Thursday, 21 January 2016
Beer In Essex: Beer Brothers - Saffron Brewery
Beer In Essex
It's mid-November, and there's a definite chill in the air as I walk down the drive of Parsonage Farm towards the Saffron Brewery, the imposing shadow of the church of St Mary the Virgin blocking out the sun making it just that little bit colder.
I've made the visit to Henham, a small picturesque Essex village that is by distance a few miles north of Stansted Airport although a world away in time, with David Ginn of Essex Food. He has kindly driven us both there, and after a brief stop to take some photographs of the 'chocolate-box' thatched cottages across the village green we find ourselves right on time for our midday appointment.
I went to a meet-the-brewer that Saffron did in Chelmsford in the summer and recognise James as we get nearer, pacing up and down outside the main entrance with his mobile phone glued to his ear. He waves his acknowledgement but continues his earnest conversation before finishing abruptly and shaking our hands warmly introducing himself. Another door opens, from what I later learn is the office and shop, and his brother Ed appears rolling up his sleeves and shakes our hands too.
The warmth of the welcome and the ease with which we fall into conversation has made me briefly forget the temperature outside, but after chatting for about ten minutes or so we all decide that it's best if we head inside.
The first phase of Saffron Brewery started in May 2006 when the then owner and brewer Tony Barrett launched its first official beer at the 33rd Cambridge Beer Festival. The beers soon developed a strong local following and sold well, so much so that the only pub in Henham, the Cock Inn just across from the brewery, continued to stock it despite being ordered not to by Punch Taverns.
Tony was joined soon after by Dave Hill in order to expand the business, and he took over control of the operation, briefly sharing the site with Bishop Stortford Brewery, before the Hoskins family stepped in and bought Saffron outright in 2013.
I ask them why they decided to go into brewing, and James informs me that it was a natural progression for him. "I'd run the pub (the St. Radegund in Cambridge) since 2009, and before that I was in the building trade. We used to stock the beers, and when the opportunity came up it seemed like the logical thing to do."
Despite some early problems, they managed to get the brewery how they wanted it and began adding some of the beers that they wanted to brew to the range that they inherited. As with many smaller regional breweries however, they don't get to experiment as much as they'd, or at least Ed, would like.
"We have our core beers and our seasonals, and they are proving very popular," he tells me, "and when you have a limited amount of kit it's hard to find time to plan and brew another beer. Our customers ask us for specific beers, and we don't want to let them down."
I get a sense that Ed would like to brew a few more different beers though and occasionally gets his own way, the recent Saffron Galaxy with its distinctive sci-fi themed label being particularly memorable, the Galaxy hop's beautiful passion fruit and mango flavour, its tropical aroma bursting from the glass.
They've also recently brewed their first collaboration beer with Daniel Neilson of Original Gravity magazine and comedian Ed Byrne. "Humour Me" is described as a golden harvest ale, based on their Saffron Blonde with a higher caramalt content, but this has fermented out beautifully leaving a deliciously lingering brown sugar sweetness. If you're lucky you might still find some bottles out there, I believe Ales By Mail have some, but it sold very briskly I'm told.
James becomes quite guarded here, and pauses before answering, choosing his words carefully.
"Well, we already have the St. Radegund in Cambridge as our brewery tap, but we're in the process of buying and converting a new pub locally, just outside Saffron Walden (from which the brewery gets its name) but I don't want to say too much about that at this stage, just in case."
That pub is the Bluebell Inn, in Hempstead, Essex, I can now reveal, and will hopefully be opening relatively soon so keep an eye on their website for details of that.
As far as beer is concerned, I'm told that they will be trying a few different things in January and February with a Pilsner-style lager and 6-7% abv US-style hoppy IPA beers to look out for.
The afternoon passes quickly in beer and conversation, particularly as we are generously treated to a tasting of the full bottled range. I make some cursory tasting notes and buy quite a few, ready for the third and final part of my Essex bottled beer series which you can expect to see in a month or two.
We take some final pictures and head off home just as the sun is setting on what has been a thoroughly enjoyable day. I hadn't written too much down but I was taking away some good memories, as well as a very heavy bag full of beer.
It's been two months since my visit and things have moved on apace. There's more to come from Saffron Brewery and you'll be hearing from me again soon about some quite exciting developments. Watch this space, as they say.
Saffron Brewery can be found at:
Tel. 01279 850923
On twitter at: @SaffronBrewery and on Facebook at: Saffron Brewery
They have a shop on site where you can buy bottles, glasses and mini-casks, and will be hosting a series of tasting evenings at the brewery itself the first of which was on 22nd January, so if you're in the area or just fancy an evening in the Essex countryside with an extra attraction then keep an eye on their website for further details.