Saturday, 10 January 2009

Mortlake brewery to close

It may have been Watney's but
we can still mourn heritage site

The news that InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, plans to close the Stag Brewery in Mortlake in London has not led to the usual outbreak of weeping and wailing from the ranks of beer lovers. One email to me from a member of the Campaign for Real Ale spoke for many: “It only made keg beer so we won’t mourn it.”
But the loss of any brewery is a sad occasion and the Stag Brewery, despite its infamy in the late 20th century, is yet another loss. And those who rush to point the finger of derision at the plant should bear in mind that around 200 workers stand to lose their jobs in an industry that is not exactly bursting with new opportunities.
As the local MP, Susan Kramer, said last week, the Mortlake plant is part of our industrial heritage and deserves to be preserved. It dates from 1487 when it was attached to a monastery and brewed for the local abbot and his monks. It became a substantial commercial brewery in 1765 and was rebuilt 100 years later by John Phillips and James Wigan. They created the sprawling, 100-acre site that stands today and which was acquired by the large London brewer Watney in the 1890s.
It’s the Watney’s link that is the cause of derision. It was the first to make keg beer in the 1930s with Red Barrel. In the 1960s it re-branded the beer simply as Red and launched it with a frenzy of advertisements aimed – ludicrously – at radical young people marching against the Vietnam War.
Look-a-like figures of Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro were used in an attempt to give the beer what was called at the time “radical chique”. Radical cheek would have been more appropriate. The young militants shunned the sweet, gassy beer and it was soon abandoned. Watney’s pubs, all painted a glaring red, were quietly redecorated in green.
Peter Mauldon was at the heart of the Watney’s brewing empire. He was head brewer at Mann’s in Whitechapel in London’s East End and when Watney’s bought and closed the plant he moved to Mortlake. Peter, who went on to found the highly successful Mauldon’s craft brewery in Suffolk, has a fund of stories about the bizarre goings-on at the Stag site.
He was sitting in his office in the mid-1970s when a director of the company walked in and said: “Mauldon, I see that cask beer is making a come-back as a result of these Camra people. We need to brew some. See to it, will you.”
Nobody would dare speak to a head brewer in such terms these days. Peter took a deep breath and ran after the director. “There’s only one problem with brewing cask beer, sir – we don’t have any casks,” he said. While the other big brewers of the day – Allied, Bass and Whitbread – still made large amount of cask beer, Watney had gone hell-for-leather down the keg route and had phased out all cask production.
The result was a beer with the awful name of Fined Bitter – the joke in Camra circles was that the name reflected the fact it was hard to find – served from converted kegs. A curious device was welded to the keg so that a spile or venting peg could be inserted to allow the beer to breathe. It didn’t deserve to breathe because it was a truly dreadful concoction, though another beer from the Watney’s subsidiary, Truman, produced a rather good beer called Tap Bitter, also served from converted kegs.
Neither beer lasted long. Watney’s became part of the Grand Metropolitan leisure group and lager became the buzz word in the brewing division.
The Mortlake plant reached an agreement to brew the leading German beer Holsten under licence. Peter Mauldon said he was impressed with the German brewers who came to see him and told him in meticulous detail how the beer should be brewed and stored in the correct continental tradition.
It was rather different when Watney’s took on the Australian lager, Foster’s. Peter recalls a large body of Australians coming to Mortlake and taking him out for a long, boozy lunch. They dropped him off back at the brewery and bid him a cheery “G’day, mate”.
“Hang on,” Peter called out. “Aren’t you going tell me how to brew Foster’s?”
The Aussies looked bemused. “Brew it? Just make it up as you go along, mate – that’s what we do.”
Not surprisingly, Watney’s eventually gave up the will to live and sold all its plants to Courage. Courage in turn became part of Scottish & Newcastle, which leased the Mortlake plant to Anheuser-Busch when the American giant planned to brew Budweiser in Britain. A-B makes much of the fact that its beer is “matured over beechwood chips”. This didn’t impress one brewery worker at Mortlake who asked: “Why are we putting bleeding planks of wood in the beer?”
Good question. The next question is: will Susan Kramer MP succeed in her bid to keep the plant open? Sadly, I doubt it. The merger of A-B and InBev has created a giant with too much capacity at a time when global lager brands are in serious decline.
The Stag is at bay and, Watney’s aside, I’m sorry to see it go.

White Shield going great guns
I have received frantic emails from lovers of Worthington's White Shield to say it is no longer on sale in Waitrose. All is not lost. I spoke to Coors Brewers in Burton-on-Trent, owners of the brand, and they told they have had to halt temporarily sales to Waitrose because the beer -- a bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale -- is breaking record in Sainsbury's. "It's going like a steam train," a Coors spokesman told me. "Asda also want to stock it but we haven't any to spare."
So hurry along to your local Sainbury's and lay in a stock of this delicious beer. And while you're there, also buy some bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. This is another beer that has survived from the 19th century and, at 7.5%, is full of roasted malt and bitter hops character. It's hard to find in Britain and good news that Sainsbury's has a stock.


Anonymous Fatman said...

The 'planks of wood' provide an increased surface area over which yeast can settle, yet remain in contact with the beer. With certain yeast strains the beer-yeast contact is essential for effective maturation.

I hope that clarifies the process (no pun intended, since 'clarification' isn't the objective of beechwood aging).

Lovely post on Mortlake. A great insight into the history. 16th century? Crikey, does Jonathon Neame know this?

10 January 2009 at 22:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is this a different beer to the Guinness Foreign Extra sold in every corner shop here in London?


14 January 2009 at 11:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fatman - despite all the claims about Mortlake dating from 1487 there is NO EVIDENCE AT ALL for any link between what was going on when it was a religious site and the brewery that was in existence in the middle of the 18th - so the Neames have nothing to worry about.

Anonymous - yes it is different, the Sainsbury's version is brewed in Dublin, the corner shop version in Nigeria. (Take a look at the back labels). They're interestingly different ...

16 January 2009 at 16:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. Yes, you're right. I looked in my local corner shop yesterday and they had both versions along with some dusty looking bottles of Lion Stout. Took a bottle of each for a comparison.


19 January 2009 at 23:16  
Anonymous Tom C said...

I hope that Lion Stout is still drinking well. This is a magnificent stout in my opinion. Interestingly, when the Tsunami hit Sri Lanka where it is brewed, the brewery stopped making beer for several weeks and bottled fresh water from its source to distribute free instead, so Lion disappeared for a while. It's a nice story and makes me like the beer even more!

23 January 2009 at 11:16  
Blogger Johnny Norfolk said...

Waitrose has stopped selling all sorts of products so it does not suprise me. I think it is because they are expanding Northwards and are reducing the width of their range.
I will look at Sainsbury if I can find one in Norfolk.

21 February 2009 at 23:48  
Blogger Johnny Norfolk said...

I remember reading the history of Harveys Brewery in Lewes. There was a piece from the distant past that recalled that dirty river water got into the breweries well so they announced that they would be only producing dark ale for some time.
There was no record of anyone falling ill.

21 February 2009 at 23:52  
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