Tastings School - Brewing in the bard's back yard

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Brewing in the bard's back yard

As well as being Shakespeare's old stomping ground, the West Midlands is one of England's most important regions as far as brewing history is concerned, but what's the status today? Dominic Roskrow reports.

No fan of British beer needs to be reminded of the importance of the West Midlands in its history.

Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire is, of course, is pretty much its anchor and the towns of Wolverhampton and Dudley have etched their mark on the nation’s brewing development.

As the region has grown and expanded from the very birth of the industrial revolution to the sprawl of characterless malls, conurbations and car parks it is today, the very best of brewing traditions have been maintained here. It is not immediately obvious in either place among the chrome and wood style bars and international lager fonts, but the beating heart of some of England’s finest ales is pumping just beneath this surface.

And it’s in that contrasting symbolism between old brewing traditions and modern high street retailing that the region’s largest beer and brewing company is forging its future. Today Marston’s is alive and well and attempting to stay true to its roots and culture while continuing to thrive in ruthless commercial waters.

Next year it will be 175 years since John Marston established a brewing business at the Horninglow Brewery in Burton-upon-Trent, and 110 years since the business merged with that of John Thompson & Son and moved to the Albion Brewery. It’s more than 130 years since Banks & Co started brewing in Wolverhampton. And although today’s businesses are recognisable from the original brewing operations and name changes and swings in fortune have influenced their colourful histories, today Marston’s is still a dominant business and proudly represents the West Midlands and England in the field of brewing.

Purists have expressed disquiet at the way the company has evolved in to a large national organisation with a strong acquisitve streak, but it was always this way. In the 1890s Marston’s acquired other breweries in Burton, Hinckley and Coventry and with them, pub estates. Throughout the 20th century it acquired further businesses across the West Midlands, North West England and Northern Wales. And Banks’ was doing exactly the same, merging to form Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, acquiring North Worcestershire Breweries and several others before finally taking over Marston’s itself 10 years ago.

Since then of course there has been no stopping the company, with Mansfield, Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood all becoming part of the company. Jennings, in the North West, is actually older than its owners, having been established in 1828 – 180 years ago.

Talking about closure and takeover is always an emotional subject, and reminiscing about the good old days when Britain thrived with small independent brewers is both natural and understandable. The truth, though, is that if the management at Marston’s as it now is hadn’t turned hunter, they would have surely gone the same way as many others, quite possibly swallowed up by global predators, their range of beers ‘rationalised’, reformulated or restricted.

Next year marks the 20th year since the report was published into British pub ownership and the biggest brewers were ordered to sell off half of its estate above 2,000 pubs. The unforeseen consequence of the Orders was to lead to the growth of new non-brewing pub companies and an insatiable appetite among some of them to swallow up small British regional brewers and to assume their pub estates.

It’s in this context that Marston’s should be judged. It has taken the decisions necessary to ensure its survival and in so doing give beer aficionados the best hope of continuing to enjoy draught ales.

Today the company’s website home page is divided in to four – the public limited company, the inns and taverns division, representing the company’s 500 strong owned estate; the pub company, representing the leased and tenanted estate; and the beer company, which covers the brewing wing.

The site talks of three principal breweries, The Park Brewery in Wolverhampton, the Albion Brewery in Burton and the Jennings Brewery in Cockermouth, Cumbria. In addition it now has the operating distilleries of Wychwood/Refresh and Ringwood.

A short examination of the site reveals a company that is continuing to steer a path between its emotional historical past and the demands of a modern pub and brewing business.

By doing so it has guaranteed that the West Midlands has remained at the centre of Britain’s brewing industry.

But investigation of the region elsewhere makes for a sorry picture.

While breweries do operate in the region and in recent times the odd new face has appeared, in the main the picture is one of closures and take-overs. Great names such as Davenport’s (once, beer at home meant Davenport’s), Ansells, long since swallowed up by first Allied and then Carlsberg-Tetley, and Mitchell & Butler, which is now a pub operator and more likely to be identified as a comedy duo than a brewer, are part of the region’s great heritage.

Today, here is what else the region can boast in the way of brewers...