Caley’s self- crafted approach to being craft

Are you a mature but still lively Victorian brewery? Do you worry that younger breweries, with their weird American hop varieties, shiny stainless steel lauter tuns and one-off wacky recipes, are luring your customers away? Is your 150-barrel minimum brewlength too inflexible to make experimental brews on? Worry no more: install your own microbrewery on the premises, and you too can be hitting the bartops with mango-flavoured double IPAs and smoked malt saisons. Comes with clip-on manbun and removable extra-bushy beard for all brewhouse operatives …

That’s unfairly sarcastic: I have no problems at all with big brewers who respond to the craft micro-brewery challenge by bringing in their own tiny set-up: I had great fun playing with the 10-barrel mini-brewery Brains installed at its site in Cardiff. The Brains plant, like those installed at Shepherd Neame in Kent, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire and Adnams in Suffolk, is designed to brew short-run one-off beers for selling in the company’s pubs. The Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, however, has gone for something craftily different: an on-site microbrewery that is solely for experimenting with, making brews that, should they prove to be successful, will then be scaled up for commercial production in the main brewery.

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

I last visited the Caledonian brewery more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, which was just two years after it had been the subject of a management buy-out to acquire it from Vaux, the Sunderland brewer, which had bought it in 1919. The brewery was founded by George Lorimer and Robert Clark in 1869, and Vaux took it over to supply the North East of England with Scotch Ale, a style of dark, fruity beer then very popular in the region. Edinburgh was once the third biggest brewing city in Britain, after Burton and London, and even in 1958 it has 18 surviving breweries. One upon one they closed: Vaux announced it wanted to shut the Caledonian in 1985. Fortunately for posterity, its then managing director, Dan Kane, an active Camra member, and his head brewer, Russell Sharp, felt there was enough demand for the traditional beer it made for the business to be viable on its own. In a regular irony, the lack of investment by Vaux over the years meant the Caledonian brewery still retained old-style equipment long replaced elsewhere, most notably open direct-fired coppers, which gave the brewery an excellent marketing story.

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewerry, Edinburgh, in 1989

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, in 1989

Despite a couple of fires at the brewery in the 1990s, those coppers are still there (though one is a replica, replacing a vessel lost in the fire of 1998, and they now appear to have suspended lids I don’t remember from before). Brewery manager Craig Steven says the now unique coppers give all the brewery’s beers a distinctive rotundity he always recognises in blind tastings. In 1991 the brewery launched a golden IPA using the name of another old Edinburgh operation, Deuchar’s, which had closed in 1961. That beer’s popularity was cemented with the award of the Champion Beer of Britain title by Camra in 2002, and it remains one of the UK’s best-selling cask ales. Then in 2004 the Caledonian Brewery lost its independence again, being bought by Scottish & Newcastle after S&N closed the old McEwan’s Fountainbridge brewery in Edinburgh. Just four years later the Dutch giant Heineken swooped on S&N, and Caledonian is now the second-smallest brewery (out of 165-plus) in what is currently the world’s third-largest brewing group.

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of ther Caledonian brewery

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of the Caledonian brewery

Which is why, presumably, they can afford to fly me up to Edinburgh, stick me in a four-star hotel, take me out for a very fine dinner in one of the Scottish capital’s best eateries, and all so I can see the new “Wee George” microbrewery (named for George Lorimer) and try the first beer to be scaled up and rolled out after trials on Wee George, an American-style IPA called Coast to Coast. There are those beer writers who would turn down being filled full of roast venison at a brewer’s expense in the belief that it would compromise their independence: I like to claim I’m not that cheaply influenced. (That is to say, you CAN influence me, but it will cost you lots …)

Talking of independence, Caledonian’s MD, Andy Maddock, who joined the Scottish brewer in March last year after six years as a senior sales and marketing man at Heineken, says his operation has an “arm’s length” relationship with its Dutch parent, allowing it to be entrepreneurial and to follow its own path as a “modern craft brewer”. There seems to be considerable fondness for the Caledonian brewery at the top in Heineken: they like its hands-on old fashionedness, and Michel de Carvalho, husband of Charlene Heineken, who inherited the business from her father Freddie in 2002, has apparently said Deuchars is his favourite beer.

