The English city of Norwich is an undeniably small place, even by European standards. With a population of just 210,000 (including its suburbs), it’s not surprising that Norwich is largely unknown in global terms. But for lovers of beer and ale, there’s no better place to experience England’s rich drinking heritage.
“Brewing has taken place in Norwich since before 1249. The brewing of beer was a way to purify water, which was often unsafe to drink,” says Philip Cutter, Landlord at The Murderers, a pub that has operated in the city since 1696. “During the construction of the Norwich Anglican Cathedral, Franciscan monks brewed beer for the workmen at The Adam and Eve Pub, which still trades in the Cathedral grounds today.”
Both The Murderers and The Adam and Eve are what’s known as “real ale” pubs, meaning they stock high-quality, natural ales that have gone through secondary fermentation – a process that involves the ale being left to mature in the cask it’s served from. The trend for this method of traditional production took off around 40 years ago, and has been growing ever since.
“It’s the process of secondary fermentation which makes real ale unique and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide,” says Rob Whitmore, Norwich and Norfolk Branch Secretary of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional “real” ales.
CAMRA began its work in the 1970s as a response to a rut in the UK beer market. Concerned that the availability of traditional, flavorful English ales was becoming a thing of the past, four ale lovers from the north-west of England came together to campaign against the domination of the industry by big companies producing large quantities of low quality ale. Today, CAMRA is known as one of the most successful consumer campaigns in European history. The organization itself now boasts 200 branches in the UK and more than 160,000 members from across the world.
The exterior of a large brick inn and pub.
Fur & Feather Inn is recognized in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide.
In Norwich, the city once said to have a pub for every day of the year, real ale has become a significant part of the urban architecture; a defining point in where and what you choose to drink. “We’ve developed a strong bank of local brewers who have helped Norwich pubs not only survive, but become better and stronger,” Whitmore explains. “If you did a tour of all the pubs in Norwich on any given day, it would not be uncommon to see over 250 different real ales for sale. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ratio per head in the country.”
The pubs themselves view real ale as a crucial part of their identity, and one that offers benefits to their business as much as it does to the city’s reputation as a standout destination for beer. “Being recognized as a ‘real ale’ pub is enormously important to us, and certainly brings in many customers locally, and attracts out of town visitors,” Cutter says. “Being part of a successful and vibrant real ale city makes us extremely fortunate – but being recognized as an award winning real ale pub put our establishment in the forefront, ahead of many others.”
Dawn Leeder is chair of the City of Ale Festival, a 10-day celebration of Norwich’s ale and pub scene every May, and she has seen enormous growth and renewed interest in the real ale scene over recent years. “The real ale renaissance of the 21st century has allowed many microbreweries to open in Norwich and Norfolk. Over 40 breweries took part in last year’s festival and several more have opened since then,” she says. “Norfolk also produces some of the finest malting barley in the world – the maritime microclimate of our county’s north coast gives rise to cooling harsh frosts which slow the ripening of the grain, intensifying the flavors to make very fine beer indeed.”
It’s this stellar combination of real ale production and availability that led Tim Hampson, Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers, to declare that Norwich’s status as a city of ale is “no longer a question, but a fact” earlier this year. A lot may have changed since the monks started brewing here in the 13th century, but Norwich is definitely still the heartland of England’s brewing culture.