Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Whirlwind Tour Part 2

Returning to Rooster’s at the end of the day, after everyone else had gone home, I caught a ride to the train station for my next destination - Oxford.   After spending the majority of my stay in the UK in North Yorkshire, with it being exposed to a definite, and not necessarily unmerited, prejudice toward the top notch beer of the region, I took a brief departure to seek out the celebrated ales of the South – the land where sparklers have no home and the ales abound in flavor and complexity.  I arrived in Oxford around 10pm; needing to get up fairly early to catch the bus, I called it a night without venturing out to the fine local establishments of Oxford. 

The following morning I took the bus to Witney, a small town about 20 minutes outside Oxford – home to Wychwood Brewery – another brewery whose beer I was already well acquainted with before coming to the UK.  Their flagship Hobgoblin can be found at many bars and on many shelves of beer retailers in Chicago.  Wychwood was bought out by Marston’s several years ago, which brings with it somewhat of a stigma from die hard beer enthusiasts in the UK, but as I soon found out, not much has been affected by the buyout.  The beer is still brewed quite traditionally, utilizing much of the same equipment, however, all of the cask filling and packaging is done offsite – making the focus of the brewery itself completely on the brewing of the beer.  Without the hassle of packaging the beer, the brew day is much less physically demanding, however, the idea of sending beer away to have someone else package it, however monotonous and menial the task can become, does detract from the personal connection with the beer.  That being said, the beer was still quite delicious and I did learn quite a bit from my time at the brewery.

Salts being added to mash.
Angel Inn in Witney
Double drop fermentation vessels at Wychwood.
Old school Wychwood Brewery sign.
Whirlpool vessel and grist hopper at Wychwood.
Once my brew day at Wychwood ended, I immediately hopped on the bus back to Oxford to catch the express train to London.  I arrived in London, found my hostel, and headed out for some dinner and some pints.  I was staying in the Bayswater neighborhood – adjacent to Hyde Park, with quick access to Chiswick and easily walkable from Paddington station – I had put a little thought into where I should find accommodations in London…it suited me just fine, because the following day I was headed to the one and only, the iconic, Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick.

The next day I arrived at Fuller’s a little before 9am.  The head brewer, Henry, met me in the reception office and we quickly made our way to the brewhouse.  Anthony was at the controls for the brew, and Henry proceeded to hand me off to Anthony to show me the ropes.  Everything at Fuller’s was automated – controlled by the click of a mouse on the computer.  Schematics of the mash tuns, boil kettles, and silos could be clicked on and off showing the real time operation of the brewery.  When a process need to be turned on – double click….when the mash was over and the grain needed to be discharged – double click…everything was incredibly convenient.  The most physically demanding part of the brew was when the hops needed to be dumped into the kettle requiring one person to grab one handle of the bucket and the other person to grab the other and lift.  The second most demanding part was to climb all of the stairs in the brewery to get to the brewing control room.  After spending a couple hours with Anthony, getting shown the brewing process, I met up with Henry again to get a tour of the complete facility – all of the plumbing at the base of the kettles could be accessed at the bottom of the three story stair case, the fermentation vessels also standing three stories high, the maturation vessels a carbon copy of the fermentation vessels, the centrifugal filter, the old hundred year old kettle and fermenter no longer in use, but there for nostalgia, the 15 stage automated cask washer, and on and on – I can never dream of Present Tense ever growing to such a size, but it was incredibly impressive to see such an operation.  After seeing the majority of the brewery, Henry treated me to a few pints at the attached Mawson Arms pub.  A good conversation ensued – critiquing the current state of craft beer and comparing American beer with English beer – we didn’t solve any of the world’s problems, but we got to know each other a little better and both recognized in one another an incredible passion for beer.  After quickly consuming three pints, he sent me on my way with a few recommendations for pubs to visit later in the evening.

The iconic Fullers emblem.
Fuller's Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, London.
The brewhouse at Fuller's.
Three story vessels at Fuller's.
Fermentation vessels.
Brewery control system.
Fuller's smokestack.
A few pints at Mawson Arms.
I stayed in London the rest of the day, making the most of my time by visiting several historical interiors…in other words…pubs.  Following Henry’s recommendations, I made my way to some iconic pubs around London – Cittie of Yorke, Princess Louis, Ye Olde Cheshire Cat, The Red Lion, and Churchill Arms.  One thing in particular can be said about my experience in visiting pubs in London…the people of London sure know how to do after work drinks.  I got an early start at Cittie of Yorke, before the after work crowd arrived.  However, the rest of the pubs were packed…no seats to be found anywhere, and this was how practically every pub in London was from between 4:30 to 11pm on any given weeknight.  The pub really is the undisputed center of culture and life in England!

Cittie of Yorke - London
Cittie of Yorke - London.

