Black and Brown

No, it’s not about shoes, or horses, or paint, it’s something closer to your heart. I’ve heard rumours, that most of you, certainly the gig going majority, are partial to a brew or two; dozen in some cases. It is therefore my assumption, that this time the subject matter might raise a spark of interest among those of you who don’t normally have a spare minute for these writings.

This time, I’ve chosen booze as my subject, but more particularly, the wonderful booze produced by a small independent organic brewery, Butts Brewery.

The reason Butts have been singled out for this feature, as opposed to one of the many other fine independent brewers Britain has to offer, is because of their very clever device of attracting my attention with a little old fashioned flattery. They make a beer called ‘Golden Brown’.

Now I don’t know if anyone has done that before, after all, ‘GB’ would be a perfectly logical if not obvious title to attach to a typical British pint, so it would probably be some kind of safe bet that someone has previously done so. However, far less likely is it, that someone has previously labelled a brew in praise of, and inspired by, a certain melody of the same name, as have Butts. To make the point, the label depicts a fair maiden ‘tied to a mast’.

‘Golden Brown’ first came to my attention two or three years ago. Can’t remember exactly, but I think it had leapt out at me from some web page or other. So perhaps the same thing has happened to some of you too.

Butts supply the brew in both cask and bottle and it’s becoming available in an increasing number of pubs in and around it’s south western territory.

In due course, there came the day, quite recently, when I realised I needed to check out this particular bevvy for myself, after all, being of largely Irish stock, I have a certain intrinsic propensity for all that is drawn from a firkin cask!

So, I called the brewery and spoke to the boss, Chris Butt. You may all be pleasantly amazed to learn – as was I – that Chris is actually one of YOU! Yes, it turns out that he has been to more Stranglers’ gigs than I’ve had birthdays, well, almost! Chris suggested a brewery visit, and so, off to the brewery, the best excuse I’ve had for a long time! It’s in a little village in Berkshire called Great Shefford. Here’s how it went………..

jb..Firstly Chris, where do you come from, are you a local?

CB……No, Somerset originally, then I went to Reading University and I haven’t managed to get out of Berkshire since. So, I work here in Great Shefford and live not far away.

And what did you do at University?

I did a Biotechnology degree; industrial manipulation of micro organisms etc, so that covers genetic engineering, brewing, bread making, everything really but let’s be honest, I just went there because I didn’t want to get a job!

Did that lead you into brewing, did you just drift into it, or was it like you were thinking, ‘Oh, I know, I want to make beer’, or was it a totally unrelated process?

Well, it was sort-of related, but I didn’t have any real idea at that point that I was going to get into brewing. What happened was, I finished the course only to find there were no jobs in biotechnology – apart from research – so we all went into the food industry because that subject was running parallel with the food technology course, so I worked in that area for about five years but it was pretty dull. When I got to the last job I was involved in – when it came to an end – I decided to try to get involved in brewing because it just seemed a lot more interesting than making food.

So I wrote to local breweries around here. I don’t think I got a reply actually, but a mate of mine, who used to work for the Butcombe Brewery, which is quite a big concern down near Bristol Airport, said, “Why don’t you start your own?”. He told me that Butcombe were getting rid of some of their plant, because they were expanding and needed a re-fit. He told me roughly what price he thought they wanted for it, and I phoned them up and made an offer and he phoned me back the next day and said they had decided to accept the offer. So I thought ‘Oh shit’. I hadn’t got any money at the time, so I had to sell my car to put a deposit on the plant!

I had no brewing experience at all, I just pressed on regardless and I had three months to find the balance to buy the plant which I didn’t actually manage to do, so they could have just taken my deposit and said tough luck mate, but they didn’t, they gave me more time.

This was around 1991 so you couldn’t get a dime out of a bank because of another major recession. In the end, I tried to raise some money privately to get it started, and that is what I did, eventually.

So anyway, I had the plant and I stored it in a mate’s farmyard for almost two years while I was trying to raise new money to get the whole thing started. Then at one point, I had virtually given up and was just going to see one more chap and if he wasn’t interested, I was going to sell the plant and do something else, but luckily he was interested and had the resources to pile into it.

