Andy Newman visits a Norfolk woman who has turned the tradition of the ‘alewife’ into a thriving business, and Roger Hickman opens a bottle or two to create a luxurious starter
When you think of beer, you tend to think of
a predominantly male world: blokes standing at the bar downing pints, burly draymen delivering heavy barrels, and stocky brewers heaving big bags of malt into the mash tun. But it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, brewing was largely the preserve of women. When drinking water was not safe, beer was the staple drink, and brewing it was traditionally a woman’s job carried out by ‘alewives’ or ‘brewsters’. And it was this tradition which inspired one north Norfolk woman to undertake a complete career change; six years later she is an important part of the county’s craft brewing renaissance. Jo Coubrough originally trained as a teacher and started her working life in the classroom. Although the hospitality industry was set to be a big part of her life (she met her future husband, the well-known chef Chris Coubrough, while working at The Swan in Southwold as a student), she had no inkling that she would be part of an explosion in brewing beer in Norfolk.
Helping Chris launch The Crown at Wells and then starting a family meant that Jo’s teaching career was put on hold for several years and, like many mums, when her children reached school age, she faced a choice: return to her former career, or find something else to do. Inspiration came, as it so often does, over the lunch table. Dining with friends one day, Jo got chatting to an old acquaintance who had left the world of TV production and retrained as a lawyer. “This set me thinking,” says Jo. “You only live once, so why not try something completely different?” Serendipity played a part in the choice she made, as two factors neatly slotted into place. Just at the point that Chris’s business, Flying Kiwi Inns, was flying high with a number of establishments, consumer pressure to know the provenance of what they were eating and drinking was emerging – so Chris suggested that Jo start brewing beer to supply his pubs. “How many husbands wouldn’t want their wives’ top brew beer?” laughs Jo. In fact, it was a logical decision. As well as having a ready market for her beer, Jo is based in the part of north Norfolk which is home to perhaps the finest brewing malt: Maris Otter. “The north Norfolk region is equivalent to the Champagne region,” she explains. “It has the chalky soil and the climate to enable fine barley to grow.” If provenance is important, there could not be a better place to base a brewery. Not only is Maris Otter the local barley variety, but it is malted at Great Ryburgh, and the water for Jo’s beer even comes from a borehole on the West Barsham estate where the brewery is based. After a week’s brewing course at Sunderland University, Jo brewed her first beer, a 3.8% abv session bitter flavoured with a mix of hops, including the Green Bullet variety from New Zealand – hence the name ‘Norfolk Kiwi’. Two further ales quickly followed: ‘Bitter Old Bustard’, a 4.3% abv russet-coloured ale, and ‘Knot Just Another IPA’, a proper golden, hoppy pale ale, with a 5% abv kick.