Sunday, 15 March 2009

My Visit to Thornbridge Brewery


What makes a few breweries rise up above all the others? What makes them special and unique? What makes them who they are? If you ever get a chance to visit Thornbridge Brewery you’ll find the answers to these questions.

I first met the guys from Thornbridge at The Rake a few months ago. I had a lot of great things to say about them. This week I went ‘up north’ to the brewery with Matt, the same Matt from this Beer Night, to have a look around.

It started early. Very early. I decided the best bet would be to train it there and back, but this meant eight trains overall. Eight. We arrived at Dronfield - home of the mighty Coach and Horses pub - at 10am and Kelly Ryan, the brewery manager, was there to greet us and drive us to work/the brewery (his car is so retro-cool, by the way, that he had Metallica on tape playing as we started driving!). Kelly is an amazing guy (he even sent me a text to remind me to bring a sandwich for lunch). He’s literally overflowing with beer knowledge, passion, love and enthusiasm. And he doesn’t stop. I think he only walked when we were there to slow him down, the rest of the time he was running (actually running). Reluctant Scooper has been to visit for a brew day (his article is so brilliant, you must read it) and he uses the term ‘ceaselessly bounding’. That works for me.

The brewery is in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall and it’s a stunning place to go to work. The brewery is tucked away inconspicuously out the back. There’s a small brewhouse, an office, a lab and a few storage units. Inside the brewhouse is all the stuff you need to make beer (I won’t go into all that, read it in a book or here). Dave Pickering was in there brewing and Matt Clarke was running around, sorting out casks. At Thornbridge they brew one beer a day and have up to six fermentation tanks doing their stuff. The best thing: this place smells amazing! It’s full of that gorgeous ovaltine malt from the mash and there was a constant orange and tropical fruit hop sweetness. Lovely stuff.

I couldn’t do math or science in school, it just didn’t stick. English was more my thing. After spending a day at Thornbridge I wish I’d been able to get the sciences because they make it sound so cool (they are number one in the periodic table of cool). I was completely fascinated by the whole scientific side to beer and it’s given me a greater depth of understanding about this stuff that I love to drink. And Kelly doesn’t make it geeky either. All the talk of science-stuff was glamorous; it wasn’t white coats, it was leather jackets.

They were brewing Jaipur while we were there and we got to spend some time with Dave as he was brewing. He’s a really great guy, full of that same Thornbridge passion and knowledge which fills the air. And he was patient too as we kept asking questions about what he was doing and getting in his way as he tried to do his job. (He fancies brewing a smoky beer to go with the summer barbeques and he also said about making a small beer alongside Bracia, here’s my idea: take the small beer and age it on smoked oak chips. I have no idea if that’ll work or if it’s even possible but it sounds mighty good to me!).

Dave managed to keep us quiet for a while as we cleaned out the mash tun. I went in with instructions of ‘push it towards the hole’. ‘I can do that’ I thought. I climbed a ladder and looked down. It was a pit of spent, hot, wet grain that looked like dark porridge. And it was pretty far down. It was at this point (the top of the ladder, no turning back) that a few things dawned on me:

1. I am terrible with heights.
2. I can go up ladders but not back down them.
3. I have a fear of sinking sand.

Shit. ‘Just jump in’ Dave said, which was easy for him to say standing on the hard floor. With vertigo making everything swirl, the heat from below increasing the tension and a certain amount of pride at stake, I clambered up onto the narrow rim of the mash tun. Completely unstable and fearing a rather nasty fall (which only exacerbated the vertigo) I jumped in and slowly sunk about a foot, encased in a round tank, hot grain closing in, still sinking, not stopping. I gripped onto the side for dear life, the heat engulfing me, pulling me down. I almost yelled for help. But thankfully I stopped sinking. I was stable. I couldn’t move my legs but I wasn’t going further down. And I actually started to like the comfort of the heat through the wellies and the sweet smell of the grain as I began pushing and shoveling. Matt stood at the other end as I shoveled the hot stuff at him, frequently overzealously, burning his hands and making a real mess. Oops. With the tank clean I had to get back out again and I remembered my fear/inability of getting down ladders. Oh boy. I still had to climb out of the mash first, precariously balancing on the edge, trying not to look down as I made an awkward crab shape and tried to shuffle on to the ladder. I pretty much burnt my hand on the copper but I wasn’t letting go. I got a foot on the top wrung, then the other foot made it. It was a pretty sorry sight seeing me sweaty, shaking, covered in grist and coming down a ladder backwards, but I made it!

We looked around the brewery some more and saw a few special things, including the sherry and Madeira casks that were used to make the Alliance trilogy. And you want to know something super-cool? These giant oak casks are now filled with Bracia! Yup, I know, how flipping awesome does that sound! We saw the special ingredients for one of their next brews: cocoa nibs, star anise and mandarin peel. We smelt plenty of hops (it may be geeky but I just love smelling the different hops). We tried some St. Petersburg stout aged on cocoa nibs which Stefano (the head brewer and all-round cool guy who had been busy in the office until then) declared to be very good (this declaration is a great sign for a beer; his tasting of it seemed to last forever, I was hoping that by saying I thought it was great I hadn’t made a complete palate faux pas, but a smile soon appeared and his eyes lit up. Phew.) We also got to check out some yeast which is analysed after every brew (fun science stuff which involved looking into a microscope!). They were checking some Jaipur yeast. Here comes a brutal yet beautiful truth of brewing Jaipur: the yeast dies to make it. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. It makes that beer and clearly realises that it has reached a certain pinnacle in its life and it can do no more. There’s something wonderfully romantic about that, I think.

