“Where the hell is this place?” Google Maps have been sending us around in circles on Staden Business Park, Buxton, Derbyshire, for several minutes. In the back of my brain is a rhythm that is urging me forward, “going to the brewery, to drink beer in the brewery, that is made in the brewery, by Buxton Brewery.” We’d been invited up to Derbyshire to visit the acclaimed Buxton Brewery and check out their new brewhouse and their fairly new tap house. It was an invitation that had caused us to lie awake at night, eagerly waiting for time to pass so we could get up there. Not just because they’re an amazing brewery, earning standing ovation from beer drinkers all around the world, but also because up until now they’ve been keen on keeping to themselves. I feel like a pioneer. Now if we could only find the damned place.
After a few more confusing minutes, and asking a random stranger, we finally find the it. It’s the last shed on the left, down the alley behind the cheddar factory, just past the reptile shop. Easy. We pull up and meet Denis Johnstone, their recently promoted Brewery Manager. I first met Denis on a liquid night in Barcelona. Thirsty for a nice beer I stumbled into the Ale & Hop only to find that it had a Buxton and Moor tap-takeover going on. I stayed all night. The next time I saw Denis was at Copenhagen Beer Celebration, where he issued the invitation to come up for nosey, a chat and to drink a fair amount of beer.
The first stop on our tour around the brewery starts in their old digs, just a few meters away from their new ones. This space is now used as storage, and their old brew kit, a 800 to 1600 litres system, is in the corner, cleaned and ready to be sold on to some eager new brewers somewhere. Denis shows us a few of the treats they’ve got stored here at the moment. First up is a stout aging away in a scotch barrel. We all have a sniff. It smells as peaty and smoky as a camp fire. Denis loves his peaty beers. Probably more than the next guy. It’s a part of his DNA, seeing that he’s as Scottish as Irn Bru. He also tells us about their Tsar Bomba, their special reserve Imperial Stout. A while back they found a 34 year old bottle of Courage Imperial Stout, drank it (loved it), and poured the yeast sludge in the bottom into a barrel of their own Tsar Imperial Stout. They then left it for 9 months, rolling the barrel around on the concrete floor every week. When they opened the barrel the beer exploded out of it, making them lose a fair part of the experimental brew. So this first batch was incredibly rare, only 60 bottles or so. But they kept some of it back to make a new batch, this time a bit more, and they’re planning to keep growing the batches in the future, to make this incredible beer more available. The next batch is the 4th generation, and about 1600 bottles of it will be ready in a couple of months time. Watch out for it.
Denis tells us about their early days and brewing on the old kit. For a long time I had no idea how small they were. They seemed to be everywhere. This was all intentional on their behalf. The plan was simple, get their beers out there, to the right places, build a reputation and maintain an aura of a fairly big brewery. It’s the Wizard Of Oz approach to brewing. Look behind the curtain and it’s just a couple of dedicated guys working their asses off. Maybe this is also why they’ve kept so quiet over the last couple of years. This strategy has really worked for them, and soon they’ll actually be everywhere as their new brewery is massive compared to the old one. Moving on Denis shows us a steel tank, also containing a stout. This concoction was made in collaboration with Dutch breweries Rooie Dop and Oersoep. It’s been aged on red wine barrels and inoculated with the same bretty Courage sludge as the Tsar Bomba. Denis opens the hatch and gives us a taste. I find myself suppressing a wild howl of pleasure coming from deep within me somewhere. This is good beer. Oh mama. This beer might be ready for London Craft Beer Festival, just around the corner. I really hope it is.
We leave the old brewery behind and walk the few metres down to their brand new brewhouse. We’re greeted by the sweet sweet smell of malts and hops and the sound of clanking metal and machinery set to a fast paced rock track. Their new brew kit is massive compared to their old one, allowing them to quadruple the size of their batches. Denis guides us up on the mezzanine to get a better view. It’s all a sea of shiny metal. There are five 3200 litres fermentors lined up against one wall, and a huge bottling machine is busy spitting out bottle after bottle of their hoppy Berliner Weisse Far Skyline. This is anything but a small operation. The people below us are busy brewing a beer called Ace Edge. I want to pause here and pay tribute to one of their flagship beers – the Axe Edge. It might just be one of my favourite beers, and I know many people agree with me. It’s a big beautiful IPA, and I’ve given it to people, sceptics even, fully grown men, full of opinions, eager to turn their nose down at this poncy beer I’m urging them to try, and watched them fall in love. That’s the power of the Axe Edge. The Ace Edge is a version of this beer, brewed with a hop variety called Sorachi Ace. Denis informs us it’s inspired by a beer by Alpha State called Neapolitan, which is the dream beer for all the Sorachi Ace fans out there.
