Column: Full steam ahead at Hook Norton brewery

Protz beer Mar 21

Protz beer Mar 21 - Credit: Archant

Fingers crossed, by the time you read this, spring may have sprung and you can consider a day trip without running the risk of getting stuck in a snowdrift. If you fancy a brewery tour followed by a glass of beer made in historic surroundings in a lovely part of the country, then I would recommend a short journey to the Hook Norton brewery in Oxfordshire.

To find it, you drive through the village of Hook Norton near Banbury, past rows of mellow stone Cotswold cottages, until you reach the Pear Tree pub. Turn right and you’re in Brewery Lane and suddenly, through wreaths of steam, you’re confronted by a tall and chunky brown building with an imposing chimney, louvered windows and a flag flying proudly from the roof.

The brewery is all about steam. Its driving force is a 25 horsepower steam engine that draws Cotswold water from a well to feed the brewing process. The buildings form a classic Victorian “tower brewery”, where the brewing process flows naturally from floor to floor without the aid of mechanical pumps.

Such key vessels as the mash tun and fermenters are made of wood and only the finest raw materials – Maris Otter malting barley and English hops – go in to them. And the finished beer is delivered to local pubs by horse-drawn drays with drivers who wear the obligatory bowler hats of the Victorian period.

It would be easy to dismiss Hook Norton as a relic or a laughable Walt Disney impression of “Olde England”. But it works. It owns 45 pubs and has an additional 300 other accounts. Its beers are widely available and its strong bitter Old Hooky brings tears to the eyes of connoisseurs.

The brewery was launched in 1850 by John Harris, a farmer who grew barley and made malt. He thought it would make good business sense to brew beer as well. His timing was perfect, as a new train line was being dug near the village and thirsty navvies poured into local pubs in search of refreshing ale.

When a company is so steeped in history and tradition, it takes a lot of thought to slot a new and daringly modern beer into the long-standing portfolio. But managing director James Clarke – a member of the brewery’s founding family – and his team sat down last year to design a beer that would be definably “Hooky” but which would reach out to younger drinkers.

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In common with other older breweries, Hook Norton’s sales team are well aware that sales of brown bitters are static or declining. It’s young drinkers who will maintain and drive the real ale revival and many of them want ales that are both pale and distinctively hoppy.

And so the Lion is now roaring in the Cotswold hills. It’s not just another golden ale. Lion is a pale bronze beer and it cleverly straddles the golden ale and bitter divide. It’s brewed with Maris Otter pale malt but with a dash of two darker grains, caramalt and crystal. The hops are all English: Cascade, Bramling Cross, Fuggles and Goldings. Bramling Cross is used as a “late hop” at the end of the copper boil, for additional aroma and bitterness.

The end result is a beer with a superb aroma of orange and lemon fruit with a touch of blackcurrant from the Bramling Cross hops, and pine-like hop resins and rich biscuit malt. Citrus and blackcurrant fruit build in the mouth, balanced by tangy hop resins and juicy malt. The finish is bittersweet, dry but not overly bitter, with tart fruit, cracker-like malt and peppery hops.

James Clarke and his team of brewers and marketing people are building on their beer range with Lion. They have stayed loyal to mild with Hooky Dark and have two renowned traditional ales, Hooky Bitter and Old Hooky. Their Double Stout is one of the best of the breed and proves that dark beers still find favour with beer drinkers.

The brewery has a spacious visitor centre where you can sample the beer range and take away bottles and polypins. Brewery visits can also be arranged:; 01608 730384.

You can’t beat a good beer and a time warp.

*Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the Good Beer Guide.