Women 'ale-wives' brew beer for Adnams

Centuries back ale wives would do their share of the brewing - so who better to turn to for Adnams' special new anniversary beer than a group of women?

Centuries back ale wives would do their share of the brewing - so who better to turn to for Adnams' special new anniversary beer than a group of women? Among them was KAREN HINDLE who reveals how they fared.

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Five hundred years ago William Godell left land to his home town to do with what it would. In time a brewery was built and became the successful enterprise we know today as Adnams.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the gift, the Southwold company invited a bunch of women to make beer - including me!

The invitation had come on the back of research by Adnams' head of corporate affairs, Emma Hibbert. She had been looking into the story of the town's 16th century benefactor, who had bequeathed land to Southwold in his will.

The land was for the town to use, sell or build on as it saw fit, and today it means that the good people of Southwold pay rather less for their public amenities than most other townsfolk.

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During her research, Emma discovered a recipe for a beer which was made by ale wives rather than the men who usually worked in the brewery.

Never needing too much of an excuse to take control, the call went out to bring a group of women together to see if they could brew the beer to the same recipe used 500 years ago.

So here we are, mostly women from Adnams' head office, myself and Orford King's Head landlady Susan Searing, making Godell's Anniversary Beer.

Now, every beer has its secret ingredient and this one was no exception. According to the recipe, a dead crow was vital - it was with some sadness that I discovered we would not be adding any such carcass!

I remember making cider many years ago with friends and we all picked an item to go in the concoction, each of us trying to outdo the rest. Needless to say none of us would drink it once it was ready. The ratio of apples to dead animals was weighted in entirely the wrong direction.

That will certainly not be the case with this golden anniversary ale of around 4.5 percent. In beer terms that is pretty strong (Adnams Broadside is 4.7 percent). And just imagine, when this was first brewed by those ale wives, who would have been mothers as well, ale was drunk by adult and child alike because water quality was so poor.

On the day we six meet, brewing quality control manager Belinda Jennings is in charge. She is currently studying for her Masters degree to become a master brewer, having already completed a degree in the art.

Having spent nine years at Greene King before moving to Southwold, Belinda is a worthy custodian of the state-of-the-art brew-house.

Where once the ale wives would have jumped into the mash tun to clean it all out with a broom, removing all the watery grain, we had to content ourselves with watching through a small port hole while the container cleaned itself.

But is a heavily mechanised and computerised system, making it highly efficient, both financially and environmentally (it takes 3.2 pints of water to make pint of Adnams' beer compared to the industry standard of eight pints).

So with no ceremonial dead crow to throw into the vat, I was nominated to press the start button. Sounds easy enough but could I see Start? No, and neither could our head brewer for the day. Eventually - and several clicks of the keyboard later - it became apparent and we were away.

In the next room we started to hear the grain on the move, heading through the mill and into the mash tun where water would be added to create the mash, and the starch from the grain turned into sugars on which the yeast would feed later.

With a little bit of weighing and measuring of hops and a variety of chemicals we managed to cover home economics, science and environment to make this a truly cross-curricular activity.

Then came the installation of the mushroom, or plug. 'Get this wrong,' said Belinda, 'and all the beer will go down the drain.'

In these days of health and safety we were not allowed to get into the vessel which would house our 90 barrels of beer (around 25,920 pints), but we did still have to get that plug in.

The genius solution is to use a 20ft pole on the end of which the mushroom is hooked and aimed for the very small hole at the bottom left-hand corner and hope the mushroom does not let itself off the hook. Our nominee for this task, Belinda, proved a natural and soon the vessel was filling up and none of the wort (the liquid which has been drained off from the grain and which will go into the fermenting vessel with the hops) poured down the drain.

Once yeast had been added to the wort, the day's work was pretty much done. All that remained to do was to wait - and eat chocolate biscuits and talk about handbags (we are women after all!)

The final job came a week later when the beer was racked off, which means it is put into barrels and some is bottled to go off to Adnams' licensed premises and its retail outlets.

Cheers all!