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British beer has both strong traditions and big regional differences. Melissa Cole tours the country to meet the brewers who are putting a modern spin on their local classics
Beer and culture are intrinsically linked; in fact, you can almost chart the outside cultural influences to reach our shores by the changes in the way beer has been brewed or sold over the centuries. OK, that may be a bit of an over-simplification, but it certainly makes for some good stories.
For example, did you know that beer used to be brewed by women, or brewsters, until industrialisation? And that it’s likely that they made it at the same time they made the bread, since both products are made from the same basic ingredients?
Or that pub signs are rooted in a tradition of putting up poles with woven wreaths of leaves on top to signify a new brew was ready? Or that hops weren’t introduced to this country until the 15th century, and that it took about 300 years for nearly all beers in the UK to be hopped? Beer, in other words, is in a constant state of evolution.
Interestingly, one of the major changes over recent years has been how drinking beer with food seems to have fallen out of fashion. Granted, when beer was being brewed in the Middle Ages it was actually more akin to food, packed with protein and carbohydrate, but when filtering and hopping became more prevalent, different regional styles of beer grew up to become the perfect accompaniment to local foods.
So for this feature, I caught up with five local brewers from around the country to see how they are adapting, or revisiting tradition – and what sort of food they would put with their brews.
When David Gladwin decided he wanted to go back to basics and brew organically, he headed for the Highlands and started the Black Isle Brewery.
The Black Isle is actually a peninsula, rather than an isle, that sticks into the North Sea above Inverness. It’s an area rich in brewing history, and when Gladwin was renovating his 18th century
home, Old Allangrange, he actually discovered the remnants of an old brewery.
He also unearthed the fact that Sir Roderick McKenzie, the first man to take down a statistical account of the area, said the earth ‘yields a much greater quantity of grain that is sufficient to support the inhabitants, and which is found to be of superior quality to the brewer.’
Gladwin has now become so successful from his original vision to brew great organic beers that he is building a new brewhouse, and has plans to grow his own organic barley to feed his own herd, just as it would have been done historically.
He explains: ‘We want a sustainable agricultural model, to grow the barley, to feed the stock with the draught and the stock will fertilise the ground on which we grow the crops.
‘I can’t wait to sit down to a pint of Black Isle with a Black Isle steak, both of which have been produced on my lands organically,’ he adds.
Classic: Black Isle Scotch Ale (4.5% abv), brewed with a bit of smoked whisky peat malt and bog myrtle (a traditional flavouring), with a chargrilled Aberdeen Angus steak. RRP £1.95/50cl
Contemporary: Red Kite (4.5% abv) which is an amber ale, paired with a haunch of venison, accompanied by rowanberry jelly, new potatoes and chanterelles. RRP £1.95/50cl
Monty Python may have portrayed Yorkshire as the working man’s county but don’t tell the Lancastrians or you’ll have a riot on your hands, says David Grant of Moorhouses brewery.
‘Around the East Lancs area in particular we traditionally have much hoppier beers because of all the coal mines. When the miners came out of the pits, where they’d been inhaling coal dust all day, they wanted a very hoppy beer, because that’s all they could taste. So breweries in this area produced something akin to IPAs in terms of hop value, but lower in abv.
‘And where there were also mill towns - like Preston, Accrington and Wigan – and the dust from the cotton was very drying so those workers wanted a drink they could have lots of and that was mild – low in abv and with very little hops in them.
‘Of course the other factor was that – because of all the heavy industrialisation with these industries, other factories and the shipyards – the water wasn’t brilliant, so beer was a lot safer to drink as the water gets boiled during the brewing process.’
