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Thornbridge Hall

Culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal would approve of the Thornbridge approach to brewing beer.

A boundless enthusiasm for ale is matched by a strictly scientific approach to brewing which includes in-house research and development facilities. Like Blumenthal, the Thornbridge team exists to push the boundaries of its craft.

The brewers have access to an enviable larder of ingredients to assist their quest for fresh flavours: “Most breweries use a couple of varieties of malt and three or four different hops,” says chief operating officer Simon Webster. “We use 18 varieties of malt and around 60 varieties of hops from all over the world – each with its own distinctive character.”

The staples of malt and hops are also blended with a cosmopolitan array of ingredients to create the distinctive ales for which the Peak District brewery has become renowned.

Juniper, chocolate, raspberries and elderflower have all found their way into Thornbridge ales – not to mention chestnut honey from Italian head brewer Stefano Cossi’s homeland and the caraway spice and costmary herbs grown in Thornbridge Hall’s kitchen garden.

This inventive approach has yielded impressive results in the brewery’s short life, with over 100 industry and consumer awards at home and abroad over the past five years.

Recent plaudits include a silver medal at the World Beer Cup for Bracia (brewed with Stefano’s chestnut honey) and a gold for Lord Marples as best bitter at the Society of Independent Brewers’ national beer competition.

Thornbridge’s reputation for innovation has attracted attention in the brewing world and the company has been approached by large brewers overseas to work jointly on new products.

Eight pallets of beer have gone out to the United States and this summer Jaipur will be shipped out in bulk containers to be kegged over there; two launch events are planned in Philadelphia and New York City. Partners have also been found in central Europe, South East Asia and Australasia: “Our first consignment has gone to Singapore and they want us to organise a launch in Japan,” says Simon.

As success stories go, this one is all the more remarkable given the brewery’s origins.

In 2004 Simon and business partner Jim Harrison, new owner of the stately Thornbridge Hall at Ashford-in-the-Water, were looking for a beer to add to a range of Thornbridge branded food and drink products. They had no plans to provide it themselves.

“We asked a friend, Dave Wickett of Kelham Island Brewery, if he could brew us some beer. He told us we should be able to do it ourselves,” says Simon.

While brewing was once commonplace on many of England’s country estates, there had never been a brewery at Thornbridge. That changed when second-hand equipment was installed in an old stonemason’s workshop in the grounds and two brewers were recruited - Italian food scientist Stefano and Scottish brewing graduate Martin Dickie.

Early in 2005, the pair were given a free hand to brew what they wanted and a couple of beers followed. That summer Thornbridge’s Jaipur took top prize at the Sheffield Beer Festival – only two months after it was first brewed. Now with over 60 awards, Jaipur is arguably the most successful beer in the UK; a record that vindicates the Thornbridge team’s commitment to their first ale in the face of initial indifference.

“At 5.9% it was strong, and big on flavour – one of a kind at that time. Most people didn’t give us much of a chance and the market wasn’t receptive. They said they would take it – but only if we brewed it at 4.5%,” says Simon.

“Now the market has moved on and there are some very good breweries out there producing their equivalents of Jaipur.”

Thornbridge’s success has surprised even the two seasoned businessmen at the helm. Says Simon: “It was never going to be a lifestyle business for us; it was about bringing smart people in, both in the brewery and sales and marketing. We are very aggressive, but even so sales of cask beer are 56% up on where we expected them to be in the business plan. We’ve seen 92% growth, year on year.”

To cope with demand larger premises were needed. The search ended a couple of miles up the road at Bakewell, where the company opened in a £2million state-of-the-art showcase at the Riverside Business Park last September.

Kitted out in gleaming stainless steel, Riverside Brewery includes an automated plant which will expand a range of bottled ales currently comprising three – Jaipur, St Petersburg stout and Halcyon IPA (using fresh hops, brewed within 24 hours of picking). No pasteurisation or filtration is involved in the bottling process.

Riverside can brew up to 25 times a week; at present the average is five. So with plenty of capacity in hand, the Thornbridge team are free to concentrate on what they do best.

“We need to stay a couple of steps ahead of the rest,” says Simon. “We are working on things now that, if we can bring them off, will be things the world of beer has never seen. It may be two or three years before they see the light of day – if they work!”

Meanwhile brewery manager Kelly Ryan, a New Zealander with a degree in food science, is on a mission to produce a low strength beer with a full flavour. Andrea Pausler is heading up the development and the result is The Light, weighing in at a trim 2.9 %.

Innovation also continues elsewhere. Back in 2005, a batch of St Petersburg was stored in whisky casks. The results were a success and now beers are ageing in red wine and sherry barrels.

After five years of sterling service, the Hall brewery is due for refurbishment later this summer. It remains an important part of the operation, says Simon: “We concentrate on brewing our core range at Riverside and our boutique beers at the Hall – we brew there two or three times a week.”

Hand-bottling of bespoke ales will also take place at Thornbridge, using distinctive  dark Italian glass bottles, probably in 500ml and 750ml sizes.

There are now 17 people involved in the business and this year Thornbridge expects to brew over two million consistently good pints. Simon says: “We are leading scientific brewers and consistency is vital. When we opened Riverside some people said the beer wouldn’t taste the same, but Jaipur won at the Sheffield Beer Festival again last year - and it came from Riverside.

“The first new beer we brewed out of Bakewell was called Lumford, after the mill that used to be here, and it’s given us the best feedback since Jaipur. I think our beers are better than they have ever been.”

He adds: “Brewers are chefs. Put a chef in a state-of-the-art kitchen and he will produce better food. It’s the same with our brewers and our beer.”

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