We now journey into Scotland to visit the only established independent regional left in this part of Britain. The Belhaven Brewery (2/3*) was founded in 1719 on a site where Benedictine monks had been brewing since about 1100. There are remains of a 16th century brewery within the current building, and evidence that Belhaven beers were supplied to soldiers in nearby Dunbar Castle in the 1550’s. The brewery changed its name to Dudgeons Brewery in 1815. then back to Belhaven in 1972 when it was taken over by outside financial concerns and passed around from company to company until a management buyout once again secured its independence. The line up is a range of traditional malty Scottish ales, though confusingly Belhaven use different names for the same beers.
<U>Belhaven 90/-</u> (3*), also called Wee Heavy, is a malty sweet beer.
The famous <U>Belhaven 80/-</u> (3*), also called Export and Scottish Ale, has a flavour that’s been described as “gooseberries and cream” among other things - each person finding something different in the subtle malt and hops.
<U>Belhaven 70/-</u> (2/3*), also called Best, is a honey coloured Scottish session bitter with a roasty, nutty character.
<U>Belhaven 60/-</u> (2*) is the Scottish equivalent of a mild, with a dark sweet character.
<U>St Andrews Ale</u> (2/3*) has a pleasant smoky character but little else.
Belhaven also make a <U>(Scottish) Lager</u> and a <U>Pilsner</u> which are barely worth comment.
The Volunteer Arms on Victoria Street, is a recommended Belhaven pub in the brewery’s home town of Dunbar.
We travel back into England and down to Tadcaster in Yorkshire where we find the Samuel Smith Old Brewery. Sam Smith’s is better known for its bottled beers than its one remaining cask ale. Even though not bottle-conditioned, the bottled ales have acquired a reputation world wide, largely thanks to Michael Jackson’s enthusiasm for the local beers he enjoyed as a youth and Merchant du Vin importing the beers into America on the strength of Michael Jackson’s enthusiasm.
The brewery itself was founded in 1758 as the brewery for the White Horse coaching inn, and was taken over by John Smith in 1847. John Smith sold the brewery to his nephew, Samuel, in 1884, after he had built a new brewery for himself. The new brewery was John Smith’s (now owned by Scottish Courage), while Sam Smith’s brewery became known as the Old Brewery. The brewery now has more than 200 pubs, including a couple in London.
The only cask ale is <U>Old Brewery Bitter</u> (1/ 2*) which is served through a sparkler in the Yorkshire tradition - this ensures that whatever flavour the beer has is lost in the resulting foam. The company also produces a keg bitter, <U>Sovereign Best Bitter</u>, and some keg lagers under the brand name <U>Ayingerbrau</u>, none of which are worth trying.
Sam Smith’s strength really is the bottled beers, of which the <U>Oatmeal Stout</u>, the <U>Imperial Stout</u>, the <U>Taddy Porter</u> and the <U>Nut Brown Ale</u> are the most popular and the most influential. All are quite smooth, drinkable and pleasant.
The Cittie of York, High Holborn is a large and interesting Sam Smith’s pub in London which serves the brewery’s one and only, and quite dreadful, cask ale.
Staying in Yorkshire we visit Timothy Taylor (3*) in Keighley near Bradford. Timothy Taylor is of course famous for <U>Landlord </u> (3*) - the CAMRA Supreme Champion twice, and Madonna’s favourite tipple. This is a delicate, hoppy ale that needs time to settle in the cask otherwise it won’t reveal why it has become so popular; served well, this is a joy. Even though most people only think of Landlord when they think of Timothy Taylor, this brewery - founded in 1858, and now with 24 pubs scattered throughout Yorkshire - does produce an attractive line up of cask regulars, and one bottled beer.
The <U>Dark Mild</u> (3*) is well made and flavoursome; <U>Golden Best</u> (2*) is a light mild with a pleasant touch of citric fruit; the <U>Best Bitter</u> (2*) has no reputation to speak of; while the <U>Porter</u> is rumoured to be quite exceptional. The <U>Ram Tam</u> (3*) is Landlord with caramel and is usually available in the winter months.
The bottled beer is <U>Royal Ale</u> (3*) which is spicy and fragrant with hops.
