The Rebellion Beer Company have an open day on the first Thursday of the month – for £10 you get five pints and a talk/tour of the brewery. My Dad and I were some of the first there, but eventually there were a few hundred people present; when it rained we all huddled among the brewing equipment to drink our beer without getting wet.
I began with a Blonde (4.3%); ‘using only pale and lager malts, giving the beer a very light golden colour’, it is a fair and refreshing ale, smelling of hay and tasting of summer meadows. I moved on to Flagship (4.2%), a stimulating amber number with strong notes of toasted hazlenuts and a smooth mouthfeel that I considered to be very sessionable. So did many others, apparently, as it was soon sold out. The mild also sold out early on, so I didn’t get to try it on this occasion.
The IPA (3.7%) was so much better than one I had previously had at a pub (I won’t mention the name as I think it may just have been a one-off). It was nutty and tasty with complex flavours. This and the Mutiny were my favourite. The Mutiny is more malty and darker in colour, but the hops add a nice balance and it’s stronger at 4.5%.
(Admission – I was drinking while note-taking through this talk, so some of this may be not entirely factually correct – i.e. made up. Feel free to send in amendments.)
The tour was taken by Mark Gloyens, one of the brewery founders, and, although we had had several beers by now, it was still entertaining and informative. In the 1970s, Britain went from having 7,000 breweries to 200. The big breweries took over (80% were owned by the conglomerates) and it was all about the pubs. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the beer orders, restricting the number of tied pubs that could be owned by large brewery groups in the UK to 2,000, and required large brewer landlords to allow a guest ale to be sourced by tenants from someone other than their landlord. (Shock – she actually did something decent!) There are now around 400 microbreweries in the country.
Rebellion makes 70,000 pints a week – they use this figure because people can picture it better than 200-300 brewers’ barrels. Next year will be their 20th in business, so a little history...
Two boys from Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School used to perk up to the smell of brewing from local Marlow brewery, Wethered’s (on Wednesday afternoons as I recall – I used to make the detour on my way home from school). The earliest record of a brewer on the site is from Thomas Wethered’s brewing of 1750. However, due to some of the reasons stated above, Wethered’s closed down in 1987, and the town (and local drinkers) suffered. For example, The Hand and Flowers (well-known haunt to all Borlase pupils) had to get their beer from Cheltenham (more than 100km distant).
So one day as the ex-Borlase boys were having a drink after a game of cricket, they promised to re-start Marlow’s brewing industry. 1993 was not a good year for the brewing industry, and the banks wouldn’t give them a £2,000 unsecured loan, so Mark sold his house and used the capital to start the business. He explained that they could double as a brewery museum, since most of their equipment comes from other local breweries which have closed in the last 30 years. Their test-batch was made in second-hand equipment from Courage’s brewhouse in Reading.
They started employing three people and making 5,000 pints a week. Now they produce 70,000 and employ 50 people. As there are about 400 people in attendance at the tour, it’s fair to say they are popular and successful. They sell 20% of their beer in the shop, 20% in bottles, and 60% in pubs. Their recent growth is 15% (through word of mouth, mainly), and they are now at 110% capacity and don’t want to grow any more.
Hence they have made a concerted effort to cut down on ‘exports’, which they consider to be anything outside of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. This is because the closer to a brewery it is, the better the cask-conditioned real ale (made with yeast and sugar) will be. To this end, they have stopped selling to supermarkets (except Waitrose) by pushing the price up until the supermarkets stopped buying it.
Ideally they don’t want to sell Rebellion further than a distance of 30 miles from the brewery. They maintain that if you go to Yorkshire there will be a microbrewery within 20 miles selling beer as good as (or possibly even better than) theirs, and they would rather you drink that and keep the local microbrewing industry alive.
They paid the same duty rate as big breweries, which almost caused them to close ten years ago, and then Gordon Brown as Chancellor introduced progressive beer duty relief for small breweries in 2002. The measure halves duty tax for brewers making less than 50,000 litres a week, and tapers duty up to 300,000 litres. Rebellion now pays 60% of the duty, and all their profit comes from duty saved.
Twenty years ago the boys took a strain of yeast from another brewery (RHC Brewery in North Somerset, I think) and kept it alive. It has naturally mutated over the past two decades and has become specifically Rebellion Yeast, which has been put in the DNA bank so that it will remain the same and result in consistency of brewing.
At Rebellion the water is ‘Burtonised’ – a process by which sulphate is added (often in the form of gypsum) to bring out the flavour of the hops. Many minerals have been removed by the chalky Chiltern water and need to be replaced. (Burton-on-Trent brewed what was deemed perfect pale ale in the early eighteenth century, and people have attempted to recreate that water ever since.) The calcium reduces the pH which should be about 4 for beer (wine is 3); if it is too high the beer will be soapy, so sulphate is added. The final fermentation of the beer is completed at between 10-12°, and then an opened cask of beer needs to be drunk in two days – happy to help!