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!

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…)?


  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.

2 thoughts on “Interview: James Clarke, Hook Norton brewery”

  1. re: the shire hors­es
    Live­stock are a major con­trib­u­tor to green­house gas­es in the form of methane.

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