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Brewing the Solihull CAMRA 25th Anniversary Ale

In much the same way as buses, unique opportunities also seem keen to come along in groups. Solihull CAMRA are currently in the interesting position of having members involved in the brewing of beers from two different local breweries. No sooner had Kevin Clarke and myself been given the opportunity to join the Tunnel Brewery in Ansley, Warwickshire to help create a special ale to mark our branch’s 25th anniversary than we learnt that fellow members Bob and Ken Jackson had independently arranged to brew their own ale at Church End Brewery, just a couple of miles down the road at Nuneaton. Casks of both ales will be at the Solihull Beer Festival in October, leading to some inevitable light-hearted rivalry. Our commemorative ale - to be called Solihull Silver Shield - will also be available in specially-labelled bottles, giving us a chance to make a direct comparison between a real cask ale and its bottle-conditioned equivalent.

The problem with this grand plan is that someone has to get out of bed and do the work. An even bigger problem is that they like to get the job done and into the pub for a lunchtime pint, which means a 5.30am start for us. We’ve been there before (see here and on arrival our host Mike Walsh had the basic ingredients lined up and a recipe to meet our general aims of a high 4% golden ale. Mike has just given up his day job as a teacher to make this a full time job. At this juncture it is worth noting that not only can he make a good pint, but he is also a patient teacher and allowed us to do as much of the real work as possible. We discussed the plan and decided to get the mash started before finalising the hops. As with many English beers, it was based on a large amount of pale malt (for the basic strength and light colour) using Maris Otter (only the very best) and some... now wait a minute, there is some rivalry building up here. We will disclose the full recipe when the other lot have made theirs. Anyway, there were several sacks of that, a few more of something else in a different shaped sack and a blue bucket of a secret ingredient (all unadulterated grain, nothing funny).

The hot liquor tank was up to temperature and so Kevin and I took it in turns to lift heavy sacks up into the mash tun and pour while the other sprayed the stream of malt with the hot water until the tun was filled with tens of gallons of what appears to be lumpy porridge. The exact temperature and consistency are all critical and Mike kept a note of every twist and turn. Once that was done we had 90 minutes to spare, during which time Mike would normally wash a few casks, fill bottles, organise deliveries etc, but instead we emptied his hop store to compare and contrast the numerous different hops he has on offer.

The choice is bewildering. Tunnel use a supplier Charles Faram (supplying hops since 1865), while our fellow Solihull CAMRA members are planning to use something they grew in the garden for their rival brew. I admire that eccentric English self-sufficiency, but where is the tradition? Anyway, back on the Tunnel method, some hops are used for classic bitterness and some for the hoppy aroma, but there are more subtle effects of taste too. We stuck to Mike’s basic plan, but changed two of the three suggested hops. By 8.45am (yes, it really was still that early) the mash had settled down into a solid bed, smelling of Horlicks, and was ready to be drained of the sugary sweet wort, followed by sparging with lots more hot water to wash out all the sugars. Mike knew every squeak and gurgle of his brewing plant that told him things were proceeding at the right pace. In all we used well over a tonne of hot water to make about 5-6 barrels of beer. The wort flowed out of the mash tun, via a Valentine arm and the underback (at this stage Kevin was fascinated by the switches operating the pumps to keep a steady flow) into the copper where we turn up the heat to bring it to a rolling boil and the wort is Burtonised (adding Gypsum to make it similar to the hard waters of Burton on Trent, used in making the famous beers that were shipped around our empire).

The majority of hops are added at this stage and boiled for the full 90 minutes, but some (and I will not divulge which types, but they did not grow next to the rhubarb) are kept back for the last 15 minutes to preserve their aroma, and some even for the last 5 minutes. Ah, that’s a good hour for a rest you think, but you’d be wrong. This is one of the oldest traditions in the business, someone has to shovel that spent malt out of the mash tun and into the sacks from whence it came (to be dragged outside and collected by the local farmer for his cattle)... but now it is soggy and a lot heavier. Hard work and hot too; kindly Mike allowed us to benefit from the full traditional experience (no wonder it is used as a way for jockeys to lose weight fast). At last we stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit. We now set about a big clean-up. Cleanliness is vital in brewing - wild yeast or bacteria can kill a brew. Unlike wine or whisky, the alcohol level is not high enough to protect it. Everything was swept out and hosed down. The fermenting vessel had been cleaned and sterilised while it stood empty. It was now given a final rinse.