Cittie of Yorke - London.
Cittie of Yorke - London.
Princess Louise - London.
Princess Louise - London.
Princess Louise - London.
Princess Louise - London.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - London.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - London.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - London.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - London.
Red Lion - London.
Churchill Arms - London
Churchill Arms - London.
The next day I had a more relaxed start to my day, not needing to be anywhere until 2:00pm.  I took the train to Swindon and then transferred to a bus to Devizes – the home of Wadworth Brewery.  I have had a bit of history with Wadworth, having originally received an internship opportunity from them a couple years ago, only to have it rescinded due to company restructuring.  So, I had been particularly interested in seeing their operation.  Their brewery is housed in a traditional Victorian tower brewery standing high above the town of Devizes.  All of the original equipment remains, however mainly unused since the installation of a German made brewhouse a couple years ago.  My tour lasted a couple hours, followed by the sampling of all 7 beers that were on at the bar.  The whole experience was a little underwhelming, considering most of the “brewery” that was shown was just for show as a historical artifact and the tour guide and fellow workers left a lot to be desired in the area of enthusiasm…but, hey, at least I got some beer at the end.

Wadworth Brewery - Devizes
New German built brewhouse at Wadworth.
Famous shire at Wadworth.
Following the stint in Devizes, I returned to Oxford via two buses and found my way to my hostel.  With less of a packed day behind me, I was able to venture out to a couple pubs and enjoy the offerings of Oxford.  Despite Oxford’s central location for my breweries visits, it also offered a very good selection of historical pubs with the colleges of Oxford University as quite a picturesque backdrop.  The first pub I visited was The Eagle and Child – historically known as the hangout of the Inklings.  I had a Brakspear Bitter, which, coincidentally, was the beer I had just helped brew at Wychwood a couple days earlier.  I then walked across the street to The Lamb and Flag and enjoyed a decent ruby porter amid a beautiful interior.  I then called it a night and headed back to the hostel.

The Eagle and Child - Oxford.
Lamb & Flag - Oxford.
The last brewery of this whirlwind tour was Hook Norton.  I had booked a tour for 11am the following morning.  It was a 20 minute train ride to Banbury then a transfer to a bus and another 45 minutes to Hook Norton – a picturesque village in the Cotswold Hills.  The brewery, like Wadworth, was an impressive Victorian tower brewery – however, unlike Wadworth, much of the brewery is still operational and used every day.  The tour was abundantly information, with the guide being very knowledgeable and passionate about the brewing process and the history of the brewery.  For being over a hundred years old, the brewery was in incredible condition and immaculately clean – wooden interior with white painted beams accented with orange paint – everything was really just bursting with character.  The trip was well worth it, and I was very satisfied with the tour and the experience.  And, of course, following the tour we got to sample all 8 beers that were on the bar.  The beers were fantastic – huge flavor, abounding with complex character, and properly poured with a head that stood the test of time – a certain indication of a well maintained cellar and a brewery that really cares about what it is doing, and a prime example of the wonderful beers of South England.

Hook Norton village.
Hook Norton village.
Hook Norton Brewery
Open coolship at top of brewery.
Brewhouse at Hook Norton.
Flagship beers at Hook Norton.
Serving a pint...to myself...at Hook Norton.

Leaving the brewery at 1pm, having consumed a slightly substantial amount of beer for the time of day, I returned to Oxford – bus then train…and took the rest of the afternoon pretty easy.  However, I could not let my time in Oxford be wasted…there were still more pubs to visit.  Once I had completely recovered from the early afternoon drinking, I got myself a healthy portion of fish and chips at the well-known White Horse Tavern and sampled a half of Marston’s Christmas Pudding ale.  With some food in my belly, I could manage a couple more pub visits.  Next pub was Turf Tavern – the self-proclaimed education in intoxication – hid amongst the buildings of Oxford, down a maze of dark alleyways, and comprised of several connected buildings and two huge beer gardens.  After a pint of the house ale and an interesting conversation with a fellow solo traveler, I made my way to my final pub of Oxford and the final experience of my whirlwind tour.  The Bear, Oxford’s oldest pub, having started sometime in the 13th century, now boasting a very unique interior with displays of thousands of neck ties covering the walls.  I ordered a Gales HSB stood next to the wood burning fireplace and soaked in the atmosphere – watching people order at the bar, eavesdropping on a conversation, admiring the pint in my hand, and then it was empty and my tour had come to an end.

White Horse - Oxford.
Turf Tavern - Oxford.
Turf Tavern - Oxford.
Turf Tavern - Oxford.
Turf Tavern - Oxford.
The Bear - Oxford.
The Bear - Oxford.
The final pint at The Bear.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Whirlwind Tour Part 1

Theakston, Black Sheep, Coniston, Timothy Taylor, Wychwood, Fuller’s, Wadworth, and Hook Norton…the past three weeks of my life – a journey into the heart and soul of English brewing.  A mixture of large scale and small scale, fully automated and completely manual brewing, family run businesses and large corporations, historical Victorian era breweries and the most cutting edge, up to date operations…not necessarily all directly applicable to our plans for Present Tense, nonetheless, a valuable journey into understanding the nature of brewing in the UK.

