A British Beer Odyssey

By Robin Coxe

In which Robin, at long last, returns from beer blogging hibernation…

My engineering design team, with members based in Ireland, England, Spain, Poland, and the US, spends an inordinate amount of time huddled around Polycom Batphones at our various work sites on conference calls. Fortunately, our corporate overlords appreciate the benefits of periodic face-to-face collaboration, which tends to result in weeklong bursts of exceptional productivity about once per quarter, fueled in part by the beers of the region we happen to be visiting. I spent the first week of June at the company office in Bath, a city of 90,000 residents situated in Somerset in the southwest of England, approximately 100 miles west of London.

Our local hosts had a quintessentially British beer-themed adventure in store for us after our first full day at the office, Tuesday 3 June 2014. Shortly after lunch, once Queenie the tea cosy had been refilled with a fresh pot, Mark began poring over the early evening train schedule from Bath Spa to Freshford, returning about 4 hours later from Bradford-on-Avon. After the most economical type of tickets had been settled upon (First Great Western offers substantial group discounts, as it happens), we were instructed to convene at 18:30 in front the railroad station and to wear sensible shoes.

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At the appointed time, we crammed into the train along with droves of commuters for the epic 9 minute journey to Freshford. After disembarking, we ascended Station Road, turned left, and headed down The Hill to our first destination, The Inn at Freshford, a 16th century building with original timber beams on the banks of the River Frome. Our group saw no signs of the sinkhole that was “big enough to swallow a double decker bus” that had mysteriously appeared next to the place in early April.

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The Casque Marque seal mounted to the left of the doorway caught my attention. I later learned through the magic of the Internet that this organization accredits pubs in the UK and Ireland serving cask ale, also referred to as real ale, what Americans tend to associate with stereotypically warm (50-55 degrees F) British beer. The accreditation process involves unannounced quality inspections in which the temperature, taste, aroma, and appearance of the ale is assessed. Of course, there is a smartphone app called “Cask Finder” that enables the discerning cask ale drinker to identify the nearest Casque Marque certified pub. Cask beer has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, accounting for about 15% of beer sales in the UK. Woman are the fastest growing segment of cask ale drinkers, a largely untapped (pun intended) market of discerning beer consumers, if I do say so myself.

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Upon entering The Inn, we were immediately greeted by the resident pub dog, a large, friendly beast. Health regulations in most states prohibit non-service animals inside any establishment serving food, so a dog in a bar is a rare sight indeed in the US. All of the taps featured beers from Box Steam Brewery.

Founded in 2004 in the nearby village of Holt, Box Steam brews their beers by hand in steam-heated copper vessels using floor-malted Maris Otter barley from Warminster Maltings, the oldest supplier of malt in the Britain. Built in 1855, operated by Guinness from 1950-1994, and privately owned since, Warminster Maltings caters to the increasing number of British microbrewers such as Box Steam who take advantage of the Progressive Beer Duty adopted in the UK in 2002, whereby smaller breweries pay less tax on their wares than larger producers. This tax incentive differs from the flat discount on each barrel enjoyed by microbreweries in the USA.

Box Steam’s first brewery was located near the Box Tunnel, a railway tunnel that bores through the eponyomous hill between Bath and Chippenham designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. The completion of the Box Tunnel in 1841 capped off the final link in the rail line connecting London with the southwest of England and Wales. The brewers at Box Steam have drawn inspiration from the legacy of Brunel and have embraced the train theme wholeheartedly.

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For the first pint of the evening, I opted for the Tunnel Vision amber bitter, an easy drinking, cask-conditioned 4.2% ABV amber ale with traces of caramel and a slight hint of hops at the finish. English Bitter, unlike the West Coast hop-bomb IPAs, which, for whatever reason, are taking America by storm, does not taste particularly bitter. Nor should an English Bitter Ale be confused with bitters, the aromatic, botanical alcoholic concoction consumed after gluttonous meals as a digestif or used for flavoring cocktails.

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After quaffing down our beverages in the outdoor beer garden, newly reconstructed over the aforementioned sinkhole, we set out on foot, over the river, through the woods, past some sheep, and alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal towards our next destination. This leg of our route covered the northern half of the so called Two Valleys Walk, documented in impressive detail here.

