Goodbye to the last of London’s million-barrel breweries

Flag on the top of the Mortlake brewery 1932

Flag on the top of the Mortlake brewery 1932

It is one of history’s ironies that just as London hits more breweries than at any time in the past 110 years, its brewing capacity is more than halved with the closure of the last of the capital’s remaining megabreweries, at Mortlake.

That the brewery at Mortlake, which has been pumping out hundreds of thousands of barrels a year of Budweiser for the past two decades, should have survived to be at least 250 years old this year is remarkable: it lost its independent in 1889, and the guillotine has been poised above its neck for the past six years.

The Mortlake site, famous as the home of Watney’s Red Barrel, was one of eight huge breweries still operating in London in the mid-1970s, which between them made one in every five pints drunk in Britain. Four closed between 1975 and 1982: Charrington’s in Mile End, Whitbread’s on the northern edge of the City, Mann’s in Whitechapel and Courage by Tower Bridge. Truman’s brewery shut in Brick Lane in 1989, and Ind Coope in Romford in 1992. In 2005, Guinness closed the Park Royal brewery. With the shuttering of Young’s in 2006 (yes, I know there’s still brewing on the site, but it’s not a commercial operation), in 2007 brewery numbers in London hit what was almost an all-time low, of just 10.

It’s instructive to see how brewery numbers have fluctuated over the past 300 years:

1700 London had 190 breweries, producing a total of 1.7 million barrels of ale and beer.
1786 Still around 161 brewers in the London area, though the top 12 London porter brewers made up half the capital’s beer production
1826 London has 93 commercial brewers, and 61 retail or pub brewers
1850 More than 40 London breweries had closed in the previous 20 years. However, the capital can still boast some 160 brewers
1904 London still had 90 breweries, out of a total of 1,503 in England and Wales. It also had just one pub still brewing its own beer, although in the rest of the country there were another 3,108 home-brew pubs.
1913 Brewery numbers are starting to drop, with just 65 left still operating
1919 The First World War, and high beer taxes, have see a big cull, with only 46 breweries now left in London
1923 London is now down to some 42 or so operating breweries
1952 London still had 25 operating breweries, run by some 19 or so companies, out of around 560 breweries in the whole of the UK.
1960 16 breweries left, including some surprising survivors – Harman’s in Uxbridge, for example; the Wenlock Brewery, off the City Road in Shoreditch; Woodheads, running at the South London Brewery in Southwark Bridge Road until 1964; and the Essex Brewery in Walthamstow, which was being run by the Ipswich brewers Tolly Cobbold when it closed in December 1971
1976 After all but two of London’s smaller breweries had shut, and with the closure of two of the largest, Charrington’s and Whitbread, the capital reaches an all-time low of just nine breweries
1981 A burst of pub-brewery openings lift numbers to 20
1998 The growth of the Firkin chain helps push brewery numbers up to a post-Second World War high of 34
2000 Closure of the Firkin breweries sees numbers fall to just 20
2007 While the rest of the country sees brewery numbers rising, London is now down to just ten
2010 Brewery numbers start to climb again, to 14
2012 A surge of openings sees a new post-war high of 36
2013 Brewery numbers almost double in a year, to hit 70
2015 Numbers now believed to be around 80, more than for 110 years

We’re one more down, now though: and whatever you thought of the beer it brewed in recent years, it’s still, I think, a little sad that this is the end of an important chapter in London’s industrial heritage. So here’s my small tribute:

Weatherstone's brewery, split by Thames Street, from Samuel Leigh's 1829 Panorama of the Thames

Weatherstone’s brewery, split by Thames Street, from Samuel Leigh’s 1829 Panorama of the Thames

Much of the commentary about the brewery’s closure claims it was founded in 1487, when a Welshman, John Morgan, was “induced” (to use a term first used by an antiquarian writing in 1886) to start a brewery at Mortlake, supposedly to supply the largely Welsh household of the new Tudor king, Henry VII, who was to base himself at the palace at nearby Sheen – shortly to have its name changed to Richmond. It has also been claimed that the brewery sprang from a brewhouse at Mortlake Manor House, which was occupied by the Archbishops of Canterbury from at least the 11th century. But the archbishops continued to own the manor house until 1535, after which it went to a multitude of hands, before being demolished, apparently, soon after 1700. There is absolutely nothing currently known to link either Morgan or the manor house to the two small breweries recorded in 1765 either side of Thames Street in Mortlake, leading to the Town Dock, one owned by James Weatherstone and the other by William Richmond, which are the first recorded commercial breweries in what was then a small village.

