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Father Larry's Lenten brew

Robinson's Old Tom a fine beer for wintry worship

Though I observe no religion, I could be persuaded of the requirement for a robust brew to sustain body and soul through Lent. It is in Roman Catholic Munich, ever ready to exalt its five famous breweries, that a strong (7.5 per cent), dark, lager called Salvator ("Saviour") is ritually consumed during this season.

Which city in Britain can match Munich? The Manchester metro area has more breweries than any other city in this country: not only the heavily-advertised Boddington's but also (renowned among connoisseurs but civically uncelebrated) Holt's, Hydes', John Willie Lees and Robinson's (the last being in the satellite town of Stockport).

Robinson Brewery

The Robinson Brewery in Stockport.

Does it have a beer suitable for wintry worship? I notice that a Lutheran Priest, Father Larry David McCormick, was one of the judges when Robinson's Old Tom was recently declared Champion Winter Beer of Britain by the Campaign for Real Ale. Father McCormick, Professor of New Testament Studies at Fordham University, New York, is a well known devotee of fine beers, and flew in for the occasion.

Old Tom could be a sacramental beer for cat-worshippers. Many breweries employ a cat to keep intruders from their malt barn, and it seems to have been a male holder of this office that inspired the name Old Tom. Whoever he was, his potency echoes through the ages. The Robinson family trace their history in the Stockport area of what is now Greater Manchester to 1594. In 1838, Frederic Robinson (no one knows what happened to the "k"), bought a pub with its own brewery, in Stockport's town-centre. When the brewery first made Old Tom is not known, but sketches of the cat appear in its archives as early as 1899, and his image from the early decades of this century can be seen in the guest bar.

In the early years, Tom seemed to have an indistinct, sandy, colour, long hair and a wild look. A 1960s painting, framed and on display, gives him a smarter stripe and a conspiratorial wink that he proffers to this day. He would be saddened to know that the brewery no longer retains a full-time cat, and relies on local freelances. It still employs two horses, and surely should maintain a feline smile, especially since the town lost its last hatter three or four years ago (the production of toppers and Derbies having been a local industry).

The present brewery, on the original site, was built in the 1920s with the cathedral splendour of a cotton mill. Lincolnshire barley, malted in Yorkshire, is raised in sacks in what looks like a passenger lift to the top of the tower. The grains pass through a mill bought secondhand when the brewery was built, then filter by gravity toward the processes of infusion, brewing, fermentation and maturation, each on a different floor. These stages proceed in copper and steel vessels worthy of Jacques Cousteau, with hatches raised by chains and balanced by counterweights. The iron stairways, with smartly painted handrails, are fit for an ocean liner. This style of brewery is not unique, but Robinson's is a lofty example.

As the grist leaves the mill, it meets Cheshire water from wells beneath the brewery. In the pump-room, an 1889 framed diagram about 5ft high illustrates a "Statigraphical Section" of the bore-hole's progress through 12 layers of marly gravel, permian marl, and sandstone (red, grey and soft). Despite all of these influences, I have never been to a brewery that juggles with the natural salts in its waters quite as determinedly as Robinson's. Each of its principal beers uses a slightly different water.

Another element of the Robinson's flavour is the loyalty to the blossoms of the hop vine, rather than the pelletized version, or jam-like extract, use by some bigger brewers. More unusual, just one variety of hop, the Golding, is used. This prized variety imparts, to my palate, an earthy, oily, lemony, freshness.

Chris Wellin

Head Brewer Chris Hellin inspects the house yeast.

Brewer Chris Hellin has a particular fondness for Goldings grown in the Teme Valley of Worcestershire, but also likes to have a complex of accents within this variety. In the brewery's hop store, the tall sacks (known as "pockets") filled with pressed blossoms are stencilled with legends such as Half Hide Farm, Castle Frome, Herefordshire; East Worldham Farm, Hampshire; and Rickard Farm, Chilham, Kent.

The final touch is introduced by a yeast believed to have been imported from Yorkshire decades ago. Without yeast, there would be no fermentation to turn the malty sweetness and hoppy dryness into an alcoholic beer, but the magic micro-organism also adds fruit-like and spicy flavours. The higher the alcohol, the fruitier and spicier these flavours become.

The regular Mild and Bitter from Robinson's have a crisply refreshing tinge of sweet apple in the finish. The more soothing Best Bitter has the faintest hint of banana. Old Tom, at a hefty 8.5 per cent alcohol by volume, has not only the colour of cherry brandy but also the taste, along with a nutty, chocolatey, spicy, smoky, richness. In the brewery's own local pubs, it is normally served only by the half. Farther from such knowing territory, a publican in a genteel West Country resort towb complained that, after a pint or two, customers were having difficulty in remaining upright. Now, it is available in Safeway, and the whole nation is at risk...especially with Lent under way.

Published Online: MAR 8, 2000
Published in Print: FEB 19, 2000
In: The Independent

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