By Roger Clapham
A few weeks ago as I was eyeing the solitary guest beer pump of an unfamiliar pub I noticed the absence of the usual plastic clip to inform you what was on offer. Instead there was simply a hand-written note taped to the pump bearing the words “SUMMER LIGHTNING 5%” in red ink. This unusually ramshackle approach to branding appealed to me, so I promptly decided I was having some, whatever it was. It turned out I’d been missing out on something of a legend.
Summer Lightning was first brewed back in 1988 by John Gilbert in the cellar of the The Wyndham Arms in Salisbury, Wiltshire – an event entirely unconnected to the “summer of love” that acid house was inspiring elsewhere in Britain. That said, in its own way it was pretty revolutionary at the time, as it was a traditional summer ale that he then continued to brew all year round, a practice unheard of in 1988. As you may have guessed this was a successful venture, and the Hopback Brewery soon outgrew the pub cellar – it’s now based in Downton, where they produce six permanent draught and bottled beers, supplying both the trade in general as well as their own tied pubs in the area.
There’s a strong sense of authentic, old-school real ale to the whole story – bearded beer fan opens pub, brews own ales, punters lap them up, awards and popularity follow – and there’s also a strong allegiance to CAMRA, with their logo prominently displayed on both the website (www.hopback.co.uk) and the bottle labels. This probably has something to do with the fact that Summer Lightning and their other beers have won over 70 awards from CAMRA over the past 22 years, so fair enough really.
The beer itself is a deserved classic though – a beautifully straw-coloured summer ale, with a distinct floral aroma and a strong hoppy taste that has a touch of earthy bitterness to it. The bottled version isn’t as good as the draught, it can be a bit lively out of the bottle (but that does give a good body to it at least) and being bottle conditioned there is some yeasty sentiment that remains. That said, it’s very refreshing, and at 5% it’s a cracker of a first pint in the evening, and certainly takes the edge off the day.
All told its well worth seeking out, even if the nights are starting to draw in and the summer itself may well be long gone. John Gilbert was clearly on to something when he first brewed this – the fact that supermarket aisles are now packed year round with ales that would have once been regarded as fit for summertime drinking only is testament to that. So hats off to him and the old-school real ale brigade, they know a thing or two about this beer drinking lark. Cheers…