Twenty years ago, the South Cambridgeshire Village of Harston had four pubs – the Old English Gentleman, Pemberton Arms, Three Horseshoes, and Queen’s Head. Only the latter remains open, and even that is now primarily a Thai restaurant, typical of the decline of Cambridgeshire village pubs, despite the increasing local populations. In contrast the 1997 Good Beer Guide lists just one independent brewery in Cambridgeshire, Elgoods, but twenty years on another twenty are listed alongside it. So far as I know, two of those have since closed – TinShed in Kimbolton ceased brewing earlier this year, and BlackBar at the end of last year – but another is soon to launch.
On the site of the former BlackBar Brewery in Harston, an 18 barrel plant has been gearing up for its official launch next month, with small batches of their brews appearing at a series of tap nights over the past few months. I’ve only tried two of the beers that will form their core range, ‘Ripchord’ session pale and ‘Lakota’ American pale, but they are already assured and impressive in a way they have no right to be, considering the first brew on the new kit only happened at the end of June.
But then, there is a prologue to all this. Almost two years ago, a beer festival at the Plough in Shepreth, hosted by owner Nick Davis, had amongst the beers a handful from an unfamiliar brewery with distinctive branding, Dragon Forge. After a particularly satisfying saison, I enquired about the brewery, and it turned out to be one of Nick’s friends, at that time operating out of the Old Forge in Audley End. I heard nothing more about Dragon Forge, but fast forward two years and the brewer has reappeared as BrewBoard’s head brewer alongside business partner Nick, with some of the beers originating from those Dragon Forge recipes, albeit much tweaked and refined.
The dragons, verdigris and burnished copper brand assets of Dragon Forge, striking though they were, have been replaced by designs more befitting of a modern craft brewery. Ollie, another of the brewery partners and the graphic designer, has produced the kind of designs that would make BrewBoard’s beers instantly recognisable in a row of taps, if they weren’t more likely to appear in the kind of bars where keg beers are listed on a chalkboard.
Still, seeing them in the fridge of Haslingfield’s Country Kitchen deli for the first time, I had to fight the urge to turn all the cans round until the designs were aligned and clearly visible. Again, while some breweries seem to struggle to translate a beer to cans, the first run of Lakota and Ripchord were instantly crushable, perfect companions.
BrewBoard seems keen to make the beer just part of an experience, hence the regular tap nights, where their own beers are served alongside equally impressive guests, accompanied by pop-up food vans and a variety of beats from the elevated DJ booth. The crowd of people of all ages this attracts might suggest Harston regrets not hanging on to its village pubs. Yet this is something different, and while I doubt the more elderly residents of Harston would point to the liquid drum & bass, American Pales, or miso hummus as the main draws, nevertheless something about the overall experience draws them to an industrial unit on the outskirts of the village. In truth, it was mainly for the beer that I cycled the 40 minutes from the centre of Cambridge last Friday evening.
The official launch night of the brewery is scheduled for 29th September, by which time the next of the core brews, a ‘modern stout’ tantalisingly out of reach in the FV at the most recent tap night, will no doubt be available as the perfect pairing for the wood stove.