Briarbank – Ipswich's not-so-hidden gem
- Credit: Gavin King Photography
Have you ever rounded the edge of Fore Street and Salthouse Street on Ipswich’s one-way system and thought to yourself...what is that place?
I’m referring to the glass-fronted corner spot, where all manner of contraptions and pipes gleam through the windows.
Housed within, in what was many years ago a Lloyds Bank, is Briarbank Brewing Company – operated by the same family behind Isaacs. And it is, I have to say, a little gem.
This weekend the microbrewery celebrates nine years in business, with live music, food, and even a special birthday beer – a malty almost tropical-tasting double IPA coming in at a whopping 9% ABV.
And celebrate the team should. During nearly a decade Briarbank has notched up some top awards for its creations. Most recently these include a Gold at the SIBA National Independent Beer Awards for its Mocha Porter, and SIBA Regional Keg Independent Beer Awards for its Suffolk Haze, Black Horse Stout, and Mocha Porter.
The man behind it all his head (only) brewer Rob Lewis-Pyke, who gave my friends and I a tour of Briarbank last week.
Anyone can book a tour and tasting session (£10) via the website, experiencing first-hand the passion Rob has for his vocation, because truly, for him it is not a job.
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During our visit, Rob told us how he came to be at the brewery. “I was brewing at home in the shed – for bragging rights really,” he laughed. “I was looking to sell my beer locally and was in the process of getting registered when I saw they were after a head brewer here. I came down...and got the job!”
The rest, as they say, is history. After a couple of years honing his skills with a consulting brewer, Rob was left to command the ship on his own. His first creation? Insanity Claus – a Belgian-style Christmas beer. Followed by a German weissbeer. In total, Rob has made around 40 different beers...and says he revels in experiment with lots of different styles.
It’s standing room only in the microbrewery, where Rob explained that each of the four fermenters holds 700 English pints, and around 12 beers are available on cask and keg from the brewery tap room at any one time.
Surely this place has one of the shortest brew to cellar distances in Suffolk? Once tapped off, each barrel is simply rolled a few metres to its final resting place. You can’t get fresher than that can you?
We listened as Rob walked us through the beer-making process, which starts by creating a hot liquor and adding malted barley from Crisps or Muntons (he uses a paddle to mix, gifted from a former winner of the business’s Home Brewer of the Year competition).
Crytal, pale or roasted malt is used, and we were all surprised to learn just the tiniest deviation from a recipe can change the end result. “But that can just mean we end up with a new, exciting beer,” Rob added. Apparently the newly-crowned award-winner Suffolk Haze was, for example, an accidental brew.
Once malted, the wort is drawn off and ends up in the boiler for about an hour, with hops added for varying durations depending on the level of flavour/bitterness the beer requires.
At this point Rob pulled out tubs of hops. “Phwoar that’s amazing,” said my pal Joel as he directed his nose into a pot of Mosaic – an ever-popular hop used increasingly in craft brewing for its fruity, tropical notes. It was almost sweet. Thick with the scent of passionfruit and mango.
The final stage of the process is a spell in the fermenters, where sugar/pressure levels are checked, and the beers taken down to as close to 0C as possible.
All senses piqued, and it was time to head upstairs to the tap room, where tours usually include tasters of three brews.
A lovely pub it is too, with barrel theming, comfy leather upholstery – and loads of boardgames – a great place to while away a few hours. There’s a covered outdoor area. And food is available as well. We sampled the burgers and loaded fries which were so amply portioned we easily could have shared!
Perpendicular, 4.4%: This one’s an English Golden Ale, made with hops including Jester, and crystal malt, for a smooth, almost caramelly, almost sweet finish. It's a real easy drinker, and a good ale for those who aren’t keen on traditional bitters. A must-have with fish and chips.
Samuel Harvey, 4%: A Session IPA made with Citra, Equinox and Amarillo Hops. This one has an almost honied aroma, and a light, citrussy tang. It’s one of Rob’s favourite drinks in the core range – and has an interesting tale to tell. It’s named after the great uncle of the operations director, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. Since its creation various folk have got in touch to say they are also his descendants...and the person who has his medals in Australia dropped the brewery a line, with plans for them to bring them back to Suffolk.
Cobnut, 4.2%: This is, said Rob, Briarbank’s homage to Tolly Cobbold’s Tolly Cobnut beer, and according to those who’ve tried both, is as close as you can get. It’s a Brown Ale, made with English hops, and has a bold coffee/nutty scent, and wholesome flavour with just a touch of bitterness.
Grapefruit IPA, 4.5%: The top seller. You might have tried it at Isaacs. The keg beer is an IPA brewed with Simcoe and Citra hops, with 200ml of cold-pressed grapefruit juice in every batch, giving a beautiful bright finish to the scent and flavour. It’s oh-so refreshing and just the ticket alongside a curry or any spicy food.
Mocha Porter, 4.5%: It’s easy to see why this one’s an award-winner. It literally smells of chocolate brownie on the nose – that's thanks to the cocoa nibs and coffee used in the brewing process. Richness comes from using roasted malt, and Magnum and East Kent Golding hops lend bitterness. I’ll be using this to make chocolate cakes – and for drinking on the side.
Something Witty, 4.8%: A classy German-style Weissbeer brewed with orange peel and coriander seeds, plus fresh yeast for those characteristic floral notes. In the tap room they like to serve it with a slice of orange as a garnish to echo the Mandarina Bavaria hops.
Suffolk Haze, 5%: If you’ve never tried an NEPA (New England Pale Ale) before you’re in for a treat. This one (created when they ran out of mango puree for the Mango NEPA) isn’t quite as juicy (or sickly) as some, but rather has a thread of tropical fruit running through it, eased in by the Galaxy and Sabro hops. You’ll get guava, passionfruit and mango. Some can even detect coconut.
Briarbank’s tap room is open from 5pm to 11pm Wednesday and Thursday, from midday to midnight Friday and Saturday, and from midday to 11pm on Sunday.
Go to briarbank.org to order bottles or mini kegs, or to book a tour and tasting. The site also details upcoming events, with Rob planning several tap takeovers in the summer.