By 1780 Richmond’s brewery had been bought by a man called John Prior. Weatherstone meanwhile went into partnership with Carteret John Halford. In 1807 Weatherstone and Halford bought land next to the river with a frontage of 104 feet and extended their brewery premises northward. Four years later, in 1811, they acquired Prior’s brewery, merging them into one, though Thames Street still separated the two halves. Weatherstone passed on his brewery to his nephew Thomas, who carried on the partnership with Halford until he died around 1825. The business was substantial enough by now that it employed a clerk, called John Stephenson and a brewer called George Dyson, who signed the codicil to Weatherstone’s will in 1824. Halford was then in partnership at the brewery with William Topham: at one point they were “brewers to her Majesty”, according to a directory entry. By 1840 Halford was dead, and Topham had entered into a new partnership with George Streater Kempson, who looks to have been a relative by marriage of Halford’s. In 1841 Kempson and Topham’s operation at Mortlake was described as a “considerable establishment”.

Phillips & Wigan cask labelCharles James Phillips, son of a corn and coal merchant, became a partner in the firm in 1846, which was listed in 1849 as CJ Phillips and GS Kempson. Then in 1852, James Wigan, aged 20, the son of a hop merchant, bought a half-share in the business for £15,000, and it became Phillips and Wigan. By that time the brewery was using around 5,000 quarters of malt a year, suggesting an output of between 20,000 and 25,000 barrels of beer. In 1865 Phillips and Wigan bought the freehold of all the properties along the river frontage, for £2,350, and in 1866 they moved to shut the alleys and streets that ran through the brewery premises, including Thames Street and Brewhouse Lane. The people of Mortlake fought to prevent this, but the brewers eventually won, after a court case. The brewery was then substantially rebuilt, and a stone in the main wall still marks this, with the monogram P and W and the date 1869. In 1876, however, Wigan bought Hawkes’ brewery in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire and although he continued to live in Mortlake, control of the brewery passed in 1877 solely to the Philips family.

The brewery is often said to have “held lucrative contracts for supplying beer to the Army in India”, but if it did, it was not alone: in 1873 the India Office revealed that there were “about eighteen” of the “great London brewers” on the list of suppliers of beer to the Indian army, a trade worth 150,000 barrels a year. Two sets of recipients of Mortlake brewery beer every year were the crews who took part in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race: Charles Phillips regularly held a lunch for them at his home at the end of the race.

Mortlake brewery from the Middlesex side of the river in 1931

Mortlake brewery from the Middlesex side of the river in 1931

By the end of the 1880s brewers were starting to gobble each other up as the only way of acquiring new pub customers, with, particularly in the South of England, very few free houses left. In 1889 the Phillipses accepted a takeover offer from Watney’s of the Stag brewery, Pimlico, once one of London’s Big 12 porter brewers, and two of Charles Phillips’s sons, Charles junior and Herbert, joined the Watney’s board. It was not just the Mortlake brewery’s pubs that Watney’s was after: the Pimlico concern needed somewhere that could make the increasingly popular pale ales and bitter beers, and the Mortlake brewery seems to have had a good reputation for them. For many years after the acquisition, all the bitter for Watney’s London trade was brewed at Mortlake and taken down river by two barges, called Mollie and Ann.

In 1898 Watney’s merged with two other long-established London porter brewers, Reid’s of Clerkenwell and Combe’s of Covent Garden, to become the largest brewing concern in London. Reid’s brewery was closed, but Combe’s ran for another six years, until the Mortlake brewery had been rebuilt enough to supply the enlarged operation, including an I eight-storey maltings built by the riverside in 1903 on the eastern corner of Ship Lane.

