Will Janina Jones win the heart of Essex man?
From a `real ale' family brewery in East Anglia comes a tempting new bottled beer. If it wins over the locals, it could soon be at a pub near you, says Michael Jackson
It has to be conceded that Foster's Lager is kegged (though not produced) by the county's most renowned brewers, Ridley's of Hartford End, but its stock-in-trade is something altogether more characterful. Ridley's specialises in dry, hoppy, flavoursome ales. Until recently, products have been sold mainly on draught, cask-conditioned, in their home county, but now Ridley's has launched a bottled beer aimed at the national market.
Better still, the new product is among the small but growing band of "bottle-conditioned" brews. Traditionally, this meant that the beer was bottled without filtration. Today, the yeast is normally filtered out, then a fresh dosage added in a controlled amount.
Either way, the yeast causes a second fermentation in the bottle. It is the bottled counterpart to a cask-conditioned draught, a "real-ale". Arguably, bottle-conditioning produces an even greater complexity of aroma and flavour than cask-conditioning does.
Ridley's is the perfect picture of a "real ale" brewery. Far from the urban, estuary Essex, it is half a dozen miles north of Chelmsford and slightly nearer to Great Dunmow, of bacon fame. Where the gently rolling countryside begins to dip, the River Chelmer flows as little more than a stream and beside it rises the small, brick-built, brewery.
"Slow! Ducks crossing" says a sign made by Alice, the Ridley family's 15-year-old daughter. She has a dozen ducks on the river, and does not want them spatchcocked before their time.
The Ridleys trace their history to the 10th century, and have contributed a bishop martyred at the stake in 1555, a Master of Eton, and a physician to the Tsar of Russia. The present paterfamilias, Nicholas Ridley, acknowledges that his late political namesake may possibly have had a link with the family - but it was distant.
The Ridleys had a grain mill on the Chelmer in the 1700s, and the building is now home to Nicholas. The notion of turning grain into beer came when a Ridley married a woman from brewing stock. Ridley's brewery was built in 1842, from brick made in nearby Felsted. The brewery and a scatter of cottages built for its workers comprise the hamlet of Hartford End: there is nothing else.
Mr Ridley took control of the family company only three years ago, and was aware that it rested precariously on its 60-odd tied pubs, many doing slow business in thinly-populated rural areas. His desire is to strengthen the business and its pubs by selling its beer far and wide.
Until recently, Ridley's principal products were a caramelish draught Mild Ale and an India Pale Ale, a very good beer but a restrained interpretation of the hoppy style exported by British brewers to the sub-continent in imperial times. Since Mr Ridley took over, a bigger and rounder pale ale, elliptically entitled ESX Best, has been added. So has a roasty Porter called Witchfinder. Apparently, witch-hunting was once a common pastime in Essex.
Now Mr Ridley is adding to the brewery's range of bottled beers, with a view not only to reaching more distant pubs but also to servicing wine merchants and supermarkets nationally. The bottled products have long included a toffeeish brew called Old Bob and an extra-strong (8 per cent alcohol) speciality dubbed Bishop's Ale. The newcomer, Chelmer Gold, is the brewery's palest beer in colour but packs a respectable 5 per cent alcohol.
It is made entirely from East Anglian barley-malt, and seasoned with the classical soft hop variety Fuggles (from Herefordshire) and the famously resiny Styrian Goldings (imported from Slovenia). Chelmer Gold is fermented with Ridley's house yeast (which imparts fruity notes reminiscent of blackberry and apple), then has a period of warm maturation (which heightens these characteristics). The beer is filtered and re-yeasted in the bottle with a different strain, which seems to add a rose-like aroma.
The end product has a further period of maturation in the bottle before it leaves the brewery. It emerges with a spritzy, dry start; delicately flowery flavours and a crisp finish. The beer was created by brewer Janina Jones, who is something of a whizz with yeasts. Ms Jones and fellow-brewer Michael Thorp are jointly responsible for the production of Ridley's beers.
The grains are hoisted in sacks into the loft-like malt barn and are transformed into beer as they descend, floor-by-floor, on the Victorian "tower brewery" principle. They meet the brewing water in a cast-iron mash-tume; encounter the hop flowers in a copper boiling kettle; and ferment in copper-lined vessels made from oak.
In the cellar, a plaque marks the height of floods when the Chelmer has overflowed. It does this every 40 years or so and, for a tiny river, wreaks considerable damage. There are markers for 1906 (knee high), 1947 (shoulder) and 1987 (waist).
Will Chelmer Gold flood England, or even just East Anglia? Can Ms Jones win the heart of Essex Man? She is trying hard, visiting pubs and conducting tastings for customers . She has already been to a dozen and found people most interested. By the end of the year she will have racked up 50 such tastings. After a pub-crawl like that, surely they will believe her?
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