Three Caledonian keg tapsThe advantages Caledonian has over most of its rivals, of course, are that as part of a huge conglomerate its financing is cheaper to arrange than a totally independent operator could manage, though it still has to have “all the rigour” in its budgets that any commercial operation has to have; and it can use its Heineken connections to get into other markets. Currently 95 per cent of sales are “domestic”, but in the next four to five years, Maddock says, he wants to see exports increasing, with Deuchars in particular and also Coast to Coast and the brewery’s new “craft lager”, Three Hop, being aimed at Western Europe. He also wants to see Caledonian’s beers making a bigger impact in the off-trade (“We haven’t punched our weight there yet,” Maddock says), and a greater awareness among drinkers that Deuchers is a Caledonian beer: it appears many Deuchars drinkers don’t actually know who makes it.

An original Deuchar's brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescuded from a pub in Bath

An original Deuchar’s brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescued from a pub in Bath

On the other hand, they know why they drink it, or at least Caledonian does: “drinkability”, that mysterious characteristic no brewer knows for certain how to achieve, but which is vital for a beer to win a substantial slice of the market. Strangely, Caledonian is one of the few breweries I’ve visited where “drinkability” has been emphatically placed in the heart of the business strategy. Maddock says that the future of Caledonian will be based on a “modern” range, with beers such as Coast to Coast, that emphasises “distinctiveness and accessibility”, and a “traditional” range, led by Deuchars, where “drinkability is really important”. The idea, clearly, is that if you fancy trying one of those new craft beers, you can be reassured by the Caledonian name that it won’t be a frightening experience you’ll never want to repeat; and if you’re looking for something comfortable and more familiar, Caledonian has that for you as well. “Comfortable and familiar” are, frankly, far too under-rated among beer raters: most people most of the time don’t want to be challenged by their beer. Indeed, probably, most people don’t want to be challenged by their beer any of the time. “Predictable but not boring” is a great position for your brand to take, if you can capture it. “Predictable” also has to mean “predictably good”, of course, and part of that means making sure your raw materials are top quality: Caledonian has insisted for a long time on using what it says is the best malting barley in the world, from the east coast of Britain, both Southern Scotland and East Anglia, it also only uses whole-leaf hops, and it has now altered the way it buys hops, eschewing the traditional hessian hopsack for vacuum-packing in foil, believing this to keep the hops fresh for longer.

THe 'Wee George' microbrewery set-up at the Caley

The ‘Wee George’ microbrewery set-up at the Caley: note mini-hopback above the drain

So to Wee George: Caledonian’s answer to the fact that there are now 100 breweries in Scotland, very few of which can match it with the popularity of its “traditional” line-up, but at least some of which offer are going to have widespread appeal – “widespread appeal” being the market sector Andy Maddock and his crew would like to own most of, thank you. It’s a £100,000 collection of hand-assembled stainless-steel kit capable of producing just 400 litres at a time, around a thirtieth of the main brewery’s capacity, but it has its own filler that can be used to put the beer into bottle, cask or keg, and it even has a hopback, just like the “big” brewery. Hopbacks are an old-fashioned item of kit today, replaced almost everywhere by whirlpools, but brewers who have kept them have realised that a hopback can be a terrific tool for adding all sorts of flavour to your hot wort. The new kit went in on June 1, and since then it has been producing one beer a week – the first being a version of Deuchar’s IPA, presumably to see how different the recipe would turn out on the Wee George kit compared to the Big George kit. Scaleablity was a problem at first, but the Caley brewers are getting better, they told me, at working out what tweaks were likely to be needed to translate a brew from Wee George to the main brewery.

The first Wee George beer to make it from experiment to scaled-up bar-top brand, Coast to Coast, was pushed through in eight weeks, which shows that for a 146-year-old, the Caley can be nimble enough when it wants to be: most big breweries barely have a meetings cycle that short, never mind the NPD pipeline. The name comes from the combination of West Coast of American hops – Simcoe, apparently – with East Coast of Britain barley. It’s a perfectly fine craft-beer-with-training-wheels, I suspect there’s an as yet untapped market for such brews among people looking for a beer to have when you’re only popping in for one and you want something with more flavour that usual but not TOO much, and I’d give it a fair chance of doing very well. Though if I were any good at predictions, I’d be much richer than I am.

