The Royal Family, Windsor Castle and the rushing Thames: all are commonly associated with the town of Windsor, home to Windsor & Eton Brewery. The brewery is all too aware of the pressure of these affiliations and makes every effort to ensure that their beer lives up to the name.
Since 2010, Windsor & Eton have been focused on high quality beer with a local emphasis. Founded by four partners who were at the end of their corporate careers in the food and drinks industry, the brewery was established in 2010. It was self-funded by the partners – they agreed that the amount raised had to be sufficient to both build the brewery and for each to live off of for the first 12 months of business.
As part of the legal requirement to use the word ‘Windsor’ in the brewery name – it's a sensitive word under legislation that requires approval from the Cabinet Office because of the royal link – the brewing site had to be located in the town. And so a site tucked away in an industrial estate, only a ten minute walk away from the Windsor & Eton Riverside Station with a pleasant stretch along the Thames, was leased out. The team was attracted to the duality that Windsor offers as a community-driven market town and a tourist destination.
The original site was larger than what was originally envisioned, but they managed to install their bespoke brewhouse in a meagre six weeks. While they met no objections from residents when they moved in, they encountered difficulties competing against a growing list of breweries for the untied hand pulls in nearby pubs. They adapted quickly, however, carving out their niche and brewing special beers for occasions like St George’s Day. They also frequented festivals, coaxing the locals to try their range. Their perseverance paid off: while they sold 23 casks (holding 9 gallons each) in their first week, they now typically turn out 400 per week.
The brewery offers regular tours to the public and can be easily accessed via train from London Waterloo station. I travelled up on a Wednesday evening, where a group of us were led through the brewery's history by Paddy Johnston, co-founder and Master Brewer. Paddy was fiercely proud of the team and their accomplishments, but conceded that selling is still a challenge; this is indicative of the tough competition out there for independent breweries. The number of breweries in the UK has surged since 2010, when Windsor & Eton threw their hat in the ring. Back then, there were 767 breweries according to CAMRA, whereas that figure is now hovers around 2,000 - and is still growing.
This year, they’ll be increasing their fermenting capacity by 27% and find themselves in a healthy financial position with no loans to pay off and no shareholders to pay out. They’ve also invested in a venue to put their range on full display, The George, a cosy Georgian pub situated on Eton’s high street, ten minutes away from Windsor Castle on foot. On the menu, the pub features the Royal Windsor Farm sirloin steak, where the cattle were fed the spent grain of the brewery. This full-circle demonstrates Windsor & Eton’s commitment to keeping everything as regional and sustainable as possible.
While extoling the virtues of cask beer, Paddy guided a group through the brewery’s impressive range; we started on the Knights of the Garter, a golden ale hopped with juicy Amarillo for hints of mellow citrus balanced by a light bitter finish. The Windsor Knot, a beer originally brewed to commemorate the nuptials of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton, was a bitter with Nelson Sauvin imparting a alluring tropical aromas. The Guardsman is the bitter that started it all, being the first beer that the brewery produced, using British Maris Otter pale malt alongside British hop varieties Pilgrim and Fuggles (with a dose of a Slovenian descent of Fuggle, Styrian Golding). It’s a pleasantly drinkable bitter, semi-sweet with earthiness from the hops and hints of caramel throughout.
Their beers on keg also impressed, including their remarkably smooth Republika Lager, a pilsner style lager with Saaz hops and pilsner malt. The beer is fermented at cold temperatures for three weeks and then lagered - or stored at below 2C - for 6 weeks. The carbonation is natural, making this beer a real labour of love from the brewery. It’s clean and beautifully refined.
Finally, the Uprising Craft Brewery branch of the brewery is dedicated to more audacious styles to appeal to today’s evolving tastes. The brewer in charge of these more innovative offerings is Kieran Johnson, Paddy’s son. The White Riot, a pale ale made with wheat and orange zest, was a thirst-quenching example with the creamy comfort and soft spiciness of a wheat beer. Their Uprising Scumbag Maggot was discussed, an 8.5% imperial stout with Christmas pudding flavours, juniper berries and aged in oak whiskey casks. The moniker comes from that famous The Pogues song and the beer sounds like one to try.
Taking a tour of Windsor & Eton was eye-opening and insightful; Paddy went through every stage of the brewing process – from the ingredients to fermentation. Samples were generous and the environment was convivial. Discussion veered from everything to the history of IPA and the advantages of both cask and keg. Most evident was the team’s enthusiasm and Paddy’s own assertion that as a brewery, Windsor & Eton are aiming to make beers that people like, but not necessarily love. They’ve accepted that they can’t make beers that will please absolutely everyone, but they don’t want to alienate other drinkers by brewing beers that are too unconventional for the sake of it. It might seem like they’re playing it safe, but each of the beers went down well with our tour, so the ethos appears to be sound.
In fact, I was one of the first to disappear into the night following our two hour session to catch a train back to London. I stayed for a swift second sample of White Riot and slipped off as others lingered in the taproom, looking happy to keep working through the range.
This feature on Windsor & Eton Brewery was written in conjunction with Expedia, who recently teamed up with award-winning beer writer and sommelier Melissa Cole to compile a map of 15 of the UK and Ireland’s best regional breweries.