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Brewer behind Oakham Ales Citra to retire this week

Oakham Ales brewing legend John Bryan retires this week - after more than 26 years at the pioneering Peterborough-based brewery.
John Bryan at Oakham Ales Westgate Brewery (1)

As a man who has spent so much time flying in the face of brewing tradition, John signed off from his brewing career by taking to the skies in a Spitfire (below), aptly enough completing a perfect barrel roll over the Cambridgeshire countryside.

An innovative and hugely influential figure in UK brewing, John - who is signing off on Friday this week - joined Oakham in October 1995, and within weeks he was promoted to Head Brewer on the retirement of Oakham's founder John Wood.

Influenced by his predecessor’s open-minded approach to hop selection, in 2002 John Bryan was the first UK brewer to travel to the USA to witness the hop harvest firsthand. By selecting hops direct from the growers he set a precedent for UK and US brewers alike. John's first trip was meant to be a one-off visit. However, it was so productive that he has been back for the harvest every year since, with the exception of 2006 when Oakham Ales' new Woodston brewery opened, and thanks to COVID in 2020-21. The close relationships John and Paul Corbett from Charles Faram fostered with the growers were of real significance in the rapid development of new hop varieties. Their visits are widely acknowledged as a key factor in the increased availability of US-sourced hop varieties to UK brewers - a catalyst for the explosion of the UK craft beer scene.

John's 2009 visit to the US hop fields was to go down in brewing history. He was introduced to a remarkable new hop variety - Citra. It had been developed from rootstock by Barth Haas.

The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. had been using it for a couple of years, but a small quantity of the hop’s third harvest was leftover and offered to the two British visitors. Oakham Ales took around a third of what was available and John was so excited by Citra’s potential that he sent his share home by air in order to brew with it as soon as possible.

Blown away by the variety’s powerful citrus and tropical fruit aromas and flavours, John’s initial idea was to brew a strong, single-hop Citra IPA. However, because of the limited quantity of hops available, he choose to brew a 4.2% beer instead to make them go further. The legend that is Oakham Ales Citra was born.

He still jokes about it, claiming that it “was my first sensible commercial decision at Oakham Ales – to brew a sessionable beer with that first tranche of Citra hops rather than the strong IPA I initially had in mind.” The first batch of Citra was brewed on 20th November 2009, the day after the airmail hops landed. The ground-breaking beer received such a positive reaction that it was brewed every other month in 2010 before joining the Oakham core line-up in 2011. The original recipe and brewing process have changed very little since 2009.

John was already using a significantly heavier weight of hops than many craft brewers of hop-forward beers use today, meaning that the beer has been more than a match for the changing tastes of consumers. Citra was named Champion Golden Beer of Great Britain at the Great British Beer Festival in both 2014 and 2019. The strong Citra IPA John originally envisioned came along in 2011. Green Devil IPA has received its own share of critical acclaim, notably being named World Champion Cask Beer at the International Brewing Awards in 2013 and 2015.

Once retired, John won’t be stepping away completely from Oakham Ales. He will remain as a partner in the business and intends to continue with his annual hop sourcing visits to the USA for at least the next couple of harvests:

He said: “I’ve made so many friends in the States over the years that it would be remiss of me not to pester them for a few more yet." The brewing will be left in the safe hands of newly appointed Head Brewer Mark Tetlow. Mark has more than 30 years of experience in the brewing industry. He is overseeing the Oakham team including Lead Brewer Ed Sharman and Quality Brewer Stewart Poulter.

JB and Spitfire 10.05.22