Brewing up a storm: the best of Oxfordshire’s beer
"Just remembering it's about having a laugh a minute is really helpful"
For the September issue of our flagship OX Magazine, we paid a visit to the London headquarters of artisanal gin distillers Sipsmith and wrote a gushing piece praising their passion, attitude to business and of course, their gin. This got us thinking: what does our county have to boast in terms of bakers, brewers, distillers, chefs and artisans? To celebrate the scene in Oxfordshire, we thought we’d highlight some of our favourites in the area in each OX Country. This issue, we paid a visit to 3 of Oxfordshire’s best breweries to show off our world-class beer scene.
First, we sampled the wares of Sandford-based microbrewery LAM Brewing and spoke to their head honcho Kurt Moxley. “Happy” is a fairly good way to sum up the LAM operation. From the name (standing for Laugh A Minute), the beers (all prefixed with the word “happily”), to Kurt himself, an overriding sense of enjoyment characterises the young microbrewery. So has starting up the business been a laugh a minute?
“It has!” beams Kurt, instantly raising the energy of our conversation. “I grin all the time. Having the name LAM is really helpful because even in the bits of the work when it isn't as exciting as it could be, like when we're hand-bottling the stuff and it's taking a while, just remembering it's about having a laugh a minute is really helpful. It lifts the spirits a bit”.
Since setting up in October last year, Kurt has launched three craft beers. It seems like everything’s going according to plan, but LAM has grown from humble beginnings.
“I started brewing years ago when I was a student and made awful beer, out of one of those kits from Boots the Chemist that you made in a plastic thing, and it was just hideous.”
Not exactly a classic brewery love story then. As I popped open my chilled bottle of Happily Nyk (LAM’s cross between an American IPA and a Belgian Saison) on a particularly stressful afternoon in the office, the complex citrus aroma and dry, hoppy taste made it quite clear that Kurt’s artistry has grown considerably since his student days. Whilst his university life might be over, he certainly still hasn’t stopped learning.
“I'm disappearing off for 3 weeks to a place called Brewlab up in Sunderland, which is one of the places in the country that do professional brewer's training, and I'm going to do a 3 week intensive brewing course up there. I'm really looking forward to looking down a microscope and looking at the details. At the moment, I brew really good craft beer and that's fine, but I want to take it into that more commercial side so that's the first bit of it. When I come back, at the end of October, we're starting to look for premises then to actually open the full-scale brewery.”
You might ask, if Kurt has yet to open a brewery, where does his beer come from? His kitchen, of course, where he hand-brews, hand-bottles and hand-delivers the beers himself. Kurt still works in an administration role for the NHS and local government but, as his plans suggest, he’s looking to wind down that stage of his life and enter the glamorous world of full-time hop wizardry.
“I’m more excited than nervous” he continues, “because I know I can manage an organisation, that's not an issue at all. I love building teams as well, so I'm really excited about actually having a team of people, you know, hiring in some brewing staff, helpers, people to deliver stuff and all that, because the volume that it's going to be, it's clearly not going to be a one-man show any more.”
Despite his building his brand single-handedly up to now, Kurt is keen to emphasise how much collaboration means to him. “I don't think that breweries need to necessarily work in competition with each other. It's the way in which things tend to operate in other areas where there are lots of breweries in close geographical locations, but they support each other in the larger quest of getting quality craft beers to the customers. We know craft drinkers like to experiment trying different types of beers, just as much as craft brewers experiment in designing and producing the products, so collaboration for LAM also means working next to other producers. We’ve recently been selling at farmers’ markets in conjunction with our mates at Hitchcox Cider, for example. To us, it's much more than being a beer factory, it's more of a fuller rounded customer experience to waken the tastebuds!”
Ambitious plans, perhaps, but given the precedent, it’s hardly a shot in the dark. Has Kurt been inspired by the explosion of the craft beer scene across the world?
“Yeah absolutely, there are some excellent, excellent bigger micros. They're still tiny compared to big breweries as you know, but there are some 'big' names out there like Beavertown and Five Points from London, and it was those kind of East London, Hackney breweries that inspired us to do the sorts of beers that we want to do in the future.” So what does he want to produce in the future? Kurt lets slip a small secret. “I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but we’ll be designing another one just before Christmas. It’s going to be a gorgeous red IPA made with rye and barley. It’s going to be amazing.”
If his existing brews are anything to go by, we’re in for a treat. You can pick up a Happily Nyk, Happily Amba (a well-rounded bitter) or Happily Indian Summer (a light pale ale) at Oddbins on Little Clarendon Street, at Aziz Indian restaurant on Cowley Road, at the Bitten Bar in Oxford’s Castle Quarter (part of Bitten Street) or at farmers’ markets across the city. We look forward to seeing LAM go from strength to strength and wish Kurt many more laughs in the future. Cheers!
Next, we went from Oxford’s smallest brewery to one of its largest at the home of Hobgoblin and Brakspear, Wychwood Brewery. Witney residents will be familiar with the rich, heady smell of fermentation that descends over the market square twice a day, and I was curious to see how the operations of an established, decades-old brewhouse differ from the one-man show over at LAM.
