The Regional Breweries of Britain, part one
February 5, 2004
Written by SilkTork
Squeezed between the financial power and market domination of the big breweries (the macros) and the freedom of expression of the new small breweries (the micros) lie the long established and independent regional breweries. Often family-run on marginal profits, the regionals have been the backbone of British real ale for over a century. Some are famous, such as Young’s and Fuller’s, others such as Holden’s or Hyde’s are almost unknown outside of their region. Meanwhile, some have thrown in the towel and have allowed themselves to be taken over by the big boys, or, in the case of Brakspear, have sold off their beers to another company.
A regional is a brewery that has grown strong over the years through delivering beer that the locals wish to drink. This sometimes means that a regional’s beers will have a distinctive quality, peculiar to that region such as McMullen’s AK or Batham’s Mild - a quality not found anywhere else. The regionals are fairly traditional, somewhat conservative, brewing mostly bitter with the odd seasonal winter warmer or a summer mild as variety. Though some, such as Young’s, which serves the more sophisticated clientele of London, are perhaps a little more adventurous, producing beers that are somewhat modern, with a wider mass appeal.
The growth in popularity of bottled beers has allowed the more forward thinking of the regionals to expand their market base beyond their region. Shepherd Neame was among the first to exploit the potential of bottled beers; Badger and Adnam’s have also recently established a place for themselves on the supermarket shelves.
But it’s in a regional’s own backyard that its beers are best experienced. As you drive into Oxfordshire you know that you will lunch in a Hook Norton pub and drink a pint of Old Hooky. A trip into Dorset will usually be accompanied by a visit to a Hall & Woodhouse (Badger) pub serving a foaming glass of Tanglefoot. And a journey to Cardiff would not be complete without sipping Brains Dark.
In some regions, such as Kent, one brewer, in this case Shepherd Neame, will dominate. Apart from the nationals and the micros only Greene King, which is almost a national, has any reasonable presence in Kent. Harvey’s has a few pubs, and Young’s and Fuller’s have a minimal presence in the north of the county. In other regions, such as those spreading from the West Midlands up to the North West of England, several regionals compete for business - and the area in and around Manchester provides plenty of choice for those wanting to sample a few different regional breweries. London is the battleground for Young’s and Fuller’s, though some of the regionals touching the boundaries of London, such as Shepherd Neame, McMullen and Greene King have a presence in the capital as well. Other regionals are barely seen on the streets of London - Harvey’s have one pub, while Sam Smith’s have a couple, but that’s about it. A landlord may take a guest ale or two from a regional, sometimes on a semi-permanent basis, but there are few pubs owned by regionals in London, other than those mentioned.
The regional flavour of these scattered breweries is most noticeable when travelling north past Oxfordshire. Near Birmingham the beers become softer, creamier, with larger heads - much of this is to do with the sparkler used when pulling the beer from the cask, though the beers are also brewed with a different hop profile in mind. The hoppier beers are those brewed in and around London - an earthy, dusty hoppiness, typified by the Goldings hop grown in Kent. Beers in Wales tend to be thinner, weaker, sweeter and less hopped than elsewhere.
Many regionals supplement income by contract bottling and packaging. The micro Highwood, for example, has used Robinson, Brakspears and Thwaites in the past for Jolly Ploughman batches. The regional will send a tanker to suck up the beer, and the micro will get it back bottled and packaged neatly on pallets ready to deliver to supermarkets. Regionals would have bottled a far higher percentage of their production in the past, but in the late eighties many regionals, with the rising popularity of the nitrogen flush system, found that bottling was no longer worth their while and bottling lines were either run down or stripped out entirely. With the market for bottled premium ales growing again, those of the regionals who retained and improved their bottling facilities are seeing increased contract work. Regionals also tend to do some wholesaling of national products - anything to keep the money coming in.
Progressive Beer Duty, introduced by Gordon Brown in 2002 after campaigning by CAMRA and SIBA, uses a sliding scale to give tax relief to smaller breweries and has led to problems for a number of regionals, which are in that nasty area where they often find they have to pay exactly the same duty on a cask as the nationals, but without the same distribution network or economies of scale. Those regionals on the sliding scale part of the duty calculation, just below the 30,000 hectolitre barrier, see little incentive to increase production moderately as it could have a negative effect when the duty bill comes in. They are lobbying to change this and customs and excise are gathering evidence to see what effect raising the tax barrier to 200,000 hectolitres will have.
This article is an introduction, a sampler if you like, to Britain’s regional breweries - their history, their beers and their reputation. And will take us on a clockwise journey from Kent, around Britain, to arrive in the capital city.
