Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Beer In Essex: The Victoria Inn, Colchester: The Evolution Of A 'Proper Pub'

Beer In Essex
The Victoria Inn, Colchester: The Evolution Of A 'Proper Pub'

I had arrived in Colchester just in time for lunch and I had a couple of hours to kill before I was expected at The Victoria Inn, so decided to see what else the town had to offer. Andy and Sheena had generously agreed to give me some of their valuable time after the busy lunch session had died down as the would have extra staff to cover so, after having sought advice from local(ish) publican Ed Razzall, I decided to seek out the two newest beer destinations in England's oldest recorded town. 

My first port of call was The Church Street Tavern, which unsurprisingly is in Church Street, a part of Colchester familiar to anyone who has attended either of the two annual CAMRA festivals held in the Arts Centre a few yards further up the road. I was impressed by it's decor of mismatched sofas, tables and easy chairs, although the bar looked rather spartan with its two chrome multi-tap keg founts. They had a fairly decent bottled beer selection however, but I was really after a pint of Essex beer. This is a strictly 'no cask' bar and despite having Adnams and Calvors available I opted for a half of BrewDog's Brixton Porter (just for the sheer hell of it) which I drank in self-concious silence before heading out.

The Three Wise Monkey's on the High Street is a smart, modern craft beer bar with one obvious eye on what's been happening in London, although in truth they're a couple of years behind. This three-floor Tap House and US-style Barbecue Bar, serving up all kinds of slow-cooked, pulled, and smoked meat delights, certainly creates a favourable impression upon entering with it's wall of numbered shiny taps and faintly louche feel, but appearances can be deceptive as I soon found out. 

I had decided, for research purposes and because I was in playful mood, to play the part of the craft beer novice taking ice-cold lager as my starting point, so upon approaching the bar I asked for some guidance in selecting my beer. To be honest there wasn't a lot on the menu to inspire me with much of what was on offer being from that Suffolk brewery of repute, Greene King, so after opining my penchant for pilsner I was steered deftly towards Kona's Long Board. Reasonably satisfied I took my half to a nearby table and settled down to observe my fellow drinkers just as two ladies in their twenties entered and went up to the bar asking for two halves of Stella. On this occasion however the response of the barman was rather different. Rather than introducing them to a beer that might give them something a little bit more taste than they were used to, he instead pointed to the chalked-up list of the wall and walked away saying "What we have is over there". As I downed my frankly lacklustre lager and got up to leave they were ordering a brandy and coke each. Surely an opportunity missed.

Rather dis-satisfied a brisk five minute walk down the North Hill soon found me outside The Victoria Inn, the current East Anglian CAMRA Pub Of The Year, my final destination of the day. 

Opening the door with a modicum of trepidation following my two previous encounters, I stepped inside and instantly felt a wave of relief sweep over me. I gave out a silent whoop of joy as I was delighted to find myself inside a real pub at last. 

The Victoria Inn is in no way pretentious. With its mix of wooden flooring and carpet, tables and chairs arranged for conversation not dining, and just the right amount of bar stalls to pull one up if conversation with one of the knowledgeable staff is what you desire but not so cluttered that getting served is like negotiating an obstacle course. In order approach the central bar and discover what beer is on offer you are drawn around and into the heart of the pub itself, the inner sanctum if you will, and you'll have found yourself having completed a full half circuit of the interior. This means you will probably have made a decision where you'll settle as you order your drink on the way through whether consciously or otherwise, and that's exactly the sort of thing that puts me at ease.

With no sign of either Sheena or Andy, I ordered a half before finding a seat near the bar. I was initially going to plump for Red Fox Brewery's excellent black IPA, Foxymoron (which Google just prompted me to remember I reviewed three years ago) before my eye was drawn to a pump clip bearing the intriguing words 'Test Brew #2'. Asking as to who brewed it, I was informed in an obviously tongue in cheek manner that I wasn't allowed to know, which immediately peaked my curiosity, however my barrage of further questions brought no satisfactory response.

Taking a seat, I pulled out my phone and tweeted where I was and that I was drinking a beer that I wasn't allowed to know about and within seconds heard a voice over my left shoulder enquire, "Beer East Anglia? Justin?" and as if by magic Andy and Sheena had appeared, introduced themselves, shook my hand and sat down opposite me. I immediately started asking about the beer I was drinking, what was it and where did it come from?  Andy replied quite matter of factly, "It's really is no secret, we are just trying to get the perfect Yorkshire style super pale/blonde ale brewed for us locally. We've been working with the Colchester Brewery to achieve this but we're not quite there yet. Nearly but not quite."

