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Looking for a good small brewery?

Despite all noise to the contrary, many make money ... and interesting beer

It is axiomatic that bad news makes more headlines than good. If someone cherished, or even infamous, is at death's door, the final struggle will be documented right down to the prominent obituary. It is harder two write a thousand words on a new baby. The same is true of breweries. When a great beer is threatened, noisy campaigns are rightly mounted to save it; when a new brewery fires its kettles, it is lucky even to make the local weekly.

Thus the mighty myth, that breweries are closing everywhere, and that the characterful small ones must be drowned by the giants' bland outpourings. This myth has become a self-fulfilling prophesy among the school of City and management vandals who wouldn't know a decent beer if it were poured over their heads (which, indeed it should be).

The truth is that small breweries are opening everywhere and can, if they make sufficiently interesting beers and work hard to sell them, survive and prosper. Before the Campaign for Real Ale, the British Isles had just over 100 brewing companies. It now has something between 250 and 300. Some are bigger than the smallest of the old-established breweries; others very tiny, but that does not matter. If I find myself in Bruddersford and can enjoy a great pint where I could not last year, I shall be delighted, however small the brewery. No one mocks Ch‰teau Latour for making less wine than Blue Nun.

The smallest breweries are more secure than the middle-sized, which are neither one thing nor the other. Even then, the greatest threats are lack of self-belief, family succession, or aware management, rather than unprofitability. The latest potential casualty, Oxford's local brewery, in the Morrell family since the 1700s, and still profitable, faces closure because its site all those years would now be worth more as housing.

We have only 30-odd family-owned breweries, and should not lightly lose any, but what of the new ones established in the last 20 years?

I took a look not just at breweries, but at individual beers that are scheduled to be placed before the public under one roof at the Great British Beer Festival next week I had no trouble in finding 30-odd that I had especially enjoyed. Here is my list of the week:

Archer's. Founded 1979. Swindon, Wiltshire, a county blossoming with new breweries. Archer's fresh, fruity, beautifully-balanced Best Bitter will be at the festival.

Ash Vine. 1987. Also in the west, near Frome, Somerset. Licorice maltiness and orangey fruitiness in its flavour-packed, triumphantly-named, Hop and Glory Ale at the festival - and in Waitrose stores.

Ballard's. 1980. Near Petersfield, Hampshire. Marzipan maltiness and lemony hoppiness in Trotton Bitter.

Big Lamp. 1982. Newcastle upon Tyne. Its perfumy, hoppy, dry, Bitter led a revival in Geordie brewing.

Black Sheep. 1992. Masham, Yorkshire. Classic new brewery. Its even newer Riggwelter is malty masterpiece. Also is most major supermarket chains.

Broughton. 1979. Biggar, Scottish Borders. Its peppery, gingery, chewy, Oatmeal Stout is a characterful example of a distinctive style.

Burton Bridge. 1982. Burton upon Trent. The smallest brewery in Britain's brewing capital. Look out for the yeastily assertive Festival Ale.

Butcombe. 1978. Bristol. Wonderfully refreshing, cleansing, Bitter. This brewery was established by a refugee from Courage.

Butterknowle. 1990. Bishop Auckland, County Durham. Delicious beers. Look for the flowery, nutty, Conciliation Ale.

Cheriton. 1993. Alresford, Hampshire. Digger's Gold has a perilously slippery drinkability.

Coach House. 1991. Warrington, Cheshire. Posthorn Ale is malty and almost whiskyish. This brewery was established by victims of the Greenall Whitley closure.

Durham Brewery. 1994. Bowburn, Co Durham. Magus is a clean, dry, very appetising, Bitter.

Exmoor. 1980. Wiveliscombe, Somerset. Exmoor Gold is a summer ale with the crunch of a Cox's apple.

Hambleton. 1991. Near Thirsk, Yorkshire. Nightmare Porter, starts chocolatey, becomes creamy, and finishes oakily.

Hop Back. 1987.Salisbury, Wiltshire. Star micro-brewery. Its Thunderstorm is a rare British wheat beer.

Kelham Island. 1990. Sheffield, Yorkshire. Pale Rider is a biscuity summer brew.

Larkins. 1986. Edenbridge, Kent. Hop-farm brewery. There is an appropriately good hop perfume in its Chiddingstone Bitter.

Mordue. 1995. Wallsend, Tyneside. Last year's winner, with its lively, provocative, Workie Ticket ale.

Nethergate. 1986. Clare, Suffolk. Its firm, dryish, smooth, Mild is my British Beer of the Year.

O'Hanlon's. 1996. London. Ireland's stouts have London origins. Try O'Hanlon's leafy, cocoa-ish, solidly-flavoursome example.

Old Crown. 1988. Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria. Lakeland pub brewery with the spritzy Skiddaw Special Bitter.

Orkney. 1988. Quoyloo, Orkney. Check out the smoky, medicinally hoppy, Dragonhead Stout.

Passageway. 1994. Liverpool. Redemption is a spicy (minty?) rye beer, made with yeast from a monastic brewery and a token addition of "holy" water from St Arnold's well, in Belgium.

Pitfield. 1996. London. Makes a really good basic Bitter, with a softly malty aroma and a dry, hoppy, palate.

Plassey. 1985. Wrexham, North Wales. Try Cwrw Tudno, named after a local saint. An ethereal balance of sweet maltiness and pineapple-y. fruitiness.

Quay. 1996. Weymouth, Dorset. Its Silent Knight is a claret-coloured beer, full of flavour: vanilla, toffee, coffee, chocolate, prunes...

Ringwood. 1978. In the Hampshire town of the same name. Its rounded, robust, Old Thumper has been such a success that it is now also brewed in Orlando, Florida, and Portland, Maine.

Rooster's. 1993. Harrogate, Yorkshire. Hop expert Sean Franklin can be secretive about his formulations. To me, his Rooster Ale has the grapefruity aroma of Cascade hops from Washington State.

Titanic. 1985. Stoke-on-Trent. The doomed vessel's captan hailed from the Potteries. Titanic Premium Bitter is safely dry, and goes down beautifully.

Woodforde. 1980. Norwich. The lime-like hop flavours of Wherry Best Bitter or the brandyish, peppery, Headcracker Barley Wine? The Bitter is a past Champion Beer of Britain and its bigger brother a category winner. This thriving little enterprise has also in the past won the Mild category and Champion Beer for its Old Ale.

Who says small breweries cannot compete?

Published Online: AUG 11, 1999
Published in Print: AUG 1, 1998
In: The Independent

Beer Review - Editorial

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