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Brakspear Special: back where it belongs

Added: Sunday, July 22nd 2018

Brakspear Special, one of the great ales of old England, is back in its ancestral home. In 1711, WH Brakspear bought a small brewery in Bell Street, Henley-on-Thames, and one of the brewery’s revered beers, Brakspear Special, is being brewed there once again in the Bull pub.

The Brakspear family was distantly related to Nicholas Breakspear – slightly different spelling – who, as Adrian IV, 1154, was the first and so far only English Pope. The brewery uses the logo of a bee that featured on Adrian’s papal mitre.

Brakspear Special

Brakspear was in Bell Street for 100 years, moving in 1812 to a Thames-side site in New Street. Its beers, including Mild, Bitter and Old as well as Special, were highly regarded by beer lovers: the author and playwright John Mortimer, who lived in the area and is best known for the Rumpole TV series, said Brakspear Bitter was one of the best ales in England.

The New Street brewery was a major visitor attraction, with its spacious brewhouse, oak mash tuns and coppers, and a world-famous fermentation hall that used a “double drop” system to turn the malt and hops extract into beer. This will be described below.

All was well until 2002 when the owners of the brewery decided to turn the business into a pub company and closed the brewery – it’s now a hotel. The Brakspear beers were produced for a while by the Thomas Hardy Brewery in North-west England but eventually they were moved to the Wychwood Brewery in Witney, also in Oxfordshire, complete with the original New Street equipment.

Wychwood, including Brakspear, was bought by Marston’s. The beer range was confined to Brakspear Bitter and a new Oxford Gold. To the consternation of beer lovers, Special was dropped.

The Brakspear pub company is not part of the Witney operation but the owners have now added a four-barrel plant at the Bull pub in Bell Street, Henley. They reached an agreement with Marston’s to brew Special as a regular beer and to also produce Mild and Old along with seasonal beers. They include Red Kite, an American-style beer.

Brakspear brewer

The pub company has 130 outlets and Special is available throughout the estate in South-east England, with 13 managed pubs in the Cotswolds.

The brewer at Bell Street is Malcolm Mayo (seen on the right with Brakspear pub co chief executive Tom Davies), who uses the original recipe for the 4.3 per cent Special: Maris Otter pale malt with crystal and a touch of black malt, with Fuggles, Goldings, Pilgrim and Whitbread Goldings hops. The winter Old Ale is the same beer with the addition of more coloured malt.

Malcolm is aided by his ability to use the Brakspear yeast culture from Wychwood, which is still in operation in the double drop system there. The system is based on two storeys of open Victorian fermenters. Fermentation starts in the top storey and after a few days the floors of the vessels are opened and the fermenting liquid is dropped into the bottom storey below. Dead yeast cells and unwanted protein are left behind, leading to a more vigorous fermentation below.

A key element of the double drop system is the creation of a natural bi-product of fermentation known as diacetyl. This gives a rich butterscotch character to the finished beer. Most brewers avoid diacetyl but it has always been a feature of the Brakspear beers.

Brakspear Special is an amber beer with a rich aroma and flavour of malt and butterscotch, underpinned by the spicy, earthy, piny and peppery notes of Fuggles and Goldings hops. It’s an intriguing beer, malty to start but finishing with a dry, hoppy and bitter note.

It’s good to have it back in Henley. Visitors to the Bull can see the brewery at the back of the main bar. The pub serves the full range of Brakspear beers, both those brewed on the premises and the Witney ales. They can be enjoyed with excellent food in the adjoining restaurant and beer garden.