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After a lovely 20 minute stroll through the Wiltshire countryside, we arrived in the hamlet of Avoncliff, the next stop along the Great Western Railway line. We traversed and subsequently walked underneath a bridge at the point where the canal, routed through an aqueduct, crosses the River Avon. We approached our second stop, the Cross Guns Free House, another almost ridiculously scenic 16th century relic complete with terraced garden and a vintage ice cream truck parked out front. Walking a mile seemed to accelerate the rate at which Pint #1 percolated from mouth to bladder, so before placing my order, I made a beeline for the loo located in an outbuilding.

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Cross Guns also featured the brews of Box Steam on draught. The hopheads in our midst opted for the Derail Ale, an IPA that pays homage to Brunel’s flawed early steam locomotive designs unaptly named “Thunderer” and “Hurricane.” Another hoppy concoction, the Piston Broke golden ale, immortalizes another of Brunel’s engineering missteps, the “atmospheric” railway design for the South Devon Railway that relied on forced air pressure from a series of stationary air pumps to propel trains on the GWR extension between Exeter and Plymouth. Pistons attached to the trains ran through a continuous vacuum pipe laid down the center of the tracks.

The system required leather flaps to form vacuum seals in the pistons that failed repeatedly. The vacuum sucked out the natural oils from the leather, making it vulnerable to water and cold. Tallow applied to re-lubricate the leather proved irresistable to rodents. The atmospheric railway was shut down in 1848 after operating for less than a year, at which point the South Devon Railway converted back to conventional steam locomotives. Although “Brunel’s atmospheric caper” did not end well, the technology has withstood the test of time—an atmospheric airport train opened in Brazil just last year in advance of the World Cup.

The “Free House” in the name would suggest that the Cross Guns would not be encumbered by the so-called UK “beer tie”, an arrangement whereby a pub is obligated to buy its beer from a particular brewery or pub conglomerate. However, the Box Steam Brewery lists both The Inn at Freshford and The Cross Guns at Avoncliff in the “Our Pubs” section of their website, so the exact financial relationship between the brewery and the two pubs is unclear. The beer tie manifests itself in several different forms. In some instances, the brewery owns the pub outright and either rents it out to an operator/manager via a tenancy agreement or directly employs the publican. In an alternative arrangement, a brewery may extend a mortgage to the pub owner with an exclusivity clause. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has led lobbying efforts in recent years to reform and regulate the beer tie, citing price gouging and other anti-competitive practices.

Beer tie arrangements are not allowed in the US, as regulatory agencies have frowned upon vertical integration in the alcoholic beverage industry since the conclusion of Prohibition in 1933. Instead, all US states except Washington have instituted a variant of the three-tier distribution system (producers, distributors, and retailers), a subject of intense debate in American craft beer circles. [Coming soon on Kegomatic.com: a discussion of proposed modifications to regulations governing the three-tier system in Massachusetts.]

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Anyway, back to the Box Steam beer itself… Intent on sampling as much English Bitter as possible, I chose the more optimistically named Chuffin’ Ale, a 4.0% ABV brown best bitter that made its debut in 2010 on the 175th Anniversary of the Great Western Railway. The Chuffin’ Ale, brewed with English Fuggles hops and Maris Otter and Crystal malts with added wheat, has been described by beer snobs as having “hints of crème brûlée,” a characterization that I did not dispute as I leisurely sipped it down on at a picnic table by the river.

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Our dinner reservation awaited, so we eventually brought ourselves to press onward towards Bradford-on-Avon. It did not escape my notice that as we strolled along the canal for the final mile of our journey, the guys nipped off one by one into the woods to relieve themselves.

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By the time we arrived at our destination, I was cursing the anatomical disadvantages of being female. Fortunately, the Three Gables in Bradford-on-Avon had spotlessly clean toilets. I must confess to having no recollection whatsoever of what I ate (scallops were perhaps involved), although I do remember thinking that the establishment went a long way towards resurrecting the unfortunate reputation of British cuisine and customer service. This most memorable evening was punctuated by the return train that conveyed us back to Bath arriving exactly on schedule.

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