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Castle Rock Brewery Turns Forty

29 May 17 interview: Jared Wilson

Nottingham's legendary Castle Rock Brewery (formerly Tynemill) celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. We chatted to Managing Director Colin Wilde, and Head of Marketing, Lewis Townsend, about the great local institution – including their pubs and all their beer-related antics – as well as what they’ve got planned in the way of bothday celebrations...

How did Castle Rock first start out?
Colin: Our company founder, Chris Holmes, opened our first pub, The Old Kings Arms, in Newark in 1977. The early days were difficult, but he was passionate about beer and wanted to be real-ale focused. He was an early member of the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) and wanted to offer people choice, and to make sure the beer was looked after properly.

Simply put, he wanted to open a pub that he wanted to drink in. He put great care and attention into cellar work, and that built Castle Rock’s reputation from the early stages; that’s still fundamental to what we do now.  

How long have you been brewing your own beer for?
Colin: That began twenty years later, in 1997. We brought with us a lot of lessons from the retail side which was handy, as when you set up a brewery you don’t always understand what the customer wants. If you run a pub, you do. Our biggest challenge back then was convincing people to try cask ale in what was a heavily advertised lager trade. But movements like CAMRA have changed people’s expectations of pubs and beer.

Lewis: We’re lucky with Nottingham CAMRA, particularly, because they’re generally an incredibly open bunch and have been very supportive over the years. It’s a really active branch, and as long as it’s good beer, they’ll work to promote you. There are other branches around the country that aren’t as good as what we have here.

You see that partnership between Castle Rock and CAMRA at its best at the Nottingham Beer Festival...
Lewis: Yes, there’s something really special about the Robin Hood Beer Festival. Nottingham Castle is an iconic venue; it’s almost like a little village. It’s a euphoric celebration of beer, sells out very quickly, and there’s never any trouble. There’s also 1300-odd different beers there, which is an immense choice for any festival. In terms of real ale, there’s nowhere else like it.

Colin: These days, it's probably one of the best beer festivals in the world. But it's taken time to build that up. The festival first moved to Nottingham Castle because we were doing the bars there for outdoor theatre events. I was aware CAMRA were looking for a new location because the council wanted to shut down the swimming baths it was being held in. I had a conversation with the Castle manager and put them in touch.

Craft beer is a big thing now. Are the Traffic Street Specials taking a bigger share of market for you?
Lewis: TSS has been a great way for us to see what is possible. From a Castle Rock point of view, I‘ve worked with the brewers to develop a new range of beers that are more in line with what some people are calling craft beers. As a huge fan of the explosion of really interesting beers we’ve seen over the past few years, it was vital we did everything we could to get it right.

Harvest Pale is the ultimate session beer. I presume it’s still the biggest seller you have?
Colin: Yes. We brew around 2.5million pints of it every year and it accounts for 70% of our brewery production. It was first made in 2003 with American hops, which was fairly revolutionary at that time. It was initially launched to celebrate the opening of the new tram service, and was originally called Trammie Dodger. Over the next few years it won a few local and national awards, then in 2010 was crowned the Supreme Champion Beer of Britain.

How far does it get distributed?
Lewis: It's distributed nationally, but it sometimes goes further than that through suppliers. We’ve heard stories of it getting to Europe and America.

How much of the brewing process is automated these days?
Lewis: Brewing is still pretty hands on; at Castle Rock, at least. There is a control panel which is kind of the epicentre of the process in terms of moving the beer and heating it, but it still requires the senses of the brewer and a great deal of graft.

What makes a good beer?
Lewis:
Good beer, like good music, really blurs the lines between objective and subjective. It’s such a personal thing. Obviously good beer is well put together, considered, flavourful and consistent, and uses good ingredients. But for me, a good beer is something that does the style justice. I want a traditional bitter to be balanced, malty, with the hops coming through delicately. I don’t necessarily want a double IPA to be as balanced, you want a good malt backbone of course but they’re largely about showcasing that really fresh, juicy-hop character. So really, it depends on the style.

You've also won Pub Group of the Year numerous times...
Colin: We're incredibly proud every time we take on a new venue, especially if it wasn’t a pub before and we’ve created something totally new in an area. The Embankment was our most ambitious creative project recently and it’s got a bit of everything. There's also a secret to picking the right staff to work together and run places. You can't get it right every time, but we have a pretty strong track record.

Tell us a bit about the Nottinghamian beers you do…
Colin: We work on them with a chap called Graham Percy, who used to have a show on Radio Nottingham. The brief is about celebrating Nottingham people, about half of which are famous and the other half are unsung heroes. We've done Alan Sillitoe, Brian Clough and Stuart Broad, but we’ve also done Jenny Farr, who has been campaigning for the NSPCC for years, and Hilary Silvester, who’s the chair of Nottingham Civic Society.

It’s nice to be able to celebrate those people and get their names out in our pubs. We've just done one with Henry Normal, who founded the Nottingham Poetry Festival, co-wrote The Royle Family and produced Gavin and Stacey.

What other local brews in Nottingham do you enjoy?
Lewis: Abstract Jungle and Black Iris put out some really solid, well-made beers. Those two and Totally Brewed are the guest beers that fly out of our pubs. People love what they’re doing.

Colin: Totally Brewed have been spectacular with a heavy use of hops and strong branding.

We’re proud to be involved in a vibrant brewing scene and, although we make our own beers, it's important that we also support local breweries. Our pubs were successful because we stocked a variety of beers and we’ll always do that. Ultimately, our consumers decide what they want to drink.

Tell us about your fortieth birthday celebrations…
Lewis: We're having a weekend-long yard party at our brewery, which is next to The Vat and Fiddle. We’ve got over forty cask beers, and forty keg beers, alongside street food, local bands, brewery tours and more. It's the most ambitious event we've ever done and hopefully not just a celebration of Castle Rock, but also of our local community. The beer list has been posted on Facebook now, and it’s really shaping up.

Colin: It's something we trialled back in early January by shutting all of our pubs for a day and getting all of our staff together for a one-day event. We had a great time together back then and, now we're opening it up to the public, everyone can come and celebrate with us, too.

Castle Rock 40th Birthday Yard Party, Wednesday 31 May - Saturday 3 June, Queensbridge Road, NG2 1NB.

Castle Rock website

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