Beer Of The Week: Hambleton Brewery’s Beautiful Nightmare
My Beer of the Week is a beautiful porter from Hambleton Brewery.
Nightmare gives promise of dark bliss as it pours, a jet black body emerging, becoming reddish brown where it captures the sun, settling a pitchy ruby beneath a tan welt. If a smell can be euphoric this one is, like the waft from a Bruges’ chocolatier’s sack of cacao beans left near the doorway to entice you in. The immediate creamy smooth fondle on the palate is treacle, toffee, roasted coffee beans, molasses, and, yes, Belgian chocolate, lots of it, dark and strong, and dark fruits, a touch smoky, hoppy. It makes you want to close your eyes in concentration with the next quaff and identify more subtleties, a lingeringly cheery cherry, perhaps.
So what’s its story, I wonder, and why the reverse psychology? This beer is nobody’s nightmare – except that of Nick Stafford who owns the brewery.
In 1991, Nick decided he’d had enough of teaching and would start a brewery. A couple of generations of drinkers of choice ales are very glad he did - and thirty years later, Hambleton Brewery, since 2007 based in Melmerby, near Ripon, are a major force in the burgeoning craft beer market, producing 17,000 pints per week, pre-Covid.
In my experience, the mere sight of the famous Hambleton Hill’s best-known feature, the White Horse of Kilburn motif on a pub’s pump clips, always raises the spirits immediately whilst simultaneously removing the difficulty of deciding what to have.
Their story begins, according to the company’s informative website, when Nick simply had it in mind to start a brewery at the bottom of his in-laws’ garden, in the village of Holme-on-Swale, his motivation simply to produce good beer. ‘Armed with nothing more than a pair of wellies, some old steel tanks and a rusty Peugeot 205, Nick built his brewery with blood, sweat and tears,’ we are told.
When I read this I was intrigued and wanted to know more. My interest was particularly piqued because this was fully two decades before the craft beer revolution was a twinkle at the bottom of anybody's beer glass, and the big battalions were still lined up in force against anybody straying into their territory. I also really did want to know the whys and wherefores of the name Nightmare.
Although Nick is still actively involved, the day-to-day administrative and technical aspects are largely taken care of by his daughter, Rachel Harrison, and her husband, Ben. The Head Brewer, John Morgan, has been with them since 2004.
It is Rachel who shows me round the brewery, all gleaming stainless steel. They still use open-top fermenters and mixing both the modern and traditional is clearly a hallmark of this brewery. As we pass through the office, I ask who does the marketing. ‘Well,’ says Rachel, ‘we don’t really advertise: we sell as much as we can produce - our beers just seem to promote themselves by word of mouth.’
‘And commend themselves to the mouth,’ I can't help quipping.
We are talking about a seriously attractive catalogue of beers, extending from a light and refreshing Session Pale (3.6 ABV), to a strongish premium lager, GFL, which stands for Gluten & Wheat Free Lager (5.2), a range that includes blonde beer, an amber, porters, IPAs and - a bit different - a pink grapefruit pale and a black cherry porter not to mention monthly special ales and Nightmare itself.
I ask about how it all got started in the first place. ‘Nick was out of work and came up with the idea of setting up a brewery at the bottom of his in-laws’ garden. He really just wanted to brew beer that was better than he was drinking in the pub. That’s was always simple goal - to brew great beer.’
Three years later their Nightmare (5.0), ‘a massively flavoured four malt porter’, won CAMRA’s Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain award, thus putting the company on a map which now extended far beyond the Hambleton Hills. ‘We sell across the UK,’ says Rachel, brightly, ‘but we also export as well. We have a beer that we brew exclusively for the Japanese market - I can’t even pronounce the name of it! Out best-selling beer is the Stud Blonde.’
In 2007, demand led to them moving to a new brewery in Melmerby, near Ripon, with a 20-barrel kit. The bigger space meant that they could offer bottling facilities to other small breweries in the area who, particularly since pubs closed, have discovered a need to switch from cask to bottle
And now, I judge, is the time right for the million dollar question - and the answer I get is quite amazing, amusing and teaches you something about the randomness of life and its myriad chance discoveries. The question, of course, is just how Nightmare came to get its obviously erroneous name. Rachel pauses momentarily then smiles: ‘To be honest, it was the result of a monthly special gone wrong. Nick was brewing and used the wrong malt. The beer which was due to be light in colour came out almost black. Nick exclaimed that is was a “bloody Nightmare” and the name stuck. The beer turned out to be the most popular we had ever brewed!’
‘And the nightmare became a dream,’ I venture.
Finally, more prosaically, I ask about how they are bearing up in these difficult times. ‘We’ve managed to keep brewing for bottles, and are also helping other breweries get their beer into bottle too,’ she says, ‘but, obviously, without the pubs we aren’t as busy as pre-Covid and regrettably we did have to furlough some staff .’
I ask about the bottle sales. ‘They are good and our online sales are phenomenal. Obviously the increase in bottle sales comes about as people are drinking more at home and not in pubs.’
And plans for the future? ‘Despite the current problems, we are still working to our growth plans, and are actually just completing an extension to our current brewery to enable us to produce even more.’
And after Covid? ‘We are confident that once this is all over people will flock back to the pubs, and we, the team, are looking forward to sitting in a beer garden ourselves!’
‘I’d love to join you,’ I say, ‘if it’s one that sells your stuff.’
‘Would we drink in any other!’ she returns with a twinkle.