This last month has been full of ‘firsts’ for me – not in a competition sense, but more in a significant life experiences kind of way. To list a few, there was my first taste of Krug rosé, my first pint of Guinness ever (a bona fida one, on Irish soil), my first taste of concrete in a cocktail (Concrete Sazerac at the sublime new ‘Dandelyan’ bar) and my first ever visit to a brewery. While all four were clearly important milestones in my ever evolving journey through the alcoholic beverage world, the brewery visit was perhaps the most impactful of them all. Thanks mainly to work, I’ve visited several wine regions and seen the inner workings of several wineries and spirit distilleries but beer isn’t necessarily my area of expertise, so a brewery visit to me was a bit like stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – a fascinating, if at first bewildering, experience.
The sum total of my knowledge of beer production prior to this week consisted of three words – barley, hops and yeast (and I mean words in the most basic sense – that is with no meaning attached to them in my brain). OK, maybe that’s extreme – I know what yeast does as it’s also an intrinsic element in wine, but as for the other two, well, my understanding of their roles in beer was more in line with my understanding of astrophysics or atomic particles. In all honesty, before this week, I would not have been able to describe what hops looked like (if pressed, I’d have said like a Mexican jumping bean) let alone describe their role in beer.
Of course I’m no stranger to beer itself, it’s just I never really ‘got it’ but then last week I visited a family run brewery in the Cotswolds – Donnington Brewery. The Craft Beer revolution of the last few years has recruited a legion of new ale / beer fans and encouraged people like me to explore the category and occasionally venture so far as to order something with the word ‘ale’ on it. But no matter how pretty the label or how helpful the bartender is, nothing compares to witnessing the production process first hand and meeting those who bring a product to life.
Nestled in a luscious green valley, hugged tightly by rushing stream Donnington Brewery was established in 1865 and is still powered by a watermill which in a previous life milled corn and cloth. A couple of miles from Stow on the Wold, the brewery setting is eye-wateringly idyllic, and was the perfect place to discover the heritage and craft of English Real Ale – just see below!
The brewery is one of few remaining tower breweries and at the very top, the process starts with the barley which is lifted up through the tower on a pulley system before being milled in this 100+ year old machine…
The Mash Tun where the barley and liqueur (water from the Cotswold stream) are combined:
Inside the Copper Still where the boiling happens and first lot of hops are added to influence the bitterness of the beer:
The yeast doing its work:
The finished product!