Angling For East Anglia
Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011
There's a map on the wall in David Winter's office covered with pins that show all the pubs in Norfolk he used to supply with beer. There are 50 pins, an impressive number, but Winter says the map is out date. "I'm down to 10 regular pubs now," he says.
It's a tough world for small craft brewers, even someone as experienced as Winter. He has brewed at Woodforde's, now a major force in Norfolk brewing, as well as such micros as Chalk Hill and Reindeer. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the London brewer Watney's went through Norfolk like a plague of locusts. It bought and eventually closed all three big commercial brewers in Norwich and also closed a swathe of pubs in the county deemed to be "uneconomic".
The result has been the emergence of a large number of small breweries to fill the yawning gap created by Watney's. There are 30 breweries listed in the Good Beer Guide and the number meant joy for beer drinkers - until the pub trade was hit by all the ills of the smoking ban, massive increases in beer duty and discounting by supermarkets.
Winter says Norwich and Norfolk has become intensely competitive. Not only are there a lot of local micros fighting for a bit of turf, but such regional brewers as Adnams, Bateman's and Elgood's have bought pubs in Norwich, while Greene King in Suffolk is also has a major influence.
But David Winter isn't about to go out of business. His sales figures aren't as bad as the map on the wall might suggest. "I used to supply most of those pubs with nine-gallon firkins," he says, "but now a couple of my outlets take 18-gallon casks."
But in order to make ends meet, Winter also brews for Chalk Hill when they need him and at a pub brewery outside the city. It can make for a long day, starting work at his own plant before cock's crow, moving to a second brewery during the day and then returning late at night to make sure everything is under control back at his own place.
"Brewing at Chalk Hill keeps me alive," he says. Life may be hard, with no time off for holidays, but Winter says it's what he loves to do. He's self taught, a keen home brewer who met Ray Ashworth, the founder of Woodforde's, at a home-brewing club in Norwich, and they went into business together in 1986.
He opened Winter's Brewery in 2001 with brewing kit came from Scott's, a closed micro in Lowestoft, augmented by a redundant mash tun from Woodforde's. To keep costs down, he did all the plumbing and wiring himself. The plant can produce seven barrels a time but he's currently down to five-barrel brews.
He sources all his malts from Munton's in Stowmarket but he has a wide range of hops from England, the United States and Europe to create the aromas and flavours he seeks for his beers. He produces eight regular beers. Bitter is his best seller, followed by Golden, and he reports that sales of Mild are holding up well.
But he listens to customers for ideas for new beers. When he was asked if he brewed stout, he created a dark, roasty beer he labels Geniuss. He laughs and says he hasn't received a lawyer's letter from Dublin yet.
He enjoys a good relationship with the local branch of Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale. He has won several prizes at the Norwich beer festival, including two first prizes last year for Golden and From the Ashes.
From the Ashes has nothing to do with cricket - it's an old Woodforde's recipe and was the first beer to emerge when fire destroyed the original plant and Ray Ashworth and Winter had to start brewing all over again. But, with arrival of the Australian cricket team this summer, Winter hopes the name of the beer will take on greater significance.
"I need a part-time salesman to go out a build brands like that," he says. But there's no money in the piggy bank and Winter's Brewery will remain a one-man operation for the foreseeable future.
Following a tour of the brewery, David Winter drove me into the centre of Norwich, to the King's Head in Magdalen Street. The pub is the main outlet for his beer and he supplies it with a house brew called KHB. It's an amazing as well as ancient pub, with plenty of beams and settles to prove its age. It's a haven for craft-brewed beer and desperate lager drinkers are warned by a sign outside that declares it's a "keg free zone". Not surprisingly, it's been named Camra pub of the year in both 2006 and 2008.
Banks of handpumps in both bars serve beers from Norfolk micros while an impressive range of Belgian, Czech and German beers are served on draught and in bottle. As David Winter and I sampled glasses of his KHB - splendidly hoppy and fruity - two other Norfolk brewers arrived to deliver cask of their ales.
Craft brewers in Norfolk may be hard pressed as a result of the recession but it's a happy community. It includes David Winter's son, Mark, who brews at the Fat Cat pub brewery, set up - of course - by Mark's father and Ray Ashworth.
What are David Winter's plans for the future? "To get through 2009," he says with a wry smile. We'll all drink to that.