Britain’s Best Microbreweries

Celebrate the British beer renaissance

The Great British holiday can be thirsty work. Whether you’ve been hiking over hillsides, braving the briny or simply sitting in the sun and watching the world go by, chances are you’ve earned a pint of something cool and refreshing – and, as you’re on a break, why not give the usual fizzy lager or boring best a miss and try something different?

British beer has undergone something of a renaissance recently, after decades of neglect that saw a shift to mass-produced industrial brews. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, is celebrating over 40 years of battling this trend, and it’s paying off: there are now more than 750 breweries in the UK, four times as many as there were 30 years ago. Many of these new arrivals are microbreweries – which, as the name suggests, focus on quality rather than quantity.

Some are literally nothing more than the back room of a pub or a glorified garden shed; others are comparatively slick operations with a wide and ever-changing product range. For instance, several breweries marked the royal wedding by producing commemorative beers, with names such as I Will and Kiss Me Kate (and, for the party poopers, Republic Revolution Red!). Then there are speciality brews flavoured with honey, heather or spices, organic ales, and beers that support local charities.

All of which is good news for real ale fans, of course, but you don’t need a beard and an encyclopaedic knowledge of murky concoctions to appreciate a decent pint. And where better to sample it than right at the source? Many small breweries offer tours that let you see the brewing process and – more importantly – taste the merchandise before buying. What’s more, many of them are in beautiful surroundings with plenty to keep non-drinkers happy. Here are six to visit.

Great for families

black sheep

Black Sheep Brewery: Hearty food and brilliant brews

Black Sheep Brewery

Wellgarth, Masham, Ripon, North Yorkshire HG4 4EN (01765 689227,)

Open daily; tours £6.95 adults, £4.95 children (under-5s free)

Founded in 1992 by Paul Theakston (of the Yorkshire brewing dynasty – the Black Sheep name is a sly reference to his decision to go it alone when Theakston’s was sold off), this brewery is  now something of a Dales institution. Occupying a solid Victorian building at the entrance to Wensleydale, it has a top-notch visitor centre including a bar (sorry, “Baa…r”) and bistro serving hearty English food: sausage and mash, fish and chips. Children are welcome – older ones will appreciate the bubbling brews and gleaming vats (and might even learn some science!), while youngsters will be drawn to the sheepish memorabilia and groan-worthy puns in the gift shop. Bring your sense of ewe-mour…

Drink this: Riggwelter – described as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, it’s a dark beer with heaps of chocolate malt flavours.

Also in the area: the Wensleydale Creamery – these days, it’s also something of a shrine to Wallace and Gromit.

Great for walkers

Hawkshead Brewery

Mill Yard, Staveley, Cumbria LA8 9LR (01539 822644 )

Open daily; tours Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 2pm or groups by arrangement; £6.50

So successful has this Lake District brewery been that it has outgrown the pretty village where it was christened nine years ago (where Wordsworth spent his schooldays), and moved to a new home on the other side of Lake Windermere. That’s good news for visitors, though, because instead of a ramshackle barn, it now has a glass-walled beer hall that lets you gaze into the brewhouse, cellar and fermentation room while you sup. It serves a range of “beer tapas”, too, ranging from bite-size pickles to a whopping 2lb pork pie. The menu says it serves 4-8, but if you’ve just tramped up a fell or two (High Street, at 2,717ft, is the loftiest nearby) you might see that as a challenge. There’s also regular live music and a summer beer festival.

Drink this: Hawkshead Bitter – named CAMRA’s champion bitter of the northwest, this pale hoppy brew is just the job for thirsty hikers.

Also in the area: four miles to the west lies the town of Windermere. Orrest Head is a modest climb from the centre but rewards you with spectacular views – it’s the walk that got Alfred Wainwright hooked.

Beartown Brewery

Bromley House, Spindle Street, Congleton, Cheshire CW12 1QN (01260 299964, )

Open daily; tours (must be booked ahead); £8.75 per person

“Congleton rare, Congleton rare, sold the Bible to buy a bear.” So says a 17th-century rhyme commemorating an early example of council cutbacks: bear-baiting was big business here, so when a new animal was needed, officials raided funds set aside for a new bible rather than risk disappointing the locals. The tag has stuck, and since 1994 the Beartown brewery has produced a grizzly line-up including Bruins Ruin, Bearly Literate and Pandamonium – two are included in the cost of the tour. It’s close to the centre of this pretty market town, and an ideal refreshment stop after walking to the top of The Cloud, a rocky outcrop at the edge of the Peak District that offers spectacular views across the Cheshire Plain as far as the Welsh mountains.

Drink this: Ginger Bear – brewed in honour of the town’s gingerbread-making tradition, this blond beer is given an added kick by root ginger.