So did you then start diving into books to refresh your mind about brewing?

Well I had already covered the theory, and Butcombe – very generously – had let me spend a week at their place so that I could see roughly how it was done, so long as I didn’t set-up too close and start copying them!

When I did get started, I employed a company – a bunch of cowboys as it turned out – their job ostensibly, was to install the plant and train me how to brew, but after about a week we parted company. I just thought they were a bit disastrous and I knew enough, which I didn’t, so I was sort-of learning on the job for the first 18 months I suppose.

A problem with beer is that you’ve got to be consistent so I like to think it was consistently nice, not consistently consistent but after a couple of years I’d got it pretty much figured out.

How long was it before the business was showing a profit?

I think it probably broke even the first year, and has pretty much broken even ever since. The last few years though, were profitable, but – as you know – I’ve never tried to grow-it that much. I think I’m just a nightmare at employing people and managing them. I did used to have some help but it’s such bliss being a one-man-band. Which is more-or-less what I am.

My other half Delia, comes in and does about a day a week to help out with labelling and bottling etc. Actually bottling is a three man job so I do get a couple of extra hands in to help out on that. So I have a small group of friends I call on when I’m bottling. The rest of it, I can pretty much deal with. I don’t do any marketing though, there never seems to be enough time.

Have you ever had a disaster, have you ever for instance, made a brew you had to scrap?

Yes, in the early days, I had to shut the brewery for about three months, that was during the first year. We basically had a wild yeast infection and when you’ve only just started you can’t afford to have bad beer going out, or indeed ever. You just can’t. Even so, we had various people telling us that the beer was fine but I knew it wasn’t.

When you settle a beer, the yeast has got to drop out, and off you go. Well it would settle once but as soon as you moved it, rolled it around, it wouldn’t settle a second time, so in the end we just shut down and sterilised absolutely everything. It probably came in on the yeast which I was then using. I was using yeast from another brewery. It was all very secretive, ‘cos I wasn’t supposed to have it. I used to have to drive around in a pick-up and they’d lob it out of the door as I was driving past.

After that, I went on to using fresh dried yeast every batch and I’ve never had a problem since.

In the beginning did you start off with just one brew or did you have more than one on the go?

I started with one because Butcombe had only ever brewed just one beer, for like, fifteen years. I tried to do that, but I found a 4% beer is quite hard to get into a pub because a pub has usually got it’s own 4% ‘house’ beer which is long established, so it was easier to get in with a higher or lower gravity beer. I guess about a year afterwards ‘Barbus’ came along and then ‘Jester’ which is a lower gravity one, so I had three permanent beers which I still run and I have three or four others like the ‘Golden Brown’ which I’ve always got in bottle but not always in draught, all year round.

What is your biggest seller?

The ‘Barbus’.

Do you do everything in both draught and bottle?

No, not everything in bottle. I only bottle the stronger ones because the higher alcohol helps preserve the beer in bottles. I don’t do the ‘Jester’ or ‘Traditional’ but all the others I do.

So getting onto ‘Golden Brown’, what was the story behind that, how did that come about?

Well I was a massive Stranglers’ fan from years gone by and I just thought ‘Golden Brown’ was such a good name for a beer. In the early years, I had a guy working here – Sidney – who was quite artistic. I would come up with these ideas and he would go away and have a doodle on the subject, and one day he said, what would I do for ‘Golden Brown’? I said, in the video, I seemed to remember it was all camels and pyramids and he said oh no, that’s too complicated. So I went through some of the lyrics and I noticed it had someone tied to a mast. So he pretty much chained his missus to the bottom of the bannister, and drew her, and it’s not brilliant, if you look, the arms are a bit thin and that, but I just didn’t have the heart to change it.

Funnily enough, some pubs won’t even have it, just because they think it’s too risque, bare breast and all. On the bottle we put some clothes on her to try and help her onto the Waitrose shelf. Then we’d get all the jokes like, “Has it got heroin in it?” and all that sort of malarkey. So that’s how it came about.

