China may be about to enter the Year of the Snake, but a south Norfolk beer producer is preparing to embark on A Year of Hops, writes Martyn Fisher.
Grain Brewery, based in Alburgh, will be experimenting with a different hop in the same beer each month this year from February.
Braving the snow earlier this week, I met with Phil Halls, the joint founder of the firm, to discuss the idea behind A Year of Hops, and to find out more about the award-winning brewery.
Mr Halls formed Grain Brewery in 2006 with Geoff Wright - manager of The Plough in central Norwich, which is the brewery’s only pub at present.
Although the latter had worked in marketing for Adnams, Mr Halls was a publisher, and had no real beer-making experience, as such: “I tried brewing some John Smiths while at university, but it tasted rubbish,” he said.
Tired of “wearing a tie too often”, Mr Halls leapt at the chance to form Grain Brewery when Mr Wright was made redundant.
He said: “Geoff told me, it’s now or never, and it just felt right. I wanted to do something more hands-on and real, and people love buying beer.”
They converted the old dairy at South Farm into a brewhouse and cellars, because the location “seemed ideal to us, and we didn’t want to work in an industrial estate,” Mr Halls said.
The enterprising duo haven’t looked back.
Grain Brewery now produces eight regular beers, from bitters to pale ales, as well as occasional guest brews.
There are two full-time members of staff at the brewery, along with four part-time workers.
The firm has won numerous awards, including several from renowned beer advocacy group CAMRA, but Mr Halls and Mr Wright have no intention of resting on their laurels, and hope to open another Grain pub in East Anglia very soon.
That desire to keep growing the business and further educate the general public about the wonders of lovingly-crafted beer has resulted in the inception of A Year of Hops.
Aside from water, the two main ingredients of beer are barley and hops.
Grain Brewery’s barley is locally sourced, while the hops used in its beers come from across the globe.
Mr Halls said: “When you make a beer, there are so many influences on the flavour, so I thought if I came up with something where there’s a blank canvas beer and a different hop added, it will allow people to really tell the difference, and understand the part they play.”
First up is a beer called Saaz, named after a type of hop found in the Czech Republic.
The hops to be used in the brewery’s experiment will range in taste, with hints of citrus, grapefruit and blackcurrant, among other flavours.
This willingness to try things and progress as a brand has led to Grain Brewery asserting itself as one of the region’s top beer producers.
The thriving south Norfolk firm recorded a 30 per cent increase in sales in the second half of last year, but Mr Halls said he is not solely motivated by exponentially increasing Grain Brewery’s turnover: “It’s all about creating beers people will like,” he said.
“We’re not following a fashion here. We produce crisp and clean beers with very simple recipes, and that ethos follows through to our branding as well.
“We have our own branded glasses and pump clips made from wood - basically, we spend money where we don’t need to spend it.”
As well as The Plough, in St Benedict’s Street, Grain Brewery beer is available to buy at a number of pubs in Norfolk and Suffolk, including The Red Lion, in Needham.
Saaz and the other A Year of Hops beers will be available to buy from a range of pubs in Norwich, including The King’s Head, Magdalen Street, and The Murderers, Timberhill.
The beers will also be available from the firm’s South Farm headquarters, which has a shop on site.
In the meantime, I recommend trying a glass of Oak - a bitter which is the firm’s best-selling beer. Visit www.grainbrewery.co.uk for more.