James 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! firstname.lastname@example.org
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…)?
- 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).
- Donnington Bitter – a local beer for me, and brewed in the most picturesque brewery, with great yeast (from HN).
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.