So the other thing was, I tended to brew it in the autumn so people would phone up and say, “what beers do you do?” and I’d say ‘Golden Brown’ and they’d be expecting a nice autumn beer with a picture of an oak tree or something and then ‘the maiden’ would turn up. Sounds daft but I guess some were unprepared for the artwork! Oh, and there’s another anecdote some of your readers might like to know about; there’s a pub in Bath, called ‘The Raven’, they stock ‘Golden Brown’ when it’s available!

Did people ask you in the early days, like, what’s this all about, you know, the lady and all that?

Some did but some just got it straight away. Some people knew and others hadn’t got a clue. Now if they ask, we explain.

What is your professional description of ‘Golden Brown’?

It’s a strong ale of 5%, a single hop variety, with a slight spiciness derived mostly from that particular hop. Both cask and bottle versions are cask/bottle conditioned, which is to say, they contain totally natural carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, as opposed to what I call ‘fizzy-pop’ which is carbonated artificially and very uncomfortable to consume.

Can I just say, for those who don’t already know, when you serve a bottle conditioned beer, you need to let it rest to settle the yeast – the longer the better – then pour it very gently down the side of the glass and stop just before it’s all poured. Basically leave the bit which is resting in the neck of the bottle, that will contain the yeast. You can of course pour it all in, and some people do, but it’s not for me, the flavour is too impaired for my liking. D’you reckon I’ve got that right Chris?

That’s about the size of it.

More generally, is it really a full time job?

Oh God yes.

D’you work week-ends?

Yes, and a lot of late nights. But it is seasonal, it’s quieter in January/February. I know I should employ someone and grow, which I might do one day but I’m enjoying it on my own at the moment.

Of course the trouble with brewing is, when you’ve got to do something, you have to do it. You can’t put it off or do it later.

That’s the thing, the brews have to be, well, not baby sat, but you’ve got to be around to stop the fermentation at the right time. Obviously if you let it ferment right out, you could end up with a flat beer.

How do you stop it?

You chill it. When you get to a certain stage in the fermentation and there’s only a little bit left, you chill it. You need to ensure there’s a little bit of fermentable left so when it’s run into the cask or bottle it can build up some condition. Do it too soon and you can end up with an explosive beer, too late and it can go flat, so timing is very, very important. It’s a bit like the champagne process, where you have a second fermentation in the bottle. It’s that, that creates the bubbles. Of course the champagne makers employ a very expensive process to remove the yeast before corking but it would be too expensive to use on beer which is a much lower value product, although some would say a far better one!

For those domestically who might want to have a larger quantity, how big on a domestic level can you go?

We do Polypins (20 Litres) and Minipins (10 Litres). These aren’t stock items, we fill them as required.

You were telling me that you’re now doing some of the many summer festivals?

Yes, that’s right. We have now done a number of festivals and hope to do more. We were there to see your recent set at Glastonbury, in between pulling pints.

It came about off the back of going completely organic. It became clear that a lot of the festivals were going green, or at least they say they are.

But I’m actually quite passionate about the whole organic philosophy. I feel intensive farming is ruining the countryside, particularly our waterways. I guess my little effort will only save a few fish, but it’s a start.

Everything I do is organic, as opposed to some breweries who maybe do just one organic beer to try and get in on it, but I think people can see through that. If you really believe in it, it should be the whole lot.

I hear rumours now that a major Euro-pop brewery is vying for a place from which to pump more of their ‘fizzy-pop’ into our unsuspecting music lovers, which is really bad news.

Can we look forward to a future maybe ‘Down In The Sewer’ ale, or some such?

Well I did think ‘Jet Black’ was a damn good name for a Porter actually.

Well I can tell you, that I am more than a bit partial to Porter and Stout style beers. I certainly wouldn’t object. Are all beers always in stock?

The bottled ones should be, and those three permanent cask ales also, but people should ring in advance if they need something for certain. We are after all a micro brewery and don’t have the resources of a multi-national.

Is it hard for a small brewer getting into pubs?

I haven’t really tried for awhile, I tend to have the same customers I’ve had for years. There are so many micro breweries now that I think the pubs must be getting hounded by breweries all the time. However, I did pop into one the other day and it was the first cold call I’d done for ages, and the landlady said “You’ve been brewing for fifteen years and this is the first time you’ve come in?!” I said I’m sorry but I don’t usually come down this road, tee hee!

