Food hero: meet brewer James Arkell

James Arkell makes superb bitters at the brewery that was voted 2010 brewery of the year by The Good Pub Guide. Anthony Burton went to meet him

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It is no surprise that the phrase that constantly comes to mind when visiting James Arkell at the Donnington Brewery in Gloucestershire is ‘respect for tradition’, because he represents not one but two dynasties of Arkell brewers. His branch of the family began brewing in 1843 in what is now Swindon, but was then a purely rural area. Then Isambard Kingdom Brunel arrived
with his Great Western Railway, established his engineering works and built new Swindon. Suddenly there were a lot of thirsty men wanting beer, and the brewery thrived.

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The other Arkells started a bit later. Thomas bought an old watermill in 1827, and in 1865 his son Richard converted it into the brewery. No railway ever came to Donnington, and the brewery changed very little over the years.

Claude Arkell, who ran Donnington for more than half a century until his death in 2007, had no sons, so the business passed to James. The two brewing Arkell families were reunited. For James it was like coming home, for as a young man he first learned about brewing from Claude. He remembers his most important lesson: “Brewing is an art, not a science – things can go wrong”.

Stunning setting

James is now owner of what must be the most picturesque brewery in the country. The beautiful building of mellow Cotswold stone sits beside a millpond, home to black and white swans, while raucous peacocks stalk the bank. The interior is just as characterful, with some of the original machinery still at work. There are two waterwheels, one outside and one inside. The interior wheel is still in regular use, powering a pump that is as old as the brewery.

New brooms are supposed to sweep clean, but James had no intention of making drastic changes. He may have taken over what some might consider an old-fashioned business with a lot of equipment that would have been better off in an antiques sale, but he knew that it worked. “It’s a bit like making tea in granny’s old teapot,” he says. “Tea from granny’s pot always tasted better than tea from the new one you just got from the supermarket.”

James Arkell is a man with a big personality and a huge enthusiasm for everything about his brewery, not least the two bitters – BB at 3.8% and SBA at 4.4%. Both beers are made from just four main ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast. The water comes from a nearby spring, and for James that is the single most important element in making his beer. The malted barley comes from a traditional Norfolk malting – not the cheapest, but he is prepared to pay for quality. One of three malts used, the black malt, is a secret ingredient that has rich taste almost like a coffee bean, and gives the SBA its distinctive flavour. The hops from Worcester and Hereford are traditional English varieties, and the yeast is carefully chosen and nurtured – it can rejuvenate itself several times.

Alcohol alchemy

The process of brewing is simple, and the day starts at 6am with raising steam. The malt is crushed in a mill, another piece of antique machinery. The malt from the mill is known as ‘grist’; indeed anything that goes through the mill has the same name, hence the expression ‘It’s all grist to the mill’.

The grist is then mixed with hot water and mashed to release the sugars. The mixture in the mash tun is known as ‘wort’, and judging when the process is complete is an essential part of the brewer’s craft. I saw James regularly dip into the wort, holding it up to the light to judge the colour. When he was satisfied that everything was just as it should be, the wort was then pumped away to be boiled in a copper vat. The malt left behind in the mash tun isn’t wasted – it is used as animal food.

Hops are added to the mixture in the copper, which give flavour and also act as a preservative. Then another, surprising ingredient is added – seaweed. After that the liquor is passed to the hop back, where the spent hops are removed. It is then cooled in a heat exchanger and pumped to the fermentation vat, where the yeast is added and the sugars are converted into alcohol. A rich creamy head forms in the vat and a sharp smell pervades the fermentation room, as carbon dioxide is released. Sticking your head over a fermentation vat is a quick way to clear blocked sinuses.

Several days later, when fermentation is complete, the beer is poured into the casks, and there is one more unlikely additive. Isinglass, made from fish bladders, is used to settle out any sediment. Each brew produces 18 barrels.

James savours every stage of the process. He enjoys the rich aroma of malt during mashing, and as he peers into the seething mixture of liquor and steam in the copper vat he laughs with the sheer pleasure of seeing the process go well: “It’s a cracker, a cracker.”

“It’s my new girlfriend”

James’s enthusiasm for everything in the brewery is infectious. He clearly has a love for all the old machinery. When he first took over, the barley mill was in a sorry state. “The millwright told me that it was 100 years old and if I let him fix it, it’d last another hundred. I told him to get on and do it.” He did, and it works beautifully. But the equally ancient boiler had to go, and now he’s in love with its modern replacement: “It’s marvellous – my new girlfriend, my new mistress.”

But the past is never far away. In his office, James brings out old leather-bound ledgers, which recorded every single brew, from the very first of 27 May 1865. He talks about the running of the brewery, emphasising that everything depends on teamwork, experience and versatility. For example, Roger, the drayman, doubles up by helping manager Val with the admin.

There is one other element in the equation, which is absolutely essential to the brewery’s continuing success: the 15 pubs that they own and lease out. James is as passionate about them as about everything else: “The pub is the heart of the village community. It’s vital,” he says. His recipe for keeping the pubs going is, as you would expect, to keep to traditional values such as good beer, good food, a roaring fire in winter, and no canned music. And the tradition looks likely to continue – one of his sons is already being trained to take over when James is ready to retire. He doesn’t look like a man who’s in a hurry to quit what he regards as the best job in the world.

SIX OF THE BEST

Donnington is just one of many fine independent British breweries:

Donnington brewery
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
01451 830603

Harveys
Lewes, Sussex
01273 480209

Hook Norton brewery
Hook Norton, Banbury, Oxfordshire
01608 737210

Black Sheep Brewery
Masham, North Yorkshire
01765 689227

BUTCOMBE BREWERY
WRINGTON, Somerset
01934 863963

Wickwar Brewing Company
Wickwar, Gloucestershire
01454 299592
 

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THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 33 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!