A Beery summer or a summer of Beer?

As I arrived at the Brewery and parked up this morning, you could have been forgiven for forgetting it is July – the van parked next to me had frost on it.  Frost on 31st July is pretty unusual, and not helpful to the tourism trade!  August tomorrow, and we haven’t seen a lot of Sun.  But that hasn’t stopped the festival season, which seems to be in full swing, and our resilient nation braving the less than warm temperatures.  It has made handling beer at outside events a bit easier, but I would rather warmer weather, and the challenge of refrigeration, because that means people may be drinking more.

There is an annual music event in Hooky, and this year for the first time we hosted it here at the Brewery.  I have said before, for me the word festival is important, and events need to be multi-faceted, and not just one dimensional.  So we decided to have a wider beer range, and I was actually humbled when we realised just how many we could offer when beers from our micro brewery were included.  But wanting to really have a broad offer, we also procured beer from Turpin’s Brewery in Hook Norton, and CATS Brewing from Shenington.  Some asked why we had what could be seen as competitors beers at an event at the brewery; but I like to think of myself as a self effacing sort of chap, and the range we offered was well received, a great variety, and with a total of 18 different beers available, offered a fantastic choice.  Some people even took a different interpretation to the old “Challenge 18″ scheme, but I can’t possibly comment, as we all know Big Brother gets concerned when we exceed the 4 unit threshold; happy of course to collect the duty and VAT, but got to be seen to be responsible.  Not that the revelations in The Sun last weekend showed responsibility at Government level, as I am not sure how many units of Coke make up the recommended guidelines.  But back in the Cotswold Hills, we had an excellent festival, with a great choice of local beers, and every drop was sold.  Cooled beer, kept in a refrigerated truck, and with proper cask cooling – that’s something  we are quite good at. Beer festival

Hook Norton Festival of Fine Ales is now a firm date in the beer calendar, and this year was a record 130 beers, all donated, and over a very pleasant Saturday, the lot was drunk.  Each year the event gets better.  It is organised by a volunteer committee, and we assist with logistics and technical support.  An early delivery on the Friday morning, and by 8am, 130 firkins were sat settling, with in line cooling, ready for the big day.  I had printed off a beer list, made notes the night before, and started well annotating my notes, but as ever my discipline faded during the evening, and then I lost my notes.  A great event, and there will be a huge amount of money raised for charity.

And last week, one of my favourite events; a relatively new one to the scene, but the Birmingham Beer Bash is a really intimate friendly event, with an excellent range of beer styles.  Some quirky beers, some quite extreme flavours, but a great opportunity to introduce people to more beers.  Notable ones were a Burning Sky sour, a Beavertown beer with tea in it, and some Ballast Point canned and bottled beers.  A really fun and informative day, with great company in John Romer from Turpin’s Brewery, Mark our new Marketing Manager, and my son George.  We couldn’t leave Birmingham without a pint in the Wellington, so finished my evening with an Oakham Citra.

So we may still be waiting for the sun to join us, but in the meantime, we have had some fantastic beery experiences, and more to come I hope.


As the summer seems to be slowly trying to make it’s way to us, I did my usual thing and bought a classic car magazine, with that boyish idea of an old soft top sports car for the summer.  Completely wrong time, as the market strengthens when the sun shines, so I really must get organised to look at this in January, when it is cold and wet, and cash is tight, and there may be some less expensive cars for sale.  But looking through the classifieds, there were a number of adverts offering part exchange, with the letters  WHY.  Not why, but what have you.  At the recent PMA Beer Innovation conference in Birmingham, there was a presentation on marketing by a very successful brewer, and the WHY featured heavily.  You must have a WHY before you build the strategy, and this struck a real chord with me.  My WHY is beer, and then pubs, family, tradition (yes, tradition, but in a respectful rather than expectful way) and enjoyment.  Beer is that great social drink, and what we are seeing in the market know would have been pretty difficult to predict.

Is this the reason why?

Is this the reason why?

Our Pilot brewing plant has been operational since the Autumn, and boy have we had some fun!  Learning, and of course playing, has led us along a wonderful path of sights, flavours and aromas, and on occasions even sounds, as we try new ingredients and ideas.  Monthly a range of beers are presented at the Brewery for sampling, and we managed a first last week, with six out of the seven beers being a crafty ale.  Beer no 7 was Hooky Gold; developed in 2006 as a seasonal beer, using Willamette hops, we proudly boasted that it was the first Hooky beer to use American hops.  Stupid boy should have done his homework, especially as we have all of the old brewing ledgers to refer to.  in 1908 we were using US hops, as the UK supply was not sufficient for the pale ale demand.  So last week we had new beers, we had old beers, we had a 9.5% old ale, we had a pleasant evening.  Above all, it was fun to present in one evening what was probably in our past, a repertoire which would have spanned decades.  This is our WHY.  We have beer.

who remembers this???

who remembers this???

