All About Beer Magazine - Volume 27, Issue 5
August 30, 2013 By Michael Jackson

At first, there appeared to be barely a murmur of protest. Then the odd moan of disbelief; dismayed questions, fragmented attempts to rationalize, detached voices, a sigh, a groan. This eerie hush seemed to last for days.

You might expect such bewilderment after a terrorist bomb, but this was a far lesser atrocity, though it was a bombshell to some. It is no doubt distasteful of me even to allude metaphorically to those acts of wholesale murder that threaten daily to exhaust our capacity for disgust. Fortunately, our emotions have their own self-governing mechanism to protect us from overload. We can feel outrage at the toll of global strife, and still be rendered speechless by a wholly legal calamity on our doorstep. No one was killed, but it was nonetheless an act of destruction.

The Ram was to be silenced, The Ram of Wandsworth.

With its crown of horns, the uncastrated male sheep has been a symbolic creature through the ages. The Ancient Egyptians considered the ram to represent God the Creator, his breath, or life itself. The ram, as a symbol, also frequently crops up in both Old and New Testaments. Did monks once have an abbey, brewery and inn on the river Thames at Wandsworth?

The Thames, the Terroir

The Thames is the main river of Southern England, but is little more than 200 miles long. Its sources are insufficiently distant to be seriously regarded as either the West or the Midlands of England. It becomes a river in the hill country known as the Cotswolds, between the mellow limestone villages of Gloucestershire and the golden ironstone of Oxfordshire.

The hills here are gentle, not steep, and the flow of water leisurely. It is the England of eccentric men and unflappable women, where even the Dunkirk landings are remembered as a bit of a jape; the England of Mrs. Miniver, Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat: the England the rest of the world expects (far from Wuthering Heights of my native North).

The river becomes navigable to shipping in east London, then forms an estuary that separates the barley-growing and malting region known as East Anglia from the hop county of Kent.

Losing the Breweries

The Oxfordshire stretch of the Thames has, in less than ten years, lost three renowned breweries. In Oxford itself, where monks brewed on Swan Nest Island in the 1500s, and Morrell’s Brewery stood since 1743, the site boiled its final kettle in 1998. Morrell’s Brewery was worth more as a piece of property than as a brewery. This brewery, and its Oxfordshire neighbor Brakspear’s, inspired John (Rumpole) Mortimer to write the television drama series “Paradise Postponed.”

Brakspear’s, bearing the name of the only English pope, fell to mammon in 2002. Its beautiful brewery, in the regatta town of Henley, was inexcusably converted to condos. The beers were rescued and are now produced at the Wychwood microbrewery, in Witney, Oxfordshire. The new owners reproduced Brakspear’s very traditional fermentation hardware. I have never heard of a brewery going to such lengths to maintain the integrity of orphaned beers. The stepfather who insisted upon this, thus recognising the products as beers, and not simply brands, Mr. Rupert Thompson, will, at such a time as is deemed appropriate, be admitted to Heaven. Being by profession a marketing man, he would normally have gone elsewhere.

The third Oxfordshire brewery to fold had been founded in 1711 by the family of landscape painter George Morland. It was acquired by Greene King in East Anglia. That enterprise, founded by the family of novelist Graham Greene, is now a large regional brewer. It is also Britain’s biggest beer orphanage, having in part expanded by acquiring smaller, family-controlled, local breweries: five or six of them in seven or eight years.

While a local brewery would once have been known only in its home town or county, most are now recognised well beyond their hinterlands. Initially, this was not as result of planned marketing, but through the network of active (rather than passive) new generations of beer-lovers that have emerged in the United Kingdom since the creation in the 1970s of the Campaign for Real Ale.

While the beers from the acquired brewery are a bonus, many of them will simply duplicate products already made by the bigger, ostensibly more successful, new parent. Usually, the old brewery is closed and just one or two of its products switched to the new parent. The real prize is the “estate” of pubs owned by the old brewery, or tied to it by contract. Within limitations, such arrangements are permitted in the U.K. They are not allowed in the U.S.

