Around The Herts Cask Breweries

Written by Les Middlewood

To coincide with the pubs re-opening at the start of July, we spoke to our local Hertfordshire brewers – what have they been doing during lockdown and how are they looking forward?

3 Brewers of St Albans. At the advent of lockdown 3 Brewers launched a home delivery service of bottled beer and mini-kegs which has gained much popularity as did the launch of a new beer – Blonde (ABV4.2%) in aid of the Save St Albans Pub Campaign. Selling out in a fortnight a new batch was quickly brewed and the light and fruity beer is now permanently part of 3 Brewers bottled beer range. A number of virtual Meet the Brewer events also took place. 3 Brewer’s Mark Fanner said “Since I started our home delivery service I’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by the support and goodwill shown by local beer lovers. In fact, we’ve gained a small army of new fans just through word of mouth recommendation. I can’t wait till we’re able to put on a bit of a ‘do’ at the farm to thank everyone who’s supported us through these tricky times.”

Bog Brew. The Stevenage brewer has used the lockdown to make major changes. The brewery has been moved to a newly acquired property next to the Bog Brew micro-pub, the Broken Seal in Stevenage Old Town which has remained open during lockdown selling take-out beers and delivering to homes in the town. The new building will also feature a snooker club with a range of Bog Brew beers and busy owner and brewer, Paul Clinton, has also created an outside space for drinking. During the lockdown, with many wholesalers shutting up shop, Paul has created direct accounts with the likes of Abbeydale, Siren and Yonder whose beers have featured regularly and this will continue. Paul says “I’m knackered! With staff furloughed moving the brewery took up much of my time, but the lockdown has strangely given me the chance to move forward by taking on the new building and moving the brewery which now gives us new opportunities. Things feel positive. People who can adapt and change can often survive and do ok – I hope all the hard work will prove that this is the way for us. Cask brewing is back up and running with favourites like Barking Spider (ABV3.8%) back at the bar.

Buntingford. Brewing at Therfield near Royston, Buntingford have brewed throughout lockdown with their Polar Star (ABV4.4%) blonde American hopped summery beer proving to be a huge hit with local drinkers who have been able to collect from the brewery or take advantage of the brewery’s home delivery service, which is set to continue post lockdown. A new link with Cam Valley Ciders has also provided excellent ciders for customers. Buoyed by the new strong home customer base that has been gained, the core range of beers were available on a rotating basis with around three available at any one time. A new beer has now been added to the range – look out for Riwaka Station a New Zealand hopped Pale Ale (ABV4.4%) which has been a huge success receiving fantastic feedback. Buntingford’s Tony Liversidge says “We have been really pleased with the home delivery take-up – it has meant we have brewed throughout. In recent times we’ve had a torrid time at the brewery but those days are past and we have gained new pub accounts. Being a perfectionist at heart, I can say that we now have beers of great consistency and quality and we are instilling that into all of our brews.” A July seasonal beer has been the golden ale Sun Star (ABV4.1%) and expect the re-appearance of some familiar autumn beers. “I’m planning a black cherry chocolate porter and for the first time in many years we are planning for a Christmas brew”.

Farr Brew. Based near Wheathampstead, Farr Brew have continued brewing during the lockdown period and the beer take-away service at the brewery and some of its pubs have shot ahead – Saturdays have attracted large queues at the brewery, stretching around the block. We spoke to Farr’s Matt Elvidge who says “The lock-down period has been a tough and stressful time behind the scenes but we’ve been heartened by so much goodwill and positivity from customers – our customer base has actually increased during the lockdown! We have been really keen to look after our staff and brewer Jason Moylan has been doing a great job, even introducing two new beers – Farr Apart (ABV4.8%) a dry-hopped light-coloured beer brewed with mosaic hops and Farr And Away (ABV4.5%) which is a double dry hopped craft keg beer utilising Amarillo and Cascade hops. We are excited and looking forward to fully bedding in and re-opening our fifth pub acquisition, the Elephant and Castle at Amwell, where we have spent the lockdown making improvements both inside and out. We open with three Farr Brew cask ales plus two handpumps for national ales – one being Greene King Abbot – and a traditional cider. We have massively increased our lines at the pub and there is now a large and diverse range of whiskies and gins – some locally distilled. Our food offering majors in locally-sourced ingredients. To top it all, the pub garden has been tidied and further improved to cater for children with newly-installed equipment. At the Red Cow in Harpenden pub take-aways have been flat-out. Lock-down has been a difficult time to endure but we have been hard-working and innovative and are feeling very encouraged and positive for the remainder of the summer and the future”.