Thinking back a few years, our experimentation was quite limited; we did the odd special beer, but nothing like the range we can now attempt to brew.  So the WHY really is the beer.  But beer in all it’s glory.

A pint with my son at The Lampet Arms. Doesn't get much better than this

A pint with my son at The Lampet Arms. Doesn’t get much better than this

One of the best WHY experiences was Monday evening.  A quick stop at a free house in a local village – a free house that had been closed for a while, but has now re-opened, and serves good beer in a decent environment with friendly staff; not rocket science!  George who recently turned 18 enjoyed a pint of Hooky, I was recommended a pint of Hooky Gold.  If I ever wonder WHY, I think about  moments like this.  So WHY? What Have You?  Great beer, in a great village pub,  an experience to treasure.

If you really want to learn about our WHY, then come and see us, and share in it.  There’s beer in them Cotswold Hills too!


How do you judge a beer?

The International Brewing Awards, formerly known as the Brewing Industry International Awards, have been running since 1886.  Colloquially known as “The Brewing Oscars”, they are unique in that only practising brewers are allowed to judge.  Which always makes me think about the word “practising”; should you worry about a practising doctor, and where did the name GP come from?  But I guess we are always practising, as we are always learning.  Anyway back to these awards, held this year in the Brewing town of Burton upon Trent.  30+ brewers from 16 different countries assembled here in the depths of February, for the judging of over 800 beers.  The criteria for judging is commercial acceptability, and beers are judged by consensus and discussion, rather than just point scoring.  With such an array of styles now in the beer market, and boundaries being pushed, it made for a very interesting few days.  Purist European lagers up against well hopped American ones; session ales with drinkability versus ales with lots of hop; dark beers with chocolate; barrel aged beers with a symphony of aromatics.  It was hard, but a pleasure, and having been fortunate to judge at these awards in 2011 and 2013, it really did show how the whole beer scene is changing so much.  We know this from experience, and frequent consumer research, but I never cease to be amazed.  My father always said there is no bad beer, just some is better than others.  The specialist Belgium beers always cause an eyebrow to be raised; in the past, I think I may have brewed the odd beer that was more reminiscent of a gueuze, but the British public at the time weren’t ready for this sort of flavour from a handpull.

The opportunity to sample and judge these beers with professionals from around the world is something I will treasure forever.  This competition is also unusual in that there are not specific style guidelines – we are not hampered by beers having to be of a certain IBU, alcohol, or other analytical standard, but what we feel is commercially acceptable.

So how and who should judge beer?  It will of course always have a large element of subjectivity, but by learning, sharing ideas and knowledge, and knowing something of the market, hopefully some great beers were duly awarded medals.  There are many beer competitions, and everyone loves to win a medal.  Especially when it has been judged by professional brewers, even if they are still practising.

I came away with a number of new ideas, and our Pilot Plant has been working hard since then; the challenge is to get some sort of order, as we could happily brew and brew and brew, and still have new ideas.   People may be drinking less, but more people are drinking beer, so I will keep up the practice.

The Bermondsey Mile

As a recent milestone approached, I decided a cultural fact finding mission was appropriate.  So the Bermondsey Mile (or part of it) was duly selected.  I have watched with a mix of awe, amazement and sheer astonishment as the London craft beer movement has developed, and been replicated in other places.  Out have gone any previous limitations, and we have such a range of beers available.  I am a bit old school, in that as much as I love trying different beers, I generally like it to be moreish, and I do still enjoy a few pints of session ale, in a pub, where the conversation flows as richly as the beer.  So wrapped up warm, we headed off into Marylebone, then Hooky at Borough Marketacross to Borough Market for some blotting paper, as some stronger than average beers were anticipated.  Good to see a range of Hooky beers on sale there.

The first Brewery stop of the day was to the famous Kernel Kernel Brewery

Brewery, as they close at 2pm on a Saturday.  The place was packed, and we queued for a good ten minutes, but there was a great relaxed atmosphere – a bit like rural pubs on a Friday night, or like rural pubs on a Friday night used to be.  The beers were listed by style, served in half pints, and we opted for six beers between the four of us, ranging in alcohol, 7.3% being the strongest.  Well, it was my birthday.  Bench seating in a cold railway arch, drinking cloudy, strong beer; but everyone was loving it, there was a real buzz.  I have always loved this sort of seating arrangement, none better than in Munich, where it just forces people to talk to each other, which is such an important part of drinking in pubs and bars.  Made me think of the empty vaulted cellar beneath the steam engine at Hooky, and what we could do there…….

