Sunday, 27 September 2015

Beer In Essex: Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants - An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewery

Beer In Essex
Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants
An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewing Company

It's a bright sunny afternoon when I set out to walk the three miles across Brentwood from my house to Calcott Hall Farm, the home of the Brentwood Brewing Company, and walking up the drive I notice that the field to my right is full of ripe pumpkins ready to be picked. Halloween may be a month or so away but I've already heard that the pumpkin beers have started appearing in the stores across the Atlantic, with the season for these seemingly getting earlier and earlier Stateside. I'm not generally a fan of these beers as I find them too heavily spiced with ginger and cinnamon for my palate, and wonder if the brewery I'm visiting will find a use for them.

I ring the bell and am let in to wait in the brewery's tap room, although I barely have time to settle down into the inviting studded red leather sofa before Roland, the breweries co-founder and owner, appears and immediately offers me a beer. There is a question that I need to get out of my head, so I have to ask him about the pumpkins I spotted, and whether any will be making their way into the brew kettle any time soon.

"Definitely not!" is the resounding response, and whilst on balance I'm rather pleased, there is a small part of me that can't help but feel that it could just be an opportunity wasted.

The main reason for my visit is to follow up on a discussion I had with Roland a few weeks before about his taste in beer and preference for cask over keg. I wanted to get to the root of this preference, as he freely admitted that there were some keg beers he enjoyed, but none that he found truly satisfying. After visiting the SIBA BeerX in Sheffield earlier in the year for example, he tried plenty of keg beer but needed to finish on cask at the end of the day.

"I think it's simply the taste, " he states very matter-of-factly, "it suits my palate more. Cask beer has a certain character, particularly the bitterness, that I don't find in other beer."

"Do you have a favourite cask beer?" I ask.

"My own," he says without hesitation, "that is Brentwood brewery beer. Basically, when it comes down to it I'm tight, and I think, and I know this isn't actually right, that I'm putting money back into my own pocket."

I'm guessing that this is something that most brewers and brewery owners do, and it certainly makes good sense to be seen to drink the beer that you produce as a positive endorsement of its quality. I do however push him to give me another brewery's beers he would drink instead of his, a brewery whose beer he admires perhaps?

He replies with just one word. "Harvey's".

We discuss beer and breweries, both local at national, at some length as I'm poured another beer and Roland is particularly keen to stress how much small breweries are being squeezed.

"Head brewers in general earn around £15000 to £18000 a year at the moment which isn't great considering the work that they do. In order to make good money from brewing a pint of cask ale needs to be around the £5 a pint region, and taking a penny off a pint in duty doesn't help breweries at all. Drinkers then expect it to come off the price of their pint, and they are really only interested in that price being low, in fact they expect it, but the cost of production and materials continues to rise. We're stuck in the middle, being squeezed more and more."

This kind of open, frank and candid attitude is something that I've experienced in all my dealings with Brentwood Brewing and Roland in particular. It's refreshing to hear somebody speak in this way at a brewery in Essex and I ask him about dealings with the other breweries in the county. I am interested to know if they ever meet up and swap ideas or talk through their problems.

"Not really to be honest," he says, "other than at the occasional beer festival or SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) meetings, and even then the area we are in, (SIBA Eastern, encompassing Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Lincolnshire, Peterborough, and Suffolk) is so large that it almost makes it impossible."

Considering it's nearly 200 miles from the top to the bottom, and the roads being such that it would take over three hours of driving from a brewery like Brentwood in the south to Tom Wood's in the north, time and other constraints make it rather impractical. Apparently, Brendan Moore of Norfolk's Iceni Brewery, and representative to SIBA for the region has tried to organise more local regional meetings of brewers from three or so counties, but these have come to nothing due to poor communication, something I find hard to comprehend in the modern age.

I can of course see that breweries in different parts of the country have different problems and concerns, both logistically and with regards to their marketplace, but what about on a county level? Surely Essex brewers talk to each other about the problems that they face when if and when they meet, sharing ideas and asking for advice of particular problems they are having?

