Interview: James Clarke, Hook Norton brewery

hooknorton303_beerhunting.jpgJames Clarke is the Managing Director of legendary Oxfordshire brewery Hook Norton, and a great grandson of the brewery’s founder. He dropped by here a few weeks ago to comment on a post which mentioned Hook Norton. We took the opportunity to subject him to our first ever interview.

B&B: How involved in the brewing process are you?

JC: Very. I started at HN as Second Brewer in 1991, my first job being to establish an in house laboratory facility. The brewing side is the bit I enjoy most, and I still do two or three early mornings brewing, as well as every third Saturday looking after fermentations. I have also been responsible for new beers such as Cotswold Lion, Flagship and Beefy’s Bitter.

B&B: Which of your beers is your favourite, and why?

JC: I think my favourite has to be Old Hooky, but I am also keen on the environment where I drink my beer, so for example a Hooky Gold in the sunshine, sat outside a pub is a great experience, as is supping a Twelve Days on a dark night in front of the log fire. Depends very much on how the mood takes me.

B&B: Old Hooky is highly regarded — it’s in both Michael Jackson’s and Roger Protz’s lists of “essential beers”. What’s the secret?

JC: Old Hooky was first brewed as a celebratory beer for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. It was very popular so we kept it going, and initially called it Old Bill, after my grandfather. However that name conflicted with another Brewer who was already using it, so it was renamed Old Hooky. It is a good, solid, traditional premium beer — it delivers good flavour, and a respectable amount of alcohol. It is very much the big brother to our Bitter, which itself is known for having good flavour for a 3.6% beer, and I think these attributes are similar with Old Hooky, at a premium level. A genuine quality beer, and I think delivers what is expected — no particularly outlandish type flavours, just what one expects from a good ale.

B&B: You make a very good stout – can Britain’s independent brewers challenge the dominance of Guinness in pubs?

JC: I love dark beers, and Double Stout was resurrected in 1996 from a recipe which hadn’t been brewed since 1917. I would love to challenge the G, but it would be tough! I know a number of regional brewers are trying with their own stouts, and maybe we should. However we have never kegged our beers, and have no kegging plant here, and I do feel it would need to be as a smooth beer to attract the G drinkers. Maybe if it worked, we could then try and move drinkers to cask stout? Would be interested to hear your readers views on this point! james@hook-norton-brewery.co.uk

B&B: It would be great to see cask stout available!

B&B: How did Hamburger Union come to sell Hook Norton Bitter?

JC: Sorry, where or what is Hamburger Union?

B&B: It’s a chain of slightly upmarket burger restaurants — there are tons in London. They only sell two beers: Pilsner Urquell, and Hook Norton Bitter.

B&B: Adnam’s are pushing the environmental angle at the moment — what are your plans in this area?

JC: Adnams have done a great job in this area, and are justifiably proud.We are undertaking some studies to see where we can harness surplus energy
from the process. The Victorians had some good ideas, where we re-use cooling water which gets heated up during it’s duty, etc.. We have educated staff regarding individual energy use — PCs, photocopiers etc, and we now need to tackle the bigger bits. One of our engineers has been working with an Oxfordshire Energy forum, and the next step is to get the Carbon Trust involved. And of course we use shire horses locally for deliveries!

B&B: What would be your five desert island beers (not counting your own…)?

JC:

  1. Youngs Bitter — just a great beer, relatively modest alcohol content, but a great session beer (if I am allowed to say that with the current alcohol lobby).
  2. Donnington Bitter – a local beer for me, and brewed in the most picturesque brewery, with great yeast (from HN).
  3. Fullers ESB, bottled — probably the greatest balance of hop aroma on a bottled beer I have ever tasted — had some last Wednesday, and reminded me of just how good it is!
  4. Coopers Pale Ale — I had the pleasure of visiting their Brewery a couple of years ago, as well as some great beers, there was an amazing Company ethos — some of the nicest people I have met.
  5. A Czech beer, can’t remember the name, but a small brew-pub just off Wenceslas Square in Prague, where they served the beer direct from fermentation tank. Had two great nights there, even had my wallet stolen, but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment!

B&B: What future developments can we expect from Hook Norton?