With their accents being the biggest clue, it's fairly obvious that Andy and Sheena (the landlord and landlady respectively, a partnership in every sense of the word) are most certainly not from Essex, and as I glanced around the bar their Yorkshire-ness suddenly came into focus. The crisps are from Yorkshire, as are the bottles of Henderson's Relish on the shelves behind the bar (which I had embarrassingly mistaken for Lea and Perrins), but it is the enthusiasm and pride that they speak of the beers of their home county that endears me to them straight away. These beers are obviously favourites and they have built a network of contacts stretching far and wide to enable them to get the very best of what Yorkshire has to offer on the bar for the delectation of their patrons.

They haven't always had it quite so easy however, and they are keen to impress upon me how hard they've work to get this far.

 When they took charge the Victoria Inn late in 2010 it was an unloved closed-up and shabby dive bar with avocado green walls, the kind of place that you would quickly pass by without a second glance, situated halfway between Colchester station and the town. It hadn't been loved by the locals and it's customers, who had mainly travelled there from a little further afield had gradually drifted away following the premature death of the previous landlady's daughter. Although it was in a bit of a state they saw it's potential, and though they weren't particularly looking for a tenancy in the area, they were looking for a pub to call their own but with no ties, particularly as Sheena had just freed herself from a bitter experience with Punch Taverns.

Realising that they really needed to get it up and running for Christmas that year, a crucial period if they wanted word to spread, they set about transforming a rather tired and dated bar into the kind of pub that they would want to drink in just a few short weeks, with the firm belief that if they liked it then others would too. In order to attract a wider clientele they installed a solitary hand pump for cask beer ask on a bar that previously had none, although the very first beer they had on was surprisingly from a Lancashire brewery, Thwaites 4.1% golden ale, Wainwright.

Slowly but surely the pub's reputation grew, helped especially by a local CAMRA member who was out searching for pubs to consider for Good Beer Guide inclusion, noticed that it had re-opened and out of curiosity peered through the window. Seeing the solitary hand pump they ventured inside to find out about the new tenants and began talking about beer, particularly 'real ale'. Soon enough the amount of cask beers increased until they numbered the five available today, one of which is always a dark ale, identifiable by it's black hand pump, and all of which are carefully chosen to bring something different to this part of Essex. These are often beers that you would be hard-pressed to find south of Birmingham, I sampled Tickety Brew's fantastic Coffee Anise Porter that afternoon, and as I mentioned before Andy and Sheena have built up a network of contacts, mainly dealing directly with the brewers themselves, with the beers being bought directly to them by various means, although it's not unheard of for them to do the fetching via the boot of their car.

Despite their success they aren't content to rest on their laurels and are always ready to try new things, but they are also not afraid to drop them if they don't work out. The Victoria Inn used to have a quiz night, for example, which initially attracted a reasonable crowd however after a few months interest had waned and now the quiz night is no more.

Today this three storey, Grade II listed seventeenth century building is exactly what they wanted it to be when they first took it over, a proper pub. They don't serve food, aside from pickled eggs, crisps, nuts and pork scratchings, as they believe a pub is a place for conversation, meeting old friends or a place of refuge if you want a bit of piece and quiet while you have a pint and read the paper. A friendly atmosphere pervades, and even though you may have found a quiet corner it might not be too long before you will find yourself engaged in conversation with one of the regulars or staff, and indeed many friendships have been formed in this pub sometimes by the unlikeliest of characters. There is music playing, but it is very much in the background and in fact I was sitting under a speaker for the two hours of so that I was there talking to Sheena and Andy and it didn't intrude on the conversation at all. Live music is very much a feature too, and on a Sunday evening you will nearly always find a jazz, blues or country band or performer playing in the corner, many of whom are return visitors, not only from the UK but from Europe as well.

Although this was my first visit to The Victoria Inn it already has it's own review on the Beer East Anglia website that I am involved with, which was written by my co-conspirator and someone who certainly knows a good pub when he sees one, Ed. Our alternative beer guide has quite specific criteria for inclusion in case you weren't already aware, which includes a cask ale from a local brewery, knowledgeable staff with a passion for beer and either a 'craft' keg beer or a good selection of bottled beer, although preferably both. You will have already gathered that the cask beer is of the highest quality from the CAMRA accolades it has achieved, but in addition to this there is always a good and interesting keg beer available, as well a selection of bottled beer for the discerning. Burning Sky Brewery's strong pale ale, Aurora was featuring on keg on my visit whilst the bottles included those from Founders and Anchor from the US and Westmalle and Bink from Belgium amongst others, as well as bottles from new and up-and-coming British breweries.