Classic Lancashire Hotpot with a dark gravy would suit Moorhouse’s Black Cat Mild (3.4% abv), but a hotpot with light gravy (an important difference, apparently) would go better with Pride of Pendle (4.1% abv). RRP £13.19+vat/ 12x50cl
Contemporary Pendle Witch (5.1% abv) with roast Goosnargh duck and puréed Tarleton cauliflower. RRP £14.78+vat/12x50cl
Justin ‘Buster’ Grant may not be Welsh by birth, but his adoption of the local brewing customs and keenness to embrace all things Brecon is truly admirable. A keen beer historian, Buster has
researched much around the Welsh brewing heritage and is currently brewing to some historic recipes in aid of the Brecon Beacons National Park,
as he explains.
‘The Temperance Movement had a significant effect on Welsh brewing, which is why you still get a lot of Welsh low gravity beers,’ he says. ‘They also tended to be significantly darker beers around 3-3.4% abv, and would have been originally brewed in the late 1800s early 1900s.
‘One of the historic recipes I’m brewing currently is Brown Ale, a slightly smoky, 5% abv beer, which I discovered by talking to some people from the Brewery History Society, and the rest of the information came from a fellow brewer who had some old recipes.
‘In contrast to those darker beers, there’s a lot of lamb and Welsh black beef farmed around the Brecons and they probably would have been eaten historically with beers like the Welsh Pale Ale I’m brewing at the moment, which is almost a golden mild, at 3.7% abv.’
Classic Red Dragon (4.7% abv) with Welsh wild pheasant stew. RRP £14/50clx12
Contemporary Spirit of the Dragon (6.7% abv) with a warm smoked trout, leek tart and a wild watercress salad. Draught only. Spirit of the Dragon 01874 623731
Brewing to regionally historic recipes, it seems, is something that’s becoming increasingly fashionable, and one of the men at the forefront of this trend is Alistair Hook at Meantime Brewing.
While the company’s India Pale Ale is heralded as one of the most historically accurate brews available, and often used to beat Greene King over the head for its pale imitation, you get the feeling that the London Porter is Hook’s real passion, in light of its local roots.
‘Porter is the London beer style and we, as a London brewer, really wanted to go back and explore the origins of that style for enjoyment of the drinking public,’ says Hook.
‘Our recipe from 1750 has seven malts, specially chosen to bring out the flavours so loved by Londoners, that made London the brewing capital of the world.
‘They say this style of beer was called Porter because it refreshed and energised the street porters who worked through the night in markets like Billingsgate, Smithfield and Covent Garden to ensure we had fresh food the next morning.
‘For most people Porter was food – at the very least the staple food of most Londoners would have been oysters and Porter. In fact it was said in the 1800s that you couldn’t walk the streets of London without crushing oyster shells underfoot.’
Classic Meantime London Porter (6.5% abv) with Colchester oysters.
Contemporary Meantime London Porter (6.5% abv) with a Valharona chocolate mousse and cherry compote.
RRP £3.69/75cl Meantime Brewing 020 8293 1111
There’s an old radio jingle that you may remember: ‘turn it up and twist the knob off’. Well it’s what passed for humour in the 80s and 90s – which kind of sums up Hall & Woodhouse’s recent quest to replace the county dish of Dorset, the unfortunately named Dorset Knob.
Unsurprisingly, since it’s about as appetising as it sounds – a dry biscuit-type bread roll – the brewers of Badger beers decided they didn’t want their beers associated with it. So they went on the hunt for Dorset’s new dish.
‘Our history goes back to Charles Hall who founded the brewery in 1777 to provide nourishing refreshment for his farm workers, and we thought it was awful that this great history was associated with such horrible food, so we launched this competition to find a new county dish,’ say the brewers.
‘We’ve been on a mission to link beer with local produce as either an ingredient or an accompaniment and it was continuing that mission to put our beer, and Dorset, on the map.
‘The winner, which was voted for by an illustrious panel of judges, was the Dorset Apple Cake.’
Classic Badger First Gold (4% abv) with fresh baked trout, buttered new potatoes and greens. RRP £1.59/50cl
Contemporary Blandford Fly (5.2% abv) with Dorset Apple Cake (the beer can also be used as an ingredient). RRP £1.75/50cl www.hall-woodhouse.co.uk
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine September/October 2007