Behind the scenes at the Flower Pots Brewery, Cheriton

See how I fared when I joined head brewer David Mackie to find out how the Flower Pots Brewery in Cheriton near Winchester turns humble ingredients into award-winning craft ales.

The Flower Pots Brewery in Cheriton near Winchester is only 11 years old. So it’s easy to forget it’s one of Hampshire’s oldest breweries, coming before the recent boom in craft brewers in the county.

It’s one of the most traditional ones too. Set in an outbuilding in the grounds of the red-bricked pub from which it takes its name and overlooking rolling countryside, you won’t find any of the brewery’s craft ales in bottles, cans or kegs – the only way to enjoy the brewery’s award-winning beer is fresh from the cask.

Taste a Flower Pots beer though and you’ll know the brewery is far from stuck in the past. This was clear when I spent a day at the Flower Pots’s modern brewhouse with head brewer David Mackie and professional musician turned occasional brewery assistant Teej Osborne.

Early start

Apart from the morning birdsong floating through the fog, everything was quiet at the charmingly named “Brandy Mount” when I arrived at the brewery at 7.30am.

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In contrast to the still scene outside, the brewery was already a hive of activity with Teej washing casks on the brewery’s customised cleaning station and David monitoring the temperature of the water in the HLT – that’s the hot liquor tank to you and me.

Flower Pots brewery

The water in the HLT wasn’t quite warm enough to start mashing, which is the first stage of brewing beer.

So, after David lent me a pair of wellingtons and made me a cuppa, he gave me a quick tour of the brewery.

Brewery tour

The ground floor is split into three areas. The middle room houses the main brewing equipment and the cask cleaning equipment.

Beyond this, there’s a temperature-controlled room containing four tall stainless steel fermenting vessels. The sweet smell of fermenting beer in here was heavenly.

The room at the opposite end of the building is also temperature controlled. This holds the brewery’s conditioning tanks, as well as all beer awaiting delivery.

The brewery extended this room recently to increase capacity.

Upstairs is where the brewery stores its grain and hops.

For grain deliveries, there’s a hatch that opens to the front of the building. This allows the brewery’s petrol-powered conveyor belt to send bags of grain to the storage area without the need to lug them up the building’s narrow staircase.

Some larger breweries have their own malthouse, where they turn the grain – usually barley – into malt suitable for brewing. Flower Pots buys its grain ready malted. All is UK sourced, but some is processed in Germany.

Adding the malt

David and Teej had already weighed out the malt for today’s brew. So after David confirmed the water downstairs was at the right temperature, I helped Teej empty the sacks into the grain hopper. This feeds the malt into the mash tun below.

At the same time, David started filling the mash tun with the heated water to start the mashing process. This converts the starch released by the grain during malting into sugar. Yeast then converts this sugar into alcohol during the later fermentation stage.

Champion Beer of Britain

We were brewing Flower Pots’s 4.8% “Gooden’s Gold” golden ale today.

This beer, which is named after an area of land opposite the brewery, is in the running for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Champion Beer of Britain award this year. It uses a mix of two types of malt and is one of the brewery’s core range of beers along with “Perridge Pale” (3.6%) and “Flower Pots Bitter” (3.8%).

The brewery does several specials and the odd one-off beer as well.

A history of the brewery

Mashing takes around an hour. In the meantime, I helped David weigh out the six varieties of hops used for Gooden’s Gold while he gave me a brief history of the pub and the brewery.

Owners Jo and Paul bought the Flower Pots Inn in the late 80s. However, it’s been part of Jo’s life since 1968 when her parents leased the pub from Strong’s brewery.

The onsite brewery opened as the Cheriton Brewhouse in 1993 with help from consultant and former Samuel Smith’s brewer David Smith. After a brief hiatus in the mid-2000s, it re-opened in its current guise in 2006.

The brewery is a 10-barrel plant. This means each brew can produce around 2,800 pints of beer.

David joined the brewery team in 2011 after previously helping at his father-in-law’s small brewery. Over the years, many Hampshire brewers have also worked here including Iain McIntosh of Red Cat Brewing, Steve Haigh of Alfred’s Brewery and Jim Fullegar of Broken Bridge Brewing. Martin Roberts and Ray Page of Bowman Ales brewed here in the Cheriton Brewhouse days.

The pub itself was busy last night and in danger of running out of beer in the next couple of days. So the next mini job was to head across the car park with a couple of firkins (72-pint casks) and set them up behind the bar. The pub serves beer by gravity dispense straight from the cask.

As well as supplying the pub, the Flower Pots distributes beer to its two sister pubs – the Albion in Winchester and the Wheatsheaf in Shedfield – and many other pubs and restaurants in the immediate area and further afield.

