A Fueled by Beer Field Trip: Henley-on-Thames, UK

While Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer love the plethora of LocAle available at Reading’s CAMRA accredited pubs there is still one thing we dearly miss from Seattle: its brewpubs and taprooms. So, imagine our excitement when we heard Henley-on-Thames boasts two new brewpubs plus an American-style craft brewery & taproom. You guessed it: time for a field trip…

Most British microbreweries are geared up to supply the pub trade so unfortunately there is very little, if any, direct retail selling. Sorry, but some shelves knocked together in a brewery ‘shop’ and lined with bottles and polypins, however nice it might be, does not a taproom make. However Henley is quietly bucking the trend.

Henley-on-Thames, located just nine miles downstream from Reading Bridge, is a great Fueled by Beer destination from pretty much anywhere along the Thames Valley. It is served by its own branch off the Great Western mainline out of London – “The Regatta Line” – which terminates at Henley. Frequent westbound stopping services from Paddington and eastbound services from Oxford and Reading connect at Twyford with hourly service to Henley seven days a week.

Trust us when we say that Henley is best visited by train rather than by car. Most of the time it is heavily congested and parking is limited (and expensive). It’s also important to note that because the taproom, the primary attraction in Henley, is open only on Friday, Saturday & Sunday, Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer do not suggest visiting outside the taproom’s opening hours. (Google Map)

Lovibonds Brewery & Taproom

If you’ve ever set foot in an American taproom you’ll immediately feel at home here, and with good reason: Lovibonds is the creation of Jeff Rosenmeier, an ex-pat from Wisconsin. The brewery & taproom is located behind the “Wine Rack” at 19-21 High Street; access is at the rear, from Greys Road car park (pay & display).

For Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer, walking through Lovibonds’ gate brings memories of Seattle-area taprooms flooding back: covered outdoor area with picnic benches, inside hangout area with dartboard, 10-tap bar dispensing Lovibonds craft beers. Memories of Big Al’s, NW Peaks, Dirty Bucket… I could keep going.

In British terms craft beer explicitly means draft from a keg while only cask ale is considered ‘real’. Personally Mr Fueled by Beer believes this differentiation serves no useful purpose especially when both keg and cask, when it’s good, achieves a common purpose; to shrink the market share of the Big Four global brewers, those purveyors of fizzy yellow swill (AB-InBev, Heineken, Carlsberg, SABMiller).

Lovibonds beers are proudly craft-brewed and unapologetically served from a keg, and they’re really, really good. Frankly they blow away Reading’s sole craft beer outlet, the 0° brewpub, and would not be disgraced among the best in Seattle. In fact Lovibonds has won several awards, including Gold at San Diego’s 2012 World Beer Cup in the Wood Aged Sour category.

A visit to Lovibonds is all about the beer. They start with a very generous tasting policy: free. Please don’t abuse Lovibonds hospitality; buy some beer to drink there or take some home. Prices for a pint or a half are very reasonable, and they will fill growlers too (most Brits will have no idea what I’m talking about). As for eats, there’s crisps (chips) but not much else.

Brakspear’s Bell Street Brewery

This is very much a tale of David versus Goliath; one in which we hope David will win.

Back about the same time Greene King acquired Morland, closing their Abingdon brewery in the process, Marston’s PLC was doing essentially the same thing to Henley. The town’s Brakspear company, which dated back to 1711, had its brewing and pub operations forcibly separated.

Marston’s only acquired the brewing half, which they moved to their Wychwood brewery, then, in 2002, Marston’s closed Brakspear’s Henley brewery. Now a pub-only operation, Brakspear was left to continue from their base in Henley.

Ironically for Henley, when choosing which Brakspear beers to keep, Marston’s decided not to include Brakspear Special, which had been the town’s most popular Brakspear brand prior to Marston’s takeover. Goliath had goofed and in stepped David.

After an eleven year absence the surviving Brakspear pub company decided to go it alone and restore Brakspear Special to Henley. Brakspear’s Bull on Bell Street pub underwent major renovation and in May 2013 the Bell Street Brewery opened in the rear of the pub. The brewery produces small batches of Brakspear Special year-round as well as a constantly changing lineup of specials and seasonals. These are all for purely local consumption at The Bull and the handful of other Brakspear pubs in and around Henley.

I think it’s fair to say that the new Bull on Bell is quite upscale and has prices to match. The restaurant’s dining rooms are beautiful, with several separate areas each with a different vibe. At the bar you should find Brakspear Bitter and Oxford Gold from the Wychwood Brewery plus Brakspear Special and a special or seasonal from the Bell Street Brewery in the back of the pub. It’s all good.

The Henley Brew House

Update December 2014: City Pub Company has closed Henley Brew House and sold the building to Brakspear Pub Company. Following some minor renovation, in which the micro-brewery was removed, the premises have reopened as The Station House pub. Whether the new pub will measure up to its predecessor remains to be seen however the loss of the onsite brewery has removed 50% of the rationale for this writer to continue making the trip to Henley – a shame.

Located a hop, skip and a jump from Lovibonds, the brew house sits at the corner of Kings Rd and West St behind the imposing town hall. It occupies Henley’s original Victorian police station which has been beautifully renovated to house the restaurant and brewery.

During two separate visits two weeks apart we found three house ales and three guests on the hand pumps. Only one house ale was repeated so a total of five Henley Brews have been tasted so far. They are all excellent. The guest ales were very good too: from XT, Binghams, Loddon, just to name three.

The dining area to the rear of the Brew House is really gorgeous although during both of our visits (Sunday evenings) the kitchen had closed so we are yet to check out the food offerings. However on paper they look good and if they match the rest of the Brew House quality-wise, it should be a nice dining spot as well as a really nice watering hole.

Henley Brew House, which opened its doors in 2012, is part of a larger pub and brewery operation called City Pub Company. In addition to the Henley Brew House, similar locations have been opened in Cambridge and Bath. In fact, with hindsight, we now realize we tasted offerings from the Cambridge Brew House at the recent Cambridge Beer Festival. Specifically Wayne’s Brain Hefeweizen which was one of Mrs Fueled by Beer’s listed favorites.

Eating Options

If you’re anything like Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer you’ll be visiting the taproom and the two brewpubs strictly for the beer, maybe munching some crisps (chips) along the way. Both of the brewpub restaurants are a little on the pricey side: Bell Street more so than Henley Brew House; thankfully there are several more affordable options close by.

Henley is a very small town where everything is close together and there seems to be no shortage of pubs & restaurants. Along Market Place and Hart Street there are several pubs with affordable food options: notably Brakspear’s Three Tuns. Over by the river is the Angel on the Bridge and the recently renovated Anchor. Last but not least there’s even a J D Wetherspoon for cheap and cheerful food and drink: they own the Catherine Wheel Hotel, Bar & Restaurant on Hart St.

As Fueled by Beer field trips go I can’t think of many better ways to spend a Saturday or Sunday than riding the rails to Henley and spending the day visiting Lovibonds, Henley Brew House, and Bell Street Brewery. Along the way also drop in at the Rowbarge, Catherine Wheel, and Angel on the Bridge – now that’s some serious pub crawling 🙂

Here are some photos from our field trip – click on a thumbnail to view the album…

 

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