Part One - From Kent to North East England
We start our clockwise journey around Britain in the South East, in Kent. We are starting with Britain’s oldest brewery - Shepherd Neame (3*) in Faversham. Brewing has taken place on or near the site of the present brewery since the 12th century. The Shepherd family only took over the brewery in 1741, but they claim a continuous use of the buildings as a brewery since 1698. Faversham is an attractive place, frozen in time due to the alignment of the main road completely by-passing the town. Its location in the centre of the Kent hop fields gives Shepherd Neame a certain advantage over other brewers.
Forward thinking and aggressive marketing have kept Shepherd Neame thriving. They have more than 360 pubs, the third largest of the regionals, spread out over the South-East and London; a very healthy bottled beer portfolio; and contracts to brew a range of popular if dull lagers such as Oranjeboom and Kingfisher.
"Bishops Finger" (3*) (named after a traditional Kent road sign) is the flagship ale. Although it has been available in the cask for many years, it was launched as a bottled beer and that’s where its reputation and success lies. A robust and fruity ale, tasty but not over complex.
Supported by huge advertising and a secure place in the Wetherspoon chain, "Spitfire" (2/3*) is the company’s best selling beer. It is a decent, above average bitter, but a bit dull.
"Master Brew" (3*) is a very popular session bitter with a good hop profile that refreshes rather than intrudes. Has a bit more character than Spitfire.
Other cask ales include the seasonals: "Early Bird" (2*), "Goldings" (2/3*), "Late Red" (3*), and a hard to find "Best Bitter" (3*). The "Original Porter" (3/4*) has just this year returned to the cask where it develops its subtle and intoxicating blackcurrant and liquorice flavours to best effect.
With a pre-tax profit in 2002 of £8.4 million, Sheps is a secure brewery. The local people (including myself) are very fond of the beers - they are made to a high standard and are good examples of English beer, but they are not world class.
There are many choices in the town for a good pub. The Sun Inn in West Street is the perfect example of an English pub. It is my favourite pub, but it does get very crowded. A drive out into the lonely marshes will bring you to the isolated Shipwright’s Arms in Hollowshore which has to receive its beer deliveries by boat. It has no cellar so the casks are lined up behind the bar. As well as Sheps beers there is always a range of beers from independent Kent breweries.
The Bishops Finger is a multi-award-winning Sheps pub in London at 9-10 West Smithfield EC1, in the heart of the ancient Smithfield meat market.
Heading south-west via Ashford we come to Lewes, just outside Brighton, and the home of one of Britain’s world class breweries: Harvey & Son Ltd. (5*) Don’t even dream about a tour of the brewery, there’s a two year waiting list! Established in 1790 the brewery has remained in family hands for seven generations. Harvey’s have 44 pubs, all in Sussex and Kent. Nearly all the beers have won a CAMRA award at some time, but Harvey’s is mostly only known to the locals and a few beer geeks worldwide.
There are four regular ales, "XX Mild" (2/3*) is rough and wild; "Armada" (3/4*) is full of tropical fruits and has a good hop profile; "Sussex Pale" is an award winning session bitter; and "Sussex Best Bitter" (3*) is a premium bitter in the style of "Abbot Ale".
There are also ten seasonal ales, each of which is quite distinctive. "Tom Paine" (3*) is a hoppy bitter brewed in July to celebrate the independence of Britain’s regional breweries.
The "Porter" (4*) is available in March, and is based on a 1859 recipe. Very complex with a full range of chocolate, wine, red fruit and balsamic vinegar flavours.
"Christmas Ale" (3*) is yummy rich like a liquid Christmas cake, but can be a bit crude.
"Old Ale" (2/3*) is a dark mild available in the spring. It has good flavours but is a bit watery. The "Sussex Old Ale XXXX" (3/4*) released in November is malty and bitter and an excellent example of the old ale style.
A range of, sadly hard to get hold of, bottled beers completes the portfolio. "Sweet Sussex" (3*) is a beautiful sweet stout with a sour oaky apple flavour to balance the sweetness.
"Elizabethan Ale" (3/4*) is a malty barley wine with lots of mild fruit.
And "Imperial Russian Stout" (also known as "A. le Coq") (5*) is, as Harvey’s themselves say, quite rightly regarded as “one of the World’s most unusual and prestigious beers.” The flavours contain dark Belgium chocolate, prune juice, fresh plums, fresh figs, Navy rum and a vintage 1987 Chateau Neuf Du Pape. One of the world’s top beers.
Behaving like a large enthusiastic micro with a dedication to producing high quality and unique beers it is unlikely that any large brewer would want to take it over. A highly regarded and true beer lover’s brewery.
The John Harvey Tavern is in Beer Lane just opposite the brewery, while the Dorset Arms in Malling Street dates from 1670.
The only London outlet is the Royal Oak at 44 Tabard Street, London SE1 near London Bridge.
