Interview: Sam Burke, Cotswolds' newest female brewer
PUBLISHED: 13:52 08 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:52 08 January 2018
All hail the ale! Meet the Cotswolds' newest female brewer, Sam Burke: a refreshing newcomer adding a whole new fizz to the market
Refreshing, bubbly, modern in taste - never bitter. And complex enough to keep you interested.
That’s a spot-on description of the Cotswolds’ own female brewer, Sam Burke. And it’s not a bad description of the fabulous new beers she creates from an historic converted laundry in the middle of Blockley village.
Sam launched her first two – Shin Kickers (a crisp pale ale) and Blockley Blonde (a golden ale with a tease of elderflower) – in February this year. And while the Cotswolds helped inspire the first two, the third soon-to-be-launched tipple looks even further west.
“It’s an Irish red ale called Red Peg after my great-great-great grandmother, Peggy,” Sam explains. “She lived in Mayo and had a shock of red hair. It’s said that people could recognise her walking across the fields from miles away. I think she’d be rather pleased to know she inspired a beer!”
If Peg stood out from the crowd, then so does Sam. It took courage to start her own brewery – she’s the first to admit it – especially in such a male-dominated industry. But it’s not the first time she’s helped change a zeitgeist.
In a varied career (complexity being the mother of good brewing), she spent several years in theatre, both on stage and crewing. “One of the first big jobs I got was at Chichester Festival Theatre. When I went for the interview, they’d never had a woman on the crew before, and I was warned the work would be too physical. But they agreed to give me a try...As a result, they now regularly have women on board!
“In fact, there’s no difference between the sexes. Once you’ve got the technique of lifting something, it doesn’t matter how big or small you are.”
Beer, of course, is the ultimate macho market – but Sam’s passion for brewing dates right back to childhood, when her parents took on the tenancy of a pub in Camberwell. Only three years old, she loved it from the off: the high-ceilinged Victorian building; dockers in their flat caps who’d frequent the working-men’s bar; genteel wives who’d sip port and lemon; draymen delivering the barrels.
“It was the characters I loved more than anything. So often in life, we tend to mix with people who know the same things as we do, and who agree with our opinions. The pleasure of a pub is that you encounter so many different types, who challenge and entertain you.
“I’m told that I’d sit at the bar in the evening, at the age of three or four, put two pence on the counter and grandly announce, ‘A drink for the boys!’ And all the men would say, ‘Thank you Sam!’ My poor dad would then have to get them all a drink!”
Sam’s own relationship with beer also began in childhood. Seeing how slight she was, the family doctor recommended a regular dose of Guinness, known for its iron-rich properties. “So I was given a tiny shot glass, which I’d fill from the pump. Not long afterwards, I informed my parents that I preferred lager!”
Since those early days, Sam has had a whole host of successful jobs, including working as a tennis coach in America, and as assistant wine-maker at the Three Choirs Vineyard in Newent – a job she loved. But the nagging desire to create her own recipes meant she finally took the plunge and set up Burke’s Beers earlier this year. She’s started small – she’s still coaching tennis as a side-line – but the business is growing by the day. And the excitement of brewing her own style of beer is addictive.
“At the moment, there’s a strong push towards very hoppy beers: the American-style hops; the New Zealand hops. You’ll find mine, by contrast, to be refreshing: very fizzy; can be served chilled; light but with depth; good flavour and not overly hoppy.” If you want a wine comparison, then the hoppy beers are your NZ Sauvignon Blanc – with a real ‘Wham!’ – while Sam’s are your subtle Sancerre.
You’d not go far wrong in pairing the Blockley Blond with a delicate rice dish, or the Shin Kickers with good old fish and chips. “Because they’re more carbonated, they complement fatty foods really well, just like Champagne does,” Sam says.
And the drinkers – who are fast becoming fans – agree. What’s more, people love the fact that Sam is a strong supporter of all things local. You won’t find her using anything but British produce, including grain from a local farm. What’s more, she composts all the hops and yeast, only uses environmentally-friendly cleaning products, and conserves water.
But don’t worry, chaps. Sam’s not aiming so much to beat you as to join you.
“Every career I’ve ever had has been male-dominated,” she says. “But the way to prove yourself in any job is simply by being good at what you do - and that’s all I’ve ever done. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female: skill is the proper way to gain respect.”
And that’s an ethos to which we can all raise our glasses.