs simply won't buy brewers darker beers. I realise that you need to provide what the drinker wants, and you might reason that if they are drinking these beers then that what they must want. There is a saying often repeated that states that if you always do what you have always done then you always get what you always have got, the result will always be the same. If you want the same customers drinking the same beer year in year out then that's absolutely fine, but those customers won't be around forever. Are you willing to take a chance?
Change is difficult, but if you take the time to prepare then it makes any transitional period a lot easier. If you want to take the plunge then I'm sure that you will have the support of the brewers and breweries every step of the way.
All of the best pubs I have been in, and this is without exception have knowledgeable staff. If you are going to sell a product, I believe you should know it inside out. Take the time to find out and give the drinker an enhanced drinking experience. Simple things make a lot of difference. Who brews it? Where are they from? What's the abv? What style is it? and most importantly, What does it taste like?
To me these are the minimum requirements I expect as a committed pub user. Brewers will be more than happy to provide this information I have found, and much more besides. Once you get a taste for this kind of insight then it can be hard to resist. I love to go into pubs that give me that little bit more when asked, This may include things like the hops and malts used, the flavour profile and what I might be able to pick out when I drink it, how bitter it is, and what foods it might go with. I'd also like you to recommend me a beer when I order my food, and if you prepare your meals on the premises are any of your dishes made with beer. I know that wine is often more profitable by the glass however beer is far more versatile and has a much wider range of flavours and can compliment far more food types. Why not have a menu that varies depending on the beer you have available, putting the beer pairings next to the dishes themselves? This is obviously where having a reasonably large selection of beer available really pays dividends and carrying a range of bottles will help no end.
Raising the profile of Essex beer, Essex breweries and Essex pubs is important to me and if you read some of my other posts I'm sure you will see that this comes across. I have lived in Essex all my life and feel passionately about this county and all it has to offer, and having drunk some great beer in some great places I often feel the sense of tradition and home-from-home comfort that only Essex pubs can offer. We need to celebrate this more often, embrace our heritage.
I know from speaking to Essex brewers that they feel the same way. It may be their business, but their motives for starting out are often that they wanted to brew something better than what was available around them at the time. They have worked on their recipes, brewing and re-brewing many times until they were satisfied that what they were producing was fit for the market place.
I have mentioned before that if you ask for information from the people that brew the beer, really brew it rather than flick a switch in a factory somewhere, then in my experience they are always happy to provide it, but have you considered inviting them into your pub?
Meet The Brewer evenings are a great way to find out about the beer that your local brewer is making and a great way for them to engage with people drinking it. Having a selection of beers available ensures that all who want to can get a taste of what's on offer with the chance to buy more directly from you, and you can find out what particular beers your customers want. I have been to many such events up and down the country and have found them both engaging and invaluable, finding out about the brewing process, a bit about the brewer/brewery and why each beer was brewed. This has deepened my love of beer and enriched my drinking experience as my understanding has deepened and my sense of taste developed.
If this sounds a step too far then why not organise a beer tasting or invite someone in to lead one for you. I'm sure your local CAMRA group could offer a recommendation if you needed some help and many of the country's leading beer writers would be happy to travel out to you, particularly as many are based in London.
Beer festivals are always good way of attracting more people to your pub, especially during the summer months if you have an outside area, however I have noticed recently many of the same beers appearing each year. When considering what beers you might want to have it might be a good idea to have a look at what others have had on and chose something a little different. I have been put off from attending a couple recently as I didn't see a single beer that I couldn't find regularly or that I had tasted at a festival in the previous few months. I want to find something different, something that I haven't had before, experience a new taste, a new style or even a twist on an old one. If you are reluctant to experiment with change in your day to day running then this is the perfect way to do so with minimal impact. Listen to what the drinkers are saying, ask them questions about their beer and take note of their answers. Don't always assume that what sells well in the pub (because you always have it on) will sell well at your festival either. In conversations with certain brewers I have found that they have to brew lighter coloured and lower abv beers as that is all pubs will take but when they have the greater freedom that a festival offers then it is often the darker and slightly stronger beers that sell out first.
In my conclusion to the letter to brewers and breweries I challenged them to think differently and think better and I offer that same challenge to you. As before I realise that this won't happen overnight, these things take time but with the co-operation all concerned we can make Essex a county that people think of whenever great pubs and great beer are mentioned.
This post is a continuation of my exploration into Essex beer culture and is part of a bigger project called Beer East Anglia that you may want to take a look at.
If you wish to contact me about any of the things I have mentioned then I welcome your comments, whether directly on this blog, on twitter at @1970sBoy, or by email by looking up my listing on the British Guild Of Beer Writers website. I really believe that we can make a big difference by working together and improve the quality and choice of beer available to us all. I really would like to hear your thoughts so that I can expand on those in a future post.
You may not agree with me, and might well want to tell me to get lost and mind my own business, but you don't have to look too far afield to notice that things have changed when it comes to beer in this country and that they will continue to change for some time to come. Let's make it a change for the better.
With much respect, appreciation and the very best of wishes,