There is plenty here to tempt any drinker who wants something a little different and if beer isn't your thing then you might be persuaded by a glass of real cider or perry, they keep around nine different ones, or perhaps a spirit or two, poured from their small but perfect range of whiskies, gins and vodkas. I was treated to a shot of Anchor brewery's Hophead Hop Vodka, pungent and delicious it's every hop-cases dream, and I am reliably informed that it's addition to a hoppy pale ale instantly turns it into an Imperial version of itself, although I declined the offer of finding out on this occasion. Maybe next time.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the beer festival that features annually as these always have a theme, and normally take place over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in late May or early June and features around thirty different beers. In addition to this they also had a festival for local home brewers, which was difficult to arrange due to duty considerations, although after seeking legal advice they came up with an excellent solution, and they hope to run another this year. I am told that the quality of beer on sale was quite staggering and I'll certainly be looking out for announcements of both of these.

The festivals take place in the beer garden, which is a prime example of the pub's evolution. When the regulars said that they would like some furniture on the patio area, Andy and Sheena agreed on condition that they drank enough beer to finance it. This they did and it is now a comfortable and pleasant place to sit outside and have a drink. There is even a bar within a bar as the covered building at the rear has a feature wall based on a pub of the 1970s. I first encountered pubs in that decade (I was born in 1970) and many of the fixtures and images took me back to places I had long forgotten.

All too soon it was time for me to leave, and whilst I would have loved to have stayed all evening other commitments dragged me away. I had a truly wonderful time at the Victoria Inn and Andy and Sheena could not have been better hosts. It takes me about an hour by car or an hour and a half with the walk to the train station and the journey time from where I live in Essex, but it's a journey that I will certainly be doing again in the very near future. Even though I have some very good pubs in the local vicinity I would travel a long way for the hospitality, friendliness and beer range of the Victoria Inn, and if you are a local then I envy you. It is a pub that has evolved and prospered through the love and hard work of the landlord, landlady and patrons, and this passion and care seems almost tangible in the very air itself. If you asked me what the best pub was in Essex currently then I would probably answer that this was it.


The Victoria Inn is at:
10 North Station Road, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1RB
Telephone: 01206 514510
You can email them at: and their website address is:
They can also be found on twitter at: @victoriainncol and Facebook at: Victoria Inn Colchester
It really is a fantastic pub to visit and I'd recommend that you do so if you get the chance. They do have a jukebox, a forty thousand track Wurlitzer-style one, but no Sky TV, and there is a rather cool genuinely vintage Atari games console standing upright in one corner which might catch your eye as it did mine. As you have read The Victoria Inn is much, much more than your average street corner boozer. I can't wait to go back, so maybe I'll see you in there.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Wee Beastie Collection: Harviestoun Thistly Cross Mash Up

Wee Beastie Collection:
Harviestoun Thistly Cross Mash Up

It's time for another look at what's new from the Harviestoun Wee Beastie Collection and this is one that might raise a few eyebrows. As before, I will be linking up with Mark and Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show who will be releasing another special Wee Beastie Podcast to coincide with this post, with neither of us having any idea of what each of us thought of the beers.

The reason this particular release might cause some to think twice before trying a glass of, what I'm sure you'll agree, are three very intriguing beers is twofold. Firstly, as some of you may be aware, Thistly Cross are an award-winning Scottish cider producer, and collaborations between brewers and cider makers are few and far between. Secondly these are strong beers. At around the 11% abv mark these are not beers to be drunk by the gallon, in fact, as with all of the small batch Wee Beastie Collection I have reviewed to date, these are made to be savoured and their flavours explored.

Just before you dismiss the idea as some sort of bizarre beer/cider blend you should be aware that isn't actually any cider in the beer itself. In order to produce a different kind of beer with its own unique character, Harviestoun have brewed an amped-up version of their popular Bitter And Twisted golden ale, one with the volume very definitely turned up to eleven. This was then aged in Thistly Cross cider barrels, which they had previously used to age their own cider primed with Champagne yeast, for six months. Unintentionally and inadvertently a strain of brettanomyces, a yeast that produces large amounts of acetic acid and causes souring, was present in the barrels. This is the wild yeast that is responsible for the sour and tart, although very different, flavour profiles of the Belgian Lambic, Geuze, Oud Bruin and Flanders Red styles, so rather than discard the beer, Harviestoun in their wisdom have decided to present it to us fortunate drinkers.

