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BREWER’S TALES

The Tap Room was, traditionally, a sort of Sacred Preserve of the Head Brewer, an inner sanctum, a place of silence and contemplation, and entrance was specifically by his invitation. Once a week or more, accolytes,- or brewing staff as they are correctly known!- gathered there to taste and analyse the latest brew, and the progress of others still in fermentation. It was also an informal social room for meeting other professionals – Brewers get on well with other Brewers – and hence as a mini pub but entry to which was strictly by invitation.

Times change. The Sample Room took over; much more neutral, and when space is as tight as it currently is, sampling becomes a matter for staff standing in the HB’s office Much analysis is now done in the lab, but nonetheless, the final judgement is the Head Brewer’s.

Nonetheless, the Spirit of the Tap Room lingers on – it’s a place for rumination, meditation, contemplation, all frequently resulting in well-considered decision. And a fine glass of Ale in your hand at the same time helps all those activities!

TALES FROM THE TAP ROOM NUMBER 1

Andy Hepworth, clad in a pristine white lab coat, traditional gear for The Head Brewer, places his elbow on the Tap Room table in a small puddle of beer. The symbolic white coat is no longer so pristine, but Andy gives no sign of concern. In fact, it shortly becomes obvious that beer cannot harm him; it is his joy, his passion, his raison d’ etre.

Trained by Courage Brewery in Reading, after studying microbiology at the University of Reading, Andy had rather stumbled into the post. But as soon as he joined the Company as a Shift Supervisor, he knew that this was his life. Further professional study with the (then) Institute of Brewing consolidated his practical training and he spent five cheerful years at the Bridge Street Brewery.

“There were some real characters, there.” Andy smiles in recollection, “and some practices that would have Health and Safety of today frothing at the mouth. The Fermenting vessels were open, so there was a layer of CO2 above them as the yeast reacted. So there was a life threatening gas floating over the beer! Even so, a fair few staff could be relied on to drop in a bucket and fish out a free few pints for the mess room. One old fellow was caught decanting some of this into a hot water bottle that he kept down the front of his bib and brace; he told us that he had terrible rheumatism and needed the hottie to keep comfortable!” Andy took a sip of Old, and added thoughtfully “Perhaps he did” and took another sip. The previously white sleeve was now brown.

“While I was there, we installed two small shallow hulled boats to rescue anyone overcome by CO2; I don’t think they were ever used. Our crew were too canny; one would hang onto the legs of the other while he leaned over the tank to haul in his ‘reward’ But it was an effort towards Safety at Work! Nowadays, of course, we have sealed tanks.”

There is no drinking on site at the Hepworth Brewery, unless for professional reasons. Health and Safety Rules are abided by religiously but the simple dedication to the product still shines through. “We don’t lose many staff” says Andy: “Most of us are proud to make something – and the bonus is that others like it too”

Andy headed back to his office, oblivious to the fact that his sleeve was now sodden and a delicate shade of Old Ale. It’s all part of the job.

TALES FROM THE TAP ROOM NUMBER 2

The Man in The White Coat, the Head Brewer’s traditional Coat of Honour, takes a gentle sip. There is a reverential silence. He takes a second sip and thoughtfully says “Ahh.” Followed by a sigh of satisfaction.

It is tasting time in the Taproom. Each fresh brew is rigorously inspected, first by sight – colour and clarity are important first impressions -, then by smell – is the balance of aromas correct? – and then, most importantly, by taste. The sense of sound figures in there too: are the beaded bubbles winking at the brim? Touch is a sense that initially appears to be absent in this sensorial panorama (although, one suspects many a taster would happily bathe in this aqua vita.) But touch is still fulfilled by the concept of “mouthfeel” a rather elusive concept in which the differing palate reactions blend or diversify to form the unique passport of an individual brew.

And of course, there is also the simple social pleasure of raising a pint and saying “Cheers” to a colleague or friend. Ale is a social beverage, best enjoyed in company and the Taproom tasting is an important feature, best done in company.