The Boltmakers Arms on East Parade, Keighley, is the one most often used by people visiting the brewery.
Travelling further south, down the east side of Britain we come to Wainfleet in Lincolnshire, not far from the east coast resort of Skegness. This is the home of <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/batemans/806/>George Bateman & Son (3*). George Bateman, a farmer, and his wife Suzanna, started brewing in 1874, and the business is still family run. The brewery owns around 75 pubs in Eastern England, mostly in Lincolnshire. The brewery has always struggled financially, operating in a mostly rural area, but has found some success with XXXB which won CAMRA Champion Beer in 1986; and with the bottling assistance of Marston’s its bottled beer range has a regular outlet in supermarkets nationwide.
<U>XXXB</u> (3*) is a premium bitter which is a favourite with CAMRA, winning 6 awards. This is a malty ale with toffee noses and a dusty hop bite.
<U>Combined Harvest</u> (2*) is a multi grain beer containing wheat and oats which gives it a smooth yet refreshing character. Often seen bottled.
<U>Dark Mild</u> (3*) is another CAMRA favourite - full of flavours this is a wild and wooly mild. with good nuttiness.
<U>Salem Porter</u> (3*) has fruit cake, licorice and toffee notes. A good porter.
<U>Yella Belly</u> (2*) is an organic bitter which has found a permanent spot on British supermarket shelves. Light bodied and light flavoured. Good for lager drinkers.
<U>Rosey Nosey</u> (3*) is an excellent winter seasonal full of roasty, plummy, sweet malt flavours but with a flat finish.
Due south from Wainfleet, across The Wash, we come to <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/elgoods/703/>Elgood and Sons (2/3*) in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, where they have been since 1877, though brewing has been carried out on the same site since 1786. Wisbech is in the Fenland area of Britain - an area of low lying land that has over the centuries been drained of water by Dutch specialists. Parts of the Fens are below sea level, and there are many long straight drainage ditches criss-crossing the land.
The regular beers are: <U>Black Dog Mild</u> (2/3*), Elgood’s most famous and acclaimed product. It is a dry mild with roasty, nutty notes and a touch of light fruit.
<U>Cambridge Bitter</u> (2*) is a fairly average session bitter. <U>Greyhound Strong Bitter</u> (3*) is a premium bitter along with <U>Pageant Ale</u> (3*), which is a very dry and bitter.
<U>Double Swan </u> (2*) is a spring seasonal in the Blond style with some wheat in the brew. The brewery produces eight other seasonals, including <U>Old Black Shuck</u> and <U>Wenceslas
Winter Warmer</u>, both of which have a reputation as decent ales.
<U>Flag Porter</u> is a bottled beer that appears to be only available in America, though there is an occasional cask version called <U>North Brink Porter</u>.
Elgood have around 40 pubs, all in the East Anglian area serving a mostly rural and conservative clientele, which is why their beers are so traditional and old school.
We now head south west via Peterborough to reach the county town of Bedford, home to the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/wells-&-young%E2%80%99s/754/>Charles Wells (2/3*) brewery since 1876 when a young, wandering Charles Wells fell in love with a Josephine Grimbley, and her father insisted that in order to marry her he had to settle down. So he started a brewery. The brewery proved to be very successful and is now Britain’s fifth largest, though a lot of the output is lager brewed under licence, such as Kirin and Red Stripe. The site of the brewery moved within Bedford in 1976, though the water is still drawn from the well that Charles dug himself in 1902. The brewery owns around 300 pubs which covers the area just north of London from Warwickshire in the west to Cambridgeshire in the east.
The regular ales are: <U>Eagle Bitter</u> (2/3*), (renamed from IPA to avoid confusion with the higher abv canned product that’s sold in America) - the brewery has been promoting Eagle Bitter heavily at beer festivals recently; <U>Bombardier</u> (2/3*), the most famous and acclaimed product the brewery produces - a pleasant, slightly fruity bitter of no great character; and <U>Banana Bread Beer</u> (3*), a love it or hate it brew which really does taste of bananas.
The seasonals include <U>Summer Solstice</u> (2/3*) for the summer and <U>Fargo</u> (3*) in the winter.
