Thursday, 25 October 2012

Gone for a Burton(wood)

I was recently looking through my collection of old beer and pub leaflets and guidebooks, and came across a little book entitled The Pub Lover’s Pocket Guide, published in 1983, which was a fairly in-depth guide to all of the nearly 300 pubs owned by Burtonwood Brewery. Now, some defunct independent breweries are still clearly remembered with considerable affection, such as King & Barnes, Simpkiss or Yates & Jackson, but Burtonwood, despite being a substantial operation, never commanded the same loyalty. Even though it survived into the 2000s, and the plant is still going as a contract brewing operation, you might not realise it had ever existed.

In his 1986 book Local Brew, Mike Dunn credits the company with 290 tied houses. These were widely scattered across Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales, with outposts in Shropshire, Derbyshire and West Yorkshire and a substantial cluster in Staffordshire south and east of Stoke-on-Trent. However, nowhere were they numerous enough to say “this is Burtonwood country”. Many were fairly unassuming pubs in inconspicuous locations, although they did have a few prime properties such as the Rake Hall at Stanney in Cheshire and the Manor Farm at Rainhill near St Helens. They also included historic pubs such as the Holly Bush at Salt in Staffordshire, the White Lion at Barthomley in South Cheshire and the Scotch Piper at Lydiate in South-West Lancs. They also owned the Royal Oak in Eccleshall which has recently been ably refurbished by Joules. In the late 70s and early 80s I often used to visit the Tiger’s Head at Norley, an attractive, comfortable country pub between Frodsham and Northwich.

They tended to avoid prominent sites in the centres of major towns and cities, although in central Manchester they did have the Bull’s Head opposite Piccadilly Station and the Union on Princess Street which became famous as a gay venue. In Stockport they had the distinctive two-level Ups and Downs on Wellington Road South, which I don’t think has been open at any time in the 27 years I have lived in the town, and remains as an eyesore to this day, and the long-closed Golden Lion on Hillgate which even when trading was basic and grotty. They also later acquired from Tetley’s the Gladstone/Bishop Blaize, a pub with a characterful unspoilt interior, but which was also allowed to become very run-down and is now closed too.

Possibly a key reason for the company’s lack of profile lay in its beers, a standard mild and bitter which Mike Dunn says “have no great reputation”. They weren’t bad beers, just undistinguished, in the same way as Hyde’s regular beers are (in my view) today. You wouldn’t actively avoid them, but few would go out of their way to find them. They also later introduced a cask version of their Top Hat premium keg bitter but this, while stronger, I wouldn’t say was particularly distinctive either. In the early 80s Burtonwood also gained unwanted publicity through some of their pubs selling keg beers through handpumps.

In the early 1980s they fought and lost a takeover battle with Marston’s for Border Brewery in Wrexham, and Mike Dunn describes them as an ambitious company, but after this they seemed to lose their way and fall into a corporate torpor. There was a steady drip-drip of pub closures and disposals, and the pubs that remained began to look tired and lacking investment. They certainly weren’t actively buying new pubs as some of their competitors were. In 1998 they entered into a bizarre joint venture with Eldridge Pope of Dorchester called the Thomas Hardy Brewing Company. This seemed to usher in a protracted saga of mismanagement, resulting in the Dorchester brewery closing in 2003 and what remained of the Burtonwood pub estate being sold to Marston’s in 2005. Some of their pubs, such as the Bull’s Head mentioned above, are now doing well in Marston’s ownership.

The Burtonwood beer brands disappeared, but the brewery continued in operation doing contract brewing, producing, for example, Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter. According to the 2013 Good Beer Guide, it is still going today, although no longer producing any cask beer. But the substantial family brewing and pub-owning concern of which it was once a core part has now become no more than a fading memory.

17 comments:

  1. Martin, Cambridge25 October 2012 at 20:01

    I remember the standard bitter with some affection, probably from some decent pubs in Wigan (? Pear Tree) before away games at Springfield Park. Widnes was also a stronghold.

    Wasn't there a decent premium beer with Hat in the name in latter years ?

    Thanks for solving the mystery of who produces Websters Bitter (albeit keg) - another beer disdained by CAMRA but beloved by real-ale drinker footbal supporters along the M62.

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  2. "Wasn't there a decent premium beer with Hat in the name in latter years ?"

    See paragraph 4 ;-)

    As I said, Burtonwood wasn't "bad" beer, just a bit ordinary. It certainly could be enjoyable when well kept, and on its home patch was widely thought to be a step above Greenalls.

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  3. I don't recall the Union in Manchester as being a pub popular with the gay community. If it was, then it certainly wasn't in the rather flamboyant way that the Rembrandt (owned by Lees) was back in the mid to late 70's.

    That aside, I certainly remember drinking some quite acceptable pints of Burtonwood (both bitter and mild) in the pub. It was the only outlet belonging to the company that I was aware of in central Manchester at the time.

    I have to agree though that Burtonwood were never quite regarded with the same affection as the likes of King & Barnes, Simpkiss or Yates & Jackson, but then I would argue strongly that the latter three all brewed far better, and definitely more distinctive beers.

    Burtonwood certainly seem to have lost their way, and I'm surprised to learn that the brewery is still in operation.

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  4. The Union (now the New Union) became progressively more gay-oriented as the years went by. It now promotes itself as a Gay Hotel & Bar.

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  5. Hmmm...I was never a fan of King and Barnes.

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  6. I was Ed, back in the day when their bitter was known simply as PA, rather than Sussex. The recipe changed after they built their new brewhouse. The same thing happened with Sheps!

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  7. Burtonwood mild had a good reputation in these parts in the 70s. I remember afternoons in New Brighton followed by pints in the Royal Oak, Liscard. There was a scruffy pub in Liverpool too that CAMRA tried to save - possibly the White House? Burtonwood favoured Metron electric pumps rather than handpumps and I don't think they all dispensed cask beer.

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  8. Ah, so King and Barnes went Sheps, I understand now.

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  9. "There was a scruffy pub in Liverpool too that CAMRA tried to save - possibly the White House?"

    The only Liverpool pub in the book anywhere near the centre is the Cambridge on Mulberry Street.

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  10. Burtonwood also had the Childwall Abbey - more evidence of the haphazard nature of their estate.

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  11. Used to go to the Childwall Abbey a fair bit as I worked not far from there. I have that book too. Must re-read it. Nice one Mudgie.

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  12. They also had the Wheatsheaf in Manchester's N/4 which used to host some very late night lock-ins.

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  13. The Wheatsheaf isn't listed in the book - I think it was bought later from Tetley's.

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  14. It's a pity you didn't put a link to this somewhere on this post

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTN6Du3MCgI

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  15. Oddly, most of the Stockport & Manchester pubs mentioned in your post they bought from other people - the Golden Lion was originally Wilsons, I think, as was the Bulls Head. The Ups & Downs was also Wilsons and I'm not sure they actually owned it (and in any event it has a very chequered history - when I first moved to Stockport in the mid-1970s it was closed down then (under its original name of the Wellington).

    As for the Union - this was in fact one of the original and famous gay pubs in Manchester and had been since the 1950s.

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  16. The reason why King and Barnes went bland wasn't their new brewhouse, but a yeast infection. They had to nuke all their yeast, sterilize the entire brewery and get new in. Suspicions are that it came from Whitbread -in other words, as a fungus it was idle, and died before it could produce any interesting chemicals to influence the taste.

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  17. Gales also had a yeast infection in 1984 after which their beers were never the same again.

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