Behind the Scenes – Hook Norton Brewery

Cask masters

Hook Norton Brewery is one of the few remaining family-run beer makers in the UK. Producing more than four million pints a year, it began pumping out beer in the mid-19th century, and many of the old techniques are still used today. ANNA POINTER went along to find out more…

Hidden away in a sleepy village on the edge of the Cotswolds, Hook Norton Brewery is often likened to Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory – and it’s easy to see why. Located at the end of the aptly named Brewery Lane, the Grade II listed stone and timber-framed brewery is a magical relic of the Victorian era which has barely changed since it was completed in the late 1890s. Designed by the renowned industrial architect William Bradford, the brewery now attracts more than 10,000 visitors every year and contains many original pieces of machinery, including a working steam engine.

Located a few miles from Chipping Norton, it was originally established by local farmer John Harris to refresh local labourers. Following his death, it was taken on by Alban Clarke, the great-great-grandfather of the current managing director, James Clarke. “We’re very proud that the brewery has passed down through our family for 170 years,” says James. “It’s come all the way down to my own father, then to myself, and now my son George works here too.”

The 40 people employed on-site are spread across the five-storey brewery, the stables, visitor centre, museum, shop and restaurant. “There’s always something going on,” James says. “Beer making is a 365-day operation and even on Christmas Day, it has to be stirred by hand. We make 15,000 barrels a year, and each needs lots of attention and care.”

All in the process

Beer making is split between the main brewery and the much smaller microbrewery. It begins with crushing malt in a gristmill – which provides sugars needed for fermentation. The malt is then mixed with hot water in a mash tun. “Mashing creates a sweet liquid called wort,” explains brewer Andy Thomas, who has worked at the brewery for nearly four years. The wort is run into large copper vessels for boiling, and hops are added. “Once it’s cooled, the seven-day fermentation starts. During this time, we rouse the beer, stirring it by hand with a paddle, and gradually skim off the yeast that forms on top. Finally, we cool the beer to 55°F (13°C), and then it’s ready to be casked.”

Tried and tested

In the microbrewery, Andy scoops up the used malt, which is sent to local farmers as animal feed. “The microbrewery is a real playground for us. In here, we can try lots of different hops for our lower-volume craft ales. It’s great fun – especially when you get to taste the finished product,” he says.

The appliance of science

Brewer Janet Tailby is involved in the science of beer. “Here in the lab we do microbiological tests, and test the colour, taste, bitterness and alcohol content. We’ve occasionally had to throw out a whole batch – usually because of a mechanical breakdown that causes the beer to get too warm,” she says. Janet also measures the carbon dioxide in beer, and a recent shortage of it across Europe sparked alarm. “It gives the beer fizz and the head on top, so the shortage caused problems for our bottlers. It’s not good for beer to hang around, so it was worrying for a while.” After 20 years at Hook Norton, Janet still enjoys tasting all the beers – “but only in the line of duty, of course!”

A talented team

Managing director James and his son George are both heavily involved in day-to-day operations. “Being family-run, we have a benevolent way of working, so our staff are multi-skilled and all pitch in and do a bit of everything,” says James, who became the MD in 2004. George initially helped out only at weekends and says: “It’s always been part of my life. On any given day, I can be brewing, cask racking, cleaning or just about anything else.”

Hook Norton’s core beers consist of Hooky, Hooky Mild, Old Hooky and Hooky Gold, and the brewery has a bottled range and seasonal varieties too. “When I first started, people had a pint at lunchtime, then a couple more after work, but now they might go to the gym instead. Dry January is tough for us as demand drops, so this new year, we’ll be using the time to repaint!”

No pain, no gain

One of George’s regular duties involves hauling up heavy sacks of malt to the second-floor storeroom, using a traditional hoist. Despite running up and down steep stairs every day, he loves the manual work. “Being so active is great – I could never sit at a desk all day. The beer always tastes better when you’ve worked up a sweat making it, too.”

Bottled up

Alan Gale is one of the longest-serving employees and says, “I’ve been here for 26 years – it’s in the blood. Normally I’m down in the cellar handling the casks, but you do whatever needs doing. I’m on the forklift today, helping to get these bottles out.” Although the beers are bottled off-site, they come back prior to delivery to retailers – which include Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as dozens of pubs.

Steaming and cleaning

One of the brewery’s main attractions is an original Buxton & Thornley steam engine made in 1899, used to pump water up from an underground well. Production manager Ben Stowe keeps it running for visitors today. “People love seeing it in action,” he says. “Twenty years ago, it ran for eight hours a day, but it wasn’t economical, so now we use electric motors instead.” Ben also spends much of his time cleaning. “All the vessels have to be hand-cleaned when they’re emptied, and again before they’re filled,” he explains. “We physically climb in and wipe everything down with special sterilising products. People don’t realise that brewing is actually 80 per cent cleaning.” Despite this, Ben enjoys his role, adding, “It offers unique challenges you wouldn’t find in other jobs. I came here for three weeks and have stayed 20 years!”

Top of the hops

Hook Norton uses seven tonnes of hops per year, with most grown on farms in Hereford and Worcester. Hops prevent souring and add aroma, and James says, “There are many different types; these green hops give the beer a slightly different character. They’re harvested in autumn, but this year, the quantity was down because of the hot summer.”

Horse power

In keeping with tradition, Hook Norton still uses a horse and dray to deliver beer to four local pubs within a five-mile radius – making it one of only three breweries in the UK to do so. “We deliver three times a week with our shire horses Lucas and Commander, and my dog Bella comes for the ride too,” says groom Elizabeth Csak. Responsible for feeding and cleaning the horses in the stables every day, she adds, “Horses are like kids – there’s always something they need. But I’m lucky, as it’s a special, rewarding job.” Surprisingly, the horses are partial to a drop of ale. “They could drink a lot – but we don’t let them, obviously!”

Words of wisdom

Elizabeth is assisted in the stables by Roger Hughes – who still works part-time at the age of 73. “I’ve been here for 27 years. I’m a loquacious old character, so I help with PR by telling people all about our heritage. They seem to love it.”

Multitasking

Marketing and retail assistant Sophie Kirk’s brewery experience began with a Saturday job while studying for her A levels. “That led to a full-time job, and now my role is mainly running social media and organising events. I also work behind the bar and in the shop. There’s such a lovely atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly.”

Taking orders

Matt Duval works in the sales office, taking orders from pubs. “Our beers go to 36 Hook Norton-run pubs, as well as lots of independent free houses. It’s a really nice place to work. I wasn’t an ale drinker when I first started, but in three years, I’ve been converted. The place has that effect on you.”

Sharing the knowledge

With brewery tours running seven days a week, and up to five per day at weekends, Hook Norton relies on volunteer guides. Retiree Malcolm Black has been conducting tours for 12 years and says, “I think I’m fairly knowledgeable by now. I enjoy meeting people and sharing the history of these lovely buildings.”

Photos by – Paul Groom

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