The Loddon Brewery create the sort of beer that makes time slow down. When you walk into a pub and see their distinctive dragonfly livery, you can’t help feel that all is well with the world and you are about to drink something memorable.
Shafts of dusty sunlight were invented to shine on pints as good as this. Since 2002, Loddon’s Ferryman’s Gold has achieved a similar status as a Timothy Taylor, Tribute or even Palmers Gold. Loddon supremo Chris Hearn told me that he knew that it was special as soon as it was brewed; that it was exactly what he was looking for the first time it was supped. Most Loddon beer is found in the Thames Valley at the moment, but I do think they have the potential to conquer elsewhere.
Loddon have a rolling squad of beers of varying strengths and individual qualities, but they maintain variety with seasonal concoctions and some experimental stuff. Most of the beers are named according to local characters, history, buildings, culture and other people of note. They have a strong, proud, brand and identity. Like all good local products, their beers taste of the place; the hard Reading water means their beers really taste of Wessexian east Berkshire with a hint of the earth of Mercian south Oxfordshire.
I tracked down Chris Hearn down to that great Kennetside Wetherspoons boozer, The Back of Beyond (known as Bob’s to its friends), to see if I could find out what makes Loddon such a fine brewery.
[Matthew] Who names the beers ?
[Chris] We all do, but I have the final say.
Who invented the dragonfly and other Loddon livery ?
I got a lot of grief over what was going to be our new brewery name from the old Oxfordshire brewers. When Brakspears shut down, we felt we needed to be the new local brewer. They didn’t like the insect connection as they thought it was too similar to theirs. We were going to be Red Kite Brewery at one point, but that trademark had been taken. Dragonflies are prevalent on the River Loddon and to annoy my old employers I wanted an insect with six legs and four wings! On the last day, when the builder had completed the refurb, a dragonfly landed on his hand as he handed over the key. Beers have heritage and we wanted to be the new brewery in South Oxfordshire. We wanted to have heritage before we even started so to speak, and Loddon and the dragonflies have heritage and nature all over them.
How many pints of Forbury Lion should you drink in one sitting? I did four once and got a bit mangle-brained.
Crikey! I don’t know. I would sooner have a gallon of weak beer than a strong one. I did hear a Morris dancer’s bells once when closing up after an open evening. I looked into the toilet cubicle and found a sleeping Morris dancer who had apparently drunk ten pints of Forbury Lion and was covered in vomit. We took him and his bike home and his wife was furious.
What is your most popular beer?
Hoppit first and then Ferryman’s Gold. Hullabaloo is slowly catching up.
Have you considered opening your own pub or micro-pub ?
We did consider it years ago then I got cold feet; we dithered over the Nags Head in Reading and the Bell at Waltham St Lawrence, and we lost the chance. We didn’t want to end up catering or anything like that; we just want to brew great beer and I don’t particularly want to be standing behind a bar being nice to people all day long – it can become a soul-destroying job.
Have your beers become international?
Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Channel Islands and northern France. The problem with export to America is they are quite protectionist; you need to appoint an agent and you can’t make enough money out of it.
What other breweries do you admire?
My favourite beer is Otter bitter and I admire what Purity have done. I also admire the family regional brewers who have reinvented themselves like Adnams and Palmers. There are some really good new beers out there but also some shocking ones. Some of these new brewers don’t even have their own yeast culture.
What do you think of the craft beer revolution?
I hate the word ‘craft’. We have taken the word ‘craft’ off all of our literature. It is a craft but their definition of ‘craft’ is an Americanism; I thinks it’s a fad that will die a natural death. The beer industry is a circular thing so these things come round every few years. All they do is put the word ‘craft’ on it to charge you a bloody fortune.
Are you going to expand?
We have no desire to do a Sharps Doombar or a Camden Town, but I hope West Berkshire do well in their expansion. We are flat-out now and accelerating, and we will put in some new kit next year to increase capacity. We want slow, sustainable profitable growth – we are a family company.
Can you control the price at the pump?
No. They can control my prices though!
What town is the biggest Loddon customer?
Reading is by far the biggest consumer of Loddon, with Oxford and Newbury next. We go up the rolling English Road to country pubs as far as Chipping Norton and the great south London pubs, and Wetherspoons too. The Griffin in Caversham is selling a shed-load of Loddon at the moment. We sell a lot of beer at the great Wallingford Bunkfest every September.
What is the age of the average Loddon drinker?
Hoppit sells mainly to people 55 and over, but Ferryman’s is attracting drinkers from 18-40. As you get older, your palate changes and some beers become too bitter, so tastes do change and older folk change alliances to something more golden, like Ferryman’s.
Where are you from?
Born in Winchester but have lived in Henley since I was four years old. I am a Henley lad.
Do you like lardy cake?
No, I don’t like it. I used to be given lardy cake as a child and I never really liked it. When I played rugby for Henley, in the changing rooms at each game there would be a jug of beer and a lardy cake waiting for you.
What I don’t know about beer you could write on a stamp
Chris is not only extremely knowledgeable and entertaining, he doesn’t mind sharing his forthright views on brewing and the industry itself. He’s quoted on his website as saying “what I don’t know about beer you could write on a stamp”, so test him out! I would recommend you go and visit the Loddon HQ at Dunsden Green, and maybe after visit the church where our greatest war poet, Wilfred Owen, was lay-assistant to the vicar. His parents’ graves are there and they outlived him by twenty years.
“I’ve always loved Loddon Brewery’s ales; they are so tasty, smooth and consistent,” said Sara, a local. “It’s been fascinating to hear Chris speak, there’s so much skill and care in brewing, it’s a pleasure to enjoy a pint!”
Beer Matt’s manifesto
I tried to articulate to Chris why his very good beer and our great local breweries are so important to us. I couldn’t quite make my point, so I shall try again in writing:
Our beer is important because in every glass is the very stuff of which the culture of this country is made, and every passing year and new ale adds another stratum to the layers of our earthy history and culture. Beer was once safer to drink than water, and was essential to working men, women and children; the people’s drink of necessity, choice and habit.
When we drink ale we are drinking in the green man, the longbow, the penny whistle and the clay pipe. We are drinking with pilgrims, sailors and fishermen huddled in creaking wooden ships on our rolling seas; with working people on canals, rivers, hills and mountains; with nurses, midwives and mothers; with miners, bakers and labourers; serfs and navvies. We are drinking the satanic mills, the mighty oaks, lush farmland with heavy horses and lovers leant on stiles, the speeding, heaving trains, the despised bloody mud of Passchendaele and Anzio with the melancholy sound of a battered bugle playing the last post at a lonely unmarked graveside far from home. We are drinking the industrial towns with their bustle, smoke and noise, and the calm refuge of a pub’s fireside as the gentle hum of conversation mixes with the rain storm outside.
We drink these beers not just because they are relaxing and the taste is good, we drink them because they are England – I mean they taste of England – a real living link to our past culture that you can taste and cherish, and in that joyful moment of drinking we can enjoy and celebrate the past, the present and hope for a brighter future.