Seriously though, I suppose it’s probably pretty tough out there, and it was only because of the rate the pubs are dying at the moment I was thinking, although I’m busy now, it’s going to be a bit grim in the winter, so it would be handy if I could pick-up a few more customers.

I don’t think people are drinking less these days, it seems to me they are just changing where they drink and the pubs are being hit by everything.

Yes, the price is too high, then the smoking ban the drink driving thing it’s all mounting up.

Everywhere I go I see pubs closing down. It’s really heartbreaking. Pubs are the one thing many tourists like the most about this country, and they’re being destroyed every single day, it’s unbelievable.

Even the busy ones, they’re still doing plenty of food but they’re selling less beer. People instead of going out and having a few drinks, they’re having one, with a meal.

I had – I think it was Benyon – the local Tory MP here, he actually turned-up here on the day of the election, touting for votes. Unfortunately I had a picture of him on the wall with a dart through his forehead! I only had his picture up because he was stood next to Boris Johnson who was holding a bottle of our beer. I’ve never met him but he seems a hoot, old Boris.

So I said, “if you do what all the other governments have done, and you think you can cure binge drinking by putting the duty up, you’re wrong, ‘Cos all that does is kill the price of beer in the pub.” That’s not where the problems are, it’s people getting tanked-up on whatever – from the supermarket – and then going out. Then the publican’s getting the blame ‘cos someone’s drunk a bottle of vodka at home and then he goes out, has a drink in the pub, gets in a fight and the poor old publican gets the blame.

They’ve really got to put the prices up in the supermarket or have a minimum price or something. Then there’s another problem in that there now is a whole new generation of people who just aren’t pub people.

Now they’ve done what all other governments have done and upped the duty rate. By the time the pub’s put it’s margin on and you add two lots of v.a.t. on it, and if it’s a pub Co., then they’re gonna nick 30% for doing nothing, so the poor old pub’s got to stick it on at £3.30 – £3.50 to try and make a margin. Then you’ll have a free house down the road who thinks if he’s getting £3.50 then I’ll put mine up!

This to me is a recipe for the destruction of a whole industry and it’s complete madness.

And so I thought I ought to bring my visit to an end, before I shot off into one of my political rants about what is wrong with this country.

It had been a most enjoyable visit and Chris proved to be a great host. After the talking was over, he wasted no time in forcing some of his wonderful nectar down my throat.

Well, you might ask, what did I think of the bevvy I had set out to track down in the first place? I can genuinely say I really like ‘Golden Brown’. It’s a refreshing bitter that’s not too bitter. It is spicy but subtle with it, and it has a 5% kick which is not immediately obvious! But it kinda creeps up on you, quite quickly. I think in ‘Golden Brown’ it is well named.

I didn’t try all the beers, I was finding it difficult to let go of my ‘GB’ glass, but I did try ‘Blackguard’, a Porter. This was a wonderful new discovery and a very different beer altogether. It’s a 4.5%, dark beer, described on their website as “Rich and chocolatey with a hint of liquorice”. This is no idle publicity-speak. It’s exactly how it tasted. Loads and loads of flavour, gorgeous! It’s dark, almost black. Looks a bit like a famous Irish beer but tastes nothing like it.

I can’t imagine getting my hands on a finer pair of beauties than these two great British ales. For me, this brace of bevvies constitutes the perfect dinner. Main course ‘Golden Brown’, dessert, ‘Blackguard’. If there was nothing else to drink than ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘Blackguard’ I would be perfectly content, never a frown with black and brown!

That then, brings this boozy little adventure to an end. For those who would like to know more about this organic brewery, Butts’ website can be found here

Chris says he doesn’t mind people calling-in to purchase from the brewery but you should telephone first as he is often out on deliveries.

And finally, perhaps a suitable footnote to this piece should be that Chris Butt, Stranglers’ supporter and brewery boss, is due to attend the November convention in both guises, along with ‘Golden Brown’ which will be on-tap at the bar and possibly some other Butts brews! Hope you enjoy.

jb (July 2011)