Hops to the shops

PUBLISHED: 21:59 17 March 2014 | UPDATED: 21:59 17 March 2014




Is there a Dengie Devil or Crafty Stoat lurking in your kitchen? It seems the answer could be a resounding yes as more and more of us are enjoying the unique flavours locally brewed ales from the county’s many microbreweries

Essex enjoys a strong tradition of brewing that dates back centuries, due in part to the acres of malting barley which have thrived on its fertile soils since the earliest days of agriculture. Indeed references to the county’s brewing heritage can still be spotted around the county, from maltings to the multitude of former and active pubs.

Turn the clock back 100 years and travellers in Essex with a thirst to quench would have been spoilt for choice as most towns and villages boasted their own unique ales. Brewers would mix barley and hops with water from the nearest source and perhaps even add local ingredients to bring distinctive qualities and flavours to each brew.

Today, very little has changed in the brewing process and this respect for tradition is proving to be the industry’s salvation. Many drinkers are tiring of the lagers so heavily promoted by big name beverage companies in the late 20th century and are discovering the delights of real ale. With the UK now boasting 1,200 breweries, up from 275 in 1985 and the highest figure for 70 years, Essex brewers are heralding a welcome revival for an industry that has taken its fair share of knocks in recent years.

‘We’ve really shaken off our sandals and beards image over the last 10 years,’ says Nigel Sadler, commercial manager at Wibblers Brewery in Mayland on the Dengie Peninsula. ‘These days more women are drinking real ale and it is very popular, some even say fashionable, among younger people too. Our customers appreciate the variety of flavours and also like to know where the drink has come from and what’s in it. It’s a journey of discovery.’

This attention on local sourcing has prompted the East of England Co-op to invite a growing number of Essex breweries to join its Sourced Locally family. Growler Brewery at Pentlow, Mersea Island Brewery, Wibblers and Shalford Brewery at Braintree are among those which now supply a range of bottled real ales direct into the Co-op’s Essex stores.

Kevin Warden, Sourced Locally manager for East of England Co-op, explains: ‘Sourced Locally is unique to the East of England Co-op and is all about enabling customers to enjoy the wonderful, high quality products that are made in their local area. Our brewers bring years of experience and expertise to bear in creating great-tasting bottled beers and it’s a pleasure to support them in getting their products to the discerning customer. ‘Real ale is a naturally refreshing drink and more easily enjoyed because of its moderate strength – often less than 4% – compared with stronger lagers that are usually above 5%. Our customers appreciate the opportunity to buy local and together we are helping Essex businesses and the local economy to thrive.’

Nigel Lawes, brewer at Shalford Brewery in the Pant Valley in Essex, began brewing in July 2007. He adds: ‘Beer making has changed little over the centuries and the process of mashing, sparging, boiling and fermenting used today would be very familiar to our ancestors, even if some of the equipment and delivery methods have changed. The varying of malt and hops to obtain just the right balance of taste and body remains an everlasting challenge and recipes are as precious as the one for granny’s homemade sticky toffee pudding.’

In Pentlow, Growler Brewery (originally Nethergate Brewery) has been making handcrafted beers using the finest quality ingredients since 1986. The company re-located to Pentlow from Clare in Suffolk in 2005 and now brews the East of England Co-op’s own Sourced Locally range: Golden ale, Ruby Ale and Dark Ale.

Cheryl Bullen, head of sales for the Growler Brewery, says: ‘Our head brewer has been with us for more than 15 years, our assistant brewer for more than five years and we have a new trainee brewer. Once we know what we want to create, the brewers use their knowledge of the various malts and hops available to design a recipe that will deliver the desired beer and off we go.

‘There are no computer programs telling our brewers when to act. Every brew is cared for individually using experience and lots of loving care. When it comes to developing a new beer, we sometimes gain inspiration from the history books. A few years ago we created beers such as Umbel Magna in which we use coriander alongside hops, it sounds unusual but herbs and spices were used historically instead of hops. The experiment paid off as Umbel Magna is the current champion speciality beer of Great Britain awarded by CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival in August 2013.’

When it comes to making the most of local ingredients, Mersea Brewery draws its inspiration from the sea. Roger Barber, who with his son Mark runs Mersea Island Brewery, says: ‘Our award-winning Oyster Stout uses lots of oats, a mixture of light and dark malts and a small amount of Fuggles hops, then we add a local twist with Mersea Island oysters incorporated into the brew. It’s a dark, delicious stout and who knows what aphrodisiac qualities it might possess!’

Latest from the Essex Life