Thursday, 10 August 2017

Hooked on Hooky

In the late Seventies, when I was at university in Birmingham, one of the most common beers to be found in the handful of free houses that had started to relieve the duopoly of Ansells and M&B was Hook Norton Bitter from Oxfordshire. It was a classic “country bitter” – distinctive, well-rounded, bittersweet, with a slight earthy note, which offered a very welcome contrast to our usual big brewery fare.

Fortunately, while many other of the family brewers of that era have fallen by the wayside, Hook Norton is still very much with us. It stands in the extreme north-west of the county, in the village of the same name a few miles west of Banbury. While it claims to offer “beer from the Cotswolds”, in fact it’s just outside the area generally regarded as bearing that name, and in fact is more in ironstone country, distinguished by the notably darker and redder hue of the local stone.

Hook Norton is a long, straggling village that is pretty quiet compared with some of the nearby Cotswold honeypots. At the west end is the area known as Scotland End, and at the side of the attractive Pear Tree Inn is a lane leading to the handsome Victorian tower brewery, dating from 1899. It’s a resolutely traditional affair, retaining a steam engine dating from the time of its construction that can still be used to power the brewery, and still using shire horses to deliver beer to local pubs.

Even if you’re not going on a tour, the brewery’s visitor centre is still well worth a visit. It includes a small museum covering both the history of the brewery itself and of the village and the surrounding area. I was interested to learn that the village used to by a major centre of ironstone quarrying and processing, served by a number of narrow-gauge railways, and that, before the introduction of mains water in the 1950s, the deficiency of iodine in the local water led to a disproportionate number of people in the area suffering from goitres. There’s also a café and a shop where you can pick up the full range of bottled beers together with other merchandise.

The current beer range comprises Mild, Hooky Bitter and the stronger Old Hooky as permanent beers, as well as a number of seasonals, of which Haymaker is perhaps the best known. Old Hooky was introduced in the late 1970s as a traditional dark old ale, and is listed as such in the Good Beer Guides of that time, but at some point in the intervening period was repositioned as a premium bitter, albeit definitely at the darker and sweeter end of the range. The company history recounts how the brewery used to enjoy a strong trade for their dark mild in working men’s clubs in Coventry and North Warwickshire which only eventually came to an end in 2000. Hooky Bitter remains one of the finest British balanced “ordinary” bitters, and indeed reached the final of my recent Twitter poll on the best of the breed.

The 1977 Good Beer Guide shows Hook Norton as having 34 tied houses, but the number grew slightly in subsequent years through the occasional purchase of additional pubs. Wikipedia says it currently has 47, but the brewery’s own website states 40, which is probably a more accurate figure. Some of the smaller wet-led pubs will have been lost, in towns as much as in the countryside, but this has been offset by buying up pubs in towns where there is likely to be more trade on offer. Both Hook Norton and Donnington now have pubs in the small South Warwickshire town of Shipston-on-Stour, as, indeed, do Brakspear.

In Banbury, they have two pubs. One is the Olde Reine Deer (pictured right), historically a coaching inn, which retains the octagonal 17th century wood-panelled “Globe Room”, and has recently received a sympathetic refurbishment incorporating much dark wood and bench seating. The nearby Coach & Horses forms a sharp contrast as, while outwardly traditional, the interior has been remodelled in a rather stark modernistic scheme with loose seating and posing tables. Significantly, this was the only pub on my recent visit to the area where I had to return a cloudy pint. In another pub, I overheard some locals saying that what it needed to do was to concentrate on “basic food and basic beer”, which is very much what it doesn’t do.

Another noteworthy pub is the Elephant & Castle in the nearby village of Bloxham. This presents a rather forbidding, cliff-like aspect to the street, but once you pass through the archway you come to the main frontage of a very comfortable and welcoming two-bar pub. While in Banbury, I also visited the Wine Vaults, almost opposite the Olde Reine Deer. I remember this from a train trip while at University as a free house serving Marston’s, which was a long, narrow pub of great character with a stone-flagged floor and odd little wood-panelled snugs. Since then, it has fallen into the hands of Greene King and been dramatically remodelled. You can still see a faint echo of its original character around the bar, but otherwise it’s just another identikit pub.

Hook Norton makes an interesting pair with Donnington, another family brewer survivor, which genuinely is right in the heart of the Cotswolds. Donnington’s location and brewery buildings are arguably even prettier, and it has an estate of, externally at least, very handsome pubs in the distinctive local stone. However, few would deny that Hook Norton brew by some margin the better beers. They, and the brewery’s pubs, are well worth seeking out.