With the restrictions on beer production brought about by the First World War, brewing at Mortlake actually ceased for a while during the conflict, and the site was used for the production of (unrationed) honey sugar, sold under the Union Jack brand in cut-down quart beer bottles.

Coppers in the 'pale ale' copperhouse at the Mortlake brewery around 1938

Coppers in the ‘pale ale’ copperhouse at the Mortlake brewery around 1938

Mash tuns at the Mortlake brewery circa 1939

Mash tuns at the Mortlake brewery circa 1939

In 1930 Watney’s bought a bulk beer pasteuriser from a firm in Germany, installing it at Mortlake, and began experimenting with “container” bitter – pressurised keg beer. The first customer was the nearby East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club, where a Mortlake brewer, Bert Hussey, was a member. But “keg” beer was also being installed in pubs as early as 1933: when the Chequers Inn in Isleworth, a few miles from Mortlake, was rebuilt, the Watney’s house magazine, The Red Barrel, said:

“A feature of this house is an innovation in the system of supplying the beer to the bar from the cellar. It is delivered under pressure direct from the cask and does not go through any pump of beer engine. It is one of the most hygienic methods of service known and this is one of the first houses in the country to be so equipped. It ensures that the beer is served to the customer in the same condition as that in which it leaves the Brewery.”

Rolling barrels in the Mortlake brewery yard 1932

Rolling barrels in the Mortlake brewery yard 1932

Two years later, in 1935, the company launched the Mortlake-brewed Watney’s Special bitter, stronger and more expensive than the “ordinary” bitter, at eight pence a pint in public bars, nine pence in the saloon

In 1959 the original Watney’s site in Pimlico closed. Mortlake was still not big enough to brew all the company’s beers, and a year earlier Watney’s had taken over Mann’s brewery in the East End to ensure it had enough capacity. By 1971 Mann’s was looking old and cramped, however, and Watney’s set in train plans to shut Mann’s and expand the Mortlake brewery again. In the meantime the company decided that since Mortlake would not be ready until 1975, at a cost of £7 million, it needed to buy more capacity. It was about to bid for another East End brewery, the recently refurbished Truman’s in Brick Lane, when Joseph Maxwell of Grand Metropolitan made an unexpected move on the Brick Lane brewer. The two-month fight that followed seems to have exhausted Watney’s, the loser, so much that it succumbed itself to a bid from Grand Met the following year.

Mortlake brewery on Boatrace Day around 1938

Mortlake brewery on Boatrace Day around 1938

By the 1980s, under Grand Met, Mortlake was essentially a massive lager brewery, with Fosters and Holsten Export the big brands, though according to one ex-Mortlake brewer, Watney’s Special and Watney’s Pale Ale were still “reasonable” volumes, with Watney’s Pale Ale a “significant” bottled beer brand. However, automation meant that the number of employees had plunged, from 1,400 in the 1960s to just 400.

The brewery changed owners several times in the 1990s as the reverberations of the 1989 Beer Orders saw Britain’s giant brewery companies merge, evaporate or quit brewing, and in 1995 the Mortlake site, which had been given the former name of Watney’s premises in Pimlico, the Stag brewery, was leased to Anheuser-Busch to make Budweiser. It still had a capacity of a million barrels a year in 1995, though it has probably not been making more than about 650,000 barrels a year in very recent times: even now, probably more than all the rest of London’s breweries put together.

An announcement that the site was to close was originally made in 2009, by which time only around 180 people were employed there, though a year later it appeared that a surprise increase in sales of Budweiser had stayed the axeman’s hand. Now, however, AB, or rather AB InBev, as it has become, which eventually bought the leasehold of the 21-acre site, has shut it down, and sold it to a Singapore-listed company, City Developments Ltd, for £158m. There are, apparently, no firm development plas yet, but one extimate reckons 850 homes could be fitted onto the site – you can see how big it is here.

Best-selling business advice from a BrewDog

As the only beer writer on the planet with an MBA (probably), it falls to me to give a business school-style review on behalf of beer drinkers to Business for Punks, the just-published “how we succeeded and how you can too” guidebook from BrewDog co-founder James Watt.

Not that any review is likely to make much difference to the book’s popularity: it is already the number-one best seller in the “entrepreneurship” section of Amazon’s UK website, and in the top 350 best-selling books on the site overall, despite only being published last week. The book, it appears, is as popular as the beer.

Thanks, James we get rthe idea

Selling like hot … um … ale … James Watt and book

Business manuals from stars of the American craft brewing scene have been popping up like mushrooms in the past few years: Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Tony Magee of Lagunitas, Steve Wagner and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and Jeremy Cowan of Schmaltz have all written books about how they started and grew their businesses, Calagione has a second book out in December, Off-Centered Leadership: The DogFish Head Guide to Motivation, Collaboration and Smart Growth, and Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, has his “how I did it” book out in April 2016 .

Britain’s craft brewers have been slower to get their experiences on paper: maybe they’re too busy brewing. It’s not as if we lack an audience for how-to-be-a-successful-brewer books: large numbers of people apparently want to brew commercially. Some 200 new breweries have opened in the UK in the past 12 months, and the country now has more than twice as many breweries per head as the United States: 1 to 38,000, against 1 to 80,000. More likely, we lack the “superstar” brewers that the US has, people whose name on the cover will attract the buyers. I doubt that Watt wrote the book and sought a publisher: much more likely that someone at Penguin Random House approached Watt with the idea

Watt, of course, and his fellow founder of BrewDog, Martin Dickie, are among the very, very few candidates for “star brewer” in the UK. More than 6,000 people turned up to BrewDog’s annual general meeting in Aberdeen in June. Six thousand people. In Aberdeen. Admittedly this is not so much an AGM as a beer festival-cum-love in, with something on the order of 40,000 pints of beer consumed. But there isn’t another brewery in Britain that could hope to attract that level of support. And as Pete Brown once pointed out, when even his Stella-drinking mother in Barnsley has heard of BrewDog, you know you’re looking at a powerful brand.

So: what’s Watt’s book like?

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A short account of the surprisingly long history of putting beer in cellar tanks.

Tank beer – “tankova” – may be a hot new trend in London, with Meantime in Greenwich and Pilsner Urquell delivering fresh unpasteurised beer to pubs in beautiful shiny big containers, but the idea of putting beer in cellar tanks to deliver better quality is, even in London, more than a century old.

The first “tank” beer system in the capital appears to have been introduced by Hugh Abbot, a brewer at Watney’s original Stag brewery in Pimlico, London, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. In 1913 he had three standing butts fixed up in the cellar of a Watney’s pub, and beer delivered in an old horse-drawn tank wagon of the sort that brewers used to transport beer to their bottling stores. The experiment was successful enough that by 1920 Watney’s had electric-powered tanker lorries, fitted with copper tanks, taking beer around to its pubs. It was still using electric vehicles in 1949, though by then tank deliveries to pubs were done using trailers mounted behind standard tractor units.

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Another of London’s “big seven” 20th century brewers, Charrington’s, of the Anchor brewery in Mile End, was also delivering tank beer by the early 1920s, and a Charrington’s brewer, Alfred Paul, described the system to the Institute of Brewers in a talk in May 1922. Only “bright” mild beer, chilled and filtered, was delivered by Charrington’s tankers to its pubs, he said, although “experiments are being made with a tank for the bulk delivery of naturally conditioned beer.” The road tanks, made of copper lagged with iron, had a capacity of 24 barrels each, that is, 864 gallons, and the tanks in the pub cellars generally held three barrels each. “On arrival of the delivery tank, or road tank, at the house, the hose, is let down through the cellar-flap or any other available aperture, and the beer allowed to run down into the cellar tank. Should the fall from the street to the cellar be insufficient, a band-pump attached to the foot-board of the chassis could be used.” Charrington’s cellar tanks were generally made of earthenware, Paul said, being upright, cylindrical vessels, with a glazed inside, but ” experiments are now being carried out with aluminium and glass-lined steel.” The tanks, he said, “are carefully examined prior to filling, with a powerful electric torch. The men, who are carefully selected, are definitely instructed not to fill a tank unless, in their opinion, which by constant practice has become expert, the tank is scrupulously clean.”

