Picture yourself in a rain sodden Cumbrian village on an October Wednesday. This is power shower rain, drumming down relentlessly, with the kind of ferocious insistence that makes you wonder if you should start building an ark. Fortunately for us, we weren't seeking a cup of tea refuge from a tent or caravan, nor traipsing some God forsaken Cumbrian fell, but heading for a beery bright light in all the gloom, the Hawkshead Brewery Hall in Staveley.
I first encountered the building last year when judging beer at the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) North competition and was very glad to be back. It is in a somewhat unlikely location, just off the single main road, in an industrial estate, amongst all sorts of other odds and ends of business, in what is a small Cumbrian village, much as any other. It can probably be fairly described as a large metal shed. But this a actually a rather remarkable place. The brewery and hall are the brainchild of Alex Brodie, a former BBC Foreign Correspondent, who exchanged a life of danger, for the perhaps just as precarious, but less fatal career of micro brewing. He started out in Hawkshead itself, but soon outgrew his previous premises and moved here. It is very impressive. Belying its external industrial look, it is all light wood and metal inside, with benches and wooden tables and a warm atmosphere. The stainless steel, German built brewery is off to one side and can be seen through viewing panels. The barstaff are friendly and welcoming.
When we called Alex was in a meeting, so we sampled the beers on offer. There were five Hawkshead beers on the bar, but we all plumped for Windermere Pale, a 3.5% golden coloured hoppy ale, more of which later. Despite what might be thought of as a remote location, on a bad midweek day, the hall was fairly busy. Apparently it is packed at weekends. It also holds a couple of large beer festivals each year, which are always sell-outs. It is clearly doing something right. We marvelled at our beer. It was pale, golden, properly conditioned and clear as a bell. It packed in so much hoppy taste and wasn't, unlike a lot of weak beers, thin. It was superb. Hawkshead Bitter is its "big" brother. It's a proper light brown session beer, with a good body and an easy drinking style, through to a bitter lingering finish, weighing in at only 3.7%. We were to encounter it again many times in the forthcoming days and it didn't disappoint once.
When Alex joined us for a pint, we asked him about the Windermere Pale. It has a complex hopping regime he says, with Fuggles, Styrian Goldings and Bramling Cross among others, but it is the addition of the wonderful Citra hop that really brings this beer to your notice. Alex is brimming with energy and enthusiasm. Despite having a beer that would make other brewers weep with jealousy he says " I think we can squeeze a bit more flavour in." We discuss the Citra. He has bagged what he reckons is the lion's share of what is still available in the UK. A definite "A" for foresight there.
Nor is Alex a man to rest on his success. He takes us round the existing brewery, then through a plastic curtain to the large unit next door, which is being transformed into a brewery extension, further bar, kitchen and shop. No cobbled together job this, with hand crafted ash everywhere and in pride of place, two towering, gleaming, 75 barrel dual purpose fermenters/conditioning tanks, needed as they simply can't keep up with current and projected demand. It is very impressive. Heading back to the brewery we look at the brewing operation. After fermentation all the beers are held in conditioning tanks for three days. This allows the beers to mature a little and to drop out some more trub. It makes them astonishingly clear and clean tasting, while allowing a very healthy viable yeast count for secondary fermentation. It is this kind of attention to detail which makes the beer so good.
Back in the bar we try the remaining beers and discuss the forthcoming Great Northern Beer Festival, which Alex is organising from the SIBA end. I'm involved too. It's an ambitious project and I'm glad that Alex is the SIBA man. You just know he'll pull it off. He's that kind of person. As Alex heads back to work, we have a taste of the Organic Stout which impresses too, before braving the elements once more. By this time, the rain has reduced to a downpour and we head to the local pub for lunch. Of course Hawkshead Bitter is on the bar.
It really is heartening to see a brewery doing so well with what might be called mainstream beers. We encountered them all over Cumbria and it was easy to see why they are so popular. While there is always a place in brewing for innovation, extremes and odd ingredients, there can still be success to be had by making beers that aren't too strong and that people want to neck by the pint. Long may it remain so. Alex is second left with the "boys".
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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