Pat’s Pints Picks – Britain’s Best Breweries

At this time of year it’s customary to publish best of lists.  In past years I have published a list of my favorite Central Ohio beers, but this year I’m going in a different direction.  As many of you know I recently returned from an 11-month sabbatical in Northeast England.  Many people have asked me what were the most memorable breweries I visited during my stay?   This is my attempt to answer that question.  To keep the length of my ramblings manageable I’m going to break the list up by country.  Today’s post focuses on Britain where I spent the bulk of my time.  Look for follow up posts on Belgium, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Like many lists the selection criteria are totally capricious.  Obviously, the choices are limited to places I visited, and contrary to the impression you might have gotten from social media I did not visit every brewery in Europe.  Among the subset that I did visit, the picks are based entirely on my tastes and dependent upon my mood and company when I visited.  I’ve included hyperlinks to full-length posts on breweries where applicable for anyone who would like to dig a little deeper.

Even though I’m fully re-assimilated into American culture, my memories of a year spent living in England are still vivid.  The architecture of soaring cathedrals and ruined monasteries; verdant hills full of grazing sheep; the drama of the World Cup and the anachronism of the Eurovision Song Contest; a rail network with a ticket pricing structure so Byzantine that it puts the airline industry to shame; Russian spies with deadly nerve agents; curry houses and chip shops; watching 1980’s era Top of the Pops with my daughter on Friday nights; and that most venerable of British institutions, the pub.  The pub is deeply entrenched in the fabric of British social life, and Brits are reluctant to forego the cozy character of a good pub to sit on folding chairs in an unheated industrial space, with good reason I might add!  So, while Britain has over 2000 breweries, about twice that of the USA on a per capita basis, most do not feature a taproom nor offer regular tours.  I visited scores and scores of pubs (possibly the subject of a later list), but the number of breweries visited was modest, roughly two dozen.  This makes the task of selecting my favorites somewhat easier than it would otherwise be.

Old Peculiar
A pint of Theakstons Old Peculiar at the Black Bull in Paradise.

Theakstons

When we wanted to show visiting friends and relatives a traditional British brewery, the go-to spot was always Theakstons.  Located in the scenic north-Yorkshire market town of Masham [1], Theakstons is a rare example of a surviving Victorian tower brewery.  The brewing process starts on the top floor where the mash tun is located, and each subsequent step in the brewing process occurs one floor lower so the wort can be transferred by gravity.  Brewing finishes in open fermentors, so closely associated with the region that they are called Yorkshire squares [2].  The brewery and much of the equipment dates to the 1870s, so a visit to Theakstons offers a rare glimpse of how beer was made in the 19th century.

Theakston Mash Tun
The mash tun at Theakstons.

Theakstons offers brewery tours 3-4 times daily throughout the year (click here for details).  The tour finishes in the Black Bull in Paradise, an on-site pub that serves the full range of Theakston’s real ales from wooden casks.  The beers are a showcase for the rich flavors of British malts, perfectly balanced by classic British hops.  The importance of the soft creamy mouthfeel that one gets from cask ale dispensed through a beer engine cannot be overstated.  If you pushed me, I’d have to say the pints of Old Peculiar [3] I had at Theakstons were quite possibly the best beers I experienced in the UK.  The bottled version of Old Peculiar is a pale shadow of the fresh beer poured from a wooden cask at the brewery.  The differences between the two are comparable to drinking a bottle of Guinness, (one without the nitro widget), and a pint of Guinness poured from a pub in Dublin.

Theakston Cooperage
Theakstons employs a full time cooper and you can peer into his workshop from the Black Bull in Paradise pub.

For most of its 190-year history Theakstons was an independent brewery, but in the 1984 they were acquired by Blackburn-based Matthew Brown.  Three years later that brewery was acquired by Scottish and Newcastle Brewing in a hostile takeover [4].  Dissatisfied with the direction the company was taking, Paul Theakston left the company and started rival Black Sheep Brewing in 1992.  That venture has thrived, and Black Sheep is now one of the largest brewers of real ale in the north of Britain.  In 2003 the remaining Theakston brothers (Simon, Nick, Tim and Edward) bought the brewery back.  The upshot is that tiny Masham presents an opportunity to visit two of Yorkshire’s most distinctive breweries, run independently by different branches of the Theakston family. After you finish the Theakstons tour and a few pints at the Black Bull in Paradise head over to Black Sheep for a hearty meal and more pints of Yorkshire bitter.

Theakstons Brewery
An exterior view of Theakstons.