Not content with that however, a further two batches are available, one matured with Scottish raspberries and the other conditioned with plums. When it comes to tasting these I will be looking out for the presence of the base beer, any taste of barrel-aged cider, as well as any intriguing flavours that the various yeast strains have contributed. I'm rather looking forward to this.

To get a fair representation of the beer itself, I'm going to be starting with what my bottle says is 'The Original', coming in at a whopping 11% abv. I can't remember if I've ever had a golden ale up around this kind of strength before so I'm already keen to get this baby open. It pours a rather uninteresting hazy orange with no head to speak of, which is unsurprising considering its high alcohol content, but the aroma is making me strangely excited as I bring it to my lips. You can tell straight away that this beer has been barrel aged, that characteristic woody-vanilla twang sits right at the top of the nose, but there is also an intriguing apricot and tangerine citrus aroma lurking just underneath, deep, sweet and juicy, that really makes me want to drink it. It's a little harsh over the tongue, and you can certainly feel the alcohol as it lays down a palate coating oily varnish followed immediately by a slightly warm drying quality that I'm attributing to the brettanomyces despite the fact that it wasn't overly prominent on the nose. There's some white pepper heat in the taste and this carried throughout giving the beer a rather unusual, but not unpleasant, savoury edge. After this has faded a little a rich orange syrup flavour emerges, but before I can decide whether or not I like this contrast, which strangely rather reminds me of strawberries with black pepper in the finish, it dries out almost entirely. What is left is reminiscent of the flavour of an orange fruit jelly sweet, a touch sugary and oily but a little juicy too. This is exactly the kind of beer I wanted from the Wee Beastie Collection as it completely different from the previous two I reviewed, but still remarkably complex, and full of taste rather than homogeneous and uninteresting. It won't suit everyone's palate, and I'm still not really sure if it works or not, but it's a beer I want to experience again just to make sure.

After getting this particular release off to a cracking start, I'm moving on to the raspberry matured version which, so my bottle tells me, is a marginally lower 10.5% abv. This also has an orange hue but with a distinctly redder tinge to it, and produces a white fizzy head as well, although this quickly dissipates. The initial aroma is sweetly scented with raspberries, but oddly it doesn't appear to be natural even though I know it is. There's a veneer of alcohol present too, and this is resting gently on top of the muted fruity aroma that I found in the previous beer. This is punchier and tarter than before with a bitter edge but still with that warming dryness that the alcohol is contributing. This is certainly a sour beer but not mouth puckeringly so, rather it has an oily sticky sweetness to it and just a dash of white pepper before the raspberries come through heroically late to remind you what this beer is all about. The finish falls away quickly but leaves behind a twist of black pepper and the ghost of fresh raspberry in it's wake. This is most definitely not a Belgian 'framboise/frambosen' sour beer, the alcohol is far too apparent as is the woodiness from the barrels it was aged in, this is something quite different, something that I've never experienced before and I rather like it.

The third and last of the three is rather interestingly matured with plums and also checks in at the 10.5% abv mark. Pouring a pleasing deep plum red with a good level of carbonation that settles down to a thin off-white head, this has the distinct aroma of just over-ripe plum juice, tart and juicy with a little nudge of alcohol to remind you that this is a beer not to be trifled with. Big and brash, this paints the tongue with a highly concentrated layer of plum, thick and heavy, before planting a glob of fermented birch sap slap bang in the middle of your palate which has a bitter acidity that is unnervingly jarring. There is a fusel alcohol heat in the mix too, which makes me wonder if one or more of the different yeasts present on the plums, in the barrel, the cider or indeed the beer itself has reacted adversely with the fermentation temperature, or maybe it's the combination of all these different yeast strains themselves, but thankfully this blows of rather quickly. What it leaves behind is more blackcurrant that plum, full, tart and rounded, and it's this juicy sweetness, which I can only compare to barely diluted Ribena, that lasts long into the finish. This is a strange beer indeed, the label and aroma interested me greatly but I'm afraid the actual body was a bit too messy and heavy for me to really appreciate it. I think understand what Harviestoun were trying to achieve with this here, but I just don't think they've got it quite right on this occasion.

