Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Local Brew

People were recently asked on Twitter to name some of their favourite beer books, and one in my collection for which I’ve always had a high regard is Local Brew – Traditional Breweries and their Ales by Mike Dunn, published in 1986 by Robert Hale. It’s a small-format hardback with a traditional layout of pages of text dotted with line drawings and interspersed with sections of glossy black and white photographs.

Mike Dunn had previously been responsible for the Penguin Guide to Real Draught Beer, published in 1979, which I also still have on my shelves. The main part of this was descriptions of all the breweries then producing real ale, and in Local Brew he expands on this to concentrate on the independent family brewers. At this time, microbreweries were in their infancy and, while the “Big Six” national brewers did produce some well-regarded real ales, most of the beers that were enjoyed and celebrated by CAMRA members came from the family brewers.

After introductory chapters outlining the historical development of the brewing industry, the wave of mergers and takeovers in the post-war period, and the revival of interest in small-scale local production, the book goes on to provide a pen portrait of each of the surviving breweries spread over two or three pages. The author describes its historical origins, takeovers of other firms along the way, the current ownership structure, the extent of its tied estate and the various beers produced. The style is crisp and readable and interest never drags.

In total, there are over 90 breweries listed, over half of which are no longer with us today. However, it is important to remember that, while some such as Vaux were undone by family feuds, only one – Matthew Brown – fell victim to a predatory takeover. The author expresses his concerns over the future of breweries such as Hartley’s and Oldham, which were still in operation bu had been acquired by other family brewers, and Border, which at the time of writing was subject to a takeover battle between Marston’s and Burtonwood.

In my home region of North-West England, there are fourteen breweries listed: Boddington’s, Matthew Brown, Burtonwood, Greenall Whitley, Hartley’s, Higson’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Jennings, Lees, Mitchell’s, Oldham, Robinson’s, Thwaites. Theakston’s of Carlisle is listed under the owning company based in Masham, Yorkshire, although by that time it had been acquired by Matthew Brown, who themselves were soon to fall into the hands of Scottish & Newcastle. Yates & Jackson of Lancaster, noted for their superb pale bitter, had been a relatively recent loss to Thwaites, with local rivals Mitchell’s moving into their former brewery which was much better laid out than their own cramped premises.

Only seven of those fourteen plants are still in - existence five as independent companies, Jennings as a subsidiary of the Carlsberg-Marston’s joint venture, and Burtonwood in the shadowy world of contract brewing, having disposed of all its tied pubs to Marston’s and no longer producing any beers under its own brand. Border in Wrexham, also now defunct, can also be considered as an honorary member of the North-West breweries, as it was much closer to them than the other four Welsh breweries in South Wales.

Some eyebrows may be raised at the inclusion of Greenall Whitley but, although CAMRA for a while attempted to include them as a member of an expanded “Big Seven”, in reality they always had much more in common with the bigger family brewers like Wolverhampton & Dudley and Greene King, and of course their empire has now disappeared off the face of the earth. They were the biggest minnow in the pond, not the smallest shark.

By today’s flowery standards, the descriptions of the various beers are fairly terse, but give a general idea of what to expect. Robinson’s Best Bitter (now Unicorn) is described as “a magnificent beer, very pale, but full-flavoured and well-hopped”, but Hydes Bitter (now Original) is “a well-balanced if not especially memorable brew” while the long-defunct Oldham Bitter was “a light-coloured ale with an unusual taste – an acquired taste, in fact.”

The author goes to town with Holt’s Bitter, saying that it is “widely regarded as one of Britain’s truly great draught beers, very dry and bitter, pale straw-coloured and bursting with flavour, it shocks the tastebuds of those accustomed to bland, ordinary bitters, but it is well worth the effort of familiarisation.” I first enjoyed an extended acquaintance with it in 1985 and have to say that, while it was certainly much more bitter than it is now, even then I would have described it as mid-brown rather than straw-coloured. He also refers to Holt’s “extremely low prices”, which are another thing of the past.

In the thirty-five years since the publication of the book, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Over half the family breweries listed have disappeared, and many of those that remain have sold off numerous smaller pubs and concentrated on an affluent dining trade. Finding a proper down-to-earth boozer tied to a family brewer is much rarer than it once was, although they still do exist, especially in the estate of a certain idiosyncratic Yorkshire brewery. It is much less the case now that your progress on a journey through the country would be marked by the changing brewers’ names on the pub signboards. “Ooh, there’s a Devenish pub, we must be in Cornwall”.

A few years ago on this subject, I wrote:

Of course we have gained something through the massive increase in both the number of breweries and beer styles being produced. But we have also lost something valuable in the way the link between beer and place has been eroded through the decline of family brewers and their tied estates. We should treasure the continued existence of quirky, independent companies like Donnington.
While the family brewery sector is much diminished from 1986, we are fortunate that we still have companies like Palmer’s, Hook Norton, Bateman’s and the two tiny Black Country survivors – Batham’s and Holden’s – who enhance the beer landscape through both their distinctive beers and the character of their tied estates, and provide a continued link with the traditions of the past.

