Following my visit in July to Crisp Malting, which malts the finest barley in the world, a trip to Woodforde’s brewery was the obvious way to follow the local links from the grain to the glass.
Woodforde’s, like the village of Woodbastwick it calls home, is quintessentially Norfolk. From its trademark Wherry logo and its location in the heart of the Broads, to the local water and premium malt in its award-winning beer, it epitomises the best the county has to offer in food and drink. Similarly, Woodbastwick has a fine church, a cluster of cottages set round a small green and, like many Norfolk villages, a decent pub.
It’s the beer, the whole beer and nothing but the beer
The Fur & Feather is thatched and red brick like the surrounding properties, with locally sourced food every day and, best of all, its own brewery next door. This is Woodforde’s only pub – the firm doesn’t have a large property portfolio or a diversified business. Consequently, as Managing Director Rupert Farquarson makes clear, “the company lives or dies by maintaining the excellent quality of its beer year in year out.”
That quality has been evident since two members of Norwich’s home brewing community turned their passionate hobby into a thriving business in 1981. After the dark days of the 60s and 70s when it seemed the only beers were Watney’s Red Barrel or Double Diamond, the craft beer pioneers were almost guaranteed a hero’s welcome from thirsty drinkers. Wherry certainly hit the mark and, after a couple of years on an industrial estate in Drayton, had to move to larger premises in Erpingham, next to the Spread Eagle pub (now the Erpingham Arms), to cope with rising demand.
A fire almost destroyed the brewery a month later, but the business rose from the ashes – and launched a special IPA called Phoenix to mark its survival. Since then it has grown steadily, building a loyal following not just in Norfolk but also across the UK, as its popular online ordering service proves. It moved to Woodbastwick in 1989 and in September 2014 it resurrected Phoenix as a guest ale to mark just over 30 years since the fire.
The secret to great beer – great ingredients – and master brewers
Just 15 years after its launch, Wherry won the title CAMRA Supreme Champion Beer of Britain and the company has gone on to win numerous accolades since, including two at this year’s Norwich beer festival. However, the crowning glory came when The Good Pub Guide 2015 named it UK Brewery of the Year. This is great news for Woodforde’s and for Norfolk, which boasts more than 20 pubs in the guide, including The Rose & Crown in Snettisham, which won the Pub of the Year award.
The three main ingredients in all Woodforde’s beers are local water (from its own borehole), malt and the hops. The brewery team works closely with local maltsters (Crisp Malting and Simpsons) to ensure they get the finest brewing malt made exclusively from Norfolk barley, mainly the world famous Maris Otter. “We always buy the best,” says Brewery Manager Bruce Ash, who is one of only 71 Beer Sommeliers in the world. “Our reputation depends on it.”
Woodforde’s tends to use English hops for their bitter flavour and Slovenian hops for their aromatic qualities. “Many brewers use processed hop oil or dried pellets because they are cheap,” explains Bruce, “but we only use whole hop flowers because we want to ensure a full flavour.” Fittingly, it used purely English Golding and Challenger hops for its Royal Norfolk Ale, which it brewed to commemorate the sacrifice of the local regiment in WW1 and to raise funds for its benevolent fund.
Supporting the local community
“The term ‘ethical’ is perhaps a bit overused in business these days,” admits MD Rupert, “but we do strive to put something back into our community. After all, most of our employees are Norfolk born and bred – we even have three members of the same family on the team – and they stick with us because they like our attitude, as much as our beer. In fact, three people have been with us for over 25 years, including Bruce who worked his way up from being an apprentice.”
Woodforde’s commitment to the local economy is also evident in its brewery shop (run by Juliet Jones) where it stocks food and drink from 16 other Norfolk producers. It is like a permanent indoor farmers market and well worth a visit – particularly in the run up to Christmas if you are looking for a special present for the gourmet in your life. Feast your eyes on the current selection:
|JubberwackyBooja Booja||Chillis GaloreNorfolk cider||Norfolk CordialGnaw|
For a delicious, festive family day out, you should pop along to the brewery’s Christmas Open Weekend (6-7 December). Along with beer and wine tastings, there will be a hog roast, a local food marquee, carol singers and free brewery tours. As further proof of the brewery’s support for local producers, it doesn’t charge pitch-fees for the marquee – which is a particularly generous gesture in these tricky economic times.
Woodforde’s also supported the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014; sponsoring the Aylsham Slow Food Festival and Ormiston Families’ Walk with a Fork, as well as running a food & ale matching evening. In 2015, as in previous years, it will continue its involvement in Norwich City Of Ale Festival in May and the Norwich Beer Festival in October. It will also brew a special ale for the Maris Otter 50 celebrations in September, to mark the revival of the malting barley that is a favourite of craft brewers the world over.
Supporting pubs across the region
If that was not enough, Woodforde’s is again organising the East Anglian Ale Trail. Now in its 15th year it has become one of the biggest in the country. The trail features around 700 pubs – including some 330 in Norfolk. That is enough for a dedicated beer drinker to enjoy two stops a day, every day of the year – and there will be prizes for those who complete different sections of the trail. This is a great way to support local pubs and craft beer makers, not just Woodforde’s (although it obviously does help).
This is not a sponsored blog (none of mine are) but Woodforde’s kindly gave me a bottle of Norfolk NIP and a bottle of Tinsel Toes to taste. However, I’m saving them for the festive season – when I can try them with a slice of delicious Christmas cake from Dozen – so will report back on them later. Rupert also donated a box of six assorted bottles of Woodforde’s beers for the Nelson’s Journey Christmas quiz. Thank you to all the team at Woodforde’s for your hospitality and generosity, especially Rachael Shakespeare for arranging my visit and showing me round the brewery.
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About this post
This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or five).
If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.
Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.