Ash Vine Brewery

Somerset Magazine 1998

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Last November East Somerset brewery Ash Vine celebrated ten years in the real ale business. They've come a long way since they first started brewing beer at the site of the old Bishop's Brewery in Wellington - and they're about to go further. Ash Vine have just left their home since 1989, the White Hart in the picturesque village of Trudoxhill, for a brand new, state-of-the-art plant in nearby Frome.

Space at the White Hart had become rather cramped. 'We haven't got enough room for anything. Everything is at full stretch,' sales director Chris Clarke said before the move. He was talking in a portakabin so small you couldn't swing a firkin in it. Memories were still fresh about the time they had to knock part of a wall down just to install a vital part of brewing equipment, a new copper.

Ash Vine was set up by managing director Rob Viney when he was running The White Hart, a delightful old farmhouse-style pub, which is well worth a visit in itself. One of the beers he sold came from Bishops Brewery, set up by Cotleigh founder Ted Bishop (now in charge of Wellington-based Juwards). When Bishops stopped brewing in 1987 Rob bought the equipment and Ash Vine started up on the site of Bishops Brewery. Eighteen months later the business moved to Trudoxhill where the old stables and blacksmith's behind the pub were knocked about a bit and a spanking new micro-brewery emerged. Hence the use of a hammer and anvil on Ash Vine's pump clips.

Like a lot of micro-breweries in those days it started small. Now, it's one of Somerset's busiest breweries sending beer all over the county and across the country. It doesn't end there either. Further afield the company recently announced that their beers had been exported to Sweden and gone down very well. There were also plans to introduce American drinkers to the taste of East Somerset with a licensing deal which would allow Ash Vine's beers to be brewed across the Atlantic using yeast sent over from Frome.

Ash Vine has long been at the forefront of real ale production in Somerset. Their portfolio includes Bitter; Challenger, a refreshing reddish-brown beer with an inviting hoppy nose, a real challenge to the palate; Black Bess Porter and Hop & Glory, a blockbusting premium ale with well-balanced malt and hops followed by a satisfying bitterish finish. They also produce a different beer every month, usually with a daft name.

Last year's theme was 'pub nightmares' with individual beers christened the likes of Kill Or Cure and Trouble & Strife. Special events are also commemorated such as Euro 96 and Wimbledon while the 10th birthday celebrations were marked by the brewing of a beer called X-Traordinary. Despite this excursion into the world of special beers, Ash Vine are however keeping a happy balance between caution and overkill. It's all very well making special beers but a brewery's bread and butter lies in the regular ales which drinkers know they can get every time they go out.

'We offer a fantastic variety of different beers,' says Clarke. 'Any interesting event that takes our fancy we can have a bit of fun with. And the flippant answer to why we do it is that it is the hardest thing to make beers taste the same but making it taste different is easy.'

As for the raw materials: hop pellets are used with Goldings, Fuggles, Challenger and a bit of Target favoured; Styrian Gold occasionally makes an appearance as well. Malt comes from two sources and includes pale, maris otter, crystal, black and chocolate. The yeast is an original strain from Buckley's in Wales and they have had it for eight years. Water comes from the mains. 'If we had a spring it would be nice,' admits Clarke, 'but at least with mains water you know it is reasonably consistent. With a spring you have to do a lot of water analysis to make sure nothing has seeped in.'

Ash Vine is first and foremost a business, but Chris Clarke is equally firm in the company's support of good quality beer. 'We are committed to real ale,' says Clarke, 'but having said that we're not going to brew stuff as it was done a couple of centuries ago. If we fancy adding fruit or herbs we will. For instance, we add liquorice roots to some of the beers. Just mash the roots or chop them up and boil them with the hops, it adds a smoky flavour.'

Another area in which they have excelled is in bottle-conditioned beers. Last year bottled Hop & Glory won a silver medal at the International Food Exhibition. Beer connoisseurs should also try and taste the much rarer Penguin Porter, so-called because the label gives info on nearby Marwell Zoo, which has a penguin sanctuary.

In a world in which everything comes packaged and pasteurised for convenience it's good to see Ash Vine's commitment to quality. No wonder some wags suggest that East Somerset is the land of Hop and Glory.

Big Book


Adrian Tierney-Jones