For three beers with the same base, these have turned out very differently indeed. If I had to pick just one it would have to be the raspberry matured offering however, if you'd like a second opinion then why not head over to the Beer O'Clock Show website and listen to their podcast, or download it from iTunes and tune in at your leisure. If you'd like the chance to experience these beers for yourselves, talk to the people that make them, or just chat about beer with the guys from the Beer O'Clock Show and myself, then why not buy a ticket to the Wee Beastie Collection event at The Elgin in London on the 19th of March. We hope to see you there.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Beer In Essex: Billericay Brewing: Looking To The Future

Beer In Essex
Billericay Brewing: Looking To The Future

I don't like working on a Saturday, but as I'm contractually obliged to do so I can't really avoid it, but fortunately it's a short day and it's not long before I'm locking the door behind me and wishing my colleagues a good weekend before hoisting my bag over my shoulder and setting off up the high street. Turning left before I get to Waitrose, I follow the road round to Chapel Street and enter the shop-cum-micropub next door to Billericay Brewing and find Trevor clearing the glasses from one of the tables as four satisfied drinkers say their goodbyes. He looks up as I walk towards the counter and smiles, "Hello," he says, "would you like a beer?".

I first met Trevor Jeffrey, the owner and brewer of Billericay Brewing in the December of 2012, although I had been following his progress since the website went live earlier that year. He had just received the first batch of bottles of his inaugural beer, Mayflower Gold, and he invited me into his home to open a few of them as we talked about and tasted it. This had been brewed with the help of the Pitfield/Dominion brewer, Canadian Andy Skene at his brewery near Moreton in Essex, as Trevor was, at this point, a brewer without a brewery. By the time I came to write up my impressions of the beer however he had found some premises and although it would be another year or so before he was actually brewing on site, Billericay Brewing was well and truly in business.

Even though it was called the home of Billericay Brewing from the outset, in truth it was little more than the home of the Essex Beer Shop, with Trevor selling bottled beers from all over the county as well as some from London and Belgium, and there were mutterings that it wasn't really a brewery as there was no equipment and no brewing going on there. This of course all changed when the kit finally arrived and in March 2014 brewing finally got under way.

It would be fair to say that it hasn't been all plain sailing. There were teething problems as you might expect with early bottles having some problems with their seals and the beer being overly yeasty, but Trevor has listened to the feedback and his brewing has improved, so that over the last few months his beers have become fully rounded, clean tasting and full of flavour. As a consequence of this they are selling almost as quickly as he is brewing them, and for the few hours that I was there a steady stream of customers were bottles and sampling the beer directly from the casks that he has on stillage in the micropub and shop he opened next door to the brewery in December last year.

To date he has brewed a total of nine beers:
Mayflower Gold a US-influenced Pale Ale with spicy citrus notes.
A Mild With No Name, full of dark coffee and roast meat juice caramel notes.
Billericay Dickie, a light amber ale brewed with a nod to the Ian Dury and the Blockheads song of the same name, and the first beer exclusively brewed at the Chapel Street brewery.
Billericay Blonde, a golden ale with grapefruit and marmalade flavours that leap out of the glass.
Chapel Street Porter, with hints of chocolate and a little smokiness.
Billericay Zeppelin, originally called Dead Zeppelin, an easy drinking amber ale with a good caramel and biscuity malt character.
Festival Beer, a golden ale brewed for Billericay's Summerfest in 2014.
Rhythm Stick, the second of the 'Ian Dury' series, and the beer I'm drinking as I write this part of the post,
Mild Bill, a mild ale brewed with extra chocolate malt giving it a lovely rounded flavour.

Having done all this when just under a year ago he didn't have a fully working kit is rather impressive, but as Trevor gets up to serve some more thirsty customers I turn over the page of my notebook and write the heading, 'So what's next?' When he returns to the table after a minute or so I put this question to him.
"I thought you might ask me that," he answers, "and I've jotted a few things down. I'll just go and get it."

He has already told me that he has what he will be calling the 'Mayflower 2015' in the fermenter. This is a slightly amped-up version of the Mayflower Gold that will settle out at around the 7-7.5% abv mark, and he hopes to make an annual beer. Brewed with Pilgrim and Willamette, this version will be dry-hopped with Cascade, the first time that he has dry-hopped any beer, and he also plans to use a different hop for this in successive editions, in a similar vein to Duvel's annual Tripel Hop. This should be available around the end of March, and I will be making a special trip to the brewery to see how this comes out.

