ANN and PETER FROST discover some of the remarkable story of Britain’s favourite tipple.
Pubs and beer are such an important part of the British leisure experience. A great pub is often the destination of a good country walk.
The first thing a pub needs to be great is good beer. A fine pint of real ale is still a popular drink and on a pleasant summer evening. A pint of bitter at a table outside a pretty country pub can be the perfect end a wonderful day in the country.
In this blog we take a look behind the scenes at how that beer is made, we’ll start with some raw ingredients for a great pint, the hops, the malted barley and the good spring water. We’ll also visit some very different breweries to learn some of the secrets of the perfect pint.
When Ann’s dad was a lad, in London between the wars, money was always short. There was rarely enough for the day to day expenses of life and there was never any left over for holidays.
But that didn’t stop the family having a good holiday every summer. Like hundreds of other Londoners Dad, his bothers and sisters and his mum and dad would take the train down to the hop fields of Kent for a working holiday.
They would swap the dirty streets of the capital for the clean, green countryside of the upper reaches of the river Medway in Kent.
This was hop country and they could pay for their holiday and maybe even bring a little cash home if they worked hard in the labour intensive hop gardens that grew one of the main ingredients for god British beer.
The good folk of Birmingham’s poorer quarters would do the same heading out to the hop fields of Hereford and the Welsh borders.
Accommodation would be in ex-army bell tents of specially built hopper’s huts and cabins. The accommodation was always basic with straw stuffed mattresses and oil lamps.
Food came from the local farm and, cooked over a wood fire in the open air was always delicious and nourishing. Because this was a hop farm there was always an endless supply of good beer to wash the food down.
Dad loved his hopping holidays and always talked of them with real fondness. This month we visit a couple of places where these holidays are remembered and the spirit of those times is rekindled.
The Eastern Counties of England still grows barley, much of it for beer making. But the complicated malting process is now carried out in factories rather the old distinctive maltings that are so much part of the architectural heritage of Eastern England.
Today many old maltings have found new uses. Many have become apartments or craft centres. At Snape in Suffolk the huge maltings (below) are now a great concert hall and centre for classical music.
We are going to Mistley in Essex where at least some of the buildings are used for their original purpose and the sweet smell of malt still mixes with the fresh sea air.
So what is malting? The skilled maltster’s art sees the barley grains are moistened and spread out on a warm ventilated floor. The grains start to shoot, to grow in fact as seeds are meant to do.
As they grow the starch converts to sugars. Just at the right moment the growth is stopped and the rich sugary malt is extracted from the sprouted grains.
It’s this sugar that will ferment into alcohol in the brewing process we’ll see at the breweries we will also visit this month.
So come with us and let’s visit a brewery or two. They are all different, as different in fact as the beers they produce – and just like beers most of the fun is in trying the rest to see what you like best.
Mines a pint, Cheers!
The smell of Malt, Mistley, Essex
If you visit the small barge port of Mistley, on the North coast of Essex you can still see many memories of the town main industry – making malt. And still see some of the stately brown sailed Thames barges that used to bring grain to the maltings.
There are still working maltings in the town and the local maltster’s Edme still send their malt to brewers all over Britain. You may have even tried their products yourself, Edme are the firm behind the famous Tom Caxton home brew kits.
The main clue however hangs on the wind. The sweet smell of malt flavours the air of the town. It reminded me of the malt extract my mum used to give me when I was a child.
It was thick, black, sweet and sticky, and I was only allowed one spoonful a day. I loved it so much, mum had to hide it on the top shelf in the kitchen out of my reach.
The other clue to Mistley’s love affair with malt is the huge flock of swans that live on the river, feeding on the spilt grains and spent malted barley. There are hundreds and among them we spotted a rare black specimen.
‘Opping down in Kent, Kent Life Museum, Kent
If you go down ‘opping, ‘opping down in Kent,
You’ll see old Mother Riley – a – putting up her tent.
With an E, I, Oh. E, I, Oh. E, I, E, I, Oh.
Old hoppers song.
There are songs, dances, jokes and stories of the hundreds of London families like Ann’s Dad’s who came down to Kent for the only holiday’s they could afford, working holidays picking hops.
These old times come alive at the Kent Life Museum near Maidstone. There are exhibits and demonstrations all year round but at the end of the summer the place comes alive with its own hop harvest.
Families still turn up who have been coming down to the hop gardens of Kent for generations. You can have a go at stripping the bitter but fragrant hop flowers from the bines and also find out just what these amazing working holidays were like.
The Hop Farm Family Park, Paddock Wood, Kent.
Hops are always grown in a hop garden, its part of the romance of beer and H.E. Bates caught some of that romance with Ma and Pa Larkin and their hop garden in the ‘Darling Buds of May’ stories.
The tall hop-bines grow up the cradle of poles and strings throughout the summer until they tower high above the men tending them. So high above in fact that in days of old the hop farmers would use stilts to get up and tend the precious hops.