JC: We are continually developing our beer range. The next new one will be a limited edition to celebrate Oxfordshire’s 1000 years. This will be a beer brewed with Oxfordshire grown Maris Otter malt and Fuggles hops. A dynamic beer programme is essential, and consumers seem to love variety.

B&B: We certainly do!

JC: We are also looking to increase our pub estate, as well as investing in existing pubs. We are just about to complete on our 47th pub, and invest significantly in The Coach and Horses in Banbury. It is as much about improving what we have as expanding, particularly with the current high price of pubs.

B&B: How do you measure success? Is it about expanding the business; developing a wider range; winning awards, or something else?

JC: Ultimately, success is about the bottom line, but the general measure is beer quality, and from that stems everything else. Our consumers measure us on the quality of beer — they are far less concerned with how much money we may be making, or how many pubs we have etc.. By maintaining beer quality, and brewing new beers, we can build the rest on this.

B&B: What do you think of beer blogging?

JC: Beer blogging is great, though I must confess this is my first encounter. It is an effective way of communicating. There are so many beers out there, many of which are relatively easily accessible, that it is really the only way to get up-to-date news.What a great balance of modern technology and traditional processes!

B&B: James, thanks for answering our questions, and good luck with your plans for the future of Hook Norton.

Photographing Beer — tutorial

I’ve often wondered how they got those very attractive pictures of the beers in Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers book, and I’ve also been increasingly frustrated at how bad my own photos are. They tend to look like this:

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So I spent a few hours trawling the web for tutorials on how to photograph food — this was a great one — and then tried to use some of the same techniques to photograph a nice pint of beer using my very basic digital camera. Here’s the result:

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I’ll tell you how I did it after the jump, if you’re interested.

Continue reading “Photographing Beer — tutorial”

Nice places to drink in Regensburg, East Bavaria

Kneitinger Bock

Regensburg is one of my favourite cities. It’s beautiful (a medieval bridge and town centre spanning the Danube) with an oddly “Latin” feel. Apparently it’s known as “the northernmost city of Italy”, which could be because of the mild climate, the Italian-style architecture, or perhaps the hundreds of Italian restaurants and ice-cream cafes.

One thing that is resolutely German, however, is the availability of fantastic beer. There are three breweries in town – Spital, Bishofshof and Kneitinger – plus lots of local producers with outlets in town. There are hundreds, if not thousands of places to drink, so these suggestions are not supposed to be exhaustive – just enough for a taster. See link below for a Google map of the area.

Spitalgarten

A large beer garden on one of Regensburg’s islands, serving, unsurprisingly, Spitalbrau. Helles and Weizen very nice, but the pils is outstanding – very distinct hop flavour and aroma, which distinguishes it from other beers of this style.

There’s another beer garden, “Alte Linde”, slightly closer to the town centre, which all the guidebooks rate. They serve Kneitinger.

Kneitinger

The brewery and pub are connected; the pub itself has several sections, from a rough and ready beer hall to a more upmarket restaurant area. It’s an interesting building – presumably it was once a stable or something similar, as the floor of the “beer hall” bit is cobbles. Kneitinger do an Edelpils, a Dunkel, and a Bock.

The Bock is something special – it’s dark, rich and chocolatey, and they’re justifiably proud of it. It’s featured in Michael “The Beerhunter” Jackson’s “500 classic brews”. Amazon link

Bishofshof

You can drink Bishofshof within the Bishofshof (Bishop’s Palace) itself. We also found a lovely quiet beer garden just round the corner from Kneitinger, which had the full Bischofshof range, together with Weltenberger Klosterbrau (the two breweries are related, though I don’t know who owns who). Weltenberger Barock-Dunkel and Dunkle-Weiss both make it into Michael Jackson’s 500.

Fuerstliches Brauhaus

This seems to be a spin-off from Thurn und Taxis, a brewery which used to be based in Regensburg. They brew their own on the premises and also stock the full T&T range. Nice airey beer hall, with a picturesque beer garden set in the T&T castle grounds.

Zum Augustiner

A beer hall and garden stocking Thurn & Taxis.

Links

Google Map of Regensburg with these pubs marked

Spital, including cheesy picture from Spital beer garden – check out the virtual brewery tour!

Kneitinger (in German)

Bischofshof (in German)

Weltenburger Kloster (in German)

 

Wikitravel – Regensburg

Boak