From mash tun to kettle

Once mashing was complete, David transferred the now sweet liquid, known as the wort, from the mash tun into the steam-heated copper. This is essentially a giant kettle.

Here, David brings the wort to a rolling boil to tease out the flavour of the hops before fermentation.

While the wort was heating up, I foolishly volunteered to dig out the spent malt from the mash tun. This involved standing knee deep in a sauna of steaming grain and shovelling it into plastic dustbins. It was tough work for a weakling like me. The spent malt doesn’t go to waste – later, a local farmer will collect it and use it as cattle feed.

We then popped upstairs to add the first batch of hops to the boiling wort through a small door in the top of the copper.

Then it was back into the mash tun to give it a good clean, ready for the next brew.

Cleanliness is key to running a successful brewery – although the boil kills all bacteria in the beer, there’s a risk of cross contamination throughout the brewhouse. Hence why many head brewers sarcastically refer to themselves as “head of cleaning” and why there are deep buckets of sterilising solution for equipment, hands and arms dotted throughout the brewery.

It’s the fermentation room where cleanliness is probably most important in a brewery. Any bacteria getting into the beer here would be disastrous. After all, you don’t want to be pouring almost 3,000 pints of beer down the drain.

As the boil continued, Teej was busy doing all the other important things that keep the brewery ticking over, including filling casks and getting them ready for delivery.

Generally, Flower Pots beer needs around two weeks in the brewery’s conditioning tanks before its ready for casks. That’s following 3-5 days in fermentation, depending on the strength and type of beer.

Cooling the wort

After a quick break for lunch – we didn’t even have time for a pint – David added more hops to the boil. He then cooled the wort so it was at the optimum temperature for fermentation.

Reducing the temperature of the wort from just under 100C to 23 or 24C would take hours if left to cool naturally. So, like many breweries, the Flower Pots uses a heat exchanger to cool the wort quickly.

Put simply, the heat exchanger cools the hot wort by piping it close to a supply of cold water, “exchanging” the heat between the two liquids. This not only cools the wort but also warms up the cold water. The brewery can then store the heated water in the HLT for the next brew or use it for cleaning.

Next, after sterilising my hands and arms, I helped David and Teej do some housekeeping on the beers that were already fermenting.

I climbed a tall stepladder to use a paddle to mix up the previous day’s brew of Flower Pots Bitter. The aim here is to distribute the yeast evenly.

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I then moved to ladder to the next fermenter and used a plastic shovel to clear some of the foam from the top of another brew. This one had been fermenting since the start of the week and was just about ready for the conditioning tank.

Then, as David started transferring today’s brew into an empty fermentation tank, I loaded some bags from a new delivery of malt onto the conveyor belt while Teej waited in the hatch upstairs.

Traceability is important in the brewing industry. So the brewery writes the batch number on each bag of malt as it enters the storeroom. The brewer on the day also keeps detailed records of each brew, including the ingredients used and the timings for each stage of the process. That way, it’s easy to find out what wrong if there’s a problem with a batch of beer.

Adding the yeast

Once the fermentation tank was full, David added the yeast to the wort to begin fermentation. The yeast converts the sugars to alcohol, reproducing as it does so.

Flower Pots has used its own “house strain” of yeast since 2007 by harvesting the healthy yeast from each brew then re-using it. This not only saves money but helps ensure a consistent beer between batches and makes it difficult for other brewers to copy recipes.

The yeast just needs a “clean” every few weeks to remove bacteria and other unwanted particles. Most breweries do this by rinsing it in acid and then chilling it for an hour.

Finally, David took the wort’s gravity, which essentially measures its sugar content. He’ll then measure it at regular intervals until the reading indicates that primary fermentation has finished. That’s when the beer is ready to go into the conditioning tanks.

An end of a day’s brewing

Apart from a few more cleaning tasks, the day’s brewing was now almost over. In all it had taken around 8 hours to turn water, malt, hops and yeast into something resembling delicious beer. It will take another 2-3 weeks until this batch – or gyle as it’s known in the trade – is in people’s pint glasses.

The good news is that you’re never far from a Flower Pots beer if you’re in Hampshire and the surrounding area. And, although you can’t buy the beer in bottles or cans, you can buy two- and four-pint carry outs from the Flower Pots Inn, the Wheatsheaf and the Albion.

However, as with any craft ale, the best place to enjoy a Flower Pots ale is fresh from the cask in the pub – preferably in the pub that overlooks the brewery here at Brandy Mount.

Info: The Flower Pots Inn and Brewery is at Brandy Mount, Cheriton, Alresford, SO24 0QQ. Pubs that regularly serve Flower Pots beers include the Black Boy in Winchester, the Phoenix Inn in Twyford and the Guide Dog in Southampton. The Bitter Virtue off-licence in Southampton also regularly has Flower Pots cask beer available to take away.