And we were even part of a little beer tasting in the office which allowed us to try three beers by Odell’s in Colorado. There aren’t many of their beers in the UK so this was pretty cool. The star was undoubtedly the IPA. Great stuff. When Kelly and Stef taste other breweries beers’ it’s clear to see why the Thornbridge beer is so good; their palates are sharper than Gordon Ramsay’s knife (and his tongue) and they pick up scents like hunting dogs. They swirl and sniff and pull out what they get, one flavour or aroma after the other, chasing them around the glass, searching for them.

In the office we got to speak to Stef more. There were discussions of funk (Brettanomyces, that is) and barrel aging and I had a load of questions about the move to the new, bigger brewery. He is sorting it all out and the next few months are going to be crazy-busy for the guys up there. But the move will mean more beer so we’ll be able to get their stuff in more places and slake our thirsts much easier. They’ll also be able to knock out more bottles (they are playing around with bottle conditioning too, trying different yeasts, etc – more science stuff) which is a great thing. I am already excited about going up to visit the new place once it is up and running (eight trains you say?! I don’t care, I’d travel on double that to be there!)

After work we hit their pub, the Coach and Horses. This is a dreamy place which is run by Kelly’s lovely girlfriend Catherine. We were in awe of the beer selection - bottled and cask. There were five Thornbridgers (not a typo) on cask and we started, in the only way possible, with Jaipur. It was just simply perfect. Biscuit and toffee malt base and then tropical fruits and hops-a-plenty giving a crisp and elegant finish. I could drink this all night. It was served through a sparkler though, a thing curious to my southern eyes. I asked for my second beer without the sparkler and to be honest I couldn’t taste a difference. It did however look better with the sparkler fitted.

Kelly changed out of his work shirt and then it was just three mates at the pub talking about beer and music and TV and films and laser eye surgery and Korean food. Kelly then brought out his homemade lambic. Yeah, he ‘brews’ at home too. He’d taken some of their Blackthorn Ale (I was drinking that when he brought the lambic out, very nice indeed) and popped it into a bottle and left it to do its stuff for 18 months (there was some other detail to it, something about taking it from the pipes, I don’t know – Kelly, help me out here!). And it was really good. Creamy yet sharp yet sweet. Nice one.

Dinner came next. Kelly, Matt and myself ordered three dishes and shared it around (it was a sharing kind of day). The oxtail was rich and oh-so-juicy, the brisket was like butter and the belly pork with Toulouse sausage and beans (a deconstructed cassoulet, if you like) was just brilliant (wicked crackling!). The menu is great, the food is proper pub grub and delicious and the portions are huge - this is a must-visit place. With dinner I had a pint of McConnels, their vanilla stout, which was magical (and made with real vanilla pods). It’s smooth, rich and roasty with a sweet hint of the vanilla. I’d wanted to try this for ages and wasn’t disappointed. Sadly there wasn’t time for dessert because we had to go. We didn’t want to, that’s for sure, but we had to. We did have time to split a bottle of Bracia before we left - a great way to end the day.

And what an amazing day it was. A tiny insight into what’s going on up at Thornbridge and what’s to come. It was truly exciting and fascinating. It has made me taste better, think better and understand beer better. I now know the back-breaking effort that goes into making their beers, I’ve seen where it all comes from, I see everything that they do in the minute detail that they do it. I left invigorated and it has made me realise just why I love beer. Why it means so much. Why I spend the hours that I do searching for it, drinking it, reading about it, talking about it and writing about it. It makes all of that worthwhile when you see that there is so much passion on the other side and you see what the beer means to its brewers in places like Thornbridge.

Innovation, passion and knowledge are their tag lines and you cannot fail to go anywhere without these being entirely evident. They know so much, they clearly love what they do and they want to try new things. There is so much energy around the place, it just feels right being around them, it feels comfortable and we felt welcome even though we were interrupting their hectic day with silly questions. But they all had so much time. And they are so generous too. Beer is for sharing and when you’ve got such great knowledge it just spills out and you cannot fail to learn an awesome amount from them. And the beer stands up to all of this. It is second to none. You just have to see the piles and piles of awards they have stacked up in the office to know this. You just have to try the beer to know this.

On the train home I was sad to have left. I wanted to keep a piece of what I felt at the brewery with me. I wanted that feeling every day. But then I realised something. And it’s here as I sit down now with a Jaipur. We do get to feel a part of the brewery, we do get to experience it and we get it every time we drink their beer. That beer that we have in our hand is prepared with so much passion and enthusiasm that we taste the essence of the brewery, something special deep within it, something intangible, something missing from so many other beers. Their beers are ‘never ordinary’ - they are spectacular. They are special. The brewery is special. The people are special. Thornbridge is a remarkable place. And I thank them for allowing us that little insight into their world.

If you want to buy their beers then go to beermerchants as they have the widest selection available that I've seen, including the Alliances, Bracia and the ever-so rare barrel-aged St Petersburgs. You can also get mini-casks from the brewery. And Kelly Ryan has a blog which you should be reading here.

3 comments:

  1. Nice one, Mark - Thornbridge don't just brew, they put passion into a glass. And isn't it great to witness that passion from mash tun to hand pump! Looking forward to my next brew day there already!

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  2. You pair of bleeders! My consilatory pint of Kipling at the Bull tonight put a smile back on my face though.

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  3. Cor, you're a sociable bugger, aren't you? Sounds like a great day out.

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