A slow tangled drive along the coastal A27 will bring us to Horndean, just north of Portsmouth, and this is where George Gale Prize Old Ale is made. Gale’s (3*) brewery dates from 1847, though it was taken over in 1896 by the Bowyer family who are still running it today. They have 111 pubs scattered across five southern counties. The main beer range is decent enough, but nothing special. <U>GB</u> (½*) is a hoppy bitter of no distinction.
HSB (3*) is a decently fruity bitter with a CAMRA award in its past.
Festival Mild (3*) - a recent CAMRA award winner, Butser and Winter Brew complete the range of regulars.
Of the seasonals, Christmas Ale (3*) is considered to be the best with some oaky acidity.
However, Gale’s claim to fame is the bottle conditioned Prize Old Ale (4*). Now that Thomas Hardy’s Ale is no longer made, this is the next best thing. A complex beer that can be laid down to mature.
Aiming mostly at the lower end of the market, especially with its tinned products, Gales is an insecure brewery with too wide and careless a portfolio. An aggressive brewery keen to get a hold of the southern market would see it as an easy target. Prize Old Ale, its only outstanding product, would either be taken over by another brewer (Harvey’s?), or lost forever.
The Ship & Bell Hotel, London Road is a 17th century coaching inn next door to the brewery.
Crocker’s Folly, 24 Aberdeen Place, London NW8 is a sumptuous and ornate pub near Lord’s cricket ground which serves Gale’s beers.
We now go further east along a bewildering range of roads to reach Blandford St. Mary in Dorset and the Hall & Woodhouse brewery, home of Badger (2*) beers since 1899, though Charles Hall founded the company more than a hundred years earlier in 1777. The Badger estate runs to more than 250 pubs in the south of England, though it is also well known as a strong supplier of bottled and canned beers to the supermarkets.
The flagship ale is Tanglefoot (2/3*) with an excellent balance of citric hops and fruity malt.
Badger Best (available bottled as Badger Original) (2*) is an unremarkable bitter.
The elderflower flavoured Golden Champion Ale (2/3*) is pleasant, but doesn’t work in the bottle.
In 2000 Badger bought King & Barnes, a brewery renowned for its bottle-conditioned ales. Only three survive: Festive, first brewed in 1951; Faygate Dragon (2/3*) a dry, citric beer; and Cornucopia (2*) a corn based beer.
Badger is secure and may in fact acquire other small breweries. Though popular, especially in Dorset, it is not seen as a top quality brewery.
The Stour Inn is Badger’s pub in Blandford St. Mary.
The Ship & Shovel, Craven Passage WC2 is a Badger pub on both sides of an attractive mews in central London.
Before travelling east along the A35 to Bridport, we need to take a little detour down to Weymouth to catch the ferry to Guernsey. This small island off the coast of France which has a curious mixed French and English culture, is home to RW Randall Ltd. The full history of the Vauxlarens Brewery extends back into the mists of the 17th century, though the Randall family have owned it since 1898. The brewery was captured by the Germans during the World War II, but I have no record of whether they turned production over to lager. The brewery owns about 20 pubs, all on the island.
The regular beers are a Mild, a Pale Ale, a Best Bitter (also known as Patois Ale), and a Stout. Most of the Randall pubs will serve these beers in keg form, but Captain’s Hotel and Queens Hotel, both in St Martins, do serve the beers cask conditioned.
Back on the main island we continue to Bridport, where we arrive at one of Britain’s least known breweries - Palmers (2/3*). This is a small partly thatched 200 year old brewery which still delivers its beers by horse-drawn dray, and still has a working water wheel to provide power. With only 56 pubs and a couple of rare bottled beers this is truly a local brewery. Few people, even in Britain, have sampled any of their beers. <U>Best Bitter (IPA)</u> (2/3*) is a traditional and unremarkable bitter; <U>Dorset Gold</u> (3*) is a decent Golden Summer Ale; while <U>Tally Ho! </u> (3*) is a very tasty strong ale. There are 25 attractive Palmers pubs in Bridport itself to choose from. The Claret Free House, a decent local near Croydon appears to be the only London pub that offers Palmers beers on a regular basis.
A hard drive down into the wilds of Cornwall will bring us to St Austell and the brewery of the same name. Founded in 1851 by Walter Hicks, the brewery is now run by his great-great-grandson, James Staughton. St Austell (2*) runs 150 pubs, all in Cornwall or Devon, and have six cask ales and three bottled ales.
Dartmoor Best Bitter is a popular Devonshire beer originally brewed by the now closed Ferguson brewery. That St Austell bought it from the big Carlsberg-Tetley brewery is an indication that St Austell has ambitions to expand.
