Adnams Family Values
Somerset CAMRA Pints of View, July-Oct 2000
By Adrian Tierney-Jones
It's getting harder to find. That delicious, malty aroma
which wafts over a small town where brewing has been carried
out for centuries. Ask the beer-lovers of Horsham or Oxford,
whose family breweries have closed in the last couple of
years. It's not to everyone's sense of smell, but I find
the aroma of rich maltiness accompanied by the sight of
a plume of white steam bellowing out from the boil an inspiring
sight - an incentive to thirst.
I recently spent a fortnight in Southwold where family
brewers Adnams rule the roost. The brewery is slap in the
middle of this quaint Victorian town. The pubs serve nothing
but the best kept Adnams in the country. Even across the
river Blyth in Walberswick village the aroma of brewing
sharpens the appetite as you wait for the Bell Inn to open.
Southwold would be a difficult town for a holiday if you
were teetotal. Everywhere you turn there are reminders of
Adnams. Cart-horses lumber along the street pulling a dray
loaded with casks. The pubs dispense good cheer and invite
constant exploration. It was outside the Red Lion one Saturday
lunchtime that I spent a happy half-hour exploring the complexities
of Broadside - an ale which takes the drinker to the heart
of Adnams. If you've ever crunched Maris Otter Malt or Crystal
Malt; or crushed Fuggles or Goldings in your hands and inhaled
the result, or walked through a hop store, then a sip of
Broadside takes you through its birthplace - the brewery.
That's the joy of Adnams beers - they have a sense of place.
The French have a phrase for the mysterious qualities of
an area which makes a specific wine so special: terroir.
In this country big brewers have raided distinctive ales
and brewed them all over the shop. Adnams' ales, on the
other hand, have a terroir.
Roger Protz wrote that Adnams ales have a seaside-salty
quality and he's right - there's a subtle, almost-beyond-the-range-of-the-palate
tang of the seaside among the heavenly malty, hoppy and
fruity ales of Adnams. That might sound a bit odd until
you imagine the deliciously briny sweetness of fresh shellfish.
The pubs are Southwold are fantastic. The snug, but bustling
confines of the Lord Nelson awoke me to the hoppy, floral
qualities of Adnams Extra - a beer which sadly has been
discontinued in draught but can is still bottled as Suffolk
Strong. The Lord Nelson is a one-bar pub, its walls decorated
with Nelsonian and Southwold prints. There's also the odd
cutlass hanging above the bar. It has a delightful cast
of local characters, including one chap who looks like the
lost member of the Everly Brothers. The beer is, of course,
But to discover the pumping heart of Adnams you have to
visit the brewery. The gregarious Mike Powell-Evans is the
head brewer, and myself and two friends met there on a biting
cold Tuesday morning in early April. He has been with the
brewery for many years and explains the mysteries of brewing
in the clearest and most precise way, so that even someone
like myself who still gets his mash tun mixed up with his
copper goes away totally illuminated.
'I'll explain as if you know nothing about brewing,' he
says at the start of a tour which took two hours. 'Imagine
a Weetabix,' he said, 'then you add your milk and then your
sugar. Now lift the Weetabix out of the sugared milk. That's
how the first stage of brewing works.'
We crunched samples of Maris Otter, which is so reminiscent
of Horlicks or Ovaltine. Then Crystal Malt, which is like
toffee without the sweetness, a warming, soft taste in the
mouth. Finally, Chocolate Malt, with definite espresso coffee
notes. Maris Otter barley is expensive but Mike is committed
to using the best ingredients. Hops are Fuggles and Goldings,
plus First Gold, which Mike was very enthusiastic about.
'This is the future,' he said as he rolled a cone in his
fingers. 'because it is very cost effective, easier to pick,
easy to look after.' Will it replace Goldings and Fuggles,
I asked. 'No,' comes the answer. 'First Gold, to use an
analogy, is the condiment, Fuggles and Goldings will still
Adnams may be a traditional brewery. It may lie at the
heart of a very traditional town, but inside the process
of making beer is as high-tech as you can get without losing
your soul. Machines keep an eye on temperatures, yeast is
no longer pitched but flows into the fermenters automatically
through a valve system. And after five to six days of fermenting
the beer is racked into casks, automatically, though hop
pellets for dry hopping the Bitter are added by hand.
After the tour, the tasting. We were taken into a deep
recess of Adnams where barrels and bottles were neatly stacked.
On the wall, ancient Adnams advertising posters were next
to some of the many awards Adnams have received from CAMRA.
We started off with Adnams Mild, which as Mike explained
will be brewed no more. It used to be an all-year beer but
became seasonal. 'I pleaded with local branches to drink
the stuff,' said Mike, 'but sales have remained the same.
A lot of the last brew will have to be chucked down the
I am the wrong person to judge mild. I tried it at the
excellent Sole Bay Inn on my first night in Southwold and
found it characterless. Someone else, who enjoyed mild,
said it was superb. At the brewery I could detect a slightly
pleasing nuttiness but it wasn't for me. We also tried Adnams
Bitter, Extra and Broadside. They were all superb.
I had heard rumours in the town of a new Adnams beer and
saw a barrel on the floor which might or might not have
been a test brew of Fisherman's Ale, which has recently
been announced as a successor to Oyster Ale and Old Ale.
Mike himself was cryptic. But what he did emphasise was
that Adnams and himself were passionate about real ale.
He means it as well, but I suppose I should mention the
grumbles I read on a real ale internet newsgroup about the
brewery's direction. Some people thought that the introduction
of a new 5.2% pale beer, Trinity Ale, seemed to be trying
for the younger, trendier drinker, the sort who guzzle Old
All I can say is that if it introduces them to the delights
of Broadside and Bitter then all power to Adnams as their
beers are some of the best in this country. I just hope
that it's just a rumour that Tally Ho hasn't been axed.
Believe it or not I made it out of Southwold. One
lunchtime the wife drove me to the village of Earl Soham,
where the Victoria is home to Earl Soham brewery, which
has been going for quite a few years. On the day we arrived
the brewery was in the process of moving a hundred yards
down the road. The Victoria is
a two-room pub, and there was a welcoming open fire glowing
away. It's a no-frills pub but very popular and has good
food. Four ales were on: Mild, Victoria Bitter, Albert Ale
and Sir Roger's Porter. After tasting three of the beers,
we went to Laxfield, where the King's Head is a classic
rural country pub, unspoilt by progress. The beers came
from Adnams, Greene King and one guest (Bartram's) and are
dispensed from the barrel. The landlord George Coleman admitted
it was a bit hard on the feet dispensing ales all day but
he ran a fantastic pub which had been bought by nine locals
a few years back when it looked like closing. The pub is
multi-roomed and has ancient wooden settles and pictures
of the village through the years on the wall. We arrived
after 2pm and there were still a few customers enjoying
a pint and a chat - at least one rural pub is making a success
Ales from Earl Soham
- Sir Roger's Porter (4.2%) Dark winter ale, which is
toffeeish on the nose without being too sweet. On the
palate there are hints of dark chocolate and malt. Not
a bitter beer.
- Victoria Bitter (3.6%) Fruity on the nose (elderflower),
with a fruity palate giving way to a good satisfying maltiness
plus a gentle sweetness.
- Albert Bitter (4.4%) A pronounced malty nose with a
chewy maltiness on the palate, with hops in the finish.
Reminiscent of a Scotch Ale
- As for the Gannet Mild (3.3%) I didn't try it but the
locals said it was very good.
copyright adrian tierney-jones