Branded to Death

The river becomes busier as it enters the suburbs of London. At Mortlake, on the south side of Chiswick Bridge, the Stag brewery made the industry’s most infamous brand. At the time, the Stag was owned by Watney’s, one of the then “Big Six” that dominated the British brewing industry. Its corporate graphics, branding and advertising were so polished, so cohesive, that Watney’s and its Red Barrel ale seemed to be everywhere. Neither the company nor its flagship was the biggest in their categories, but their splendidly-executed visibility gave the impression that they were.

When consumer attitudes changed, “Watney’s Red Barrel” became shorthand for all that was deemed bad: the big brewer as a corporate bully, taking over independent family brewers, reformulating beers, using hell-knows-what adjuncts and additives, filtering and pasteurising: in short, selling brands rather than beers. Red Barrel was laughed off the market, and Watney’s vanished, victims of excessive branding. A victory for “real ale,” but with a sting in the tale; the Stag Brewery is now operated by Anheuser-Bush. It makes Budweiser for the British market.

How did the Campaign for Real Ale achieve such power? “To make people believe in God, you have to frighten them with the Devil,” I was long ago told by Michael Hardman, one of CAMRA’s founders. The Devil was Red, courtesy of Watney’s.

Which brewery represented God? The next one along the river, also in Chiswick, was Fuller’s Griffin Brewery, at the point where the outer suburbs meet the inner neighborhoods. Fullers was slow to respond to the opportunity, but eventually did, with a new generation of the owning family. It is now one of the world’s great ale breweries.

God and Mammon

There was one more family-owned independent brewery, two or three miles further into the neighborhoods. If inner-city London had a local brewery, this was it. The Ram Brewery had operated since 1581, begun to take its present form in 1675, and been acquired by the Young family in 1831.

Does the acquisition of such an old establishment carry with it a responsibility to nurture and preserve it? John Young, who ran the brewery, seemed to take that for granted.

Other local brewers had begun to copy the filtered and pasteurised beers made by the Big Six, but he persisted with “real ale” before CAMRA made it popular. His ales had the robust, hoppy dryness of a true London brew. The nearest pubs received their beer by horse-drawn dray. The brewery was protected by a flock of geese. There was a live ram. Peacocks added a splash of color.

Young’s Ram Brewery, adjoining hotels and pubs, dominated Wandsworth’s “downtown.” There would occasionally be whinges about traffic congestion. From time to time, a horse would bolt or the ram charge someone, but the most persistent complainant was mammon.

As an inner-city neighborhood, Wandsworth wore a blue collar. Then, in recent years, “white flight” went into reverse. As places like Wandsworth developed a certain chic, some of Young’s shareholders began to point out that the riverside at Wandsworth would be a prime site for condos, with easy access to central London and the financial district. Why not close the brewery, sell the site, and continue to run the chain of pubs?

At the company’s annual meetings, shouting matches would develop. John began to take a loud- hailer. He fought long and hard but this year, aged 84 and in ill-health, he had to acquiesce. A plan was unveiled to sell the site (a price of £69 million was later announced).

Young’s would be the minority partner (40-60) in a new brewing company formed by a merger with the old-established Charles Wells’ Eagle Brewery, of Bedford. Beers would be made there for the pubs of both Young’s and Wells. The pub chains of both companies would remain separate.

No doubt for the sake of family unity and business stability, the plan was blessed at the annual meeting by the ailing John Young. He stood “like Captain Ahab lashed to the mast,” recalled one observer.

Michael Hardman, the gruff Northerner and ex-Fleet Street journalist who helped found CAMRA was enlisted long ago by Young’s to publicise its good works. Now Hardman had to find the words to explain this weasel’s breakfast.

A shotgun marriage with a lesser cousin in a provincial town may ensure a decent approximation of some of Young’s beers for a time, but that is like moving the Carnegie Deli to Poughkeepsie and reversing it into Einstein’s Bagels.

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Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.