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Something for the Weekend – Hook Norton Mild

I find it very hard to name my favourite brewery building, they are all special in their own way and most have individual charm. But off the record, if anyone says to me “I’m thinking of going to look round a brewery – where would you recommend?” I find it hard not to include Hook Norton in Oxfordshire on my list.

How do I describe it? Well, do you remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when you were a kid and you imagined what Willy Wonka’s factory looked like? All cogs and wheel, and pulleys, hissing steam and bellows, wonky chimneys and lopsided roofs?

That exact image sprang to mind when I first rounded the corner onto Brewery Lane and saw the Hook Norton brewery. It’s very remote, in achingly beautiful Cotswold countryside. There is no mobile phone signal. There is no light pollution at night. When brewing ceases for the day, you can hear a pin drop in the brewery yard.

Inside the Grade One listed building there is a complex system of Heath Robinson style contraptions which turn out their beers. A huge steam engine installed in 1899 is still in running order. When I was there a few weeks ago holding a training course, I had to shout over the tremendous noise and thumping coming from the steam engine above the training cellar. So I ran up the stairs to ask if they could tone it down a bit. The brewery workers looked at me in shock and said “But it’s her birthday. We thought we’d just start her up a bit for a treat”. That’s the way it is at Hook Norton.

In addition to this eccentricity, I love the fact that they are one of the few breweries who produce a ‘true to type’ Mild. No fancy names here, it’s called Hooky Mild, it’s 2.8%, and it’s a dark ruby coloured soft malty beer. Mild fell out of fashion soon after the Second World War, it was seen as a wishy washy beer, associated with rationing. Yet this beer style once ruled the bars in Britain. The Brewer’s Journal estimated that in the late 1930’s mild accounted for more than three-quarters of ALL beer brewed in Britain. That’s an astonishing figure considering our beer consumption was far higher than it is today. It was considered a comforting, refreshing, nourishing pint after a hard day’s manual labour.

Mild’s are seeing a revival, many being brewed successfully to a higher strength, but it’s always a pleasure to drink a traditional Hooky Mild, especially when matched with simple, good quality, local produce, such as cheese, pickles and baked meats (like a slice of home cooked ham). Hooky Mild is most definitely liquid bread, and as this pairing is what Hook Norton offer in their Visitor Centre, I think they’ve got it just about spot on.