FROM the days of a brewery on every corner during the 16th century to the growth of big breweries of Victorian times, Oxford has long been a city built on beer.
The past decade has seen the city’s passion for local brews rekindled after a period when the market was dominated by large breweries and multinationals.
In centuries past smaller breweries had been the norm, with many colleges producing their own beer alongside other small businesses.
Now brewing has come full circle.
Josh Walker, head brewer at the Shotover Brewing Company, checks some hops
Since Morrells brewery in the city closed in 1998 a number of microbreweries have emerged to fill the gap in the market, and even established breweries have got in on the microbrewing trend.
There are now 21 independent breweries in Oxfordshire, 14 of which have opened since 2000 and there are plans to open a new brewery beneath the post office in St Aldate’s.
Treasurer of the Oxford branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) Steve Lawrence, from Abingdon, said the growth in microbreweries was the biggest change to the beer scene in the city in recent years.
He said: “Morrells and Halls used to dominate in this area but that is no longer the case. It has become easier for microbreweries to set up and break into the market. The equipment is cheaper than it was and provided you have some buildings to operate in you don’t need an awful lot of money to brew.
“Oxford has always had good breweries and once microbreweries start opening up then others will follow them, like you might see with restaurants or certain types of shop all opening in the same area of a city.
Microbrewing in Oxfordshire is a mixture of old breweries like Hook Norton which have branched out into smaller scale ventures and newer businesses like White Horse Brewery and The Shotover Brewing Company in Horspath.
Shotover, which was founded in 2009, grew out of former management consultant Ed Murray’s passion for home brewing and has now developed into a successful business.
Ed Murray of The Shotover Brewing Co
He said: “After 30-odd years of hobby brewing and a desire to move closer to home after a lot of travelling in my old job, I decided to set up a new brewery. Brewing is a bit of a family tradition, my father did it and he got me into it and Shotover is what it’s all led to.
Mr Murray believes that changing tastes and attitudes in the last decade are one of the reasons for the boom in craft beers. He said: “One reason is that people are developing a taste for beers with more flavour rather than bland, mass-produced lagers.
“Sometimes people say there are less people drinking beer in Britain but what you’ll actually find is that while commercial beer sales are dropping, ours are rising.”
“We’re able to really get involved in the community in a way big commercial breweries can’t.
“For example we’re producing a beer called the John Henry for Oxford Brookes University to celebrate their 150th anniversary.”
Since the turn of the century, beer sales have dropped by seven per cent but real ale sales have gone in the other direction, rising by the same amount, according to a recent industry study, the Cask Report.
In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, the real ale industry in Britain was worth £1.7bn, a three per cent rise on the previous year.
The growth of microbreweries in Oxfordshire can be traced in part to the craft brewing trend which took off in the United States from 1979.
White Horse Brewery, in Stanford in the Vale, near Faringdon, opened in 2004, just in time to catch the crest of the craft beer wave in Britain.
Brewing director Steven McCormack agrees with Mr Clarke that one reason for the growing popularity in craft beer lies in changing tastes in the current generation of beer drinkers.
He said: “When I started out in the brewing industry 27 years ago the sort of people who drank real ale wore jumpers and sandals and had big beer bellies. I used to go out for a pint with my friends and they’d say, ‘I don’t want real ale, that’s what my dad drinks’.
“Now you have a generation of young people who say, ‘I don’t want lager, that’s what my dad drinks,’ and they go for beers with much more flavour.
The Cask Report backs these claims, with statistics showing 20 per cent of real ale drinkers are aged under 35, just one per cent lower than the percentage who drink beer as a whole. A majority of landlords surveyed (63 per cent) said ale was attracting younger customers into their pubs.
Mr McCormack, who started brewing at the age of 15, said perceptions of what will sell have also changed.
He said: “I did a brewing course and they told us that because larger didn’t have a strong taste people would drink more of it and it would make more money. I never bought into that, I’ve always believed if you make a beer with good ingredients that tastes great, people will pay more for it. They might not drink more but they’ll appreciate a premium product when they taste it.”
James Clarke, managing director of long-established North Oxfordshire brewery Hook Norton, agrees the change in attitudes has helped real ale sales and believes craft beer has a particularly bright future in Oxford.
James Clarke of historic Oxfordshire brewery Hook Norton has just opened a micro-brewery to research and develop new beers
His brewery has just opened a microbrewery on site which will be used for research and development of new beers and different styles.
He said: “Oxford has a magnificent beer scene. The main reason, I suppose, is that you’ve got a working population, you’ve got students and you’ve got tourists. That makes for a good turnover but because Oxford is a city with strong traditional values you also find people are more likely to drink quality beers.
“More broadly speaking, people have become more health conscious in recent years and a better quality beer won’t be full of the additives of mass-produced commercial beers.”
Mr Clarke also said more women are drinking beer than ever before.
He said: “Women are every bit as adventurous as men when it comes to trying new beers and their palates are generally more discerning.
“Pubs have realised there’s a gap in the market and they’re catering more for women now. Beer comes in better glasses and it’s much easier now to get a smaller measure if you want.”
Mr Lawrence agreed that the increasing popularity of beer among women is a significant boost to Oxford breweries.
He said: “Beer is no longer seen as an exclusively male thing. We always saw more women drinking beer in Oxford than elsewhere because it’s an educated and cosmopolitan place, but I think more women drink it now than ever before.”
Hop to it and start brewing your own
ALL beer is made up of just four ingredients; water, starch (usually malted barley), hops and yeast.
This makes it relatively easy to brew in your own home.
Brewing kits consisting of a fermenting barrel and accessories such as an airlock and syphoning tube are available from various outlets, including Boots and Lakeland, from about £20.
Beer kits with malt barley extract, hop extract and brewing yeast start from about £25 for 40 pints worth of ingredients, putting the cost of a home-brewed pint at around 60p. After you’ve picked up a kit there are five main steps in brewing your own beer:
- Soak the malted barley in hot water to release the malt sugars
- Boil the resulting malt sugar solution with hops for seasoning
- Cool the solution and add yeast to begin fermentation
- The fermentation of the sugars releases CO2 and ethyl alcohol
- Once the fermentation is complete, bottle the beer or store it in a sealed container and add some sugar to provide some fizz, if desired.
Breweries in Oxfordshire, according to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2014
- Adkin – Wantage
- Appleford – Brightwell-cum-Sotwell
- Bell Street – Henley-on-Thames
- Bellinger’s – Grove
- Betjeman – Wantage
- Brakspear – Witney
- Compass – Carterton
- Complete Pig – Britwell Salome
- Faringdon – Faringdon
- Fisher – Noke
- Hen House – Whitchurch
- Henley – Henley-on-Thames
- Hook Norton – Hook Norton
- Loddon – Dunsden
- Loose Cannon – Abingdon
- Old Bog – Oxford
- Old Forge – Coleshill
- Shotover – Horspath
- Thame – Thame
- White Horse – Stanford in the Vale
- Wychwood – Witney
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