Also in the area: Little Moreton Hall, a grand yet charmingly wonky Tudor manor, as seen on TV in Moll Flanders.

Great for history buffs

St Peter’s Brewery

St Peter’s Hall, St Peter South Elmham, Bungay, Suffolk NR35 1NQ (01986 782322)

Open daily; tours Saturdays & Sundays every hour and a half between 11.00am – 3.30pm; £7.50

In a remote corner of Suffolk, this brewery is housed in a cluster of pretty listed farm buildings beside the 13th-century St Peter’s Hall – now a bar and restaurant with a panelled Tudor dining room and its own moat. In keeping with the historic setting, St Peter’s brews old-fashioned ales such as honey porter and seasonal fruit beers, as well as traditional bitter and mild, using water from its own borehole. In terms of volume, it’s at the top end of the microbrewery spectrum – it produces 83,000 pints a week and exports them around the world – but the ethos is authentically micro. The beer looks the part, too, sold in distinctive oval bottles modelled on a 1770 design.

Drink this: Golden Ale – a pale brew that’s a great British alternative to pilsner.

Also in the area: wander the Norman ruins of Bungay Castle, still impressive after almost 850 years.

Great for nature lovers

Woodforde’s

Broadland Brewery, Woodbastwick, Norwich, Norfolk NR13 6SW (01603 722218)

Open daily; tours generally every second Wednesday in high season; booking essential; £10

Bird-watchers will appreciate Once Bittern beer – named after the secretive birds, more often heard than seen, that inhabit the reedbeds of the Norfolk Broads – especially when they learn that for every pint sold, Woodforde’s will donate a penny to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The breeding population of bitterns in the region is booming (in more ways than one) thanks to the NWT’s efforts, so be sure to stop off at this pretty thatched brewery, tucked away down a quiet lane on the edge of the Broads National Park, and lend your support. Once you’ve bought the beer – made with Norfolk barley and the brewery’s own spring water – you can try to emulate it yourself with the home-brew kits available in the shop. Next door is the brewery tap – the aptly named Fur & Feather Inn, which serves ales straight from the cask and locally sourced food.

Drink this: Once Bittern, of course – a “booming marvellous” copper-coloured brew with a hint of spiciness.

Also in the area: seek out the real thing at NWT’s Hickling Broad reserve, half an hour’s drive away.

Great for purists

Black Isle Brewery

Old Allangrange, Munlochy, Ross-shire IV8 8NZ (01463 811871)

Open daily; tours free

In 1998, David Gladwin set out on a mission “to make top quality beers that could stand among the best in the country – and to do it using organically produced barley and hops”. Since then, his brewery, tucked away amid the lush farmland of the Black Isle, has gone from strength to strength, brewing award-winning beers totally in-house. You can follow the process – from malting and mashing the barley right through to conditioning and bottling on a free tour. A speciality is the bottle-conditioned beers, which undergo extra fermentation in the bottle rather like champagne. The yeasty sediment is good for you, says Gladwin – “it’s full of vitamin B!”

Drink this: Heather Honey Beer – made with honey gathered from the moors, it’s bottle-conditioned and has lively citrus notes.

Also in the area: Inverness, seven miles away, has plenty more drinking dens, including Hootananny, a live music venue with Black Isle beers on tap.

Just a taster

Lots of microbreweries are just too small (or too busy) to cater for visitors, but it’s worth tracking down their beers. Often you can buy on site even if you can’t take a tour; otherwise check out local pubs for these local specialities:

Williams Bros, AlloaClackmannanshire – Fraoch Heather Ale is based on a Pictish recipe that goes back at least 4,000 years. Said to be the oldest style of beer still produced anywhere in the world.

Fox Brewery, Heacham, Norfolk (01485 570345 – “official” tours are only available to groups, but anyone can sample their unusual beers on site at the Fox & Hounds pub. Look out for Samphire Stout (brewed with salty marsh samphire to offset the sweetness of the beer), Grizzly (a honey brew made to a secret recipe from Oregon), and, “subject to the crop”, seasonal plum and cherry beers made with fruit grown by friends of the owners.

Roosters, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire  – look for their floral brews such as Orange Blossom Ale and Elderflower Ale. Perfect summer sipping.

And finally…

BrewDog, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire – one glance at the punkish labels, with names like Trashy Blonde and Hardcore IPA, will tell you that this is no ordinary microbrewery. Until recently, it proudly announced that its Tactical Nuclear Penguin (triple frozen to take it to 32% abv) was the strongest beer in the world. Then some Germans came up with a 40% ale. BrewDog’s response? Sink the Bismarck, weighing in at 41% alcohol. Proceed with caution.

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