Whaley Bridge Brewery
- Credit: Archant
Nik Cook resumes his tour of the county’s micro-breweries with a visit to Whaley Bridge
With Derbyshire and the Peak District having one of the highest concentrations of micro-breweries in the country, my arduous quest to profile them and to sample their wares, has taken me all around the county. However, barely three miles as the crow flies from my home village of Chinley, the Whaley Bridge Brewery was just a short trip over Eccles Pike away.
Like almost all of the brewers I’ve met, 49-year-old Michael Wilde had a very different career before turning his hand to brewing. ‘I was a ceramics restorer for 30 years, specialising in 16th-18th century pottery and working primarily for high level auction houses in London. The constant trips to London were getting to me though and I felt I needed a change. Five years ago I was bought a home brew kit for Father’s Day, that put the idea into my mind and six months later I thought I’d try to do it properly, it was now or never so I gave it a go.’
Diving in at the deep end, Michael made almost all of his own equipment and was entirely self taught. ‘I never really approached any other brewers for help or advice as I didn’t know who to ask. I could have spent a lot of money on an expensive course and equipment but there’s so much information in books and on the net. Peter Hood at the Brew Shop in Stockport has been incredibly helpful but mostly it’s just been my own trial and error.’
Chatting over a coffee (too early in the day for a beer!) in his kitchen in the company of his wife Jill and their cat Smokey, Michael is slightly incredulous that I’ve come to profile his brewery. ‘I’m a tiny operation, I wouldn’t even describe myself as a micro-brewery, I’m more nano-! I produce half a British barrel or 140 pints each week. I’m planning to double up my capacity very soon but my business model from day one was always organic and manageable growth.’
Michael’s reason for this approach is that, although the brewing came to him fairly easily, spreading the word and finding customers was a tougher proposition and he didn’t want to end up with wasted barrels of beer. ‘I was producing drinkable beer from day one, which was incredibly satisfying but, being a bit of a perfectionist, it’s only really in the last six months that I’ve been 100 per cent happy with the consistency. I’ve thrown a lot of beer away simply because, although drinkable, it just wasn’t quite right. Learning to sell has been tough and it’s mainly a case of just knocking on doors. There’s so much competition now that pubs are getting loads of brewers calling them up, so you’ve got to know, if you get a chance, that your beer is the best it can be. We’re now always on tap at the Drum and Monkey in Whaley Bridge and, as it’s always their best seller and sells out, we must be doing something right.’
Leaving the warmth of the kitchen, we head down the garden, through the garage and as we enter the small but perfectly formed brewery the deliciously heady smell of fermenting beer fills my nose. Impeccably neat, ordered and spotlessly clean, it may be tiny and simple compared to high tech behemoths such as Bakewell’s Thornbridge brewery but you know that as much passion, care and attention is being lavished on the brews. Michael explains how the process and his typical brewing day is no different, apart from scale, to a bigger brewery. ‘I head down to the brewery at about 6.30am and put the water heater on. I then decide on what I’m going to brew, measure out the grain and get ready for mashing. That process takes about 6-7 hours, so then I’m cleaning the brewery and washing casks before the brew goes into the boiler with the hops. It then has to cool before adding the yeast and beginning to ferment. There’s a lot of time spent waiting but it’s the same process for one barrel as it is for one hundred.’
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With the three fermenters of Bugsworth Ale bubbling away in the background, I ask Michael about what he looks for in a beer and, out of his four brews, if he has a personal favourite. ‘Flavour and balance, not too bitter, not too sweet, balance is crucial. I’m not a fan of super strong beers and I only drink my own. Which one I prefer depends a lot on my mood but two stand out for me. The Hockerley Old Ale and the Wyoming American Pale Ale. If you pushed me, I’d probably opt for the Wyoming, it’s fantastic.’
Michael had already mentioned his upcoming plans to double his brewing capacity but what are his brewing aspirations for the future? ‘I don’t have any ambitions to be the next Thornbridge! I’ll carry on chipping away and build a steady but small customer base. I don’t want to be overwhelmed and I don’t want to be wasting beer, organic growth is the way to go. This year I’m really going to focus on local beer festivals such as Macclesfield and Stockport and hopefully start winning some awards. It’d be good to start gaining some recognition and I’m confident that all of my beers are up to the required standard.’
Despite being easily the smallest of the breweries I’ve visited, the Whaley Bridge Brewery has definitely been the most inspirational. In America micro-breweries are also known as craft breweries and I feel this label perfectly sums up what Michael is doing. You know that every one of his pints has been crafted with almost individual attention and that, in combination with his meticulous nature and refreshingly simple and sensible business model, when you taste one of his brews it’s going to be good. I’m certain that the Whaley Bridge Brewery will be winning some medals soon, so tell your local landlord to try a barrel or two today.
If you’re eager to sample some of Michael’s beer, your best best is the Drum and Monkey in Whaley Bridge where it’s permanently on tap.
It’s also occasionally to be found at: Soldier Dick, Furness Vale; The Wanted Inn, Sparrowpit; The Swan, Kettleshume; The Castle, Castleton; The Poacher, Bollington. It will also be on sale, alongside 80 other real ales and ciders, at the Old Hall in Whitehough’s annual Winter Real Ale Festival over the weekend of the 21st-23rd February (www.old-hall-inn.co.uk). n
To contact the Whaley Bridge Brewery call 07890 455279, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.whaleybridgebrewery.co.uk or find them on Facebook.
The National CAMRA Winter Ales Festival takes place at Derby Roundhouse from 19 to 22 February. Marchinton Beer Festival is on 7 and 14 March, ST14 8LF.
Hockerley Old Ale 4.0%ABV. A Ruby Ale, complex, fruity with a hint of treacle.
Bugsworth Ale 4.2%ABV. An Amber Ale with a fine balance of malt and hops, fruity with a hop nose.
Goyt Valley Gold 4.4%ABV. A Pale Ale, predominantly malt, subtle fruit and hop finish.
Wyoming A.P.A. 4.8%ABV. A superb balance of wheat and malt give a honey bottom end with a subtle grapefruit finish, complex yet light.