For our first outing of the year we visited another local hidden gem we had been pondering for some time, but because we thought it might not interest the ladies as much, it had been placed on the back burner. Happily, following discussions with members it became clear there was a demand, and what a great experience it was, being expertly guided through a very modern reincarnation of a very old trade - some 7,000 years (*) according to our excellent guide.
(*) On checking, it seems that beer dates back to at least the 5th century BC in Iran.
On arrival a large jug of Suffolk County traditional best bitter 4% abv, was brought for the group to taste; even though I am a lager drinker, I thought it was good, as did everyone else. Whilst consuming the contents of the surprisingly large jug, we were given a potted history of the brewery.
Two school friends, former Head Brewer Ian Hornsey and Dick Burge, began the brewery in 1986 in Clare, just one year after agreeing to undertake the venture. They established themselves in premises in the High Street, behind the main street through the centre; Nethergate Street was round the corner and became the name, as they believed this was more appropriate than High Street Brewery.
They stayed in Clare for some 20 years, being very popular with locals who could just drop by whenever the fancy took them, but expansion over time increased the number of large lorries coming and going, so the partners decided to move across the border to a more isolated site in Pentlow, Essex, before they became a nuisance to Clare residents. In 2010 they sold the brewery to anonymous buyers, and in 2017 it returned to Suffolk, on the edge of Long Melford.
At this point our group was split into two, with half being guided round the brew house and the other continuing to enjoy the Suffolk County. On arrival back in the tap room, the second group were taken round the brew house with the first group getting to enjoy the second beer on offer - Stour Valley Gold, Hoppy Golden 4.2% abv - another great beer some preferred because of its hoppy and more fruity taste.
Making sure not to stray too far from the beer jug
What’s on offer today
Listening intently to our guide
Just enjoying the beer and company
The brew house itself seemed surprisingly compact, but on questioning, we discovered it has capacity for three more fermenters - the current bottleneck in capacity - so production can be increased a fair bit, enabling them to brew every day if the demand is there, fingers crossed. We then learned of the various stages of beer making, which I have paraphrased by making use of information freely supplied by SAB Miller Global brewers; Nethergate are a craft beer making operation, continually experimenting in their quest to bring us better beers for different tastes.
- Milling the grain
Different types of malt (barley or other grain which has been steeped, germinated, and dried) are crushed together to break up the grain kernels to extract fermentable sugars, producing a milled product called grist.
- Mash Conversion
The grist is then transferred into a mash tun, where it is mixed with heated water in a process called mash conversion, which uses natural enzymes in the malt to break the starch down into long chain sugars.
The mash is then pumped into the lauter tun, where a sweet liquid known as wort is separated from the grain husks.
- The Boil
The wort is then collected in a vessel called a kettle, where it is brought to a controlled boil before hops (*) are added. This also breaks down the sugar from long chains into short chains, which enables better fermentation.
(*) We were told that hops may be added at three stages of the beer making process:
- Bittering hops are added once the wort has been collected in the kettle (and a rolling boil has been achieved. They are usually boiled for 60 minutes, although some recipes may call for as little as 30 minutes.
- Flavoring hops are generally added with between 15 and 30 minutes remaining in the boil; very little bitterness will be extracted from the hops but a crisp hoppy flavour will be imparted.
- Hop oils, which are responsible for aroma, are extremely volatile and will be driven off almost immediately in the steam of a boil. So-called Dry Hopping is the adding of aroma hops after the kettle has been removed from heat.
- Wort Separation and Cooling
After boiling, the wort is transferred into a whirlpool for wort separation stage. During this stage, any malt or hop particles are removed to leave a liquid that is ready to be cooled and fermented.
To start fermentation, yeast is added during the filling of the vessel, which converts the sugary wort into beer by producing alcohol, a wide range of flavors, and carbon dioxide.
After fermentation, the young beer needs to be matured in order to allow both a full development of flavors and a smooth finish.
Our guide was happy to take us all round the brew house, including climbing up to see into and smell the contents of various tuns and fermenters etc., whilst explaining the work of the brew masters in considerable detail, sadly not reproduced here as I wasn’t taking notes. There was plenty of time for our questions, which were many and varied, and all carefully explained by our patient guide who was clearly a huge fan of their product.
The start of the tour
Not a lot of room
Some of the boiling vessels
An almost empty open topped fermentor
Keeping an eye on proceedings
Looking down into the open topped fermentors
Looking in the porthole in a lidded fermenter – a brilliant aroma
On returning to the tap room to join the other group, we then got to taste the Stour Valley Gold before the final beer of the day was brought out - the one that is the most popular, and for good reason - Old Growler Porter 5% abv. This is a very dark beer, which I personally thought I would not like, but happily I was wrong - it had a delicious taste and was really smooth.
The group then got to talking, around the benches outside in the sun, with our guide stopping by when her time permitted, when someone enquired whether Nethergate brewed any lager. On hearing yes, my ears picked up immediately, and on enquiring whether we could also taste this product, two lucky punters received a good measure in their own lager glasses. Despite enjoying the ‘proper’ beers above, I personally have to say that the Nethergate lager was simply wonderful and one that I highly recommend.
Removing the spent grain, for pig feed
The great Nethergate lager
To conclude, the brewery staff made us all most welcome, with all more than happy to answer any questions, whilst the tour itself was leisurely, informative and really enjoyable - Nethergate staff are clearly all in jobs they thoroughly enjoy, and if this means talking about their products to members of the public, then so much the better. I personally recommend the tour to anyone interested in the brew making process, and heartily recommend their products, which are so many and various, there are bound to be some that will just hit the right spot.
Our next History Society talks will be at 19.30 in the Parish Room, on:
Wednesday 19th June: Sudden Deaths in Early Nineteenth Century Suffolk
Fireside hearths, pantries, village ponds & brewing rooms were dangerous places when death was never far away - sudden deaths & their inquests were the lifeblood of columnists, whose reports fascinated readers with tales of misery and misfortune.
18th September: St Audry’s Workhouse and Mental Hospital - Victorian attitudes Examined
It was believed that people were born to be poor or simply fell onto hard times through their own neglect, so whole families entered the workhouse or faced starvation - this is their story.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.
Andy Sheppard 26th June 2019