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, splendidly kept.

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 be used.'

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 drain.'

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 Speckled Hen.

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 of things.

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.
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Adrian Tierney-Jones