“Norwich once had a pub for every day of the year, and a church for every Sunday.” On any given day in the city of stories, you’re sure to hear someone repeating this old adage with pride. But how true is this maxim?
The answer to that question might surprise you: at the end of the 19th century, Norwich had not just one pub for every day of the year but two. In the 1880s, there were 450 pubs just within the old city walls, and 49 surrounding Norwich Market alone! These pubs were the city’s congregation points; in them you could encounter all kinds of characters, and witness some strange, amusing, and even macabre events.
As you can imagine, a huge amount of ale was required to keep Norwich’s many taps from running dry, and in 1836 there were around 27 breweries in the city. However, the history of brewing in Norwich stretches back far beyond that. From 1096 to 1538, Norwich Cathedral was home to a priory of Benedictine monks. The priory maintained its own brewhouse, producing ale for the monks, their servants and their guests. The servants alone were allotted a gallon of ale a day each; altogether the monastery consumed around 100,000 gallons of ale in a single year!
Despite the brewing boom in the 19th century, by the 1920s Norwich had just a handful of breweries left, known collectively as the Big Four. Disaster struck in 1942 when one of the four, Morgans, was destroyed in a German attack that became known as the ‘Fire Blitz’. By the 1970s Norwich’s remaining breweries had become monopolised by Watney Mann, and when Watney Mann was taken over by a national company, brewing in Norwich ceased altogether.
That could have been the end of Norwich’s brewing legacy, but in this city, beer never stays off the menu for long. By the 1980s, Norwich’s brewing resurgence had begun. Led by the Star Brewery, the Wolf Brewery and Woodforde’s, microbreweries started springing up all over the city. Twenty years later and even historic breweries have come back to life, such as Lacons, which reopened in 2010 after a 45-year absence! Woodforde’s has become a nationwide brand and the Good Pub Guide’s Brewery of the Year 2015, and there are over 40 microbreweries in Norwich and Norfolk.
Many of Norwich’s microbreweries sprung from already thriving pubs. One such pub was the Coach and Horses, which in 1993 gave rise to the Chalk Hill Brewery, established on the same site as the pub. The 15-barrel brewery produces six ales, which find their way into the city’s many pubs and festivals, where they’re met with delight – CHB, the Chalk Hill Brewery’s signature bitter, won “beer of the festival” at the Norwich Beer Festival no less than three times in a row.
One of Norwich’s best-loved breweries is the award-winning Fat Cat Brewery, which was formed in 2005 when the landlord of the Fat Cat pub (twice CAMRA’s Pub of the Year), Colin Keatley, decided to try his hand at making the beer as well as serving it. Almost 10 years and eight delicious ales later, the Fat Cat is a household name, and two more Fat Cat pubs have been opened in different corners of the city.
With 30 real ales available all year round, the Fat Cat is the perfect pub for ale lovers. Other excellent real ale pubs include the Murderers, where you’ll find handpicked ales from small breweries, both local and across the UK.
Another favourite spot for ale lovers is the Kings Head. One of the oldest pubs in Norwich, here you can find a wealth of locally brewed beers plus a wide selection of Belgian beers and Trappist beers, which are brewed by a select group of just 10 Trappist monasteries in the world. Also specialising in Belgian beers is the Belgian Monk, whose extensive menu is a delight for any beer drinker looking to try something new. And if you like your beer to come with a good story, pay a visit to the Rumsey Wells. This characterful Adnams pub was once a hat shop belonging to the eponymous Rumsey Wells, hatter to the Edwardian gentry and something of a local legend.
Leading Norwich through the craft beer revolution is the Norwich Tap House. A new addition to the Norwich pub scene, the Tap House focuses on keg beers rather than ales, offering a 20-strong selection of beers from the UK’s best microbreweries.
And it’s not just in Norwich’s pubs that beer lovers can feel at home. The annual Norwich Beer Festival held in Blackfriars Hall (October) welcomes over 18,000 punters over the course of three days, making it the largest indoor beer festival in the country, and the only one held in a former monastic building. So much beer is sold during the festival that the stock has to be completely replaced at least three times!
Since 2011, a ten-day celebration has been held every May in Norwich to celebrate the city’s unofficial status as the UK’s City of Ale. Incorporating pubs, breweries and beers, the festival takes the form of a packed timetable of events – even if you wanted to attend them all, you wouldn’t be able to! The City of Ale campaign is yet more evidence that Norwich’s love of beer is immutable. Despite the devastation of the city’s brewing industry in the 1960s and 70s, beer is once again king in the City of Stories.
Norwich City of Ale Festival, 26 May – 5 June 2016
Norwich Beer Festival, 24 – 29 October 2016
St Andrew’s Hall