Words: Graham Brown
Guest writer Graham Brown goes on a tour of Oxfordshire’s Brakspear Brewery, courtesy of Ember Inns.
Beer. Love it or hate it, it’s part of being a Brit, like tea, HM the Queen and being only slightly obsessed with the weather. No we don’t drink it ‘warm’ (a particularly American misconception), nor do we freeze it to neuralgia-inducing levels of tastelessness. We like it at cellar temperature, around 12 C. Yes, we like it different shades of brown (or black), not road safety yellow. No, we don’t particularly like it being pushed into our glass by a blast of CO2, it should be pulled up from the barrel in the cellar by the barman’s careful pull on the handpump or Mother Earth can provide the gravity by which it falls from the tap on the barrel straight into the waiting drinking vessel of choice.
Before all this can take place though the beer must be created. Brewed. Crafted even, from the four ingredients that beer has always been made from. Malted barley, hops, yeast and water.
Brakspear brewery does this, ever since 1779 when Robert Brakspear started brewing Brakspear Bitter in the Cross Keys, Witney. A few years later he moved to Henley, where brewing remained until 2002. The brewery then moved back to Witney, into the Wychwood Brewery buildings around the corner from the Cross Keys, and brought a lot of their brewing kit with them – an operation which at one point involved removing a roof to get the fermenting vessels into place.
Today, the custodians of Robert Brakspears heritage are brewing around 7 million pints of Brakspears ales each year. We met Dave and Jeff, Senior Brewer and Head Brewer respectively, who showed us the works and the product. They have around 50 years brewing experience between them, an immense amount of stuff in their heads and tremendous love and enthusiasm for their jobs and the beers they produce.
We saw a 95 year old mill that still cracks 4 tons of malted barley per hour, the mash tun which Dave controls the filling of by hand, regulating the flow of liquor (water actually, but it’s never called that in a brewery) mixing with the milled malt to form about 5 tons of a delicious porridgey ‘mash’ which is then run off from the mash tun and pumped into the copper (basically a really big cooking pot). The hops are added to the copper and boiled for an hour. We saw different varieties of hops ready to dive into the copper and impart their particular bitterness. After the boil, the bitter sweet wort is cooled and transferred to the fermenting vessel. Yeast is added and goes to work on the sugars turning them into alcohol and creating a foam party like no other on top of the vessel, producing beer and carbon dioxide.
Consistency is the name of the game, there’s no point in producing the best beer in the world if you can only do it once. There are metrics these days for everything: the bitterness of the hops, the colour of the beer, the alcohol content (of course) and what’s in the water. The brewery tried drilling their own borehole once, reasoning that their own well would be a free water supply. About 95ft down water was hit. Great! Until it was analysed. It wasn’t consistent, one week’s analysis would be different to the next week. You can’t brew with that without a great deal of twiddling, so the borehole was left alone and Thames Water continue to supply their product to Brakspear to this day.
In the interests of research we carefully and inexpertly sampled Brakspear Bitter, 3.4%, Oxford Gold 4% and Triple III at 6.7% Bottles illustrated, although we sampled the cask versions of the first two beers.
Ordinarily the stronger the beer (i.e. the bigger % of alcohol it contains) the more you get out of it in flavour. The Bitter sits at a relatively modest 3.4% strength, known I think, as a ‘session beer’, one you could settle down with and spend a lengthy session with without killing too many brain cells. It’s a proper bitter, with way more flavour than I expected and the moreishness that keeps you coming back for, well, more.
The Oxford Gold contains more alcohol and has sharper flavours. We tried it, but unanimously went back to the Bitter. Nothing wrong with the Gold at all and if the Bitter hadn’t been on offer we’d have been perfectly happy working our way through the Gold.
And then Dave opened a bottle of the Triple for inspection. At 6.7% it’s not to be treated lightly, it’s dark, brooding and intense. Don’t make this your first taste of a beer ever, or your first beer of the night, but it will reward your taste buds later on, when they’re up to speed.
There is no right beer or wrong beer. There’s beer you like, beer you love and beer you just don’t fancy at the moment. Others opinions may vary and they’re no more wrong or right than you are.
Now, just because you’re a ‘wine drinker’ doesn’t mean you won’t like beer. In exactly the same way as there are grape varieties and regional differences in production methods, so there are variations in malts, hops, water and yeast strains. You might find a red that sings on your tongue or a white that repels, beers can do the same. Don’t take one sip of something beery in the pub one night, shudder and never go near a drop of beer again. Be bold, explore, experiment. Pubs that have more than a token handpump are usually happy to let you have a taster of the beer before you commit to a pint, half or third. If you don’t like the first one you try, explain to the barman what you don’t like about it and they will try to suggest one nearer to your liking. They’re salesmen, let them help you.
And in conclusion: Big thank you to Dave and Jeff for taking the time out of their evening to share and enjoy the beer and the brewing, and thanks to Ember Inns for arranging the tour. Here’s to the next 240 years, cheers!
Faye O’Brien, Ember Inns spokesman, said: “At Ember Inns we take the quality of our ales seriously. So much so that we pledge to always serve the perfect pour and that’s a promise. If a guest isn’t 100% satisfied with their pint of ale, one of our team members will be more than happy to make this right. It’s really important that we can quantify exactly what it is that makes the perfect pour and now we have the science to to substantiate up our claims. We serve over 70,000 pints of real ale every week, so it’s vital that we’re getting it right, first time, every time. That’s our promise to our guests.”
About Graham: Usually found in London, Graham is evangelical about beer, pubs, history, London. Purveyor of bespoke Beer Experiences for discerning visitors to London. Find Graham on Twitter or via his website, The London Beer Engine.