The Wentworth near Mile End station in London is a good East End outlet for Charles Wells beers.
It’s time to stagger east through the university town of Cambridge and plunge into the barley fields of East Anglia. Greene King (2/3*) of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, was founded in 1799 on a site where brewing had taken place since 1086, and is Britain’s largest independent after buying up the Ruddles and Morland breweries. They have 1,600 pubs in an increasingly large region around London. A careful and conscientious brewery, it managed to take over the brewing of the popular Old Speckled Hen without too much fuss. The writer Graham Greene is related to the Greene family, but takes no part in the business other than for the making of a one off celebration ale in his honour. A roadside pub chain The Hungry Horse provides large cheap meals for families with decent beers for the grown ups.
The flagship beer is <U>Abbot Ale</u> (3*), brewed since the 1950’s, a fruity and full-bodied ale with a sharp finish. This is now available in many pubs across Britain, and is a good stand by.
<U>IPA</u> (2*) is Greene King’s big seller, an easy drinking session beer, well suited to a social evening in the pub, but quite pointless to buy in a bottle or can. Greene King are promoting this heavily in a seemingly successful attempt to dominate the session bitter market.
<U>Strong Suffolk</u> (3/4*) is an old ale available on cask during the winter, but is perhaps better known in the bottle. This is the brewery’s prestige beer, a blend of two year old 12% beer with a young 5% beer. It certainly has some complexity and depth, but lacks a decent finish.
<U>Ruddles County Ale </u> (2*) is better known as a bottled beer than a cask ale. This was originally a picnic beer, designed with its wide mouth and ring pull cap to be drunk from the bottle without a need for glasses or bottle openers. It accompanied many outdoor concerts and sports events during the 1970’s. Crisp and nutty, it is an easy drinking and pleasant ale that many feel has suffered slightly since Greene King took it over. Sadly it is mostly available on keg these days.
<U>Morland Old Speckled Hen</u> (3*) is a very popular beer both in the cask and in the bottle, and was the prime reason that Greene King bought out the Morland brewery. <U>Hen’s Tooth</u> (3*) is a bottle conditioned beer that uses the Morland yeast for brewing, but the Greene King yeast for conditioning in the bottle. Both are tasty ales.
Greene King’s size, and its portfolio of five respected beers, means it looks very secure for the future; though there are mutterings that it is more of a national brewery than a regional. Strong Suffolk has aspirations to be world class, but the range of beers is worthy rather than exciting.
Three handy Greene King pubs in Bury St. Edmunds are: The Rose & Crown pub in Whiting Street which is within sight of the brewery and is used by the brewery staff. The beers are the traditional Greene King ales. The King’s Arms in Brentgovel Street sells Old Speckled Hen. While the Nutshell in The Traverse claims to be Britain’s smallest pub.
A good London outlet is the Apple Tree, 45 Mount Pleasant, WC1.
A short journey east for an hour or so, using some minor roads, will bring you to the remote, windswept, seaside town of Southwold, just south of Lowestoft. This is the home of Adnams (3*) brewery with 85 pubs scattered around East Anglia and the South-East. Brewing has taken place on the site since 1345, though the Adnams family have only been in charge since 1872. The brewery still delivers its beers locally by horse-drawn dray, and is almost obsessively traditional. This was a forgotten brewery until its centenary when the Adnams family decided to reach out into the cities beyond the fen-lands. And then in 1999 the beer range was tidied up and relaunched with a fresh image.
The flagship beer is <U>Broadside</u>, (4*) a deeply gorgeous ale which also works well in the bottle with a higher abv of 6.3 % compared to the cask’s 4.7 %. Lots of malt and fruit. This is often available outside of Adnams area and is proving quite popular.
The <U>Bitter</u> (3*) is an excellent example of an English session beer with a perfect balance of dry hops and mild orange fruit. This won the CAMRA award for champion bitter in 2001.
<U>Suffolk Strong Bitter </u> (2/3*) is the bottled version of Extra, a beer with a devoted cult following, which is no longer made for the cask. It is a decent, though over-rated bitter, and is not a good example of what the brewery can do.
The company also produces three well regarded seasonal ales, <U>Regatta</u>, <U>Fisherman</u> and <U>Tally-Ho</u>.