Hook Norton

If you want the full experience of a Victorian tower brewery there’s arguably no better place than Oxfordshire’s Hook Norton.  There are many parallels between Theakstons and Hook Norton.  Both breweries were founded in the 19th century, both are family owned, both are located near regions of the country known for their natural beauty, the Cotswolds and the Yorkshire Dales, respectively.  If anything, the majestic six-story brewery at Hook Norton is the more visually striking of the two.  It also has a few features that set it apart from Theakston’s, the most impressive being a 25-horsepower steam engine that can still power the grist mill and pump grain and water to the upper floors where the mash tun resides.  Though it’s not used on a daily basis, they still fire the steam engine up on the first Saturday of each month.  Another unique feature of the Hook Norton brewery is a coolship on the top floor.  Unlike Belgian and American brewers who pursue the capricious art of spontaneous fermentation, Hook Norton’s coolship is simply for cooling the wort before pitching yeast.  In a 2005 article for All About Beer Magazine, Roger Protz called it unique among British breweries, and I’m inclined to take Roger’s word on it.  Though still operational, the coolship is now only used on rare occasions, which is a pity.

Hook Norton Coolship_v2
The coolship at Hook Norton.

The beers at Hook Norton are all very traditional.  No beers were stronger than 5% abv, and several were below 4%.  They are balanced and made from high quality ingredients.  I was partial to Hooky Gold, a 4.1% golden ale with zesty, fruity hop notes.  Like Theakstons, Hook Norton runs several tours daily (click here for details), but the tasting room where the tour finishes didn’t seem to be used as a working pub in the way it was at Theakstons.  Hook Norton runs about 3 dozen pubs in the area where you can seek out their beers.

Hook Norton Draft Horses
They still use shire horses to deliver beer to pubs within a five mile radius of the brewery.  One surprising thing I learned during the tour was that at one point in time large dogs were used to pull the beer wagons.

Traquair House

If you’re of the mind that the 19th century is recent history, then Scotland’s Traquair House Brewing, located in the Scottish Borders 30 miles south of Edinburgh, might be more to your liking. Before the industrial revolution estates and manor houses in Great Britain ran their own breweries, and Traquair House is a rare example of an old-time estate brewery still in operation.  Not continually mind you, brewing operations were mothballed for 150 years until 1965 when Peter Maxwell Stuart, 20th Laird of Traquair, stumbled across the old brewing equipment in a junk room.  Having entirely too much time on his hands he decided to relaunch the family brewery.  It’s not every day you get a chance to visit a brewery whose copper brew kettle dates to 1738!  The Russian memel oak fermentation tuns are the centerpiece of the tiny brewery. Primary fermentation in these “open” fermentors lasts approximately five days, demonstrating once again that open fermentation does not equal sour beer.

Bear in mind that this isn’t the kind of place you go to throw back a few pints with your mates.  The manor house, which is only open from April through October (and weekends in November), is more museum than pub.  When we visited, I contacted the manor ahead of time and they were happy to arrange a personal tour of the two-room historic brewery.  The tour finished with rather small samples of the various Traquair House Ales in the gift shop.  To get a proper pint of this venerable Scottish ale your best bet is the Traquair House Inn in nearby Innerleithen.

Traquair House Tun Room
The Russian oak fermentation tuns at Traquair House as seen through a window from the old brewhouse.

Steam Machine

Traditional breweries like Theakstons and Traquair House are undeniably interesting for a beer tourist like me, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I missed the craft beer taprooms of Central Ohio.  In that regard I was lucky to find a home away from home early on; the small but mighty Steam Machine Brewing in the otherwise not particularly memorable town of Newton Aycliffe, a few miles north of Darlington.

Steam Machine Brewing takes inspiration for its name from the historic Stockton and Darlington Railway.  Opened in 1825 to carry coal from the mines east of Durham to Stockton upon Tees, where it was loaded upon ships for wider distribution, it was the world’s first steam powered commercial railway.  Steam Machine Brewing is located in an out of the way industrial park, fittingly occupying a space that once housed the boiler responsible for heating the entire complex. On my very first visit I literally couldn’t find the brewery using Googlemaps, and had to call to get directions for the final steps to the beery nirvana.  Their motto should be hard to find and even harder to leave.

Steam Machine is run by chemistry teacher turned brewer Nick Smith and his wife Gulan.  On my first visit Nick took time out to make my wife and I feel at home.  At the time I thought it might be because my American accent and love of craft beer, and while those attributes may have been a factor, I soon came to realize that everyone who visited his taproom was treated that way.  Nick’s conviviality rubbed off on his clientele, who were exceedingly friendly and welcoming.  Another factor is the cozy common room, which consists of a makeshift U-shaped couch made from wooden crates and cushions arranged around a wood burning stove that is the only source of heat in the winter.  Every time we visited the Steam Machine I met and talked with new people, and I can almost guarantee that you won’t stumble onto any tourists.

Nick’s idea of craft beer American-style goes beyond the IPA-centric interpretation you find in many UK craft breweries.  Yes, you can find west coast, hazy, fruited and brut IPAs, but you can also find lagers, abbey ales, saisons, hefeweizens, and roggenbiers.  My favorites were undoubtedly the strong malty beers like the decadent Treacle Toffee Stout and the delicious small batch Belgian Quad.  Nick has a love affair with tea that matches his infatuation with beer (and sea shanties too, but that’s another story).  Tea infused beers like Tea Time (an amber ale infused with Earl Grey) and Lapsong Souchong (a smoked porter infused with a smoked black tea of the same name) were regulars in the taproom rotation.

