Friday, 5 June 2015

Regional Breweries of Britain in 2003 and 2015

This is an article I wrote for RateBeer in 2003 and published in 2004, about Britain's regional breweries. I'm going to tidy it up, and then look at how much the scene has changed in the 12 years since then.

Note: In the original article I say there are 38 regional breweries, though I counted 37 when reading through again.  As I am going through and tidying up, I am crossing out breweries which have closed or been taken over, and adding in breweries, such as Theakston, which have returned to independent ownership, and so am starting a new count of how many active regional breweries we have in 2015.

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 in supermarkets; 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.

1) Shepherd Neame

We start our clockwise journey around Britain in the South East, in Kent. We are starting with what is claimed to be 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.

2015 update. Sheps pubs have reduced from over 360 to 347. The company has a healthy share value of just under £7.5 million They have lost the Kingfisher contract, but still contract brew Oranjeboom, and have added Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Asahi.

2) Harveys

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.

3) Gales

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. GB (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.

2015 update. Gales was bought by Fullers in 2005 and closed down in 2006. Some Gales brands are still brewed by Fullers in London, and Gale's pubs on the South Coast were taken over by Fullers.

3) Badger


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.

4) Randalls


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.

2015 update. Randalls was taken over by a group of private investors in 2006, who moved the brewing operation to the Piette Brewery in St George’s Esplanade in August 2008. The company is now called Randalls of Guernsey. The company owns 18 pubs and hotels on the island, as well as several off-licenses.

5) Palmers


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. Best Bitter (IPA) (2/3*) is a traditional and unremarkable bitter; Dorset Gold (3*) is a decent Golden Summer Ale; while Tally Ho! (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.

2015 update. Nothing much has changed. There is one less pub, but the beers are the same. 

6) St Austell

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 XXXX Mild 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. [Covent Garden]

7) Wadworths

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 two other regular and three seasonal beers.

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. JCB (3*) is the best bitter - a good balance of hops and fruit. Malt ‘n’ Hops is 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.

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 .Bull’s Head, Thames Road, Kew, W4 is a delightful sprawling riverside pub with many rooms.

8) Arkells

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 Light Ale. 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.

9) Brains

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.

10) Felinfoel

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*) / Thames Welsh ESB 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).

11) Donnington

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: BB and SBA.

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!

12) Hook Norton

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.

Best Mild (2/3*) is a reddish low gravity beer with a decent malty taste. Best Bitter (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. Generation (3*) is the best bitter - a subtle and complex beer which doesn’t transfer well to the bottle. Old Hooky (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. Double Stout (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.”

13) Bathams

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.

Mild Ale is a fruity, dark mild in the traditional Midlands style. Best Bitter (2*) is pale, fruity and very smooth in the Midlands/Northern style. There is also a Christmas beer called XXX.

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.

14) Holden's

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.

Black Country Mild (2*) is a typical malty but light Midlands mild. Black Country Bitter (2*) is an unexceptional traditional bitter.

The Park Inn is the brewpub itself. It has recently been refurbished.

15) Banks's

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.

Bank’s Original (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. Bank’s Bitter (2*) is more interesting with pleasant citric hints, but is nothing special. Mansfield Dark Mild (2/3*) is a flavoursome and refreshing brew that has been around since the late 19th century.

The Marston site produces the famous Pedigree (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 Old Empire (2/3*), a bland but drinkable bitter, and Oyster Stout (2*) which is very dull and of average quality.

Bank’s own over 1,600 pubs.

16) Everard's

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.

Beacon (2*) is the session bitter which still has the distinctive Burton sulphur aroma. Tiger Best (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. Original (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.

18) Hardy's & Hanson's

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 gives some credence to the claim.

17) Frederic Robinson's

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.

18) Holt's

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.

19) Hydes

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 Traditional Bitter (2*) which is a light fruity bitter; a Mild (2/3*) which is also lighter than normal; and a Gold (3*) which is attempting to cash in on the popularity of the Golden Summer Ales. While the “Craft Ales” range includes the adventurously named Hubble Bubble (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.

