So, which beer do you drink? Most people with a passing acquaintance with real ale will be aware of Greene King and will have tried their IPA or Abbot, possibly in one of their diminishing number of local pubs such as the Gatehouse or Gayton Crown. Those who want to drink a Norfolk brewed beer may well have tried Woodfordes Wherry, perhaps in the Lattice House or Rathskellar. These are perfectly acceptable beers, but I have a theory that as the production increases, beers become less distinctive as the aim of the brewer is to avoid strong flavours that would discourage the masses rather than attract the connoisseurs, so some of you might have sought out beers from some of our smaller local breweries such as the Moongazer beers perhaps at Marriots, Beeston found in the Dabbling Duck at Great Massingham or JoC’s at the Ship at Brancaster.
However, only the really knowledgeable will be aware of the Old Chimneys brewery down at Market Weston down on the Suffolk border near Diss. This was started by Alan Thompson back in 1995. Alan was a contemporary of mine at Hull University, but although or time there coincided I don’t remember ever meeting him there. Whilst I was involved in the formation of the Real Ale Society, and learning how to drink beer, Alan was studying chemistry and learning how to make it. We were lucky enough to visit his brewery, a good few years ago, and it was the smallest commercial plant I have ever seen, smaller even than the Front Street brewery at Binham Chequers which was located in the old toilet block. I’m not sure if it has grown any bigger, but there is now a brewery shop open on Friday afternoons and Saturday lunchtimes as well as a couple of pubs that take Alan’s beer on a regular basis, the Mill Inn at Market Weston and the Six Bells at Walsham Le Willows. That is not exactly world domination, and I guess that Alan never wanted to expand like Woodfordes or sell out to the big boys for millions like Sharps (Doom Bar) or Meantime. Instead he has concentrated on producing great beer, a task at which he has been spectacularly successful.
His best known beer is Good King Henry Imperial Stout, usually found in bottles and weighing in at a hefty 9.6%, but this year he has released a batch of Good King Henry Special Reserve 2011 which has a few years extra maturation and an increased alcohol content of 11%. How good is it? The website www.ratebeer.com/beer gives it a perfect score of 100 and it has been the highest rated British beer for the last six years, and the 37th best beer in the world. It sounds like it might be a bit difficult to improve on, but this year sees the release of a new beer called Kings Alfred’s Cake which is a Baltic Porter fermented with Belgian yeast. It’s not quite as strong as the Special Reserve, at just 8.2%, and is designed to be a bit fruitier and hoppier but with less chocolate and coffee flavour.
Let’s face it, you are unlikely to ever own a Picasso or a Bugatti Veyron, but you are able to try the best beer in Britain. It’s not going to be your tipple of choice next time you go for a night out with the lads or girls, but it would be a pity to die wondering. There’s not much of it produced so if you are over in the area drop in – or try mail order.