Support for our local breweries is at the heart of CAMRA, we always try to keep a close relationship through our Brewery Liaison Officers but there is nothing to beat a brewery visit and tour. We had been trying to arrange a trip to see our friends at Hop Back Brewery for some time and finally managed to visit on Saturday 22 September. To make the trip even better, we were also invited to visit Downton Brewery Company which is only a very short walk away.

For those who braved the weather the day started with a tour of Downton Brewery. Martin Strawbridge, owner and head brewer gave us a detailed history of the company and the brewing plant. The brewery has a strong bond with its neighbour and older cousin Hop Back who provide it with yeast; Martin admitting that this is probably unbeatable and he is delighted he is able to use it. Martin also uses the mill at Hop Back to mill his malt. He explained that the brewery originally sold all of their beers through Hop Back but this is no longer the case. Whilst some of his ales are distributed through Hop Back, most of his sales are now through their own free trade accounts.

Enough of this business talk… Let’s face it, we were there to try the beer. How lucky were we? Quadhop, New Forest Ale, Honey Blonde were available and at 11:00 most felt the Quadhop was a sensible place to start but to finish, we were spoilt to be offered the amazing Chimera IPA (6.8% ABV) and, not even for Mike G at 11.00, Imperial Stout at a whopping 9% ABV, both were terrific.

Martin escorted us on the short walk to Hop Back Brewery where Steve Wright, Head Brewer and company director welcomed us. As ever, the tour started with a fine selection of their wares – GFB, Crop Circle and the monthly special: Pacific Jade all three in great condition. It’s been some time since we visited the brewery and whilst we never need a specific reason to visit any brewery, on this occasion we were keen to see some major changes. Steve explained that he had recently invested in a new ‘copper’ (actually a stainless steel boiler). It had been specifically designed for the brewery allowing them to brew 20 and 50 barrel brews. Unlike most breweries, the copper is not heated with big gas burners, an external heat exchanger heats the wort using steam from a new steam boiler that has been cleverly shoe-horned into the brewery. As the wort returns to the copper from the heat exchanger it enters in such a way as to form a whirlpool effect, leaving the trub (solids) in the centre whilst the wort is pumped from the perimeter of the copper. This provides a much greater control of the boil and improves the quality of the wort going to the fermenter. Steve was very clearly excited about the changes which, he says, reduce the brewing day because the wort comes to the boils much faster and improve overall beer quality, something the brewery have never compromised.

The tour continued with a look at the many fermenters and storage vessels and ended with a look at the bottling plant. Whilst Summer Lightning is bottled by another company, all the other beers and Downton beers are bottled at Hop Back.

Our thanks to Martin and Steve for their time in showing us around the two breweries. Informative as always and a real pleasure being able to undertake some serious quality control of the products for them 😉

Ian Turner