When I close my eyes and attempt to recall a childhood memory of Llandudno, at the top of the Welsh northern shore, I think of a palm tree decked promenade, and tall, terraced buildings painted in various pale and pastel shades. Ahead of me stretches the wide bay, where the ocean disappears over the horizon to where it meets the Irish Sea. Either side of me are rolling cliffs, and the breeze on my face is warm and gentle.
I’ve always considered Llandudno as a tourist spot; a gateway to Snowdonia National Park, which is just a few miles down the road. It’s not a place I’ve thought of visiting as an adult because, in all honesty, where I travel is typically dictated by the beer coming from that particular destination, and I’ve not considered this small, Welsh seaside resort as a beer town.
That was until a couple of years ago when I tasted Nokota, a session IPA from Wild Horse Brewing, a brewery based right here, by the Welsh seaside. Named for a breed of wild horse (see what they did there) native to North Dakota, this pale and hoppy beer rasped at my palate with bright citrus; lemon, lime and a little grapefruit. The tiniest touch of biscuity malt made an appearance for the briefest of moments, before it panned out to a dry finish. The pint was, one, two, three gulps and almost gone as the thought of a second entered my mind before the last sips were finally swallowed. This was world class beer, and I was excited to learn more about this brewery.
“The seed of the idea to start a brewery came in around 2013, when Emma (my wife and our financial director) and I lived in Canada,” Wild Horse co-founder Dave Faragher tells me. “An inspirational tour of Wild Rose Brewery when we arrived in Calgary in 2010
led on to a pretty serious homebrewing hobby and eventually the decision to go pro by opening our own brewery.”
Previously working in IT, Dave goes on to tell me how he felt he was missing a creative outlet in his life, and that after he came to fall in love with craft beer, things began to align. He and Emma established Wild Horse in the spring of 2015, with their focus on building a business not unlike what they had encountered at Calgary’s Wild Rose: one that focussed deeply on its regionality, and brewed beer that locals could enjoy and appreciate. You can see this attitude reflected in a couple of Wild Horse’s seasonal brews, such as the aptly named No Vacancies pilsner, brewed in the summer (referring to the Llandudno’s reputation as a tourist hotspot). This is followed up by a red ale called Off Season once autumn rears its wet and windy head.
It’s fair to say that from its launch, Wild Horse hit the ground running, and much of this is thanks to the appointment of its head brewer, Chris Wilkinson, who manages a team of four production staff. Chris tells me how the key focus when brewing is on “balance and drinkability” which he’s incorporated into a number of styles, from hazy pale ales and IPAs, to red ales, lagers and even Baltic porters.
“Our beer is modern in approach, mostly hazy and hop forward, underpinned by some more classic influences, particularly traditional British session beer,” Chris says. “Influences can come from anywhere; I spend a lot of time reading about beer, researching techniques and looking for clues as to what others are doing, then playing around with the bits that sound interesting to see what fits.”
While the brewery does occasionally indulge in the odd special release, somewhat unusually for a younger British brewery, its primary focus is on a concise, regularly available core range. Nokota session IPA is one of these beers, and another is Buckskin, a crisp and snappy lager that’s easy drinking, but still retains Wild Horse’s house character, which Chris describes to me as being “a little drier, with a little more bitterness than most.” It’s a quality that I, for one, certainly appreciate.
In terms of the rest of the range, I’ve always been particularly fond of Off Season, such is my propensity towards red ales. While it has plenty of bold orange marmalade character, this is balanced with some chewy, toffee-like flavour from the malt and a touch of white pepper spice in the finish—this is that balance and drinkability Chris was talking about earlier.
When tasting through the rest of the current range I found myself particularly drawn to a couple of recent collaborations. Pedalling Squares, brewed alongside Lancashire’s Rivington Brew Co., is a Baltic porter packed with notes of liquorice, dark chocolate and roasted coffee, and yet still retaining that satisfying dryness in the finish, keeping it all in check. My absolute favourite, however, was a hazy, juicy Double IPA called Boardwalk, brewed in collaboration with Black Cloak brewing from nearby Colwyn Bay. This had all the apricot and peach character that makes beer of this style such a delight when they’re done right, but again had a precise dry finish, and just a touch more bitterness than you might expect in a modern DIPA. It really works; this is a beer I’d happily come back to again and again.
I’m not the only beer writer enamoured with the work of Wild Horse either. My friend and peer Adrian Tierney-Jones originally hails from Llandudno himself, and is delighted to see a brewery of such calibre establish itself in his hometown. In fact after speaking to Dave, Chris and Adrian, it feels like it’s high time I headed back to the Welsh coast, and take home a few more memorable experiences when I do so.
“Every time I return to my hometown it gives me such a thrill to see how Wild Horse has become such a vital part of a thriving beer scene that was non-existent when I first started visiting local pubs,” Adrian tells me. “There is very much a case of we do like to be beside the seaside, especially as I down a fresh pint of Buckskin at Tapps, a bar just a couple of doors away from where a great-grandfather used to live.”
Words and Photographs - Matthew Curtis