20)  J. W. Lees

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 GB Mild (2/3*) is a light-coloured mild; the Bitter (2*) is in the dry style preferred in the North East; while Moonraker (3*) is a strong ale that approaches a barley wine in flavour and depth. Of the seasonals, Plum Pudding (2*) is claimed as a winter fruit beer, but doesn’t live up to the promise of its name, while Brooklyn Best (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 John Willies (2/3*) which is a decent enough strong ale; Khukuri (2*) a bottled Nepalese lager; and - of course - J. W. Lees most famous product, Harvest Ale (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.

21) Thwaites

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. Lancaster Bomber (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. Bitter (2*), Mild (2*) and Thoroughbred (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, Good Elf (3*) is available in November and December and is a pleasantly sweet and slightly spicy mild; while Blooming Ale (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.

22) Okells

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 Bitter (2*) is a fairly average, hoppy session beer; the Mild (2*) is mostly inoffensive; while Heart Throb has not yet been rated. Of the seasonals, Autumn Dawn (2/3*) is in the Golden Summer style, though quite light; while Maclir (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.

23) Jennings



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, Sneck Lifter (3*) is the best known and most satisfying; a premium bitter with licorice notes and aromatic hops. The Bitter (2*) is dry in the Northern style. Cumberland Ale (2/3*) is again dry, but lighter in tone. Dark Mild (2/3*) is soft with gentle fruits, not a good example of the style, but quite tasty. Cocker Hoop (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.

2015 Update:   In 2005 the company was acquired by Wolverhampton & Dudley, which has since changed its name to Marstons plc.

23) Belhaven

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.
Belhaven 90/- (3*), also called Wee Heavy, is a malty sweet beer. The famous Belhaven 80/- (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. Belhaven 70/- (2/3*), also called Best, is a honey coloured Scottish session bitter with a roasty, nutty character. Belhaven 60/- (2*) is the Scottish equivalent of a mild, with a dark sweet character. St Andrews Ale (2/3*) has a pleasant smoky character but little else. Belhaven also make a (Scottish) Lager and a Pilsner which are barely worth comment.

The Volunteer Arms on Victoria Street, is a recommended Belhaven pub in the brewery’s home town of Dunbar.

24) Theakston's

2015 update. Theakston's. In 2003 when I wrote the original article, Theakston was owned by Scottish & Newcastle, with most beers being brewed in the Tyne Brewery in Newcastle. Under criteria B, I didn't include Theakston because it wasn't independent. But during 2003 four members of the Theakston family bought back the brewery, and by 2004 it was back in full production. 

25) Samuel Smith

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 Old Brewery Bitter (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, Sovereign Best Bitter, and some keg lagers under the brand name Ayingerbrau, none of which are worth trying.

Sam Smith’s strength really is the bottled beers, of which the Oatmeal Stout, the Imperial Stout, the Taddy Porter and the Nut Brown Ale 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.

26) Timothy Taylor

Staying in Yorkshire we visit Timothy Taylor (3*) in Keighley near Bradford. Timothy Taylor is of course famous for Landlord (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 Dark Mild (3*) is well made and flavoursome; Golden Best (2*) is a light mild with a pleasant touch of citric fruit; the Best Bitter (2*) has no reputation to speak of; while the Porter is rumoured to be quite exceptional. The Ram Tam (3*) is Landlord with caramel and is usually available in the winter months. The bottled beer is Royal Ale (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.

27) Batemans

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 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.

XXXB (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. Combined Harvest (2*) is a multi grain beer containing wheat and oats which gives it a smooth yet refreshing character. Often seen bottled. Dark Mild (3*) is another CAMRA favourite - full of flavours this is a wild and wooly mild. with good nuttiness. Salem Porter (3*) has fruit cake, licorice and toffee notes. A good porter. Yella Belly (2*) is an organic bitter which has found a permanent spot on British supermarket shelves. Light bodied and light flavoured. Good for lager drinkers. Rosey Nosey (3*) is an excellent winter seasonal full of roasty, plummy, sweet malt flavours but with a flat finish.

