The Wyching Hour

June 9th, 2018

“A quart of ale is a dish for a king” said William Shakespeare, and who are we to disagree?

Good old fashioned British beer is no longer the realm of beer-bellied old farmers with flat caps. It has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, resurrected from its dreary image and shaken up to make it the drink of choice for an ever expanding market.

Any real ale fan will of course have come across, and probably sampled the famous Hobgoblin Ale, from the legendary Wychwood Brewery.  With it’s impish theme and ethereal artwork it’s hard to miss on supermarket shelves and on local pub taps.

The Wychwood Brewery in Oxford has been instrumental in igniting the flames of the real ale revival. From humble beginnings in 1983, the Wychwood Brewery is now the UK’s largest producer of organic ales, and produces around 50,000 barrels (or over 8 million litres) of cask ale every year.

The Wychwood Brewery is named after the nearby Wych Wood; a dark and spooky royal forest that once covered most of what is now West Oxfordshire. Lurking in its menacing depths are a cast of characters, from the mischievous Hobgoblin to the downright terrifying Black Witch; all wrapped up in terrifying legends and fairytales, passed as folklore from generation to generation and recounted in wide-eyed horror around the fire at Halloween.

Have you heard the fable of the Rollright Stones? Legend has it that over 2,000 years ago a cackling witch turned a king and his army into cold, hard stones that have been patiently waiting to be released ever since. What about the legend of the Witches in Waiting? Peer closely enough at the thorny plum tree and you might see a crooked witches nose in the folds of the ancient bark.

It was the fantastical legends and spooky characters from this eerie forest that inspired Wychwood’s mystical flagship beer. Goblins, fairies, witches and spirits abound at Wychwood HQ, ensuring there is never a dull moment, or a dull bottle of ale. Hobgoblin Ale is now the 5th best selling bottled beer in the UK.

Originally brewed in 1988 for a local wedding, the dark, rich and chocolaty beer is legendary and sought after among ale drinkers and is known not least for its powerful advertising campaign that urged lager drinkers to try something new. “Afraid you might taste something, Lagerboy?” is the Hobgoblin’s favourite expression.

Beer, lagers and ales have long been the nation’s favourite alcoholic tipple. Up until the 1960’s, lagers were viewed by older generations as a kind of “fizzy pop” for younger drinkers, and ales and bitters still occupied top selling spots in most pubs. However, thanks to big advertising budgets and clever brand marketing by global breweries, mass produced lagers became Britain’s drink of choice, but often only because there was no other choice.

However, in the 1970’s, the Campaign for Real Ale Group (CAMRA) set about to change all that, and began a campaign to change the fortunes of real-ale and the small craft breweries that had fallen out of fashion. It was a long, uphill struggle but in recent years the campaign has gathered strength. It has captured the public’s heart and imagination and a whole new market has begun to emerge.

In complicated economic times, when on average 39 pubs are closing across the UK per week, the rise in popularity of real ale is a rather astonishing phenomenon. Real Ale Societies are springing up all over the UK, and a study by CAMRA recently reported that more women than ever are sipping on Britain’s national drink; the figures have dramatically doubled from 16% of women in 2008, to 30% of women this year!

Pubs and bars have responded to demand and many are dedicated to serving, and properly caring for, real ale. Popular real ales and guest ales are now an essential part of most pubs and even trendy bars. CAMRA estimate that there are now over 2,500 different real ales in the UK.

But just why has real ale suddenly become so popular again? One reason is that drinkers are becoming ever more discerning, and are demanding much more flavour, depth and character from their drinks than mass produced lagers will provide. Craft ale brewers are more likely to experiment with additional ingredients to create a huge variety of different tastes and flavours, whereas most lagers will generally be similar in taste.

The modern trend for organic and locally sourced food has also transferred to drink, and ales hit the spot. Real ales tend to use more traditional ingredients, which are much more likely to possess local and organic credentials.

In tough economic climates, the importance of supporting small, local and independent businesses has never been more important. The market for real ale fits perfectly here too, as most are produced by smaller Craft brewers that have sprung up in all corners of the British Isles in the last twenty years, each one producing uniquely flavoured and marketed ales. So why not pop into your favourite local pub this weekend for a pint of delicious craft ale? Yum!