Americans these days can find many excellent British beers on their own shores; but not Brakspear's (pronounced to rhyme with Shakespeare). This must have caused some frustration a few years ago when the New York Times ran an article by John Mortimer naming Brakspear's as the best bitter to be had in England. I assume he meant Brakspear's 'ordinary' bitter (what would Americans have made of that affectionate designation?) as opposed to the stronger 'special'.
If that was Mortimer's choice, I agree. In its delicate, malty sweetness, teasing, yeasty fruitiness, and hoppy bitterness, Brakspear's 'ordinary' is lightly refreshing, gently sociable, more-ish and appetite-arousing; the perfect combination in a bitter. The hoppiness is its salient feature. Mortimer thought it tasted of 'hop fields in the English summer'.
A fictitious brewery with some similarities to Brakspear's played a central role in Mortimer's television series Paradise Postponed, and he set his play Two Stars for Comfort at The Angel on the Bridge, one of the company's pubs in Henley.
In the same issue of the New York Times, another writer, Richard Adams, was nominating Brakspear's The Crooked Billet at Stoke Row, Oxfordshire, as his favourite pub. It is tempting to believe that Brakspear's beers also inspired Three Men in a Boat and The Wind in the Willows (Jerome K Jerome is buried just up the river in Ewelme, and Kenneth Grahame lived in Pangbourne).
Perhaps there are other breweries as evocatively English as Brakspear's, but none more so. No one is sure whether the only English pontiff, Pope Adrian (born Nicolas Brakspear, near St Albans, in the 1100s), was a forebear, but the name is rare enough. The family traces its history to at least the 1600s in Oxfordshire, and still has a significant share in the brewery.
The riverside site, in New Street, Henley, has been occupied by a brewery since at least the 1700s, when the family's interest began. The brewery stands next to the Little White Hart Hotel and Cottage Inn, opposite the regatta's finishing point.
Most of the present buildings are Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian. The retired maltings, with their twin kiln-towers, have been smartly restored as offices. The brewery now buys its grains from maltsters in Hertfordshire and East Anglia, but insists upon Maris Otter, an especially sweet-tasting barley that is becoming rare and very expensive.
Behind a wrought-iron arch bearing a streetlamp, the gabled facade of the brewery is topped with a clock and weathercock. A bush of holly and mistletoe is suspended from the eaves each Christmas and left there all year to ward off misfortune. No one knows when this Saturnalian superstition came to Brakspear's, but the bush is visible in a photograph from 1910. It was carefully left undisturbed by the builders who recently restored the roof.
From a wood-and-glass cabin high on the facade of the brewery, a hoist raises malt by the sack. The brewhouse, with open stairways, platforms and balustrades, a wooden ceiling and skylights, is reminiscent of the attic in a huge Victorian house. The copper-domed brew-kettle - riveted rather than welded - could be the secret device of an eccentric Victorian inventor. An old open copper, originally fired with coal, is now used to heat the brewing water.
The malt is infused in chalk-
hard water from the Chilterns, by way of the brewery's own well. In the pumphouse, an 1890s steam engine has been restored, down to the last gleaming brass bolt and leather pulley, and set into motion for no purpose other than its own beauty.
The hops are the classic Goldings of Kent and Fuggles of Herefordshire, with an exotic dash of the highly regarded Styrians from Slovenia. They are in the form of flowers, rather than pellets, though a small amount of hop-extract is used as a finishing touch; blossoms would do the job better.
A symbiosis of yeast strains with distant origins at the long-gone Mann, Crossman and Paulin brewery of Mile End, east London, imparts that extra complexity to the brew. It is fermented first in circular oak tuns, and then for a second stage in square vessels, some lined with copper, the rest with stainless steel. The fermentation cellar is lit by tall, leaded, stained-glass windows fit for a church.
With wider demand for this small brewery's beers, new fermenting vessels are being added, but they are of the same shape and size, rather than the huge tanks seen at many breweries today. A difference in the shape and size of tanks would affect the character of the beer.
The result of this traditional regime is, in my view, a distinctively clean, fruity character, heightened by a few days' warm maturation in cask at the brewery (this practice has vanished in some breweries).
While I especially enjoy the hoppiness of the 'ordinary' bitter (at about 3.4 per cent alcohol by volume), lovers of maltier beers might prefer the 'special' (4.5 per cent). Both are beautifully balanced.
Brakspear's sample room is decorated with glass cases containing fish caught in the Thames by A E Hobbs, who was employed as an architect in the days when the company was building pubs in the 'Brewers' Tudor' style. Mr Hobbs wrote a treatise on Thames trout. More of his prizes are in the guest bar, formerly the boathouse of Henley Rowing Club, with which the brewery has many links.
In the front office are sporting prints from around 1910 by a Henley artist, Cecil Aldin. Outside the chairman's quarters are paintings, in various classic styles, of a dozen kings. These were produced for a pub called The King's Head 25 years ago. The artist, Tom Coates, better known for his depictions of horses, now lives in Newbury.
When I poked my nose into Brakspear's joiners' shop, Fred Douglas, who has been painting the company's signs for 21 years, was working on one for the Perch and Pike, at South Stoke. The sign, about 5ft high and 4ft wide, was of the type mounted flat against the pub's facade. Mr Douglas, a keen angler, had painted three perch and a pike with a rudd in its mouth.
Henley is never far from the river. When I visited it, the town was already hanging with bunting for the regatta. This weekend, the brewery should briefly be enjoying a doubling of its sales.
Brakspear's beers are increasingly available in pubs in the Midlands and the West of England and will soon be on sale farther afield. The brewery does not bottle.
It is tempting to believe these beers inspired 'Three Men in a Boat' and 'The Wind in the Willows'