Monday, 4 October 2010

Hawkshead Brewery

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".


BeerReviewsAndy said...

Im a big fan of the Hawkshead beers, especially the Windemere Pale, It was my regular drink during the Lakeland stint of the coast to coast walk. Like you say it packs a punch and has great body for such a low ABV!

Velky Al said...

"Picture yourself in a rain sodden Cumbrian village on an October Wednesday."

Sounds good to me!

Leigh said...

I can't agree with your last statement more. Hawkshead have consistenly been on of the UK's brewers of quality, tasty beers, and they do what they do really, really well. Brodie's Prime and Red are my faves. Will keep an eye out for the Windermere. REALLY want to take the trip up there now.

Kelly Ryan said...

Agree about the beers, brilliantly brewed and guaranteed to be a taste sensation. Lakelang Lager was my favourite beer from a festival we held at the Coach and Horses and both the Red and Brodies Prime are two of my favourite cask beers. Awesome brewery and great to see another Kiwi head brewer doing some amazing things!


Tandleman said...

Hope he's not going home too!

Oblivious said...

I am a massive fan of Hawkshead beers, lakeland gold and Hawkshead bitter are some of the best beers on cask I hvae tried.

An a love brewery bar to visit too, not to be missed if you’re in the Lake District

"packs a punch and has great body for such a low ABV!"

First pint I had I thought it was a 6% beer!!!

Erlangernick said...

Windemere Pale was the best beer of our trip to Lancs a year ago, though we encountered it only once, at the very start of the trip. The Bitter we encountered later seemed a bit rough in comparison though, I didn't like it as much. But I'm willing to try it again.

Citra, eh?

pdtnc said...

Its a very nice place up there, have to go and see the new Brewery Tap sometime.
I'd say the yeast strain is foremost when producing a clean tasting beer rather than the conditioning tanks.
We have the same brewery kit at Saltaire, beer is in the fermenters for about a week then cooled in steps to drop the yeast out and transferred to the conditioning tanks where it allows more yeast to drop out, the later finings addition when racking the beer to Cask clears the beer further to give you the lovely bright pint you get from the pub :)

Tandleman said...

pdtnc Agreed about the yeast. I wasn't suggesting that the conditioning tank was the sole reason, but it sure helps.