Tucked away in one of the prettiest towns I've visited is Adnam's of Southwold, a traditional maker of cask ales. In what has now become a familiar story, this traditional brewery confronted the question of whether to double down with tradition and keep their old equipment or go through a full-scale remodel. We've visited three famous traditional breweries, and all have had a similar decision. Fuller's upgraded, but kept their original brewhouse and left their old equipment as a living museum, Greene King (which will get a full post at some point) has mainly continued on with the same brewery, upgraded periodically, and Adnams scrapped the entire thing and started from scratch.
Their brewery is a state-of-the-art Huppman system that is so automatic it will start brewing at four in the morning before anyone has arrived at the brewery. (That's brewer Fergus Fitzgerald gesturing to the computer that controls it all.) They pre-program the system with all the brews they'll be making throughout the week and the system just plugs along on its own. So this is an abomination, right?
I guess if you've seen as many breweries as I have, you begin to think that the old funky coppers, while gorgeous, have lots of drawbacks. And I don't mean for the poor bastard who has to come in at 4 am to start hauling grain sacks to the mill. Old systems are always touted for their quirky qualities which, purists believe, are the very things that a brewer can use to coax rarefied flavors and aromas out of his beer. There's some truth to this. Old systems are all one-offs, unique to the way the particular brewery was built. A brewer who pays very close attention to his process and equipment, a person who listens to the beer, can work wondrous magic with such a system. The problem is that it takes years or decades to perfect and is not versatile.
A system like Adnams' has been engineered to put full control in the brewer's hands. He doesn't have to work around the limitations of his system, but can harness the technology to dial in every single parameter in the brewing process. This gives him enormous versatility and the ability to brew any beer exactly as he envisions it.
After the tour, we had some beers over lunch, and although I don't have the best-trained palate in the world, I felt that Adnams' cask ales were wonderful and traditional. Fergus Burtonizes his water and the bitter is a fantastic beer--sharp and quenching, with very clean, articulated hop character. It's a perfect tipple and quite a bit different from an example like Fuller's, which is silky and soft.
Adnams is also expanding into spirits (vodka, gin, and whisky) and this precision is useful in producing washes (essentially unhopped beer used in distillation) to exacting specifications. I've already talked about the Adnams biogas digester and I learned today of other uber green initiatives they're pursuing. All of this has that same dichotomous sense--traditional and modern.
At the end of the day, the drinker cares only about the beer. But how it gets into the pint glass isn't incidental, as I'm becoming more and more aware of. Anyway, Adnams was big fun. More later--