18 comments:

  1. So you've finally made it to the Elephant & Castle in Bloxham: told you it was good. I do like Hook Norton ordinary bitter, one of my favourites in that general class along with Adnams and Holden's - contrary to your twitter poll, I've never really rated Harvey's Sussex Best at all. I'm not sure about Hook Norton's rebranding of bitter as "Hooky", though, not when you've already got "Old Hooky" - it seems to me to be unnecessarily confusing.

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    1. The most surprising thing about the Twitter poll was how Black Sheep managed to come second...

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  2. I have made a serious effort to do most of the Hook Norton tied estate over the years,which will probably bore you.
    But there is an interesting thing about two pubs in Hook Norton that i did with my wife while on a Nottingham camra bus crawl.
    We ended up in Hook Norton after doing loads of pubs in Henley on Thames and Woodstock and we soon found two pubs next to each other in what looked like the middle of the village,we went in the Sun Inn first because it was an Hook Norton tied house and then next door and into the Red Lion which was a Banks's tied house,this was on the 16th July 1988,the Red Lion is no longer a pub has Hook Norton bought it and extended the Sun Inn into it,so there is now only one pub there when there was two,i have photos of both pubs though it was getting dark,but you can see the signage of both pubs and which brewery was running them.
    I hope you like that snippet of information.

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    1. I'd certainly be interested to read about your visits to the Hook Norton tied estate, Alan, just as I was with Donnington and Elgoods.

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  3. I seem to remember that folk-rock band Fairport Convention used to favour Hook Norton beers - perhaps they still do.

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    1. Their annual bash is at Cropredy, near Banbury, which is right in the middle of Hook Norton country.

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    2. I used to go to the Cropredy festival, back in the 80s and early 90s. The bar was run by Wadworths. The beer was always flat! Put me off Wadworths for years, but now that their "6X" is appearing in the shops, I don't think it's so bad.

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    3. Festival was this weekend - just got back - The bar for many years has been run by Wadworth's. Beer is handpumped, but delivered by tanker. Both of the village pubs had a Hook Norton beer on handpump.

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  4. I've never been to Hook Norton land but I've liked all the bottled beers of theirs that I've tried - especially the Double Stout, which you rarely see in the shops now, up North at least. I had a very lively bottle of Double Stout once; when I opened the bottle it fizzed out in a great fountain, almost hitting the ceiling. Most of the beer was lost; there was about one inch left in the bottle.

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    1. Andy, don't know how far "up North" you live, but Waitrose often sells the Double Stout. They do have some shops in Yorkshire, but as far as I'm aware there's nothing further north than York and Harrogate.

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    2. Had I read these comments before I visited, I would have bought some Double Stout at the brewery shop, but not in general being a "stouty" person, I didn't :-|

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    3. Funnily enough Waitrose has a presence in the northern wastes of Tyneside, with a decent size store in the city centre, smaller branches in the 'posh' suburbs of Jesmond and Ponteland, and a store at Hexham.

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  5. That's a fair assessment. Best Hooky in my experience in the classic Peyton Arms in Stoke Lyne, where it had a lot more body than in the foody pubs,but then turover of it was 10x the norm. MT

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  6. I remember a Greater Manchester CAMRA trip to Hook Norton many years ago. No shop in those days and the "hospitality room" was a barrel each of Mild and Bitter plus a box of glasses in the cellar.

    Always been a Hook Norton fan too - their bitter is what I call a classic "country" bitter. Not sure how to define that but I know what I mean.

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  7. Hook Norton beers definitely win hands down over Donnington. It’s a long time since I was last down that part of the world, but I understand many Donnington pubs have been unsympathetically modernised.

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    1. I agree Paul. You always feel that you really *ought* to like Donnington beers but they disappoint too often (well they have on the relatively rare occasions I've encountered them in recent years).

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    2. A lot of the pubs were rather unsympathetically refurbished in the 60s and 70s, with a distinctive "rustic" style of furniture, but have rather grown in to it since then. And it can't be denied that many of them are very attractive Cotswold stone buildings in stunning locations.

      I wrote here about my somewhat equivocal feelings towards Donnington.

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  8. They also brew a beer for 99 Sqn called Bravo Zulu (BZ being both the naval signal for well done and the first two letters of the trigraph for RAF Brize Norton). When I was posted from the sqn a chap from the brewery delivered a barrel to the station gate for my leaving do.

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