Then at harvest time the hop flowers have to be plucked from the bines. This was the labour intensive job that brought thousands of London families, just like my Dad’s down to Kent for their working holidays.
The bines were pulled down by men on stilts and then everybody, children included plucked the bright green flowers and filled the waiting bakets. The baskets were weighed because payment was by weight of hops picked.
The baskets of hops are then taken to be dried over coal fires in the distinctive oast houses, so much a part of landscape of any part of the country that grows hops.
Once the hops have been dried the hop flowers are so light they can be packed into huge sacks, taller than a man, called ‘hop pockets’ and they are ready to be delivered to the breweries when they add their distinctive bitter flavour to so many great beers.
Today many farms have mechanised and industrialised the traditional process but at the Hop Farm is Kent you can see all the old techniques just as they have been for centuries.
They even have a hop festival in autumn when you can try your hand at hop picking for yourself. The Hop Farm is based on 400 acres of beautiful Kent countryside around the largest collection of oast houses in Europe.
These oast houses are home to an impressive hop museum and the Farm has many more family attractions as well as its own campsite.
Hook Norton Brewery, Hook Norton, Banbury, Oxfordshire
Once we reached the pretty village of Hook Norton it wasn’t hard to find the brewery. A plume of white steam and the unmistakable smell of the brewing process meant we only needed to follow our noses.
Old Hooky is one of my favourite brews in a county with more than its fair share of good beers. Fans of the TV series ‘Morse’ will know how fond the detective was of the ales of Oxford and its surrounding county. You could use some of the episodes to plan a wonderful beer tour.
But back to Hook Norton and its wonderful Victorian steam powered brewery. Yes, they still power the hoists and brewing machinery here with a steam engine (below) installed in 1899. Steam and boiling water are used in many parts of the brewing process of course; For boiling the wort – the basic liquor from which beer is made – and for washing the casks.
Back in the early twentieth century the brewery tried delivering by steam. It bought a steam lorry. The manufacturer’s claimed “it would do the work of ten shire horses”. The steam lorry is long gone but local deliveries of Hook Norton’s beer are still done by horse drawn dray.
The brewery has an interesting museum and a shop both open from 9 to 5 and on Saturdays from 9.30 to 4.30. Closed Sunday.
Brewery tours are available Monday to Friday and last about two hours but they must be booked in advance.
Black Sheep Brewery, Masham, Yorkshire
The small market square in the town of Masham, deep in the Yorkshire Dales is often full of sheep. Sheep farming, sheep festivals and sheep markets are all part of the day to day business of the town
No surprise then that the local brew is called Black Sheep. It’s a favourite of mine. Masham in fact has two breweries. No doubt it is something to do with that wonderful Yorkshire water that filters down through the age old rocks to the springs of Nidderdale.
The other brewery in Masham is Theakston’s; makers of the famous Old Peculiar. Theakstons still deliver to many of the pubs around the town with a wonderful horse drawn dray.
Sadly we could only visit one brewery on our visit and we chose the beer we love the best . Although I have to say the Black sheep brewery sheep themed pun laden publicity material nearly put me off.
“We would be shepherded round on a ewe-nique tour” it told us that would end where else? You guessed it. “The Baaa..r”.
Oh well, never mind it is really good beer and it was fascinating to see it being brewed with such loving care.
All tours must be booked in advance. All include and interesting Yorkshire real ale. The day time tours include a free half pint. Evening tours offer two free pints and a choice of hot suppers.
The Badger Brewery, Blandford St Mary
Fancy a pint of Fursty Ferret or a glass of Badger? Hall and Woodhouse make beers as good as their names. This lovely old brewery nestles in the soft Dorset countryside and we popped in to take the popular tour.
There is a tour at 11 o’clock and at 2.30 from Monday to Saturday. Tours include a free pint of Badger.
There is a museum, shop and restaurant open from 10 to 5. The brewery is closed on Sunday.
St Peter’s Brewery, St. Peter’s South Elmham.
Peter thinks he is a Saint. So how can we leave out this little gem. It must be one of the prettiest settings for a brewery anywhere in England.
Black swans and fancy ducks swim the moat of St Peter’s Hall a superb Medieval house with beautiful gardens. The Hall is now a excellent restaurant open for lunches, dinners, drinks and snacks.
The brewery is relatively modern making a range of interesting bottled beers. The tour will show you the brewery and ends with what is called a tutored tasting. There are wheat beers, a whole range of porters and some light fruit beers that reminded me of nights in the bars of Brussels as well as some more conventional brews.
Tours are only available on Saturdays and Sundays between noon and 4pm.
As well as the breweries featured in this months pages here are a list of some others that offer public tours.
Horndean, Hampshire www.gales.co.uk
Woodbastwick, Norfolk www.Woodfordes.co.uk
Dunbar, Scotland www.belhaven.co.uk
Ross-shire, Scotland www.blackisle.com
Sadly many bigger breweries are claiming that health and safety considerations are making tours more difficult but old established and more interesting brewers seem to still think it is worth the trouble to show how proud they are of their traditional brewing techniques.