Reepham’s Panther Brewery is creating real ale with a bite

Following redundancy last spring, Martin James has re-opened the former Reepham Brewery to create a new real ale with a bite.

When the Reepham Brewery called time 13 months ago, the award-winning beer stopped flowing, the mash tun was abandoned and the hops order was cancelled.

Six months later, Martin James was made redundant and decided to make sure his next career path was something he really enjoyed.

Now, just weeks after taking control of the unused brewery, the former sugar worker has brought the old equipment back into use to create a series of real ales – with bite.

'It can be depressing when you are made redundant,' he said. 'But sometimes it gives you an opportunity to say 'do I really want to do what I was doing before?' It's a chance to get out there and do something different.'

When 47-year-old Mr James was made redundant from his job as a technical manager with sugar manufacturer Tate and Lyle in London, he did exactly that. He decided to take a gamble and turn his hobby of 30 years into a business.

Having dallied with home-brewing kits since he was a teenager, he bought the old Reepham Brewery from the local council and re-opened it as the Panther Brewery.

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The Collers Way site, which operated from 1983 until December 2009, was originally run by Ted Willems and won a number of awards for its ales, including the Rapier bitter.

The former owner, who started the brewery with his father, Denis, and mother, Sybil, called time on the business a year ago.

Mr James, who has lived in Norfolk for 15 years, said: 'It's a great shame that it stopped – it won lots of awards. I thought it would be great to get it going again.

'The building had been left for a year. All the equipment was there but you probably wouldn't recognise it because it was so dirty. It took a good month to steam clean the ceiling and wash everything clean.'

The father-of-two, who lives in Reepham with his wife, Diana, joined the East Anglian Brewers co-operative which offered plenty of advice to help him get started.

'The idea was really to do bottle beers, which I have done,' he said. 'There are three different brews – golden panther, which I brewed at the end of November, the red panther and then black panther.'

Mr James said each name reflected the colour of the beer itself and was intended to help non-real ale fanatics find the right one for them.

He said the golden panther was a light beer with a refreshing, strong flavour using a lot of hops while the red used more malt to create a hint of toffee. The black panther was 'hard to describe' but closer to stout with 'quite a complex flavour'.

Future plans include creating a pink panther, using fruit juices.

The name of the brewery is a nod to the many reported sightings of a big cat in the local area.

On its website it explains: 'Inhabitants of Reepham claim to have seen a large panther-like cat prowling and secretly stalking the countryside. Our hand-crafted ale is dedicated to this beautiful animal. Deliciously balanced with poise and a sleek finish, it is a celebration of the beast's cunning and prowess.'

Mr James hopes to use the Panther Brewery to support Norfolk suppliers and sources 80 to 90pc of the ingredients needed for the ale locally. That includes all the malt, which comes from a farmer in Wells.

Each batch of 1,000 litres takes a week to brew and then another couple of weeks to condition. With the business only starting up in November it was a race against time to get the process completed before Christmas and an initial batch of more than 1,000 bottles quickly sold out.

Panther Ale is already sold in three pubs in the county, including the Royal Oak at Bintree, near Dereham, and the brewer hopes Reepham's two pubs will soon follow suit.

Panther Brewery joins a growing number of micro-breweries in Norfolk. It is estimated there are more than 30 across the county including the recently established Northcoste Brewery in Norwich, the Humpty Dumpty Brewery at Reedham, and the Iceni Brewery at Mundford, near Brandon.

For more information visit www.pantherbrewery.co.uk