28) Elgoods


Due south from Wainfleet, across The Wash, we come to 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: Black Dog Mild (2/3*), Elgood’s most famous and acclaimed product. It is a dry mild with roasty, nutty notes and a touch of light fruit. Cambridge Bitter (2*) is a fairly average session bitter. Greyhound Strong Bitter (3*) is a premium bitter along with Pageant Ale (3*), which is a very dry and bitter. Double Swan (2*) is a spring seasonal in the Blond style with some wheat in the brew. The brewery produces eight other seasonals, including Old Black Shuck and Wenceslas
Winter Warmer, both of which have a reputation as decent ales. Flag Porter is a bottled beer that appears to be only available in America, though there is an occasional cask version called North Brink Porter.

Elgood have around 40 pubs, all in the East Anglian area serving a mostly rural and conservative clientèle, which is why their beers are so traditional and old school.

2015 update. Elgood have 35 pubs concentrated in a rural triangle between Ely, Peterborough and Kings Lyn.

29) Charles Wells

We now head south west via Peterborough to reach the county town of Bedford, home to the 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: Eagle Bitter (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; Bombardier (2/3*), the most famous and acclaimed product the brewery produces - a pleasant, slightly fruity bitter of no great character; and Banana Bread Beer (3*), a love it or hate it brew which really does taste of bananas. The seasonals include Summer Solstice (2/3*) for the summer and Fargo (3*) in the winter.

The Wentworth near Mile End station in London is a good East End outlet for Charles Wells beers.

**) Greene King  (?)

Can Green King still be classed as a regional brewery when they have a national distribution of pubs, and have just bought the Spirit group for £774 million, and now have over 3,100 pubs.

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 Abbot Ale (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. IPA (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. Strong Suffolk (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. Ruddles County Ale (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. Morland Old Speckled Hen (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. Hen’s Tooth (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.

30) Adnams

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 Broadside, (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 Bitter (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. Suffolk Strong Bitter (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, Regatta, Fisherman and Tally-Ho.

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.

34) Ridleys

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.

IPA (2*) is a well-balanced session bitter, crisp and refreshing. Tolly Original Best Bitter has a cult following for its assertive hop flavours. Prospect is a modern beer, launched spring 2002, in the Golden Summer Ale style of light body and fragrant hops. Rumpus (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 Old Bob (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

31) McMullens

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 Original AK, (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 Country Best Bitter (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 Stronghart (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.

32) Fuller's

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: Chiswick Bitter (2/3*) a dry session bitter with a dusty hop finish which has its devoted fans; London Pride (3*) a popular bitter of no great character but pleasant to drink; and ESB (3*) a premium bitter with a huge reputation that really doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

The seasonals are: Honey Dew (2/3*) a honey flavoured brew available in spring and autumn; Summer Ale (1 /2*) a pathetic attempt at a golden ale, aimed mostly at lager drinkers; and Jack Frost (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. 1845 (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; Golden Pride (2/3*) a simple barley wine is used as the base for the bottled conditioned Vintage Ale (3*) which built its reputation on using the finest ingredients, but these days is simply cashing in on its past glory; London Porter (3/4*) is a smooth and tasty brew, but is too well behaved to have any genuine character; Old Winter Ale (3*) manages a bit of woody character; while India Pale Ale 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.

37) Youngs

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 Bitter (3*) Triple A (2/3*) and Special (2/3*) . A regular seasonal is Waggledance (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. Christmas Pudding Ale (3*) is a decent enough example of a Winter Warmer: rich, sweet and plummy; Double Chocolate Stout (3*) a smooth stout with real chocolate used in the brew; Special London Ale (3*) which is available bottle conditioned, has some zippy hops, but is not well integrated; Old Nick (2/3*) is a lively barley wine that some people love; while Ramrod (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.

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National breweries

Greene King



Global breweries with at least one plant in the UK

Anheuser-Busch InBev  Brewing plant:
*Magor in South Wales,
*Samlesbury in Lancashire
*Mortlake in West London


 Brewing plant:
*H. P. Bulmer in Hereford
*John Smith's in Tadcaster
*Royal Brewery in Manchester
*Heineken Ireland in Cork
*Caledonian Brewery, Edinburgh
 Molson Coors
 Brewing plant:
*Alton, England
*Burton-on-Trent, England
*Tadcaster, England


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.

1 comment:

  1. This is a work in progress, and any info or suggestions are most welcome.


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