Hicks Special Draught (2*) has a reputation beyond Cornwall. Fruity, yet well hopped. This is also available bottled.
Tinners Ale (2*) is a popular session bitter, light and refreshing.
The CAMRA award winning <U>XXXX Mild</u> has been replaced by the slightly stronger Black Prince as part of the brewery’s attempt to present themselves as up to date. That seems to be unfortunate timing because mild is now becoming popular again.
Tribute (3*) is the flagship beer, a full-bodied best bitter with a fresh citric attack. Available bottled as part of St Austell’s campaign to promote themselves.
Clouded Yellow (2/3*) is a bottle-conditioned wheat beer flavoured by maple syrup. An adventurous and innovative beer which signals St Austell’s intent to be noticed.
The 1851 Vintage Ale was a one off bottled beer. Intensely sweet, this divides opinion. You either love it or hate it. I love it!
The big money in brewing is made in the cities. Part of Brakspears problem was that the bulk of its estate was in rural areas where beer consumption is declining. St Austell faces a similar problem. The bold modern approach that the brewery is now taking will either make or break them.
The Seven Stars is the St Austell brewery tap. An attractive town pub with food.
I don’t know of any London pubs serving St Austell on a regular basis.
We now have a long journey heading northeast back into civilisation. The Wadworth (2/3*) brewery in Devizes is about 20 miles away from the city of Bristol. Founded in 1875, the brewery still delivers beer locally in oak casks loaded onto horse-drawn drays. It has 250 pubs in the south of England. Its most famous beer, Wadworth 6X, has suffered from association with Interbrew’s distribution network, and some feel that quality had been compromised. Wadworth is largely regarded as a one beer brewery, though it does produce several regular and seasonal beers, plus a small variety of occasionals and specials.
"Wadworth 6X" (3*) is quite famous, and is available in many pubs. It’s a nutty ale with a good balance of fruit and hops. Widely available in cans and bottles.
"Henry’s Original IPA" is the company’s session bitter - now called simply "IPA".
"JCB" (3*) is the best bitter - a good balance of hops and fruit.
"Malt ‘n’ Hops" was a mid-September seasonal made with green hops. Wadworth was the first brewery to use this technique which results in a fresh bitterness.
"Old Timer" is a malty, full-bodied winter warmer.
Wadworth’s dependency on just one good beer may make it appear vulnerable, but the Bartholomew family are proudly independent and keen to remain so. They are aware of the pressure from new breweries, and are using the word "craft" in their promotional literature, and are introducing American hops, and modestly and soberly experimenting with a variety of modern beer styles.
The Fox & Hounds on Nusteed Road leading out of Devizes is a picturesque thatched pub with a skittle alley.
There are many pubs in London that serve 6X. The brewery have their own pub in New King’s Road, Fulham, SW6 - the Kings Arms.
A short journey north takes us to the ugly industrial town of Swindon with its local brewery Arkells (2*). The founder, John Arkell, had left Britain to set up a community in Canada which still bears his name, but returned to marry his sweetheart. A few years later, in 1843, he started the brewery using barley from the family farm - a tradition which is still maintained today. Mainly serving the town of Swindon, Arkells expanded in 1991 into surrounding towns and now own 97 pubs. There are three regular beers and a new organic, plus five seasonals. The brewery concentrates on cask ales.
"Kingsdown Ale" (3*) is the flagship beer with a reputation beyond Swindon.
"2B" is a light session bitter which is bottled as <U>Light Ale</u>.
"3B" (2*) is the best bitter and has an undeserved growing reputation.
Modern ideas and careful expansion into the rest of Britain may keep this little known brewery going, but without a bottled beer portfolio they look vulnerable.
The Duke of Wellington, Eastcott Hill is a famous real ale pub in Swindon. Arkells ales are served from casks behind the bar. The Bakers Arms in Emlyn Square is in the heart of the now trendy historic railway village.
The Pewter Platter Tavern in Folgate Street near Liverpool St Station serves Arkells.
We now journey east along the M4, crossing the River Severn and entering Wales. The capital city of Cardiff is the home of Brains (2/3*), the largest brewery in Wales. Founded in 1713, it was taken over by the Brain family in 1882, and they still run it today. In 1997 they bought up the Crown and Buckley breweries, and in 1999 moved to the old Hancock brewery near the main railway station. They own nearly 200 pubs in mid and south Wales and another 15 just over the England border. Brains has always remained loyal to cask ale, and two of their ales are well respected: Brains Dark and SA. Mainstream Welsh ales tend to be weaker and more refreshing than other British ales which may unsettle some drinkers. Brains was the beer that was shipped into America for the wedding of Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas.
"Buckley’s Best Bitter" (2*) and "Buckley’s IPA" are light tasting session beers of no repute.
