Be bewyched by flavoursome beastie

RENOWNED SPOT: Wychwood Brewery in Oxfordshire.
RENOWNED SPOT: Wychwood Brewery in Oxfordshire.

According to my wife, in 2010 I returned from a beer hunting and judging trip to the United States and England with no fewer than 30 brewery T-shirts.

If that's true - and I have to confess it probably is - my only defence is that at least six of them were bought as gifts for friends. By far the most popular of the shirts I brought back, specifically requested by at least four beer-loving friends, was from England's Wychwood Brewery.

What's so special about Wychwood? Well, aside from producing a broad range of tasty ales, the Oxfordshire brewer is responsible for one of Britain's most confrontational beer advertising campaigns.

The shirt in question is based on a poster that depicts the interior of a rustic-looking pub, where several hobgoblins sit around enjoying pints of dark ale. One of the menacing-looking creatures poses the question which has become a cult slogan: "What's the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?"

An obvious and none-too-subtle poke at those whose choice of beer extends only as far as bland golden lagers, the enormously popular "Lagerboy" T-shirt is a regular sight at real ale festivals.

Although I heartily endorse the sentiment behind the slogan, I also hold the brewery and its beers in high regard. When I visited the brewery in 2008 I was especially pleased to see a pair of rare "double drop" fermenters from another Oxfordshire brewer, Brakspear's of Henley on Thames, which was rescued when that brewery closed in 2002 and shoehorned into Wychwood's brewhouse.

Now under the ownership of the large Midlands-based regional brewer Marston's, Wychwood still brews a couple of beers under the Brakspear's name.

Founded in 1983 in the former maltings of a brewery that dated from the 1800s, Wychwood is tucked away behind the main street of the market town of Witney, in the heart of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. Brewing has taken place in Witney for centuries and the town is famous for its three Bs: bread, blankets and beer.

In 1988 Wychwood Brewery was asked by a local landlord to brew a special celebratory beer for his daughter's wedding. Brewer Chris Moss created a dark, rich brew, which went on to become Hobgoblin.

According to English beer writer Roger Protz, the beer's name and distinctive labelling is based around the myths and legends concerning the Royal Forest of Wychwood which covered west Oxfordshire in medieval times.

"Fairies, demons and hobgoblins roamed the forest: hobgoblins were bigger versions of goblins and, despite their terrifying appearance, acted as guardians of farm and country folk, though apparently they could turn nasty if thwarted."

In January 1996 Hobgoblin was released in bottles and since then the brewery's distinctive, quirky labels have done much to introduce a new, younger market to the delights of traditional English ale styles.

Now the brewery's flagship beer, Hobgoblin has for many years been one of the UK's best-selling bottled ales. As Protz notes, "The success of Hobgoblin is all the more remarkable as it's a dark beer. The wisdom of marketing ‘experts' is that consumers only want to drink pale lagers or golden ales."

Protz also points out that Wychwood elects to describe Hobgoblin as a ruby ale rather than a dark ale, but as former head brewer Jeremy Moss once observed, "If I put much more dark malt in the beer it would look like Guinness."

Wychwood beers tend to be malt-accented and this is very much the case with Hobgoblin whose grist includes pale, chocolate and crystal malts and torrefied wheat. Weighing in at 5.2 per cent in the bottle (in Britain the cask conditioned version is 4.5 per cent), the beer pours a bright ruby hue beneath a deep tan head and offers a sweetish, malty aroma and palate with biscuit, chocolate and toffee notes and a suggestion of smokiness.

As with many of Wychwood's beers Hobgoblin also has a confected fruitiness that reminds me of pear drops and banana lollies. This is the result of a warm fermentation with the brewery's distinctive house ale yeast. The hops, originally just Fuggles and Styrian Goldings, play little more than a supporting role, providing a touch of balancing spiciness and dryness, mostly in the mid-palate and finish.

In recent years Hobgoblin's recipe has been tweaked to include small additions of three further varieties (including American Cascade). These contribute a subtle hint of tangy citrus (lime marmalade perhaps?) to the mix.

Available from specialist beer retailers and some supermarkets around New Zealand and online, half-litre bottles of Wychwood Hobgoblin usually sell for around $7.

Although by no means overwhelming, Hobgoblin is flavoursome and assertive. Lagerboys and others looking for something pale, quenching and refreshing shouldn't be afraid, but might be well advised to look elsewhere.


The Marlborough Express