But the Taproom is professional. Not a drinking establishment; it is a quality control of the most empirical kind. (That doesn’t stop one saying “Cheers” as the glasses are raised. It’s an automatic response.)

“We do, of course, do more testing than just sipping ales in the Taproom,” says Andy Hepworth, MD and Head Brewer, the Man in The White Coat, glass in hand. “We have a well- equipped in-house laboratory, run by well- qualified and experienced analysts, who run tests on both routine and random samples and is so successful that even Marks and Spencers have given us the remit to brew and bottle for them. Bianca is greatly valued in our Company. But, nonetheless, the taste test is the essential one.” He adds, “By the way, there is also a further sense of touch in the type of glass from which you drink; the feel of the glass should reflect the feel of the beer. Traditional beers like traditional glasses, heritage style. Just hold this.” He proffers two different glasses, one a tankard style, the other a handle-less, almost straight- sided tube. And suddenly, the sense of touch is evident. One feels right; and it is obvious.

The Man in The White Coat heads back to his office, his right sleeve gently tinted with Saxon Lager.

Back to work. “Job Satisfaction in every pint,” he smiles as he leaves. And with 15,000 pints per day, that’s a lot of job satisfaction!

TALES FROM THE TAP ROOM NUMBER 3

“Ah, yes” says the Head brewer, “those open tanks at The Bridge Street Brewery in Reading. They were huge; possibly 25 yards long, by 15 wide, and all covered by an invisible and lethal layer of Carbon Dioxide. The dangers were incremental. If one person were to be overcome by the gas and fell in, then the automatic reaction of his colleague was to jump in and save him. And so they would both go. There were cases of multiple deaths like this”

He took a thoughtful sip of Prospect, was quiet for a moment, then cheered and added “mercifully not on my watch.” Another small, appreciative but analytical sip of Prospect, and he continued: “ I mentioned the two life-saving boats recently, which were “moored” at the side of the tanks as a gesture to Health and Safety, then, in the late 70’s rather an arbitrary process. As we had these boats we had to go through a weekly training exercise; it was, perhaps a forlorn activity because anyone who had succumbed to asphyxia and then disappeared through the 18 inch “head” of beer froth would not easily be recoverable. But still, we had to try.

As the young “whelp” I was easily conned into being the boatman on one particular training day. I had to wear a gasmask which was connected to the “shore” by a pipe to supply air, but somehow I had entangled the pipe around my neck and as the skiff was roped around the “search area” I was becoming rather agitated and waved my hands wildly to indicate distress. ‘Great’, thought the rope-men, ‘Andy’s entering into the spirit of this!’” Another sip. “ I survived, but it added an extra dimension to Plath’s “not waving but drowning”; more “not waving but being strangled by my supposed colleagues!”

“Shortly afterwards” he goes on,” these tanks, originally copper lined had to be re-lined, this time with plastic. We tested them with fresh water for water tight-ness, and a fair few were tempted in for a quick swim – one old fellow in full bib and brace overalls. The guy with the hot water bottle paddled his feet rather cautiously, too. I played water polo then – and, in fact still do- and during this swim session I was able to use a few tackling moves to revenge myself on the rope-men who had so cheerfully nearly killed me!” Another sip. “Strange days” he summarised and headed back to the office.

TALES FROM THE TAP ROOM NUMBER 4

“Ah, yes, The White Coat.” Answers the Head Brewer. “ Why does the Head brewer traditionally wear a white coat? Brewing is, traditionally a messy business, shifting spent grain and hops, both soaked and heavy, hefting wet casks, hosing and mopping and cleaning. I am sure that the White coat can’t go back too far. I don’t think that the Egyptians or the brewers of the Tigris and Euphrates basin wore white coats. I suspect that the small brewers, independent, local and numerous who supplied the population with a beverage which was pathogen free, water being highly contaminated, probably wore entirely practical clothing – much like the rest of the population.