There are plenty of copies of Local Brew available on eBay if you want to get hold of one yourself.

22 comments:

  1. Mike was living in Cardiff or Penarth last time I saw him

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    1. It says on the dust jacket that he "now lives in Brains country at Penarth". Brains are still clinging on.

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    2. Brains have shut their brewery and leased all their pubs to Marstons

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    3. According to this tweet, Brains brewery is still in operation, although there has been talk of outsourcing production.

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    4. Brains opened the new state of the art Dragon Brewery in 2019. How long it lasts is anyone's guess but after the separation of Marston's brewery from the retail side I think it's got a better chance of staying open.

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    5. Brains bottled beers appeared in Morrisons and other shops a few years ago for a short time, then disappeared. That was the only time I've ever had Brains!

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    6. Brains SA is one of my favourite beers and, pre-Covid, if travelling into North Wales I would sometimes stop off at the big ASDA at Queensferry to pick up a few bottles. I think that was stocked because it was a local Welsh product, though, rather than national distribution. I haven't seen it locally for a few years now.

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  2. Just realised I've never read that - luckily I've also just realised I inherited a copy from Rhys Jones (in fact I seem to have inherited a copy of most beer and cider books imaginable from Rhys).

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  3. Burtonwood is currently owned by Molson Coors. Although the site is now for sale and looks set to close later in the year unless a buyer is found. Interestingly the details show Sharps lager and keg brews are from here....

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  4. I have this wonderful book and still regularly drink Bathams and Holdens. Wonderful beers still and Bathams are very smoker friendly as well. Terrific !

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  5. Holts bitter was pale and hoppy and cheap? Sounds like Boddies back in its heyday! I wonder which brewery imitated the other?

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  6. I too have a copy of Mike Dunn’s “Local Brew” alongside his earlier Penguin Guide, and look back with nostalgia at the times when family brewers ruled the real ale “roost.”

    We’ve certainly lost a fair few of those family brewers, and not all of them due to hostile takeover by any means. Family feuds and people wanting to cash in their chips, all played a part, along with a lack of investment.

    Revered brewers, such as Morrells, Gales, King & Barnes, Ridleys, and even Young’s, to name but a few, are all examples of the above and illustrate greed, infighting, asset stripping and other unpleasant features of the human condition.

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    1. By definition, a family brewer needs the continued commitment of the owning family to survive. Once that is withdrawn, it's automatically "in play".

      However, as I've said in the past, multinational drinks companies seem to be able to maintain the distinctive identity and authenticity of Scotch malt whisky distilleries, so why can't they do the same for breweries? It remains to be seen what happens to the likes of Camden Town and Meantime in the longer term.

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    2. The value of a whisky distillery is from global distribution and the mystique of the individual brands. Breweries, not so much by any means. They just don't have the history.

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  7. Never quite understood the concept of a 'hostile takeover'. The idea is surely to push the price up until the sellers just can't resist. They aren't forced to take the money, even if the directors of the target might lose some fees and perks. There were studies that I recall from the 80s showing that many takeovers never delivered the promised results, although I would agree that buying a chain of pubs makes sense if you've gone and built a brewery that is far too large for what you can sell in existing outlets.

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    1. A hostile takeover is when a company is publicly held and owned by a broad body of shareholders, who accept a takeover bid against the wishes and advice of the directors. That's what happened to Matthew Brown. Boddingtons was also subject to a hostile takeover bid from Allied Breweries before the CAMRA era.

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    2. Mathew Brown was about price. I think S & N came back a couple of times before getting acceptances.

      Although retired now, I spent 35 years in investment management and I doubt if most investors were even aware of who the directors were. It's also possible that investors might have shares in both companies.

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  8. Professor Pie-Tin29 April 2021 at 14:33

    White smoke energing from a late-night government cabinet meeting last night has put a provisional date for the re-opening of Irish pubs at June 7th.
    Outdoor only and no €9 minimum food spend as before.
    For most wet-led pubs it means they will have been closed for nearly 470 days.
    470 ...

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  9. Anyone got 'The Beer Drinkers Companion' by Frank Baillie ? I treasure my copy and you can really wallow in nostalgia for really great breweries like Grays of Chelmsford whose beers were wonderful and all from wood as were the great beers of Yates and Jackson. I can still taste them now and no grapefruit hops either !!!

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    1. Yes, I've got that, although I've never done a specific post about it. Even more of a time capsule, taking you back to a vanished, and in many ways better, world, where beer and locality were inextricably bound together.

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    2. Yes you are right Mr C ! Michael Gray of Grays in addition to running the company used to do all the coopering too ! I loved Ridleys beer and often used to drive past the brewery and see all the wooden casks outside. Wonderful beer and a sad loss ! Sadly Wadworth seem to have gone into a decline now , selling pubs and the quality of the beer under the new Head Brewer is not what it was. They no longer brew Old Timer on cask either.

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  10. Looks like a cracker Mudgie - some great old beer stuff out there if you look hard enough

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