Thursday, 31 July 2008

Turning water into beer

Turning my back on wine for once, this week it’s all about beer – specifically beer brewed in Surrey. And by beer, I’m not talking about pale, fizzy lager either, but real ale, which is, in many respects, England’s national drink.

Making real ale is, at its most basic, a simple process, mystified in part by the arcane language of the brewer. With apologies to the more knowledgeable amongst you, here’s my Bluffer’s Guide to brewing. Malted barley is put into a tank, or mash tun, with hot water (known as liquor) and mixed. The water, or wort, imbued with the flavour and sugar from the barley, is drawn off then boiled up with hops, which give it a distinctive bitter flavour. Yeast is added (“pitched” in the lingo) to provoke fermentation, whereby the sugar in the liquid is converted to alcohol, resulting in the finished beer. The skill of the brewer is in selecting the type of malt used, say Maris Otter or Golden Promise, the level of toast for the malt, from lightly roasted crystal malt to dark brown chocolate malt. There are also various hop varieties to choose from: Fuggles and Goldings are popular choices. And of course they have to produce the same taste over and over again.

Within living memory, most English towns would have had a local brewery, producing beer to their own recipe, which was drunk in the local pubs. But times have changed, the majority of the local breweries have shut down, their operations taken over by a smaller number of large scale brewers like Marston’s and Greene King. Our tastes have changed too: we’ve moved onto lager, cider and – dare I say it – wine. We’ve also moved away from the habit of spending the evening down the local and downing a few pints, instead drinking at home, in restaurants and gastropubs. All this means that the market for real ale has been contracting in recent years.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. While the overall market for beer and real ale is shrinking, within it a relatively new group of small-scale, artisan brewers has sprung up and they are doing rather well. There are five active breweries in Surrey (plus a couple of pubs who brew their own beer) who are carving out a niche for themselves primarily by supplying free houses: those pubs not tied to a brewery or pub company and who can choose to stock whichever beers they like.

The senior member of the small club of Surrey brewers is David Roberts of Pilgrim Ales, based in the centre of Reigate. Pilgrim have been going since 1982 and their beers are sold in a range of free houses through something called the Society of Independent Brewers’ (SIBA) Direct Delivery System. This scheme allows small-scale brewers to deal with pub chains and retail outlets by streamlining the ordering and delivery process for both brewers and the pubs and shops involved. David is slightly coy about revealing where his beers can be found – but look out for his Burden Pale Ale, a light-coloured, crisp beer with a slightly smoked flavour.

The newest arrival on the Surrey brewing scene is Ascot Ales, based in Camberley. Chris and Suzanne Gill started brewing just before Christmas 2007 but have already enjoyed success with their range of typically light, hoppy beers, influenced by their love of Belgian beers. For summer drinking Suzanne recommends Alligator Ale, an American pale ale which is light, refreshing and hoppy. You can find Ascot Ales in branches of Waitrose and Threshers – both organizations who are making efforts to provide outlets for local producers. They are also to be found in independent free houses including The Barley Mow in Shepperton, the Albert Arms in Esher and the White Hart in Tongham.

Scott Wayland started his Wayland’s Brewery in Addlestone not long before the Gills, first brewing last July. His “one man band” outfit is nevertheless successfully supplying beer to 22 local outlets, mostly within a 10-mile radius of the brewery. A full list of where to find Scott’s beers is on his website,but includes The Wheatsheaf and Pigeon in Staines and The Happy Man at Englefield Green. Scott’s summer drinking recommendation from his range is Blonde Belle, made from 100% lager malt which makes for a light and refreshing ale. The more adventurous could try Martian Mild, named in honour of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. At 3.8% abv it’s light in alcohol, but full of flavour.

The aptly-named Surrey Hills Brewery is located on a farm outside the village of Shere. The owner, Ross Hunter, gave up a career in IT project management (I’m bored just writing that) for the excitement of brewing. His first brew was on Friday 13th May 2005 – but luckily for Ross, it was a success and Surrey Hills has gone on to win numerous awards for its range of beers. Currently they are brewing to capacity and produce 7,000 pints of ale a week, so this is definitely still a small-scale, hand-crafted operation. I can vouch for the drinkability of Ross’ beers, as they are the supplier of beer to my children’s school fair. For the summer, Ross recommends their speciality summer ale, Gilt Complex, which is a pale golden, thirst-quenching hoppy ale. Their regular Ranmore Ale is also a good option at 3.8% abv, described as a “session beer”.

The Hog’s Back Brewery is the biggest fish in the small pond of Surrey brewing. To put things in perspective, they produce around 48,000 pints a week compared with Surrey Hills’ 7,000. Founded in 1992, they are probably the most well known of our local breweries. As well as supplying a long list of pubs, including Wetherspoons’ Herbert Wells in Woking, they have also been successful in getting their beer on the shelves of Waitrose, Threshers and Budgens. Despite being a small and friendly operation, they show plenty of marketing savvy, with a well-stocked shop on-site, liveried delivery vehicles and regular tours of the brewery. Their recommended summer tipple is Hop Garden Gold: hoppy, as a the name suggests, an aromatic, citrussy ale.

If this has given you a taste for experimentation, then a beer festival could be for you and most of the Surrey breweries will be at one of these two this year. The daddy is CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival, running from 5th – 9th August at Earl’s Court in London. Closer to home, the next big local event is the Woking Beer Festival, 7-8th November at Woking Leisure Centre.

You can find out more about each brewery, their beers and where to find them via their websites:

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