We moved on to The Bottle Shop, sampling beers from Beavertown, Siren and Pressure Drop.  I had visited Pressure Drop last summer to look at their brewing kit prior to us ordering our pilot plant, so it was good to be reacquainted with their beers.Inside bottle shop

Brew by Numbers, Anspach & Hobday and Bullfinch were next in line, though it may not have been in that order.  One of the defining sights of the day was visiting craft brewers in new premises under railway arches, with people drinking inside, and also sat outside on wooden pallets drinking and socialising; and yet opposite was a boarded up pub, still with some garden furniture outside, at which people were sitting drinking beers from the new brewers.  I am sure that not many years ago, this pub would have been busy on a Saturday afternoon, with people drinking international beer brands, yet here they were drinking artisan craft beers, and each seemed to be trying a different beer.  The peer pressure here wasn’t one of brands, but one of exploration.

Closed pub on Bermondsey mile

By now we were feeling the cold, so made the short walk to the Draft House on Tower Bridge.  This is a real favourite pub of mine, with a well chosen and wide ranging beer choice.   A pint of Camden Town Pale Ale for me,  varying drinks for the others.  The pub was buzzing, with a great mixed and friendly crowd, just as I can remember pubs being on a Saturday some years ago.  So what did this pub have?  Warm, clean, friendly environment,  and good range of well served beers.  Just what the five of us needed after a tough day.  Note the three chaps sporting varying degrees of facial hair.

Inside Draft House 5 of us

So what is Craft Beer all about?  What we saw, and enjoyed, was a genuine people day.  Yes some great beers, pushing the boundaries, and the somewhat ubiquitous (at times) use of American hops with gusto, but above all a great fun day.  Five people, all choosing, savouring and drinking different beers, including one lady who would probably not normally have beer as her first choice, but really enjoyed all we sampled.  On trying to remember where exactly we had visited and in what order, I was reminded by one of my sons that somewhere along the line we also visited a gin distillery, and one of the biggest street food markets I had seen.

Back in the shire I was able to round off the evening with a couple of pints of cleansing cask ale.  A birthday to remember, a huge range of beers sampled, and the best thing was waking up on Sunday feeling on top of the world.

Next time you have a free Saturday, consider the Bermondsey Mile.  There are a couple of web sites giving details, you will have a great day out.  We did.   With thanks to Jo, Dan, Lucy and Lewis for a sensory day to remember. And apologies for the sideways pictures, that was me.

Hook Norton Brewery shortlisted in Publican Awards 2015


Hook Norton Brewery was delighted to have received the news that they have been shortlisted in the prestigious Morning Advertiser Publican awards (commonly regarded as the Oscars of the Pub Trade), in the Brewery with Pubs category. Although the results will not be announced till March, judging has already begun, with the Brewery playing host to Pete Brown the renowned beer writer last Friday.   Visit our website for the full story!

The House of the Rising Sun

Rising Sun brewing

Ben briefing Mike, Laura and Robin on the brewing process

The Sun Inn in the centre of the village of Hook Norton has been owned by us for well over 100 years.  It is an unusual pub, in that it was originally semi-detached with another pub, The Red Lion.  In 1990, The Red Lion was put up for sale by Bank’s Brewery, and so the site was acquired by Hook Norton, and plans drawn up to merge the two pubs.  In 1992 the newly enlarged and refurbished Sun Inn was opened by Jenny Pitman, legendary race horse trainer.

We make haste slowly at Hooky, but the time had come for a makeover at the pub, to improve the facilities, and open up the trading areas.  Work continues apace, with a reopening later this week.  As the pub has necessarily been closed for a few weeks, three of the staff have been working here at the brewery, redecorating most of the internal areas.  It was during their time here that we commissioned our new pilot brewery.  So it was only natural that we should offer Mike, Laura and Robin the opportunity to brew a bespoke beer ready for the reopening of The Sun Inn.  So Rising Sun is brewed and now in cask, and will be available from Thursday 27th November, when The Sun Inn re-opens.  A fresh, modern take on a classic style, brewed with an international array of hops, this beer reflects the passion of the staff, and the exciting new look of the pub.  Limited edition, try one while you can!