Apart from working at Rooster’s, visiting pubs, writing a blog, and traveling on weekends, an inordinate amount of my time in the UK has been spent emailing breweries, arranging visits, working out logistics of how to get to said breweries, and on and on.  Many emails went unanswered, but after visiting Fawcett’s Maltsters…the tides turned for me.  Thanks to the incredible generosity of James Fawcett, he contacted several breweries on my behalf to suggest that they consider allowing me to visit their brewery.  And after that, I had more breweries to visit than I could manage. 

I had spent two months working full time at Rooster’s becoming fairly acquainted with the day to day tasks of the brewery.  It had become my routine – getting up at 4:30am, skyping with my girlfriend, packing my lunch, then getting picked up at 6:20 by Oliver and arriving at the brewery around 6:30.  A full day of filling casks, cleaning casks, cleaning the mash tun, cleaning the hop back, getting involved in the brewing occasionally, canning, and so on – the routine had become comfortable and predictable, not too many surprises. 

Then, after 2 months, I faced a brief departure from Roosters to explore some other breweries across the UK (this conveniently coincided with my 10 day trip with my lovely girlfriend to Paris, London, and Edinburgh) and my routine quickly disappeared. 

My first trip was with Oliver to visit Theakston and Black Sheep.  This would be my first visit to Theakston, but my second visit to Black sheep (see Blog 5 – The Sanctuary).  Masham, a small village on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, is home to both Theakston and Black Sheep.  Black Sheep is owned by Paul Theakston and his two sons, and Theakston is now owned privately after spending a short stint in the hands of a corporate conglomerate – the relationship between the two breweries is a little contentious to say the least, but they both make fantastic beer and are both particularly intriguing from the perspective of a traditional English brewery enthusiast, such as myself.

Theakston Brewery - Masham
Theakston's original grist hopper and mash tun.
Theakston's fermentation room.
Cooper apprentice at Theakston's
The sampler flight at Theakston's visitor center.
After my visits to Theakston and Black Sheep, I returned to Rooster’s for one more day of work followed by one more brewery visit before taking a bit of a vacation with my girlfriend.  After spending a day filling and cleaning casks, I picked up a rental car and drove to the Lake District to visit a brewery that I had held in high esteem for quite a while.  Bluebird Bitter is one of my favorite beers and one of the beers that enlightened me to the virtues of English ale.  Coniston Brewing Company, a two time Champion Beer of Britain award winner, is the brewery that brews this incredible beer.  The brewery is family owned and part of a complex of buildings which include a several hundred year old pub with accommodation and some newly constructed cabins.  The brewery is in an old building positioned right next to a beautiful stream which flows directly into a lake about a half mile down the hill.  I was greeted with the utmost hospitality – free accommodations, delicious fish and chips dinner, a few pints, and a full English breakfast and then loaded up with a case of beer on my way out the next day.

Brewhouse at Coniston.
Coniston Brewing Company
Filling the fermenter at end of the brew day.
Black Bull Inn at Coniston
Stream with brewery on the right.
Hand pumps in Black Bull.
I returned to Harrogate to get packed up for my trip to Paris.  My flight left the following morning and I landed in Paris…10 days passed – however time wasn’t much of a consideration at that point, just cherishing the time with my girlfriend.

Back at Rooster’s, feeling well rested and completely off of the previously ingrained routine, I spent one and a half days at the brewery before visiting an iconic Yorkshire brewery and then leaving again for another trip.  The aforementioned Yorkshire brewery was none other than Timothy Taylor’s at Knowle Spring Brewery.  Oliver, his brother Tom, and myself left the brewery around 9:30am for Keighley, about a 45 minute drive from Knaresborough.  If you ask any Yorkshireman what the most well-known, well respected beer in England is, he would without a doubt say Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.  Timothy Taylor’s is one of the rare, traditional, open for well over 100 years, independently owned breweries in the UK that has remained relevant and completely at the top of their game.  In North Yorkshire, Timothy Taylor’s can be found in any pub worth visiting, but even with its popularity and acclaim, it has never lost sight of its values – continuously investing in modern equipment and cutting edge operations – and its investments have paid off considerably by winning numerous “Champion Beer of Britain” awards and with Landlord, specifically, having won more awards than any other beer in the UK.  With all that said, the three of us were like kids in a candy store…utterly ogling at everything as the head brewer, Andy, showed us around the brewery.  Having the opportunity to visit the brewery was an unbelievable privilege, since it’s not commonly open to the public, but thanks to Mr. Fawcett, we were blessed with the exclusive access.  To cap off our visit, we headed down to the basement to the cellar to sample the latest batches of Landlord – one being just a couple days old, the other being a week old.  It was an incredible experience, one I will not soon forget.

Timothy Taylor's at Knowle Spring Brewery.
Buckets o' hops and hopback,
Happy beer in open fermenters.
Fermentation room at Timothy Taylor's
1 day old Landlord being poured.