Coniston rides the waves
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
A spotlight on a rather special Lakeland brewery that has twice claimed the crown of Supreme Champion Beer of Britain.
Beer Tours UK's mission is to showcase the best of British brewing, especially our unique cask-conditioned ale. With the return of the Camra Great British Beer Festival this week (August 2-6) at London's Olympia - the first for three years - it seemed fitting, when we recently had the chance, to visit one of its past heroes; The Coniston Brewing Co, located in the glorious Lakeland of Cumbria and twice crowned with the much coveted Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) Surpreme Champion Beer of Britain (CBoB) accolade.
Many areas of Britain revel in their own special glory. The English Lakes in Cumbria come very high on the list of special places; blessed with majestic mountains, dark looming fells, temptingly beckoning lakes, still tarns, roaring waterfalls, tumbling becks and … independent breweries brewing, well, rather special beer.
This glorious landscape - celebrated by 19th century poet William Wordsworth no less - is a playground of sheer delight for walkers, cyclists, climbers, sailors and canoeists ..or simply the wandering tourist looking for a decent pint or three. Cumbria boasts more 40 breweries these days (Camra Good Beer Guide 2022). Many have popped up in very recent years, amidst the burgeoning craft brewing markets. But one was in at the very beginning of the independent upsurge and is still going strong, despite the choppy waters of the past couple of Covid blighted years.
There were only six Cumbrian brewers when the Coniston Brewing Company began life in 1995, born in a shed behind the family-owned Black Bull Inn in the eponymous village which stands by the eponymous stretch of water - famed for Donald Campbell’s ill-fated attempt on the water speed record in 1967. Consiton Water is a splendid stretch of water; five miles long and the fifth largest of the Lakes. It was first chosen by Sir Malcolm Campbell for his attempt at the water speed record in 1939, which he achieved at more than 141 miles per hour. Following his death, son Donald took up the challenge. He aimed to better 300 miles per hour, which he did on 4th January 1967. However, his craft, ‘Bluebird’, shot up into the air before disappearing into the lake. His body only discovered in 2001.
Modest brewer Ian Bradley has added his own splendid contribution to the history of Coniston and the famous Campbell story. Campbell and his team used to drink in the village’s Black Bull Inn, so when Ian began brewing one his first brews out was Bluebird Bitter named for the ill-fated craft. An easy drinking pale golden bitter at only 3.6%abv in strength, it shot to fame when voted Camra’s (Campaign for Real Ale) Great British Beer Festival Champion Beer of Britain in 1998. (Strangely, perhaps, that Wikipedia’s listing for Coniston makes no mention of this!)
For a time, the unexpected GBBF victory thrust Ian and his team into the limelight – at the same time raising the profile of the early micro brewing movement. Bottled production had to be outsourced. Today the five strong brewery team - including Ian, his wife Helen and son Oliver - can produce up to 40 barrels a week to supply pubs around the North West and their own Black Bull and several supermarkets including Booths which specialises in locally produced food and drink. Since Covid production has run at some 25 barrels. Bottled Bluebird, along with Old Man Ale, is also shipped to the USA, Sweden and Hong Kong.
‘Congeston’ is a named derived from the Old Norse for king. I think it fair to say that Bluebird is a king of beers and another wonder of Lakeland. Created by former car mechanic Ian from very simple ingredients - Maris Otter malt with a little crystal, just one single varietal hop - British Challenger – it this very pale beer outshines many much more complex brews. There is, of course, another special ingredient – the pure Lakeland spring water from Ian’s own beck which flows from the slopes of the neighbouring 2,632ft Old Man of Coniston.
A beer modest in alcohol it packs a real punch of taste. There is a wonderful balance to Bluebird, a hint of orange and spice on the aroma leads to light fruit with a little spice on the palate and then a moreish bitterness playing out against the mellow, creamy malt before a long lingering tangy orange finish. A truly outstanding example of our Great British cask beer at session strength.
But it is not just Bluebird- still 50 per cent of sales- that has enjoyed the dizzy heights of the CBOB for Ian, who took courses with Brewlab in the early days. In 2012 his No9 Barley Wine (8.5%) swept to the top spot to further boost the profile of this hidden away Cumbrian brewery.
Now, No9 is a rather more complex beast; we still see Maris Otter barley touched with a little crystal malt as the base
and then Challenger hops pair up with Goldings before Ian uses a German technique known ‘krausening’ to encourage a secondary fermentation as the beer ages - towards the end, he throws in some fresh Bluebird thereby giving the drinker two CBOBs in one as it were. No9 is quite a rare find. Generally, half goes into cask with much consumed in the Black Bull and half for bottling. Usually produced annually, when we visited the present brew Gyle 295 had been in the tank since 2020. It is being released now only in cask form, at the moment the bottled version is a 2018 vintage.
This is delightful copper-coloured sipping beer has toasted malt, fruits and spice on the aroma while fruit and marzipan flavours, herbal hoppiness and cognac overtones fishing with a warming alcohol essence. The residual sweetness is balanced by large amounts of the best English Goldings hops.
When No9 - so named as the ninth brew from the brewery - won the CBoB Ian and Helen were on holiday, such was their low expectation of success. The award was received by their brewing consultant David Smith. “We just did not expect to win with a beer a barley wine style of beer, we were very surprised indeed,” says Ian.
Other core ales include : Old Man Ale (4.2%abv), English ale named for the fell that overshadows the Black Bull and brewed with roasted barley, added to pale and crystal malts,
Beer guru Roger Protz had this to say: "Burnished copper colour with port wine aroma, a big chocolate and creamy malt palate and a dry grainy, roasty finish backed by hop bitterness and tart fruit. Complex beer that changes as you drink it."
K7 (4.7%) is a premium golden bitter brewed to celebrate the discovery of Donald Campbell’s speedboat in 2014. Original IPA (6% abv) is amber coloured with a rich deep taste from a superb balance of malt and hops; classic IPA (India Pale Ale) with pale and crystal malts and all English hops. Infinity IPA (6%abv) is a nod towards the new generation IPAs with US Mount Hood and Amarillo hops joining with British Challenger and Golding.
Special Oatmeal Stout (4.5%abv) is deliciously quaffable stout with oats for a smooth, full body; dark chocolate and coffee flavours come through with a delicate hop bitterness and rich dry finish.
Of winning the top Camra accolades Ian has this to say: “The CBoB win for Bluebird in 1998 changed the brewery forever, with massive demand for the next 10 years. Then the second CBoB in 2012 livened things up again but we were more relaxed about things by then. There was massive lasting benefit from CBoB , it puts a brewery on the map. Many awards are like confetti ,here one minute then gone the next, but a CBOB is forever."