Anger and disbelief have greeted the news that W. H. Brakspear, one of England’s finest pale ale brewers, is to close by the end of the year. Brakspear, based in an idyllic location by the River Thames in Henley, Oxfordshire, is thought by many to be more concerned with realizing the inflated value of its site—worth £10 million or $15 million—than with the integrity of its beers.
Earlier this year, the Brakspear management announced it was running a review of both its brewing and pub-owning operations. Few expected the dramatic announcement in July that brewing will cease and the company will turn itself into a retailer, running 100 pubs in the Thames Valley area. It’s expected that the brewery and offices in Henley will be turned into expensive apartments with fine views of the river.
Many people suspect that behind the announcement by Brakspear lies a scam to line the pockets of the company’s directors. The value of real estate in the Thames Valley is grossly inflated. The Brakspear pubs are worth a fortune, and there will be no shortage of large pub companies or even big regional brewers such as Greene King who might be keen to buy them.
The conspiracy theories surrounding the closure of Brakspear have been fueled by the revelation that the chairman of Brakspear, Mike Foster, has also joined the board of Punch Taverns, one of the biggest pub-owning groups in the country. People willing to place a bet on a racing certainty expect the Brakspear pubs to be sold off within a year or two, enabling the directors to retire on the proceeds.
What the Future Holds
The Brakspear beers will not disappear. They have been sold to Refresh UK, a beer retailer that handles sales of the Munich beers, Lowenbrau and Franziskaner, in Britain. Refresh has recently bought the Wychwood microbrewery in Witney, also in the county of Oxfordshire. Wychwood is brewing close to capacity. It will brew some of the Brakspear beers, but the bulk will be produced some 400 miles from Henley by the Burtonwood Brewery in Warrington, in northwest England.
Refresh says the move to Burtonwood is only a stop-gap measure. It has published plans showing a brand new brewery it plans to build in Oxfordshire as close to Henley as possible, in order to make use of local water.
But to the embarrassment of both Refresh and Brakspear, the plans carry the title “microbrewery,” which suggests that expected volumes of the new Brakspear brands will be considerably reduced.
Many industry watchers have grave doubts concerning whether the brewery will ever be built. Real estate prices throughout the region are prohibitive, and even if a site is found, Refresh will have to get planning and development permission from local government authorities. Then the “NIMBY factor” kicks in—Not In My Back Yard. Well-heeled residents in the Thames Valley, living in large houses, will vigorously oppose a brewery, with its traffic and odors, being built near them.
In the meantime, the Brakspear beers brewed at Burtonwood are unlikely to taste the same as the originals. Burtonwood is a modern brewery with stainless steel mash tuns and kettles. It uses whirlpools for hop pellets, whereas Henley uses whole hops.
One of the key reasons for the sublime aroma and flavor of Brakspear beers is the “dropping system” of fermentation, now unique to Henley. Fermenting vessels are ranged in two stories. Fermentation starts on the top floor. After a few days, the bases of the fermenters are opened and the fermenting wort drops down into the vessels below. Dead yeast cells and other detritus are left behind, and a cleaner fermentation continues in the ground-floor vessels.
It’s feared that even if the Refresh brewery is built, the Burtonwood versions of the beers will have met consumer resistance. Drinkers will move on to other pubs and other brands, driving down demand for the beers brewed by Refresh, and the company’s plans for a micro will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Managers of the Brakspear pubs will not have an exclusive contract with Refresh. They can take other brewers’ beers, and will grasp the opportunity to buy heavily discounted brands from the giant national brewers such as Coors and Interbrew.
The gloomy prognosis is that, within a year or two, both Brakspear beers and pubs will have disappeared. It will be a victory for the profiteers and a tragedy for lovers of fine English ale.
Roger Protz is a respected beer authority and author of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, as well as many other books on good beer, including The Ale Trail and the Real Ale Almanac.