What’s black and white and drunk all over? Badger Beer. Nick digs deep at the Dorset Brewery to unearth some of their award-winning secrets.
“The naturally occurring water we pump up for the beer could be easily sold as quality bottled water, but that would be such a terrible waste!”
Mark Woodhouse, current representative of the family that has run Hall & Woodhouse for seven generations, chuckles amiably. Next to him his Head Brewer Toby Heasman smiles too, he’s probably heard that one before.
Mark is every inch of what you would expect from a man with his pedigree. His silver hair is brushed from a side parting, while his shiny brown shoes support an upright, distinguished man smartly turned out in country squire shirt, jacket and tie.
From the walls of the brewery his ancestors, and you can clearly see his features reflected in them, gaze down from fading photos, as often as not holding a pint of Badger Ale in their hands.
The brew is what made the brewery famous. It was created back in late 1700s, as Mark explains, at a time when many people couldn’t read or write so having a distinctive logo and name made it easier for them to get what they wanted in the pubs.
Today the brewery is known for producing numerous award-winning ‘ales’ in kegs and bottles and Mark’s enthusiasm and genuine love of his product sees him dart behind the bar of the visitor centre and begin enthusiastically pulling taster glasses as he talks.
The main buildings we’re drinking in are old but the actual brewery itself is brand new and Mark and Toby will lead a tour later showing off the shiny new equipment that produces a massive amount of beer a year.
What doesn’t seem to have ever changed is their joint desire to constantly create great beer, or the undeniable friendliness of everyone that works there, from the chairman to the men washing out the mash tuns.
It’s a jolly atmosphere with people committed to their job and using their expertise. You could almost say it’s feudal, with the brewery as the castle, Mark as Lord of the Manor and many of the locals working under his wing.
Plaques and rolls of honour are all over the centre celebrating the many, many generations of people who have been a part of the brewery life throughout their own lives, while the walls also pay testament to the social work and community support the brewery has always been committed to.
It gives me a warm feeling as I get my hands around a cool pint. ‘Put bottles in the fridge, get home from work, take them out and give them some time to come up a bit in temperature and then drink them. That’s what I do,’ says Mark cheerfully.
We have taste of Tanglefoot, one of their perennial best-sellers.
‘Legend is my ancestor John Woodhouse, then the head brewer, tried the first batch, liked it, had some more, stood up and fell over his dog’s lead. Hence the name.’
Well it is 5%, so that may also have been the cause, and it tastes great with melon and pear tones. We move on to Fursty Ferret, which like all the beers here has a story, which in this case is of naughty ferrets that would sneak into pubs to lap up the beer.
It’s slightly spicy beer with a hint of orange peel that makes it a bit of a palate cleanser. And as Mark feels we should sample some more now we’ve started, he pulls a Pickled Partridge (they’re big on alliteration at Badger). This is a dark, reddish-amber, shiny beer with lots of toffee notes, ideal on a cold day.
Walking around the brewery later, a place redolent with the marvellous scents of malt and barley as well as all the many different hops used to create the various styles and flavour profiles of the beers, the craft element can be hard to see in giant fermentation vessels and pipe work to rival the Pompidou centre.
This though is simply creativity and passion scaled up to meet the insatiable demand of supermarkets for the bottled beers, and all the pubs for a constant supply of casks. However, in a small corner is Toby’s special place, a tiny micro-brewery where he and his team make one-off brews to see what they can come up with.
Some go on to be made large scale, many become a small run that’s used in celebrations and special occasions, such as the annual Hall & Woodhouse Dorset Beer Festival that raises money for charity. Toby pats the small equipment affectionately before leading us back outside.
They make around 12 bottled beers and about 15 cask beers, each a product of the sort of focus on ingredients and craft and time that one would expect to see usually only in a vineyard. The days when beer was so horrible we all drank lager, which was equally horrible but was so cold at least you didn’t have to taste it, have long gone.
And we are also through the period of the Real Ale Freaks, who could bore an entire pub into a coma as they prattled on through ‘a beard you could lose a badger in’, as Captain Redbeard Rum once memorably said in Blackadder. Nowadays we are all beer connoisseurs, even if some people obsess rather tediously about ‘hoppiness’. Note to hipsters; it doesn’t bring happiness.
Food and beer do bring joy though, and that evening Mark presides over dinner in the brewery where courses are brilliantly paired with some special bottled beers: Wicked Wyvern with Scallops, Shapwick Monster with crab cake, Sturminster Beast with venison, Wandering Woodwose with cheese and Roaming Roy Dof with a chocolate pudding.
Some were strong, some not so much, the flavours and style of each pronounced and enjoyable. This was as good as any wine-paired meal, ‘much better,’ says Mark firmly, calling for a special bottle to be brought to table as a grand finale.
Brewed using the special Boadicea, Bramling Cross and Goldings hops, and matured in a Somerset Cider Brandy Company oak cask, this ale comes in a 750cl champagne bottle. At 10.7% it’s a bit pokey and it’s one of the first ales in the UK to undergo a process usually only carried out by the finest Champagne houses.
235 bottles of this Collector’s Edition 2012 were released, each bottle hand-numbered and signed by Chairman Mark, and sold in a wooden presentation box. It is absolutely delicious, sparkling gently, smoothly rounded and with Calvados and sherry tones.
‘It’s maturing very nicely,’ says Mark as he pensively finishes his glass. ‘Let’s have another bottle!’.
When you’re head of the badger sett, there’s always a good reason to enjoy another great beer.