First we got a little history of when John Jennings bought the brewery from a woman, whose history was unknown and I can't even recall her name, which is annoying. His photo, and those of several of his descendants were on display. I do remember the man saying they brewed 50,000 barrels a year. Each barrel holds 32 gallons and there are 8 pints in a UK gallon. I could hold the numbers in my head, but not do the math! And Jennings is considered a very small brewery. They were taken over by Marston's in 2007 and have expected to be closed on any number of occasions, but Marston's have supported them and maintained the Jennings brand.
Then we climbed a bunch of stairs made of metal grating. I've learned not to look down. Martin chose to stay behind with Charlotte and her pram, tended by the tour guide's wife who minded the till. She was promising him tea and cake to keep him occupied. Martin seems to have this effect on women, I don't know how he does it. I'm certain he has never gone hungry in his life, not in the presence of any female possessed of any cooking skills.
I don't remember all the details, but will tell you what did stick. For one, the soaking of barley is called malting. It smells lovely. The stainless steel vats are enormous. A large part of our house would fit in one. Just looking down into an empty vat made my stomach flip. The guide said that men have to go down inside to clean the things occasionally and they get terrible claustrophobia. I'm not prone to such a thing, but I fully understood their difficulty.
Another part I remember was the toasted malt. He showed us a series of jars labelled 'pale', 'crystal', 'amber' and 'chocolate'. Then we went up more metal stairs and there was a room full of paper bags full of grain and several open plastic tubs. I asked about rodent control, a question he didn't seem to like (it's contracted out). Does anyone remember when The Book of Lists came out in the late 70s? It brought to light that the governing bodies had a permissible number of rat pellets per unit of cereal...
We nibbled the various grains, only I gave 'chocolate' a miss. The others all tasted of lovely toasted cereals but everyone agreed that 'chocolate' tasted like burned toast. I recognise charred food when I see it.
We also visited a room full of hops. These are a flowering vine that adds the bitterness to ales and beers. If you see a dried vine draped around the bar or other feature in a pub, it is usually dried hops. While we stood there crushing the herb-y leaves in our hands he told us how producing ale was the response to poor water quality in the West and hence our livers developed the capacity to metabolize alcohol. In the East, however, boiling water for tea was discovered to make the water safe and so many Asians do not have the capacity to deal with alcohol. This article supposes that the lack of liver capacity drove the need for tea rather than the other way around. I've no idea which, if either, way around is correct.
Yeast is also important for making ale and beer. For ale, the yeast floats on top, for beer the yeast is at the bottom. Yeast can be re-used as long as it's viable. Each brand has its own type of yeast, never mind its own type of hops and cocktail of malts. There is a yeast bank for all the brands somewhere, and after the flood of 2009, this bank was called upon when they were able to resume brewing.
At the end of the tour we each got three half pints to try from the half dozen on tap. The Simon's (what Bill calls Simon & Simone) were methodical and managed to get one of each kind. Bill and I didn't have that forethought. In any case I know what some of the ales tasted like and Bill and I don't favour the same kinds; as with many foods he tends towards the sweet, I prefer bitter.
The guide went on to explain how some of them got their names. That's one of the best things about visiting a British pub, checking out the funny names on the taps. For example 'Cocker Hoop':
"The name is derived from 'Cock-a-Hoop', an old custom of removing the cock (or spigot) from a barrel and resting it on the hoop of the cask before commencing a drinking bout, but was changed to reflect the brewery's location on the banks of the River Cocker."
or 'Sneck Lifter':
"In northern dialect sneck means door latch and a sneck lifter was a man's last sixpence which enabled him to lift the latch of a pub door and buy himself a pint, hoping to meet friends there who might treat him to one or two more."
I enjoyed this tour more than I thought I would. I was vaguely aware about malt, hops and yeast, but I didn't know anything about 'fish finings', or fish 'swim bladders'. Apparently these are added to beers and wine and then removed ... or not. First I heard of this!
Martin finished off his (second or third) pie and joined us for a round of photos. Apparently the youngest always gets posed pulling a pint.