The Windsor & Eton Brewery is relatively “local” to my home in the more western suburbs of London: about 20 minutes’ drive away, if there were absolutely nothing else on the road (that is, only in my dreams). It may be because the brewery’s nearness means I’ve paid more attention to it (and because I signed up to its Facebook page almost as soon as it started, which gave me regular reports of its progress) that I’ve had a distorted view of the W&E’s growth since it started last April. But it seems to have gained a reputation as a solid, consistent performer in a remarkably quick time, with three or four dozen permanent outlets signed up in less than 10 months and another 80 or so pubs and bars as regular customers.
The W&E certainly looks to have grasped the social media idea quickly, gaining more than 2,200 followers on Facebook and keeping its “community” involved with news and competitions – which is how, a little embarrassingly, I came into possession of 10 litres of free Guardsman best bitter. I can’t resist limerick contests, but as a professional writer I probably shouldn’t enter against “civilians”. Still, free beer is free beer, and picking it up was an excellent excuse to visit the brewery, where I managed to blag a quick “tour” from one of the founders, Will Calvert.
“Tour”, of course, with a new small brewery, is almost always an exaggeration: generally you stand in the middle of an enclosed space covering about the same square footage as a semi-detached house and spin round on one heel, and you’ve taken in all there is to see. But every brewery is still different, even though the raw materials and biochemical processes they work with are fundamentally the same, and I never stop enjoying hearing brewers talking about their craft.
My two general shots of the brewery interior are taken from the landing stage by the grist case: below the grist case, obviously, is the mash tun, and we then move on in the logical sequence of under-back, copper, hop-back, and, over by the far wall, three small conical fermenting vessels (there are what I believe are a couple of cold liquor tanks just in shot alongside the copper, too). Since I took these pictures, another two fermenting vessels have gone in, to cope with the expansion of the business. All the kit is new, and from the Burton upon Trent company Malrex. Will Calvert says the partners “looked at second-hand plant but it wasn’t right for us: we wanted a certain spec, both for manufacturing and also for the look, for tourists. Because in due course, tourism is a core part of our business plan, being in Windsor. So the plant had to look right for that.”
The desire to be on the Windsor tourist trail explains the presence in the brewery “hall” of a beautiful model brewery, four feet high or so, originally made by apprentices at the old Simonds brewery in Reading, and later moved to the giant Berkshire brewery by the M4 on the edge of Reading, which closed last year. The W&E brewery bid, successfully, to be its home on the excellent grounds that the model should stay in an operating brewery in Berkshire. My third picture shows Will Calvert explaining the model’s layout, which follows the typical “tower brewery” set-up: mash tun at the top (on the far right of the model, surmounted by a grist case), with the wort from the mash tun flowing into the copper in the middle (when you go round a “real” traditional brewery it’s difficult to get the correct idea of just how big an old brewery copper is, because two thirds of it is hidden below the floor the brewery hands stand on to put the hops in through the copper door). The boiled wort then flows away through a paraflow cooler (the model also shows an old-fashioned “coolship” cooler you can see better in a picture here ) to the fermenting square on the lower right of the picture, which looks to be fitted with a miniature yeast skimmer.
Windsor is, as it happens, an important footnote in the history of British brewing, since James Baverstock, who was the first British brewer to promote the use of the hydrometer (or saccharometer) as a tool in brewing beer, was a brewer/partner in Ramsbottom’s brewery, Thames Street, Windsor (later Nevile Reid) from 1786 to 1801. Baverstock was greatly admired for the quality of his beers. His successful use of the saccharometer, which enabled brewers for the first time to measure how their fermentations were progressing as the sugars turned to alcohol, led to its adoption across the brewing industry.
The partners in the W&E brewery all have considerable history themselves: Paddy Johnson, the brewer, is a former operations director at Scottish & Newcastle with an MSc in brewing science from Birmingham University and a career that began at the Horsleydown brewery by Tower Bridge in London, where he helped make Imperial Russian Stout. Will Calvert, as well as having a surname that recalls two of London’s great porter brewers from the 18th century, worked at Allied Breweries, where he gained a doctorate in yeast physiology, and also spent three years as a technical brewer with Courage, which is where he met Paddy. He later worked for Mars, the confectionery firm, in Slough, as did the brewery’s engineer, Jim Morrison, while Jim’s brother Bob – another ex-Mars man – is the company’s part-time marketing department. “I’ve known all of them for 20 years,” Will told me.
