Down in the Forest of Dean, in what used to be a wood-cutter's store, I found Chris Lewis, a neat, quietly spoken man, squirrelling away with bags of barley-malt and sacks of hop flowers.
His heftier, hairier, more voluble business partner, Don Burgess, was hastily rolling casks. 'Must run,' he said. 'Got to deliver this beer to the agricultural college.'
Their enterprise sits between the ventilation shafts of a disused iron mine on the edge of the village of Sling, about 20 miles south-west of Gloucester. It is called the Free Miners Brewery, in recognition of a right granted by the Plantagenets (and still extant) that people born in the Forest of Dean may dig for iron or coal.
Next to the brewery is the Miners' Arms, built from forest stone reddened with iron.
The landlord, Simon Finch, dispenses local cider, Free Miners beers, a remarkable range of brews from Belgium and Germany and malt whiskies from Scotland. The locals were drinking cider, but tourists with more diverse tastes were eagerly awaited.
Once, each of the four or five small towns or large villages in the forest was served by its own brewery, all with their own hard-water springs - an aquifer under the forest holds water that flows from the Brecon Beacons. The last of those breweries closed in the Fifties. With the nationwide revival in small breweries, there was one unsuccessful attempt at regenerating brewing in the area before Chris and Don established Free Miner a couple of years ago.
Don's roots are in the forest, and his family were publicans, but he learned to make beer at a lively, new-generation small brewery called West Coast, in Manchester, after graduating in microbiology at the polytechnic there. One of its products is a ginger ale. During Don's student days, he worked as a bartender, and promoted rock concerts, 'so I learnt a thing or two about business'.
In Manchester he met Chris, who had graduated at Britain's only university department of brewing, at Heriot-Watt, in Edinburgh. Heriot-Watt offers no instruction in ginger ale, but ginger has been used in the odd British beer before, as well as several from Belgium (and a wide range of spices and herbs have been employed over the centuries). Don and Chris's Shake Mantle Ginger Ale, named after an iron mine, uses pale ale malt from Yorkshire, a dash of wheat, hops of the famous Fuggles variety from Hereford and Worcester, and ginger in two forms: powdered ginger added to the brew kettle, and root ginger to the casks of finished beer.
While most cask-conditioned ales are rendered bright with isinglass 'finings', made from the swim bladder of a tropical fish (most famously the Pungas catfish, from Vietnam), Shake Mantle Ginger Ale is deliberately left cloudy. Its 'traditional' appearance, like that of scrumpy, does not seem to have put off drinkers.
It has a yellowish colour, with plenty of ginger in the aroma and more in the finish. The ginger in the palate is light at first but gradually emerges as the pint is consumed. The root ginger in the cask seems to add a lemony flavour, which some people help along with a slice of the fruit. The beer is dry, light and clean-tasting.
All of the Free Miner beers have a very clean, malt character. In early September the brewery has a flowery speciality called Hop Charmer. Why charmer? 'You've heard of snake charmers?' began Don. 'Well, our hop-grower charms the vines out of the earth by playing blues guitar to them.'
'Where is this musical hop- yard?' I asked.
'At a place called Trumpet, near Much Marcle.'
An autumn brew named after a local system of caves, Slaughter Porter, has gained a macabre ring since the recent discoveries in Gloucester. In winter, there is a stronger brew called Deep Shaft Stout, made with malted oats.
Free Miners' beers are available in pubs from Plymouth to Edinburgh. The brewery's regular bitter won a little publicity when it was served as a guest beer at the Strangers' Bar in the House of Commons. At the Miners' Arms, Mr Finch observes: 'Some of our customers are conservative - with a small 'c'. They were a bit hesitant about the brewery's product, but they decided it must be a proper beer if it was served in Westminster.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content