The fallout from the collapse of the ancient King & Barnes Brewery
Features January 20, 2005 [ Admin Edit ]
Written by SilkTork (Steve Pereira)
Southampton, United Kingdom, ENGLAND
Reprinted from RateBeer
The closure was seen at the time as sudden and unexpected. Shepherd Neame made a surprise bid in September 1999, and by April 2000 an agreement was reached by the shareholders to sell to Hall & Woodhouse. Production ceased within weeks. As unexpected as all that appeared at the time, Bill King feels the roots of the brewery’s collapse was planted years earlier when the Barnes family gradually ceased to be directly involved in the brewing, yet expanded their shareholding to 70%. Though Bill King wanted to continue brewing, his 30% share was not enough to stop the others from being seduced by the millions of pounds laying on the table.
Today the King & Barnes brewery is a modern housing development, and there is deep resentment in the town at what is felt to be a betrayal of customer and worker loyalty. While talking to one of the locals, he informs me that the brewery’s old artesian well has overflowed and flooded the gardens of the new houses. I joke that King & Barnes is still pissing over the town, and that quip is well appreciated. It sets the tone for the day.
Two breweries have sprung up out of the embers of the old King & Barnes, while a third has entered the town, competing for the local cask ale business. All three produce their versions of the acclaimed King & Barnes beers alongside the versions being brewed by Hall & Woodhouse. The beer shop run by the manager of the old brewery shop stocks another King & Barnes look-a-like - this one made by Dark Star. Rumours bounce around the town that the original recipes somehow never survived the journey to Hall & Woodhouse. Knives are out, and there are claims and counter-claims of original yeast, sourcing of ingredients and brewing methods. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these claims, it is a testament to the passion that the King & Barnes beers engendered that there are at least five different breweries who wish to bask in the brewery’s afterglow.
Beer Essentials, the beer shop run by Gareth Jones on East Street, is my first stop. Gareth started the shop in August 2001 with money from his parents and the redundancy pay he got from King & Barnes. The main emphasis here is the selling of cask ales to take home. Gareth has anything from seven to fourteen cask ales on the go at any one time, each of which can be sampled to find the one you like. An entire wall of his shop is taken up by a rack of casks, while opposite is an impressive selection of bottled beers from brewers both local and word-wide, including beers from Casta, Mexico’s only craft brewer.
Gareth’s experience of selling take-away cask ales started in 1996 when he was the manager of the King & Barnes brewery shop. The K&B directors came back from a visit to Harvey’s brewery enthused by the idea of selling cask ales direct from the shop, and Gareth’s previous pub experience gave him a useful background in looking after beers which are still fermenting. Such knowledge is paying off as demand is high for Gareth’s shop conditioned beers - he sells an average of nearly 1,000 pints a week. One of his regular beers is Festival - a copy of K&B’s Festive that he got Dark Star to make up for him. Today he has a variant of the Festival - a beer called Dirty Rascal, which is Festival with extra caramel. He pours me a sample. The condition is faultless - perfect temperature and carbonation; the flavours are precise and defined. The combination of an excellent beer served in excellent condition is irresistible, and I leave Gareth’s shop feeling very happy.
I head for the Malt Shovel on Springfield Road for lunch. It’s a pub with character run by a character, and the food is good, but the quality of the beer on the day I was there wasn’t impressive. I wondered why the Malt Shovel is in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide when Beer Essentials with a wider range of better quality beers in better condition is not. Also I was disappointed that the Malt Shovel had no locally brewed beers on offer the day I was there - even the local Wetherspoon, Lynd Cross, had a local beer on offer. Clearly not a good day for the Shovel.
Horsham’s three breweries are all gathered within 500 metres of each other on the industrial estates either side of the local railway line. There’s a certain irony about the fact that Bill King, one time lord of the Horsham beer manor, should these days find himself on the wrong side of the tracks. But he’s created a solid little brewery since the May 2001 launch, and - despite an understandable initial reluctance to get back into brewing after the traumatic experience of seeing the family business broken up - has modest plans for expansion within the local area which have kicked off with the purchase of the Lamb Inn at Lambs Green just outside Horsham. The bulk of King’s business is cask ale, though he does bottle condition 5% of output - all bottling being done by hand straight from the tank with a small amount of priming sugar. Trials were done on exporting to America, but the distributor was based in Houston, and the heat there spoiled King’s beers.
All King’s beers use the town water supply with a small amount of calcium chloride added. Maris Otter is the main malt and is sourced from the same supplier as provided King & Barnes. Hops are all standard British, with some American Cascade used now and again. The yeast was bought at the time of the brewery launch, and now, 3 ½ years later, is on 211th generation. Bill, however, after conducting some test pitches with a variety of yeasts some years ago, is doubtful that individual yeasts have that much of an influence on the character of a beer. And he is quite happy that the sorts of beers he produces are well suited to the local palate, that is: “beers similar to K&B - full flavoured and fairly hoppy.” His own favourites being Horsham Best, an adaptation of the K&B Sussex Bitter, and Red River, his own interpretation of K&B’s Festive.
We walk through the brewery itself into the store room where Bill draws me off a glass of his latest special beer, a bitter using the single hop Whitbread Goldings Variety. It is fresh and quite sublime with a supreme fragrance. I wonder why he doesn’t do such hoppy beers on a more regular basis, but he feels that not enough British people like hoppy beers to make it commercially viable. And when we get to speculating about strong beers he points out that his main output is cask, and that his main clients are country pubs whose customers are drivers, so the problems of drink driving prevent strong beers being popular. However he does make a 6.3% Cereal Thriller, which like the old K&B Corn Beer is made with a proportion of flaked maize.