Adnams profile is rising, but its remote location and mostly rural outlet put it at risk of a take over (by Greene King?). The beers are highly respected and worth seeking out.
The Lord Nelson in East Street is the most famous of Adnams pubs in the town.
The Black Friar, an astonishingly stunning pub, 174 Queen Victoria St., EC4, is a London outlet for Adnams that is well worth visiting.
We now slip down the A12 all the way to Chelmsford in Essex, a large town only 15 miles from London. T D Ridley & Sons Ltd (2*) have been brewing here since 1842 and have 70 pubs in the area. They bought up the ancient but troubled Tolly Cobbold in July 2002, adding Tolly Original to their portfolio. The huge range of beers that both Tolly and Ridley once produced have now been rationalised into just five.
<U>IPA</u> (2*) is a well-balanced session bitter, crisp and refreshing.
<U>Tolly Original Best Bitter</u> has a cult following for its assertive hop flavours.
<U>Prospect</u> is a modern beer, launched spring 2002, in the Golden Summer Ale style of light body and fragrant hops.
<U>Rumpus</u> (2*) is a malty, woody beer brewed with oats. Interesting, if not fully successful. Rumpus is also available in the bottle.
The big beer of Ridley’s - the one worth seeking out - is <U>Old Bob</u> (3/4*). This is very much in the old ale style - packed with dark fruity flavours, and laced with licorice. Also available in the bottle.
Ridley is at risk. But they are aware of it and have done a deal with the discount pub chain Wetherspoon to promote Old Bob and IPA. Old Bob is a world class beer, but the rest of the range is a desperate attempt to maintain interest.
Despite being the town brewer Ridley’s don’t have much of a presence in Chelmsford. They have two pubs: the Bird in Hand, New Writtle Street, and the Beehive in Baddow Road.
The Rosemary Branch in Shepperton Rd., N1, which also has a theatre with stand up comedy, is a rare London outlet for Ridley’s
From Chelmsford we go back west to reach Hertford and the recently troubled McMullen & Sons (3*) brewery. The family brewery was started in 1827 in Hertford by Peter McMullen, though moved a couple of times before settling on their current site, still in Hertford, in 1891. They have 135 pubs in Herts, Essex and London. The quality and reputation of their ales is excellent, and they keep a tidy and secure portfolio. Nevertheless, certain members of the family, seeing the profits that could be earned from running a pub only company, wanted to drop the brewing operation, as happened with Brakspear. For something like a year the future of McMullen’s award winning ales was in doubt. But eventually David and Fergus McMullen won the day. The brewing operation has been scaled down in order for the brewery to fall within the tax relief band set by the government under the Progressive Beer Duty. The brewery will continue to brew its own brands but will no longer do contract brewing.
The brewery makes two regular beers, the famous <U>Original AK</u>, (2*) a rare surviving example of a pale mild that once thrived in the heart of England. The recipe appears to have changed so that these days it is slighter darker in colour and has less of the light fruit character it once held. The other regular is <U>Country Best Bitter</u> (3*), a complex ale with a shifting range of flavours - in my opinion a world class bitter, though not everyone would agree with me.
The winter seasonal is <U>Stronghart</u> (3/4*), a traditional dark, rich, plummy Winter Warmer with juicy fruit flavours mingling well with the licorice tones. Another world class beer in my opinion. The finest Winter Warmer Britain has to offer.
The Nag’s Head pub in Covent Garden, just round the corner from the Covent Garden tube station, is a handy London outlet.
Which brings us into London itself for two of Britain’s most famous breweries. Brewing has taken place on the site of Fuller’s (3*) Griffin brewery in Chiswick since 1661, though it wasn’t until 1829 that a John Fuller took over the brewery, to be joined in 1845 by Henry Smith and John Turner, to form Fuller, Smith & Turner. Fuller’s is a solid brewery producing decent enough ales, though some (myself included) prefer to drink Young’s beers when in London. Their reputation for producing quality ale is much higher in America than it is in Britain, partly through the belief that Fuller’s ESB, available in pasteurised bottled form in America, is a style unique to the brewery, and partly through Michael Jackson’s praise in his seminal World Beer Guide. Their reputation in Britain is divided between those that feel they produce mostly safe and drinkable beers, and those who regard them more highly, especially as they have won several CAMRA awards.
