Microbreweries in Essex: Artisinal brewing at a high

Members of the Brentwood Brewery team

Members of the Brentwood Brewery team - Credit: Archant

There’s an artisan brewing revival taking place in the UK. Former ‘micro breweries’ are now calling themselves ‘craft brewers’ and you’d have to travel back more than 70 years to find as many of these small breweries across the country as we have today. Stephanie Mackentyre meets three brewers blazing a trail in Essex

Brentwood Brewery

Brentwood Brewery - Credit: Archant

Bishop Nick Brewery

Nelion Ridley is a master brewer and a joint director of the Bishop Nick Brewery.

‘Brewing has been in my family for many generations,’ says Nelion. ‘For me, I spent my first three years in the trade working for Whitbread.’ First Nelion worked on the managed pub side and then he went to work as an area manager in charge of 35 pubs. Finally he worked on the beer company side, selling beers to Whitbread pubs. Returning to the family business in 2001, he launched Bishop Nick, a craft brewery.

‘The main difference between us and the big breweries is that our kit is a little less sophisticated. We do have pumps and pipework, but we need to do things manually. Switching the values around and turning the pumps off and on and swinging the ubends around. There’s also physically lifting the bags of malt into a hopper and leaf hops into the copper and stirring it in. For the really big boys, now it’s all scientists and lab coats pushing buttons. Our beers are popular, I think, because of the traditional, hands-on approach.’

Colin Bocking from Crouch Vale Brewery

Colin Bocking from Crouch Vale Brewery - Credit: Archant

Bishop Nick Brewery offers brewery experience days, which have proved popular. ‘I did wonder if people would still like to come to our tours as a craft brewer. However, they get to feel the grains of the malt we use and stir it in and measure the gravities. We had three gentleman on a brewery experience day and they were able to literally jump into the mash tun and dig it out. The mash tun is basically the vessel that has all the grains and the malt. When you finish spraying your malt and liquor, you empty it out. They got to weigh out the hops too. I think they quite enjoyed seeing beer being made in a traditional manner, it makes them associate with the beer a lot more.’

The process from start to finish can take as little as one week. ‘It takes one day to create unfermented beer. We put the hot tank on and heat the water up the night before and get our malt ready. At 7am we start mashing in, which means we add the malt and the hot water, or ‘liquor’, together. Next we extract the wort from the mash and start adding in the hops and transferring it to a fermenter, all of that is done by about 2.30pm that first day. Next we add in the yeast and that has to work for another three days. Once completed, I like to condition the beer for at least another two or three days before racking in (emptying it into casks).’

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The term craft brewer means any brewer producing below the Duty threshold of up to 5,000 hectare litres per year. As a craft brewer you pay half the Duty rate. ‘We’re only producing 2,000 hectare litres per year, which in pints is around 350,000 per year.’

Bishop Nick Brewery brews limited edition beers which are introduced every six weeks. ‘New beers are always popular, so we have to balance that need with what we can cope with production wise.’

Nelion Ridley

Nelion Ridley - Credit: Archant

The recipes alter depending on the type of beer they want to brew, whether golden ales, dark ales or brown ales. ‘Depending on the malt that you use you can achieve a huge spectrum of colours in the ales. Golden ale tends to have more hop characteristics and the malt isn’t so pronounced. For the brown bitters you introduce slightly burned malt. This month it’s my intention to brew a stout, a dark beer with lots of roasted malts and barley. Muntons is our malt supplier and it will be ready for the Chelmsford CAMRA Beer Festival, as we have a brewery bar there.’

At the time of writing, the name of the beer hadn’t been decided upon. ‘It’s always quite tricky to decide. We try to use the story of Bishop Nick to give us inspiration. Nicholas Ridley was Bishop of London in 1550 and in 1555 he was burnt at the stake for his religious beliefs.’