"Rev. James" (3*) is the old Buckley flagship ale; juicy dark fruits dominate.
"Brains Bitter" (2*) is the company’s best selling ale; clean and refreshing.
"Brains SA" (3*) has plenty of fruit and nuts with a sprinkling of dusty hops.
"Brains Dark" (3*) is a complex toasty mild with several CAMRA awards under its belt.
Unadventurous but solid, Brains seems content to remain a mainly Welsh brewery.
The Albert in St Mary Street near the Old Brewery is a good Cardiff local.
The Old King Lud in Ludgate Hill, London is a famous pub where Roger Protz and Michael Jackson used to hang out when the newspaper industry was still centred on Fleet Street. The beer range is always huge and nearly always includes a Brains.
Travelling further east along the M4 we pass Swansea and enter Welsh-speaking Wales. Llanelli (easiest pronunciation is klanethli) is the home of the local rugby team who defeated the All Blacks on 31 October 1972, and of the Felinfoel (1*) brewery, founded in the 1830s. Although popular locally, Felinfoel is only respected for Double Dragon Ale. One of the first companies in the world to put beer in a can, Felinfoel is cutting back on cask ales so that less than half of its 85 pubs now serve real ale.
The Thames Welsh series of beers are produced only for export, with a higher abv.
"Dragon Bitter Ale / Thames Welsh Ale" is the standard session beer.
"Best Bitter / Thames Welsh Bitter" is slightly stronger with a better balance.
"Double Dragon Ale" (2/3*) / <U>Thames Welsh ESB</u> has a pleasant apple taste and tangy bitterness.
Felinfoel’s lack of interest in cask ales would make them an easy target for a large brewery looking to get a strong hold on the Welsh market. Would not be missed if they got taken over. On the plus side, they do have a link to the Oakes Manifesto on their website.
The Boars Head, Swansea Rd, is a decent Felinfoel cask pub in the town.
The famous music hall pub The Eagle on City Road, N1 is a regular outlet for Double Dragon (the only Felinfoel beer to travel into England).
We now go back into England along the Heads of the Valleys road, past Gloucester and Cheltenham to the village of Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds. Here we’ll find Britain’s smallest and prettiest brewery, Donnington (2*), which produces Britain’s rarest ales. Donnington only has 15 pubs in a 17-mile radius from the brewery - deliveries to Stratford-upon-Avon (about 20 miles away) are regarded as “exports”. The brewery produces the traditional two bitters and a mild as they have since 1865; and these are also available in live bottled form. They also contract brew 15 gallons of Guinness every week.
The two regular bitters are: <U>BB</u> and <U>SBA</u>.
Donnington could be at risk when the owner, Claude, who has reached a certain age, retires. It is possible they might amalgamate with Arkells as they are the same family.
The Queen’s Head in the Market Square is Stow-on-the-Wold’s Donnington pub.
A London outlet? Highly unlikely!
A short journey of about 10 miles along some back lanes will bring us to the hamlet of Hook Norton where the Hook Norton (3*) brewery has stood since 1872, though John Harris had started brewing as far back as 1849. A steam engine is still used to lift sacks of barley to the top of the tower brewery. The brewery has 42 pubs and a reputation for well-crafted beers. They produce four regular beers and six seasonals.
<U>Best Mild</u> (2/3*) is a reddish low gravity beer with a decent malty taste.
<U>Best Bitter</u> (3*) is a well balanced golden session beer popular with the locals. This has won several awards, including one from CAMRA, and is sometimes (unsuccessfully) available in bottles.
<U>Generation</u> (3*) is the best bitter - a subtle and complex beer which doesn’t transfer well to the bottle.
<U>Old Hooky</u> (3/4*) is the flagship ale. Although best from the cask this does stand up well in the bottle due to the higher abv compared to the brewery’s other bitters. A good fruit and nut ale well balanced with floral hops.
<U>Double Stout</u> (2/3*) is a dark and toasty winter seasonal based on an old recipe.
Hook Norton’s awkward size of being neither small enough to gain tax relief, nor large enough to cope with discounting demands, plus its largely rural pub estate, puts it at risk. The Burtonwood brewery has also increased its share holding to such an extent that they are able to dictate who becomes head brewer. Its popularity with the students of Oxford has been threatened for a while by Wychwood, but Hooky is still holding its own.
Pear Tree Inn, a traditional 18th century village inn complete with log fire in the bar and a huge chess board in the beer garden, is the Hook Norton brewery tap
The Old Bull & Bush, one of London’s most famous pubs, just on Hampstead Heath, has kept a pump for Old Hooky for a couple of years now. The pub was immortalised in an old music hall song: “Come, come, come and make eyes at me, down at the Old Bull & Bush.”
