Tuesday 10 June 2008

Beer, Glorious Beer: Touring Hook Norton

"Do not put your hands in any tubs of liquid," said Nick, our guide, as we entered the Hook Norton Brewery last week. Sensible advice anywhere, really. Putting your hands in strange tubs of liquid is a good way to lose your hand. It's also a way to get you kicked off a brewery tour. And since the whole point of a brewery tour is to get to the end of it so you can sample the beer you've just seen being made, that would be a Bad Thing.

My Lovely Wife and I toured the brewery the day after we toured the Mini factory. The effect was, quite literally, like going from the 21st century to the 19th century. If the Mini factory is all robots and laser beams, the Hook Norton Brewery is all bags of malt and tubs of liquid. Oh, there's also a steam engine: a 25-horsepower number believed to be the only one still in use for its original purpose, that original purpose being moving things--mainly water--around the brewery, since you don't really need a steam engine to make beer.

The steam engine has a seven-foot flywheel and its original 109-year-old drive belt. I don't know where you'd go if you needed a new belt. It would probably have to be custom woven from sheep intestines, kapok and gutta percha.

There were 11 of us on the tour and that was about twice as many as we actually saw working in the brewery. Occasionally as we climbed a narrow staircase or pitched up on a landing there'd be a casually-uniformed employee. A scientific-looking woman in a white lab coat was visible behind glass in one office, an array of test tubes in front of her. But otherwise, the place was almost deserted, imbued with the languid feeling you get after your third pint on a rainy day.

For a rainy day it was, absolutely pissing down. We'd taken two buses from Oxford, the first a double-decker to Chipping Norton, the second a tinier coach to Hook Norton that the driver piloted as if it were a Zodiac inflatable full of commandoes. He plowed through the narrow, twisting, flooded roads, pedal to the metal, spraying great rooster tales of foam behind us. By the time we alighted, trembling, in Hook Norton I needed a beer.

The brewery building itself looks Dickensian, and I suppose it is. They've been brewing beer in Hook Norton since 1849 and the Victorian tower brewery looked like a workhouse or asylum, steam curling up from various chimneys:
It reminded us of the building in the Japanese anime film "Spirited Away," a living, breathing thing. Inside was the best technology the Victorians had to offer: copper vats and toothed gears, sprockets and cogs and belts. It was like being inside a massive pocket watch.

Some of the cogs--as big around as dustbin lids--had wooden teeth. You never want metal against metal, Nick explained, since if the cogs seize up it's a horror to get them unstuck. If one cog has wooden teeth you can just knock them out with a hammer, pull the assembly apart and replace them. I don't know what this guy is doing, probably putting goose fat on the gudgeon ring or something:

I don't understand the chemistry of brewing beer. I have a better grasp on the consumer end of things. I believe the process involves water--called "brewer's liquor"--which at Hook Norton is pumped up from an underground well. Malt--which is roasted barley (who knew?)--is added. Hops do something important. Yeast helps things ferment. We couldn't go into the fermenting room--a stray bacterium can ruin the whole process, evidently--but Nick opened the door and swung it back and forth to waft the odors to us as we crowded outside.

"Oooh, that's lovely, that," said an older woman. "You're in the pub."

The process from start to finish at Hook Norton takes 11 days, or about as long as it takes to make 9,000 Minis.

Back in the little tasting room in the brewery's museum Nick pulled us half-pints of the various Hook Norton offerings: the malty Hooky Dark, the golden Hooky Bitter.... He opened a bottle of Cotswold Lion, a seasonal beer that tasted faintly of citrus. They were all very nice but I confess I'm partial to the beer I order whenever I'm down the pub: Old Hooky. "Beautifully balanced with a well-rounded body," is how it's described.

Like beer, like beer drinker, I say.

Can't make it to Hook Norton? Try a virtual tour instead.


Anonymous said...

That's just gorgeous. I love the photos. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I haven't been to Hooky since my student days when we used to rock up in a VW camper and buy a dozen cases of slightly out of date Hooky Double Stout for a fiver a case. Your post really brought back some good memories.

Old Hooky is great stuff (especially on draught in a good pub) and can knock your socks off, but the standard Hook Norton Bitter is a slightly less lethal, but equally palatable option. And if you come across the bottled Hooky Light Ale, God help you. Nothing more drinkable has ever been poured so delicately into beautiful brown bottles at that glorious elixir.

Sorry. Carried away. ;o)

Anonymous said...

Just ask any GCSE student, and they'll know how to make beer.

Because we all know that's what the British value in education.

Anonymous said...

I've visited the Talisker distillery on Skye and the Pere Magliore Calvados distillery in Normandy, your photos remind of each trip, and happy memories they bring back. Glad you soaking up the culture in your waning days. I've made it to Chicago (well, Lisle, anyway). Who knows what sensory delights it will hold? Good advice on the Mini, by the way, I worry about a Smartie on my commute on the GW, Beltway, and 270, not to mention Rockville Pike!

Sarah Laurence said...

It is just like Spirited Away - even the big vat and odd technology on the inside. Sounds like an excellent way to spend a rainy day. You can get Old Hooky at the Rose & Crown in Oxford in case this post is making you thirsty.

AEZ said...

Oh! OH! You made me cry mi amigo!!!!!!

Darn it, I miss Old Hooky!!!!!!
(And you, and Your Lovely Wife and the rest of the guys, of course.)

Cheers mate!

@Sarah: The R&C was the second home for the Reuters fellows 2007-08, and that's where we absolutely fell in love with that elixir.

Suburban Correspondent said...

My husband takes the kids on tours of the Old Dominion brewery. Educational, he says...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Great pics! The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) are organising a Taste of Game Week across the UK between November 10th and November 17th. The Taste of Game Week is an initiative designed by BASC to encourage those who shoot to promote game to a wider range of audience.

BASC in the Cotswolds, in association with Hook Norton Brewery, are holding a Taste of Game buffet at the Brewery Visitors Centre aimed at encouraging everyone to eat more game combined with a fabulous range of award winning real ales and bottled beers.

The evening will include a tour of the Brewery, which is a “traditional” tower brewery over six storeys, which will take approx. one hour, followed by a sampling of a variety of six beers and a delicious buffet with many different types of game. The cost of the evening will £20.00 per ticket and arrive at the Brewery between 18.00 and 18.45 for the tours which will take place at 10 minute intervals.