The regular cask ales are: <U>Chiswick Bitter </u> (2/3*) a dry session bitter with a dusty hop finish which has its devoted fans; <u>London Pride</u> (3*) a popular bitter of no great character but pleasant to drink; and <U>ESB</u> (3*) a premium bitter with a huge reputation that really doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
The seasonals are: <U>Honey Dew </u> (2/3*) a honey flavoured brew available in spring and autumn; <U>Summer Ale</u> (1 /2*) a pathetic attempt at a golden ale, aimed mostly at lager drinkers; and <U>Jack Frost</u> (2/3*) a bitter enriched with blackberries, available in the winter months.
Some of the bottled ales sometimes find themselves in the cask, but in limited and irregular availability. <U>1845</u> (3/4*) a bottle conditioned ale first brewed in 1995 to celebrate 150 years of Fuller’s, is a big impact brew with a good range of flavours; <U>Golden Pride</u> (2/3*) a simple barley wine is used as the base for the bottled conditioned <U>Vintage Ale</u> (3*) which built its reputation on using the finest ingredients, but these days is simply cashing in on its past glory; <U>London Porter</u> (3/4*) is a smooth and tasty brew, but is too well behaved to have any genuine character; <U>Old Winter Ale</u> (3*) manages a bit of woody character; while <U>India Pale Ale</u> is only available in America.
Fuller’s is a financially secure brewery with annual profits of around £8 million. A significant percentage of the profits come from the pub estate which these days is regarded as less of a risk than brewing, so financial security is no guarantee that a brewery would not consider selling off the brewing operation. Fuller’s plays safe with its beers, concentrating on marketing the existing brands rather than exploring anything new. Like its beers, Fuller’s is safe but unexciting.
Fuller’s own around 250 pubs, mostly in a tight circle in and around London, spreading out to the west as far as Oxford, though it does have outposts in Bristol, Birmingham and Portsmouth.
Mawson Arms Chiswick Lane, London W4, is the brewery tap and the original Fuller’s pub, though it is situated right on the busy Great West Road.
Young & Co. (3*) in Wandsworth, on the south bank of The Thames is one of the three breweries that Michael Jackson talked about enthusiastically in his World Beer Guide. It makes good beers, but its reputation, like Fuller’s, is perhaps larger than it deserves, and is more based on availability in the capital and elsewhere than on pure character and quality.
Brewing has taken place continuously on the same site since 1581 when Humphrey Langridge, landlord of the Ram Inn, started to produce his own ales for his customers. (Young’s Brewery Tap stands on the site of the original inn which was destroyed by fire in 1882). The brewery grew, changing hands over the years until the Young family got involved in 1831. Initially it was Charles Young in partnership with Anthony Fothergill Bainbridge. The partnership, however, split up in 1883 when Bainbridge’s nephew ran off with the wife of Charles Young’s son, Charles Florance Young. Even though Young’s, being a London brewer, did get involved in the Porter boom, they got in too late and were too small to make an impact. But their small size did allow them to quickly change to brewing the Pale Ale/Bitter that was sweeping the country, and in 1864 early versions of Young’s Bitter were available in London pubs. Though Young’s core business has always been cask ale, they have also invested heavily in bottling , buying up a large bottling company in 1962, which has enabled them to spread easily to markets overseas.
Regular beers are <U>Bitter</u> (3*) <U>Triple A</u> (2/3*) and <U>Special</u> (2/3*)
A regular seasonal is <U>Waggledance</u> (2*) in the summer, a rancid tasting honeyed beer taken over from the Vaux Brewery. Other seasonals are not so reliably found in the cask, but are easily found in the bottle. <U>Christmas Pudding Ale</u> (3*) is a decent enough example of a Winter Warmer: rich, sweet and plummy; <U>Double Chocolate Stout</u> (3*) a smooth stout with real chocolate used in the brew; <U>Special London Ale </u> (3*) which is available bottle conditioned, has some zippy hops, but is not well integrated; <U>Old Nick</u> (2/3*) is a lively barley wine that some people love; while <U>Ramrod</u> (2*) is rather dull and is struggling in the cask market.
