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He's putting the bee back into his beer

Michael Jackson finds a tradition of brewing with honey undergoing a revival in the Black Country. The results may soon be available at a pub near you.

The name Constantine-Con sounds crackingly posh. The Constantines were Greek bankers in Manchester and the Cons were Spaniards via the Armada, Ireland and the linen trade. Michael Constantine-Con, a master bleacher in Bolton, in the Lancashire cotton industry, hoped his son Will would follow in those clog-steps, but it was not to be.

Will went to art school, met and married his wife, Victoria, bought a terraced house in the Black Country and became a designer and process engineer for Royal Doulton and Brierley glass. When the glass industry retrenched in face of cheaper imports from Eastern Europe, Will's contract was not renewed. He and Victoria took a walk in the Malvern Hills to talk about the future.

"Some people like to keep pigs, some prefer hens, but there is nothing like the perfume of nectar when a few hundred bees are flapping their wings to drive off the excess moisture," Will observed.

They decided the family's obsession would have to take over. The Constantine-Carts' passion, for five generations, has been bee-keeping. "Some people like to keep pigs, some prefer hens, but there is nothing like the perfume of nectar when a few hundred bees are flapping their wings to drive off the excess moisture," Will observed. Not having such a wide range of experiences, I could only nod assent.

Will would have liked to set up in business selling jars of honey, but that industry was suffering from cheap imports, too. Instead, he has blended his honey with another of the family's interests, the home production of alcoholic beverages. Dad made wine, and Will brewed beer from the age of 12. Now he is commercially producing the honey-primed Enville Ale which may soon be on draught at a pub near you.

It is golden in colour, with a remarkably soft, smooth body, flowery at the front of the tongue, lightly sweetish but drying towards a soothing finish. Although it has a higher alcohol contents at 4.8 per- cent, Enville resembles some of the pale milds traditionally made in the Black Country.

Honey has been an occasional ingredient in beer-brewing, as well as mead-making, since at least Sumerian times, and sporadically pops up in British speciality ales. In addition to imparting flowery notes (depending upon the bees' source of nectar), it also combines with the malt sugars to produce a distinctive fruitiness.

The Black Country likes quirky, small industries - tankards, nails, chains - in small towns, with tiny breweries catering for fierily forged thirsts in miniature Victorian pubs. No other part of England boasts so many tiny breweries. We were on the outskirts of Stourbridge, in the hamlet of Amblecote, in the Robin Hoods one of those cosy Black Country boozers established under the Duke of Wellington's Beer Act. Will opened the door "See that land over there? It was used for open-cast mining - clay for the crucibles in the glass industry, and coal. It was covered in rose-bay willow-herb. My bees loved it." When the mining stopped and houses were built, Will had to take his bees elsewhere. The nearest big slice of open country on the river Stour is Enville, the 6,500-acre estate of the Earls of Stamford in Hereford and Worcester.

"A friend at the cricket club mentioned it to me. Luckily, Enville sees apiaries as part of the husbandry of the land." Will and a horticulturist friend have about 100 hives between them on the estate and other farms in the area. The estate offers the bees lime trees, chestnut, hawthorn, flowering balsam and all manner of nectar. Dotted around inconspicuously are apiaries comprising seven or eight hives each.

The estate has been in the Stamford family since the 14th century. The family member in residence is Eileen Bissills whose granddaughter, Serena Stanhope, is to marry Viscount Linley. Enville has a Tudor hall, two pubs, a 12th-century church, a cricket pitch and 20 farms. The church stands on a hill beneath which an aquifer releases spring waters suitable for brewing.

Just as any big house would have had its own butchery and bakery, most once had their own breweries. A century ago Enville had its own small hotel with a brewery attached. Estate workers received tokens to exchange for refreshment.

When Will first had the notion of using his Enville honey in an ale, he had the beer made under contract at an established small brewery near by, where he learned something about production on a commercial scale. When he was ready - and his ale had built a local reputation - he approached the estate manager, Michael Scott-Bolton, with the idea of building a new brewery at Enville.

The estate put in some money and there are private investors. Together with a variety of grants and loans, almost 150,000 was raised, a modest sum with which to start even a small brewery. A new stainless-steel kettle, capable of producing 10 barrels per batch, was fitted by Hal Swaby, a Jamaican engineer who has installed micro-breweries from the Isle of Man to Normandy and is currently discussing one in Siberia.

The Enville brewhouse is in a grain barn, a Grade II-listed building, at Cox Green Farm.

The Enville brewhouse is in a grain barn, a Grade II-listed building, at Cox Green Farm. With its decorative brickwork, arched threshing doors and open beams, it is a handsome structure, forming a courtyard with other farm buildings.

Estate barley may soon be used, but for the moment the barley is grown in Scotland, malted in Nottinghamahire and infused in the spring water. Then it is seasoned, first with hops from the Teme Valley of Hereford and Worcester, and then with hops of the delicate Saaz variety, from Bohemia. Primed with Enville honey, the ale is currently cask-conditioned and sold on draught; it may eventually also be "chateau-bottled." Last month, well-wishers filled the courtyard to see the brewery opened to the strains of a brass band and the town-crier of Sandwell. The estate manager was there, so were the brewery engineer, the maltster and the hop merchant. Then the assembled company moved to one of the estate's pubs, The Cat Inn, to sample the product. Will, who bears a disturbing resemblance to the comedy actor Griff Rhys Jones, had exchanged his usual cricket sweater for a new shirt, bought that very morning. His jeans were brand-new, too.

Enville Ale is often on tap at about 20 pubs, from the Crown and Anchor in Church Stretton, Shropshire, to the Inn on the Green in Datchworth, Hertfordshire, and has appeared as far away as Devon. A takeaway jug went down well with dinner at Mister Dave's Balti Restaurant, Lye. Not far away, long-silent brewing equipment has been restored at Lord Neidpath's Stanway House, where test brews are in progress. The Cat Inn is at Bridgnorth Road, Enville (0384 872209).

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: JUNE 5, 1993
In: The Independent

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