At the Banbury Guardian, we like to celebrate what makes our portion of middle England so special and Hook Norton Brewery is certainly part of that.
The 169-year-old family-owned hub of beer-making excellence in Hook Norton continues to earn plaudits and is ever-changing with the times.
With a new horse in the stables, a busy cafe feeding hungry tourists and a radical brew of lager impressing non-ale drinkers, there is a lot for managing director James Clarke to be excited about.
“It’s very exciting, it’s challenging and, as I think in every business, we’re working harder and harder not to stand still and to make progress,” he said.
“There are lots of challenges, beer has the challenge of attitudes and alcohol because obviously what we don’t want is for alcohol to become the next tobacco so we’ve got to promote moderate and sensible consumption.”
Four generations of Clarkes have run the brewery since the founder John Harris died in 1887.
James is overseeing some of the biggest changes in its history, as more and more beer is drunk at home rather than in a pub, as well as provenance and responsibility being a rising concern, but a new lager is just the beginning.
“In days gone by, you’d only really looked at selling more beer to people who are drinking beer, but now we’re getting people saying, ‘well if I only drink one beer a week’, then we’ll actively market towards that and we need to have a broader range, so that’s exciting,” he said.
“Pub-wise too; pubs are becoming more and more part of the leisure and retail offer – the brewery isn’t just manufacturing and the pubs aren’t just pubs as such – it has to be something to attract people in and have a good experience with a nice beer, with decent staff who know what they’re talking about in a nice environment.
“People are a lot more demanding, obviously the internet has played a huge part in people knowing a lot more, thinking they know a lot more, but they have quite a hunger and appetite for knowledge which we can hopefully satisfy.
“But it’s a very exciting time and very, very different – the business is probably not very recognisable from what it was 20, 25 years ago because of the change in consumer patterns, the growth in wine and now the growth in spirits, but beer remains our national drink.
“Over 90 per cent of beer drunk in the UK is made here, we’re second only to the Czechs in terms of annual beer consumption per head so we need to do more to celebrate beer and make sure people do realise what a treasure we have.”
New horse and cafe helping tourism
A huge part of Hooky’s business in the 21st century involves tourism and image as the brewery seeks to attract visitors.
One of the most recognisable parts of that is the horse and cart delivering the ale to pubs across the county, and a new stallion joined the team a month ago.
Monty the Chrysdale is being trained up to help veteran shire horses Major and Nelson, who have been at the brewery for a combined 40 years, with legendary drayman Roger Hughes.
Those three and Lucas the shire horse also attend a lot of events to represent the brewery from country shows to beer markets.
Groom Elizabeth Csak said: “He’s coming a long nicely, he just needs to get used to our routine and get into what we do here, get to know the noises around here – we don’t want to rush him because it’s not beneficial for anyone.”
The horses are always a favourite for tourists who can also see how the beer is made and try some afterwards – and now they can have a bite to eat too at the brewery’s cafe.
The Malthouse Kitchen opened in November in a former storehouse, offering food from 9am to 5pm and hosting events in the evenings, including wedding receptions and Christmas parties.
We’re working harder and harder not to stand still and to make progress.Hook Norton Brewery managing director James Clarke
Manager Alex Sessons said: “It’s been fantastic, lots of interest in private hire, I didn’t really expect the boom of private hire in the evenings.
“We’re generally happy with how the first six months have gone, and long may it continue.”
The cafe’s food is all made fresh, using local ingredients and making the most of the brewery’s produce, and changing the menu to suit the seasons.
James hopes to take on young chefs from college in the kitchen as apprentices who could go on to work in one of their pubs too.
Revolutionary lager going down well
All you need to know to realise just how ground-breaking Hooky brewing a lager is in one of the suggested names for the experimental beer. Marketing manager Mark Graham said: “There are a few names knocking about, a few people said he should call it Heresy because Hook Norton is traditionally a cask ale brewery and brewing a lager could be seen by some as something we shouldn’t really do.
“But James is of the view we should be celebrating the fact that we can and we are brewing lager because we’re trying to cater for every style and type of drinker.”
Alongside the main staples of Hooky, Old Hooky and Hooky Gold, the micro-brewery is concocting new drinks every day, from orange chocolate ale to award-winning rye beer to the new lager.
Trial #1 is only available at the brewery and in three pubs so it is still in its infancy but the feedback so far has been positive, especially from this reporter.
James said: “We avoided keg beers like the plague in the 70s but that was when the keg market was poor-quality beer being gassed, fizzed, chilled and coloured brown and it didn’t taste of anything anyway.
“Keg beer now is completely different: fresh, crisp, hoppy beers and the lager too we’re just trying that, even two or three years ago people would go, ‘what are you doing brewing lager?’
“Well there is a demand now, we’ll be true to a continental style, it will be lagered for four weeks, the word lager means storage, and it ferments much colder so it will take longer to develop flavours.”
Red Rye is one of the breweries most successful creations, winning best rye and speciality in the World Beer Awards last year.
It sounds like there is even more to come, as James said: “We’re looking at a number of other ideas beer-wise to keep the innovation there, keep the excitement.
“We’re totally committed to the standard Hooky, but at the same time we need to do new stuff. Some of them are fads and may only have a life for a couple of years but it’s just important that we try to innovate.”
Village always at heart of business
Hook Norton has become a name known worldwide thanks to the brewery’s success.
James Clarke believes it is important to keep the villagers happy so they try to placate residents as much as they can, from events to apologising for horse poo.
“Once a month we have an ‘open tap’ night where there’s free sampling of three different thirds of beer but that’s very much focused at the village and the locality so hopefully they will come along, try a beer and they might go away and talk about, be positive about it,” he said.
“Also we are a business, sometimes there’s a bit of noise, there are a few vehicles, the horses might leave a deposit on the road so we need to make sure that we’re totally in tune with the immediate village and the wider local community because that’s where a lot of the loyalty to the brewery is.”