Has this Norfolk woman got the best job in the world?
Although more women are now drinking real ale, beer is still often thought of as a man's drink. Yet behind the scenes at one Norfolk brewery, it is essential that one female employee has a taste for the tipple. Abigail Saltmarsh reports.
Beer tasting is part of the daily work routine for Maxine, laboratory manager at Norfolk brewery Woodforde's.
Every single brew that leaves the site has to be tested and retested – and tasted and retasted – and it is Maxine's job to ensure it meets requisite high standards every step of the way.
'To be honest, I didn't really drink beer before I started working in this industry,' she admitted. 'But I have now developed a good sense for the way it should taste so that I can pick up any slight changes and recognise if there are any problems.
'I love all aspects of my job here, and the daily beer tasting is part of that. My husband thinks it is the best job I have ever had!'
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Maxine came to work at Woodforde's three years ago. She originally trained in marine biology but after a stint working for a maltings company in Scotland, where she also ran the lab, her interests changed from the study of the sea to the analysis of ale.
'It is an interesting job,' she said. 'I work on my own and have quite a lot of responsibility and yet I am also with other people.
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'It is also an important job. Customers have to have confidence in the beer they are drinking. They have to know it is of a high quality and that it is safe.'
Maxine is part of a growing team at Woodforde's. The brewery, which was founded in 1981, and named after the infamous diary keeping and beer drinking Parson Woodforde, has gone from strength to strength in recent times, according to marketing manager Sharon Chatten.
'The last 10 years, in particular, have seen rapid growth – and the last two years have seen us deliver double digit sales growth in spite of the recession,' she said.
For the past 21 years, the brewery, which is known for its Wherry, Sundew, Nelson's Revenge, Admiral's Reserve, Madler's Mild, Norfolk Nog and Headcracker beers, has been on the same site at Woodbastwick.
Here, explained head brewer Neil Bain, water is drawn from two wells, 160ft below the surface, to be filtered and made ready for use in the beer production process.
'It is believed that this water could have been rain that fell during the Stone Age. It is very hard as it has come though glacial deposits and so has to go through various stages before we can use it,' he said.
Norfolk-grown barley, which has been malted either at Crisp Malt, in Great Ryburgh, or Simpson's Malt, at Tivetshall St Margaret, arrives at the site in 20-tonne loads.
It goes on to make its way through the brewery's vats, coppers and hop backs, as it is crushed, mashed and mixed with other ingredients – such as hops and yeast, of course – and transformed into ale in the two brews of the day.
'Fermentation takes 48 hours. The whole process takes about a week,' explained Neil.
Every step of this process is followed by Maxine, who not only has to test the beer for its flavour and quality, but also has to make sure the highest levels of hygiene are maintained throughout.
She works from a new laboratory, which is on site at Woodforde's, and has recently been installed with the latest state-of-the-art equipment at a cost of around �50,000.
'The microbiology part of what I do is probably the most important,' she admitted.
'I test samples from every brew to make sure there are no infections in the beer. I also regularly swab the pipes and the vessels to make sure they are clean.'
Maxine constantly carries out random spot checks on pieces of equipment. No other employees are aware of what she will test and when. Equipment is swabbed and samples put on to agar plates in the lab to make sure nothing unpleasant develops.
'This is extremely important. It keeps everyone on their toes. But we have a very good record here. The results are always spot-on, with everything as it should be.
'If that wasn't the case, I would be the first one to start shouting,' she said.
The beer tasting always takes place at the same time every day, with a group of people, usually including both Neil and Maxine.
Samples are brought up from various areas of the brewery to be tasted, and then tasted again.
'We just take small sips of the beer. In total, it is always less than half a pint. We look at it for clarity and taste it to make sure it hasn't gone off,' she said.
'The tastes of the different beers vary and even the same kinds of beer can have slightly different tastes in different brews, but your sense of taste does become heightened and you start to know what to look out for,' she said.
Maxine, who attends conferences and training sessions with others in the industry, said there are one or two women out there doing a similar job to her. Finding women working in breweries is becoming more commonplace.
According to recent research by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) more women are also now drinking beer.
A survey carried out last year revealed the number of women drinking real ale had doubled from the year before. Of the 1,000 adults questioned, 30pc of the women drinkers said they had drunk real ale in 2009, compared with 16pc in 2008.
And Maxine said as a result of beer tasting being part of her daily work routine she has become partial to the occasional half pint in the pub.
'My favourite cask ale is Nelson and my favourite bottled beer is Admiral's,' she admitted. 'Yes, I do quite enjoy the odd one now and again!'