Chris explained that the Windsor Castle brewery was originally founded in Oldbury by his great-grandfather, but that brewing operations ceased in 1927 – these were resurrected in Lye by Chris' father John in 2004. They have developed their portfolio since that time, and now have around 8 regular beers, and several seasonals and specials appearing. The Windsor Castle also serves as the Sadlers' taphouse, and is renowned for it's food offering as well – but it was the array of 10 cask Sadlers ales along the bar that immediately caught our eye and lifted our spirits when we entered. The bar staff explained they don't usually feature a guest as the house beers are so popular and turnover is quick, and there are usually seasonal brews to form a counterpoint to the core range, giving drinkers a wide choice of styles and strengths to choose from. They also have bottled versions of some of these beers in the fridges.
After making our initial purchases to start checking out the ales available, we met Chris in the bar area; he took us through to the brewery's hop store, and talked us through their current range. There are several traditional styles covered, such as Red House, a 4% Black Country mild, and Worcester Sorcerer, a 4.3% Best Bitter. Their Mud City Stout (6.6%), with cocoa and vanilla richly complementing a blend of dark malts and oats, is multi-award winning, and an immensely flavoured beer whether from cask or bottle; and the JPA (Jack's Pale Ale) is a very sessionable 3.8%, which has recently had it's recipe tweaked to make it a 100% Citra-hopped beer. This tasted fantastic on cask and came out on top as my beer of the day, despite the many other lovely beers we tried during the Twissup.
Chris explained that as he has now taken over the Head Brewer duties from his father, it has given him the opportunity to 'play around with hops' a lot more and develop new recipes and specials, such as their Hop Bomb – available in 330ml bottles as well as on draught, this caused quite a stir in the Midlands beer scene when it appeared, with the 5% abv providing a good base to carry through the Amarillo and Citra hop flavours and aromas. It was great to see such a range of exciting hops in the storeroom, and we easily spent the best part of an hour discussing characteristics and uses, as our party had two professional and at least two homebrewers who were all eager to talk with Chris about alpha acid values and aroma characteristics, and how crop variations in different years give rise to recipe changes and adjustments.
But back to the beer – and we heard about two recent beers that Chris has been working on – the Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, which is continuously hopped throughout it's 85-minute boil and comes out a hefty 8.5%, and an Imperial Stout, which was still in development but Chris seemed pretty excited about already and described as 'something special'! We were able to have a taste of the latest batch of Dr Hardwicke's to be brewed – just about to go into the conditioning tanks – and this certainly had a lot of hop bite and full body even as an unfinished beer that still has to receive it's dry-hopping, so I'm looking forward to tasting this when it's finally ready.
We spent a while longer having a look round the 10-barrel brewery and the cask store, where sacks of used grain from the mashing process were stacked up ready for a local farmer to take away, and returned casks awaited cleaning and refilling with ales to be sent out again, before returning to the bar to work our way through the rest of the range and pick up some bottles to take home. I tried their delicious crisp Red IPA and also Basilisk, a bitter with some slightly sweet notes but a clean finish, and took home bottles of the Mud City, Hop Bomb, and Mellow Yellow, a pale ale with a hint of honey.
It was great to see a truly family-run brewery (Chris's sister also runs the taphouse and restaurant side of things) that is still keen to create new recipes and experiment with different hops coming to market, and it certainly marks them out as the most progressive brewery in the Birmingham area to my mind, and the only one bringing truly well-rounded but sparkily hoppy ales to Midlands punters.
And if you are yet to discover their beers, and like the sound of their hop-experimentation and special recipes, you can find some at the upcoming Birmingham Beer Bash festival on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th July 2013; there are rumours there may be some Imperial Stout available in bottles, and on draught will feature the hefty Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, and 'Lion Hart', their 4.2% July seasonal beer – which is described as a blood orange ale brewed with juicy American hops and fresh pineapple – sounds perfect for a summer festival!