Revered for hearty traditional values and unwavering integrity, British Beer is finally rediscovering diversity – with a little help from Down Under.
For much of the twentieth century the British brewing industry was diluted by takeovers and shutdowns: there were around 1700 breweries in the late 1920s, but only 240 by the ‘90s.
A resurgence was kick-started in 2002 when the Progressive Beer Duty system introduced a volume-based sliding scale of duty; brewery numbers were back up to 767 by 2010.
Similar systems are found wherever the craft beer scene thrives* – but in Britain most of the new breweries have concentrated on producing traditional British pints and supplying the local trade rather than experimenting or testing boundaries.
Most small British breweries knock out half a dozen ales with relatively subtle differences, and some seasonal offerings, but some of the new guys are branching out. One such newcomer is Thornbridge Brewery, established in 2005 on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire. The Thornbridge range extends to 16 regulars ranging from the Kolsch-like Tzara and a superb ‘White Gold’ Pale Ale called Wild Swan, to the beguiling Raven, a black IPA, and St Petersburg, a Russian Imperial Stout.
Awards for this range have flowed freely – particularly for the flagship ale Jaipur, an almost eerily balanced IPA which packs a surprising 5.9% ABV.
Written all over the brewery, on the t-shirts of the staff and across their website is the marketing slogan ‘Innovation Passion Knowledge’ – after spending a couple of hours chatting with the brewers I can’t help think they should mention the people, too.
From the start the brewery backed young brewers with fresh new ideas. First in were Italian Stefano Cossi, later British Brewer of the Year, and Martin Dickie (who went on to co-found BrewDog). Neither had brewed professionally before.
Four years after its inception, the brewery – originally a quaint but poky affair in the outhouses of a country mansion – expanded into a nearby industrial unit on the edge of Bakewell.
The original brewery is still used for small batches and trials, but most of the output comes from the big shed near town. Filled with a high-tech lab, epic amounts of stainless steel, a bottling line and topped off with a sprinkling of loud music and young creative brewers Thornbridge’s semi-automated set-up is the antithesis of the antiquated wood brick and copper typical of the industry in this neck of the woods.
In the past couple of years there has also been a changing of the guard on the brewery floor. These days the two guys holding the metaphorical mash paddles (most operations are managed by computer controls) are Brewing Director Rob Lovatt, formerly of Meantime Brewing Company, and Production Manager Caolan Vaughan. They are supported by several other enthusiastic brewers and a total staff of 29.
Originally from Oakleigh, Melbourne, Caolan is just 27 but has already spent three years at Little Creatures Brewery, worked at Red Hill Brewery and enjoyed the occasional shift at Mountain Goat while studying brewing at Ballarat University.
Caolan reckons Thornbridge is the same capacity as the White Rabbit brewery in Healesville, Victoria, but there is a substantial difference in their range of products.
Caolan and Rob are unequivocal about where the future of British beer should be,
“Keg and bottled beer appear to a broader audience,” Rob said.
And they feel they can do more justice to their craft producing keg and bottled beer.
“We get better consistency and the ability to produce a better, more consistent product to the market,” he said.
On a tour of operations Caolan lingered over some of the more interesting equipment used to ensure this consistency: the Rolec Hopnik hopback, which serves to infuse late hop additions into the wort as it leaves the kettle, and the centrifuge beer separator they use to get the floaty bits out without losing the aromas and flavours.
Caolan’s time at Fremantle had a real effect on his brewing, and this experience appealed to Thornbridge.
“They hired me to help take them to the next level,” he said.
“Here at Thornbridge we have always had the luxury of being able to make any style of beer we want so in that respect we are incredibly lucky.”
“We’ve always had many brands but from the success of our new beers in the keg and bottle this would have to be the biggest change in our range.”
“Since I started at Thornbridge our core change has moved away from just making great cask ales to now producing specific beers in cask, keg and bottle that are influenced from American, Australasian and German styles.”
The approach is working, clearly – the brewery has become recognised as Britain’s first regional craft brewery and one of Europe’s leaders. No idling is allowed though – five new 100 hectolitre fermenters are on their way, along with a new keg line and nifty KeyKegs which make exporting easier.
Ah, yes, export. You may well ask how do we get a taste of Thornbridge in the antipodes? 2011 was the year of the Thorny Goat – a collaboration with Mountain Goat, but Caolan, will there be any more collaborative brews?
“Indeed, Dave from the Goat will be joining us later this year here in the UK to do our next collaboration together. You will have to stay tuned for more details…”
Thornbridge are also currently investigating shipping to Australia.
UPDATE: The Thornbridge range is currently available in Australia through Hop & Spirit Co.