Meet the craft brewers raising the bar in Somerset
PUBLISHED: 11:12 16 October 2018
Barrel-aged beers, small batch nanobrews, even breeding their own hops, Somerset's craft brewers are building a reputation for innovation, discovers Chris Allsop
Long viewed as a land of enduring tradition, Somerset is fast becoming a hotspot for innovative craft brewing.
“Brewers in Somerset are helping to push the boundaries of what beer can be,” Neil Walker of the Society of Independent Brewers Association, explains, “and with innovative, fantastic-tasting beers they are helping to reach a new broader audience of drinkers.”
Here’s a selection of those brewers who really are at the county’s cutting edge:
Wild Beer Co.
Four years ago, Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis founded The Wild Beer Co. with the desire – as they describe it – ‘to explore the realms of taste and flavour in brewing’. Today the 2017 BBC Good Food and Farming Best Drinks Producer is on the verge of a leap into the big leagues with a new larger brewery – with restaurant, tap room, and events space – planned for a Bath and West Showground site.
That this new brewery was the product of an enthusiastic £1.9m crowdfunding campaign demonstrates the passion that fans have for Wild Beer Co’s wild yeast-fermented, barrel-aged beers – a style which Wild Beer Co. has pioneered in the UK, and now exports to over 30 countries worldwide.
“Wild Beer Co’s sour and spontaneously fermented beers take the lambic traditions of Belgium – and in some ways the cider traditions of Somerset – and apply them to British brewed beer,” Walker says.
Modus Operandi is the beer that Wild Beer’s Simon Dehany points to as the “true expression” of what the brewery is trying to do. “Modus Operandi was the first beer we brewed,” he says. “It’s a barrel-aged beer (aged in red wine and bourbon barrels) that is then blended to get to the final version.”
Wild Beer’s original Westcombe site, based in holy food union with Westcombe Dairy, is to become a “barrel-aging mecca”, according to Dehany. As you’d expect of most modern craft brewers today, Wild Beer Co. also has a core range of IPAs, pale ales and stouts that it brews alongside the funk. And tasty seasonal releases: check out its ‘East’ and ‘West’ wheat beers coming to a Waitrose near you.
Electric Bear – named for the old Bear Brewery destroyed by bombing in 1942 – is turning three this September. In that short space of time, the craft microbrewery has built a reputation for imaginative brewing that sees it export as far afield as Australia.
It all began when avid home brewer, Chris Lewis, seeded his new venture with the money from his recently sold IT company. Now the brewery, based on an industrial park in Bath, feels like it’s bursting at the seams. It produces five core beers – from its Edison British Pilsner to Inspector Remorse, a porter that tastes like liquid chocolate digestives. However, at any one time, there’ll be 10 to 15 beers in rotation, with frequent “small batch nanobrews” (such as a barrel-aged, black IPA that’s in the offing).
“Experimentation is a major part of what we do, to keep things fresh,” Chris says. “The days of building a brewery based around one kind of beer are over.”
Wedged into one corner of the brewery, near to a stack of wine barrels, is a tiny tap room where Electric Bear runs a lively events programme (see its website for updates). Upcoming is a launch party for a series of newly developed beers being released in newly enlarged cans – street food, fortunately, is usually on hand to help line your stomach.
Former nuclear engineer Rob Rainey purchased his first home brew kit from Boots. When it failed to produce the quality of beer he wanted, Rainey knocked up his own kit from scratch. From these near-mythic beginnings, Quantock Brewery was born near Taunton in 2007, with Rainey as head brewer.
Mostly known for its classic range of ales (which it continues to produce), that changed last year when substantial investment saw Quantock launch itself into the modern craft brew category. Now producing five modern brews as part of its year-round core range, the brewery has already acquired a bevy of regional and national awards for its acclaimed Titanium West Coast IPA.
“However brews that best ‘express our ambition’,” explains national craft manager Jodie Norris, “would be our ‘small batch’, exclusively available at our Bishops Lydeard tap room at the end of each month. These experimental brews where we usually only produce a single keg or cask – such as a lactose-infused Milkshake IPA or a hop-led American Red ale – allow us to show off the skills our brewers have.”
Look out for its exclusively New Zealand-hopped QBNZ returning this month – a small-batch brew back by popular demand.
The smallest craft brewer of this quartet might also, by some criteria, be the most ambitious. Owner James Davies – a former head brewer for Bristol’s Dawkin’s Ales who designed and built Tapstone Brewery by himself – believes he is the only brewer in the UK, and possibly the world, trying to breed his own hops.
“I want to bring new world flavours into our traditional hop-growing country and get rid of the stigma that UK hops are ‘only good for bitters’,” he says. “I dream of creating pungently-flavoured, high hop-oil beers from locally-grown hops. The UK hop industry needs to modernise to survive in an increasingly global market, and I want to be part of that change.”
Strong words that are backed up by Tapstone’s intriguing selection of unfined and hazy brews, such as the award-winning Voodoo Juice – a fruity 4.8% red ale brewed with ‘seven heavy hitting hop additions’ before being ‘triple dry-hopped with the most dank and resinous hops known to mankind’. Give it a try at Tapstone’s Chard-based brewery tap, opening this month.
Traditional v modern
How do you tell the difference between a traditional craft brewer and a modern craft brewer? Look at the beers produced. A modern brewer will offer styles such as West Coast IPAs, DDH (Double Dry-Hopped) hazy ales, or milk stouts. A traditional brewer will have a less technical-sounding list that will feature bitters, golden ales, and amber beers. As Jodie Norris, whose brewery produces both kinds, explains, it indicates the techniques being applied in the production process: “Traditional beers will be made with techniques such as dry hopping, whereas modern brewers will be using things like Cryo Hops (a strengthened, powdered version of hops), preconditioning the water before the beer is brewed or employing a HopGun (a machine that infuses beer with added hop flavour and aroma).”