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Dec 21, 2014

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Exmoor Brewery

Somerset Magazine 1997

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

If someone tells you they've just seen a Stag or a Hart in the pub, don't worry the landlord hasn't suddenly decided to set up a nature reserve. Stag and Hart are just two of the first-class real ales produced by Wiveliscombe brewery Exmoor Ales. Located on Golden Hill which overlooks this small unpretentious town on the edge of the Brendons, Exmoor operate from the former bottling plant of Hancocks, who brewed in 'Wivvy' from 1807 until the late 1950s when they were shut down after been snapped up in the merger fever of the time.

Happily for local beer-lovers, brewing returned to Wiveliscombe in 1979 with the Golden Hill Brewery (to be followed by Cotleigh a year later), Exmoor's original name. Set up by local man Tim Gilmour-White, the company immediately gained accolades for the quality of its real ale with Exmoor Ale being voted Best Bitter at the prestigious CAMRA Great British Beer Festival in 1980. Gilmour-White retired in 1987 and the then head brewer, Colin Green, and marketing director, Jim Laker, turned to friend Peter Turner and asked him to join them in buying the brewery. This finally happened on August 1st 1988 with Exmoor Ales becoming the official name.

The brewery has grown steadily since both in and out of the county, becoming one of the UK's most successful micro-breweries and winning even more prizes for its beers. Last year however Exmoor suffered a blow with the tragic death of Jim Laker at the age of 49. Laker, whose background was in publishing and marketing, was the public face of the brewery. He was very active in local affairs and helped to organise the town's West Fest, a music and beer festival taking place around the August bank holiday.

'It was a terrible shock,' recalls Peter Turner, now director of Exmoor along with head brewer Adrian Newman, a brewing and microbiology graduate from Herriot-Watt University who joined the firm from Belhaven in 1992. 'People thought we were going to stop brewing, chuck it all in.' But they didn't and by Christmas they were starting to get back to normal.

This year has seen a lot of activity in Exmoor. In March they launched the aforementioned Exmoor Hart, a full-flavoured strong bitter whose initial maltiness gives way to a delicious hop aftertaste. They have also moved into bottling with Exmoor Gold, which can be found in many supermarkets. This is a refreshing, gold-coloured smooth beer with an excellent balance of hops and malt - just right for that late summer barbecue.

'We had planned four bottling runs a year,' says Turner, 'thinking it would be good for publicity. Things have turned out rather differently. By the time the year was halfway through we had finished our third bottling run, a healthy sign of the demand for Exmoor Gold.'

Exmoor employ ten full time staff and Turner is keen to stress that it is a team effort with everyone mucking in - so that head brewer Adrian doesn't have to start at 4am every day! It's a busy thriving brewery as the staff keep an eye on the nine fermenting vessels, the automated cask cleaner, a copper with a hopback and the 1880 agricultural grain crusher in which the malt is ground. It only cost about £10 when the company first started and is still going strong. The brewing process at Exmoor is entirely traditional and only pure and natural ingredients are used. Malt - which includes the pale, crystal and chocolate varieties - comes from Tuckers Maltings in Newton Abbot; hops are mainly English - Fuggles, Goldings - plus some foreign ones including Styrian from Bohemia, while the yeast strain is descended from one they've been using for some time. Used malt goes to local farmers and the finished hops are used for compost.

As well as Hart, other beers of the brewery quenching thirsts in Somerset and beyond include Exmoor Ale, a pale brown beer with a malty aroma and a very drinkable 'session' beer; Exmoor Stag which was originally brewed as a bottled beer to celebrate Somerset County Cricket Club's centenary year and was so well-received that it went to cask. A strong, copper-coloured premium bitter it has a good malty taste and full-hopped aroma. For the winter months there's the legendary Beast, a dark and delicious winter warmer to be treated with the utmost respect, and Exmoor Exmas, a strong ale with a full-hop aroma.

'We are gradually expanding the business,' says Turner, 'but you've always got to keep quality in mind. Mind you it helps to get feedback from drinkers. We got one letter from a chap in Brighton which said that Exmoor Beast was the best beer he had tasted in Europe and where could he get it all the year. I had to point out it was only available during the winter.'

So when someone tells you they've seen a Beast in the pub in the summer then it's time to start worrying.

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STORIES BY
Adrian Tierney-Jones