Three years ago I spent a week on holiday in North Norfolk and discovered a beer called Oak (3.8%) by the Grain Brewery.
I was drawn to it by its pump clip, a beautiful slice of wood with the brewery’s logo and the beer’s name burned into it.
It was a good beer too and when I returned to Norfolk earlier this year and found the same beer in the same pub I was delighted to find it was as good as I remembered, a refreshing, light and citrus tinged beer that became my pint of choice during the holiday.
And then via Twitter I got talking to Phil the Head Brewer and one half of the company that is Grain and it was decided that I should go and visit.
I was rather excited by the prospect as Norwich is one of the few cities in the country that I’d so far never been to and so I was as eager to explore as I was to meet with the brewery.
I was met at Diss station on a warm sunny afternoon by Phil who’d gone to the trouble of writing a card that read, “Grain Welcomes CAMRGB” and sticking it in the window of his car and we set off for the brewery via a quick beer delivery to a pub on the way.
Phil, whose background is in publishing, started Grain in 2006 with his friend and business partner Geoff who had previously been working for Adnams in their marketing department.
The two of them, via mortgages and loans, bought some brewing equipment and found a beautiful cattle shed in the Waveney valley to stick it in.
Since then they’ve been slowly but surely making a name for themselves locally, and recently reaching slightly further afield with sojourns into London and a Bronze medal for their Tamarind IPA at the Great British Beer Festival.
The brewery itself is a beautiful building that was in need of love and attention when Grain first took it on.
They began in a single room, using malt sacks as office chairs and over the course of the last two or three years, as demand has grown, they’ve expanded into two sheds with a bigger brewing kit.
We settled down on the beaten up leather sofa with a cup of tea in the new office which has been built into the rafters of the sheds, a Scalextric track laid out on the floor in front of us, and talked about beer, people, CAMRGB, pubs and what makes Grain tick.
The feeling I got right from the off is that Grain isn’t about money.
Both Phil and Geoff have recently taken Grain into profit but what they really care about, what drives them, is having a good time and making a good product that helps other people have a good time.
I mentioned how much I liked the wooden pump clips and was shown a clip for a new beer called 316.
This time it’s a steel clip.
There’s a reason for it but I’m not telling.
We were joined by Tom who helps with some of the brewery’s marketing and after finishing our tea we jumped in the car and headed over to Norwich for a quick pint in Grain’s brew tap pub, The Plough.
Situated on St. Benedict’s Street and just over the road from the infamous Norwich Arts Centre (scene of many an NME reported gig through the years), the building is a beautiful and very old traders house.
The inside is comfortable and modern without losing any warmth, but it’s what I found out in the back garden that blew me away.
There’s a long back yard with a lovely seating plan, a garden at the end and a big barbecue area, and it was perfect for the warm early evening we found ourselves in.
Phil and I were joined by Geoff and over a pint of Grain’s Blonde Ash (4%), a light and fruity cloudy wheat beer, we talked about how the brewery sees itself within the context of its immediate environment and the larger community.
The Plough has quickly become one of the places to drink in Norwich, attracting a loyal and ever growing clientele seven days a week.
I can’t blame people for going as the atmosphere is warm and friendly, there’s no big TV noise, just the buzz of conversation and the sound of beer glasses.
After popping back to my B&B to freshen up we regrouped back at The Plough for more beer and what was the best home made 1/2 pound burger I’ve had for as long as I can remember.
We were joined by bloggers, Tweeters and CAMRGB members Nate (@Natedawg) and Jenny (@palate4hire) who was eagle-eyed enough to spot the ISS zooming overhead.
It was great to get to know them a little in real life and put faces to the tweets.
I was also introduced to the Head Brewer of new Norwich brewery, Golden Triangle who is currently working on something very black and very hoppy.
During the evening I drank Grain’s 316, a very crisp beer made with lager malts, Harvest Moon (4.5%) a nicely hopped pale ale, Tap Room Bitter (3.4%) a decent malty beer that’s drinkable but not my favourite by any means, and a half of Green Jack Brewing’s Viking (5%) as it was the guest beer for the evening and was a decent fruit rich pale ale.
The evening ended with hugs and handshakes, new friends made, new CAMRGB members gained and new plans in the offing, before I flopped on to the bed in my room and fell asleep.
Next morning after eating a cooked breakfast in the B&B’s dining room surrounded by 10 empty but fully laden tables I headed out to explore Norwich.
I had a plan, a route and an errand to run.
It was 8am, the sun was shining and it felt good to be heading out into the unknown.
I wandered downhill towards The Compleat Angler which I had initially been excited about but had rightly, given the look of it from the outside, been told not to bother visiting.
A shame that a pub named after a book that I love so much could be a sport-on-TV-jukebox-blaring type place.
