John Henry ale: A novel way to celebrate 150 years

Thursday, 22 January 2015

John Henry beer

The Oxford Brookes John Henry Ale was masterminded by Brookes alumnus and Shotover Brewery Proprietor Ed Murray. Here he writes about the process of coming up with the novel idea to celebrate our 150th anniversary.

Back in November 2013, Beth Hill from the events team at Brookes came to visit us at the brewery in Horspath to talk about producing a celebration ale for Brookes’ 150th anniversary in 2015.

After lengthy discussions lasting over four months and deciding that we didn’t just want to put a new label on an existing beer, our thoughts turned to producing a beer which reflects the origins of the university.

Conversations took us into the National Brewing Library, held at Oxford Brookes, where we found a recipe for an export India Pale Ale (IPA) from 1864, just a year before they first opened their doors as The Oxford School of Art.

India Pale Ale was a very special product of its time. It was born around the late 18th century when beer began to be exported to India and the Far East and because it had to withstand crossing the equator twice and months at sea, it had to be very strong in alcohol. Strong beers were usual in the early Victorian era anyway, to ensure they kept well without refrigeration but beers made for export to the Empire had to have outstanding keeping qualities and contain a huge amount of hops.

The combination of ingredients that went into the beer and the maturation time created pale ales of great quality with depth of character and an intense flavour that eventually became world famous. We’ve tried to create that recipe and distinct flavour in 2014.

The John Henry celebration ale is a very strong beer by today’s standards at 7.1 per cent but as a brewer it is a delight to have been able to make a beer which is in a historical record. This beer is now six months old, young (but drinking nicely) for an export IPA. It will improve and change with age as the flavours integrate with each other, just like a good stew.

Its flavour is big, robust and complex but it’s not a beer you would drink in a pub. It’s a beer to be sipped with cheese at the end of a meal or with a sweet and definitely to be enjoyed and shared with friends.

When the beer launched at the end of October we had no idea it would as popular as it was; the 500ml bottles sold out within a few weeks! Limited edition 750ml bottles are still available and we are currently in the process of brewing more which will be ready to toast the official anniversary – 150 years to the day since the first classes were taught – on 22nd May this year.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on Tuesday 20th January. 

Ed Murray, Shotover Brewing Company and Brookes MA Business alumnus (Oxford Brookes University 1999)