When Trevor comes back he is brandishing a piece of paper full of ideas and hastily scribbled musings, and considering what I have written about Essex beer recently and how, let's say safe, he current beer range is, there is much in there that lifts my spirits. I won't go into too much detail now but what you might expect to see from his small 4.5 BBL plant but I will give you a sneak peak into what he is planning.

First up is a US-hopped Spring ale, Norsey Gold, which will be almost immediately followed by a dry-hopped ESB, Clever Trevor, nicely dovetailing the 'Ian Dury Series' and the name of the brewer himself. Also in the pipeline is a lighter smoked beer, possibly using malt smoked at the local Hanningfield Smokehouse and locally grown malt and hops, as well as a Black IPA. Modestly prevents me from saying who suggested the latter beer, and who might be brewing it, but hopefully it's one that can be sorted out in the not-too-distant future if Trevor and I can get our heads together. In addition to this you'll be wanting to look out for Christmas Blockhead, around December, a festive barley-wine, but maybe I'm getting ahead of myself a bit here.

The conversation flows and so does the beer, and all too soon it's time for me to leave. For a man who appears to be quite unassuming when you meet him he becomes passionate and alive when he talks about his beer and it's obvious that it's something he cares deeply about. My job is taking me away from Billericay, and I'll miss being able to drop in on Trevor on a whim for a swift half and a chat. I will be back from time to time to see what he is up to, and I'm wish him well. He always welcomes visitors, particularly if they have a love of beer so why not call in and see him if you're passing, or make a special trip if you're not. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.


The Billericay Brewing Company can be found at 54 Chapel Street, Billericay, Essex, and the Essex Beer Shop and Micropub next door are open every day except Monday. Opening times vary, and may be extended soon, so you might want to check out the websitetwitter or Facebook for more information. Alternatively you can ring on: 01277 500121 particularly if you want to order some beer or participate in one of the 'Brewer For A Day' experiences on offer. Maybe I'll see you there.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Beer In Essex: An Introduction To Beer In Essex

Beer In Essex
An Introduction To Beer In Essex 

The beer landscape of Essex is a complex one. Pulled in different directions, fiercely proud but sometimes easily led, the history of brewing and drinking in the county is long and often turbulent. Cheek by jowl with London to the South West, at its Northern edge it looks expectantly towards Cambridge to the West and Ipswich to the East, whilst the Eastern coastline has been viewed hungrily by invaders and traders from the Low Countries.

The county town, Chelmsford, granted city status as recently as 2012 and still its only city was once home to more than seven breweries with the largest, Gray and Sons (Chelmsford) Ltd still owning 50 public houses and involved in beer distribution although sadly no longer brewing. Colchester to the East, known by the Romans as Camulodunum, has a claim to being Britain's oldest town as the first known reference to any settlement in the country appears in Pliny the Elder's (someone who has a much sought after beer named after him) Historia Naturalis in 77 AD. The Roman civilisation's love for wine is well known, however there is much evidence that they also brewed beer, and even though there is a possibility that they brewed beer in Essex this is pure speculation.

Essex is a predominantly rural county, with much of the land given over to agriculture, with wheat, barley and turnips being the major crops, and much of the wealth of local parishes was derived from wool trade and weaving. There are records of hop growing in the county as far back as the mid-sixteenth century, and this rose steadily with hops being cultivated in isolated areas although this was not unique to Essex as by 1700 there were twenty-five counties in England and Wales growing them for brewing.

With the coming of the industrial revolution Essex was well placed to provide for the growing population in the capital and the outlying areas, and whilst industry itself did come to the county this was mainly limited to the South, particularly along the Thames. This increased populace also required beer and lots of it, facilitating the establishment of bigger breweries more able to service this need rather than the local brewpubs, or more accurately inns with an attached brewery, and as a consequence the acreage given over to hops expanded too. In fact, there were just under 650 acres of hops being cultivated in the county by the late-eighteenth century, although this was pinnacle of growth as by 1834 there were only 207 acres turned over to them as Kent to the South, with a climate more suitable to production, became established as the main provider for the large breweries in London.

The original boundary of the county was much larger than it is today, with its South Western corner reaching along the Thames right up to the City of London and the county of Middlesex, an area now referred to as East London, including other areas incorporated into Greater London with it's establishment in 1965. This swallowed up the towns of Barking, Dagenham, Ilford, Chingford, Woodford and Romford, and it is the latter of these in which was the largest brewery the county has known was founded, one which would leave a legacy of beer that continues into the present day.