The catalyst for the enterprise seems to have been Paddy Johnson, who has spent all his life in the brewery industry: “He was looking to start a small brewery in Manchester,” Will revealed. Eventually, with Will and the Morrison brothers, all based in the south, on board, they settled on Windsor, rather than Manchester: close enough to London to be able to serve the capital’s pubs, far enough out to be able to afford decent premises. Despite being on a small industrial estate, however, the brewery is surrounded by housing on three sides, which is why, for neighbourliness, the brewery copper is exhausted to a vapour condenser, so as not to annoy the local households with the aromas of boiling hops and grain. The partners anticipated problems when they moved in: “We talked to the neighbours about it and we are sympathetic in how we operate – we talked to them and they were happy,” Will says. “People buy the story of having a brewery back in Windsor.” (I’ll accept many people don’t like it, but living near a brewery wouldn’t annoy me – I loved it when I lived in Wandsworth in the 1980s and came out of my house to be hit in the nose by the smells of brewing from Young’s up the road.)
By the mash turn on the day I looked round were the raw materials for the next day’s brew of Guardsman, W&E’s flagship bitter: Maris Otter pale malt, from the brewery’s primary supplier, Warminster, one of the two surviving floor maltsters in the UK, a spot of crystal malt for colour and flavour, and torrefied wheat, which will aid in head retention. At 7am that grain was due to be mashed with brewing liquor at 72.5C to make a mash thyat would sit at around 64.5C for an hour and a half. Then the wort is run off into the copper, and boiled for an hour and three quarters with hops, before being run through the hop back. Here the aroma hops are added, as the hot wort passes through the hop back on its way to a heat exchanger and the fermentation vessels. “That’s new,” Will says, and, pointing to the old model brewery on the far wall, “in those days they would never have added hops in the hopback.” Sticking fresh hops in the hop back for the wort to flow over is, of course, a way of getting flavour into the wort that would be boiled off if the hops all went into the copper.
W&E has a second method of adding fresh hop flavours: as it tracks the fermentation over time, using a saccharometer just like James Baverstock did, at the moment the sugar levels in the beer drop to the point at which there is just enough to power a subsequent secondary fermentation in the cask, the fermentation is put “on cool” – cooled down by the jacket around the fermenting vessel so the yeasts stop working and drop to the bottom of the fermentation vessel for cropping. At that point, since the brewery began operations, it has started adding Styrian Goldings hops in pellet form into the fermenting vessel, before the beer is racked into casks, a novel (to me, anyway) method of dry-hopping.
Different cask beer brewers have different preferences about the best point to send their beer out into the trade: some prefer to deliver it soon after racking, to let the pub cellarman look after the conditioning that brings a cask beer into top form, others like to condition it as much as possible themselves, so that it will only need to drop bright in the pub cellar to be ready for serving. W&E holds towards the former strategy. ” We think our beer tastes great in pubs because it’s fresher than other people’s. We like sending it out fresh,” Will says. “Some plan on sitting on it for two to three weeks – we prefer not to. However, what we try to do is get it more conditioned before it goes out – which is harder to do in colder weather.” The day of my visit, there was plenty of snow still on the ground, which was causing some problems inside the brewery. “We’ve had to convert our cold store into a warm store , Will said. “Over the summer we’re struggling to keep beer cold, now we’re struggling to keep it warm enough before it goes out. What we rack this afternoon we’re going to stick the casks in that box [pointing towards the cool/warm room] and try to warm it up for a couple of days just so we know when it goes out into the trade it’s in better condition.”
As you can see from the pictures, the centre of the “brewing hall” is filled with empty casks and also pallets of bottled beer: the W&E has its beers bottled under contract by Bath Ales, “they’ve got a nice line, it’s high-quality, they sterile-filter it, and it gets low oxygen levels, so it tastes fresh,” Will says. Bottle-conditioned beer is cheaper to produce, but “we don’t think the public ‘get’ bottle-conditioned beer,” Will says.
The next step for the brewery is to install a mezzanine floor in the “brewing hall” to give more room for storage. Everything so far has been funded by the four partners – ” I drew my Mars pension early, my lump sum is in this,” Will says – and so far they don’t pay themselves salaries. They make just three regular beers, Guardsman, Knight of the Garter and a “black IPA” called Conqueror, after the man who founded Windsor Castle, Duke William of Normandy. There is also a special beer, Windsor Knot, brewed for April’s wedding between another William, local boy “Wills” Windsor, and Catherine “Kate” Middleton. But that’s likely to be a rare venture by the W&E into “novelty” brews. “Even though a lot of the market is novelty-driven, with silly names, our view is, we won’t go there. We deliberately keep it simple,” Will Calvert says. “Our strategy is, in due course, quality will tell through.”
The quality is certainly there: my two five-litre casks of Guardsman were excellent, though the cold meant that plan A – keeping them in the shed – had to be dropped, because they would never have come into condition. Instead they stayed up in the loft conversion – where it was pretty much the right sort of temperature for the beer to come beautifully on form. I’d have been delighted with them even if I’d paid for them …