All hands to the pump: Cockermouth's historic Jennings brewery is back in business

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Roger Protz hears how staff picked up the pieces after the brewery was devastated by floods – and kept the beer flowing

There's white smoke coming out of the chimney," Jeremy Pettman says with a relieved smile. Cumbria hasn't chosen a pope: the smoke signals that Jennings Brewery is back in business and that head brewer Pettman has started the first brew of Jennings Bitter since the disaster.

Back in November, Jennings' home town of Cockermouth was hit by devastating floods. Homes and shops were ruined and vital bridges over the rivers Cocker and Derwent were swept away. The brewery, on its site at the foot of Cockermouth Castle since 1878, was especially badly hit as it stands at the confluence of the two rivers.

Brewery manager Gaynor Green points to a line on a newly whitewashed ground-floor wall that marks the height the water reached on 19 November: six feet, or two metres. She recalls arriving at the brewery to find the ground floor, including the visitor centre, knee-deep in water. By the time she had evacuated the entire staff a few hours later, the water was waist-high and vehicles in the car park alongside the rivers were bobbing around like corks.

As well as the visitor centre, the cooperage, the yeast store and the power system were destroyed. The mash tun and coppers are located one floor up and were saved, but 50 tonnes of malted barley had turned to concrete in the malt store. Casks of beer floated out of the brewery and ended up in Workington (which may have brought some relief to that stricken town). Without power, malt and yeast, the brewery was at a standstill.

Once the waters had receded, Gaynor Green called the workforce together and told them there was no question of Jennings closing for good. She had received a phone call from Stephen Oliver, boss of Marston's Brewing Company, which owns Jennings, assuring her the brewery would re-open and asking her just one vital question: "Do you want to brew beer off-site, or wait until the brewery opens again?" Green says she was nervous about brewing Jennings beers elsewhere. But if the closure was going to last for a month or more she would need supplies for pubs in Cumbria as well as for bottling. Richard Westwood, Marston's director of brewing, arrived two days after the flood, surveyed the damage and told Green he could arrange to have the Jennings beers – Bitter, Cumberland Ale, Cocker Hoop and Sneck Lifter – produced by Banks's in Wolverhampton and Marston's in Burton-on-Trent.

There was no attempt to pass the beers off as genuine Jennings brews. Special attachments, known as "wobblers", were clipped to hand pumps in pubs to explain why the beers were being brewed elsewhere and that 10 pence from every pint sold would go to the flood relief fund. Sales of beer have so far raised £178,000 and make up the biggest single contribution to the fund.

"We've had no negative reaction to the beers," Gaynor Green says. "Customers said they didn't taste the same as when they were brewed in Cockermouth – and that was music to my ears, proving that cask beers have a unique taste due to their location." Sneck Lifter, a dark Porter-style beer named after the catch, or "sneck", on a Cumbrian pub door, was brewed at Marston's and had the famous sulphury aroma from the Burton water, which is never encountered in the Cockermouth version.

Green has nothing but praise for her workforce. "They came in their wellies and old clothes and cleaned the brewery up," she recalls. "BT fixed the phone lines within a week so the telephone sales girls could start moving beer again." There was sufficient stock in the system to enable Jennings to supply its customers until new beer was ready. A container-load of beer destined for bottling was retrieved and racked into casks for pubs. The mash tun and coppers were not damaged and the fermenters were cleaned of ruined beer, but production couldn't start again until the buildings were dry and passed as safe.

Environmental health officials insisted that brewing water from the on-site bore hole had to be cleaned out three times before they would allow it be used. The power panels have been moved from the ground floor to the first and should be safe even if the Cocker and the Derwent flood again.

Beer can't be made without yeast. A batch of every British brewery's yeast culture is securely stored at the National Yeast Bank in Norwich. A sample was taken to Marston's laboratory in Burton and a sufficiently large batch was made to start the first few brews at Cockermouth.

Jennings is a sizeable brewery, able to produce 50,000 barrels a year. It supplies 50 of its own pubs in Cumbria as well as other pubs in the Marston's chain in the North-east, Lancashire and Yorkshire, plus a large free trade and a growing bottling business. Marston's could have closed the site but instead has spent a large sum getting it going again. The company won't give a precise figure as insurance is still being negotiated but we're talking of a six-figure sum.

Jeremy Pettman and his deputy head brewer Rebecca Adams believe in using the finest raw materials for their beers. Maris Otter is their choice of malting barley, a variety favoured by many craft breweries because of its rich biscuity flavour and its harmony with yeast. Maris Otter was de-listed by seed merchants and agribusiness more than a decade ago and replaced with "higher yielding" varieties that produce more grain per acre. But a few specialist malting companies, such as Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire, buy Maris Otter from selected farmers and supply craft brewers.

The blend of grain for the first batch of Jennings Bitter was pale, amber, crystal and chocolate malts: it's an unusually dark version of bitter, one that has been satisfying Cumbrian drinkers since Victorian times. The colour of the malt depends on the roasting temperature in the maltings: highly roasted grain such as chocolate malt looks like coffee beans and adds a delicious dry, chocolatey note to the beer.

In the brewhouse, Jeremy Pettman mixes the malts with pure hot "liquor" – brewing water – in the mash tun. A superb aroma reminiscent of freshly baked bread and Ovaltine fills the air as starch in the grain begins its magical transformation into fermentable sugar. Two hours later, Pettman and his assistant brewer Eldred Burns taste the "first runnings" from the mash tun. The liquid is hot, biscuity, delicious and surprisingly dry rather than sweet. They are satisfied with the result and open the slotted base of the tun to allow the extract, known as "wort", to run into a receiving vessel, and then on to the copper for the boil with hops.

Jennings uses whole flower hops rather than compressed pellets or extract. Pettman believes the herbs in their natural state deliver the finest aroma and bitterness to his beers. For Jennings Bitter, he uses three English varieties, Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings, chosen for their different levels of bitterness and piney, citrus and spicy flavours. Hops are added three times during the copper boil as some of the aroma – known as the "angels' share" – is distilled into the atmosphere.

An hour-and-a-half later, the "hopped wort" will be cooled then pumped to fermenting vessels, where it's vigorously mixed with yeast. Fermentation creates so much excess yeast that Jennings will soon have enough to brew its full range of beers. One week after the first mash, Jenning's Bitter will be on its way to local pubs, helping to bring pleasure back to a community still struggling in the aftermath of the torrential floods.

Roger Protz writes

Perfect partners: The best beers for food

Real ale, a living beer that continues to improve and mature in the cask, is a good companion at the dining table. Jenning's beers, malty, fruity and hoppy, match a variety of foods.

Jennings Bitter (3.5%) goes well with hearty meat or vegetable soups. It's the perfect companion for the classic Cumberland sausage, the spicy hops melding with the meat. For non- carnivores, cross the Scottish border for a vegetarian haggis.

Cumberland Ale (4%) is a bronze-coloured beer with a powerful citrus note from the hops, along with juicy malt. Drink with pasta dishes, white meat or fish. It can be used in the classic beer dish, carbonnade of beef. It is excellent with cheese, especially tangy mature Cheddar or Stilton.

Cocker Hoop (4.6%) is a golden ale brewed with Styrian Goldings hops from Slovenia. They bring a floral, resinous and piney note to the beer. This is the beer for pizza, a tangy salad, light fish or chicken.

Sneck Lifter (5.1%) is a porter, the junior version of stout. The Irish drink stout with oysters and have annual stout and oyster festivals. Sneck is therefore ideal for shellfish, but its roasted grain and chocolatey notes also makes it a good dessert beer with rich puddings or chocolate dishes.

Suggested Topics
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing