Head brewer at the Hogs Back Brewery, Steve Brooks
Surrey breweries: the best of Surrey beer
Monday, September 24, 2012
Whether you fancy a firkin of Shere Drop, a polypin of Posh Pooch or just a bottle of TEA, there's an excellent choice of original beers to be had in Surrey. JANET DONIN visited a few of the independent breweries to discover the best pints
Ross Hunter of the Surrey Hills Brewery
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008
Whether you fancy a firkin of Shere Drop, a polypin of Posh Pooch or just a bottle of TEA, there's an excellent choice of original beers to be had in Surrey. JANET DONIN visited a few of the independent breweries to discover the best pints in the county
A hundred years ago, hop fields flourished in Surrey and many a local farmer would have his own brew bubbling away in an old barn. Today, just one hop garden remains at the Hampton Estate, near Puttenham, but there are several thriving breweries in the county, whose owners turned their dreams into reality and are now fermenting a host of quaffable ales with alcohol factors ranging from a pleasant 3.7% to a heady 9%.
Surrey's first independent brewery was opened by Dave Roberts in Woldingham some 16 years ago. Called The Pilgrim Brewery, because of its location half way along the Pilgrim's Way, it was quite a brave step for a man who'd previously been a private secretary in Whitehall's Welsh Office.
"I suppose brewing was in my genes, as my grandparents were licensees," says Dave. "My dream had always been to own my own brewery."
Their original signature bitter, Pilgrim's Progress, was so successful that within two years they moved to larger premises in Reigate. They now produce beers of all styles to suit all tastes throughout the year.
But it wasn't all plain sailing, however, as at that time, the same taxation laws applied to the small, independent breweries as to the big boys, making profitability a risky business. Feeling strongly about this, Dave became a prime mover with the Small Independent Brewers Association (SIBA), a pressure group that lobbied the government to allow pubs to sell guest beers and to get the tax paid by small breweries cut in half. Happily, the resultant differential tax system, designed by Dave and known as progressive beer duty, was approved by Gordon Brown in 2002.
"It was a lifesaver to the existing microbreweries," says Dave, "as it stimulated their further growth and encouraged them to produce quality new beers."
Thanks to SIBA and its close association with both brewers and publicans, 'new kids on the block' Chris and Suzanne Gill were able to turn their love of beer into a thriving business. Having successfully sold bottled beers at weekends in London's Spitalfields Market, they had to make the decision whether to run a bar or a brewery. "And the brewery won," laughs Suzanne.
Luckily, ten months ago, with the help of SIBA, they discovered Ascot Ales, their four-barrel brewery in Camberley, and quickly learned the business from the resident head brewer. "It was hard work but great fun," admits Chris, "and now we brew 30 firkins - about 2,000 pints - a week." Most of their beer is sold in casks to local free houses but some of their bottled beers also go to local stores.
Waylands Brewery in Addlestone is probably the smallest brewery in the county producing just over 1,000 pints of beer a week. It's owned by Scott Wayland who was previously a special effects model maker for the BBC. Scott had toyed with the idea of starting his own brewery but it wasn't until his work took a downturn last year that the time was right to start his own microbrewery in his garden studio. His first brew of Addled Ale went to the Happy Man pub in Englefield Green and was so well liked it sold out within 24 hours. Needless to say, Scott and his wife Lorraine haven't looked back since!
By contrast, the biggest independent in the county, the Hogs Back Brewery in Tongham, produces an impressive 50,000 pints a week. Co-founder Tony Stanton-Precious remembers precisely when they started. "Our first ever brew of 3,000 pints of TEA (Traditional English Ale) began at 6am on August 4, 1992, and immediately sold out through a handful of local pubs," he says with pride. That success was also recognised with the first of many awards from CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and still accounts for 75 per cent of their business.
However, brewing beer is not a glamorous business, as Ross Hunter of the Surrey Hills Brewery, near Shere, knows only too well. "It involves a lot of sloshing about in water and getting very cold," he says, as most of the work is cleaning the equipment between each brew. "It's very labour intensive so not at all romantic, but it is so worthwhile."
Ross got hooked on beer "when I was a toddler and my dad allowed me to have the occasional sip" but was persuaded to take up a career in IT. Eventually, in 1997, he got to live his dream when he found the former milking parlour at Old Scotland Farm right on top of the Surrey hills. Some of the barns and an old tractor still give character to the place, but the brewery's purpose built equipment enables him to brew about 7,500 pints a week. "We have a small portfolio of beers," says Ross, "but our most successful is Shere Drop. It's a nice drop of beer and has won CAMRA awards three years running!"
A question of taste
Assessing the taste of beer is a bit like describing wines, so much so that ale aficionados give the likes of wine critic Jilly Goulden a run for her money. The guys at the Hogs Back Brewery describe their HOP golden ale as 'a malty, pale golden beer with hints of banana and pineapple' while Scott Wayland sums up his Surrey Special as 'a dark and complex ale with rich chocolate and roast barley notes'; and Ross Hunter at the Surrey Hills Brewery says his Shere Drop beer has 'a subtle hint of grapefruit and lemon in the aroma'.