Mike and Robin mashing in

Mike and Robin mashing in

From Russia with love

The team who presented at the conference, together with some of the delegates and ZIP staff

The team who presented at the conference, together with some of the delegates and ZIP staff

So the chance of a trip to Russia, to present on the subject of cask ale brewing. An opportunity not to be missed. So an eclectic group met at Heathrow in early September, for a weekend in Belograd, working with ZIP Brewing. ZIP manufacture a range of brewing equipment for the craft sector, and there is a growing interest in Russia in the British style of brewing, and in particular cask ale. After ordering a coffee in one of the departure lounge bars, which never arrived, we boarded our flight to Moscow. Four hours later we transferred to a smaller plane for the hours flight to Belograd where the conference was being held. This is quite close to one of the Russian borders, but we were assured we would all be quite safe, just don’t mention certain subjects. A short bus transfer to our hotel, dinner and a couple of beers, and an early night in preparation for the conference.

We had all sent our presentations over some weeks in advance for translation, and as we delivered these they were translated sentence by sentence. I was quite glad to not be on stage until the second day, giving a chance to see how it should be done, following the example of our Chair of the Guild of British Beer Writers Tim Hampson.

There was a clear passion from the brewers present, and craft is certainly alive and well in Russia. Explaining some of the idiosyncracies of British brewing was a challenge, such as single infusion mashing, secondary fermentation, and generally warmer fermentation temperatures. Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius (my normal answer to the question “what is that is centigrade” is to reply “we only brew in Fahrenheit”) was required, as were hectolitres, kilogrammes and so on. Quarters and bushels just caused further confusion. What was very clear was the passion and appetite to learn more.

A gala beer dinner was held after the first day of the conference, in a huge restaurant/bar/nightclub, with a capacity of 1,200, and a brewery on the top floor. And what a brewery! Installed by ZIP, a fully automated brewhouse, and 48 20hl Dual Purpose vessels. Hygiene standards were the highest I have ever seen; lab coats and hair nets, and overshoes. Seeing our host put overshoes on her Laboutin shoes proved that no one was exempt. A range of eight different beers were brewed there, and dispensed direct from conditioning tank. No distribution costs or worries here! Despite being a beer dinner, there was obligatory vodka, which we managed to be fairly abstemious over until about the third course. Hospitality second to none, and a fantastic range of well brewed beers.

The second day of the conference I was reminded of the fact that if I didn’t drink, when I woke up would have been the best I was going to feel all day. But the day improved, and many questions were asked, as well as being invited to visit two different breweries to undertake some collaboration work.

So the largest country in the world is well to grips with craft beer. Some of the delegates had travelled further to the conference within their own country than we had travelling from the UK. And some of the breweries were producing unfiltered unpasteurised beer with a two week shelf life, and still managing effective distribution in this huge country. Despite some language barriers (I found French seemed to be a mutual tongue) it was a fantastic trip, very enlightening, and great to meet so many like minded people. I look forward to a return visit; so far it is looking like Siberia in February.

thank you Tim, Derek, Andreas, Don and Ed for your company, and Anna and all at ZIP Brewing for inviting us and looking after us so well.

That was quite a week………

August is becoming a big time in the beer world calendar.  Not only is it the month when the great British Beer Festival takes place, but there are now a whole range of events, some but not all centred around the GBBF.  The GBBF is well established, and a legendary event.  We used to take a stand there, and whilst hard work, it was a great way to connect with a lot of people.  But as cost control becomes ever more important in a business, we haven’t taken a stand for a few years now, and indeed this year there seemed less brewery stands than last year.  The GBBF is a great showcase for cask ale in terms of available beers, but then when you look a bit deeper, it does court controversy.  Foreign keg products are allowed, but not UK ones; no, I don’t understand this either.  It will be interesting though if Scotland vote yes, will we see West beer in keg from Glasgow at GBBF? or BrewDog?  We shall have to wait and see.  If they are allowed in, as they would be foreign beers, it would probably be the only positive part of a yes vote.

The evening prior to GBBF is when Simpsons Malt host a technical dinner, which includes a harvest update.  Once again there were a number of brewers from overseas, and it is always great to share ideas.  The harvest is looking good, so one less thing to worry about for those who forward contract.   This event was at The Guinea Grill in London,  great Youngs pub.  It was here a few years ago that a brewery boss gave his take on beer and food “four pints of bitter, followed by a nice bottle of claret”.  If only life was that simple, beer sales would rocket, and it would be around balanced, flavoursome sub-4% beers; but that takes thought and care, as hops need to be weighed out, not volumetrically thrown in until there is room for no more……… and with four pints before dinner, we could forgive the wine.

