Little Valley Brewery, Python IPA
We got the chance to chat with Sue Cooper from Little Valley Brewery earlier this week. The first question on our lips was how did a Dutchman end up founding a brewery in a small village in the valleys of West Yorkshire? Sue should know as Wim is Sue’s partner “in life and work” she pointed out, before adding “Don’t work with your partner Gordon.” We quickly realized that there was going to be an interesting back story.
Sue Cooper met Wim van der Spek on Dec 19th 1999. In Kathmandu. Sue had just finished a two-year contract on a community development project in the Doti in West Nepal and was about to return back to the UK. Only, rather than hop on an aeroplane, she had chosen to cycle home on a third-hand bicycle she’d recently had repaired by a local bike mechanic. A few days before she was due to depart some friends of Sue’s told her about a Dutch bloke who had arrived recently arrived in Kathmandu who had cycled from Holland via Tibet. Whether this was a blind date arranged by well-meaning friends or a way of Sue getting some advice on her return journey is uncertain.
Wim was a beer geek. He’d started a beer club when he was still at school and he’d cycled all the way to Tibet with the intention of seeing the world’s highest brewery (which he didn’t locate). Whilst there might have been lots of useful route advice that Sue took away from their first meeting there were no sparks. In fact, Sue said she thought he was “a bit boring”.
And so four days later Sue started her pedal-powered journey back to Blighty.
Then, about a month later, Wim “bumped into” Sue in a bird sanctuary in Rajasthan. Yes, this does sound a bit like a script from a romantic comedy by Richard Curtis and we are making the assumption that Wim was a bit more taken with Sue than she might have first thought.
The two travelled together through Northern India before reaching Pakistan where they went their separate ways. Wim travelled to Bavaria to take up a job in a brewery and Sue returned home to the UK (via Iran!).
Buy now their fate and lives together were sealed and Wim found himself working as a food scientist in the UK before eventually making Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire his home. It was here that they hatched plans for the Little Valley Brewery.
Launched in 2005 there would have been about 500 breweries in the UK at the time (as opposed to around 1700 today) and with a background of brewing more European styles of beer, it must have been something of an unusual challenge to open a new brewery. It seems apt that the brewery is located in Cragg Vale at the foot of the longest continuous gradient in England. A challenge for cyclists and brewers alike.
Over the last 12 years, the small, family run team at Little Valley have been producing beers that showcase a range of traditional styles alongside modern ideas. All their range are certified organic and are vegan-friendly. They are also in 500ml bottles and most (we repeat, most) have a sensible abv. It’s not that Little Valley are afraid of higher abv beers (they do make a Barley Wine), but they aren’t going to let the current trends in ‘craft beer’ upset things.
This week’s beer is the Python IPA and is Wim and the team’s homage to the original English India Pale Ale. The sort that would have been arguably robust enough to survive the sea journey to India. Before the term started to just mean ‘a hop forward beer’.
The beer itself pours a wonderful honey colour with a creamy head (go steady with the pour as it is bottle conditioned). There’s also a rather gentle aroma that reminds us of freshly mown lawns and pub beer gardens (“Summer vibes” says our Gem). The taste is bitter but far from astringent. This is no hop bomb and is all the better for it.
Why make this style and not something a bit more modern? The answer is that this beer is partly a technical challenge for Wim (can a Dutchman make a traditional India Pale Ale?). But we can’t also help but feel that this beer is also a tribute to their travels. The name comes from the conduit that carries the pipework from a pub cellar to the taps but it also reflects tales of a python in a bird sanctuary in Rajasthan where Wim caught up with Sue on their return from Nepal.
Let’s recap. Before Wim van der Spek turned 40 years old he wanted to:
i. Cycle to Tibet
ii.Meet the woman of his dreams
iii.Start a brewery
Tick. Tick. Tick. Nice one Wim.
An interesting footnote: In 2014 a certain Terry Jones is reputed to have bought this beer for him and his fellow Pythons on their final reunion tour. Very nice.