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The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

The “IPA shipwreck” is one of many long-lasting myths in the history of India Pale Ale. The story says that IPA became popular in Britain after a ship on its way to India in the 1820s was wrecked in the Irish Sea, and some hogsheads of beer it was carrying out east were salvaged and sold to publicans in Liverpool, after which the city’s drinkers demanded lots more of the same. Colin Owen, author of a history of Bass’s brewery, called the tale “unsubstantiated” more than 20 years ago, and others, including me, being unable to find any reports of any such wreck, nor of any indication that IPA was a big seller in the UK until the 1840s, have dismissed it as completely untrue. Except that it turns out casks of IPA did go on sale in Liverpool after a wreck off the Lancashire coast involving a ship carrying hogsheads of beer to India, a shipwreck that, literally, became a landmark – though not in the 1820s – and the true story is a cracker, involving one of the worst storms to hit the British Isles in centuries, which brought huge destruction and hundreds of deaths from one side of the UK to the other.

The story of the IPA shipwreck first turns up in 1869 in a book called Burton-on-Trent, its History, its Waters and its Breweries, by Walter Molyneaux, who described how the Burton brewers began brewing beer for export to India from 1823. Molyneaux wrote: “India appears to have been the exclusive market for the Burton bitter beer up to about the year 1827, when in consequence of the wreck in the Irish Channel of a vessel containing a cargo of about 300 hogsheads, several casks saved were sold in Liverpool for the benefit of the underwriters, and by this means, in a remarkably rapid manner, the fame of the new India ale spread throughout Great Britain.”

Molyneaux’s story has been regularly repeated in the past century and a half. But no one has been able to find a wreck that matched up with his story. This turns out to be, not because the wreck didn’t happen, but because he was 12 years out with the date.

The year after Molyneaux’s book came out, a different version of the tale appeared in the “notes and queries” section of an obscure publication called English Mechanic and World of Science. The account was written by a man who gave himself the name of “Meunier”, and it said: “Forty years ago [ie about 1830] pale ale was very little known in London, except to those engaged in the India trade. The house with which I was connected shipped large quantities, receiving in return consignments of East Indian produce. About 1839, a ship, the Crusader, bound for one of our Indian ports, foundered, and the salvage, comprising a large quantity of export bitter ale, was sold for the benefit of the underwriters. An enterprising publican or restaurant keeper in Liverpool purchased a portion of the beer and introduced it to his customers; the novelty pleased, and, I believe, laid the foundation of the home trade now so extensively carried on.”

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

The two clues – the ship’s name and the later date – together with the fact that large numbers of newspapers from the time have now been scanned and made available on the web make it easy to trace the story at last. The Crusader was a 584-tonne East Indiaman, or armed merchantman, described as “a fine large ship with painted ports [that is, gun-ports] and a full-length figurehead”, “newly coppered”, that is, with new copper sheathing on the hull to prevent attacks by wood-boring molluscs, and “a very fast sailer”, under the command of Captain JG Wickman. She had arrived in Liverpool early in November 1838 after a five-month journey from either Calcutta or Bombay (different Liverpool newspapers at the time gave different starting ports) with a cargo including raw cotton, 83 elephants’ tusks, coffee, wool, pepper, ginger – and opium, which did not become illegal in Britain until 1916. Captain Wickman and his crew were due to leave for Bombay again on Saturday December 15, after five weeks of roistering in Liverpool, with a cargo that included finished cotton goods, silk, beef and pork in casks, cases of glass shades, iron ingots, tin plates, Government dispatches – and India ale in hogsheads, brewed by two different Burton brewers, Bass and Allsopp, the whole lot being insured for £100,000, perhaps £8 million today.

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Simon Williams hits the bull’s eye about what’s wrong with GBBF and why the London Craft Beer Festival is so much better

I don’t think I’ve ever read a blogpost I agreed with more than Simon Wiliams of CAMRGB’s take on the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia last week versus the London Craft Beer Festival, also last week, in Hackney. Read it here. Basically, the problem with the GBBF, 40 years on from the very first one in Covent Garden, is that it’s utterly unimaginative, dull, unengaging and uninspiring. Too much of the beer is too samey (mind, that’s a reflection of the state of the British small brewing scene), and while there are interesting and challenging beers to find, it’s a pain in the butt trying to track therm down. What’s more, reports suggest that if you go at the end of the week, all the most interesting beers will be long sold out. It really needs a serious rethink in terms of presentation, approach, purpose: in particular, there should be far more involvement from the breweries supplying the beer than just turning up with casks and pumpclips and then buggering off. At the LCBF, in contrast, the beers are almost without exception challenging and exciting, the stalls are staffed by people from the breweries involved who are delighted to chat. Despite the room the LCBF was held in being far too hot, I enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the beers, far more than I did at the GBBF. I could say much more, but Simon has said it all, and very well.

The porter in Majorca tastes like what it oughter

If you want a single statistic that shows how the craft beer movement has become a world-wide phenomenon, let it be this: there are now seven eight craft breweries on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Miquel and Felipe Amorós of Beer Lovers brewery, Alcuida, Majorca

Miquel and Felipe Amorós of Beer Lovers brewery, Alcuida, Majorca

They are part of the spectacular rise in new small breweries which means  almost 300 craft breweries across the whole of Spain, 600 in France, 800 in Italy and so on.

Life is a little different on Majorca from, say, Italy, where Italian craft brewers are making much-admired pilsner-style brews: no Mallorcan brewer makes a lager, simply because they could not compete with the Spanish giants, Estrella Damm and Mahou San Miguel, on price, but all seem to make a wheat beer (“blat” in Catalan), which is evidently seen as the entry-level craft beer for locals, and there are pale ales, IPAs, and speciality beers. Most breweries seem to be bottle-only, although Beer Lovers in Alcuida, in the north of the island, kegs some of its pale ale. The quality is very occasionally dodgy, as you would expect from operations with hand-bottling lines, but then, of the last five pints of cask ale I was offered in London, one was cloudy as a wet weekend in Wicklow and another tasted like it had been brewed by Sarsons, so quality is not just a Mallorcan problem.

Sullerica Original, flavoured with rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms – 'flor de taronger' in Catalan

Sullerica Original, flavoured with rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms – ‘flor de taronger’ in Catalan

I managed to find beers from six of the island’s brewers, and generally the Mallorcan craft beers were a vastly better choice than their eurolager opponents. Several were excellent: I particularly liked the brews from the Sullorica brewery, in Sóller, in the west of the island, which makes a very good wheat beer flavoured with local lemon peel, and an equally fine amber ale, Original, which includes rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms, though I was disappointed not to find the beer brewed with bitter olives the brewery was apparently making last year. I also had a first-class sour cherry beer, Cor de Cirera, from the Cas Cerveser brewery in Galilea, about eight miles to the west of Palma, which is aged for a year in French oak barrels that had previously contained red wine from the Bodegas Son Puig in nearby Puigpunyent.

Of course, the vast majority of beer consumed in Majorca is still big-brand eurolager, or, if you’re in somewhere like the fake Irish bars of Cala D’Or, keg Guinness. You can find Mallorcan craft beers in some of the island’s large supermarkets, in specialist shops, in restaurants that like to offer Mallorcan food and in Majorca’s craft beer bars, though I’d advise you to check out the brewers’ websites for advice on where their beers are available bewfore you go hunting. I was lucky and met a Barcelonan beer blogger called Joan Vilar-i-Martí, of the Catalan beer blog, earlier this year in Poland, who sent me details of Mallorcan brewers and bars. I only managed to visit one of the bars he recommended, Lórien in Palma: I normally keep at least the length of three or four bargepoles between me and bars with names taken from Tolkein, but this small, dark, hidden-away place, now 25 years old, is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city: the beers on draught when I was there included examples from Italy, mainland Spain (from Pamplona, an excellent sour wheat beer, though definitely not the “hefeweizen” it claimed to be) and Ireland.

