Country Matters: An intoxicating enthusiasm for beer

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IN THESE hard times it is good to report that at least one rural industry is flourishing. Tomorrow Chas Wright, proprietor of the brewery in the Gloucestershire village of Uley, will throw a party to celebrate the installation of his new fermentation vessel and cooling tanks, which will increase capacity by 50 per cent.

Knowing Chas, I am confident that punters (as he tends to call them) will assemble from far and wide, that much ale will be lowered, and that the brewery will resound to the strains of the owner's accordion - for although he is a large man, with the dark beard and ample physical dimensions you would hope for in a brewer, he has agile fingers and at the slightest excuse launches into a torrent of irresistible ditties.

His enthusiasm for beer is intoxicating, his knowledge of the subject encyclopaedic, his love of old-fashioned boozers unquenchable. Pubs that have been tarted up with juke-boxes, slot machines and fitted carpets excite his boundless contempt. His idea of a good holiday is to go drinking in territory other than his own: be it Portugal or Bohemia, he has an uncanny knack of tracking down small breweries and striking up friendships with their owners.

The son of an RAF engineer - whom he describes as 'a rare old sod' - Chas had an itinerant boyhood as his father moved from one station to another. But while he was at university in Leeds in the Sixties his interest in beer took a decisive turn when he came across Theakston's ales. In the Seventies he set himself up as Theakston's agent in the South, and sold the beers as far away as Devon.

Staying with friends in Bristol, he fell in love with west Gloucestershire and settled in the village of Cam. When, in 1984, he heard that an old brewery was to let in Uley, only a couple of miles up the road, he jumped at the chance of taking the lease.

The building is a long, handsome stone structure that stands out from the side of a hill. It was commissioned in 1833 by Samuel Price, with all the appurtenances that a brewery then needed, including a vaulted cellar, a coach house, and two malting floors on which the barley was laid out to germinate before being roasted in the oven. No doubt one reason for the choice of site was the spring of pure water that flowed out of the hill behind, as it still flows 150 years later.

In those days, as Chas wistfully remarks, Uley was 'absolutely full of boozers', for the village was a prosperous wool-producing community, with mills all down the little river Ewelme. But in the 1840s the wool trade collapsed and the population declined drastically.

The brewery struggled on until about 1900, but then closed. The building was used for agricultural purposes until in the Thirties it was turned into kennels for the Kingscote foxhounds by the eccentric master of the day, Lord Leigh. A man still living in the village recalls how the cellar was used as a nursery for pregnant bitches and their pups, and how the dog-hounds were quartered in the yard.

When Chas took over the building he found several tons of hay piled in the brewhouse, left over from the days when a milk cow wintered there. His first partner was Bill Doggett, who used to drink in the Anchor at Upton upon Severn and had taken charge of a small brewery behind the pub.

They raised pounds 8,000 to install equipment and set themselves up in business. Their first brew, in March 1985, was a disaster. A design fault in the bottom of the boiling copper trapped the beer in the pipework so that it became overheated and caramelised. The result was bitter of a kind, with what Chas described as 'a very interesting taste and a lovely, smoky flavour'; but it was not something that would appeal to the punters, and he had to summon officers from the Customs & Excise to witness him pouring 350 gallons of ale down the drain.

By August that year, after a difficult summer and constant arguments about how to proceed, both partners were ready to pack it in. Then, for the annual beer festival in the village of Frocester, over the hill, they produced a special strong ale of 1050 original gravity which Chas named Old Spot, after the Gloucestershire breed of pig (spent grain from the brewery was indeed going to feed Old Spot pigs at Arlingham, on the Severn).

The new ale went down well, but a few barrels were left over in a corner of the cellar. Several weeks later someone asked Chas to enter a brew for the Great Western Beer Festival at Bristol - a major event. 'Let's send them that stuff,' he said to Bill. 'It's only a beer festival - some bugger'll drink it.' The next thing he knew, Old Spot had won first prize and the Uley Brewery was on the map.

Their problem then was to remember the recipe and recreate the brew. They managed it, and Old Spot is now firmly established as a local favourite. The name began an association with pigs that inspired the company's trade mark; it also established the precedent of sending a new beer to the Frocester festival every autumn.

One year Chas produced what he described as a wolf in sheep's clothing - a light-coloured and deceptively smooth- tasting ale with a wicked punch behind it. The festival's organisers ran a competition to name the new brew.

Many of the 300 entries were unprintable, and showed definite signs of the punters having become the worse for wear. One name, though, stuck: Pig's Ear. A year later this was reinforced by Pigor Mortis - a knock-out dark ale produced only in winter, which is now in such demand that this season's production, yet to be brewed, has already been booked up. Meanwhile, the original Uley bitter has held its own as the firm's best seller.

Bill Doggett retired amicably from the scene after Chas bought his shares. Through the rest of the Eighties business was tough, and to make a living Chas was forced to sell as far afield as Oxford (55 miles east) and Wolverhampton (70 miles north). Recently, however, he has consolidated into a much smaller area, to such effect that last year he actually made a profit.

Hence the expenditure of pounds 9,000 on extra equipment, and hence tomorrow's beano. One reason for this success has undoubtedly been the arrival of a new head brewer, Mel Griffiths, whose dimensions are uncannily similar to those of Chas himself. Self-taught, with no formal training, Mel quickly mastered the elements of the process and by dint of sheer application has given the Uley beers a consistency of flavour that at first they tended to lack.

The third, part-time member of the establishment is Ron Phillips, designated chief taster - a retired research technician who can turn his hand to most building jobs, and has done much of the reconstruction needed for the new equipment. At the moment, after a little local difficulty, Ron is travelling by bicycle, but should regain his licence in September.

Staffed by such genial souls, producing nectar, restoring an old building to its proper use, the brewery adds an extra dimension to village life. I shall be there among the punters tomorrow to wish it well; but, like Ron, I shall take care to travel to and fro on two wheels only.