Head Brewer, Ian Hornsey was active in the early days of Cambridge CAMRA when he lectured at what most of us still call the Tech (now Anglia Polytechnic Uni). Even back then he always talked about opening his own brewery but it was not until 1986 that the project got off the ground in a converted garage in the lovely Suffolk town of Clare.
For the first few years only one beer, Bitter, was produced, but what a beer! Based on an old Yorkshire recipe, it remains a glorious example of the brewer's craft, beautifully balanced, packed with flavour and topped off with an enormously long bitter finish - the sort of ale you can taste for hours afterwards. It was voted Bitter of the Festival three times running at the Cambridge Beer Festival and once, overall Champion. However its greatest accolade had to wait until last year when it won the inaugural Champion Beer of East Anglia contest.
Ian was initially reluctant to brew more than one ale but was persuaded to add a stonger brew after a couple of years. Again an old recipe, for a London porter, was employed. I well remember a night in The Seafarer, Clare discussing this with Ian and his business partner, Dick Burge. Ian, who takes his ale seriously, wanted to call it No.1 Porter. Dick felt this was boring. It does only have meaning if there is also a No.2 Porter. As the Nethergate Bitter consumption increased, so did the outlandishness of the suggestions. In the end, we were convinced that Black Bladder Blaster was the answer. Fortunately sobriety returned and Old Growler was chosen.
1990 saw IPA join the range. It was originally brewed as Casks IPA for a local pub chain, but was then absorbed into the mainstream. IPA incidentally stands for Ian's Personal Ale. It is a light refreshing brew with that characteristic Nethergate hoppiness.
Ian's interest in old recipes next led him to try brewing with a very traditional ingredient, coriander. Both Growler and a 1038 pale bitter were brewed this way, the wort percolating through a bed of coriander seeds to give a warming spicy tang to the resultant ales - Umbel Magna and Umbel Ale respectively.
The most recent addition to the permanent range is the majestic Goldengate (4.5%), a light-coloured beer which uses three hop varieties. One-offs are also starting to appear - Decadent was a 10th Anniversary Ale and Christmas Ale, needing no explanation, which may become a permanent feature.
At one time Nethergate intended to develop a small estate of pubs. In the event only two were secured - The Bull at Rode in Somerset and The Cambridge Blue in Gwydir Street, Cambridge. The Blue is in fact now the only Nethergate pub, the other having been disposed of. It sells four Nethergate beers along with two ever-changing guests, plus locally-produced Cassels' cider and was the 1995 Cambridge CAMRA Pub of the Year.
Nethergate expanded in 1992 into the world of bottled beers and have developed an extensive supermarket trade. This has required the beers concerned to be brewed (under close supervision) at Greene King and McMullens. None of these beers are, as yet, bottle-conditioned.
Ingenious use of space at the brewery means that Nethergate have scope to continue growing for some time without leaving the spiritual home. Long may they thrive.