The boil was now complete and it was allowed to settle and then pumped out of the copper into the fermenting vessel. However as it was still near boiling and the yeast prefers something close to 25°C, you either wait a long time (in which case it collects unwanted bugs) or you cool it fast. A nice trick here: the wort is cooled by the cold fresh water used to refill the hot liquor tank via a paraflow. Result: wort at a perfect 25°C ready for the yeast and the hot liquor tank filled and up to around 75°C ready for the next brew to start. Think of the electricity that saved!

A gallon of the wort had been kept back from the mashing stage and had been left to cool - it provides the ideal sugary liquid to start the yeast off. The yeast was added to this gallon of cool wort and within 15 minutes was raring to go: about 3 gallons of foam was poured into the fermenting vessel. We made a final check of the temperature, measured the OG and corrected it for the temperature, and declared that this might hit the 4.6-4.8% mark, which is exactly what we had asked for. Gyle 137 (our batch) is now in the hands of nature. Mike will watch it over the next few days and then it will be transferred to casks to condition in the temperature controlled store until it is ready for bottling and a cask or two brought to our beer festival. Watch this space.

A great morning’s work; many thanks to Mike for his time and trouble to make us feel that this really is our beer, something we hope to be proud of when it is finished and that you will come to drink and enjoy.

News flash: the Jackson boys' brew is to be called Pilgrim Father & Son - reflecting the use of their home-grown Pilgrim hops. Our own Solihull Silver Shield, made with Pacific Gem hops from New Zealand and Amarillo and Cluster hops from the US, ended fermentation at 4.8% ABV.

Robert Cawte   August 2007

Bob & Ken Jackson Pitch their Hops at Church End Brewery

5:30am: a pleasant morning though dark. Karl had already cycled up the hill to Church End brewery, but he is no ordinary mortal, he is a brewer and takes early starts in his stride. Bob and Ken are drinkers and do not. They were there as trainees for the day, brewing with green hops grown in their gardens.

It was very courageous of Karl to let two green brewers into the brewery. The Jacksons were to learn that brewing is not only about blending ingredients to produce the finest ale. The secret is not to electrocute yourself with the cleaning hose on the transformer and not to inadvertently loop the hose under a tap, making an expensive and worty flood. Under thoughtful supervision all was well. The trainees executed all the stages of brewing from mixing the mash to pitching the yeast and had geat fun in the process.

Rarely has a beer been brewed with such enthusiasm or such fresh ingredients: Bob was picking the last Pilgrim hops from the bine as the mash was underway.

Doing the work gives an entirely different impression from the brewery tours that CAMRA members enjoy. One sees a continuous process rather than the individual stages of mashing, boiling, cooling and fermenting. One learns that the focus of the plant is the underback, through which the wort recirculates before and after boiling. It is here that samples are adjusted for temperature and specific gravity recorded and modified.

The hardest jobs are digging out the spent malt from the mash tun and the hops from copper. Bob made short work of the heavy spade work in the mash tun, poor Ken faired less well in the copper. After boiling it was as hot as Hades and twice as humid. With increasing frequency, he abandoned his shovel to flop out of the hatch like a freshly steamed mole. Dave, Allen and Chris had contributed additional hops from their gardens. It is a good thing the recipe required no more otherwise Ken would have been too weakend to climb out afterwards and would have had no alternative but to remain to add body to successive superior ales.

He said: "If ever I complain of the price of a pint, remind me of the inside of that copper."

The resulting beer is to be called Pilgrim Father & Son. It promises to be a zesty and fragrant session bitter. In all modesty, possibly the best thing you have ever tasted. Look out for it at Solihull Beer Festival, the Brewery Tap at Ridge Lane and other quality outlets this Autumn.