Whilst the idea of a larger brewery may seem less romantic than the kitchen-based one man operation above, the team at Wychwood still put just as much love and attention into their labour. From the moment we were greeted at the entrance our guide, Alan, made it clear that he absolutely loves beer, and his enthusiasm was incredibly infectious as he explained the sizeable pieces of equipment used to create Wychwood’s portfolio of real ales.
One of the first stops on our tour was to taste the variety of malts that are used in the production of beer. Sampling the range from “breakfast cereal”-esque pale malt through to the slightly burnt-tasting black malt was a real eye-opener; I had some knowledge of the brewing process beforehand but actually understanding which varieties of ingredients produced which flavours made me very keen to get stuck into a few bottles.
And get stuck into a few bottles we did. After Alan had cheerily showed us through the processes of milling, mashing, fermenting, conditioning and filtering (with plenty of on-brand “lagerboy” jokes throughout) we entered Wychwood’s sampling bar and were talked through a selected range of beers that the team are brewing at the moment. Despite my love of real beer, I’d never really warmed to the idea of traditional bottled ale in the past so I was mildly apprehensive as Alan cracked open the first of several Wychwood specimens. Could a simple visit to a brewery sway my cask bias?
Starting off with the light, crisp Firecatcher and getting gradually darker as we progressed, it was clear even to a comparative novice like myself that Wychwood’s range is about as diverse, clever and faultlessly tasty as it gets. King Goblin, one of the brewery’s regulars, is a sweet, malty ale clocking in at a considerable 6.6% which has a surprisingly smooth flavour for such an impressive alcohol content. Black Wych is a rich, dark porter with confident bitterness, and Arrowaine, my personal favourite, is a classic dark ale with delicious caramel sweetness.
The current craft-obsessed beer trend means that commercial brewers like Wychwood often get a bad rap, but from the taste of their ales I can’t see why. Their knowledgeable, enthusiastic and endlessly friendly staff made my visit an absolute pleasure, and the quality and variety of the drinks are indisputable. Tours are available 4 days a week and are cheap as chips at £8.50 per person, so if you’re a beer lover it’d be a shame to not pay a visit to an Oxfordshire drinks institution.
Speaking of Oxfordshire drinks institutions, 3 days after our visit to Wychwood we ventured deep into the Cotswolds to learn (and drink) more at a truly traditional, generations-old brewery at Hook Norton.
Compared to the Wychwood plant, Hook Norton is truly enormous in terms of the sheer size of its buildings and grounds. The iconic Victorian tower is a beautiful, imposing feature on the rolling Oxfordshire countryside, but its origins are utilitarian: the brewing process flows logically from top to bottom, with the grist mill at the top and fermentation tanks at the bottom. Walking around the labyrinthine structure of Hook Norton is a challenge in itself, and narrow passageways and steep staircases lead us around the brewhouse as our guide, Chris (who has worked for the brewery on-and-off for 40 years), expertly explains the function and history of each part of Hook Norton’s method. A particular highlight is the old copper cooling room, which was disused after new health and safety regulations rendered it unusable despite, as Chris protests, it working without fault for 100 years.
Hook Norton has a peculiar beauty which I haven’t seen at any of the countless other alcohol-based businesses that I’ve visited whilst reporting for OX and OX Country. Whilst some boast stunning machinery or tastefully designed premises, the contrast between Victorian architecture and modern functionality at Hook Norton is in a different league; a better photographer than myself could spend hours exploring each floor. On the other hand, if you’re less interested in the visual imagery and more focussed on the drink, they offer the chance to brew your own variety of beer in their on-site microbrewery. For a £500 fee you can choose, with guidance, the varieties of malt and hops to include then go through the brewing process and (after waiting two weeks for fermentation) leave with two firkins (144 pints) of your creation, with a bespoke designed pump clip to go with it. I’m saving up already.
Anyway, onto the existing beers. Hook Norton’s samples came from the barrel, rather than the bottle, and were served up in their on-site bar alongside a tempting menu of beer-based pies and savouries. I’d seen, as we all have, Hook Norton’s bottles lining the shelves at supermarkets, but as I’m a flowery, new-school “craft” beer lover, I’d never actually tried one of them (to the best of my knowledge). I was curious to see what the old guard had to offer after my beery indoctrination, and needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s a rundown of the beers on offer based on my hastily-assembled notes:
• Hooky – Should need no introduction for most. A full-bodied bitter with malt and caramel flavours and a peppery hit on the finish
• Lion – A bronze beer with a light and refreshing taste. Still a decent beer but seemed slightly watery and flavourless after the punch of Hooky
• Old Hooky – Fruitier than the previous two. More intense flavour and softer finish.
• Red Rye – Voted world’s best rye beer and it’s easy to see why. Very complex and powerfully fruity. I could drink this all day.
• Double Stout – Thick, creamy and smells like coffee. Very smooth with a very malty finish
Hopefully that’s given you some idea of the variety on offer from Hook Norton if you weren’t already aware. The beers are good, of course, but it’s the brewery itself I recommend more than anything else. Two tours operate every day, so you’ve got no excuse.
- Jack Rayner