Garden City. Cask brewing continued at a fairly normal pace during lockdown at Letchworth’s micro-brewery and pub. Although the pub has remained closed at the bar it has been open for take outs and local deliveries in Letchworth. Garden City’s Holly Rolfe says “Like many small businesses we had to adapt to survive very quickly. We have been open reduced hours throughout and since lockdown for walk-in takeaways, pre-ordered collections and local deliveries and have seen enormous support for these services, which has grown over time and shows no real sign yet of abating. We’ve gained many new customers following recommendations from friends and neighbours and have a real sense of community which has continued throughout this period – many people expressing thanks to us for staying open, delivering and giving them a ‘slice of normality’ (as well as some great beer) during those odd, distanced months of April & May especially. We have been brewing on average once a week – all our beer goes directly to local drinkers. Our copper bitters have sold well – Garden City Bitter” (ABV4.3%) and “Old Git” (ABV4.2%) – as have our pales from our session beers like “Holly’s Comet” (4.2%) to several very popular batches of “1903 IPA Chinook” (ABV5.4%). Our dark beers have a big following and we did a one-off session pale “Brew 250″ (ABV4.0%), our 250th brew! We even celebrated our 4th Birthday in early June via a Socially Distanced Cider Festival which was also a celebration of us winning the CAMRA North Herts Cider Pub of The Year”

Gold Bear. Hertford-based but brewing at Green Jack brewery in Lowestoft, Gold Bear ceased brewing cask ale during the lockdown. This position is now sadly likely to be permanent, with Gold Bear now producing craft keg canned beers. Gold Bear’s Steve Millburn explains “We have taken stock of our situation and decided to withdraw from the cask ale field. However, we are still brewing and currently have a citrusy craft keg American IPA (ABV4.2%) called Klondike, available in cans.”

Hadham. Brewing continued at Little Hadham throughout the lockdown – Dragonfly (ABV4.2%) a popular golden beer June/July favourite. Hadham cask beers were available in many of the local pubs that remained open for take-away beer during the period. A takeaway shop at the brewery is open for cask and bottle-conditioned beers.

McMullen’s. In June McMullen’s re-started brewing its cask beers after a cessation brought on by the lockdown caused by the coronavirus Covid-19. Not that Mac’s had been quiet during the period – it had run a drive-through NHS Shop in various brewery and pub locations in Hertfordshire providing fresh food produce for NHS staff at cost price and run a number of drive-through off-licences, offering bottled beers which had continued to be brewed throughout the lockdown. We spoke to Fergus McMullen in early July about the effects the enforced closure has had on the brewery he said “First off, I must say a huge thanks to our fantastic staff. This has been an incredibly difficult time for all and our staff – from HQ personnel, brewers, maintenance staff, draymen and all those working at our pubs have been amazing. We have had to furlough so many but as our pubs planned to re-open our pub-based staff have shown amazing commitment to get us back up and running. But this has been across the board. As just one example, our draymen worked from dawn to dusk delivering beer to our pubs which are of course all around the south-east – delivering to all 130 pubs in just two and a half days!” Initially cask brewing has concentrated on AK and a new seasonal golden citra ale (ABV4.3%) called Normality – together with Rivertown Pale Ale – so the range of cask beers in pubs will initially be smaller than usual but will hopefully soon increase as customers return to the pubs. The company have closely followed the pub re-opening guidelines issued by Government investing heavily in staff training and the provision of sanitising measures, signage and PPE at all of its pubs. Fergus said “This early re-opening period is going to be so important to us, we are doing everything we can to give our guests a great experience within the bounds of the Government guidelines and do hope people will regather their confidence in pubs and return in substantial numbers.” Fergus worries that the re-emerging brewery and pub scene may be very different in the future – some pubs may not re-open, some may struggle as Government assistance ebbs away in the Autumn and massively hopes that a second spike of the virus does not emerge as it could be “devastating” for the industry. Each pub owning company will be taking stock after those first weeks of re-opening. He says “Like other similar brewers, we have been hit badly by the effects of the virus but with hard work we hope we have created pub environments that people will enjoy. On 4th July, other than a handful of Mac’s pubs under redevelopment, all Mac’s pubs re-opened. It will take time for them to find their feet, so there will be some re-arrangement of opening times and operating practices. Fergus asks customers to be patient and polite as staff will be trying their very best to provide a great service. Mac’s re-opening words have been optimistic and positive tempered by the reality of the situation. The conditions might not meet the normality we all enjoyed pre-lockdown but it’s an encouraging start given the restrictions that still apply.

Mad Squirrel. At Potten End cask beer brewing was initially put on hold during the lockdown and Squirrel needed to urgently conduct a total re-think of their business model. After a couple of weeks, the on-line facility for ordering beer somewhat unexpectedly began to take off and now sales have almost tripled. In April a click and collect service was opened at the brewery and arrangements were entered into with some big supermarkets. It has been a boon for Mad Squirrel having its own canning line – and canned beers are now available in local branches of Waitrose, Morrisons and through Ocado. Mini-kegs and cans have been the mainstay of lockdown production – Squirrel’s popular Sumo (ABV4.7%) produced almost totally in can. Cask beer production slowly returned – available in containers at the brewery and by July Mad Squirrel favourites Resolution (ABV4.2%), London Porter (ABV5.0%), De La Crème (ABV4.5%) and Hopfest Gluten Free (ABV2.8%) were available. Other cask beers appear in forthcoming brewing schedules. Mad Squirrel’s Sarah Blessom said “When the lockdown hit, we really had to think on our feet, to be flexible, innovative and adaptable – to reposition our business model overnight. We quickly understood that to get to the customer we needed to go directly to them. With click and collect, home delivery and new opportunities with supermarkets and beer shops we have gone a considerable way in achieving this. We knew we had a good brand and following, based on quality and consistency, and backed ourselves in these developing areas. We hope the pub trade can recover quickly. It’s going to be tough and time will tell how quickly people regather their confidence to return. But we are being positive. Our own tap and bottle shops and brewery bar all opened for on-site drinking in July with distancing and safety measures in place including an ordering option from the bar via a new app. They are doing well.”

