This week The Bigger Bite concerns itself with consumption of a more liquid nature. Popularity of real ale is finally back on the rise after years of near fatal decline. Ale was driven almost to extinction by the introduction of carbonated lager but partly thanks to the formation of Camra, Campaign for Real Ale, in 1971, that most British of beers has gradually redeveloped a large market. A craving for independent and local produce, as well as a spread into younger demographics has been vital to the revival, and it is fantastic to see full-flavoured ales from all over the country back on shop shelves and behind pub bars everywhere today.
In Oxfordshire we have in the Hook Norton Brewery a place that really does produce a fine pint .On a personal level a jar of Old Hooky has always been my tipple of choice, however I must admit that I have always been fairly ignorant of the processes behind the production of real ale. I was eager to learn and a trip out towards the Cotswolds seemed a very pleasant way of spending the afternoon.
The Victorian tower brewery, near the village of Hook Norton, has stood the test of time having started business in 1849. Similarly remarkable is the fact that the brewery is still in the family – the current owner, James Clarke, is the great great grandson of the original maltster James Harris. Only 31 independent family run breweries exist elsewhere in the UK today.
The brewery tour is hugely informative on the bare bones of beer making, but it also allows you drink in the history of the place. At Hook Norton economic progress has not dictated the development of the brewery. One of the first things we were shown was the gigantic steam piston, housed in the basement. We were informed that it had only recently been relieved from duty, having been proudly maintained for many years despite the technological advances of the outside world. The piston had been the sole source of power since the beginning, but its dwindling efficiency when compared to more modern energy options had made it no longer viable. The regretful attitude of the tour guide towards this was indicative of the traditionalist romance that the place exudes. The brewery is not interested in sabotaging its essence in preference of mass production – shire horses still drag ale-laden carts to the pubs they supply, I even saw a Hooky cart and horse, miles from home, clip-clopping down Broad Street in the centre of Oxford recently.
A tour takes around two hours and is hugely revealing. One leaves Hook Norton feeling rather enlightened as to how water, yeast, malted barley and hops are turned into the russet ale we find in the pubs. Beyond that, the various processes that define both colour and taste in different beers are illustrated, and the guest is invited to interact by tasting each whole raw malt ingredient.
The tasting session afterwards at last allows you to get your lips on the stuff, and we were taken through the full range of beers; Hooky Gold, Old Hooky, Hooky Bitter, Hooky Dark, Haymaker and Double Stout to name just a few. If you don’t have to worry about driving, as I didn’t, you can quite easily leave feeling tipsy and content.
This tour comes heavily recommended. And don’t be repelled if it all sounds a bit geeky! The brewery sits in a beautiful old building in a very pleasant part of the countryside. Full of tradition and respect for the old ways, those deflated by the corporate nature of modern day food and drink production will feel like they are in a very special corner of Oxfordshire, and indeed England, for the afternoon.
This article appeared in the Oxford Journal on November 28, 2011.