There’s a neat symmetry to this; the very first thing I wrote this year, right back on the 3rd of January, was the annual BeerCast ‘breweries to watch’ post. Twelve months later, the very last thing to come from this battered keyboard in 2013 is the nomination of one of those producers as the brewery of the year. That’s not lazy or convenient blogging on my part, by any means – I thought this particular producer would do well largely because of their work ethic (highlighted by their astonishing seventeen-strong ‘core range’). However, over the course of the year, they have taken one inspired decision after another, and are now set for a huge future.
Our brewery of the year for 2013 is the Buxton Brewery.
Buxton already had a great reputation, and following the addition in 2012 of a larger copper (more on which later) and a marketing type in Denis ‘Anorak’ Johnstone, you’d have expected them to improve on that, building on what they have. However, in April what they didn’t have was a head brewer, as James Kemp left for pastures new. Instead of pausing for thought, Buxton founder Geoff Quinn hired ex-Black Isler Colin Stronge – as perfect a brewer for the direction Buxton are taking as I can think of. I was actually standing next to Colin when he found out JK and Buxton had parted company, and – as is typical for me – totally missed the implications of the raised eyebrow with which Colin greeted the news.
Geoff, Colin and Denis are a great fit, and at the same time as undergoing this front-bench reshuffle, Buxton also re-branded. The new logo looks a picture, giving the brewery a more evident link to their Peak District hometown, and a much more obvious presence on bar tops and bottle shop shelves. Alongside this, they also opened up their very own brewery tap, the Buxton Tap House, which serves five cask and eight keg of their own beers (alongside others from guest breweries). For me, this is the perfect summation of the only-brewer-in-town set-up; it underlines the local presence, and helps build your reputation even more. For visiting beer fans, it becomes (dare I say it) a ‘destination’.
In that respect, and when writing that cringe worthy sentence, I realised just how many similarities there are between Buxton and last year’s brewery of the year, Fyne Ales. Both have the provenance that comes with a great track record, then shifted gears from solid blonde and dark ales, changed brewers, updated their branding and then opened a brewery bar (Fyne’s is actually attached to the brewery, although in last week’s storm it almost wasn’t). Does that make this a recommended path to take for breweries wanting to move things forward? Or merely that I need to apply a bit more lateral thought to selecting my breweries of the year?
Either way, the year Buxton have had has been spellbinding. I’ve said it before, but there isn’t a brewery in the country that makes a ‘big three’ anywhere close to Imperial Black, Tsar and Axe Edge. Since Colin joined they have added such notables as Jacob’s Ladder, a whole raft of saisons and sours, and upped the ante on barrel-ageing. At the same time, regular standouts such as Gold are released now in regular and dry-hopped versions, and even the aforementioned Axe Edge has been re-jigged using kiwi hops for a completely different iteration. In short, their beers this year have been as good as any from any UK brewery I have tried.
And all of this, everything Buxton have achieved in 2013 (which is clearly quite a lot), has happened on the background of a kit size several brewers have told me is unsustainable. They only have a 5bbl mash tun – which is seriously small (although the 10bbl copper certainly helps). To gain the reputation they have on a kit that size, you need to really go all out, all the time. Currently Geoff and the team are putting together a new, larger brewery; Colin was scouting Italian bottling lines recently, and just yesterday Geoff tweeted a borderline pornographic photo of a new boiler. Once all is in place, things will really get interesting – until then, with the determination, creativity and decision-making they have displayed in 2013, Buxton are deservedly our brewery of the year.
This is my last blog post of 2013 – so, many thanks to everyone for reading the BeerCast this year, particularly those who commented on the posts, or followed me on Twitter or Facebook. It’s been another fantastic year for British brewing, making it a pleasure to write about (and on that note, thanks again to the Guild of Beer Writers for awarding me beer website of the year). I’ll be back at the start of 2014, and will be naming some of the breweries to watch for the coming twelve months. Until then, have a very happy and beer-filled Christmas and Hogmanay! Cheers!