West Berkshire Brewery

The CAMRA favourite that’s becoming a craft force

Despite being a relatively young brewery, established in 1995 by a husband and wife team (now retired) West Berkshire was the kind of small, traditional CAMRA favourite that looked at risk of becoming cannon fodder in the battle between modern craft brewing and the macro-lager giants. At best, they might have hoped to keep churning out casks of their best-selling Good Old Boy ale to ‘proper pubs’ across the south of England and simply ignore the seismic changes in the wider beer world. But in 2015, West Berkshire chose to do something rather radical, by launching its own craft brand, Renegade, and last year opened a brand new, much larger brewery and state of the art packaging line.

Based in a former cow-shed, West Berkshire’s new brewery – which took a year to build and commission – is mightily impressive, and looks every inch the modern craft setup. The brewhouse bristles with valves, spigots and sensors which – according to head brewer and construction project manager Will Twomey – will give the brewers infinitely more flexibility and control, while additions including a hopback, centrifuge and force-carbonator make this ideal for the keg beers at the heart of the Renegade brand.

As Will is at pains to explain though, even though West Berkshire and Renegade serve two very different groups of drinkers, he doesn’t see himself as a servant of two masters.

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“Renegade is the same thing as West Berkshire,” he says. “It’s the same brewers, applying the same level of care, passion and craft. We’re just aiming our beers at different kinds of drinkers, with no judgement about one being ‘better’ than the other. If we were doing a DIPA and put it on cask, one of our traditional drinkers would probably have a pint of it and say this is awful.

“What I would say is that both brands are led by the same basic philosophy; modern twists on traditional styles. So if anything’s changed, it’s that we’ve started to get a bit more adventurous with the West Berkshire beers, while staying very respectful of the discerning cask drinker who’s still our biggest customer.”

This caution is understandable. While Renegade is growing fast, the award-winning Good Old Boy still makes up 50% of the brewery’s total output, with Renegade’s craft lager picking up 20% and everything else falling into the remaining 30%.

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Caution does not translate into a fear of innovation though, and a dedicated pilot kit allows the brewers to make 100-litre batches of more experimental beers which, if they hit the mark, can (and have) be scaled up for full production. Popular brews such as Tropic Like it’s Hot tropical IPA, Smoke on The Porter and Dead Men Brew No Ales (a black IPA) all started as individual brewer’s pet projects.

As for Renegade’s core range, it all definitely ticks the box on the ‘drinkability’ requirement. Each one is beautifully balanced, clean and to style, with no room to hide behind massive hops. It’s easy to see why the craft lager does so well, but for my money the Vienna lager is a tastier beer, with a lovely malty backbone and crisp noble hop bitterness.

While the excitement is palpable around Renegade – which Will describes as the brewers’ “playground” – there is clearly still a deep commitment to cask, and it is on this subject the West Berkshire’s head brewer becomes most animated.

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“I'm a massive advocate of cask,” he says. “You can drink a really average, middle-of-the-road bitter, served in amazing condition, and it's just the most delicious pint you can have in the world. It's like a double edged sword though. Even though the quality of beer being brewed in the UK keeps getting better and better, I don’t think there’s the same broad commitment to quality on the pub side.

“So you put all this effort into making a cask beer, then it goes into one of these bars that has 20 keg taps and 20 hand pulls and they'll turn over a cask once every ten days. After the first two or three days it’s a vinegary, flat and warm. And it’s really basic stuff like people not pulling through the lines properly.

The industry needs to wake up that you've got to look after casks

instead of having 10 hand pulls on, have four and keep the beer fresh. That's the biggest frustration I have.”

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As we move from the brewery floor to the packaging line, I begin to get a sense that there may be more to West Berkshire’s plan than simple expansion. With high-capacity lines for bottles and cans, and a fully automated setup for boxing and palletising, this is definitely among the most sophisticated small-pack facilities I’ve seen in a brewery this size, so I ask outright if they’re considering doing contract work.

“Yes that’s definitely part of the plan,” confirms Will. “We’re set up to do contract canning and bottling, but we’ll also be doing some contract brewing too – we see a lot of demand for that in the UK and very few breweries are out there offering it. With the kind of flexibility and precision this new kit offers, and the experience of the team here, I think that could be a really big thing for us. Actually we’re currently brewing for Yeastie Boys, for distribution in the UK, and that’s gone really well.”

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It would be unfair to suggest West Berkshire Brewery has reinvented itself – after all, it’s still just as committed to its traditional cask roots as ever. Instead, it’s applying those same skills and sensibilities to cater for a new generation of beer lovers. Rather than being an assault on the palate, its Renegade beers have a subtlety and lightness of touch that will appeal to the mainstream and more discerning craft lovers alike. And, with its burgeoning contract brewing business getting up to speed, this looks set to be the start of an exciting new chapter.

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