Witch hunt

Beer: Hubble, bubble ... to drink it means trouble. Some brews for Halloween

With Halloween approaching, I decided to trace the source of the Witches' Brew. The easiest way to do this is by InterCity to Preston, Lancashire.

After that, one takes a boneshaker, almost a ghost train, high into the Pennines by way of places like Oswaldtwistle and Accrington, to an unmanned station called Rose Grove. The windy platform there has several shrubberies, but the flower of Lancashire is conspicuously absent.

Near Rose Grove, on the edge of Burnley, is a rather curious brewery. Although it was established by William Moorhouse in 1865, and has operated on its present site since 1870, it spent most of its life making sugar-based, hopped brews that were allegedly non-intoxicating. Although these products actually contained a good 3 per cent alcohol, that modest level was thought to qualify them to be served in temperance halls in the robust days when everyday beers were much stronger. There were many such halls in the days when most Pennine mill towns lived under the glare of the chapel.

Moorhouses still makes such hop bitters as an ingredient of proprietary shandies, though there were none in stock when I called. Things have changed considerably since the last Moorhouse sold the brewery in 1978. That was during the first resurgence of "real ale", and the new owner, a local businessman, decided to brew some.

Several owners since, the present incumbent, also a businessman, added the refinement of a "premium brand": Pendle Witches' Brew. The name is owed to the 19 alleged witches tried at Lancaster Castle in 1612, 10 of them sent to the gallows.

Although the ladies were said to have haunted the nearby Pendle Hill on Midsummer's Night, their brew has become more strongly associated with Halloween. During October, its sales triple and it has, year round, something of a cult following.

There is nothing sinister about the brewery. The small, two-storey building shares a terrace, called Moorhouse Street, with three or four houses originally built for its workers. Having myself grown up in a similar Pennine town, I have a soft spot for such small local industries. I am always reminded of Pledge's Pickle Factory, in a television series featuring long-gone Northern comedians Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewell.

No pickles were made by Moorhouses, but one of its brew kettles originally saw service in a jam factory in the Thirties. It looks like an inverted top hat made of copper. It is not quite a witches' hat, but I have never seen such an odd-looking brew kettle, and it was the high spot of my visit.

This open kettle may contribute to the juicy freshness of Pendle Witches' Brew. The more common closed type can "stew" the barley malt. Moorhouses uses barley malt from Nottinghamshire and East Anglia, hops of the Fuggles variety from Worcestershire, water from the Lake District, and a famously robust yeast from the Thwaites brewery in nearby Blackburn.

The result is a pinkish-amber ale with a slightly oily, smooth texture. It starts with a sweetish, barley-sugar maltiness, develops a strawberryish fruitiness, and finishes with an aniseedy hop dryness. It is perilously drinkable for a beer of more than 5 per cent alcohol. "It creeps up on you," warned brewery manager Bob Lee. I requested another pint, and began to see what he meant.

I think I will give myself a sober moment to deal with trick-or-treaters on 31 October before I risk the Witches' Brew. If you feel tempted, the beer can be found in Northern store chains such as Booth's and Morrison's. Speciality beer stores also offer some scary brews from elsewhere:

l Hexen Brau is the Swiss-German way of saying "Witches' Brew". This is an earthy, nutty, chocolatey dark lager of 4.5 per cent made by the Hurlimann brewery of Zurich. It is brewed only at full moon. The custom arises from beliefs in some Alpine valley that the pull of the full moon favourably affects natural processes - including fermentation.

l Old Nick, with the Devil on its label, is the strongest beer from Young's brewery in London. At 7.2 per cent, it is dubbed barley wine, though at this potency the fermentation naturally creates flavours reminiscent of a banana liqueur.

l Duvel is a corruption of the Flemish word for devil. This world-class beer from Belgium has the innocent colour of the palest golden lager but is actually an ale, made with Scottish yeasts. It is devilishly deceptive drinking, far lighter than its 8.2 per cent. The Belgians serve it lightly chilled, in a Burgundy sampler, as an aperitif. I like it after dinner; its flavour reminds me of the brandies made from Williams pear in Alsace. Duvel has many lesser (but equally strong) Belgian rivals, with names like Satan and Lucifer.

l La Biere du Demon is a similar brew, with a more lager-like palate, at a mighty 12 per cent from the frightening sounding brewery Les Enfants de Gayant, in Douai, northern France. The brewery's name, "Children of the Giant", is a reference to local folklore.

l Pete's Wicked Ale, devised in California and produced in Minnesota, is not as sinful as it sounds, but the nutmeg-spiced Pete's Wicked Winter Brew at about 5 per cent has the right nationality and seasonal allusion for Halloween.

My American favourite for this season is Blackened Voodoo, a treacly dark lager of 4.5 per cent from New Orleans, the American city most given to ghost lore. There was a threat to ban this "blasphemous" beer in neighbouring Texas, much of which is Bible Belt. The state of Louisiana responded by saying that it would outlaw Lone Star, the famous (but anaemic) lager of Texas.

The Lone Star brewery has since gone out of business

The New York chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food is for the first time to award a scholarship to a brewer of beer. The award will be known as the Michael Jackson Scholarship, after The Independent's writer on the subject.

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