Friday, July 25, 2014

Point of Brew: Brewing in the idyllic English Cotswolds

brewery 3W

This is a general view of the brewery site. The old malt house, which is no longer used for malting, is to the right, the Old Brewery House where we stayed is in the middle and the brewery is in the non-descript buildings to the left of the photograph. Michael Lewis/Courtesy photo

From page A10 | July 03, 2014 |

The Queen’s Head in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds of England is among my favorite pubs.

Of course, it is deliciously old, having been a part of this ancient market town since the 13th century, has all sort of nooks and crannies to settle into with one’s favorite and well-loved companion, low beams festooned in hop garlands to soften the blow if one fails to mind one’s head and in winter there are two fireplaces to give the scent of wood smoke to the place and in summer a gentle breeze blows through from the scented garden to the tourist-bustling street outside in the real world.

It is a place of familiarity and charm for me for these reasons and because the Queen’s Head was a stopping place on the A429 roughly halfway between my folks’ place to the south and my dear companion’s to the north.

We traveled the A429 often during our several sabbatical leaves and frequent vacation trips to the U.K. over many years. On this route we passed an intriguing sign pointing to the village of Donnington and Donnington brewery; however, after several attempts I failed to find the Donnington brewery in Donnington and eventually gave up.

Curiously, the Queen’s Head advertises Donnington Ales, which implies it is a pub tied to (or owned by) the Donnington brewery. Turns out, the Donnington brewery does exist. It is not in Donnington, as one might expect, but near Upper Swell.

I know that because I am writing this column at the Old Brewery House that is literally connected to the Donnington Brewery (photo). We have been here, with some of our California family, for a week now enjoying each other, the charming Cotswold villages and rolling bucolic scenery; tomorrow we journey on to Wales. Although the brewery is not open to the public I was able to make contact with Johnny Arkell who (as member of the well-known Arkell brewing family) runs the brewery; he kindly gave me a tour of this extraordinary place.

I met the head brewer, Phil (photo), who was hard at work brewing their Best Bitter at the time. The brewery is a museum piece full of charm and anachronisms and difficult access and dangerous locations.

It makes ales by absolutely textbook traditional brewing methods, 18 U.K.-barrels (maybe 50 hectoliters) per brew usually twice a week. It is a typical tower brewery; that is the materials for making the beer are hauled to the top of the building and then flow downhill by gravity to the lowest floor where the beer is put into casks and sent out to the pubs.

It is a very efficient system, if you think about it, and many modern breweries, though mainly powered by pumps, give a nod to this idea. Of course the brewer must have a means of getting raw materials, mainly malt and water, both of which are very heavy, to the top of the tower.

That is what makes the Donnington brewery very cool and unusual: The grunt work of the brewery is done by a water wheel (photo). Water-power lifts sacks of malt to the mill high in the building and pumps water to the roof tank. Talk about eco-friendly! Although I have seen a few old breweries powered by 19th-century steam engines, this is the only one I have seen with a water wheel and I love it!

The brewery makes only traditional cask ales to supply its 17 pubs. True to form, these are all located within a few miles of the brewery because the beer was originally delivered by horse-drawn dray; also, this style of beer has a short shelf-life of maybe two weeks and cannot spend too much time in transit.

We spent a good deal of time in pubs connected to the Donnington brewery because they were close and charming and supplied good beer and good food. Included among these of course was the Queen’s Head in Stow where we enjoyed a lunch with a half a dozen family visiting members on one particularly lovely English day. — Reach Michael Lewis at Comment on this column at


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