Meeting the drink producers of Alresford

Harvest time at Hattingley Valley Vineyard © The Electric Eye Photography

Harvest time at Hattingley Valley Vineyard © The Electric Eye Photography - Credit: © The Electric Eye Photography

Let’s drink to Alresford, home to brewers, gin distilleries, and winemakers…

Quietly, gradually, the Alresford area has evolved into a Hampshire drinks’ hub. When did that happen? To discover more, I hopped on a Grape & Grains Tour, organised by Joel Eastman, providing a taste, quite literally, of Hampshire.

This is a new venture set up by Joel, owner and guide, who has an outsider’s passion for the area. He grew up in Sydney, although his wife Kirsty comes from a village outside Winchester, hence his relocation.

Back in Australia, Joel had worked in the wine industry and his father had himself run wine tours in the Hunter Valley. With this background, an awareness of the increasing importance of food and drink tourism, and an appreciation of what Hampshire has to offer with “very green and beautiful scenery, lots of character, great wines, fabulous gin distilleries and wonderful food”, Joel established Grape & Grain Tours. The intention is to offer visits to food and drinks producers and tastings in a very similar way to those in European and Australian wine regions.

Joel added: “I know my father was pleased when I told him what we were going to do.”

Alresford is the first Hampshire area on his new schedule of tours, taking in award-wining vineyard, Hattingley Valley, in Lower Wield, a craft brewery, Itchen Valley Brewery, in New Alresford, and Winchester Distillery, next to the waterbeds in Old Alresford.

The coach journey was peppered with insights and information from Joel – such as a brief history of hops in Hampshire. Did you know that once upon a time more hops were grown in Hampshire than Kent?

The lush countryside unrolling beyond the window revealed not only field and hedgerow, but another crop increasingly being planted, in effect replacing hops: vines.

Tracy Nash of Hampshire Fare, the county’s food and drink group, whose members include not only Grape & Grain Tours, but all the producers we were scheduled to visit on the tour, has explained that Hampshire’s ‘terroir’ (i.e. the natural environment, including topography, soil and climate for growing wine) is similar to that of the Champagne region - perfect for the production of quality English fizz.

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We stopped off at one of Hattingley Valley’s picturesque vineyards on a south-facing slope with views across to the Watercress Line, Alresford’s heritage line, where Rebecca Fisher of Hattingley Valley was on hand to explain that although it is a rather glamorous type of farming, it is temperamental with vines easily affected by weather conditions.

Then it was on to a tour of the winery with this year’s harvest bubbling away (forget the wine, bottle that wonderful aroma – eau de fizzette) and a tasting of four different sparkling wines including crisp, well-balanced Classic Reserve, fragrant sparkling rose and their very first demi-sec that at the time of our visit hadn’t even been labelled let alone launched.

Rebecca said: “It’s a really revolutionary time at the moment and we’re fortunate at Hattingley to be at the forefront of innovation in the English wine scene.”

Although the hops are long gone, craft brewers thrive in the area; after all Hampshire was home to the very first craft brewery (although at the other end of the county in Ringwood). Joel had another interesting fact – one of Hampshire’s most famous residents was a brewer: Jane Austen. In a letter to her sister, she related that she was making spruce beer. But, as Joel explains: “Back then in the 18th century the water wasn’t great and it was safer to drink beer.”

We headed to Itchen Valley Brewery – not such an attractive location as it’s located on an industrial estate in New Alresford. Established for some 20 years, they brew the likes of Hampshire Rose, a golden, hoppy bitter, Pure Gold, a malty bitter with a hint of caramel, and seasonal brews, such as Watercress Best, using watercress from just down the road and available in January.

We were shown round by Assistant Brewer Dominic Roberts – who gave a lesson in making beer. This involved tasting the different malts (one sweet and toasted, the other dark chocolate coloured and more bitter), followed by an explanation of the process. In brief this involves from hopper to soaking malts in the mash tun, then into the copper, where hops and yeast are added and the temperature turned up, followed by fermenters where the brews bubble away. Then the ales are cooled and transferred to conditioning tanks in the cellar with spent grain going (very usefully) to local cattle as feed.

Then to Winchester Distillery which started, as the name suggests, in Paul Bowler’s Winchester kitchen, using the local water. Eventually, after copious experimentation, “It was batch 84; it was like, this is it, it’s now or never,” remembered Paul, he created Twisted Nose gin using watercress. The name is a reference to the Latin for watercress as well as, Paul joked, his own nose – due to a fight he lost when he was 15. The result is a refreshing gin with a light peppery finish.

As the company has grown it has moved and moved again – this time to premises positioned right beside Alresford’s watercress beds – for fresh watercress direct from the beds.

Our tour included sight of the original distiller, surprisingly small, as well as the current distiller, still surprisingly small. However, the gins are themselves still only produced in small runs, and bottled and labelled by hand.

We sat in a room like an apothecary’s with its jars of botanicals. Here, Paul creates concoctions, including a range of seasonal gins, and we tasted (amongst others) Winter Wassail, warmed with spice and Bramley apple. The very latest addition is Winchester Dry Gin – launched in the Great Hall in Winchester and using 25 Medieval botanicals – one for each seat at King Arthur’s round table in the Great Hall.

More sips and slurps and then back on the coach to be dropped off at the station. That is the best thing of all with a tasting tour of ale, fizz and gin – no driving to worry about.

Full of beans

Established in 2004, Moonroast Coffee’s location in Chilton Candover, near Alresford, is for no other reason than that this is where the family live. Owner Francis Bradshaw says: “I’m not sure why Alresford is such a good area but I’m very glad it is. Hampshire as a whole has become a beacon of and an inspiration for artisan food production.

I started my business here because it’s where I and my family are lucky enough to live and because coffee has been in the family for over a century.

As speciality coffee has grown in popularity and with the success of winning several Great Taste Awards, things have gone from strength to strength. We recently moved to a much bigger roastery with more space so we can now offer tours. It’s a beautiful converted barn at Chilton Manor Farm. That was a very proud moment and a real measure of our achievements.”

Book your space

Tours of the Alresford area are scheduled to run 3, 17, 31 March and 14 April and will be available until October 2018. The tours run from 10am-5pm and cost £99 including lunch at a local gastropub, such as The Sun Inn, Bentworth, or The Woolpack Inn, Totford.

Joel is also planning beer and sausage tours (watch this space) as well as tours for celebrations and corporate events based on individual interests – for example cheese and wine.

Baring all

The Naked Grape is an independent wine merchant established by Simon Evans in Alresford’s only remaining malt house in 2004 with the shop following some six months later. Every wine stocked is sourced, tasted and selected by Simon with many exclusive to The Naked Grape. Simon has always looked close to home, supporting producers by stocking quality local ales, ciders and spirits as well as wines, such as Chalkdown Cider, Danebury Cossack Sparkling and Hattingley Valley Rose Sparkling, handmade beers, and spirits, including Silverback Gin, Twisted Nose Gin and Naked Gin, created exclusively for merchant.


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