Almost next door to Kings is Weltons, but first I cross over the railway line to pay a visit to the brewery created by the King & Barnes ex-head brewer Andy Hepworth, along with John Tuwson, Tim Goacher and Paul Webb, three other ex-K&B employees. I was expecting a typical micro operation, like the Kings set up, but as I wandered around the yards and sheds stacked with various beers, brewing equipment and supplies, I realised that this is a large organisation. And when I walked through the bottling shed and saw Greene King and Young’s beers being bottled, I began to wonder just who is king of Horsham these days.
Paul Webb, Hepworth’s brewing manager, showed me around and explained that when they set up the brewery in 2001, which at that time they called The Beer Station, the idea was to continue with the successful contract brewing and bottling that Hepworth had started at K&B. And today 80% of production is bottled beer, with the bulk of that cold-filtered. It’s a complex set up. Some beers are tankered in for filtering and bottling; some are brewed and bottled on site; some beers are cask only; some beers are brewed under the supervision of the outside brewer, such as Peter Scholey of The Beer Counter who took the licence to brew Coniston’s bottled Bluebird with him from Brakspear. And some beers are Hepworth’s own. These are mainly bottled because King and then Welton managed to grab the local cask market while Hepworth were still setting up their contract bottle market. It’s a private regret with Paul that they are unable to brew more of their own cask ales, but there is also evidence of a sneaky pleasure in the fact that his brewery is bigger and more successful than that of his old boss.
I’m curious as to how they manage the basics of brewing for so many different breweries. I’m told that the town water is chemically adjusted according to the specific needs of each brewery. But the yeast is the same for everyone - a live yeast that they have used for approximately 3 years. Though when they brewed for Weltons they used Ray Welton’s own yeast. They did try to rebuild the original K&B yeast for themselves, but were unsuccessful. They are proud of the fact that they source most of their ingredients from Sussex, and, like Kings, they use some of the same sources as the original King & Barnes. In fact, some of the equipment they use they managed to rescue when the old K&B stuff was auctioned off. And if it’s not the same equipment they at least use the same methods that Andy Hepworth established at K&B, such as boiling in the copper under pressure; though they will switch to atmospheric pressure for contract brewing. With the same brewer, some of the same equipment, same ingredients and methods, it’s not hard to imagine that Hepworth’s Sussex Light Ale will be the nearest to the original K&B Sussex Bitter.
After leaving Hepworths I popped into The Bedford in Station Road as this is a known regular outlet for Horsham brewed beers. It’s a clean and pleasant pub, popular with a nice mix of people. I tried Kings WGV, which Bill had let me sample earlier in the brewery, but it hadn’t survived the journey across the road very well. Like the Malt Shovel, perhaps I had caught The Bedford on a bad day. I head for Weltons brewery.
Ray Welton is in his wellies sloshing around. He’s setting up for his seasonal brew, Old Harry, named after his grandfather Harry who used to make a local cider called Dr French’s Tanglefoot. As I soon discover, Ray is full of such colourful titbits. He started Weltons in 1995, using the money he made from selling his drinks distribution business to Beer Seller, and building the brewing equipment himself. The tax situation in the 1990’s in Britain was not helpful to small brewers, and eventually he had to brew on Arundel’s equipment in order to save costs. But when Andy Hepworth started up the Beer Station, Ray was able to move his own equipment and yeast onto the site and that was, for two years, a shared operation. But in August 2003, a year after the sliding scale for brewers was introduced, Ray felt confident enough to once again brew independently. He is still using the equipment he built himself, though, like Fullers brewery, he is now using a bottom fermenting ale yeast which he feels gives him more beer per fermentation as a result of less foam in the tank.
He is able to stop brewing for a while, and I ask him how he treats the town water. “I don’t,” he says defiantly. “And if anybody wants to know if that works they can come and try my beer!” I joke that he seems the master of the sound bite and he grins: “Anything I say is bull shit or propaganda - the beer speaks for itself.” Behind this humorous bombast is a man who seems fascinated by brewing, wants to keep the brewing as natural as possible, and is prepared to try out new ideas. One of his ideas involves an original approach to bottling. At present all Weltons production is cask, but he is considering buying a small bottling machine and using one litre bottles because it costs the same to fill a one litre bottle as it does to fill a half litre. I am sceptical - then Ray explains his notion of social drinking. He’d sell 1/3 litre printed glasses to go with his bottles so people could share. “Like taking the pub home,” he says.
Ray is great company; he pours me some of his beers and we drink and chat until it is dark outside. It strikes me that he has the warm passion of an enthusiastic home-brewer, and typifies the one-man micro-brewer who is flexible and bold enough to try out a variety of recipes and unusual ingredients, such as his Hogspudding with nutmeg and molasses, or his Pridenjoy which is a 2.8% bitter that certainly punches well above its weight. This may not be a man with five generations of brewing in his blood, nor a large and professional brewing operation, but he has character. I wonder again who is king in Horsham.
I finish my day in Horsham at the Black Jug pub. The house beer is Ray Welton’s Kid & Bard. This was the very first cask beer brewed in Horsham after the closure of the King & Barnes brewery, and is - of course - a copy of their Sussex Bitter. It seems an appropriate end to the day.
Footnote: Originally there were photos of the people I interviewed - and some of those were damned good. But these were lost when RateBeer had a server change, and any copies I had were on a hard drive that is currently lost. The only original photo I could find is one of Gareth Jones that I uploaded to Wikipedia.