The brewery has made a recent announcement that they may sell off the ancient Ram Brewery and move to a new site. They state that they are still committed to brewing beer, but Brakspear’s were making similar announcements until they sold off both the brewery and the brands.
Finding a Young’s pub in London is easy - they are all over the place. The Brewery Tap on the corner of the brewery itself in Wandsworth High Street, even though it has been rebuilt, is the site of the original Ram Inn, and as such is worth a visit.
So there you have it, 38 regional breweries - over 4,000 years of brewing experience between them. The beers are mostly solid and traditional; and though there is some exploration among the more forward thinking breweries, the more exciting developments and bottle conditioned beers are left to the modern micros. I feel the Best Regional stands out quite obviously, and I’ll come to that in a moment; of the rest, though, it is a matter for debate and discussion which comes second and third. McMullen, Fuller’s, Young’s, Adnams, Batemans, Hardy & Hanson’s, Timothy Taylor all produce good beers, and the order in which they appear would depend on familiarity with their products and personal preference. I have a fondness for McMullen’s beers and so would place them quite high, while general acclaim for Timothy Taylor’s beers means that another person writing this would place them higher than McMullen. Adnams have their staunch followers, as do Young’s and Fuller’s. One thing is for sure - despite their size and market domination, Sam Smith’s, Badger, Greene King and Shepherd Neame would be placed low down in the ranking on most Best Of lists produced by a beer enthusiast in Britain. A little unfair perhaps, but most British beer enthusiasts respect those breweries which devote themselves to cask ale, and feel a little cold toward those which mostly pasteurise the beer, robbing it of some of its character, in order to turn a higher profit.
Best Regional then? It’s down in the south of England, not far from Brighton. Not too far from what might be the Best Micro in Britain, Dark Star. It produces one of the best beers to be made in England - it has a large range of tried and tested cask ales of supreme character and quality, steeped in English ale history, but not conservative and dull - it also has a good range of bottled ales. The beers are varied and interesting, ranging from soft milds, through a distinctive series of bitters, up to one of the world’s best imperial stouts. The Best Regional Brewery of Britain - that honour goes to Harvey’s of Lewes - and there are few serious beer enthusiasts in Britain who would disagree with that.
The hardest part in doing this article was in deciding which breweries were Regionals. My criteria were that:
A) The brewery had to be well established. I selected 100 years old. This really meant that any brewery which started up in the 1900’s or later, regardless of size, was excluded. But I then included Holden who started up in 1915, so I shifted the criteria to 75 years old.
B) The brewery had to be independent. No external financial founding or influence. This was the trickiest criterion. Breweries such as Redruth, regardless of age, were excluded because of external ownership. But some breweries had been bought up, and then bought back by the original owners or at least the managers. Belhaven and Caledonian caused me a problem. I decided to include Belhaven because an original family member is still involved in the brewery, but I excluded Caledonian, despite their current independence, because there is no evidence of continuation from the Lorimer & Clark days which lasted up to 1945 when they were taken over by Vaux. Breweries which retain no original family members were included if they had always been independent, such as Okell. Burtonwood is now 60% owned by Thomas Hardy so is no longer independent. Thankfully the majority of the breweries have been in the same family for more than a hundred years.
C) Site location. It didn’t matter to me if a brewery had moved site, as long as it remained within the same region.
D) The brewery had to have a tied estate - that is they had to have at least five pubs in the region which sold their beer. A brewery which had sold off the pub estate was therefore excluded.
E) They had to sell cask ale. Sam Smith’s just about qualifies because it does keep one cask ale (even though it is a nasty beer) in its portfolio.
If a brewery is not in this article it is because it is part of a larger group (even if the rest of the group does not sell beer); it is a micro-brewery; it is a modern brewery; it is a national or global brewery; it has no region of its own because it has no pubs; it doesn’t sell cask ale; or it is a brew-pub.
With thanks to rauchbier for suggestions, additions and casting his eye over the whole thing.
And a barrel of the beer of his choice to imdownthepub who went out of his way to give me many suggestions and additional information most of which found its way into the article.