I made the tour but missed the food - though luckily due to a few people being absent we got our tour given by the very knowledgeable Dave Phillips.
The tour starts in the reception and a quick history of the brewery is given. This began with the explanation that the brewery was started by a farmer purchasing the Crowe Brewery in 1880. Unfortunately only a couple of sentences' reference was given to the famous 'Mr. George', the buy-out in 1987 and the subsequent formulation of the 'Victory Ale'. (I would highly recommend watching Michael Jackson's The Beer Hunter to get a real sense of the romance of this tale.) Further information on the complete history is in the links below.
First stop was the Maris Otter and the malted barley. We were brought straight upstairs to the malt stores. The germination and roasting process was explained, this is where my lads got involved - they got to pass around the barley at different stages of roasting - I was pleasantly surprised with the level of detail the tour was taking!
The well-roasted (dark) malt was described as initially tasting of burnt toast and then an aftertaste of coffee. The mid-range barley - with nutty outer kernel and a flavour similar to rough toffee - is apparently one of the ingredients in the XXXB. How in the world they worked out that this was part of the original recipe is beyond me, but no one can question the finished product, being a winner of so many awards.
An old milling machine, 'the Rolls Royce - best ever made' as it was described, is then used to make the grist and crack the grains. This machine is about 80 years old and surprise surprise no longer available.
We were then given a tour of the old brew house. The copper, mash tun and hop back are no longer in use as of 2002 but are completely plumbed and ready to function in the event of a main brewery failure. Our guide was confident that within 24 hours of a failure, full brewery production could be commenced here. The size of the vessels was immense - I am sure other amateur brewers have had similar experiences on brewery tours.
The guide was very open about the addition of minerals. He explained "We call it liquor because it isn’t water, it is "burtonised", minerals are added to make sure we have a correct-levels mash. Incorrect levels can lead to excessive nitrogen with a toffee taste from the beer and/or we don’t get that crystal clear clarity we like."
An explanation of an elaborate system of valves and cogs which regulate the liquor and grist which mix on the way into the mash tun was explained, and 68C was mentioned - I have read that when brewing, 66C is best for ale due to alpha and beta enzymes - but I figured that maybe these guys are pretty knowledgeable and I should just take notes from the people who know a lot more than I ever will!
Dave also explained that cleaning the hop back took 45 minutes but a person is only allowed to spend a max of 10 minutes in there - apparently hop strains used are closely related to the 'weed' strains - not sure how true this is but the fact that you are putting a person in a large vessel that is 80C, I could see how a 10 minute limit is wise!
Anyways all that was the old brew house which was decommissioned in 2002 when the 'theatre of beers' brewery was opened. This looks more like a modern brewery with its large stainless steel vessels. A similar 3-vessel system to the old brew house but they now have steam self-cleaning which makes them cleaner and more efficient. The gauge of pipes for the hopper are identical to the old brew house - it was explained that in the event of a major problem the staff would be familiar with the flow rates, volumes, etc if they had to go and work next door.
Next stop was the fermentation vessels. This is where it got interesting. Both brew houses are piped to here - the room is a constant 19-20C, the fermentation baths were huge: about 12 feet deep, 10 feet long and 8 feet wide. We saw three brews on the go, luckily a XXXB was in full show with a 2 foot yeast froth on top, bubbling away.
They keep the beer in primary for about 7 days. They 'turn' the beer, which is pumping air into the bottom and rotating and aerating the beer at the same time. I was told this takes place 3-4 times over this primary stage.
The harvesting of the yeast is also done in a small vessel with half kept for the next brew and half sold on to the retail market and those weirdo home brewers. The mother culture is kept off-site in a different county, so if the yeast is infected a new culture can be created easily.
We were then brought into the secondary area - the cellars - with all the casks. They spend a week here before being brought to the various pubs. It will last 6-8 weeks but, as Dave explained, once a keg is breached it must be consumed within 72 hours. This is because the cask process involves sucking a pint of air for every pint dispensed (no gas is added). This means that it 'goes off' quick. He also explained that even the 1000pt keg (yep, it was a big one!) would go off in 72 hours.
Unfortunately I only got the tail end of the bottling (one of my lads took a turn in the fermentation rooms). Suffice to say the yeast is filtered out and gas is added. Also the old mill was originally purchased as the bottling plant for the brewery - I had visions of the windmill cracking the grains ... alas unfortunately the old mill was never used in the brewing process.
Next stop was the tasting section. I tried the GHA - Good Honest Ale - it’s a pale ale and it was hoppy and smooth, but I suppose that’s the first thing you notice with the cask ales: they are all pretty smooth - that combined with the room serving temperature means you don’t have that crisp taste Irish drinkers are used to with all beer served at 'freakin freezin'.
I was picking up a few bits in the shop and I mentioned to Dave that XXXB and Victory are €3.50 in Ireland. He was shocked - they are about £1.20 - £1.40 in England. He then showed me some black bottles in the corner - I picked up what looked like a cheap wine bottle. "You are holding a XXXB - it's on sale in Aldi so if you see 'bottled in Wainfleet' on a beer in Aldi" he explained "it's ours, and from the text you should be able to decipher which brew it is." I don’t think you will pay €3.50 a beer in Aldi! So that was a good tip.
Of course my trip didn’t finish there. Once out of the brewery I had a chance to check out the Bateman's brewery pubs. The town was quiet but I did visit on a Thursday night. It had a real rural feel to the place.
There are 3 pubs: The Royal Oak, The Woolpack and The Red Lion. The Royal Oak is at the end of the town. It's very pleasant - it had XXXB on tap which was great, also a pool table which the kids loved. The diet of the locals is the XB Best Bitter - this is a session beer - easy to drink but to be honest lacks all the flavours of the XXXB. This was in all the pubs. I didn’t make it into The Woolpack - apparently it's more suited to the teenagers. I stayed in The Red Lion, the accommodation was very reasonable. I stayed in a family room comfortably sleeping 3. I had dinner here with the kids; breakfast and three or four beers. The food was great, £7-£14 per dish, the room was £50, and the bill totalled to £71. I would highly recommend it if you are planning a visit - it's about 200 yards from the brewery so you can dump the car before the brewery tour, just in case you have a beer there! Dave Mansfield was the proprietor in The Red Lion and he explained they get people coming up from London on the train doing day trips, so that’s another option. The Wainfleet train station splits the town and the brewery but everything is within a short walk.
There are two annual events which might be good to link up with: the Carnival in Town and the Bands on the Bank. I was in Wainfleet when the Carnival was in the town square. The Bands on the Bank is a stage and events put on by the brewery. It’s the 14th of August 2010, but is no fixed date each year.
All in all well worth a visit. Amsterdam and Temple Bar it is not - but it's simply a good honest town with good honest beer, and you can't get any better than that.
History - http://www.bateman.co.uk/downloads/history_of_batemans.pdf
Visitor Centre : http://www.bateman.co.uk/visitors_centreF.htm
The Red Lion: http://www.redlionwainfleet.co.uk
Bands on the Bank: http://www.bateman.co.uk/eventsF.htm