Cotleigh Brewery

Somerset Magazine 1997

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Mention drink in Somerset and the image of brimming flagons of delicious farm-produced cider and scrumpy springs to mind. But another traditional beverage has been creating a quiet revolution in the county over the last few years - real ale. Somerset's entry in the Campaign for Real Ale's (CAMRA) Good Beer Guide lists not one but nine breweries all offering a flagon far removed from your ordinary dull mass-produced pint.

Sadly Bridgwater Brewing Company brewed its last pint in the spring but Moor Beer Company in Ashcott on the Polden Hills has filled the breech, while the demise of Avon and the formation of North Somerset has added a couple more breweries. Further proof of this real ale renaissance came with the success of Norman's Conquest, a very strong ale from West Lydford's Cottage brewers, which was hailed as Campaign For Real Ale's top ale last year; additional accolades came when it become the only beer to be represented at London's smartest grocer Fortnum and Mason's Best Of British fortnight during the summer.

If you want to explore Somerset's real ales, an excellent starting pint is Cotleigh Brewery, beginning with the award-winning Barn Owl, a full-flavoured, malty tasting bitter with a keen hoppy aroma. Cotleigh is based in the quiet market town of Wiveliscombe, sitting at the foothills of the Brendon Hills west of Taunton. 'Wivvy' is almost the unofficial capital of brewing in Somerset. It is also home to the equally excellent products of Exmoor Ales (who sadly lost their managing director Jim Laker recently), plus the lively annual beer and music festival, West Fest.

Husband and wife John and Jenny Aries have run Cotleigh since the early 80s. However the brewery actually began life in Devon, in the old stable block of Cotleigh Farmhouse near Tiverton back in 1979. At the time John was in the Merchant Navy but shore leave was spent helping out part-time at the original brew house which was a five-barrel operation. With demand soon outstripping supply Cotleigh crossed over the border to Wiveliscombe in 1980, setting up their mash, copper and fermenters in part of the disused Arnold & Hancock's brewery, which had been a part of the town since the early 19th-century until it was closed by Watney's in the 1960s.

Soon there were further changes as Ted Bishop, the original owner of Cotleigh, left (he's now running the Juwards brewery at Wellington) and John, now out of the Navy, took sole charge, bringing in his girlfriend Jenny, first purely as business partner but they soon tied the knot. Their's was a true romance over a pint of real ale.

'I was working as a barmaid and John came in and asked for a pint of Cotleigh,' recalls Jenny of her first meeting with her future business partner and husband. 'I said "sorry we don't sell the stuff but all the locals around here drink Tawny (a Cotleigh beer), have some of that". John finished the first pint and came back for more and when I asked him if he'd enjoyed it he replied, "I certainly did, I brew it".'

By 1985, the brewery was ready to move again, this time just down the hill to what they fondly recall as the 'tin shed' - it had no power, water or drainage but was for sale at a decent price. Eleven years on they are still there, having expanded to the front premises of the 'tin shed'. Now they produce 4500 barrels a year (well over a million pints) with a staff of six and an upgraded brand new brew plant.

If you like Barn Owl, try the other Cotleigh 'regulars' - Tawny, Harrier SPA, Harvest (made with fresh hops) and Old Buzzard. Their commitment to maintaining and even improving the quality of these 'regulars' is part and parcel of the brewery's success.

'Once a beer like Tawny or Barn Owl is well-established you cannot change the recipe,' says John Aries. 'You certainly can't change the character of the beer because people have accepted the standard and you work to maintain that standard, which isn't always easy as we only use natural ingredients which vary throughout the year.'

Their malt - crystal, pale and chocolate malts - comes from Tuckers Maltings of Newton Abbot; add English traditional leaf hops, yeast which is the ancestor of a strain they have been using for about 10 years or so plus water from local reservoirs, and Cotleigh have found a traditional and local recipe for success which has made their beers such a favourite in the county and beyond.

Brewing in Somerset also has its advantages says John. 'There's more free trade in the area. We have a easier time marketing beer in the West Country than some brewers do in East Anglia or around the Midlands, where the trade is still dominated by the bigger breweries. We have to drop round all the pubs once a week to drop things off and that's viable for us, whereas a big brewer might be loath to go down country lanes to drop the odd barrel.'

As well as their regular beers, Cotleigh brew frequent guest beers, invariably named after other birds - the Hobby, Swift, Osprey and Goshawk have also been honoured. Does this mean that as soon as the cooper has cooled John and Jenny are out in the Brendons with their bird books and binoculars? Not really. Cotleigh might have an association with the Hawk and Owl Trust, about whom they print information on on their beer mats, but the bird names came about by accident.

"Tawny was the first brew,' recalls John, 'and after that it seemed sensible to stick to the bird theme and then mainly birds of prey, though sometimes we run out of them or find someone else has used them. But we certainly wouldn't stoop to using Vulture, that would be too gimmicky and that's not us.'

So next time you fancy a traditional Somerset drink, make a change from cider and try a pint of Cotleigh.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones