Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Onwards and upwards

Last week, Robinson’s Brewery announced their intention to invest £12 million to vacate their existing premises in the centre of Stockport and concentrate all their activities on the site of their current packaging centre in Bredbury. While the timing of this news may have come as a surprise, the substance should not have done. The Bredbury facility was opened in 1975 and, as recorded in Robinson’s corporate history,

“...it was recognised that the site was considered to be of sufficient size to enable all of the company’s operations to be housed there at some future time, if this was considered desirable.”
The Bredbury operation has always come across as something that would be fitting for a rather larger company than Robinson’s and, as I wrote five years ago:
This seemed to speak of expectations never quite fulfilled, and I get the impression that Sir John Robinson, who died in 1978 at the age of 82, was a very dominant and ambitious character whose determination was not matched by his three sons, Peter, Dennis and David.
For whatever reason, whether inertia or a change in the business climate, the move never took place, and indeed in the mid-2000s Robinson’s carried out a substantial investment to install an entirely new brewing plant within the existing building. While it wasn’t shouted from the rooftops at the time, this also involved halving the capacity of the brewery to take account of the fall-off in on-trade ale volumes. However, they still lacked a small-scale plant to enable them to make shorter runs of specialist beers, which is something that their local rivals, particularly Hydes, have been able to take advantage of. This was given, maybe rather questionably, as one of the reasons for dropping 1892 Mild a few years ago.

No doubt this will be remedied when the new plant is constructed, and it is also likely to involve a further reduction in the maximum brew length. In the 2017 blogpost I linked to above, I stated that they were then brewing about 30,000 barrels a year, or less than two for each pub they owned, and that included a lot of bottled Trooper sold in the off-trade. The figure will surely be less now – in terms of brewing volumes, they’re really not that big a company, and operating from two sites must lead to considerably inefficiency.

They have also not too long ago spent a considerable sum in creating an impressive new visitor centre and shop attached to the Stockport brewery, an investment that will now have to be written off. Bredbury is not as conveniently placed for brewery tours as central Stockport, although maybe they will regret demolishing the Horsfield Arms which once stood outside the plan and could have served as a brewery tap.

Every brewery attaches its own distinctive character to the beers it produces and, while the beers may be just as good brewed in a new location, they are never quite the same. However, Unicorn is the only beer remaining that has a lengthy heritage with the company, the other main brands such as Dizzy Blonde and Trooper being relatively recent introductions, so it may not be felt to be a significant problem. As a low-volume seasonal product, Old Tom doesn’t really count, and in any case I doubt whether many drinkers could detect a subtle change in character from one year to the next.

This announcement certainly represents a substantial vote of confidence in the future of the company, and the current leading lights of the Robinson family, Oliver and William, have always given the impression of being committed to it in the long term. In recent years, the company has taken a number of decisions that I have found disappointing, such as the axing of 1892 Mild, the severe cull of their pub estate, and the horrible Farrow & Ball style of many of their renovation schemes. But, as I wrote in 2017,

Obviously Robinson’s is a commercial company, and its directors must take the actions they see best to secure its future prosperity, which may need to include grasping nettles and slaughtering sacred cows.
At the end of the day, they are a business, not a heritage preservation body.

It can’t be denied that Stockport’s character will be diminished by the loss of a large working brewery right in the centre, not least by losing that distinctive odour that often wafts over the town. The number of places where this can be experienced is steadily diminishing, although it can still be found in towns like Devizes, Cockermouth and Lewes.

The brewery tower only dates back to the 1920s and, apart from the decoration around the top, isn’t really of great architectural value. To the best of my knowledge, it isn’t a listed building. But it is a very distinctive landmark that adds to the town’s identity, and features in many views of Stockport, so hopefully it will prove possible to preserve it for alternative use, possibly as apartments.

14 comments:

  1. For reasons that escape me, they are still not planning to have a pilot plant.

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    1. That is quite odd, although I suppose if the new plant has a lower minimum brew length it gives them more flexibility.

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  2. A few hundred thousand to instal a pilot plant? Not doing so seems to be a bit short sighted.

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  3. Within 10 years there will be no brewery.
    A contract bottling operation, real estate company and pub style restaurant company.
    No one will miss Robinsons beers.

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    1. I would certainly miss them, just as I miss Hardys & Hansons, Wem, Higsons and Yates & Jackson, to name but a few.

      And a lot of people in and around Stockport still miss Best Mild/Hatters/1892.

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  4. I was born and grew up in Wrexham, where there were two breweries and then worked in Bristol not far from the Courage brewery, so I remember that smell with huge fondness.

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    1. Border's brewhouse, which dates from the same era as Robinson's, but is even plainer, is still standing.

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  5. I see woke snowflake lazy employees at Brewdog are again complaining about "toxic culture". I assume they realised it was actually a place of work and not a constant party. Perhaps a manager told them off for being lazy or making silly errors, that is called bullying nowadays. We're all equal now and this managing workforce won't do. Work "force", farce more likely.

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  6. Another great Manchester brewer going down the pan. Holts,Hydes, Lees, and Robinsons are nothing like the great beers they were. Thank god we've got Bathams and Holdens in the West Midlsnds. Incidentally Wadworth have announced plans to move their brewery too and vwith their latest head brewer the beers are nothing like they were. Too much crafty wafty input !

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    1. Such a shame Wadworth are going to move. There's something wonderful about having a dirty great brick-built brewery right in the middle of town.

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    2. I'm afraid Wadworth is not the same company it was 10 years ago. They quickly ditched the cooperage by not bothering to recruit a new trainee. When the Master Cooper Alistair Simm moved back up north they were knackered despite having then many gravity dispense pubs to showcase the wooden casks in. The beers have gone downhill and Old Timer gone on cask. It's a great shame. My guess is that the brewery will become apartments and they'll set up in a shed somewhere out of town.

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    3. They have also sold off a lot of pubs including what you might have thought were crown jewels like the George at Norton St Philip.

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    4. Robinson's beers certainly are as good as I remember them 20 years ago, in a well run pub where the Unicorn or Dizzy Blonde sells quickly. Pints of Unicorn I had in the Arden Arms and Swan with two Necks last year were memorable.

      Had great Holt Bitter in Hare & Hounds too.

      Volumes count.

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    5. It's a cliche to say that Robbie's beer is beautiful when fresh though you rarely find it fresh - however it's true.

      My favourites are the bitter (i.e. Unicorn), Old Tom, Double Hop and Wizard, although you don't see those last two muchly now.

      The Plough in Gorton serves a good pint of Robinsons and is a handsome pub.

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