The outside of the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcuida

The outside of the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida

I also visited the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida, in the north of Majorca, which was founded in 2012 by Miquel Amorós Crawford and his brother Felipe, sons of a Mallorcan father and a mother who is half Welsh and half English. The brewery is down a narrow street, hard to find even with the help of Google Maps, in the heart of the attractive centre of old Alcúida, in a former barn built of the local honey-coloured limestone, attached to a house that has been owned by the family for 300 years, and it was not until I was ten yards from the front door and smelt the unmistakable aromas of mashing malt that I knew I was close to my target. Originally, the barn, which still has troughs on one wall for animal food, “was where the horse and cart were kept – it was full of stuff, so we emptied it, and added a bit – we couldn’t touch much, because all the old buildings are protected,” Miquel says. “We put in a new floor, but the floor had to be like the old house’s floor, the walls have to be built of the same old stone.”

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Strange Tales of Ale – ideal summer reading for the beach-bound beer fan

Of all the different styles of books about beer, the old-fashioned anecdotal ramble, as exemplified by John Bickerdyke’s classic Curiosities of Ale and Beer from 1889, or Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles from the 1970s, seems to be the rarest. I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to add to the genre with Strange Tales of Ale, a collection of 28 stories involving beer, brewing, breweries or pubs in some way.

Regular readers of this blog will have come across many – though not all – of the stories in Strange Tales of Ale here over the years, as the book is a bit of a “best of Zythophile” collected between hard covers. There’s the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, of course; the story of Spitfires ferrying beer to the D-Day troops in their fuel tanks; why England’s aristocrats brewed beer that was meant to be laid down and only drunk after 21 years; the mystery of the yard of ale; the true origins of the Red Lion as a pub name (with a picture of the attractive Art Deco innsign from the Red Lion, Fulwell, my local); the most notorious brewer in history; what to order in a Victorian public house; the history of the ploughman’s lunch; what Pliny the Elder really said about hops; how the Dove in Hammersmith got its tiny public bar; pea beer; the British National Dinner, and others that are among my personal favourites from the 300-plus posts, totalling more than 600,000 words, that I’ve stuck up here over the past eight years. There are a couple you might not have read even if you have been a Zythophile follower since 2007, on Dutch Schultz, the beer baron of Brooklyn (here’s a beer trivia question for you – which New York brewer, born in Leeds, was played on film by Bob Hoskins?) and on “the brewery that salami-sliced itself to death”.

If you’re looking for some beery holiday reading for yourself, or a birthday or Christmas present for someone you know likes beer, and reading, can I recommend STOA? Indeed, I’d hope you don’t even have to like beer to enjoy the book: the tales are in themselves engrossing, from the link between beer and bridal gowns to how the Jerusalem Tavern near Smithfield became the Trigger’s Broom of pubs to potboys in literature and art.

Strange Tales of Ale is published by Amberley Publishing, and costs £12.99 hardback, £7.80 as an ebook (unlike Amber Gold and Black, my last book, from a different publisher, I get rather less of a royalty on the ebook version of STOA than on the Finnish forest version, so I’m happier for you to go traditional …) You can support small businesses and buy it from my good friend Paul at Beer Inn Print here or if you don’t mind tax-dodging conglomerates you can put more money in my pockets by buying it though my Amazon Associates page here. (Or, if you’re in North America, The Dove(s), Hammersmith circa 1880

A rare picture of The Dove, Hammersmith – then still the Doves – when the landlord was Samuel Richardson Gamble, the name on the (birdless) signboard, some time between at least 1874 and January 1881, the month the licence was handed over to Henry Thomas Saunders. The window to what became the smallest public bar in Britain is on the right of the door. If you look at a modern picture of the pub, you can see the bracket for the innsign is still the same piece of wrought iron, albeit with a bit missing …