Ancient and modern
PUBLISHED: 10:58 10 November 2015 | UPDATED: 10:58 10 November 2015
Julian Claxton Photography 2013
It might be a relative newcomer to the brewing industry, but the success of St Peters Brewery at South Elmham owes much to its historic site. Words and pictures by Julian Claxton
Horizontal rain sweeps across open fields, quiet roads sprinkled with mud wind their way through this peaceful area of Suffolk. Arriving at the crossroads I follow the discreet signs for St Peters and it isn’t long before the beautiful ancient hall and thatched barn are in view.
The brewery is a hive of activity. There’s the distant sound of bottles clinking along the production line, forklift trucks swing out of the barn loading boxes of the beer onto the waiting lorry, the chalk board is out advertising weekend brewery tours.
I feel rather ashamed to admit to managing director Colin Cordy that as a Suffolk local this is my first visit to the hidden gem of St Peters, although I’ve often passed the sign while out riding my bike
“We are a little off the beaten track,” he says. “Our customers appreciate the quietness, uniqueness and beauty of our location – we like to think it’s certainly worth the trip.”
The charming St Peters Hall, with its alluring character and fascinating architecture, dates from the 13th century and is situated in South Elmham, part of a group of villages known as The Saints, between the river Blyth and the Waveney. It wasn’t until 1996 that someone had the idea of creating a brewery on the site. John Murphy, a successful businessman from London, realised the uniqueness of the location, and set about creating St Peters Brewery. It has capacity for producing 300 barrels of beer a week, with 22 different types currently in production, and ships to 44 countries.
We sit in the brewery shop, surrounded by an exotic range of beers and brightly coloured labels, all jostling for my attention. Honey Porter and India Pale Ale catch my eye, which have particularly interesting labels.
“It was around 15 years ago that a shift in the brewing industry began to happen, changing the way customers choose their beer. People now want to try different and interesting beer, which lends itself perfectly to our range,” says Steve Groves, head brewer.
Bottled beers are one of the most intriguing aspects of St Peters. Their unique, refined bottle has a certain graceful presence, different from the competition and a talking point in the industry. Beer drinkers and industry experts have called it the world’s most beautiful and most distinctive packaging.
It’s based on an 18th-century bottle from Gibbstown, Philadelphia.
“It’s wonderful to have something so unique, although it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t created challenges for us during bottling,” says Steve, who has 36 years experience of the brewing industry.
“The crucial part of brewing is consistency. The aim is to produce the same level of beer year in, year out. Every season produces slightly different malts, but the real change can be in the hops which can differ in aroma and bitterness. This is where the skill comes in, adjusting elements of the process to provide the consistent flavour that people love.”
In the brew house the pungent smell of hops, wheat and beer sends the senses into overtime. Large copper tanks stand side by side, wooden clad fermenters filled with beer are arranged around the outer edge of the building, while pipes and mains come out of vessels, snaking across the courtyard. Every bit of space in this brewery is used and it needs to be to produce 86,000 pints a week.
Locally grown barley and wheat is used to produce pale, wheat and coloured forms of malt, which are carefully blended before being milled to create the grist. This is then gently mixed with the liquor to produce what is known as the mash. After around 90 minutes, this nutrient rich liquid called wort is separated from the solid components, much like coffee production. Hot liquor is sprayed over the mash surface and clear wort is drawn through the bed of grains and collected in a copper. This is brought to the boil, hops are then added according the recipes to create individual flavours.
Once boiling is complete the wort is separated from the hops and cooled on its way to the fermenters. The yeast is then added – St Peters uses its own yeast, a single strain, used since the first brew in 1996 – and the hopped wort is left to ferment for three to four days, which results in the sugary wort being turned into alcohol. This is then conditioned, filtered and ultimately bottled.
The quality of water, or liquor as brewers prefer to call it, is vital and St Peters has a unique source. The beer begins its life 100 metres below the ground, where pure water is extracted from St Peter’s very own well. The water from this well is similar in composition to Burtonised water and is the perfect start to the brewing process.