Crouch Vale Brewery

From a family steeped in the traditions of brewing, to two beer buffs. Crouch Vale Brewery was established in 1981 by two beer enthusiasts.Financed by a bank overdraft, Colin Bocking and Rob Walster signed a 25-year lease on a new industrial building in South Woodham Ferrers. Their first brew was achieved in October that same year. Colin explains: ‘Before we went into brewing, I was a civil servant and Rob was an engineer. Our first brew was not a trouble-free event, but the beer, Crouch Vale Best Bitter (all-malt mash, hopped with English fuggles and goldings, and fermented with a yeast cadged from Youngs of Wandsworth) wasn’t bad.’

Since that shaky start, they’ve gone on to win the ultimate cask ale accolade – CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival Supreme Champion Beer of Britain, gained by Brewers Gold in both 2005 and 2006.

‘Brewers Gold is an extremely drinkable 4% abv, and now accounts for more than 60% of our production. It is acclaimed worldwide as a leading example of the Golden Ale style, with wonderful aromas and flavour, from carefully selected ingredients. We also have a programme of monthly special beers. For example, June’s beer was CITRA – a clean-tasting, zesty beer and extremely quaffable.’

Running their own business has been a steep learning curve. ‘The highs are very high, but the lows are very low. When success does come, it does make it all worthwhile,’ adds Colin.

Colin remains at the helm of the company, however Rob now runs his own pub, The Prince of Wales at Stow Maries near Chelmsford, where, of course, he serves Crouch Vale ales. The Crouch Vale Brewery beers are available all over Essex and into East London in pubs, clubs, supermarkets and farm shops too.

Brentwood Brewery

Finally, to a brewery which opens its doors regularly to share some of the secrets of the foaming ale. Hal Kannor is the son of Roland Kannor and together with Hal’s brother, Ethan, the family run the Brentwood Brewery.

‘My dad and his old next door neighbour were sitting in the garden one day drinking beer and thought they could brew a lot better!’ says Hal. That was in 2006 and by 2013 they’d moved into new premises at Calcott Hall Farm, taking over their old potato barn and converting it into a swish new brewery, regularly producing award-winning beers each year. They now have a visitors centre so you can visit them and see how it’s all created.

‘I’ve not been able to escape the business,’ says Hal. ‘I’m on the sales side, while my brother is on the brewing side. We think he’s the youngest brewer in the county.’ Hal used to work in the brewery very hands on with his brother but in recent times he’s moved to a more strategic role within the offices.

‘I don’t like the heavy lifting and labour involved in the brewing side, so I decided to move to the sales side,’ says Hal. ‘I think people like the family-run link with the business and also the fact they can come along and see it being brewed before they buy. We like to run tours and we are always working with the local community.’

They will be at the Brentwood Festival again this year, from July 15 to 17, providing all of the real ale there. ‘We will be supplying 60 casks of real ale for the festival. That’s 4,320 pints of ale, which we expect to be consumed over the weekend.’

The brewery tours are held on the first Saturday of each month, where visitors get to look around the brewery and find out how their beer is created, and then at the end of the tour there’s a beer tasting where you can try out some of the beers you’ve seen being brewed.

‘We also host brew experience days, where customers come for the whole day and help with brewing the beer. They go out for lunch at the local pub and then leave with a polypin of the beer they’ve brewed at the end of the day as well,’ adds Hal.

The experience days are priced at just £95 per person, which includes the polypin to take away (worth £40) and a pub lunch too.

Get in Touch

Bishop Nick Ltd

33 East Street, Braintree, CM7 3JJ. 01376 349605. www.bishopnick.com

Crouch Vale Brewery

23 Haltwhistle Road, South Woodham Ferrers, CM3 5ZA. 01245 322744. www.crouchvale.co.uk

Brentwood Brewery

Calcott Hall Farm, Ongar Road, Pilgrims Hatch Brentwood, CM15 9HS. 01277 200483. www.brentwoodbrewing.co.uk

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