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Saintly Sam brews peach of a wild ale

A ghost brewery - one of the most historically interesting in Britain - is coming back to life. The brewery, which has been known as All Saints or Melbourn, is in Stamford, Lincolnshire.

Stamford itself has Roman, Saxon, Danish and Norman history, and was a prosperous wool town in medieval times, a period of Flemish influence in Eastern England. Wool and beer surely went together.

The brewery site in Stamford, near All Saints' Church, probably dates back at least to that era. One of the buildings was an ale house in the 1600s, and some of the structure seems to be very old.

The clearly recorded history of the enterprise begins with a brewery established in 1825 by William Brown Edwards. After a couple of changes of ownership, the business was bought in 1869 by Herbert Wells Melbourn.

In the century that followed, three other Stamford breweries closed, and Melbourn seemed set to follow until it was rescued by the Earl of Gainsborough and his son-in- law Lord Liverpool. They soldiered on until 1974, when the brewery's equipment, especially its boiler, was deemed dangerous.

Samuel Smith's brewery, of Tadcaster, Yorkshire, for a time supplied Melbourn's 30 pubs altough this arrangement came to an end, Smith's continued to look after the brewery. Smith's, whose own brewing site is more than 200 years old, was fascinated by the history of Melbourn.

The steam-driven brewery, with its open kettle, was turned into a museum. Even a pile of coal was left in place.

The steam-driven brewery, with its open kettle, was turned into a museum. Even a pile of coal was left in place.

I have always been fascinated by Samuel Smith's, it having been one of the first beers I drank regularly, as a 16-year-old newspaper reporter in the Leeds area in he 1950s.

Two decade later I prominently featured Smith's products in my book The World Guide to Beer. The Yorkshire tone Square brews were shown together with the Lambics of Belgium and wheat beers of Bavaria as examples of regional specialities.

My book was read by a wine salesman in Seattle, Charles Finkel, who decided that his company, grapily set up as Merchant Du Vin, should become an importer of such speciality beers. It was thus that some of Smith's classic brews found themselves in the same US house as various Lambics and wheat beers. Since then, various principals and brewers in different countries have exchanged knowledge about each others' specialities.

Three years ago, I was told by Samuel Smith's that they were conducting experiments at Stamford. I asked if might visit the brewery, and was given a tour.

The brewhouse was still unfit to use, but wort produced at Samuel Smith's in Tadcaster was being inoculated with Lambic beer from De Troch, of Belgium, and fermented at Melbourn. The grist comprised one third wheat. Attempts to use raw wheat in the Samuel Smith mash tun had proved difficult, so a malted version was employed.

The brew was heavily dosed with aged hops, in the Lambic fashion. The wort was made from an original gravity of 1048. Oak chips were placed in the fermenters to mimic the habitat of a Lambic foudre and provide protective tannins.

An old building like Melbourn would make an ideal habitat for the wild yeasts and microflora that create the Lambic character. Indeed, such a use would take the fullest advantage of the brewery's antiquity.

Seeing the open cooling vessel (what the Flemings call a koelschip), in a louvred room, I wondered whether - by accident or design - the brewery had in its past hosted spontaneous fermentations. I have often wondered this in older breweries, especiall where the East of England faces the flatlands of Flanders.

The idea behind the visit to Stamford was that I might at an appropriate moment wish to write something about the new Melbourn beers. It would have been topical when the TV adaptation of George Eliot's Middlemarch, filmed in Stamford, was being shown, but that was not to be.

The moment was constantly postponed as the restoration of the brewery has taken longer than expected. At the time of my first visit, I had been close to completing my book Michael Jackson's Beer Companion. Imagining that the beer would be out before the book, I made an oblique reference to the experiments in the introduction to the Lambic chapter. Since then, Ted Bruning, of What's Brewing, made a visit, but was unable to take the story much further.

In the meantime, four or five brews have been made at Samuel Smith's and fermented at Melbourn. The sequence of cedar fermenters was lined with copper when the work began, but this was wearing so thin that it has been replaced with plastic.

The inoculation has extended to the spraying of Belgian Lambic beers, at various stages of fermentation, around the room containing the open cooler. They were also sprayed into the cooler, over oak chips, which were left for a day or two.

The copper cooler has been replaced by a larger one, of the same design. The 60-barrel brewhouse is being restored, and may be working by the end of this year. Like the one in Tadcaster, it is not suited to the elaborate system of mashing the Belgian brewers use with their raw wheat, but that is not the point.

The restoration of this tiny, scarcely economic, brewery to working condition, steam engine and all, is an astonishing gesture.

SamueI Smith's has never said Melbourn will produce a Lambic beer - which is, after all, the speciality of another country and region.

SamueI Smith's has never said Melbourn will produce a Lambic beer - which is, after all, the speciality of another country and region. Indeed, Samuel Smith's as said very little, and it stresses that the Melbourn brewery is being restored as a separate entity.

When there is enough genuinely spontaneous beer to age for long periods and blend, we may see it on the market, though under its own steam, not as a Samuel Smith's product. For the moment, a small quantity of the early versions has been released in the United States, under the Melbourn label.

Smith's, which deserves credit for its own survival as an independent brewery sandwiched between two national giants, for having preserved its stone squares - and for helping make Nut Brown Ale and Imperial Stout chic from Baltimore to Seattle - and perhaps in the future among the backward-baseball-hats of Britain - has over the years exhibited the best and worst of Yorkshire stubbornness, especially in the department of saying nowt.

I am left speculating over why the beer has been released first in the US. Two possible reasons: it is inevitably expensive, and American beer-lovers are not only, in general, more prosperous but also more willing to pay for something special. They are also more open-minded -and are regularly presented with more unusual beers.

The beers that have been sent there have been lightly flavoured with fruit juices and pasteurised. Three years ago, I tasted some thinnish but credibly Lambic-like test hottlings called All Saints. More recently, I sampled the two being marketed in America under the Melbourn label as beer "with fruit juice added." Again, they had a definite Belgian character.

A strawberry beer, pinkish bronze, was very fruity, smooth and rounded with a softly acidic finish. An apricot version was bright gold, bigger-bodied with a chewy fruitiness and lemon-curd flavours in the finish. Both were beautifully balanced and refreshing.

Samuel Smith's deserves credit, but is maintaining a distance. "These are not Samuel Smith's beers," I was told, they are Melbourn products.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

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