Cumbria taps its potential as new home of fine ales

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It took a good Methodist to spot the brewing potential provided by the soft waters of Cumbria. William Jennings started brewing in the idyllic village of Lorton in 1828 and later moved to the nearby market town of Cockermouth, using water drawn from 50ft beneath the town. The well he drilled is still used by the brewery today.

It has taken nearly 200 years for others to catch on to Jennings' idea but, now that they have, Cumbria is developing a beer industry which is growing so fast that the county can claim, with some justification, to be Britain's new brewing capital.

News arrived yesterday of the latest addition - a brewing company at Ulverston, Stan Laurel's birthplace, whose 17 nine-gallon barrels will produce ales named after the town's most famous son, such as "Another Fine Mess" and "Lonesome Pine".

Ulverston Brewery's main problem has been getting into the market. Most of the pubs in the town have been tied to Robinson's, the Manchester brewer, since it bought up arguably the most famous Cumbrian brewery, Hartleys, in 1982. Undaunted, the new brewer is selling further afield. "When Hartleys closed down, Ulverston lost a brewer, and I've always thought the town is big enough to have its own brewery," said Paul Swann, co-founder of the new brewery. "There is a demand for a product which is not just another of those mass-produced beers."

The investment in the Ulverston Brewery comes in a six-month period during which both Jennings and Hawkshead Brewery, established at the head of Esthwaite Water four years ago, have invested in their own facilities to keep up with soaring demand. Hawkshead Brewery, established by Alex Brodie, a former BBC foreign correspondent seeking a project "unconnected with using words and reporting", draws on the waters on Weatherlam and other Coniston fells.

Mr Brodie discovered he could not keep up with demand for his beer with his seven-barrel plant. With a £300,000 investment, he has now opened a 20-barrel plant at Staveley, near Windermere - where, for good measure, a whisky distiller also uses the waters of the river Kent. "Any water can be made suitable for brewing but our water, from high on the fells, does not need to be treated," said a spokeswoman for the brewery. Hawkshead Brewery's session bitter (pale, hoppy and dry, with a bitter finish) has earned many plaudits, along with the more malty Hawkshead Best.

Consumers' growing interest in the provenance of their beer has increased demand and many pubs are now establishing micro-breweries.

The Kirkstile Inn, at Loweswater, has Loweswater Brewery, producing Melbreak Bitter and Grasmoor Ale. The memorably named Bitter End pub, down the road from Jennings' famous Castle Brewery in Cockermouth, boasts "Cumbria's smallest brewery". Ulverston Brewery's arrival takes the number of breweries in the county to about 25.

The growth of these and others is a far cry from the great micro-brewery boom of the Eighties, when hundreds of new beer- makers set up new brewing businesses, but quickly went bust. "There's an awareness that consistency and good quality is everything," said the Hawkshead spokeswoman.