Jennings Brewing Company was founded as and still is a family business. Currently based in Cockermouth, Cumbria, the brewery was established in Lorton in 1828. Lorton is a picturesque little Lake District village, now a twee tourist trap but then a traditional community of hill sheep farmers and associated wool merchants and butchers.
The family heritage of the brewery goes back to its founder, John Jennings, who had brewing in his blood - his father, William, was a maltster by trade. In search of a larger market, the brewery moved to Cockermouth, at the confluence of the Derwent and the Cocker rivers. The site allowed the Jennings to sink their own well for the brewery. This is still a point of some pride, and the head brewer has said that Jennings beers are impossible to copy exactly, because of the unique composition of the Lakeland well water. Whatever the homespun spin, other ingredients in the beers are better known and easier to source. They include Norfolk barley, Kentish Golding hops and the famous Fuggles hops.
While traditional brewing is still pursued, the brewery itself has invested in newer machinery, including a substantial refit in 2000/2001. This replaced, among other things, the old grain elevator with a new computer-controlled system of silos to mix the barley and hops in exact proportion. The quaint old casks and tuns shown to tourists on the brewery tour have been replaced with steel vats and containers that evoke biological weapons factories more than a quiet country pub.
Barley oats are boiled in a container called a mash tun because of the constant physical mixing and stirring they undergo in this phase. The resulting infusion, called wort, is siphoned off and passed through a heat exchanger to cool before being poured into six containers, each roughly the size of a steam locomotive's boiler. Hops and malt are added to the wort to soak and impart their flavour before the yeast is put in. During fermentation, the liquid's dirty froth can be seen through thick smoked glass portholes.
The beer is allowed to cool and stand, particulate being removed by the addition of finings (actually ground up fish bladders, but don't let that put you off - all the finings sink to the bottom of the barrel, below what is actually pulled through a pub's pumps). Jennings ales are decanted into three different sized containers. Firkins are 9 gallons, kilderkins are 18 gallons and a barrel is 36 gallons. Although imprecise, for ease of reference I'll refer to all of these as barrels.
The different sized barrels are moved to the storage/transport area, near the brewery's main courtyard. This is the archetypal cool, dark place all your packets of perishables instruct you to keep them. The barrels are racked in steel rows along each wall, in a long low L-shaped area. From here, they are wheeled to transport wagons which squeeze their way in through the main gate and inch backwards to be loaded up.
Jennings distributes their casked ales to over 100 Jennings pubs in the north of England, mainly in Cumbria but also in the north-east, Yorkshire, Cheshire and Lancashire. They operate these on a tenant landlord basis, although they also supply ale to free houses (national chain JD Wetherspoon often has Jennings as guest beer).
Leaving aside the esoterically named Cross Buttock Ale and their regular Bitter, the best known Jennings beers are Sneck Lifter, Cumberland Ale and Cocker Hoop. Cocker Hoop has quite a light colour for an ale, an almost pale golden tint. It is an all malt brew, with a quite distinctive and bright flavour. Their Cumberland Ale is fairly conventional, being a fine example of a bitter but not exceptional. Sneck Lifter, however, is potent and rather wonderful stuff. Dark and ruddy in colour, its rich taste is distinctive and at 5.1% ABV it is to be savoured rather than gulped. Highly recommended, if you can find it.