Right under the mezzanine we’re standing on is the brewing kettle, boiling away, giving us a nice malty steam in the process. It’s like a porridge sauna, so we wander back down and meet their head brewer, Colin Stronge. Colin joined the team just over a year ago after a stint at Black Isle in Scotland and nine years at Marble Brewery in Manchester prior to that. He says that one of the reasons he wanted to come and brew at Buxton was the Axe Edge. That’s the power of the Axe Edge. It can make people quit their job and relocate. As head brewer Colin is responsible to come up with new recipes and to ensure that Buxton keeps producing fist-pumpingly good beer. He’s keen on getting us drinking some of his latest brews. It would be rude to deny him the pleasure. He pours us a glass of Wild Boar straight from the conditioning tank. It’s a home run of an IPA. So fresh and so clean (clean). Colin is happy to be brewing on the new big kit, but he’s also romantic about the old kit. It’s where they made all their classic beers that gave Buxton their reputation. While we’re chatting the owner and founder of Buxton Brewery walks in, Mr Geoff Quinn. He started out doing most of the brewing himself, with the aim to make big hoppy beers. It’s safe to say that he’s succeeded. Geoff is a dedicated climber, and had stopped by the brewery before heading out for a climb. The Peak District is rife with rocks to climb, if you’re so inclined. Some of their beers have even been named after some of Geoff’s favourite climbing spots, like High Tor, Jacob’s Ladder and Black Rocks.
Colin pours us a glass from the freshly bottled Far Skyline, another beer named after a climbing spot. It’s the perfect summer beer. It’s sings of sunshine and poolside laziness. He tells us that these kind of hoppy sours is a thing they’re focusing on at the moment. Along with various barrel aged stouts and a lot of collaboration brews lined up. When we ask about their brewing ethos they all agree that it’s about constantly changing, constantly trying to improve every little bit, and to not be afraid to try new things. Next we get to sample the Imperial Black IPA, a 7.5% beast, which isn’t properly conditioned yet but still smacks of grandness. We hang around the brewery for a while. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the view from outside the brewery is of rolling hills and greenness. The next step on our tour is a visit to their new tap house in Buxton town centre. This is where people can get up close and personal with the brewery, seeing as they don’t usually encourage people to come and lay siege to where the actual brewing takes place. It serves as their face to the world. But before we go there Denis takes us for a jaunty walk up a hill to get some fresh air. The destination is Solomon’s Temple, a folly located above Buxton town, and also the logo of the brewery. Chatting to Denis on the way up there he seems pretty happy to have found his place in Buxton. He’s collaborating with Colin to come up with new ideas for styles and brews, and generally just making sure that Buxton stays on top of their game. Up at the folly the air is so crisp and clear it burns the smog out of my London lungs. The view of the little town is tranquil and soothing. It’s enough to question my entire existence. Why don’t I live in a place like this? They’ve got amazing beer, and it’s beautiful. I wipe away a tear and make my way to the tap house to drink my softness away.
The tap house is located right in the middle of Buxton town. In a place like this, where cheap ass lager chugging is the main weekend event, a poncy beer bar like this attracts quite a different crowd than it does in London. And it’s all the better for it. There’s a good mix of young and old – generally anyone who doesn’t fancy taking part in the heavy weekend bravado of small towns. That said, they get the occasional gang of Young Strapping Local Lads coming in there to drink Axe Edge. They’ve heard it’s strong and they want to prove they can take it. Sometimes the same lads has to be carried out by their mates before the evening has properly kicked off. That’s the power of the Axe Edge. The bar serves a range of Buxton Brewery’s finest brews, as well as a couple of guest beers. They also serve food, modeled on the Duke’s Brew & Que concept – ribs, pulled pork, burgers and other things that is smoky and delicious. They got a smoker in the back, but Denis is still worried that the massive beef rib in front of us won’t be up to London standard. Digging into the meat I find myself more than satisfied. And with the Jaw Gate, their smooth pale ale, to flush it down with, I’m as happy as a monkey in a peanut factory.
Colin joins us at the table. More beer is bought and disappears into our heads. We also get chatting to a couple of their assistant brewers, Jake and Scott. They’re in the tap house for a leaving party for one of the bar staff. They’re sending her off with a Hawaiian themed fancy dress party. More beer. More laughter. And just before we leave we get to watch Jake, or maybe it was Scott, hanging from a ledge in a doorway and propel himself up to grab a metal rod sticking out of the wall, to applause from the entire gathered bar crowd. Impressive and bizarre. The next day we get up and spend the day cycling along the Monsal Trail, a discontinued train line between Buxton and Bakewell. It’s the perfect ending to a great trip to the northern countryside. The guys at Buxton Brewery are so on the ball with what they’re doing, which is making spanking beer that spreads happiness to people mouths. I’m waiting with eagerness to see what they’ll be brewing next.
If you fancy meeting the guys face to face you’ve got your chance when they come down for London Craft Beer Festival. Be there or be sad.
Written by Per Steinar.