I hung a right and took the Riverside Walk which skirts all around the edge of the city centre following, you won’t be surprised to know, the river.
I reached the Cow Tower and just as I was about to photograph it a cyclist pulled up and sat on the bench right in front of it.
I humphed under my breath and went round the other side.
A lovely and gentle twenty minute walk brought me to the place I had been wanting to visit.
The Window Coffee is just brilliant.
I’d heard about it and loved the idea, but nothing prepared me for the sheer fun I felt sitting in the smallest coffee shop in Europe drinking the most wonderful coffee.
The place is tiny with seating for about eight people if they all squish up together.
Supposedly there’s been seventeen in there once.
Not that any of them could move.
Hayley is an award winning barista and opened the place three years ago.
She serves the coffee and talks to the customers.
The beauty of the place is that you have to interact with other people as you have nowhere to hide.
You’re forced into each other’s space.
I chatted for the best part of an hour with Hayley and various regular customers as they came and went and then headed off, full of caffeine, to find the cathedral.
From the outside the cathedral is beautiful.
I imagine the inside is rather nice too, but at £5 entry I wasn’t going to find out and so instead I walked the streets.
Norwich is a fantastic city to wander in with old cobbled streets wending this way and that.
Eventually I arrived back at The Plough just as Geoff was heading out for a pint of milk.
I’d promised him a CAMRGB shirt and handed it over, had a quick chat, bid him farewell and headed slowly towards the station.
As my train departed I reflected on the twenty four hours I’d just spent.
I’d met yet another bunch of brewery people who are passionate about the beer they make and share lots of similar ideas with the CAMRGB ethos, I’d got to meet people I’d known electronically for twelve whole months, I’d made some new friends while squeezed together in the best coffee shop in the UK (in my humble opinion) and I’d discovered a terrific city full of life and fun and beauty.
To return to Grain, as well as their cask beers they have a small range in bottles and are looking at putting in equipment to start putting some of their beers in keg.
This is what I think of their bottles.
India Pale Ale (6.5%)
I really wanted this beer to be good and it’s not disappointed.
Up until this bottle everything I’ve had from Grain has been of a reasonably low ABV.
I discussed this with Phil while driving between brewery and pub and he mentioned his interest in trying some higher powered brews.
Judging by this IPA he really ought to go for it.
Grain’s IPA pours a rich and seductive honey orange and forms a head that collapses to a ring of bubbles.
The smell is mandarins, tarragon, caramel and brandy butter.
It’s a big bold aroma and it’s very appetising.
There’s a big fat boozy bran rich digestive biscuit wearing Weetabix lapels at the base of this beer.
It throws warm toffee at you and flicks peppercorns in your eyes.
In its pockets are shards of sharp praline and it introduces you to the hops by rubbing them into your face.
A resinous and slightly oily mandarin skin pithiness leaves orange juice, green raw hazelnuts and leafy birch bark to suck all the moisture from your tongue, making you reach for your glass beacuse you need to rehydrate and you want to feel it again.
Blonde Ash (4%)
After enjoying the cask version of this I was looking forward to opening this bottle.
Blonde Ash is a very good light Witbier with a rounder edge than a lot I’ve tried.
Pouring a little flatter that I expected, the beer is a fried banana yellow, cloudy and with barely any head.
The aroma is full of apples, apricots and just a little peach.
As you drink you get a soft banana wrapped in caramel, slightly sticky and very satisfying.
Across this there’s a lightly yeasty clean and crisp bitterness with some red apple skins, mown grass astringency and a good dry finish which is by turns floral and peppery with a final touch of fresh herbs as the beer disappears.
In the garden on a hot afternoon this beer is the business.
Pouring a deep rich amber, Redwood may be a bit of a misnomer but it’s one heck of a good beer.
The smell is toffee thick with some glacé cherry sugared sweetness and a little pine resin lurking in the background.
As much as I like Grain’s IPA, and however good their Oak is when I have it on holiday, this may well be my favourite of all their beers.
Taking a great big glug fills your head with sticky caramel toffee, its sugars’ burned bitter at the edges and speckled with roasted pine nuts that give a lovely rich meatiness.
There’s a very big autumnal red wood here too, and it’s swimming about in gloopy heather honey.
The hops are resinous and very reminiscent of those American Craft flavours that so many of us love, with a slight sherbet fizz and crunchy green leafy pith, grapefruit skin acidity and a squeeze of lemon juice over bay and lime leaves.
All of this and a sweet sticky yet seriously dry finish.
Thanks to Phil, Geoff and Tom from Grain Brewery for inviting me over and being so enthusiastic and generous with their time.
And thanks to Hayley for the marvellous coffee.