Harry Porter   August 2007

Royal Oaks

A recent CAMRA press release has listed the most popular pub names in Britain. Third on the list, with 541 known examples is the Royal Oak. The name arose from Charles II's attempts to escape the Roundheads by hiding in a tree in 1651.

There are two examples of this name locally.

The Old Royal Oak just outside Hockley Heath replaced a much older hostelry closer to the main road. Sadly in 2005 it closed it doors for the last time as a pub and reopened them as ORO, an organic food market and restaurant with real ale little in evidence.

The other local example is the Old Royal Oak at Wood End, currently owned by Pubmaster. For a time this pub was called the Warwickshire Lad, as shown by the old pub sign now hanging inside the pub. On offer here is Tetley Bitter plus a guest (Marstons Pedigree on my last visit).

At least these two are close to the escape route Charles II used when fleeing the country after the Battle of Worcester. Which is more than can be said about a Royal Oak I recently visited in Rhandirmwyn, Carmarthenshire, ie in deepest Wales. However it is a cracking pub, it was South & Mid Wales Regional Pub of the Year in 2001. Run by an English couple, there are normally four guest beers on with an emphasis on local breweries such as Wye Valley & Brecon. On my visit the Wye Valley Bitter was augmented by beers from Hydes, Fullers & Orkney. Fortunately, being tucked away as it is in a stunning Welsh Valley, the pub does offer good food & accomodation.

By the way, the actual Royal Oak was at Boscobel, near Albrighton in Shropshire.

Steve Wood

Red Lions

After being the acknowledged leader for many years, the Red Lion is now the second most popular pub name in the country according to recent CAMRA figures. There are 668 known instances, 4 of which are in this area. There were even more at one time, for example the Red Lion at Henley in Arden, which closed about 10 years ago.

The origin of this pub name has been traced back to John of Gaunt, the most powerful man in England for much of the 14th Century, his Coat of Arms featured a Red Lion. However the proliferation of the name is mainly due to King James I, a Scot who acceded to the throne of England in 1603. A Royal Decree was sent around that all public buildings should display the Red Lion of Scotland. Many of the Red Lion pubs date from this time.

The oldest local example is the Red Lion in Knowle, which probably predates James I. It is likely there was an inn on the site shortly after the building of the Church, which is now 600 years old. After a five year spell as the Felons and Firkin, this Red Lion is now an Ember Inn, selling mainstream ales such as Pedigree, Bass, Old Speckled Hen and M&B Mild.

The Red Lion near Earlswood is an early Victorian country pub built in mock tudor style. It has been a Vintage Inn since 1997, so tends to concentrate on food and stick to traditional ales such as Bass and Tetley Bitter (yawn).

The Red Lion, Shirley is a former 18th Century coaching inn which was demolished and replaced by the current version in 1965. A more welcoming pub than would appear from it's exterior, it tends to stock low gravity, low priced ales such as Ansells Mild, Tetley, Boddingtons and Pedigree, with a guest ale such as Slaters Bitter.

The final example of a Red lion in the vicinity is in Claverdon, near Warwick. Another country pub with a wonderful Warwickshire vista to the rear, it also concentrates on food, but does have four ales on offer, normally Bass, Pedigree, Wadworths 6X and Hook Norton Bitter.

Coming next - the most popular pub name in the country.

Steve Wood


So, pop-pickers - Britains's top three pub names. Number three - the Royal Oak with 541 examples, number two - the Red Lion with 668 examples. Which means a new number one - the Crown with 704 examples.

The Crown has been used as a pub name for over 600 years, though obviously it wasn't as popular during Cromwell's period of power.

The only Crown left in the Solihull & District area is the Crown at Claverdon. This is a traditional local on the road from Henley in Arden to Warwick. Two beers are normally available, Brew XI plus a guest beer. Recent guests seen there are Thwaites Lancaster Bomber, Church End Vicars Ruin and Slaughterhouse Swillmore.

There was a Crown on the Stratford Road in Monkspath, a typically large M&B roadhouse. However it was knocked down in the 1980's, and Jeffersons now occupies the site.

