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: Continue reading

Guidance for 2012

It’s 2012 here in Hong Kong, and has been for some hours. My resolution for this year is not to be such a grumpily aggressive bastard online, although I have at least one rant to get out of the way first. However, I have tried to put together a list of precepts to blog by over the coming 12 months, rules I hope we can all agree on. There are, in fact, just three:

1) It’s only beer.

2) It’s all about the taste.

3) You like what you like. I like what I like.

There: who could possibly object to any of that? You agree? Excellent. Now I’m going to test you. Have a brown paper bag handy, and read this, which is a genuine comment grabbed from the web during 2011:

So, under the recommendation of a few people online, I bought myself a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. And I have to say… It’s one of the best beers I’ve ever had. Normally I stuck to more mainstream pale lagers, such as Corona Extra, Budweiser and Peroni, so was a bit cautious about trying this, and as I opened it up, the rich beer smell really hit me, and I was expecting a bitter, overpowering flavour. Nevertheless, I tried a gulp of it… And it went down like water! Yet, the flavour was there, and strong, but not overpowering by any means. It’s fairly refreshing, although I will say you should only drink it when it’s cold, it tastes much better to me.

OK, blow into the brown paper bag and place it over your nose and mouth … breathe in and out slowly … repeat after me: “It’s only beer … It’s all about the taste … You like what you like. I like what I like.” Feeling better now? Good.

Really, if people like things you don’t like, it doesn’t matter. And nor does it matter if they don’t like things that you adore. There are, in fact, amazingly few things a majority of people can agree on, and almost none that everybody votes for: we live in a world of pluralities and minorities. You can live with that, or you can drive up your blood pressure. If you enjoy something that someone else doesn’t, well, just enjoy your enjoyment. And if they enjoy something you can’t see the point of, that’s really not your problem. Have a good year.

Budweiser 666: the drink of the beast

Budweiser 666: It'll make you horny

Silly joke: but the fact that even someone with my limited Photoshop skills can knock up an unkind photospoof of AB Inbev’s new “entry level” four per cent alcohol lager for the British market, Bud 66, in 15 minutes suggests the company’s marketing department didn’t think hard enough about the branding. And my apologies to Stuart MacFarlane, AB Inbev’s UK president: his skin’s not really that colour. (The horns, though …)

The most interesting fact about Bud 66 is not the mockable name, however, nor the fact that you and I, dear reader, won’t like it (since the maker describes it as a “lightly carbonated lager” brewed with a “touch of sweetness for a smooth easy taste” and “targeted at the early 20s market”, which translates as “fizzy, over-sugary and bland, and designed for people we think don’t know anything about beer” – if I were in my early 20s I’d be extremely insulted that InBev thinks this is the sort of stuff I’d like to drink.)

Nor is it the way that the company attempts to present blatantly copying Beck’s Vier and Stella Artois 4% as “another example of innovation by AB InBev”. Rather, it’s that InBev feels it has to enter this category with Bud at all, with MacFarlane describing the launch as InBev’s “most important business action in 2010”.

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Takeover bid for London’s biggest brewer

It’s a little-known fact that the biggest brewer in London is Anheuser-Busch. Far more people have seen the brewery than know it’s run by A-B: it’s right by the finishing line on the Thames at Mortlake for the annual Oxford versus Cambridge University Boat Race, one of the televised highlights of the British sporting year.

A-B acquired a lease on the brewery in 1995, four years after its previous owner, Grand Metropolitan, had sold off all its brewing assets after the government’s Beer Orders of 1989 saw all Britain’s then big brewers begin to split brewing from pub owning.

The site already brewed, under licence, all the Budweiser sold in the UK, where the beer is one of the leading premium bottled/canned lagers, with something like three per cent of the UK beer market, and Anheuser-Busch obviously decided it was worth running its own production facility. While the other Grand Met breweries went to Courage, therefore, which was then bought by Scottish & Newcastle in 1995, Mortlake flew the A-B flag, albeit leased from S&N.

Grand Met had inherited the Mortlake brewery when it took over Watney Mann in 1972, and Watney’s had acquired it more than 80 years earlier, in 1888. The brewery is sometimes said to descend from the monastery brewhouse at the Mortlake Manor House, owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury, and to date back to the 15th century. However commercial brewing on the site does not appear to have started until some time after the Manor House was pulled down in the 18th century.

The brewery that Watney’s acquired had developed out of two separate small breweries both mentioned in 1765. These were amalgamated in 1811, and after several owners had come and gone the business was being run in the mid-1850s by Charles John Phillips and James Wigan.

Under Phillips and Wigan the brewery prospered, gaining a high reputation for its bitter ales, and it was extended and rebuilt in the late 1860s: a roundel with the initials “P” and “W” can still be seen on the high brick wall that faces Mortlake High Street. Wigan left the partnership in 1877, and the Phillips family continued to run the brewery until Charles John Phillips retired in 1889.

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