In 1981 Woodforde’s Norfolk Ales produced the first commercial brew of Wherry Bitter at their original brewery in Drayton, near Norwich. In 1996, just fifteen years later, Wherry Bitter was awarded the ultimate prize in the brewing world – it became ‘Champion Beer of Britain’.
Within a relatively short time Woodforde’s Norfolk Ales has become a by-word for consistency and excellence among brewers of cask conditioned ale and their customers. Woodforde’s has grown from tiny beginnings on the industrial estate at Drayton, to become one of the largest and most respected of the wave of new cask ale brewers who started up in the early 1980’s. It was a time when beer drinkers finally began to rebel against the relentless blandness of the larger brewers’ products, and pioneers turned first to home brewing and then to commercial production of their lovingly created recipes.
Woodforde’s was established in 1981 by Ray Ashworth and Dr David Crease, both enthusiastic members of the Norwich Homebrewers’ Society. With many years of commercial experience in banking and teaching between them, they were both fully aware of the increasing demand for cask conditioned traditional ales.
The brewery was named after Parson Woodforde, a noted eighteenth century Norfolk clergyman whose diaries reveal his passion for good food and good ale – which he often brewed himself.
After a short while, it became obvious that the company’s modern industrial unit was not particularly well suited to the brewing of traditional ale, with considerable temperature fluctuations, and a mains water supply of varying quality. Therefore, in 1983 a move to The Spread Eagle at Erpingham, near Aylsham, gave Woodforde’s a far more suitable home for the brewery, in a converted stable block behind the traditional country pub. Of special interest was the fact that these outbuildings had once housed John Browne’s Brewery over a century before in the 1830’s.
Unfortunately, the new brewery had barely been open a month before disaster struck and fire gutted the premises. Not to be defeated, the brewery continued to supply its customers with the help of Peter Mauldon, another independent brewer who took over temporary production in Sudbury in neighbouring Suffolk. Three months later when the brewery had been rebuilt, Woodforde’s celebrated the return to full production with the appropriately named Phoenix XXX, a 4.7% beer which quickly became a favourite with Norfolk drinkers.
The demand for Woodforde’s beers continued to grow, together with an enviable reputation for beers which were outstandingly drinkable. Eventually, the demand for the expanding range of beers outgrew their second premises and by 1988 they had been forced to look around yet again for premises which could cope with the increase in business. Ray Ashworth located some disused farmbuildings owned by the Cator family at Woodbastwick to the East of Norwich, and conversion to a brewery took over a year to complete. ‘Broadland Brewery’ was officially opened in October 1989. Originally, two cottages adjacent to the new brewery were used as offices, and these were subsequently converted into the brewery tap in 1992 – The Fur & Feather Inn.
It was around this time that Woodforde’s began to win some prestigious national awards for beers which were already well appreciated by the customers of the many pubs into which their beers were sold. In 1990 Wherry Bitter (3.8%), a beer still cherished by Woodforde’s fans and acknowledged as their flagship brew, was given the accolade of the Campaign for Real Ale’s ‘New Breweries Champion Beer of Britain’. This was followed two years later by the supreme honour when Norfolk Nog (4.6%) ‘Old’ ale was voted outright ‘Champion Beer of Britain 1992/93’, and overnight the brewery became known throughout the land. Norfolk Nog has subsequently been voted ‘Silver, Champion Winter Beer of Britain 1999″
The succeeding years saw awards for Mardler’s Mild (3.5%) which became ‘Champion Mild Ale of Britain’ in 1993/94, and for the consistently applauded Headcracker (7%) which became ‘Champion Draught Barley Wine of Britain’ in both 1993/94 and 1994/95.
Perhaps one of the contributing factors to Woodforde’s enormous national success was that the new brewery had its own borehole for the water supply. The high quality water, which is surprisingly very low in nitrates, is used in conjunction with finest East Anglian malted barley and high quality whole hops to produce Woodforde’s range of beers; these are constantly being developed to take into account the increasingly educated palate of the British beer drinker.
Of note, Nelson’s Revenge (4.5%) was brewed to counteract the invasion of ‘foreign’ beers into Norfolk, and Great Eastern Ale (4.3%), was brewed to commemorate the bringing of the railways to Norwich in the last century; both beers met with immediate success, and continue as major brands to this day.
In 1995 Woodforde’s commenced sponsoring Derek Spanton’s shirehorse and dray, which has subsequently won many top prizes at agricultural shows, and been regularly admired at public events.
In 1996 Boots PLC invited Woodforde’s Norfolk Ales and Munton’s of Stowmarket to break new ground in home brewing by producing a superior range of premium quality home brew kits. Although Boots has since ceased stocking home-brewing products, Woodforde’s kits are widely available from specialist home-brew shops throughout the UK and, of course, from the Brewery Shop.
From a field of over 4000 beers, Wherry Bitter (3.8%) became ‘Champion Beer of Britain’ 1996/97, made all the more remarkable by the fact that this award usually goes to one of the stronger ales.
As Woodforde’s has become more and more firmly established as the largest and most successful Norfolk brewery, it has taken an increasingly active part in East Anglian life. Its successful participation for the first time at the Royal Norfolk Show in 1994, led to our being invited to take over the “Mardler Pub” on the show’s highly popular Village Green in subsequent years.
In 1999 Ray Ashworth sold the brewery to Dennis Nudd, a local businessman and Mike Betts, a previous Director of Woodforde’s.
Woodforde’s now employs over 20 people, many of whom have loyally followed from the previous brewery site.
They also own three tied houses – The Fur & Feather Inn, the ‘brewery tap’, is situated just by the brewery itself in Woodbastwick, and has earned a reputation for excellent and plentiful food. The Billy Bluelight, in Hall Road Norwich, refurbished and named after a popular Norwich character from earlier in the century, has become a popular venue in the county’s major city. The Swan Inn at Ingham, situated near the North East coast of Norfolk, is the latest acquisition to the Woodforde’s tied estate.
The Brewery has a Shop and Visitor Centre giving tourists and local residents a chance to buy take-home containers and exclusive bottled beers, along with a selection of brewery memorabilia including clothing, posters and a wide range of locally produced preserves and gifts. Brewery Tours are also available in the evenings and are so popular they have to be booked well in advance.