Tuesday morning saw a few beers at The Hand and Flower, before crossing the road to Olympia.  We had pre-issued trade tickets, so admission was seamless; apparently not quite as seamless for some journalists who hadn’t pre-registered; yes we know they should have had tickets, but there is a bigger picture in a big wide world out there.  We need these people on our side, working for us.  So perhaps if this happens again, rather than seek to refuse entry, maybe, just maybe, we could thank these people for coming, buy them a beer and encourage them to write even more positive things about our national drink.

Wednesday morning was a visit to the Russian Visa office, to get my visa for an overseas trip.  30 minutes in and out, very well organised.  After lunch, judging the finalist beers at the World Beer Awards.  This was held in august surroundings of the Honourable Artillery Company.  What was quickly apparent was that we were presented with some fantastic beers.  A range of 12 dark beers was outstanding, and made choice difficult.  It was very apparent that most of these beers had been well brewed and well packaged, and quality was high.  A couple that weren’t were disappointing.  It was probably packaging, as the beers had made it through the earlier rounds, so those samples were clearly in good form.  Always a shame when this happens, but it happens too often, where insufficient care is taken with bottling.

I had hoped to make the London Beer Festival as well that week, but ran out of time.  We did manage a pint at the Bell Inn, Adderbury; call me biased, I probably am, but a pint of bitter with a lasagne is a simple pleasure for me.

Hooky at Bell Adderbury

The weekend also saw the Banbury Food Fair, and after a busy week, this was delegated to the younger generation.  Promoting the beers to a wide and varied audience, with a little assistance customer side, and sporting the latest line in brewery attire, Lewis and George had an interesting day.  Watch out next year, we will be running a drinks theatre.

Ready for the crowds at Banbury Food Festival

Ready for the crowds at Banbury Food Festival

The Russia trip mentioned earlier was memorable, and watch out here for more!  And I may have cracked the photo thing – pictures may be the right way up next blog, and I won’t be leaving it so long; I am the proud owner of an iPad.



For Queen and Country

Baton at edgehill

me (right)  Suzanne and Alan (centre) with two serving personnel at The Castle Inn, Edgehill, taking a break from running, and a cheeky beer

We hosted our licensee awards at the Brewery once again this year, and it is amazing how much character the old buildings have, and how they are actually very versatile. So the shop was cleared, and the old maltings turned over to a banquet layout. It had seemed a shame to undertake all of this work for one event, so on the day follwoing, we hosted a formal dinner, in aid of Help for Heroes and Bomber Command Memorial. Air Vice Marshall Malcolm Brecht was our guest speaker, and was excellent. I had first met Malcolm when he was in OC 99 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton. We kept in touch as he moved around the world in a variety of postings, and were delighted he was able to join us. A special late hopped beer, Centennial IPA, was produced, using English and American hops, to symbolise the military covenant; this was particularly appreciated the next day, as it reduced the port consumption, which we were all thankful for. We were lucky to have the local Air Cadets from Banbury and Chipping Norton undertake the waiting duties, and what an outstanding job they did, a credit to themselves, their parents and their unit.

A small donation was made to the cadets, which was presented by me at their annual review. Here I also met Major Jeremy Burman, OC of Banbury Army Reserves, who asked if I would like to take part in the Armed Forces Day in Banbury.  This year it would involve a trooping the colour ceremony, as the Banbury unit has moved form a signals squadron to a Logisitcs role. Saturday 28th June was not the best weather, as it poured down all morning. But what a show put on by all of the military personnel, and it was an honour to be a part of the inspection party. After the ceremony, it was back to the town hall, where several dozen bottles of Hooky were lined up to refresh us, accompanied by an endless supply of Cornish pasties; a most welcome beer and food pairing after such an event.

The Baton is a charity raising awareness of what our military do and the risks and challenges they face. The Baton has an annual run, and this year it was from RAF Brize Norton to the National Memorial Arboretum. It was a priviledge to be asked to run a leg with them, the run being a continuous relay starting at 1800 hours form the back of a huge C17 aeroplane, and running through the night. Running with Alan Rowe, founder of The Baton, Suzanne Dando, a patron of the charity, a serving Royal Marine and a serving Dutch soldier was poignant, particularly as we stopped at the repatriation bell in Carterton, to pause, reflect and respect.

I have always admired our armed forces, and it was a priviledge to be involved in these various events; as we rightly remember the First World War, never forget the continued operations we are involved in; not from a political point of view, but from men and women serving their country. You all have my utmost respect.

A Brewer’s Musings