I suppose it was towards the end of the initial step of the Industrial Revolution that investors began to realise that there was money to be made from these local skills, and the astute amongst them started to buy up and control the tiny, local craftsmen and retailers. These investors, recently become “suits” wanted to separate themselves from the dirty hands-on aspect of production so kept the Head Brewer visibly distinct from their Board Room by dressing him in a working coat. Nonetheless, as their entire profit was in his – usually “his” rather than “hers” – at this point, although brewing in Mediaeval times was generally seen as a female craft – his craftsmanship, they recognised that a certain recognition was due, and hence the White Coat.

“That’s my view” He takes a small and appreciative sip of Pullman and a benign grin creeps over his face. “Of course, there is another view. Old breweries tended to be built in a rather ad hoc style, adding on as demand increased. They were often very badly lit. The alternative view of the origin of the White Coat is that the workers just wanted to see where the HB was as they tried to siphon off a little liquid perk!”

And back to the office.

TALES FROM THE TAP ROOM NUMBER 5

More on White Coats. It is the end of the day and also a birthday. Sometimes the Tap Room moves off towards a pub , still to sample, of course but also to appreciate Britain’s pub culture, threatened though it is.

Andy is smiling. Someone has written in about White Coats, and it has set him reflecting. “Some while ago, I worked for a Brewery, not a million miles away, that was renowned in the trade for parsimony. After I had been there for some while, an economy measure was introduced by which the Head Brewer became responsible for laundry of the White Coat, which would henceforth be restricted to 4 per year. Now as you know, brewing is a hands-on craft, physical and often messy, so a White Coat may last a day, rarely more.

My wife was less than pleased by this news. She suggested that the Brewery should buy us an industrial washing machine and pay her by the hour her services, (by her own admission, she is a slow ironer) The Brewery did not reply. Foolishly.

Over the next few weeks I wore my HB coat to work, sporting a variety of shades of grey to daunt a novelist. Creases appeared horizontally across my back, lovingly ironed in. Occasionally we moved to bleak brown, almost a relief after the grey monotony; in fact, the sleeves were almost relief maps in themselves. The best one, however, was when summoned to a full board meeting, I appeared in a delicate but distinct shade of pink. This was immaculately ironed, crisp and precise.

At the end of the meeting, I was taken quietly aside with a request that I ensure total whiteness in future.

My wife was inspired. She used concentrated bleach in which she marinated the White Coats. They become white. But all the threads rotted. One sleeve came off in a meeting. A pocket collapsed leaving a spillage of pens and business cards. Finally, one Friday the entire coat fell apart form collar to hem, leaving me with, effectively, two flapping wings – this, in front of “Distinguished Visitors”

By the following Monday, I had 5 new coats on my desk and Brewery-funded laundry rights were reinstated…… My wife went shopping in a rather celebratory way”

“Nowadays“ he continued “we usually wear a fleece for work. The White Coat has become symbolic. Nowadays, not many independent Brewers would try to keep the Head brewer apart from the “Suits”! Craftsmanship is too important.”

Time for another sip, and then, I think, he heads home after another 11 hour day.

TALES FROM THE TAP ROOM NUMBER 6

“Every time I am asked what a brewer should have as basic skills before training, I always reply ‘Enjoy the product.’ You are making something for people to enjoy – it is no longer a case of drinking beer to avoid the drinking water! You must take a pride in your product if you are making something,”

HB sips a clear, hoppy draught of Sussex and he beams. His face clouds over, and he adds “But Maths is essential as a part of the brewer’s skill set. Well, mental arithmetic, especially.” More information demonstrates why this is such an essential skill.

“Breweries work with both Imperial and Metric systems of measurement; it is imperative to be able to move easily between them. Yes, of course you can use a calculator, but that can disrupt the flow of information and understanding “ He adds, with a hint of mischief “And brewers have a few wild cards, too, in their calculation system” He looks at the pint in his hands, smiles and adds “ Of course, also, you won’t always have two hands simultaneously available in a brewery, so a calculator can be a nuisance And the vocabulary can be demanding.”

This will obviously take a little concentration. Quill at the ready, I await enlightenment.