Ah, Buckinghamshire. That fine old English county, famous for… something, surely? We would never have made a trip to Buckinghamshire on purpose but our second WWOOF host lived there, which meant we had to visit. Our first impression of this twee home county was that it was rather dull. People seem to live there primarily because it’s close to London – so much so that it even feels a bit like London, with the overpriced sports cars, unaffordable housing and lack of community, just with more hedgerows.
So what’s a visitor to do there? Visit Aylesbury and browse the usual British high street stores? Take a walk up in the Chilterns, on hills so high you can look down on red kites gliding over Chequers, the UK Prime Minister’s country retreat? These are options, but we recommend visiting the Chiltern Brewery instead and, if not just to buy their delicious beer, taking their bespoke tour too.
On arrival, we were welcomed with a warm smile from Andy, front of house extraordinaire and keeper of the shop that day. He treated us to a complimentary half pint of our choice, with Nick opting for the Pride of Bucks & Berks, a smooth, citrusy ale with a charitable twist – the brewery donates 5p for every pint sold to Horatio’s Garden, who are running a project to create a peaceful garden for folks recovering from spinal injuries at a nearby hospital. Flic went for the Chiltern Black, a Guinness lookalike but completely different in every other way. Complex flavours of cherry, coffee and a hint of treacle were captured within a light, quaffable brew. We hadn’t even started the tour and already we were bowled over by the beer.
After a few minutes browsing the bountiful brewery shop, we were introduced to Nigel, our host for the springtime afternoon. An ex-fireman, proudly imparting his knowledge of the family run brewery with a no-nonsense East London accent, could there be a better guide for a brewery tour?
Leaving the shop, the tour commenced in earnest. We wandered round the back of the car park and entered the microbrewery itself. We must stress the micro aspect of the brewery here – it was just one tiny room in an old garage. Think Heisenberg’s lab, but smaller and above ground. There was a big old brew tank, sackfuls of hops, bags of barley and a jumbo sized jotter covered in equations. This is old school brewing, the brewers using wisdom passed down a generation to get the job done. Given the limited space the brewery have, they manage to brew a couple of times a week, supplying their own shop, an affiliated pub (The Kings Head in Aylesbury) and a few other local taverns.
After a few interesting anecdotes about family squabbles and the awkwardness of cleaning out the brew tank from the inside whilst being 6ft tall, we made our way out of the shed. We milled about outside for a bit, looking at different types of beer barrels and sniffing discarded grain that would be fed to a nearby farmer’s pigs. And that was it. The tour had finished. It was time for the tasting.
There were 5 of us on the tour that Friday afternoon. On a Saturday, it’s usual for there to be a crowd of 25 or more, which would probably make the tasting considerably more rowdy than our civilised session. Even better, Nigel let slip that there would be more freedom with the sample sizes, increasing our cash to lash ratio so to speak.
We started off with their signature, the Chiltern Ale, a classic session ale at an easy going 3.7%. According to Nigel, this is a popular choice for people in the age range of 18-80, so it has a fairly wide demographic. Our notes say that the bitterness of the hops combined with fresh apple and the sweetness of hops would work wonders with poultry, fish and curry. We also wrote that it was cracking with a slice of ale bread from the local Cottage Bakery in Thame, and we stand by this. Sadly we didn’t get to visit the bakery, but the thick, wholegrain bread was delicious, baked full of beery brilliance and slathered in butter.
As we quaffed the next beverage, the robust and nutty Three Hundreds Old Ale, we were invited to pair it with a selection of cheese, a mustard seed cheddar being the highlight. By this point we stopped making sensible, or particularly legible, notes. Take this as a sign that we were taking advantage of the light refreshments.
The last ale we tasted was Bodger’s Barley Wine, not a wine as such, but a thicker, treacle sweet ale. We swigged down this heady brew with a slice of ale infused fruit cake, a perfect way to round off our liquid lunch. The tour aimed to open up the possibilities of flavour pairings with ale, treating it more like wine. As Nigel pointed out, it’s not uncommon for trendy hipster restaurants to have a beer list or an ale sommelier. This is the first brewery tour we’ve been on that brought food to the tasting table, and we think it’s all the better for it.
It wasn’t over yet though, as Nigel announced he had a few spare jugs to use up. The group of 3 on our tour had to leave. Maybe they had jobs or something. With little else to do that day, we knocked back a few more glasses and chatted with our new found friend. Our 2 hour tour soon became a 4 hour session. The tour cost us £15 each, a little pricey perhaps, but not if you consider that given the local clientele, we could be paying London prices. Try having an afternoon out on the craft ales in Shoreditch for £15!
When they started closing up the shop and shutting down the barrels, we took the hint and said our goodbyes. We made our way back to our host’s smallholding, carrying two bottles on the house and a recycled plastic milk bottle full of Chiltern Ale, winding our way along public foot paths, stumbling over stiles and taking our chances on the country lane verges. Ah, Buckinghamshire, famous for the Chiltern Brewery.