The brewing industry was one of the most important industries in Norwich's past, and its reach stretched throughout this city's history. It was once said that in Norwich there was a pub for everyday of the year, and names like brewers like Bullards' were synonymous with over 100 years of brewing heritage. However, as was often the case this stopped in the late 1970s when beer production was discontinued in the city. Leap forward 40 years and there is a thriving grass roots craft beer scene in the city, with breweries such as Redwell Brewing leading the vanguard to restore this city back to its rightful place in the minds of UK beer drinkers.
Brewing heritage is very strong in the UK and for one rural city located in the east of the country it is stronger than most. Norwich is located in the agricultural heartland of the UK and visitors are regularly reminded of its past through the preservation of the old castle wall surrounding the city centre and restoration of the old hospital into a new and modern housing development on the drive in from the west. This is a place where the past still has an impact on the present day and when looking into the history of the city and its connection to brewing I found more than I bargained for. In the middle of the 19th century, when Norwich was first connected to London by rail, brewing really started to boom in the city and over 80% of the beer brewed outside London was in Norwich. This boom was led by the famous names of brewing, Bullard and Morgan. Moving into the 20th century these breweries continued to grow and circumstances led to there being 'the big four' Bullard's, Morgan's, Youngs Crawshay & Youngs and Stewart & Patterson, as the main brewers in the city. Inevitably through seeking to try and increase their market share a number of takeovers between the companies occured and ultimately resulted in one company, Watney Mann being the sole brewer in Norwich with Gerald Bullard at the helm. Watney Mann were eventually taken over by Grand Metropolitan in 1972 for their pub network and the brewing operation subsequently closed in 1974 after the retirement of Gerald Bullard. This was a bleak day in the brewing history of the city and ended an over 100 year association between the name of Bullard and brewing in Norwich.
Roll on 40 years into the 2000s and a bright new chapter of brewing heritage was starting to be written. A number of intrepid people who wanted to reignite this once proud tradition of brewing started to open up a number of microbreweries and when you look at Norwich now, there are once again four main breweries within the city's ring road; Winter's brewery, St. Andrews brewery, The Fat Cat brewery and Redwell Brewing.
My first experience of the new brewing scene in Norwich occurred in Cambridge where I tried the Redwell Brewing Steam Lager which was on keg at The Cambridge Brewhouse. Steam lager is a style of beer which originates from California where brewers unfamiliar with brewing ale identified a lager yeast strain that would ferment at higher temperatures giving it a very distinct flavour profile to the final product. This is a very refreshing beer which is great for warm summers and has enough interest in flavour to be easily drinkable in winter as well. My impression of this beer was that the Redwell Brewing version of a steam lager is actually better than the one by Anchor, which is the benchmark for this style. 'Sacrilege!' I hear you cry, I know how can someone say such a thing about an iconic beer? I feel that being closer to source of production has a major impact on the flavour of the beer, and that more often than not the fresher the better. If you don't believe me try for yourself and let me know what you think. Since then I have kept an eye out for anything else from Redwell Brewing and arranged a visit to learn a bit more about who they are and what they do.
When I dropped by Redwell I met Amy and Patrick, the two founders of the brewery who took a big risk in selling their family home to generate the capital to start up the business, and at the same time moved their family into rented accommodation. They did all of this, despite working in the industry, without any brewing experience and as such the hunt for a brewer began in earnest. After a few interviews David Jones walked through the door, he was looking to return to the UK after a very successful career, winning more awards than he can remember, brewing for Jamtlandes Bryggeri in Sweden. Amy and Patrick both agreed that after meeting him and being thoroughly grilled on their plans for the brewery that they had found their man, and as such a fantastic working relationship began. Since then the team has grown to include several others who have helped to make the brewery a fully functioning beast pumping out fantastic beer.
After an introductory chat David took me around the brewing facility and introduced me to some of their beers, White IPA an IPA which includes wheat in the grain bill this is a hoppy beauty that gets something extra interesting from the wheat. Bullard's #1 which is a nod to the brewing history of the city is an east coast pale ale in style, they have also brewed two more tribute beers in Bullard's #2 and #3 which are a 6% IPA and an American Amber Ale only available on cask, Pacific ale which uses an abundance of New Zealand hops to make this a truly fantastic session ale with a great tropical flavour to it. The tastings were rounded off with Kofra Stout a collaboration brew with a local coffee shop, Kofra, which imports and roasts its own beans. I was told that there were numerous tasting sessions which left everyone a bit wired on caffeine before they settled on the coffee and strength to use. The flavour is unlike almost any other coffee stout I have previously tried in that it is spicy, fruity and dry on the palate while also remaining smooth and creamy. Sounds like a bit of a contradiction right? I know but the flavours and aroma from this are so complex that it is really difficult for me to pin down and articulate everything that is going on. One thing I do know is that it is really good and if you are a fan of coffee and stouts then try and get your hands on a can or two. It really is the product of two very passionate businesses coming together in a maelstrom of creativity to generate something very special.
One of the more interesting things from my point of view is the inspiration behind the beer and the creative process associated with it. When you meet the people at Redwell you immediately see the passion that they all have for producing the highest quality products they can with an aim of re-igniting the brewing heritage of Norwich. So to make their beers they buy the highest quality malt and hops they can get their hands on and ensure that the yeast is in the best possible condition for brewing, then once this is all in place they get started on using their 10bbl brewing system to ferment the drinks we love to enjoy.
Having seen what they are doing at Redwell Brewing in person I can attest to their passion for local providence as well as local community support. They want to be thoroughly intertwined with the city they brew in and aspire to bring Norwich back into the limelight of the UK brewing scene. From my visit I can now fully appreciate the amount of work they put into their products and can see why they are now regularly winning awards for their brews and gaining a lot of fans along the way. I can't wait to see what the future holds for them and for this exciting new chapter in the brewing history of the city. The future is bright for this brewing and the next chapter in the city's brewing heritage is still to be written.