Somewhat surprisingly and rather unfortunately this is not the case. The brewers and indeed the owners, only talk in general terms if and when they do meet, I am told, and are generally quite guarded. I'm curious as to why this would be, as it would seem to make more sense and be more beneficial to help each other out. Apparently not, and when I ask why this is I am given a one word answer. Competition.

This makes no sense to me, and noting my confusion Roland is obliged to expand on his reason.

"We are concerned that any idea that we have will be copied, and in todays market it's all about having an edge and being one step ahead. That is the main reason we don't really talk to each other, that and time constraints, but we're really worried about our ideas being copied by the big boys, the big countrywide brewers."

This is quite a statement, and whilst it makes sense on one level it is quite difficult for me to process when I look at it from an outsiders viewpoint. In my experience, certainly at local level, brewers are very keen to tell you what they're up to next. It is after all good publicity to let prospective customers know what to look out for as I creates a sense of anticipation and raises the profile of the brewery in the minds of the consumer.

I ask about collaborations with other breweries in the county or even further afield, and both Roland and his son Ethan, Brentwood's head brewer who has now joined us, agree that they would consider the possibility although they have no plans at present, nor have they had any approaches as yet. Personally I see this as a great way for a brewery share ideas and techniques, and breweries that have done so have grown from strength to strength, so hopefully there will be some scope to do so.

At this point Roland is needed to attend to a customer who has come to pick up several polypins of beer for his daughter's wedding that weekend, so I take the opportunity to follow Ethan into the brewery itself, the first time I've actually seen it up close since they moved to the current site in 2013.

The set up is very similar to that which I remember from when I spent a Brewery Experience day with them back in 2012, the subject of my second ever blog post, at their previous home just up the road from the White Horse in Coxtie Green, a pub still referred to as the Brentwood Brewery Tap.

The new site has a tap room of its own that is open at weekends for beer to be purchased to drink or on the premises or to be taken away, along with a range of brewery merchandise.

There's plenty of room for expansion here however. Currently a 20 BBL brewery, with brewing taking place 2-3 times per week, Ethan shows me the space in which he hopes to install a further two fermenting vessels which will greatly increase capacity and give him a little more room to experiment under the Elephant School brand, as he has plenty of ideas of his own.

I'm interested to discover that Brentwood actually brews a beer that is kegged, Wapping Hoppy 4.0% with the tag-line "The Home of Hoppy" which it supplies to the new home of English Hockey, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, just up the road to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. They also supply cask beers, Wapping Gold and Wapping Cape, which are simply existing Brentwood Brewery beers re-badged.

I ask Ethan what we should expect from Brentwood in the next couple of months, thinking that he may not wish to give too much away, however he is keen to tell me of his upcoming plans.

"We'll be brewing Spooky Moon again soon," he tells me, "our Autumn seasonal, to tie in with Halloween coming up, and I plan to brew a few special one-off beers under the Elephant School label, the first of which will be a White Mild."

I'm familiar with White Stouts, pale beers with the body and flavour of a stout that plays with your mind when you drink it, similar to a Black IPA in a way, but in reverse of course. A White Mild is however a new thing on me and I ask Ethan how he proposes to brew it.

"I haven't quite figured that out yet," he states with a huge grin on his face, "however we haven't used the elephant name in any of our brews so far, and White Elephant would be perfect for that."

I have to agree.

There are also plans afoot for a winter release of a barrel-aged Chockwork Orange, their dark Old Ale-style beer brewed with oranges, possibly in nip bottles, a special tasting event, or even a combination of both. Whatever they choose to do it will certainly be something that you won't want to miss out on, so keep an eye on the brewery website for any information on this or indeed any other release.

Four hours have passed since I arrived in seemingly no time at all, but as I'm getting ready to leave the heavens open so I head back to the tap room where I'm poured another beer and we continue the conversation.

Plans for a possible micropub in Brentwood are mentioned (something I've discussed with three separate and completely unconnected parties in the last few weeks), as well as ideas for beers, both new and maybe the revival of a few of the older styles, but as these are still ideas at this stage I will leave them there.

