by Matthew Curtis
When I wrote my book Modern British Beer, one thing I wanted to demonstrate is how I feel regionality is closely tied into what today’s breweries are producing. There are now over 2000 breweries in the UK, the majority of which are small, and largely reliant on local trade. It’s my belief that a modern brewery should embrace this locality, in terms of both the styles of beer it produces and the flavours within them, rather than chasing some homogenous norm. Because (let’s be honest) that would be very boring.
The book is split by region, with each chapter showcasing beers and breweries I feel provide a case study in regionality—beers that express a true sense of place. However, when it came to covering Welsh beers, at the time of writing I struggled a little to find a range of breweries that sat within my own parameters, and so the chapter ended up shorter than the others, while also being merged with the beers of Northern Ireland.
The reality is that I didn’t look hard enough. There are in fact almost 120 breweries operating in Wales (according to the Welsh Beer and Pub Association), many of them with beers that are truly Cymry at their heart. They deserve just as much of your time and affection as the many breweries that exist over the border that stretches from the Severn Estuary to the Wirral Peninsula.
Welsh beer has a character of it’s very own—one that deserves its story told. And so I’ve teamed up with Trev and the gang at Pop’n’Hops in Cardiff to start telling a few more of its fascinating stories.
In this first column, which I have imaginatively dubbed Welsh Wonders, we begin with a brewery that Trev was particularly excited to talk about, and one that I honestly wish I’d investigated sooner. Established in late 2017 on an industrial estate just outside of Newtown, 33 miles southwest of Shrewsbury, Wilderness Brewery has steadily built a reputation on the back of beers you might describe as “unconventional…”
“I’d always wanted to explore mixed fermentation beer, but was always reticent to do it for other people, as it’s relatively costly and not exactly guaranteed to produce something saleable,” Wilderness founder James Godman tells me. “I decided to be brave, buy some barrels and get started.”
“It’s been a steep learning curve, and I know that we probably won’t be able to recreate anything, which is both terrifying and thrilling!”
With a background in microbiology and experience working for the likes of Howling Hops in London, and Shrewsbury’s own Salopian Brewery, you might feel James is well equipped with the skills to start his own brewery. However at Wilderness he’s not working with more conventional styles like lager or IPA, instead brewing rustic, farmhouse-inspired brews, fermented using a variety of different yeasts and bacteria (hence the term “mixed fermentation”) and often matured in oak barrels that were formerly used to produce wine, or spirits.
James found himself back in Wales after he and his partner decided to relocate to the rural Welsh countryside near where she grew up. It was the move that gave him the impetus to start out on his own, and soon he was brewing beer to go into barrels, and let nature take its course; the combination of time, oak and microorganisms producing beers with complex acidity and structured tannins. Beers that share many similarities with wine, and offer something different to the conventional drinker.
But, as can be the case when launching into the unknown all on your own, things didn’t quite go to plan. After filling the first barrels in early 2018, an illness in the family meant things were put on pause for almost a year. A small silver lining being that once he returned to his brewing project, James had his first set of aged beers to come back to, and begin blending into finished products.
“They weren’t all awful, so I felt a bit more confident,” he says. “Since then we’ve been exploring using fruit from our own orchard, and we’ve just bought a Wild Goose canning line to help speed up packaging.”
So far the canned beers have included some interesting sounding saison-style beers. In Between Breaths is described as a “light farmhouse beer” and is fermented with French saison yeast and Brettanomyces, before being dry-hopped with the Citra and Pilgrim varieties, adding pithy citrus tones to a beer that provides bone-dry refreshment. There’s also a more conventional “Table Pale”, a small beer at just 2.9% hopped with Citra and UK-grown Cascade that abandons complexity in favour of satisfaction, and succeeds admirably.
But as enjoyable as these beers are, they don’t wholly reflect the full breadth of ambition imbued within the Wilderness barrel store. I tried a pair of beers packaged in elegant 750ml wine-sized bottles: Prone to Panic is described simply as a “soured ale” and while the base beer is a simple, farmhouse style ale, the Tempranillo barrels it’s matured in add immense depth, in the form of overripe stone fruit, cherry compote, and huge amounts of woody, oak character. Free Diving works on a similar principle, only instead using ex-Bordeaux barrels, plus a healthy dry hop of New Zealand Nelson Sauvin Hops. The latter brings a lick of fresh gooseberry and almost white-wine like character, subduing the intensity of the barrel from whence it came.
My highlight in the Wilderness stable, however, was a beer called Naive Melody. This sour ale with plums is an example of James using the locally-sourced fruit he spoke of earlier, and for me best demonstrates why this is a brewery we should definitely all be getting excited about. Sitting at a stronger 8.2% (the two previously mentioned are in the mid 5’s) this beer expresses both the skins and the flesh of the fruit, all at once conveying tartness, juiciness, and just the right amount amount of woody dryness from the barrel; an intense amount of flavour held together by all its component parts playing at just the right volume.
“We have a pretty good climate for barrel ageing in Wales and the seasonal temperature fluctuations are part of the production process,” James tells me. “We have great soft water locally, and it’s not too dry, so we don’t lose too much beer to evaporation.”
James believes that barrel-aged beers such as the ones he produces arguably have more stake in the use of the word “terroir” than other beer styles. The French winemaking term, meaning “of the earth”, can get thrown around a little too much in brewing, where rarely is a place where beer is made connected directly to its agriculture. With his mixed fermentation beers James seems to have found a way to imbue that into what he makes. And from what I’ve tasted so far I’m convinced the way he works with fruit, barrels and feral yeasts imbues a true sense of the Welsh countryside into each bottle and can.
“I’m wary of appearing snobbish or off-putting to some customers—I’m fully aware that sweaty, barnyardy beer isn’t for everyone,” James tells me. “But if someone thinks they don’t like sour or funky beer and enjoys one of our ‘normal’ beers, maybe they’ll trust us enough to try something a bit more out there next time.”
Check out our range of Wilderness beers.
Barrels and Fruit - from the Wilderness website
Beers - all taken by Matthew Curtis
Matthew Curtis is a writer, photographer and the co-founder of Pellicle Magazine. His latest book, Modern British Beer from CAMRA Books, is available now.