It’s hard to believe that the Hook Norton brewery is real. In the modern world of stainless steel vessels, conical fermenters, fast fermentation and delivery tankers pounding the UK’s motorways, the Oxfordshire brewery lives in a time warp.
To find it, you drive through the village of Hook Norton, past rows of mellow stone Cotswold cottages, until you reach the Pear Tree pub. Turn right and you’re in Brewery Lane and, suddenly, through wreaths of steam, you’re confronted by a tall and chunky brown building with an imposing chimney, louvered windows and a flag flying proudly from the roof.
The brewery is all about steam. Its driving force is a 25-horsepower steam engine that draws Cotswold water from a well to provide ‘liquor’ for the mash. The buildings form a classic Victorian ‘tower brewery’, where the brewing process flows naturally from floor to floor without the aid of mechanical pumps.
The brewery’s mash tun and the fermenters are made of wood, and only the finest raw materials — Maris Otter malting barley and English hops — go into them. And the finished beer is delivered to local pubs by horse-drawn drays with drivers who wear the obligatory bowler hats of the Victorian period.
It would be easy to dismiss Hook Norton as a relic or a laughable Walt Disney impression of ‘olde England’. But it works. It owns 45 pubs and has an additional 300 other accounts. Its beers are widely available and its strong bitter, Old Hooky, brings tears to the eyes of connoisseurs.
When a company is so steeped in history and tradition, it takes a great deal of thought to slot a new and daringly modern beer into the long-standing portfolio. However, managing director James Clarke — a member of the brewery’s founding family — and his team sat down last year to design a beer that would be definably ‘Hooky’, but reach out to younger drinkers.
In common with other older breweries, Hook Norton’s sales team are well aware that sales of brown bitters are static or declining. It’s young drinkers who will maintain and drive the cask beer revival and many of them want ales that are both pale and distinctively hoppy.
And so the Lion is now roaring loudly in the Cotswold hills. Lion stands for both beauty and strength. It’s widely used in the world of brewing — the famous Munich lager Löwenbräu means ‘lion brew’ — and Hook Norton has had to clear all the legal hurdles to avoid infringing existing trademarks.
The result is not just another golden ale. The brewery has one, Hooky Gold, a summer seasonal beer.
Lion is a pale bronze beer and cleverly straddles the golden ale and bitter divide. It’s brewed with Maris Otter pale malt, but with a dash of two darker grains, caramalt and crystal. The hops are all English: Cascade, Bramling Cross, Fuggles and Goldings. Bramling Cross is used as a ‘late hop’ during the copper boil, for additional aroma and bitterness. Cascade is an American variety, but is now being grown in England and has a renowned citrus/grapefruit character.
The end result is a beer with a superb aroma of orange and lemon fruit with a touch of blackcurrant from the Bramling Cross hops, and pine-like hop resins and rich biscuit malt. The citrus and blackcurrant fruit build in the mouth, balanced by tangy hop resins and juicy malt.
The finish is bittersweet, dry but not overly bitter, with tart fruit, cracker-like malt and peppery hops.
It’s a modern beer from a brewery that, in the age of ‘nimbyism’, would probably never get off the drawing board today in such a spellbinding country location. Attitudes were different in the 19th century.
The brewery was launched in 1850 by John Harris, a farmer who grew barley and made malt. He thought it would make good business sense to brew beer as well. His timing was perfect as a new train line was being dug near the village and thirsty navvies poured into the local pubs in search of throat relief.
The brewery was substantially expanded and rebuilt in the 1890s. The architect was William Bradford, who specialised in designing tower breweries: he also built Harveys of Lewes, in East Sussex, and Tolly Cobbold in Ipswich, Suffolk. All three breweries carry his signature of a pagoda-shaped roof.
James Clarke and his team of brewers and marketing people are building on their beer range with Lion. They have stayed loyal to mild with Hooky Dark and have two renowned traditional ales, Hooky Bitter and Old Hooky. Their Double Stout is one of the best of the breed and proves that dark beers still find favour with beer drinkers.
The brewery has a spacious visitor centre where you can sample the beer range and take away bottles and polypins. Brewery visits can also be arranged: visit www.hooknortonbrewery.co.uk or call 01608 730384.
You can’t beat a good beer and a time warp.