While beer may not be an indigenously English beverage, the English sure seem to have perfected it. And of all the 1400-something breweries that exist today in the UK, there’s one particular brewery that stands out as the UK’s largest producer of organic ales and the maker of ‘the unofficial beer of Halloween’– Wychwood, Oxfordshire. The name comes from Oxford’s local Wychwood Forest and for those who are wondering what I’m on about, they’re the blokes responsible for the phenomenon that is Hobgoblin – the Legendary Ruby Ale. They weren’t always called Wychwood, though – the site belongs to an ‘Eagle Maltings’ from 1841, and they malted barley for another brewery here back then. In 1990, ‘Eagle’ was renamed to ‘Wychwood’ and the rest, as we know, is history. There’s a story behind the name, ‘Hobgoblin’, too – the beer was being served at a wedding where someone attempted to draw the bride’s face on one of the casks and its highly likely this person had consumed more than they should’ve, because what they’d drawn looked like a Hobgoblin and the name stuck. At least that’s the story we were told by Chris, our brewery tour guide.
Speaking of which, this blog is the tale of one such brewery trail that traces the journey of a humble grain to the brilliant beverage it transforms to – The Wychwood Brewery Guided Tour. However, you may sometimes find me reeling off about random nonsensical gibberish, so please excuse my ADD.
Let me start with the very basics of brewing – grains are ‘malted’ and ‘mashed’ to release fermentable sugars, which are fermented to produce alcohol (the thing that causes you to uncontrollably reveal your darkest secrets to complete strangers) and carbon dioxide (the bubbly thing that…never mind).
Based on the type/strain of yeast you use, the temperature you brew the beer at, and a few other parameters, you get either an elegant Ale or generic rubbish (lager). I won’t bother explaining lagers (for obvious reasons 😉) because this is a blog about Ales.
Ales can be broken down into Milds, Bitters, Goldens, Pale Ales, Porters & Stouts and what I like to call ‘miscellaneous’, or ‘everything else’.
And now that we’ve established what Wychwood brews, let’s move on to how they do it.
We were shown about four different types of malt that are used as the first ingredient in their brewing process –
Pale Malt – produced by roasting the Barley for a lower amount of time in the kiln
Crystal Malt – produced by roasting it a little further; this had little bits of white sugary residue released from the process and so was a little sweeter than the Pale Malt
Chocolate Malt – produced by roasting the barley till it’s a dark brown, causing it to taste like cocoa, and smell like coffee from the time spent in the kiln. Most sugars are burnt away, and using more of this malt therefore produces darker and stronger beverages like porters and stouts
Black Malt – I think you know where this is going, right?
These malts are milled in this roller mill to break apart the kernel (not Col. Sanders, he’s unbreakable just like his franchise). This makes it easier to extract the sugar during ‘mashing’, which is the next step in the brewing process. This milled grain is mixed with hot water in a large vessel called a mash tun. The plates in the mash tun allow the resulting mixture called ‘wort’, to seep through the vessel’s plates to produce a sugary concoction…which Chris pronounced as ‘wert’, but since he’s the expert, I’m not going to challenge that. Although I would’ve pronounced it like ‘court’.
Fun fact – The Brakspear mash tun filter used to look like this, and is now adorns the brewery’s floor.
Anywho, moving on – this ‘wort’ is moved to a copper tank much like this one where its boiled with hops (the second most important ingredient in brewing), of which we were shown two varieties but I’m sure Wychwood use more – English Fuggles (no that’s not the name of the owner’s cat) and English Goldings. Mr. Fuggles was grassy and mild, whereas Ms. Goldings seemed to have a sexy perfume on and smelled like Spring. After all, it was almost April. Both tasted like sh*t, though. Yeah, we ate some. We weren’t supposed to, but I couldn’t help myself. If you’re a blithering idiot like me, you’ll probably not heed Chris’ advice and regret it after approximately 45 seconds of putting it in your mouth.
Now to accent the hops, brewers add sulphates to the water, in a process called Burtonisation. The name comes from the town of Burton upon Trent – where the local water’s chemical composition had these sulphates naturally occurring in the water, leading to a lot of hoppy local beers and presumably, a lot of happy drunks. Wychwood sources their water from this town to avoid having to add these minerals artificially.
Right – so the resulting mixture is then separated in a whirlpool separator and cooled through a heat exchanger for cooling it to a temperature suitable for fermentation (18 degrees Celsius). Cold water and the warm wort flow through pipes in this heat exchanger in opposite directions exchanging heat, and the resulting hot water is re-used again, thus conserving energy. This wort is then fermented by adding yeast. If the wort is too hot the yeast will die; too cold and the yeast won’t activate. The temperature needs to be just right for controlled fermentation and not too (allowably) warm, or you’ll have yeast growing all over the brewery! Also, there’s different types of yeast for the different ales they brew, and its little differences like these that give each of their ales a distinct character, too. I wonder if that’s where their tagline of ‘Brewers of Character’ comes from.
Wychwood use a method called ‘double dropping’, which basically means that the fermentation happens in two stages. In the first stage, the wort is fermented in a vessel and is then, ‘dropped’ to another vessel (typically under the first one). This results in the inactive yeast being left behind in the first vessel, and in the second vessel – activation of yeast from the dripping and splashing about, of the wort. This method is unique to the Marston’s brand of breweries.
Anyway, so Wychwood tend to do their brewing in two batches, one at 3 AM and another at 9 AM, for which they store almost 3 tons of malt, the wort and all of these ‘intermediate ingredients’. The resulting beer is bottled off-site whilst been taken away in large trucks labelled ‘Fosters’. Strange. But then again, I’ve seen stranger things.
The tour ended with us sampling six of their beers in thimble-sized glasses. Not that the size of the glasses mattered, because we were helping ourselves from the bottles anyway!
All this was after the half pint of Hobgoblin Gold I was welcomed with. Full marks for hospitality! And if this wasn’t enough, we were each presented with a Wychwood-embossed half-pint glass as a keepsake! 😊
What a way to spend a lovely sunny Saturday! And off we were, back to the Oxford City Centre for a course of world food at Oxford’s street food market.
The brewery is located at –
10-12, Eagle Maltings, Eagle Industrial Estate, The Crofts, Witney OX28 4DP
How to get there –
By Road – via the A420
By Bus – Stagecoach S1 from Oxford City Centre
More details of the brewery can be found on their website – http://www.wychwood.co.uk/
If you liked this blog, please let me know in the comments! (If you didn’t, please click the small red ‘x’ on the top right corner of this window and pretend the last 15 minutes of your life never happened). Cheers!