Nick_Brewkettle_Steam Machine
Nick Smith checks on a boil kettle at Steam Machine while assistant brewer Phil Norman looks on.

I left Britain with a treasure trove of memories, but some of my favorites took place at Steam Machine.  I’ll never forget attending a tasting of extremely old beers.  This was no wimpy vertical of beers going back a decade, most of these beers went back to the 20th century, one was brewed pre-WWII.  Sadly most had aged about as gracefully as Axl Rose, but what a fun night it was.  It was particularly memorable to meet the iconic British beer writer, Roger Protz, who traveled up from the south for the event.  Another fond memory is brewing a small-batch beer with Nick, a Belgian triple aged on bourbon soaked oak cubes. It’s reassuring to note that it sold out in one weekend at the taproom.

Among the wave of American-inspired, British craft breweries many are larger than Steam Machine, and a few make excellent beer on a more consistent basis, but nowhere in my travels did I encounter a brewery that so perfectly married the innovation of American craft beer culture with the hospitality and community spirit of the British pub.

Steam Machine Crew
Relaxing after a night of drinking 20th century beers at Steam Machine.  Left-to-right Tom Smith, yours truly, Glenn, Nick Smith, Mark Richards and Ash Horner.

Cloudwater

Among the great brewing nations of Europe, the influence of the American craft beer movement is most evident in Britain.  It’s not stretching the truth too far to say that finding a hazy IPA in Britain is almost as easy as tracking down a good cask bitter.  So it wouldn’t be an accurate snapshot if I didn’t include a one of the über popular new breed of British craft brewers, but which one?

Roosters (est. 1993) in Knaresborough, outside of York was one of the first to make beers that showcase new world hops, but they are only open to the public on rare occasions.  BrewDog has undoubtedly been the most ambitious, and regardless of your opinions on BrewDog you have to concede they have changed the landscape of British beer.  Not surprisingly their headquarters near Aberdeen are humongous, including both the Lone Wolf distillery and the Overworks sour beer facility.  Wild Beer Co. in Bristol is one of the most prominent to focus on sour beers and incorporation of unconventional ingredients.  Their bar on the Wapping Wharf in Bristol occupies a great location, and shouldn’t be missed if visiting Southwest England.  Marble Brewing in Manchester started in a historic pub oozing with character, and even though beers are now made in a nearby railway arch the Marble Arch Inn still serves as their taproom.  It could well take the prize for best brewery taproom in the UK (I might add they serve a mean fish pie). Wylam Brewery, housed in the elegant Palace of Arts Newcastle’s Exhibition Park, might be the best at making hop-forward IPAs and Pale Ales on cask.  Then there are breweries that I did not get to visit, like Magic Rock in Huddersfield and The Kernel on the Bermondsey Mile in London.  I would recommend a visit to any and all of these breweries, but for this list I’m going to go with Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co.

With an ever changing lineup of one-off beers, a preference for premium priced 16 oz cans, and an embrace of hazy hop-forward styles, Cloudwater have embraced the Tree House-Trillium-Alchemist-Other Half approach to brewing to a greater extent that any other brewery I visited in the UK (but they are hardly alone in that approach).  They offer tours of the brewery on Saturdays.  When I visited in January 2018 the taproom/barrel aging facility was in a nearby railway arch.  Since that time they’ve opened a larger (presumably heated) tap room next door to the brewery, as well as a London tap room on the Bermondsey Mile. If you want to delve deeper into that side of British brewing, check out my story on Cloudwater from last February.

Cloudwater Mandarina Helles
A pint of Helles Mandarina at the Cloudwater barrel store/taproom.

Check back in a few days for my Best of Belgium picks.

Footnotes

[1] Like most place names in Britain Masham is not pronounced phonetically.  It sounds more like massum.

[2] Yorkshire squares were historically made from Yorkshire sandstone, but the fermentation vessels at both Theakstons and Black Sheep are now made from stainless steel.  Additionally the vessels at Black Sheep are round, which I’m told makes cleaning easier, but they don’t fit my image of a Yorkshire square very well. During the early stages of fermentation wort is periodically pumped from the bottom of the vessel and sprayed onto the yeast krausen that tops the beer.  How’s that for fermentation practices that would give American brewers the night sweats.

[3] A Peculiar is an ecclesiastical court that has legal jurisdiction over a town instead of the nearest Bishop/Archbishop.  As you may have guessed Masham has a peculiar.  Old Peculiar beer is one of Britain’s best known ales.  It is unusually strong for a British beer (5.6%), dark amber with ruby highlights from the use of crystal malts and roasted barley.

[4] In 2008 Scottish and Newcastle was purchased by Heineken and Carlsberg.

 

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