In 1708, the Star Inn and brewery was established in South Street, Romford close to the River Rom by Mr George Cardon. It wasn't until 1799 however, when this moderately successful establishment was purchased by a Mr Edward Ind with a Mr Grosvenor, that it's would really become a place of some significance in the history of brewing, not just that of Essex but the whole country too. Seventeen years into their partnership Mr John Smith took Mr Grosvenor's place, but soon after he left to form his own brewery in west London with a Mr Fuller, taking with him the Star's Head Brewer, a certain Mr Turner.

 The Eastern Counties Railway built its station close to the brewery in 1839, and this was to prove significant in the growth of the Romford brewery, and certainly influenced the decision of Mr C. E. Coope to join the firm in 1845 with its name changing to Inde, Coope and Company, shortly afterwards. The access to the railway network enabled the brewery to expand quickly and the beer was soon distributed throughout throughout the county, with a wagon hoist being built from the brewery's own railway sidings in 1853, although this was soon replaced by an incline, finally culminating in the purchase of a steam locomotive in 1872.

So successful was the brewery that Ind Coope Limited, as it was by this time, had already bought a half built brewery (in 1856) in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, adjacent to that of Messrs. Allsopp and Sons Limited, just as it became the centre of brewing in England and arguably the world, due to the properties of the local water.

The late nineteenth century saw the company at the height of it's powers, but by 1910 it had got into financial difficulties, before merging with its close rivals, Samuel Allsop and Sons Ltd, in 1934. The Romford site still continued in production although its emphasis had shifted and a new bottling plant was built on the old cask storage area in 1961, the year it became part of Allied Breweries. The final change of name was in 1980 when a new company was formed, and the Romford Brewery Company was slowly wound down, switching to keg-only production, which included such brands as Skol, Lowenbrau and John Bull Bitter, before it was finally closed in 1992. The site is now part of The Brewery shopping centre, with only the old tasting room and one of the coppers, (as well as the name) left to ever show it was there.

At one point nearly every major town, and even some of the smaller ones, had their own brewery, or indeed a place of brewing of some size or another up until as least the early twentieth century, although it was the bigger breweries that managed to survive the longest before they were bought by larger concerns and closed, or closed of their own accord with the national breweries struggle for dominance in the middle of the twentieth century. Signs of these breweries can still be found if you know where to look, for example The Brewery Tap pub where I live in Brentwood was once the actual brewery tap of Fielder's Brewery before it closed in 1923.

 The other brewery of significance in the history of beer is Essex is that of T.D. Ridley and Sons, which established in 1842 in Hartford End, 8 miles North of Chelmsford, by the descendants of Nicholas Ridley, an outspoken Protestant Bishop and one of the Oxford Martyrs who were burnt at the stake as part of the persecution of Anglicans under Mary I. The brewery had a considerable presence in the county, they were known as 'The Essex Brewer', with beers such as Bishops Ale, Old Bob and latterly, Rumpus, being regular fixtures in pubs throughout Essex and further afield. Originally started of the site of an old watermill, by the 1970s it had an estate of around 65 tied houses, and this inevitably caught the eye of larger breweries, most notably that of Greene King across the county border in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk as they sought to establish a strong foothold up and down the country. In August 2005, it bought the brewery and the site with the full co-operation of the Chairman, another Nicholas Ridley, who gained the position of Executive Chairman of Greene King, and despite initial assurances that it would continue to brew, production soon ceased and the brewery was dismantled. This isn't quite the end of the story however as in 2011, Nelion Ridley, the son of the last Chairman, set up his own brewery, Bishop Nick, just outside nearby Braintree (the Ridley name is still owned by Greene King) and so the legacy continues.

The oldest brewery that is still brewing in the county was, it may surprise you to know, was founded as recently as 1981. Crouch Vale Brewery was set up by two beer enthusiasts, Colin Bocking and Rob Walster, in South Woodham Ferrers, and takes its name from the nearby River Crouch. With a capacity of around 5000 barrels per annum, they rose to national prominence when Brewers Gold, their flagship ale accounting for just over half of their production, won the title of CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain in both 2005 and 2006. They have four regular beers alongside this; Blackwater Mild, Essex Boys Bitter, Yakima Gold and Amarillo, as well as the occasional short runs and seasonals, many of which are hopped with single varieties. Their beers are widely available in Essex and the outlying counties and their bottles are carried in some major supermarkets.

