The museum section of Hook Norton Brewery has a lot of the antique brewing paraphernalia you might expect: black and white photos of stern-looking workers from a time when smiling for the camera was not allowed; barrels, the usual barrows, bottles (the three Bs); and pieces of defunct brewing equipment large and small, including, interestingly, an old wort cooler. It was beside this old cooler, essentially a tall, corrugated sheet of metal standing in a shallow trough, where friendly and encyclopedic tour guide Monty explained the brewery’s attempts to modernise over the years. The equipment they use now – a far more modern and typical heat exchange system tucked away in a small room on the third floor – dramatically reduces the chance of infection since it’s a sealed unit. The point was made at several points in the hour-long tour that any inconsistency between brews is a bad thing, and quite right too.
Just as frowned upon now is the brewery’s one-time reliance on wooden barrels, which naturally caused some undesirable bacterial infections over time and, in Monty’s words, some ‘vinegary pints’ back in the day. Even the stocks of modern aluminium casks have been recently refreshed to ensure the beer inside arrives in the best possible condition. It might seem strange to focus on these two seemingly normal upgrades in history of a brewery, particularly one as traditional as Hook Norton, but the place had some surprising secrets tucked away. The brewery was built in 1849 and is a classic Victorian tower brewery, relying on gravity to feed the ingredients from one stage of the brewing process to the next. Its core beers are Hooky, a bitter, and Old Hooky, its best bitter. It also brews a mild, a double stout and a range a of seasonal ales. It even has a functioning steam engine, which is still occasionally used to operate the grist mill, and once also contributed to boiling the wort in the copper, heating the building and pumping liquor from the well. Shire horses are regularly used to pull a dray of beer to pubs nearby.
Refurbished versions of original equipment are used in various parts of the brewery, including the aforementioned grist mill, which dates back to 1899, and the mash tun, which has wooden hatches that are still surprisingly efficient at insulating heat. There’s a sense here that the modernising of the equipment at Hook Norton happens when absolutely necessary, and even then, reluctantly. Still, it was with some noticeable embarrassment that Monty showed us the even older method of cooling the wort, on the top floor of the second-highest tower of the brewery. What I saw there took my breath away, and transported me back to a dusty attic in Brussels I’d visited just weeks before. On the brewery’s fourth floor, Hook Norton once used what they referred to as a flat cooler, but is recognisable to anyone who has visited a Belgian brewery as a koelschip.
At Cantillon, which I’d visited most recently in February, the wooden slatted windows are opened to allow wild yeast and bacteria to inoculate the cooling wort. At Hook Norton, the windows were opened to lower the temperature inside, but this still undoubtedly resulted in infection, and unwanted foreign bodies. Specifically, the rumours among the locals at the time was that bird droppings could be in your pint. The flat cooler was decommissioned in the 1970s, and it’s easy to imagine the brewery at the time struggling to keep up with ever-consistent, box-ticking keg beer that was on the rise at that time. I couldn’t help wonder though if something had been lost, or an opportunity missed in that era.
Whilst the flat cooler is unlikely to ever see action again, wooden barrels could once more be used to contain and dispense Hook Norton’s beer in pubs. Two young chaps on the brewing team have free use of a small ‘pilot brewery’ on the ground floor near the cask racking plant, where they are currently experimenting with producing stronger ales to be served from the wood. It’s likely that these will be old ales or stouts.
After the tour, Monty took us back to the visitor centre bar and we tasted our way through small glasses of five different ales. The biscuity body and leafy bitterness of Hooky is evident in many of the brewery’s other beers, the most noticeably different being Lion, a self-consciously ‘pale and hoppy’ beer for the modern cask drinker and the Hooky Mild, which was slick, cakey but light. Two ‘Brewer’s Selection’ beers, the Double Stout and Flagship English IPA are also kegged in small amounts by contract at Cotswold Brewery but weren’t available at the time. It’s easy to be dismissive of the simple English charms of Hook Norton’s traditional beer styles, but they are good beers made well, and in the spring sunshine of the Oxfordshire countryside, they make perfect sense.
At the Pear Tree Inn just down the road from the brewery, I sat with a pint of Julie’s Jester, a pale ale brewed on Hook Norton’s pilot kit for a long-serving landlady of one of their pubs. Hopped, as the name suggests, using the new UK hop Jester, it was a very summery pint of floral aromas, simple malt flavours and citrus-peel bitterness. I enjoyed it a lot, and it hinted at an open-mindedness to new ideas and flavour profiles. But, sat there in a traditional country pub with its hop garlands above the bar, freshly made baguettes of ham and beer mustard and foaming pints of daisy-fresh cask ale, I couldn’t help but wonder, and imagine, if brewing in this country might have become something quite different if the wooden barrels and koelschips hadn’t been seen as antiquated oddities, but precious, historic and artisanal elements of brewing culture. Now that we have returned to appreciating what they can do, it seems strange we ever gave them up.
A tour of Hook Norton Brewery is £12.50 per person, including a hour-long tour and guided beer tasting. Tours must be arranged in advance.