I’m a relatively recent convert to the world of real ale. Maybe it’s a maturity thing but I used to drink lager in my teens and early 20s, moving on to Guinness for most of my 30s but, more recently I’ve switched to what my Dad would have called proper beer. But, unlike Dad, my preference is less for mass-brewed stuff (although I am partial to a St Austell Tribute or few) – instead I like to try a local ale when I’m out and about.
That’s why the opportunity to visit my local micro-brewery (Hopping Mad, brewing just around the corner in Olney) was not to be missed. The evening was organised by the Newport Pagnell and Olney Lions Club and, although I have nothing to do with the Lions, I was a guest for a fish and chip supper washed down with free-flowing ale – quite possibly the ultimate ”p***-up in a brewery”…
Hopping Mad Brewers Limited was established in July 2010 by (entrepreneur and beer enthusiast) Matthew Hargreaves and (experienced business operations manager) David Wright. After searching for a suitable location in the Northampton, Milton Keynes, and Bedford area, they settled on Olney, which has been a great base for the company – situated close to the boundaries of three counties and, whilst the town itself is small (with a population of around 6000), the surrounding area has a population of close on one million people.
Initially known as Amazing Ales (a play on words around the hymn Amazing Grace, the most famous of the Olney Hymns), the Hopping Mad name seemed a much better fit as it describes how they are “mad passionate” about beers – and the strapline of “brewing just around the bend” is a nice touch too. After signing the lease to take on the unit where the brewery is sited on Yardley Road, they prepared the site with additional drainage, decoration, etc. and began to source some equipment.
Hopping Mad is a “15-barrel brewery” – a term derived from the capacity to brew 15 brewers’ barrels of beer at once (more volume than a 5 barrel setup for a similar amount of effort). It’s no co-incidence that there is a lot of equipment on the second-hand market from brewers moving up to a 30 barrel setup and the core of Hopping Mad’s equipment was obtained from Yates Brewery in Cumbria (who were moving to a larger installation). Additional fermenting vessels were purchased elsewhere and work started on brewing the beer in mid-2010.
Matthew and David were determined to “get it right first time” as people will try local produce once but there is no second chance if it’s not up to scratch, so they took advice from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), local publicans (including Reg Pearson at the Robin Hood in Clifton Reynes) and others (including Graeme Baxter at Yates’). They’ve been well supported by local free houses (unfortunately tied houses are generally unable to select the ales they might like, except perhaps for special events) as well as retailing directly to consumers (with 5 and 10 litre draught casks, 72 pint casks and, soon, 500ml bottles) although the emphasis is very much on getting people into pubs to drink beer and direct retail is primarily aimed at brand-building. Whilst Hopping Mad beers can be found across the country, the vision is one of a well-known brand within a 40-mile radius of Olney.
I won’t try to explain the process of brewing (I took a lot of notes, but I’m sure they are incomplete – the British Brewing Association has a description of the brewing process too) but each brew produces 15 brewers barrels (60 firkins/540 gallons/4320 pints). At present, the brewery produces two or three brews a week but is hoping to increase that to four by the end of 2012, with five as an eventual target.
A micro-brewery is defined as one that produces less than 500,000 litres a year and this micro-brewery status reduces the amount of duty to be paid by 50%. As a bonded warehouse, Hopping Mad pays duty at the point of sale and, with five staff, the brewery’s major costs are split are split between ingredients (including the use of premium Maris Otter barley), labour and duty.
- Brainstorm (4.3% ABV) is a traditional best bitter and was the first Hopping Mad beer, often taken by pubs as a guest ale.
- Fruitcase (4.5% ABV) came next, as a fruity golden ale.
- Hop Notch (3.6% ABV) is Hopping Mad’s session beer – malty and tasty and even though it’s relatively weak, it tastes like a stronger beer [I can testify to this... I'm sure that mostly drinking Hop Notch was one reason I didn't suffer a hangover the day after my brewery visit].
- Balmy Days (3.9% ABV) was originally a summer ale but some pubs have taken it as a permanent line (it works well with curries, etc.).
- Amazing Grace (4.4% ABV) is aimed at festivals, brewed less frequently (perhaps once a month).
There’s a sixth beer on the website too: Hoppiness (3.7% ABV) is another fine English Ale, with a hoppy taste (as the name suggests).
I asked the best way to keep the beer (for example, the 5 litre draught casks that I buy from time to time) and, after the initial guffaws from around the room about keeping beer (rather than drinking) it, Reg from the Robin Hood suggested to keep it at around 10-12 degrees (otherwise it’s too cold to taste, but not too warm either). Matthew and David explained that, whilst beer does have a “best before” date it is essentially a stable product and the “best before” date is exactly that – a date before which to enjoy the beer as intended (i.e. it’s about consistency) as any contact between the yeast and oxygen will cause secondary brewing that may affect the taste.
After having got off to a great start over the last 18 months, Hopping Mad are not standing still. I was fortunate enough to taste a not-quite-finished dark ale called Black Jack and there are plans for an American-style pale ale of around ABV 5% in the summer, as well as a winter warmer towards the end of the year [I'm looking forward to that one!]. As for the future, whilst there was talk of a longer term vision to malting in-house (a return to local, sustainable, business), Matthew and David’s immediate goals are about improving their beers, pushing the reputation of the brand and continuing the quality. Amen to that!
*not .co.uk – the domain squatters there were too greedy!
[markwilson.it has no affiliation with Hopping Mad, but I do like to support local businesses, and they do produce some very fine ales!]
[Updated 22 February 2012: thanks to Bill Beton for pointing out the correct spelling for Maris Otter barley]
[Updated 23 February 2012: New links to Hopping Mad's Facebook pages, and Anglia News package]