Hook Norton Brewery, Oxfordshire
If you haven't worked it out already, these days the Beer Voyage lads are primarily city dwellers. However, earlier in the month we managed to escape to the country and found ourselves heading to rural Oxfordshire for a buddy's birthday celebrations (happy 30th Jabo!).
We were staying in the picturesque village of Hornton for the weekend and for someone who rarely sees greenery, this village was seriously beautiful, a quintessential English village with thatched cottages and surrounded by rolling hills. Not far away from Hornton was the village of Hook Norton, home to Hook Norton Brewery (surprisingly) which we were fortunate enough to be visiting as part of the birthday celebrations.
We floored it through the country lanes and made our booked tour with time to spare. Hook Norton Brewery is probably best known for producing Old Hooky, a Best bitter that's been made since the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977! Founded in 1849, this is a traditional Victorian tower brewery (where each step of the brewing process flows from the top floor to the bottom) and the heritage was all around to see. The brewery has a small museum full of vintage brewing equipment and photos from days gone by illustrating their history. Our a tour of the brewery was scheduled for 11am and was followed by a session of beer tasting... early bird catches the best beer, right?
Starting in the gift shop and bar area we met our excellent tour guide (big up Monty!) who gave us an in depth tour of the workings behind the brewery. Hook Norton are continuing to maintain their heritage and it's interesting to hear how they are doing this and continuing to compete with other newer breweries. The brewery has preserved a lot of their original equipment however some of this has gone out of use in recent years due to cost and degradation. Where necessary they have upgraded to shiny new equipment to keep up with the game. They've also recently added an micro-brewery which churns out some more experimental brews. I was impressed to hear that they had continued to use some of the original Victorian brewing equipment up until to the last ten years - the brewing process was still powered by steam until 2006!
As well as seeing all of the equipment housed in the brewery we were also schooled on the ingredients that go into making beer. Monty took us through the different types of malt, how they are processed and how they contribute to the character of the final product. We were also schooled on the types of hops used at Hook Norton and how to identify quality hops - Fuggles Goldings and Challenger were on display in copious amounts.
One unique aspect of the brewery that hasn't changed is the delivery of beer by traditional horse and carriage to the local villages. We even got to see the stables and meet the shire horses! Not just a brewery, but a petting zoo too. Just don't get too close to the horses as they are big, ripped bastards.
Now the important bit, as the tour concluded we went to the brewery gift shop and bar for some well-deserved beer tasting. Monty explained the proper etiquette to beer tasting and then dispensed some generous thirds for us to try. First up we tried some of their core range including Hooky (3.5%), a traditional English bitter, Old Hooky (4.6%), the classic premium bitter, and Golden Hooky (4.1%), a golden ale. The best of these was Golden Hooky with its refreshing zesty flavours. As part of the tour group, we were all encouraged to guess what we could smell and taste the beers. It was interesting to see what people picked up and Monty explained that older, male palettes often picked up less than younger people and women. Our taste buds are probably annihilated from consuming massive amounts of over-hopped beers but we did reasonably well at identifying the flavours.
We were free to try anything we wanted at the bar which had a couple of casks on tap and three on keg. Monty stayed with us to discuss tasting notes and make recommendations. On tap, they had a couple of the breweries more experimental range from their microbrewery including Mane Tail (3.7%), a golden blonde ale, and Heather's Hooky (3.7%), a solid citrus pale ale. Also on cask was Crafty Ales 172 (7.2%), a strong beer brewed to celebrate 168 years of brewing. It was supposed to be 6.8% to commemorate the 168 years but came out stronger so they simply changed the name, talk about making the best of a bad situation! As this was still before midday it was a bit too strong for me... From the keg range we tried Red Rye (4.7%), a gorgeous looking rye beer, ruby red in colour and packed with fruit although perhaps a bit too sweet for my destroyed palette.
Once the tasting was over and the tour group had left we stayed behind to have a couple of extra drinks including the Merula Stout (4.2%), a smooth, pleasant stout, which seemed perfect to end a varied beer tasting session on. The folks at Hook Norton were also kind enough not to charge us for the extra beers we had once the tour had finished, bonus! Big thanks to the Hook Norton staff for the tour which was both boozy and educational. If you want to visit a traditional brewery in England I would highly recommend Hook Norton. I can't imagine there are many breweries like this left that combine brewing heritage whilst staying relevant in a competitive industry.