Such complex recipes often take time to evolve but, back at Ascot Ales, Suzanne Gill maintains that "brewing beer is a bit like making soup. You just add different things to get the taste just right. Today, we bought loads of golden syrup to add to our Double Trouble dark brown ale, which gives it a fantastic caramel aroma."
In the brew
The bottom line is that all beers are made from four key ingredients - barley malt, water, hops and yeast - but it's what the brewer does with them that makes the difference. Most of our local breweries get their barley malt from Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire, who have been in business for 150 years, while the water is available nearer to home. Thanks to Surrey's chalky hills, it's wonderfully crisp and clear, even from the mains, so it's ideal for brewing.
The Hogs Back is the only brewery to buy old-fashioned Fuggles hops, with their good aroma and bitter taste, from the local Hampton Estate. Most of the others buy from Charles Faram in Worcestershire who have a huge variety of hops picked from all over the Midlands, Europe and America.
When it comes to making beer, Martin Zillwood-Hunt of the Hogs Back Brewery says "brewing falls somewhere between an art and a science" - and it's striking the right balance that's the key. During the initial mashing process, the barley malt is combined with hot water, which converts the starch in the grains to natural sugars. This mix is then boiled and hops are added to give the beer its aroma and flavour. Finally, pure yeast is mixed in, which encourages the fermentation and converts the sugars into alcohol. Fermentation can take anything from four to ten days, although some brews have a second fermentation like champagne. Then the beer is cooled, allowing the yeast to settle, before it is transferred into casks or bottles.
Worth a visit
These days, most breweries welcome visitors, but at the Hogs Back you can do more than pick up the odd bottle or polypin of beer, you can experience the whole brewing process. The guide, Mel Rees, explains each stage while cracking numerous, if rather irreverent, jokes about Surrey men, and pouring generous glasses of their best beers. But at every brewery you visit, you'll find people with a passion for their business, which they are very happy to pass on to you.
The Taste Test
We spoke to Surrey members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) to find out their views on the county's top drops. This is what we discovered...
Ascot Ales: Double Trouble (5.4%)
An English take on a Belgian Dubbel beer. A smooth drinking, rich dark brown ale, with fantastic aromas of caramel and warming alcohol flavours. Excellent to warm you up with the onset of winter.
Waylands Brewery: Addled Ale (4.2%)
Addled Ale pays homage to its roots in the town of Addlestone, rather than the effect of drinking it! A pale brown best bitter, it has a very pleasant aroma. It can often be found in the United Services Club, Egham, which is a keen supporter of its local brewery.
Hogs Back: TEA (4.2%)
The brewery's flagship beer, it is a copper coloured best bitter with a good balance of hops and malt flavours. Available in many pubs and from the brewery's own shop in Tongham, this is a fine beer for a session with friends.
Pilgrim: Porter (4%)
A black beer with a good balance of dark malts giving a roast character with a bitter-sweet finish. Good at any time but comforting as the nights draw in. Pilgrim beers are increasingly available in east Surrey.
Surrey Hills: Ranmore Ale (3.8%)
This double award-winner at CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival is, like the brewery's flagship beer Shere Drop, pale in colour with lots of hop character. Although perfect for summer drinking, Ranmore Ale has enough flavour to be enjoyed all year round.
- If this article has given you a taste for Surrey beer, you can find out more about your local CAMRA group by calling 01727 798440.
Dave Roberts, founder and manager of The Pilgrim Brewery in Reigate
FIND YOUR LOCAL SURREY BREWER HERE (full feature to follow):
Unit 5, Compton Place Business Centre, Surrey Avenue, Camberley, Surrey GU15 3DX
Tel: 01276 686696
The Botanist Brewery
3-5 Kew Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AA
Tel: 0208 948 4838
The Crondall Brewery
Lower Old Park Farm, Dora's Green Lane, Crondall, near Farnham GU10 5DX
Tel: 01252 319000
Chris and Suzanne Gill of Ascot Ales
The Cronx Brewery
Unit 6, Vulcan Business Centre, Vulcan Way, Croydon, Surrey CR0 9UG
Tel: 01689 809093
Engine Shed, Dorking West Station Yard, Station Road, Dorking, SurreyRH4 1HF
Tel: 01306 877988
The Ball & Wicket, 104 Upper Hale Road, Farnham, SurreyGU9 0PB
Tel: 01252 735278
Hogs Back Brewery
Manor Farm, The Street, Tongham, Surrey GU10 1DE
Tel: 01252 784495
Scott and Lorraine Wayland at Waylands Brewery
The Leith Hill Brewery
The Plough Inn, Coldharbour, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6HD
Tel: 01306 711793
Little Beer Corporation
Unit 16 Enterprise Units, Moorfield Road, Slyfield Industrial Estate, Guildford, Surrey GU1 1RB
West Street, Reigate, Surrey RH2 9BL
Tel: 017737 222651
Surrey Hills Brewery
Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6AA
Tel: 01306 883603
The Tillingbourne Brewery
Old Scotland Farm, Staple Lane, Shere, Surrey GU5 9TE
Tel: 01483 222228
Waylands Brewery has moved to Dorset since the publication of the below article.
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