Tastings School - The heart of Hampshire (Ringwood)

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The heart of Hampshire (Ringwood)

This year is a crucial one for Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, marking the start of a new era. Dominic Roskrow reports

Is the glass half full or on its way to being threequarters empty?

If ever there was an example of cold wet post- Christmas reality it came in the shape of the British broadsheet business pages in early January. The turkey had hardly gone cold when the economists poured cold gravy all over the celebrations, pointing to a credit crisis, a potential property slump and a number of indicators that suggest that if the party ever started, the music has been turned off, the lights turned on and the revellers asked to leave the building.

And if that all sounds bad for the economy as a whole, it’s decidedly worse for the drinks industry. The adverse effects of the smoking ban, another year of closures and absorptions, and gloomy forecasts for seasonal sales have all added to the general gloom, and with no British club taking part in next summer’s Euro soccer fest, the unseemly hunt for pub property set to continue and drinks giants Scottish & Newcastle, Heineken and Carlsberg and going about each other like sex-starved stags, 2008 looks no better. How ironic that 20 years after the great British pub sale hit top gear the major pub property groups have grown in to the same monsters that the then Government set out to replace.

I wonder what thoughts were going through the minds of the staff at Ringwood Brewery as they poured themselves an Old Thumper on New Year’s Eve? For them, more than most, the New Year brought a mix of uncertainty, melancholy and excitement as the brewery prepared to see out the old and ring in the new.

In some ways Ringwood would seem to be typical fodder for the predatory sharks feeding off the British pub brewing industry. A sizeable regional brewery with a superb strategic location in the south of England and some fine brands, it’s big enough to be important but small enough to be vulnerable.

Or was, until Marston’s got its hands on it.

Any takeover by a beer giant is understandably greeted with concern and hostility and the £19.2 million Marston’s purchase was no exception, though the company, a monolith in the history of British beer production, has a positive track record having purchased Jennings in the North West and preserved it admirably. To reassure local beer enthusiasts and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) a senior company executive was dispatched to allay fears.

Most notably Marston’s could point to the fact that Ringwood has little value as a property investment because it only has seven pubs. The company’s interest is in the beer brands and rather than being a negative development for the Hampshire brewery, the purchase offers the opportunity of expansion and access to more markets up north.

Nevertheless in Ringwood’s case the significance of the purchase was magnified immeasurably by the parallel announcement that brewery owner David Welsh was selling up to retire.

To understand the significance of all this you have to go back three decades to the late 70s when the brewery was first established as a small but perfectly formed and authentic mini-brewery by former Hampshire Brewery chief and brewing legend Peter Austin.

Austin had come out of retirement to face the challenge of establishing cask ale from a small base. He was joined soon after by David Welsh, a man with a keen business head and the same commitment to quality beer as Austin had.

Arguably more so. When Austin bowed out Welsh bought the business, set about expanding and improving it, and in the ensuing three decades established a 30,000 barrel a year operation worth nearly £20 million and with some of the country’s most respected and cherished beers.

Of particular note is Old Thumper, which was exciting beer lovers as far north as Durham at festivals by the early 1980s – I know as I was one of them – and which became CAMRA’s champion beer of Great Britain in 1988.

But there is much more to Ringwood than sales and success, as anyone who has ever visited it will attest, and this is the legacy David Welsh left behind.

Training is key and among other things Ringwood put its employees through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust course, making use of its own vineyard in France.

Staff contentment has always been a key characteristic of Ringwood, so much so that the brewer has featured in the Sunday Times Top 100 Best Employers chart.

An open door policy by management, a genuine attempt to treat all staff and management equally, and a vibrant and tangible staff social life based around the brewery bar have all added to the sense of wellbeing.

To celebrate the brewery’s 25th anniversary the staff were taken to France by the company.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the personal development fund that has been established at the brewery. Every member of staff can apply for up to £500 towards any hobby, activity or training course.

“It can be used to learn a language, There is more to Ringwood than success and sales for gym membership, all sorts of things. I play cello and the fund gave me the opportunity to play in an orchestra. It can be life-changing. One staff member had a fear of flying and had never been on a plane. She used the money to do a course to overcome her fear and now she jets all over the world with her husband on holiday. He doesn’t know what’s hit him.” So pervasive was David Welsh’s influence that the announcement of his retirement could have been a devastating and irreparable blow to morale.

“It came as a great shock to everyone,” says James. “David has had a huge influence over the brewery and it is very strange without him. We all miss him massively. Of course everybody was very worried but so far at least it’s been business as usual and the signs are very good.” As 2007 came to an end in a flurry of depressing news and grim forecasts, it was too early to make judgements as to how the brewery would move forward. Ringwood’s staff spent the end of the year working flat out to integrate the procedures of the new owners into the structure of the brewery and any fall out will come in the first quarter of this year.

And 2008 is a huge year. It marks 20 years since Old Thumper picked up the CAMRA award and put Ringwood on the map, and it’s 30 years since the brewery was first established. A year of events and parties are planned, and the brewery intends to take the opportunity to put itself in the limelight.

More importantly and on a practical level, Marston’s is investing in a new brewhouse and there is talk of upgrading the fermenters.

Everything points to a rosy future at Ringwood, despite the tough trading environment.

Let’s hope so. Ringwood is a charming, loveable and classy brewery and it deserves its place in the sun. Although we may never know, we can assume that David Welsh understood that more than anyone when he offered it up for sale, and took steps to secure that legacy.

The smart money says Marston’s will develop the business in a way that will make Welsh prouder than ever.

RINGWOOD TASTING NOTES BEST BITTER 3.8% Light, slightly floral and delicately hoppy aroma.

Balanced and slightly hoppy on the palate, with the latter pleasantly interplaying with a burst of malt. Quite dry, tangy and very more-ish. A classic session beer FORTY NINER 4.9% Named after the alcoholic strength, this beer is surprisingly delicate on the nose with a light hoppy note. All comes together on the palate with a rich full mouth feel, golden malt body and hoppy finish. Great OLD THUMPER 5.6% Spicy, fruity and very enticing on the nose with hops, malt, fruit, sugar and spice on the palate – they’re all here and then some. There’s lots of complexity and a great deal of sophistication for a beer of this strength. It’s the distillery’s best known beer and with good reason.

Truly exceptional

138 Christchurch Road, Ringwood, Hampshire, England BH24 3AP Tel: +44 (0)1425 471 177 www.ringwoodbrewery.co.uk