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Bunces Brewery

Sommerset Newsletter, Summer 1999

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Saturday September 26 was a very wet day. It rained. And rained. But at least 14 members of the Somerset CAMRA branch were dry and snug in a coach as we headed east to Wiltshire and a visit to the brewery formerly known as Bunces. Since the summer, the Netheravon brewery has been called Stonehenge.

Bunces began trading in 1984, but since 1993 has been run by Danish Master Brewer Stig Anker Andersen, when he became 'fed up with brewing cheap lager for the supermarkets' and fancied a change. He saw Bunces for sale in the Brewers Guardian and that was that.

As we arrived at the brewery, hidden away behind an estate of redbrick houses, he was saying goodbye to a local farmer who was taking the spent grains of malt for his pigs. Stig is keen on recycling: used hops go to a gardener.

We dashed in out of the rain and Stig told us the history of the brewery which is situated in a former electrical power plant. It had been built in 1914 to supply power to a nearby airstrip using the water power of the River Avon, which could be seen flowing past the loo window! After this the building went through a variety of uses including a venue for boxing matches, a plastics factory and during World War II the MOD used it to build scale models of the German cities the RAF were pounding. Nowadays though it is used to produce some exceptional real ales.

Stonehenge Brewery produces 50 barrels a week. It has five fermenters and when we visited Stig had been busy due to demand from Wetherspoons for their autumn beer festival. 'It has been a good year for us,' he smiled before inviting us to see the brewery. Following the sure-footed brewer we climbed up ladders through three levels, grateful that we hadn't yet started drinking.

This height allows Stonehenge to operate in the style of a tower brewery. Malt is hoisted to the top where it is milled with an old farm mill before being tumbled down into the mash tun below. On the ground at the bottom end of this chain the coppers are heated by direct gas fired burners. Malts used include pale ale, crystal, torrified wheat and black malt; as for hops: Goldings, Cascade, First Gold and Brambling Cross, while the yeast comes from an original Morland strain.

Then it was time for sampling as Stig led us to three handpumps. First of all we tried the Best Bitter (4.1%), which has a delicious aroma leading to a malty and bitter taste with a hint of fruit. The aftertaste was satisfyingly bitter. Then there was Heel Stone (4.3%), which had the honour of being the first new beer since Bunces became Stonehenge. This was equally excellent.

Finally we got stuck into Stig Swig (5%), which is brewed with the herb sweet gale (the brewery has special permission to gather it from the New Forest). This herb was apparently used by the Vikings to add flavour to and preserve ale as hops were not present in the frozen north of Scandinavia. It had a deliciously fruity nose which some thought reminiscent of blackcurrant; on the palate fruitiness was followed by hop bitterness and dryness. There was a long dry finish at the back of the palate. It was very drinkable so many went back for seconds and thirds! Soon though it was time to leave Stig, who lives with his family in a flat over the brewery, to enjoy the rest of his Saturday.

Outside it was still raining and we joined the Saturday afternoon traffic going into Salisbury, our destination the Hop Back Brewery pub the Wyndham Arms, which is where the creators of Summer Lightning first started. Here drinkers began on GFH (3.5%), before ascending through a delicious range of beers which included Summer Lightning (5%), Crop Circle (4.2%), Thunderstorm (5%) and Powerhouse (5%). John Gilbert, the founder of the brewery, was in enjoying a pint and promised to look into a trip to his brewery next year (see diary for details).

The afternoon passed fairly fast with the rain continuing and once more it was time to get on the coach. The day's drinking had not ended though for we were soon at the excellent Queen's Arms in Corton Denham, not far from Cadbury Castle, where the landlord kindly opened up early for us. Bowls of roast potatoes were handed round and Archer's BB and Golden, Hook Norton's Old Hooky and Cotleigh's Tawny and their ever excellent Harvest were all available in splendid condition. As we left at 7.30pm the landlord could be seen in the gathering gloom doing a very non-PC impersonation of Basil Fawlty in the 'Germans' episode. Tired and well-watered we arrived back in Taunton just before 9pm. It was still raining.

Thanks to Stig and Robert and Cindy at the Queen's Arms for their kind hospitality and to Tom for organising the trip.

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STORIES BY
Adrian Tierney-Jones