Many thanks to the Caley crew for taking me north to meet Wee George, and I look forward to tasting future roll-outs.

Mash run with Steele's masher, Caledonian brewery

Mash run with Steele’s masher, Caledonian brewery

Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed

Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed

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Filling a copper at the Caledonian brewery, 2015

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One of the three copper coppers at the Caledonian brewery

A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery

A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery

A steaming louvre over the copper room at ther Caledonian brewery

A steaming louvre over the copper room at the Caledonian brewery

Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015

Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015

 

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.

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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Ciao Biella: an Italian family brewery woos the bloggerati

You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.

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Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading

How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Black Eagle sign

Black Eagle sign, Brick Lane

The huge sign on the outside of the building on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane is clear enough: Truman Black Eagle Brewery. Nobody passing by could have any doubt what used to happen here, even though no beer brewing has taken place on the premises for more than 20 years. But what few people know is that for a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, this was the biggest brewery in the world.

Today Brick Lane, Spitalfields, in the East End of London is bustling and cosmopolitan, the heart of what is sometimes called “Banglatown”. For hundreds of years Spitalfields – filled with cheap housing, in large part because it was to the east of the City, so that the prevailing westerly winds dump all the soot from the West End over it – has been a place where poor immigrants to England come to try to scrabble a living, generally in trades connected with making clothes: Huguenot silk weavers from France fleeing Catholic oppression,  Irish linen weavers fleeing unemployment in Ireland, Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia, Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, all adding their tales to a place crowded with both people and history. But it wasn’t always thus: the author Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1660, remembered Brick Lane from his childhood in the early years of the Restoration as “a deep, dirty road frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks into Whitechapel”.

Over the decade after Charles II returned to England, as London expanded, development spread up Brick Lane itself from the south, and new streets were laid out in Spitalfields where previously cows had grazed. Two of these streets, on the west side of Brick Lane, were named Grey Eagle Street and Black Eagle Street. Thomas Bucknall, a London entrepreneur, is said by some to have built the Black Eagle brewhouse in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, on land known as Lolsworth Field, Spittlehope belonging to Sir William Wheler. However, it remains unclear whether Bucknall actually was a brewer: the best that can be said is that on the land he leased “in 1681-2 the lay-out of buildings on this part of Brick Lane approximated to the present arrangement of brewery buildings round an entrance yard, and that this lay-out may date back to 1675.”

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Unexpected free beer and other adventures

The occasional free beer is, of course, one of the benefits of writing a blog about hopped alcoholic refreshment: but it doesn’t usually come to me via random interactions in the road.

Strictly, I wasn’t actually on the public highway. I was standing in what used to be Black Eagle Street, a turning off Brick Lane, in the heart of what is now Banglatown in the East End of London. Black Eagle Street was swallowed by the expansion of Truman’s brewery, at one time London’s biggest brewer, which closed more than 20 years ago. It is, now, since the old brewery site began to be converted into (quote) “East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter”, a slightly scruffy pathway lined with slightly scruffy food outlets, bars, art galleries and the like.

I had just come out of one of those bars, where, in an attempted homage to the brewery’s past, I had drunk an Anchor porter from San Francisco. Anchor porter, inspired, ultimately, by the original 18th century beer style that made Trumans famous, was introduced in 1972 – the year after Trumans lost its independence at the end of a ferocious takeover fight.

Hobsons at Trumans

Alice Churchward, left, and Laure Roux of Hobsons brewery, parked up in the Dray Walk at the former Trumans Brewery off Brick Lane

While pondering that, and other ironies, I spotted a van in the impossible-to-miss livery of Hobsons Brewery, from Cleobury Mortimer, a tiny town on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border some 120 miles from the East End, parked 20 feet away.

Fortunately the two young women with the van were not put off by a grey-bearded loony in a blue hoodie approaching, claiming to be a beer blogger, and demanding to know what they were about. Seems that Hobsons, undeterred by the boom in London’s own brewing scene, has decided there is an opportunity for a brewery whose logo is a bowler hat to sell its beers in the capital. The van, as well as dropping off casks to pubs, was delivering mild ale for the guests at a preview show for an exhibition due to take place at one of the art galleries on the Trumans site.

