As an Englishman living in Sydney, I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been asked about our flat, warm beer. It’s an unthinkable prospect for sun-bronzed Australians in need of a cool thirst quencher, but for English beer the warmth and flatness serves purposes.
English beer has a focus on flavour, better appreciated at lower temperatures. And it’s actually not that warm; the cask containers are just kept at room temperature. We don’t need the refreshing fizz as much as you Australians, so we encourage the extraneous carbon dioxide to escape during the process of conditioning. We like to drink beer, not gas. Many English beers are more about flavour and less about the sensation of bubbles sparkling on the tongue. In the wake of Australia’s recent beer revolution Aussies are getting better at understanding this.
While I was home last year I enjoyed a mini beer tour, stocking up on a selection of southern England’s most flavoursome brews. There’s no better place to start than London, flanked by two of the country’s best breweries- Meantime in the east and Fuller’s in the west.
Fuller’s is operated at the Griffin brewery in Chiswick, close to Turnham Green tube station. Although a fair walk down Chiswick Lane, Willy Wonka’s beery side project awaits on the banks of the Thames. They’ve been brewing for over 350 years and like many British institutions, proudly focus on tradition and a rich history. I stare up at the cluster of Victorian stock brick buildings, elaborate black metal railings and the glossy red Fuller’s sign with the gold griffin atop. England often makes one feel like a time traveller.
The brewery tour is a very reasonable £10, and no area appears off limits as my party are guided past the giant mash turn and fermentation tanks, through the hop room and packaging areas before indulging in a generous range of tasters in the underground bar, surrounded by historical merchandise. After perusing their official shop I adjourn to the Mawson Arms pub for lunch, sipping their gently floral Honey Dew ale.
On another occasion I arrived at Fuller’s to find the brewery shop mysteriously closed. One of the brewery’s workers caught me loitering and seeing my disappointment asked me to follow him into in the main brewery building. Once in his office he gave me two Vintage Ales and two limited edition Imperial Stouts, free of charge! A simple act of kindness from a man I’d never seen before or since made me feel part of the Fuller’s family. I floated back towards the tube station on a high, my faith in humanity restored.
Meantime Brewery was established in 2000, reacting against the UK’s massive sales of tasteless, imported brands. They have a slick, trendy image and provide their own take on some English classics- among them an India Pale Ale that comes mightily close to the hoppy 19th Century original. Tours of the Greenwich based brewery start from £17.50 and include tastings, while two kilometres down the road you can enjoy beers at their Old Brewery pub in the handsome Naval College Gardens.
I departed London from Paddington train station and continued my journey westwards towards Oxford. A tour around the university’s intricately designed honeycomb colleges is best concluded at the ancient Turf Tavern, where in 1963 former Aussie PM Bob Hawke set a world record by downing a yard of ale in eleven seconds. What a champ. They’ve an ever rotating selection of cask beer and colourful clientele- many times I’ve spilt my beer trudging through clumps of scarf wearing students discussing Claudius.
I leave Oxford around 9pm, heading west into the heart of the Cotswolds past lush green countryside and cobbled limestone houses. It’s really worth making the trip out this way; a handful of breweries here rival anything in London, east Oxfordshire’s Compass Brewery for one. Their Symposium is a zesty wheat beer brewed with lemon and ginger; a perfect accompaniment to fresh prawns, eaten al fresco with the summer sunlight glancing off your face.
I purchase 3 bottles of Compass’ Belgian style Torp from an off-licence in Eynsham and retire for the night at a friend’s house. Its funky yeast creates some crazy flavours after the fermentation stage of brewing- red meat, prunes and chocolate all register before I’m sent into a blissful slumber.
The weather is glorious the next morning so I make a quick stop at Burford’s Highway Inn for some 15th Century ambiance and the Cotswold Brewing Company’s Lager. Forget the sugary, fizzy preconceptions you have of lager, this stuff is identical to what Tudor Noblemen drank centuries ago. Its Amarillo and Sovereign hops help create gentle profiles of elderflower and gooseberries, and the carbonation is so low I don’t feel bloated after my first pint. Their brewery is at nearby Bourton-on-the-Water, with £15 a tour covering samples and a gift to take home.
After a quick bus journey I hop on a train at Swindon. To bring the tour to a close I’m meeting a friend in Bath for its stunning Georgian architecture, treasure chest of shops and Somerset’s finest brewery- the simply titled Bath Ales. They stock the cosy Salamander Pub on John Street and the Graze steakhouse in the heart of the city. After hours of shopping it’s here that we enjoy the uber malty Gem bitter and the smooth Dark Side stout to wash down 450g of Chateaubriand, potato dauphinoise and bone marrow gravy. It’s very late by the time we part each other’s company, both supporting food and beer babies.
On the last train home I work out how many bottles I can fit into my checked baggage on the flight back to Sydney. With such a long brewing history, English beers are unmistakably the best on the planet. And the beautiful thing was I’d barely scratched the surface.