All too soon the sun reappears and bidding farewell to Ethan, Roland and the rest of brewery team I head back to my home on the other side of town. Both of them independently offer me a lift but I refuse, preferring to reflect on a good afternoon and time well spent amongst local people with a real passion for what they do and a genuine love of good beer.

It's turning into a beautiful early-Autumn evening and I realise that I quite fancy another beer.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

It's 'Cheers For Charity' On A Big Beery Night

Forget Coffee ...
It's 'Cheers For Charity' On A #BigBeeryNight

Cancer. It affects us all. Whether directly or indirectly we have all experienced the effects of the loss of a loved one ourselves or seen those close to us lose someone dear to them.

It claimed my Mother-in-law five years ago.

To see such a strong woman with so much life in her and so much love to give laid low in the space of a week after a protracted two year battle was devastating, not only to our family, but to the great many friends she had made and those whose lives she had touched.

In her final week, as she gradually wasted away seemingly before our eyes we, and particularly my wife and sister-in-law, were comforted, supported and advised by Macmillan Nurses. They weren't requested, we didn't need to apply for them, but they simply introduced themselves and provided their help and knowledge when and where it was needed. They even organised, in the space of two days, a place in a hospice for my Mother-in-law, as she was determined not to die in hospital, although in the end she passed to quickly for this to happen. The help didn't stop there either, and they made sure that we knew that they were there for us whenever we needed them.

Gwen, my Mother-in-law, loved life and was one of those people who saw the good in all things. She also liked a beer or two. She was never a big drinker, she always drank halves, but she loved good tasty beer, 'a proper 'bitter' bitter', as she would say. She always made sure that there was good beer in the house for whenever I would visit, and would take great delight in finding a bottle of something that I hadn't had before.

These are the things I remember, along with the good times and the laughter, so when my good friend Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show, who himself had lost his Mother, Father, and Mother-in-law to the disease, was wanting to do something for Macmillan, and that it involved beer, I immediately said I would help.

What started as a conversation he had with beer blogger Phil Hardy on Twitter has grown, in the space of just a few days, into a Big Beery Night that will take place on Friday 25th September.

Many of you will of course be aware that Friday 25th is the day that Macmillan coffee mornings will be taking place all over the country, and while coffee is a great drink, I'm sure you would agree that it's not quite as good as beer.

Here's how you can take part:

Instead of abstinence however, on the Big Beery Night you are positively encouraged to drink and donate as you do you so. The idea behind it is simple, on the evening of the 25th September buy yourself a pint, grab a bottle of something amazing, or get your growler filled and drink it. Take a picture of what you're drinking and post it to Twitter using the hashtag #BigBeeryNight. All that then remains for you to do is to pay for your beer a second time in a manner of speaking, by donating the same amount to this Just Giving page that has been set up especially to receive your donation.

You can do this as many times as you like; beer, photo, post, donate,  over and over again if you wish. The target has been set at a modest £1000, but seeing as there's a little while to go and considering the amount has already been raised it looks as though that will be smashed.

Just how much is raised is really up to all of us. You can drink as little or as much as you like, and at if at least the cost of one of those beers is donated you will have been part of the #BigBeeryNight

If that wasn't enough, there will also be a Twitter auction on the night, with more and more beery prizes, experiences and even artwork being donated every day, you'd be wise to keep an eye on the Beer O'Clock Show Twitter feed for all the details.

It promises to be a fantastic evening, one that everyone who likes beer and wants to do something to help support a wonderful course can get behind and be proud to do so. Gwen would most definitely have approved. In fact she would probably have set up a Twitter account just so she could join in.

So get your beers ready, and start making plans for the #BigBeeryNight on Friday 25th September.

I'll see you there.