A notable Crown nearby is the Old Crown in Digbeth. Although the outside of the pub displays the date of 1368, the building itself only dates back to about 1500. Still, it is in fact Birmingham's oldest non-church building. Prior to being a pub, it was a private residence called The Old Crowne House, probably because it was part of land confiscated by the Crown during the Reformation. More recently, the pub was closed for much of the 1990's, but re-opened in 1998 following a major refurbishment. Sadly, despite being something of a historic theme pub, the beer isn't as notable. On offer is the Banks's keg beer range, with only Marstons Pedigree on handpump (but not always available). Spoilt by progress?

Steve Wood

And the Runners Up...

So, the three most popular pub names in Britain are the Crown, the Red Lion and the Royal Oak. In fact the list doesn't stop there - the CAMRA survey goes on to identify the remainder of the top-ten names across Britain. Here, then, are the "also rans"...

In fourth place with 451 examples is the Swan. Used since the 1300s, the name may refer to the bird or to a coat of arms. There was a Swan Inn in Solihull on the corner of Poplar Road and Station Road until the 19th century, and its name is echoed in Wetherspoon's recently established White Swan on Station Road. Another local example is the White Swan in Henley in Arden, a coaching inn owned for some years by actor Michael Elphick.

William Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson gave him the epithet 'Swan of Avon', giving us another, local interpretation of the name. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Stratford on Avon has both a White Swan and a Black Swan (the latter, a favourite of actors from the nearby Royal Shakespeare Theatre, is also known as the Dirty Duck).

Fifth place goes to the 431 White Hart pubs across the country, a name which derives from Richard II’s heraldic symbol. There are none in Solihull, but nearby examples exist in Tile Cross in Birmingham, Redditch, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.

Coming in sixth is the Railway, of which there are 420. Not surprisingly the name has its origins in the 19th century, during the heyday of steam. Our local Railway, in Dorridge, is a multiple winner of Solihull CAMRA's Pub of the Year award.

The Plough, with 413 occurrences, is the seventh most popular pub name. Obviously it refers to farming, but pub signs often show the group of seven stars known by the same name. The Plough on the Stratford Road in Monkspath tends towards the agricultural interpretation, but at one time the ceiling of its main dining room was studded with lights in the shape of the asterism.

At number eight is the White Horse, of which there are 379. This heraldic figure appears in many coats of arms. There are none in Solihull CAMRA's patch, although the closest, in Balsall Common, is technically in Solihull.

Ninth place goes to the Bell, with a resounding 378 examples. Although the name may refer to various kinds of hand bell, the most likely reference is to a church bell. Locally, we have a fine example in Tanworth in Arden, not too far from Henley in Arden.

Finally, in tenth position is the New Inn. Unsurprisingly, these 372 pubs were generally given their name to distinguish them from the old inns which they replaced. Paradoxically, many of them are now themselves very old! Our nearest example is slightly beyond our southern border in the village of Norton Lindsey near Warwick.

Kevin Clarke

Cask Marque - What Is It?

Have you ever been into a pub which advertises itself as Cask Marque approved, perhaps with Cask Marque pumpclips on show, and wondered what it means?

Cask Marque is a non-profit making trust formed to raise the standard of cask (real) ale served to the customer. It is funded by its members, who include major brewers and pubcos. Cask Marque is not part of CAMRA. To be Cask Marque accredited a licensee has to go through the following process. Two unannounced visits by a Cask Marque assessor where up to six cask ales are checked for a) temperature between 11 - 13C; b) appearance; c) aroma; d) taste. All ales have to pass, one failure results in a failed assessment. After 12 months there are further visits, ideally one in winter and one in summer

Cask Marque accredited pubs in Solihull and District's area are: Bull's Head, Barston; Plough, Monkspath; Royal Oak, Hockley Heath; Fieldhouse, Monkspath; Sharmans Cross; White Swan, Solihull (Wetherspoon's); Hog's Head, Solihull and the Saddler's Arms, Solihull

Further information on Cask Marque can be found at www.cask-marque.co.uk.

Carl Wright

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