Another winner of CAMRA's Champion Beer Of Britain can also be found in Essex. When Mighty Oak won the accolade in 2011 with Oscar Wilde Mild it was the first time that a Mild Ale had won the competition, and put a strain of the the small brewery, originally formed on an industrial estate in Brentwood before moving to Maldon, with demand far exceeding supply. It is still a popular beer and is a regular guest in many of the county's pubs, and often sells out quickly at local beer festivals.

There are currently 29 breweries in Essex. They are: Billericay Brewing, Bishop Nick, Brentwood, Brightlingsea, Colchester, Crouch Vale, Deverell's, Dominion/Pitfield, Famous Railway Tavern, Felstar, Georges/Hop Monster, Hart Of Stebbing, Harwich Town, Highwood (Can Do Beers), Hope, Indian Summer, Maldon (Farmers), Mersea Island, Mighty Oak, Mr Majolica's, Nethergate, Red Fox, Round Tower, Saffron, Shalford, Sticklegs, Vens, Wibblers, and Witham. All of which are dedicated to the production of cask, or real ale if you prefer, and the counties pubs are very much dominated by this method of dispense, although there are signs that things are beginning to change.

Wibblers Brewery for example have a craft keg lager, Odyssey, brewed with East Anglian malt and Czech hops, and properly lagered for 4 to 6 weeks (and bottled as Essex Blonde), and have recently developed Dengie IPA exclusively to be sold as a keg beer, and these have been picked up by a few outlets locally to much acclaim. They have also bottled two stronger beers, Wobbly Croc a barley wine, and Wobbly Mouse, both at 12% abv and in very limited supply, as well a Dengie Sour, a beer brewed in the Lambic style.

This trend of discovery and experimentation, influenced in part by what is happening in London currently, is starting to spread to some other breweries in Essex, and having taken the time to talk to a couple of the brewers in the county about what they are planning for 2015 and beyond I have quite a degree of optimism and excitement about what will be available in the not too distant future.

All change, however small, is resisted however. The regions CAMRA magazines (of which there are three) are full of splutter and outrage when mentioning the likes of BrewDog, with Tap room describing Meantime's recent Thames Hop IPA brewed with hops grown on the banks of the Thames as 'a fizzy bottled beer'. Andy Skene of the Dominion/Pitfield Brewery has noted that whilst he can sell his unfined beer in London, there is a huge resistance to it from Essex pubs, and in a recent conversation with Trevor Jeffrey from Billericay Brewing he admitted his frustration at pubs not wanting dark beers and only asking for his lighter brews, despite his darker ones selling out quickly at beer festivals. In fact it was the dis-enchantment comments and attitudes such as these, as well as the standard of local beer that was available to me that prompted me to write and publish An Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries back in January of this year, although I now realise this is as much, if not mainly down to the pubs in the county rather than the brewers themselves.

This isn't to say that all pubs in the county are the same, and although it might be a little self-aggrandising, this was the main reason that Ed Razzall and I started Beer East Anglia (which will be expanding soon), enabling us to highlight and celebrate those pubs that are daring to think differently.

Over the next year I plan to champion Essex beer, Essex breweries, Essex brewers, Essex pubs and maybe even Essex drinkers, talking to those involved and reviewing what is happening in the county right now. I am proud to say that I am from Essex, I was born in Barking and currently live in Brentwood, and this is despite the frivolous and ridiculous way the county is portrayed on television and in the national press, although I will admit that much of this is self inflicted. I hope that you will come with me on my journey, or at least look in from time to time, and hopefully you will get a better idea of what beer in Essex is really all about.

Sources, Bibliography and Further Reading:
The Romance Of Essex Inns: Glyn H Morgan, Essex Brewers: Ian P Peaty, A Pub Crawl Around Essex: Graham Dover, Titbits And Tales Of Essex Inns: Mavis Sipple, History Through Essex Public House Signs: Keith Lovell, Hidden Inns Of East Anglia (2002 and 2005), Alka-Seltzer Guide To The Pubs Of Essex, The CAMRA Regional Inventory For East Anglia, Real Ale in Essex (1977), Real Ale In Essex 79/80, 8th Essex Beer Guide, 9th Essex Beer Guide, CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2015, plus various Essex brewery websites.