Thursday, 27 September 2012

A tour of Thornbridge's Riverside Brewery: 19th September 2012

I'd wanted to go and see Thornbridge brewery for quite some time. You could argue that their Jaipur set the standard for British-brewed 'New World'-hopped higher abv IPAs when it first came out over 6 years ago and since then almost all of their beers have been interesting and worth seeking out. When I knew I was going to be in The Peak District I booked the Wednesday 3:00pm brewery tour straight-away and basically built the rest of the day around trying to get there on time (and made it - see here!).

View Thornbridge in a larger map

The Riverside brewery is located (unsurprisingly) in the far corner of the Riverside Business Park on the western outskirts of Bakewell. The Business Park used to be a submarine ammunitions plant in World War 2 which explains the condition of some of the other units in the Park, but the Riverside Brewery is a modern, up-to-date facility.

The first thing that hits you as you turn the corner and see the brewery is the sheer size of the place. This certainly isn't a small scale 'garage' brewery - it's a large, industrial scale complex - not on the scale of Fuller's Griffin Brewery, but certainly larger and more efficient, and certainly more planned, that most of the other breweries that I've been to.

The brewery shop (and the tour start) is located in the nearest corner of the building along with (upstairs) the desk space for the admin staff, including Director & Co-Founder Jim Harrison who sat up there for a while.

The are a number of (very) large Thornbridge beer logos on the walls, some tasting notes and some food/beer pairings as well as a display cabinet full of awards - that is a lot of silverware and scrolls!

Richard Noble (the Technical Sales Manager) met us, took us to the bar and poured 1/2s of Wild Swan - I like that in a tour - get the drinks in first!

We retired to the comfy seats and Richard took us through a very quick history of Thornbridge. From small beginnings in 2004/2005 on a 10 bbl plant at Thornbridge Hall, to Jaipur (brewed by Stefano Cossi & Martin Dickie, now at BrewDog) winning all sorts of awards in 2005/2006 (& thereafter) causing soaring demand, to the new 30 bbl Riverside Brewery being built in 2009 (the unit was previously a car showroom!) & it's commisioning and then the re-development of Thornbridge Hall allowing more experimentation and barrel-ageing of beers. For more details on this see here & here and also Boak & Bailey's great Thornbridge Family Tree. There are now 30 people on site at the Riverside and they brew 2 times a day, pretty well every day, and have enough capacity to provide beer for their own (growing) portfolio of pubs, mostly in Sheffield & the surrounding district, supply nationwide chains such as JD Wetherspoon & Nicholsons, and are into a lot of joint food/beer ventures in the South Yorkshire and Derbyshire area. They also have plans for a new unit opposite the Shop/Office Area to house a separate cold store & possibly a Visitor Centre - hopefully with independent temperature control systems!

We then took a walk up to the sharp-end of the business. We started in the malt room where the (mostly English) malt is milled the day before use.

In contrast the hops are kept in the Cold Store. Due to the scale of the brewing operation in the Riverside hop pellets are used for bitterness early in the brewing process whereas flower hops are used late on for the final taste and (mostly) aroma.

We headed up to look at the shiny things on the mezzanine level. From a brewing process point-of-view it's a 4 vessel system with a Mash Kettle and a Lauter Tun (dual-bladed with a slotted false bottom)...

a Whirpool Kettle where the wort is boiled...

and a Hop Back for the final flavour & aroma. This was the first time I'd seen one of these - they had obviously just been filling this up judging by the hop detritus around it!

Richard mentioned that the aim of the hop back is to maximise surface contact between the hot wort from the kettle and the hops (or whatever else is being used for 'hopping'), and so extract as much of the fragile hop oils as possible. And I'd have to say this seems to be working really well. I had a Thornbridge Craven Silk at the Grove in Huddersfield a few days later and the Elderflower aroma and after-taste were quite incredible and there also seems to have been a bit of a buzz recently about the Thornbridge Wye - 'lightly hopped with the unique and refreshing aroma of cucumber'! I didn't see any cucumbers today and forgot to ask Richard about this - doh! (although it may be that these beers were brewed at Thornbridge Hall - I can't be sure).

The majority of space in the brewing area is taken up by the 9 30 bbl fermenting vessels and the 4 60 bbl fermenting vessels - any way you look at it that is a lot of beer.

The brewing process at the Riverside is all computer controlled from the control room with measurements of temperature, gravity, pH and flow rates being taken all the time, as well as samples of the beer.

This is the bottom of the Hop Back - there is an incredible amount of valves, pumps & sensors there.

During the whole brewing process at the Riverside at no time does the beer enter the outside atmosphere - even for fermentation sterile air or food grade oxygen (or both) is used! This helps in the quality of the beer (minimal contamination) and the repeatability of the process.

After fermentation the beer is racked and put into the cold store. This was pretty full and I think I could see why they were wanting a larger area for this.
Richard also mentioned that cask beer is shipped abroad (in some seriously large containers) and then racked at the place of import.

There is also a fairly small bottling plant - at least small compared to the behemoth I saw at Tennents Wellpark Brewery a few weeks ago. I think this only had approx. 16 heads compared to the 168 at Wellpark.

Thornbridge also keg a fair amount of their beer - I've had Jaipur, Chiron and Versa on keg (I think it's possible to have almost all their beers on keg). There is no pasteurisation or filtering - just chilling and some CO2 added.
(I think this is the kegger - can't be 100% sure!)

And that was it - we retired back to the bar & shop. I had a keg Jaipur (to be honest probably even more 'zingy' & flavoursome on keg than cask, but it was possibly a bit too fizzy being just on), we poured our own pints of Wild Swan (good fun) and perused the shop for souvenirs. The only Thornbridge beer that was available that I hadn't had before was Halcyon (I did ask about the De Molen Borefts Festival beers but none were available, sigh...), so I took a bottle of that (which I somehow managed to cram it in my rucksack) and a nice bottle opener.

All told it was a great way to spend almost 2 hours. Richard was chatty & informative, it was really interesting to see a modern, large-scale 'micro'-brewery and intriguing to see how Thornbridge have managed to produce beers for a larger market, but still keep on producing ground-breaking, exciting beers. There were possibly times during the tour when I was thinking ("that's not how you make beer, where's the 'human' involvement ?"), but the beers were initially developed & tweaked by innovative, passionate people and at some point (if you want the business to be financially successful) you need to take it to the next level, and so long as the beers are still interesting, tasty & incredible to drink then it shouldn't matter. Next time though I'll have to try to get to the Thornbridge Hall Brewery!


  1. Some further info on the Wye 'Cucumber Beer' from Ben Wood (many thanks) - "Wye in cask is brewed at the Hall and racked at the Hall. Wye in keg is brewed at the Hall and then transported across to Riverside for centrifuging and packaged into keg. We've experimented with the cucumber additions over the 3 or 4 brews we've done and put them into the kettle, the fermenter, the conditioning tank and in the cask. Amounts in at each stage has varied with each batch to try and get the right balance"

  2. Those were really a big beer industry. I have learned a lot from here.
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