ALE August/September 1996 No. 285

Company Profile No. 6 - Elgoods

The 1996 Good Beer Guide lists over 300 commercial breweries (i.e. not counting brew-pubs), yet only one of these is in Cambridgeshire. Since the closure of Paines of St.Neots in 1988, Elgoods North Brink Brewery in Wisbech has flown the flag alone.

The Brewery was established in 1795 and the spendid Georgian buildings still stand on the banks of the Nene. Elgoods is very much a traditional family brewery: the current Chairman, Nigel Elgood, has three daughters, all of whom are involved in the business. The tied estate comprises 48 pubs, all within 30 miles of Wisbech and many the kind of rural gem bigger players would have closed years ago.

Cambridge CAMRA recently had the pleasure of touring the historic brewery. We were fortunate to be shown round by Alan Pateman who took over as Head Brewer from the legendary Sir Henry Holder a few years back. Alan has made strides both in improving the standard beers and introducing interesting seasonal ales.

Highlight of the brewery tour was seeing the unusual large flat copper coolers into which the beer is run after being boiled in the copper. Only a very few other brewers (Hook Norton being one) still use this method.

Elgoods' biggest-selling cask beer is Cambridge Bitter (3.8% ABV), an ale which is sadly difficult to find in Cambridge. It is a well-balanced, fruity brew which, like all Elgoods ales, is not over-hopped. The Greyhound Stong Bitter (5.2%) is actually the same basic brew; the beers are "party-gyled", i.e. the brew is watered down to different levels to produce different beers. This is common practice - Courage do the same with Directors, Best and Bitter Ale.

The seasonal brews include the delicious Black Dog Mild (Spring), Barleymead (Autumn), North Brink Porter (Winter) and Wenceslas Winter Warmer (Christmas). Pageant Ale (4.3%) was also seasonal but is currently being brewed year-round. It is an excellent, malty best bitter.

The Brewery logo is a black dog named after Back Shuck, the hound of Odin, which for centuries has been said to stalk the bleak Cambridgeshire fens and washlands. It is reputed to be the size of a calf and black as sin. There are many reported sightings, the most recent being in 1988 at Parson Drove near Wisbech. Anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the beast prowling the fens will be dead within the year.

On our visit the finishing touches were being put to a new beer. Golden Newt (4.6%), robust and light-coloured in the style currently fashionable. Most of these seasonal beers are actually produced in a mini-brewery within the brewery itself.

All but one of the Elgoods pubs sell real ale and the remaining keg-only outlet is likely to be converted soon. Elgoods have in the past been guilty of serving keg beers on false handpumps but that practice now seems to have stopped.

The nearest pubs to Cambridge are in March. Wisbech itself has a fine selection and there are three in Peterborough. The bigger pubs usually sell a guest ale as well as Elgoods own.

Regular outlets for Cambridge Bitter in our area are the Crown and Punchbowl in Horningsea and The Kings at Reach. The Cow and Calf off Castle Hill also often features Elgoods ales and they crop up from time to time in other free houses. They're well worth looking out for.

Elgoods have recently been looking to develop the tourist potential of their historic site. A new visitor centre is currently under construction and this will form the base for tours of both the brewery and gardens. These extend to over four acres and are quite delightful - the fact that spent grains from the mash tun are used so much no doubt helps the plants to flourish.

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