They, in turn, wanted to know if I knew Hobsons (answer: heard of, never drunk) and would I like to try some, they happened to have a few bottles in the van? There’s probably a bye-law somewhere in the constitution of the International Beerbloggers’ Union that says you’re never allowed to turn down unsolicited free beer. So entirely unexpectedly, thanks to Alice Churchward of Hobsons and her companion Laure Roux, I left the former Truman’s porter brewery with a bottle of British-brewed porter, Hobson’s Postman’s Knock (and also a bottle of Hobson’s Manor Ale). Thank you very much, Alice – tried the Postman’s Knock, a fine medium-strength easy-drinking porter that would be an excellent match, I suggest, with Shropshire Blue cheese.

That very pleasant surprise made up for the unpleasant surprise three minutes later when I turned out of the top of Brick Lane, crossed the road, and discovered that Mason & Taylor, recommended as “one of London’s most ambitious new beer bars” by people I respect, doesn’t open until 5pm. I’m sure the people running the bar have what they believe to be excellent operational reasons for being shut at lunchtimes and in the afternoon, but frankly, I don’t care. If you’re not open to serve me at what I regard as a perfectly reasonable hour to be served, you’re not doing a good enough job.

Instead I went to the Water Poet nearby in Folgate Street. It may be almost a parody of the trendy Spitalfields bar – the wacky artwork on the walls, the second-hand leather sofas with the stuffing bulging out and the faux-ironic Scotch eggs on the menu (I don’t recall spotting any dimpled beermugs, but most other boxes were ticked). However, the Water Poet did manage to serve me a very pleasant pint of Truman’s Runner (from the people who revived the Truman’s name in 2010) at 3.15 in the afternoon, which is very considerably better than bleedin’ Mason & Taylor managed.

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Guinness myths and scandals

Guinness on toast - nom

‘Guinness Marmite’ from the 1930s

Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.

Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.

Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading

How Brazil’s favourite beer arrived from Scotland

‘If the man who invented the censorship bar had drunk Skol, it wouldn’t look like this – it would look like this. Skol goes down round’

It is one of the stranger results of global beer marketing that the biggest-selling beer in Brazil, which is also one of the biggest beers in Africa, from Algeria via Guinea to Rwanda, and is sold across large parts of Asia, from India via Malaysia to Hong Kong, began life more than 50 years ago in a small Scottish town on the north side of the Forth estuary.

I doubt too many drinkers of Skol in Rio de Janeiro know that the drink that “goes down round”, according to its advertising, came originally from 6,000 miles away. Today a beer that was one of the pioneers of mass-market lager in Britain is seen in Brazil as so Brazilian that drinking it turns Argentinians into supporters of the Canarinhos.

Skol is also huge across the South Atlantic in the Congo, where it inspires what I suggest may be one of the best music videos in support of a beer ever, by the too-little-known Bill Clinton Kalonji. (Give yourself eight minutes 33 to watch, and if you’re not grinning broadly by two minutes in at the latest, you can have your money back. The Portman group would turn into steam.) In Malaysia (where the beer is brewed by a Carlsberg subsidiary) and the Far East, meanwhile, it has been launched as a “value for money” brew.

In Britain, Skol was the biggest-selling beer in the market 25 years ago. But it had fallen out of the top 10 by 2004 and is now a commodity lager, sold in cans at just 2.8 per cent abv to take advantage of the UK’s new low-alcohol tax band. Skol is currently the fifth best selling beer in the world, thanks to its popularity in places such as Brazil and the Congo. But in the country where it began, Skol is a sad, tired brand.

The other curiosity is that brewery mergers and takeovers mean that Skol-the-brand is owned by Carlsberg in Britain and Asia, A-B InBev in South America, and UniBra, a Belgian company, in Africa. How all did this happen to a beer from Alloa? It’s a long story, and it properly starts in Burton upon Trent more than 110 years ago, where a substantial but struggling pale ale brewer, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, decided in 1898 to get into the lager-brewing business.

Allsopp’s Lager ad, Daily Mirror, 1906. Love that typeface …

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