Tuesday, 7 July 2015

From the Archives - A Visit to Crouch Vale Brewery, 1994

What follows below is an article I originally wrote for my local CAMRA branch magazine, back in the mid 1990’s, about a trip the branch made to Crouch Vale Brewery, just across the water from us over in Essex. The article was far too long, so was never published; although the branch’s social secretary at the time did produce a considerably shorter article, which was more to the point and therefore much more suitable for the magazine.

I’ve updated the article slightly, and embellished it in places, having come across it whilst looking back at some old files on my computer. As it provides a bit of an insight into some fairly recent brewery history, I thought it should see the light of day. The article also highlights an excellent pub, which is well worth a visit, should you find yourself in that part of Essex.

Whilst I have enjoyed visiting many of the new micro-breweries which have sprung up in recent years, I find that they do not have quite the same appeal and attraction attached to them as their more established counterparts. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the beer they produce. On the contrary, I have found that much of it compares well with the products of the established breweries. Some of it is even better. What I am getting at, is more to do with the architectural designs of the buildings rather than the products produced in them.

The older, established breweries are invariably housed in purpose built structures, which are both attractive in appearance and functional in design  This form of industrial architecture reached its peak with the classic Victorian  tower brewery, where gravity is put to good use, allowing the flow of ingredients from one stage of the brewing process to another. In addition, such breweries often tend to be home to all sorts of interesting pieces of plant and equipment, ranging from teak-clad mash tuns, to functioning steam engines.

With a small number of exceptions, none of this applies to the new breed of micro-breweries. Although I can think of micro-breweries that occupy old barns, converted farm buildings, and redundant railway stations, new breweries, in the main, tend to be housed in modern, light industrial units, of the type which are commonplace throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom. Such buildings are functional, relatively cheap to construct, and easy to maintain. Unfortunately they have none of the embellishments, or indeed character, of their Victorian predecessors.

Crouch Vale Amarillo
Crouch Vale Brewery, at South Woodham Ferrers in Essex, was no exception to this rule, and it was outside just such a unit that a dozen or so fellow CAMRA members and I found ourselves on a sunny February morning, back in 1994. This was the prelude to a trip round this small, but well respected micro-brewery. However, if the outside of the building looked plain and functional, the inside was anything but.

We were met by Colin Bocking, one of the two original partners who had set up the brewery in 1981. Realising that we would be thirsty after our mini-bus trip up from Kent, we were each given a pint of Crouch Vale Millennium Gold, before beginning the tour. As its name suggests, this particular beer is gold in colour, and is a well-hopped brew of 4.2% ABV. Whilst we were enjoying our beer, our host gave us a very interesting talk on the brewing process in general, followed by details of how it was carried out at Crouch Vale. He also gave us a potted history of the company, and described how it was just entering into a period of expansion, thanks largely to the “guest beer” rule. All this was interspersed with amusing anecdotes, underscored by Colin's very dry sense of humour.

It is always encouraging to hear of success stories, and that of Crouch Vale certainly fitted the bill. As stated earlier, the brewery was founded in 1981 by Colin and his partner, Rob Walster and after steady, but unspectacular expansion had reached a stage where it was ticking over nicely. Then along came the 1989 Beer Orders, which opened up the guest beer market to the new breed of micros, and the company has never looked back. Rob Walster left, to set up his own beer agency and concentrate on the wholesaling side of the trade. He also bought his own pub - more about that later. Today, Crouch Vale supplies over 100 free trade outlets, as well as its own tied house. At the time of our visit this was the award winning Cap and Feathers at Tillingham, but the pub has since been sold and another purchased – the Queen’s Head in Chelmsford.

The talk was followed by a look around the brewery itself. Every available square foot of the unit seemed to be pressed into use. Most interesting was the brewing copper, sited on a mezzanine floor above our heads, and fired from below by direct gas flame.

Cap & Feathers - Tillingham
After a further pint of Millennium Gold, it was time to leave our host to get on with the brewing, and depart for the next stop on our day out. This was to be lunch at the aforementioned Cap and Feathers. The pub took a fair bit of finding, despite having been given directions from Colin, but the perseverance of our driver, and the map reading skills of the navigator within our party brought about our eventual success. So after a pleasant half hour's drive through the winding lanes of this lesser-known part of Essex, we arrived in the picturesque village of Tillingham, and parked outside the Cap and Feathers.

The Cap and Feathers was everything a village pub should be, with old oak beams, open fires, traditional pub games and a quiet, unspoilt atmosphere, enjoyed by a varied and appreciative clientele. Not only did we enjoy lunch here - courtesy of the brewery, but we were also able to sample several more beers from the Crouch Vale portfolio. These included Woodham IPA, Best Bitter and, for the braver souls amongst us, the head-banging 6.4% ABV Willie Warmer, described by the Good Beer Guide, at the time, as "a meal in a mug".

It was therefore, with some reluctance that we left, come closing time, at 3pm. Included amongst our party, was Dave Aucutt, director of the East-West Ales Beer Agency and branch chairman at the time. Dave knew the area well and was able to guide us to the third stop on our itinerary, the Prince of Wales, in the tiny hamlet of Stow Maries.

I must admit that before we arrived at the Prince of Wales, the beer was beginning to catch up with me, and the prospect of drinking yet more starting to appeal less and less. However, once we reached the pub all such thoughts vanished, for housed in a white-painted, weather boarded building, constructed in typical local style, was one of the best pubs I have been in. The Good Beer Guide described the Prince of Wales as a rural gem, and it was therefore hard to believe that only a few years previous the building had been more or less derelict. It had been beautifully restored by its then owner, who turned out to be none other than Rob Walster- the former partner in Crouch Vale, whom I mentioned earlier.

Prince of Wales - Stow Maries
What I particularly liked about the Prince of Wales was the way in which it had been divided up into a number of separate, but inter-connected rooms. There was an open fire burning in one and, from what I recall, a stove in one of the others. The decoration was provided by a number of old brewery advertisements, some of them from long defunct concerns. The floor was part wooden and part quarry tiled, and on a cold February afternoon, the pub seemed to possess a marvellous, yet tranquil atmosphere.

There was no piped or other recorded music to disturb one, or to detract from the gentle hub-bub of conversation. Moments such as these are to be cherished, especially when one is in good company, and whilst it is easy to romanticise when one has enjoyed a considerable number of pints, I have extremely fond memories of that Saturday afternoon in the Prince of Wales.

We spent a couple of hours in this wonderful pub, sampling several of the different ales that were on offer. All were in good condition, and it was with considerable reluctance that we took our leave. The journey back to Kent was uneventful; I fell asleep, and missed my first trip across the then recently opened Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at the Dartford Crossing.  So ended an excellent day out; just the thing to lift one’s spirits at, what can often be, a depressing time of the year. I kept promising myself a return visit to the Prince of Wales, but to date the opportunity hasn’t arisen.

As for Crouch Vale, they are now the longest-established brewery in the county of Essex. They have won countless awards, moved to larger premises, built a new brewery and remain independent and privately, family owned, with Colin Bocking still in charge. Rob Walster still runs the aforementioned Prince of Wales, at Stow Maries. That’s not bad going for a couple of beer enthusiasts who followed their dream and started a brewery using various second-hand items of plant and equipment.

Footnote: No photos from the original trip, I’m afraid. Back then I didn’t possess a mobile phone, let alone one with a camera! I’m not sure they were around, anyway. I did have a pretty decent SLR 35mm film camera, but that was far too big and cumbersome to take on a brewery trip!

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