You don’t have to be a scientist to brew great beer. But it helps.
We popped down to Red Cat’s unit on the city’s Sun Valley Business Park over the weekend for a crash course in the science of brewing and to sample some of the brewery’s offering.
Iain set up Red Cat in the winter of 2013 with business partner Andy Mansell. Before that, Iain was head brewer at Cheriton’s Flower Pots Brewery while Andy was pulling pints, rather than producing them, as a pub landlord.
Since then the brewery has grown considerably. The “cellar” room stuffed full of bottles, barrels and kegs awaiting delivery is testament to that.
Keg vs cask
If you’re a staunch real ale aficionado you might baulk at the thought of beer served from a keg rather than a cask.
However, as Iain explained early in the tour, there are now some fine beers available in kegs. Red Cat’s aLes are among these – the brewery provides some of its beer in kegs in response to market demand.
Another thing we got early on our visit was a taste of the brewery’s beers.
First up was a sneak peek of Red Cat’s latest creation, a light ale known only by its batch name “Gyle 113”.
And, as Iain talked us through the brewing process and showed us the brewery’s impressive set up, we made occasional beelines back into the cellar room for further samples. These included two more light ales: “Tomcat” (4.7%) and the citrusy session ale, “Prowler Pale” (3.6%).
How water affects the brew
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was when Iain explained how the makeup of the water you use affects the flavour and quality of the brew.
Hampshire’s chalk-filtered water is high in carbonate, which means it’s perfect for darker beers like porters and stouts. Ironic considering that the water in the nearby River Itchen is crystal clear and that we’d been supping only the brewery’s lighter ales up to this point.
Iain, with the chemist in him coming to the fore, then explained how adding a small amount of acid to the water makes it suitable for brewing paler ales.
The theory clearly works in practice – Red Cat’s light ales are up there with some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Iain also talked us through how the brewing equipment works.
One of the key pieces is a heat exchanger. They use this to simultaneously cool the wort (the liquid made during the first stages of the brewing process) and warm the water for the next brew, saving on energy costs.
Like many other brewers, they also save money by extracting, cleaning and then reusing yeast once a brew is complete.
With the tax man charging duty on beer from the moment it’s ready drink, every little saving helps.
Pushing the boundaries
After a brief look at the brewery’s clever bottling system, we grabbed another generous sample from the cellar room and settled into the warmer shop-cum-bar-cum-reception area at the front of the unit to glean some more of Iain’s knowledge.
Judging by the syncronised “oohs” as everyone took their first sips, the latest sample – Red Cat “Best” (4.2%) – was our favourite so far. Maltier and darker than the lighter ales we’d tasted, this one is in the style of (you guessed it) a traditional best bitter.
Iain then passed round some mason jars of raw malt for us to see close up. He explained how different types of hops and malts affect a beer’s flavour.
He also talked about how the brewery is pushing the beer boundaries with occasional experiments involving unusual recipes and less-traditional ingredients such as lemon zest.
In the meantime, we helped ourselves to yet more samples from the bottles on the shelves including “Mr M’s Porter” (4.5%) and one of those experimental beers,”Smoggy” (4.7%) – a beer made wits beech-smoked malt.
Although it was interesting on the taste buds, I don’t think I’d want to drink too much of the Smoggy. I found Mr M’s much more palatable, despite usually avoiding dark beers. We can thank the Hampshire water for that.
Before we concluded our tour and made our way out into the late afternoon sunshine to enjoy some more ales in town, I managed to get another helping of “Tomcat” from the cellar room.
A go-to brewery
From the outside, the Red Cat Brewery looks just like any other trading estate unit.
Step inside though and you’ll find a warm welcome and a passion for brewing backed by science.
Add to that an approach to business that balances educating the market with responding to it, plus the quirky, memorable labelling and logos designed by illustrator Lindsay Lombard, and you have a go-to brewery for real ale enthusiasts and trendy craft beer lovers alike.
Info: Red Cat is at 10 Sun Valley Business Park, Winnall Close, Winchester, SO23 0LB.
The bar and shop is open Monday-Thursday 4-7pm, Friday 12-7pm and Saturday 11am-2pm. Takeaway draught beer and bottles are available, as well as memorabilia such as glasses and t-shirts.
The brewery tour we went on costs £12 per person including unlimited beer. Phone 01962 863423 to book.