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A Thumping Good Pint

In Maine they put a lobster on the label of the English ale that Peter Austin taught them to brew in China. He thought he heard them call their English ale, "Mister Austin - Triple Pig." He was slightly disappointed when they turned out to have said, "Mister Austin - Triple Peak." He has three generations of English ale in his veins, but he is also notably fond of pigs. On the labels of the beers he created for his brewery, he made sure to display a Hampshire hog.

While international lager-makers swallow one another up, Britain's real ale movement is still finding disciples in faraway lands. Peter Austin is their teacher. With his high forehead, silver hair and beard, Peter Austin has the look of a prophet. This week, he was honoured in his own country. One of his creations, Old Thumper, brewed at Ringwood in his native Hampshire, was chosen as the country's supreme champion in the annual blindfold judging at the Great British Beer Festival, in Leeds, organized by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).

Of the award, he said, smiling: "Since I left, they have obviously improved the beer."

Although he still advises ale brewers abroad, Peter Austin has ceded the production of Old Thumper to younger hands - like those of Nigel Welsh who made the winning brew. He retired from his brewery three months ago. Of the award, he said, smiling: "Since I left, they have obviously improved the beer." Old Thumper is a pale strong ale, with an alcohol content of around 6 per cent, about half that of red wine. Peter Austin thinks a good English ale should have plenty of "mouth feel" without beIng excessively rich, balanced by dryness that stops short of being "inky." One of the judges at the festival, Barry Jones, a brewer with Allied in Burton, captured-it perfectly. "This beer doesn't taste strong - it just slips down. Then, just as it has slipped down, you realise how strong it really was." As a judge myself, I was tempted in the strong ale category by a beer I later learned was Fuller's Extra Special Bitter. Fuller's, of London, has won more prizes over the years than any other brewery, but this time it was pipped at the post. In the final round, the less strong Tetley's Bitter and Timothy Taylor's Landlord, both from Yorkshire, challenged valiantly. But Old Thumper triumphed.

I think its depth of flavour and restrained sweetness would go well with a fine Stilton. The sole Camra representative on the panel, Lis Colquhoun, thought she would enjoy it on a picnic, and Elisabeth Baker, editor-publisher of the small brewers' journal The Grist swore that "angels were making love on her tongue." That magic of the ages Peter Austin remembers when the Stone Trough Brewery in Halifax used to send small casks of yeast by train to supply another brewery in Hull, where he worked. After years at the Hull brewery he took early retirement, with a gold watch and a sample of that potent Yorkshire yeast.

His first wife had died, his children were grown up, and he retired to Hampshire. He had always wanted a brewery of his own, and in 1978 he started one in the market town of Ringwood, in the New Forest, on premises formerly used by a baker.

Initially, all the beer went to free houses. Ringwood has only about 12,000 people, but Salisbury, Bournemouth and Southampton all offered a local market. He rented the property scrounged equipment from his countless contacts in the brewing industry and spent about 20,000.

Regional and local breweries like Stone Trough, and later the one in Hull, were closing, but far smaller mini-breweries were just beginning. The Ringwood brewery was one of the first, and it has been a great inspiration to others. Peter Austin is readily acknowledged as a teacher by David Bruce, whose Firkin chain popularised the even smaller idea of breweries in the backyards or cellars of pubs. At the peak, three or four years ago, there were almost 100 new mini-breweries in Britain, and about 75 brew-pubs. Many have been short-lived, but new ones are still opening.

Austin and his partners found a lattice windowed, brick built structure that had been erected as a brewery in the 1700s.

By the mid-Eighties, the Ringwood brewery was sufficiently confident of its position to buy more suitable premises. On the edge of the town, where the land dips toward the Hampshire Avon, Austin and his partners found a lattice windowed, brick built structure that had been erected as a brewery in the 1700s. The steeply pitched roof pleaded to be filled once again with sacks of barley malt.

The barley is grown in Dorset, steeped and kilned at a maltings in Newton Abbot. It arrives at the brewery in three forms: lightly cured pale male malt; crystal, stewed to concentrate the sugars; and black, as roasty as dark chocolate or espresso coffee. At 7 each morning it is milled and infused in a pine-clad mash-tun. The clarified infusion goes into a gas-tired kettle and is brewed for 90 minutes, with two additions of Goldings hops - the first imparts dryness and bitterness, the second enhances aroma.

By 5 p.m. the brew has been cooled and decanted into fermenting vessls, where the magical Yorkshire yeast is added by the bucket full. The yeast looks creamy and smells of strawberry teas. In less than a week the beer is in the cask, where it has least a fortnight's maturatlon.

Nigel Welsh, who made the winning brew, followed his brother David into the business. David originally worked in the City and helped out at the brewery for fun in its earliest days. He is now the principal shareholder; he did not need reminding that this week's prize would boost sales of Old Thumper at the festival. He heard the news just after 5 p.m., and next day made a 10-hour round-trip to deliver more casks to the festival. Back home in Ringwood, brother Nigel spent the day drinking Old Thumper for television cameras, in the brewery's sole local tied house.

"Just one more pint, Mr. Welsh. Now, could you tell us again about the magic ingredient?"

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: AUG 6, 1988
In: The Independent

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