Back onto the main A44, and then heading north up the M5 motorway brings us to the huge sprawl of Britain’s second city - Birmingham. We are now in the Midlands - the most industrial part of Britain. Just west of Birmingham is Brierley Hill where Daniel Batham & Sons Ltd built their small Delph Brewery. Batham’s (2*) only has nine pubs, including the brewpub the Vine (known locally as the Bull & Bladder). Batham’s was founded in 1877 and is still family run. Although only brewing two regular beers, both are quite famous outside the local area.
<U>Mild Ale</u> is a fruity, dark mild in the traditional Midlands style.
<U>Best Bitter</u> (2*) is pale, fruity and very smooth in the Midlands/Northern style.
There is also a Christmas beer called <U>XXX</u>.
Batham’s has a devoted local following who remain loyal for obscure reasons of their own, and would never allow their brewery to be taken over; though it’s unlikely that anyone would want to.
The Vine (Bull & Bladder) on Delph Road is the brewpub itself, an outstanding example of an early Public House. A required visit for any beer lover passing within 50 miles of Birmingham.
A short distance away in Dudley is another Black Country (West Midlands) brewery - Holden’s (2*). Like Batham’s, this is also a brewpub with a limited range of tied houses, but Holden’s are expanding - they now have 22 pubs with plans to expand further. Founded in 1915 in the Park Inn at Woodsetton, the brewery is still family run. There are four regular beers plus a stout and a winter warmer.
<U>Black Country Mild</u> (2*) is a typical malty but light Midlands mild. <U>Black Country Bitter</u> (2*) is an unexceptional traditional bitter.
The Park Inn is the brewpub itself. It has recently been refurbished.
Just a little further north is Wolverhampton, home of Bank’s (2*) Park Brewery. The company was founded in 1890 when three local breweries amalgamated to become Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, though the beers are sold under the Bank’s name. The brewery bought up Marston, Thompson & Evershed in February 1999, and then Mansfield Brewery later the same year. More of a group of breweries, operating on two separate sites, than a genuine independent regional, it is generally regarded as a true regional so is included here.
<U>Bank’s Original</u> (2*) is a legendary light coloured mild or a smooth session bitter depending on your view point - either way, apart from a light tangerine flavour, this is nothing special.
<U>Bank’s Bitter</u> (2*) is more interesting with pleasant citric hints, but is nothing special.
<U>Mansfield Dark Mild</u> (2/3*) is a flavoursome and refreshing brew that has been around since the late 19th century.
The Marston site produces the famous <U>Pedigree</u> (2/3*) using the Burton Union system which results in an interesting nose and a dry flavour but little else. Two other beers of note are <U>Old Empire</u> (2/3*), a bland but drinkable bitter, and <U>Oyster Stout</u> (2*) which is very dull and of average quality.
Bank’s own over 1,600 pubs.
Heading east across Birmingham, via the M6 and the M69 we come to the outskirts of Leicester, and the community of Narborough where sits Castle Acres brewery, the new home of Everard’s (2/3*). Although Narborough was the home of the brewery’s founder, the brewery itself was for most of its history based in Burton-on-Trent, just 20 miles up the road. Everard’s was founded in 1849 and is still owned by the Everard family. There are three regular ales, and several seasonals. The brewery has a firm grip on the county of Leicestershire with nearly 150 pubs. Tiger Best Bitter has acquired a reputation beyond its true worth and is readily available across the UK.
<U>Beacon</u> (2*) is the session bitter which still has the distinctive Burton sulphur aroma.
<U>Tiger Best</u> (2/3*) is the best-selling bitter with a soft citric character balanced by soft malt. It is a very pleasant beer with CAMRA accolades, but is not world class. The local rugby team are called the Leicester Tigers.
<U>Original</u> (2/3*)is the flagship, premium ale. Smooth and well balanced with good fruit.
Everard’s is in a secure position and looks set to continue expansion.
The New Inn, Enderby is the nearest Everard pub to Narborough. A charming thatched pub, where the traditional game of skittles can be played.
Up the M1, by-passing Burton on Trent, we bump into Kimberley, an old mining village just to the east of Nottingham. This is where Hardy’s brewery was founded in 1832, and then in 1847 was faced by competition from Hanson’s brewery which was built on the opposite side of the road. The two breweries drew water from the same well, so it was logical for them to merge in 1931, thus forming Hardy’s & Hanson’s (3*). Family members still run the company which owns around 250 pubs in the Nottingham area. There are three regular beers and an ever-changing range of seasonal ales. Recent link-ups with the Wetherspoon’s chain via occasional specials have made the brewery better known outside Nottingham.
Kimberley Best Mild (2/3*) - a ruby brown sweet mild.
Kimberley Best Bitter (2*) - a fairly average session bitter with good fruit.
Kimberley Classic (3*) - the flagship premium bitter with a good balance of fruit and hops. Is now easier to find in the bottle than on cask.
Rocking Rudolph (3*) - a roasty winter warmer with good hops and malt.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is claimed as Britain’s oldest pub. Sitting at the base of Castle Rock in Nottingham, a date on one of the walls of 1189, and historical evidence that the pub was once used as the brewhouse for the castle appears to give some credence to the claim, though the first record of a pub on the site is 1751, when it was called The Pilgrim, and it changed its name to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in 1799.
Frederic Robinson’s (2/3*) Unicorn brewery in Stockport is our next destination. We get there by driving on the A6 across the beautiful Peak District, Britain’s first National Park, to the outskirts of the huge urban sprawl of Manchester. Robinson’s was founded in 1838 and is run today by the 6th generation of the Robinson family, the three brothers: Peter, Dennis and David Robinson’s have taken over a few breweries in their time, the most recent being the 250 year old Hartley’s brewery in 1982. And they are increasing their shares in the Jennings brewery, so there is a prospect of a merger and the creation of a dominant brewery in the north east of England. At the moment they own more than 400 pubs in an area that extends from North Wales along the North East coast of England to the Lake District, mostly in rural locations. The brewery produces a wide range of regular and occasional beers, using yeast dating back to 1920. The beers are mostly quite dry in the North East style. Despite their size Robinson’s is not a well-known brewery, though Hatters Mild and Old Tom are respected by beer lovers outside of the North East. They also contract brew Double Maxim Brown Ale.
Hatters Mild (2/3*) a ruby coloured, malty, dry and refreshing mild. Old Tom (3*) is a strong old ale, though some would call it a barley wine - it is sweet and fruity with a deep aroma. The Best Bitter (2/3*) is Robinson’s best seller, and is a subtle and fruity traditional bitter.
Stockport has several Robinson’s pubs, of which The Armoury on Shaw Heath seems the most attractive.
The area around Manchester contains a cluster of six breweries, including the Joseph Holt brewery and the Hydes Brewery in Manchester itself.
Holt’s (2/3*) of Empire Street, Manchester, was founded in 1849 when Joseph Holt married a school teacher who had enough money to buy him a small brewery behind a pub. Still family run, the brewery is famous for the good value of its beers, and has plans to expand its 127 pubs out of the Manchester area into Yorkshire, where they do appreciate a cheap pint. This is a traditional brewery serving a down to earth bitter and an honest mild alongside a small range of seasonals and some bottled and canned products.
Tightly run and with mass appeal, this is the most secure of the Manchester breweries.
The "Bitter" (3*) has a reputation for being strongly hopped and quite dry. While the "Mild" (3*) is also in the drier Northern style.
Golden Lion in Old Market Street, Blackley is a recommended Holt’s pub.
Hydes’ Anvil Brewery (2*) in Moss Lane West, Manchester was founded in 1863 and now has 65 pubs in the North West of England and North Wales. Like Holt’s, they also have plans for expansion. Unlike Holt’s they are attempting to modernise their beer range and are using a range of hops, including Cascade, in an attempt to reach a different clientele. Among the regular line up is a <U>Traditional Bitter</u> (2*) which is a light fruity bitter; a <U>Mild</u> (2/3*) which is also lighter than normal; and a <U>Gold</u> (3*) which is attempting to cash in on the popularity of the Golden Summer Ales. While the “Craft Ales” range includes the adventurously named <U>Hubble Bubble</u> (2*) which seeks to introduce some American Pale Ale flavours into the British pint. "Manchester’s Finest" (2/3*) is a decent bottled ale which is not often seen outside of Hyde’s territory.
Seen as the weakest of the Manchester breweries, Hydes exploration of more exciting beer styles is a risky strategy that may not pay off.
The Jolly Angler in Ducie Street, near Piccadilly Station is a famous Hyde’s pub in Manchester. It’s a very small, back street town house pub with a good atmosphere.
J. W. Lees (2/3*) of Middleton, just on the Northern edge of the Manchester sprawl, was started by John Lees, a retired cotton manufacturer in 1828, and is still run by the Lees family. They own 150 pubs, mostly in North East England and North Wales, but they do have two pubs in a French ski resort! The portfolio consists of a mild, a bitter and a strong ale, several seasonals, a couple of notable bottled beers and a lager.
The <U>GB Mild</u> (2/3*) is a light-coloured mild; the Bitter (2*) is in the dry style preferred in the North East; while <U>Moonraker</u> (3*) is a strong ale that approaches a barley wine in flavour and depth.
Of the seasonals, <U>Plum Pudding</u> (2*) is claimed as a winter fruit beer, but doesn’t live up to the promise of its name, while <U>Brooklyn Best</u> (3/4*) is an American Pale Ale brewed under the advice of Garrett Oliver and using Willamette, Cascade and Chinook hops. It is quickly becoming one of J. W. Lees most popular beers.
The bottled beer range includes <U>John Willies</u> (2/3*) which is a decent enough strong ale; <U>Khukuri</u> (2*) a bottled Nepalese lager; and - of course - J. W. Lees most famous product, <U>Harvest Ale</u> (4*). The Harvest Ale always uses the freshest and best of the season’s crop of hops and barley to make an orgasmic and intense brew that can be drunk fresh or left to mature for a few years.
With its awareness of and interest in what’s happening in the rest of the world J.W.Lees seems well placed to have a bright future.
The Old Boar’s Head Inn, an ancient coaching stop, situated in Long Street, Middleton, and which, according to an inscription in the cellar, dates back to 1632, is part of a beautiful row of black and white cottages.
We go north of Manchester until we come to Daniel Thwaites Brewery (2*) in Blackburn. Thwaites was founded in 1807 and now has over 450 pubs in the North of England. The brewery is gradually shifting away from cask ales into keg ales, especially those powered by nitro. <U>Lancaster Bomber</u> (2/3*) is available in the bottle and is one of the better Thwaites products. The brand was taken from the very decent Mitchell brewery in Lancaster that closed in 1999. <U>Bitter</u> (2*),<U> Mild</u> (2*) and <U>Thoroughbred </u> (2*) are the usual cask brands. None of them are that good, and all too often are served pasteurised from the keg. Of the seasonals, <U>Good Elf</u> (3*) is available in November and December and is a pleasantly sweet and slightly spicy mild; while <U>Blooming Ale</u> (2*), a fairly ordinary bitter, is available in Spring.
Thwaites is not a brewery to get excited about.
The Navigation Inn, Canal Street, Blackburn is a recommended Thwaites pub.
We can now leave the mainland and cross over to the Isle of Man to visit Okells Brewery (2*). The brewery is no longer owned by the family, and moved in 1994 to a new site, but it is still independent, having merged with the island’s other brewery, Castletown, in 1986. The brewery was started in 1850 by Dr. William Okell, a scientific chap who may have had some influence on the Manx Beer Purity Law of 1874 which is as restrictive as the Reinheitsgebot. In recent years the purity laws have been amended to allow Okells to brew lagers with rice and other nasty adjuncts. There are over 50 Okells pubs scattered across the island, especially the capital of Douglas. The company brews a large range of specials and seasonals as well as three regulars: the <u>Bitter</u> (2*) is a fairly average, hoppy session beer; the <U>Mild</u> (2*) is mostly inoffensive; while <U>Heart Throb</u> has not yet been rated. Of the seasonals, <U>Autumn Dawn</u> (2/3*) is in the Golden Summer style, though quite light; while <U>Maclir</u> (3*) is more definitely a Golden Summer Ale, using some wheat in the mash. Maclir is also available in the bottle.
Royal George Hotel, Market Place, Ramsey, was winner of Okells pub of the year in 2002.
We return to the mainland and head further north, into one of the most attractive parts of Britain - the Lake District. The Jennings brewery, Jennings Brothers PLC (2/3*), has been “the taste of the Lake District” since 1858 when John Jennings, a local farmer, began brewing in the village of Lorton. By 1874 business had expanded and the brewery moved to Cockermouth where it still stands. The company has nearly 100 pubs scattered throughout the north of England. There are five decent quality cask beers brewed on a regular basis, and four seasonals.
Of the regulars, <U>Sneck Lifter</u> (3*) is the best known and most satisfying; a premium bitter with licorice notes and aromatic hops. The <U>Bitter</u> (2*) is dry in the Northern style. <U>Cumberland Ale</u> (2/3*) is again dry, but lighter in tone. <U>Dark Mild</u> (2/3*) is soft with gentle fruits, not a good example of the style, but quite tasty. <U>Cocker Hoop</u> (2*) was originally a September Ale, but the popularity of its floral citric notes encouraged Jennings to release it as a regular ale.
The seasonals include "Crag Rat" (2*), a flowery bitter brewed in the summer; and "JJ No. 1" (3*) a tasty, malty premium bitter released in the spring.
Many of Jennings beers are readily available in the bottle in decent condition.
The Bush Inn on Main Street in Cockermouth is the brewery tap - only 200 yards from the brewery itself. Also serves guest ales and afters.
In Part Two we journey from Scotland down the east coast to London, and I select the best Regional Brewery in Britain.
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Often family-run on marginal profits, the regionals have been the backbone of British real ale for over a century.
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