If you would like to read what others have written about this event you can do so here:
From the Beer O'Clock Show website
From Phil Hardy's site - Beersay
From the BeerViking
From Rach Smith's - Look At Brew

Monday, 14 September 2015

Beer In Essex - Review: Farmers Yard, Maldon

Beer In Essex - Review
Farmers Yard, Maldon

The micropub as a recognised entity is barely ten years old, a consequence of the 2003 Licensing Act becoming law in 2005 and enabling small premises to obtain the right to sell alcohol, and whilst they were initially few and far between, the last five years has seen an explosion in their number up and down the country.

There are over 125 such premises now in existence, premises that were once shops, offices or off-licenses, all given a new lease of life in a straight-forward no-nonsense and often very often cramped environment with no food or entertainment, united by the philosophy of 'Keep It Small, Keep It Simple'.

The Farmers Yard is the third micropub to open in Essex, The Hop Beer Shop and the Billericay Brewery Micropub being the other two, and like the latter is run by a brewery, with this one belonging to The Maldon Brewing Company.

I am fortunate enough to be able to attend many events where brewers are present, and indeed count a number of them as friends, however for the majority of drinkers contact with the people that actually brewed the beer in there glass is a rare thing indeed. There are certain beer festivals where this is possible, although often only on certain days, and the occasions of brewer-drinker interaction are generally seldom. We are fortunate in Essex that you can often converse with the brewer on a fairly regular basis, whether it be Ian from the Essex Brewery Company at a farmers market, Roland and Ethan from Brentwood Brewery when they open on a Saturday, or Trevor from Billericay Brewing at his brewery or micropub, and now Nigel and his son Mike in Maldon, you can go and share a beer with the very person who enabled it to be in your hand in the first place.

Situated at the lower end of the High Street, the Farmers Yard has a relatively plain shop-front, its green-on-white signage would be easy to miss, although it was drawing quite a crowd when I ventured inside on Saturday afternoon. Admittedly it had only been open a week and still could be considered a bit of a novelty from the locals but there was a real buzz about the place, with plenty of conversation and laughter, and I had to weave my way between the tables and drinkers in order to get to Nigel and order a drink. I opted for a half of one of Maldon's newest beers Ella, brewed unsurprisingly with Ella hops, and tasting very good indeed.

There's no bar here, only an open doorway with a till tucked away, with the beer served by gravity dispense straight from the cask on stillage in the back room, something that is a common feature of many micropubs. Whilst he was gone I took the opportunity to have a proper look around at the layout and my fellow drinkers.

Three high wooden tables surrounded by stools take up much of the space, and these were all occupied by what would be fair to say was an older crowd, and I mean no disrespect by saying that many of them fitted the oft-pilloried CAMRA activist stereotype. I had noticed that there were a number of beers available, not all from the Maldon Brewing Co. but other Essex brewers too, as well as local cider and wine by the glass. Occupying the whole of the wall opposite the door is a wooden shelving unit full of bottles of the latest Maldon brewery beers, and I purchased some bottles to take home with me, including a few of the strong Golden Ale, Xylonite, which I have earmarked to feature in the upcoming Beer O'Clock Show 'Essex Showcase' podcast.

I wasn't able to stay for too long on this visit , I had a pressing engagement elsewhere, so after a brief chat with Nigel (whose surname is Farmer, hence the name of the pub) I was on my way. I'll be back again soon for a pint or two, with plenty of time to sit and chat when I'm need to pick up some more of their bottled beer, and I'm confident it will be just as busy then as it will more than likely be on another Saturday afternoon.

There will be a second micropub opening on nearby soon, as Mighty Oak, the other brewery in Maldon have had permission to convert the vacant Pink Rose cafe at the other end of the High Street, and I'm looking forward to being able to visit and drink in both. Fresh beer, straight from two breweries to your glass in the same town served by the people who make it was recently the exclusive domain of the newer breed of city breweries. To be able to do have a similar experience in one Essex town was once the stuff of dreams, but by the end of the year this will be very much reality, one we can all drink to.

The Farmers Yard can is at:
140 High Street, Maldon, Essex CM9 5BX
Opening times:
Monday to Friday 11.00am to 2.00pm and 5.00pm to 9.00pm
Saturday 11.00am to 9.00pm
Sunday 12.00pm to 9.00pm