New River. Brewing ceased in Hoddesdon during the lockdown and the popular New River beers were certainly missed during the closure period. So, it was marvellous news when we heard from the brewery that a first brew of the pale ale, London Tap (ABV3.8%) was on its way. In the second week of July, joint-owner John Bourdeaux said “I’m glad to say we are back in action. We’ve just brewed our first batch of beer since lockdown – it’s a gradual process but if the demand is there, we’ll extend our range over the coming weeks”. Judging by the large amount of encouraging support shown locally and in Social Media to the news of New River’s restart, we hope London Tap will soon be joined by other New River favourites such as the golden ale Twin Spring (ABV4.0%), Hertfordshire’s Beer of the Year Five-Inch Drop (ABV4.6%) and the smoky porter Blind Poet (ABV4.5%).

Paradigm. It took the first fortnight of the lockdown for the Sarratt brewery to readjust itself – like everyone, Paradigm were stunned with a new abrupt reality. There was no income and pre-orders were being cancelled. Some time was spent on essential maintenance but soon a new demand materialised and a new income – a whole new market for bottled beers – home delivery. In true Paradigm style, humour soon came to the fore – the boys being dubbed the Dirty Milkmen. Deliveries soon expanded to bag-in-a-box draught beers and the normal bottle trade doubled. After a first month cask beer inactivity, brewing recommenced, always allowing for a good range of Paradigm beers at any one time. Sales of Fake News (ABV3.8%) were brilliant and the two spring specials, Panic Buy (ABV4.1%) and Stir Crazy (ABV4.2%) were snapped up. As we went to publication a new galaxy-hopped special brew – at ABV4.2% – is on the way. It has no name as yet but expect one that will mark the end of the lockdown, looking forward. Joint-owner Neil Hodges says “Come lockdown, our business model had ceased! We have worked long extra hours to find our way through the difficulty, a worrying time it has to be said, but slowly things turned around and overall we can’t complain. It feels like we’ve won a battle, but can we win the war? We’ll have to see what all this trouble has caused to the pub trade and I really hope the damage is as short-lived as possible and still gives everyone opportunity.”

Pope’s Yard. Brewing in Apsley carried on during lockdown but mainly for a range of established bottled beers which are available to home delivery in the Hemel Hempstead and Watford area. Brewing of cask beer recommenced in the run-up to the re-opening of pubs and Pope’s Yard beers can be found at the Monks Inn in Hemel Hempstead, the White Lion in Apsley and the 2 Brews Café Bar in King’s Langley. Cask beers (also available in bottles) include Lacerta (ABV3.9%) infused with American hops, Quartermaster (ABV4.4%), a best bitter and Luminaire (ABV3.9%) a golden ale. Pope Yard’s Barbara Leenan says “It’s been a tough time but our local support has been fantastic. We are looking forward – as long as people drink our beers, we’ll keep on brewing them!”

Tring. Brewing continued throughout the lockdown, with Tring beers slaking many a thirst, the beers featuring at many of the pubs serving take-away beers in the 3½ months of lockdown and pub closure. The brewery’s smaller 8-barrel plant was utilised to its maximum and a full range of Tring beers has been produced in that period with Ridgeway (ABV4.00%) and Side Pocket for a Toad (ABV3.6%) proving to be the most popular beers. The brewery shop was temporarily closed to be replaced with a popular drive-thru’ takeaway service and click and collect. Tring will be assessing when to re-open the shop and pare back on the drive-thru’ but with brewing firing ahead, Fanny Ebbs (ABV3.9%) will be available until the end of August, then to be replaced by Squadron Scramble (ABV4.00%), between September and November. The additional monthly specials brewed in conjunction with Tring’s partnership with Chilterns Dog Rescue will be delayed until the New Year. A new brewery website is imminent and will allow visitors access to the web shop and the Brew2You platform. Tring’s Jared Ward-Brickett said “During the lockdown, feedback from people about our beers and what we were doing has been great – our staff have worked hard, in one case brewing six days in a fortnight. We have picked up new pub accounts and are hoping the pub scene can recover well in the coming months – we look forward to providing beers to pubs all over Herts.”

Hertfordshire’s Brewers have been doing their very best to brew and provide beers for us all during lockdown. There’s a lot of positivity being shown. Now that pubs have re-opened, we would like to encourage our publicans, drinkers and readership to seek out their beers – a local pint in a local pub!

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