No small beer at Earl Soham

PUBLISHED: 10:52 23 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:12 20 February 2013

Earl Soham Brewery owner John Bjornson

Photograph by ANDY ABBOTT

Earl Soham Brewery owner John Bjornson Photograph by ANDY ABBOTT

Micro-brewing is all the rage these days. Peter Sampson meets a real ale fan in deepest Suffolk to hear about a labour of love

Micro-brewing is all the rage these days. Peter Sampson meets a real ale fan in deepest Suffolk to hear about a labour of love

I suppose among the most enthusiastic of male fantasies is to run ones own brewery. Army officers contemplating civilian life, corporate lawyers weary of the rat race, truck drivers bored by the monotony, all sorts of men relish the dream of running a small brewery somewhere in the heart of an idyllic English countryside where they can live out their days in bucolic contentment.
The result has been an enormous increase in the number of micro-breweries across the country. They come and go but at the moment there are something like 800 of them, with about 20-30 in Suffolk alone. These are breweries that produce real ale in small quantities for use mainly in their local region, using their own combinations of barley, hops and yeast to produce their own special brands.
John Bjornson is one of those lucky men. About 25 years ago, he set up the Earl Soham Brewery in a chicken shed behind his local pub and hes been running it ever since, though he moved out of the chicken shed a long time ago and now has a small but serious brewery just down the road. To have survived for that long in an uncertain business suggests he must be getting something right.
The brewery now owns two pubs: the Victoria in Earl Soham, more or less opposite the brewery, and the Station in Framlingham. Moreover, its beers are on sale in pubs all over East Anglia, from Diss to Aldeburgh, Bury to Bungay and Walsham to Woodbridge. He uses hops grown in Sibton and Monewden and he gets his barley from Brandeston, so its all local stuff.
John and his handful of helpers - among them, Mac, Jerry in their Ipswich offshoot and Carol who does the accounts - between them produce some 15-20 barrels a week in Earl Soham and a further 20 in Ipswich. It isnt much compared to Adnams and the rest of the brewing world but there are 288 pints in each 36-gallon barrel, which tots up to a fair number of pints every week.
They brew on one or two days a week, sometimes working till 7 oclock or 8 oclock at night.
Why does he do it? Well, put it this way, he said. When I get up in the morning I never, ever dread having to go to work. Also, the world of the small brewers, unlike that of the big corporate organisations, is casually friendly; they all seem to know each other on first name terms and share much the same slightly bawdy sense of humour which shows up in some of the names they give their beers. (Fancy a pint of Baggywrinkle, or Docs Bollards?)
Theres rivalry, rather than competition, between these small breweries. Their real enemy is not the micro-brewery in the next village but the big out-of-town supermarket with its dirt cheap alcohol. The small breweries cant compete with the supermarkets discounting muscle. Though personally, said John, I cant imagine anything sadder than sitting in front of the television with a can of cheap lager.
As the small brewers point out, though, what theyre selling is a craft beer, not some bomb-proof drink that any pub can sell because it makes no demands on the skill of the publican. Real ale, on the other hand, can be ruined by careless treatment, because its still alive, still fermenting, unlike the filtered and pasteurised stuff, fizzing with carbon dioxide, that so many people put up with. For real ale, the publican has to be genuinely interested in beer and to learn his craft, rather than needing to know only how to pull a pump handle.
Thanks to the people who run the Earl Soham Brewery and the other small breweries in the region, the result is a series of beers that attract more and more beer enthusiasts all over East Anglia and John Bjornson is confident that the hard economic times ahead wont see people drifting away from real ale to the cheaper stuff. They may put off plans for a new extension to the house, he says, but theyll keep on buying a good pint when they see one.
For example, one of the good pints hes optimistic people will be buying in the run-up to Christmas is Earl Soham Brewerys special Christmas brew called Jolabrugg, which is apparently Icelandic for Yule Brew, good strong stuff made from pale barley.
Although, as he admits, micro-breweries tend to lurch from crisis to crisis weekly, he still enjoys what he does. For him, the muckiest and most mundane of jobs involved in brewing beer has its pleasures. Even when Im having to scour out one of the coppers with a hosepipe, Im as happy as Larry, he insists.
Hes a lucky man. Drinkers of real ale will say that he and his fellow brewers deserve to be.

Earl Soham Brewery

The Street
Earl Soham, WOODBRIDGE, Suffolk IP13 7RT
01728 684 097

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