Saturday, 26 April 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part One of an Occasional Series - Robinson's of Stockport

What seems like several years ago, but is actually much longer than that, I wrote a series of articles about various UK breweries and my relationship with them. This relationship varied; some were either amongst my favourite breweries, or brewed one of my favourite beers. Others were companies I was familiar with, for the simple reason that at some stage I lived within their trading ares, and thus drank a lot of their beers. The list also included breweries which I had a love-hate relationship with. (Sheps fall into this category, but it's still very much hate at the moment!).

I had largely forgotten about these articles until the other day, when I came across them whilst transferring files across from my previous computer to one I have just acquired from a work colleague. As I seem to be bereft of ideas for blogging at the moment, and suffering from a bout of "writer's block", I thought I would inflict some of these articles on readers of this blog. So, in no particular order, here is the first of them, and it's about North-West brewers, Robinson's.

Until the autumn of 1973, when I went to live in the Greater Manchester area, I had never heard of the Stockport brewers Frederic Robinson and Sons. Back in the early 1970’s CAMRA was in its infancy and whilst I had a burgeoning interest in trying different beers there were no guides as such to point the discerning drinker in the right direction.

I had ended up in Greater Manchester following the offer of a place at Salford University. This was not my first choice as a seat of learning, but having failed to obtain the necessary grades at "A" level I had to take what was offered by the universities "clearing system". By the time my place had been secured it was late September and I discovered that student accommodation was in very short supply; so much so that some students were having to bed down on the floor of the university gymnasium.

The problem of a place to stay was solved by my mother's sister, who lived in a small town called Romiley, situated in the foothills of the Pennines, a few miles outside Stockport. My aunt had a spare room in her house, so it seemed the ideal solution for me to put up there for a while, whilst looking for alternative accommodation.

Although I was a bit homesick at first, I soon settled in, and found my aunt and uncle's house to be both comfortable and well appointed. I used my motorbike to travel the dozen or so miles into university each day then, after it broke down, I switched to journeying by train. Most of my fellow students lived much closer to the university, and although I enjoyed quite an active social life during the week, I found myself at a loose end at weekends. This was because a significant number of my fellow students came from places within easy travelling distance of Manchester, and many of them preferred to return home for the weekend rather than stay put at university.

Rather than spend my evenings sat in front of the television, or shut in my room reading, I decided to explore some of the local hostelries. This was no easy task for a somewhat shy and introverted 18 year old, but I nevertheless forced myself to go out. I knew that if I turned left out of my aunt's house and then carried on down the hill towards the station and the centre of Romiley, I would come to a John Smith's pub called the Duke of York. I had been in there on my first night at my aunt’s and found it pleasant enough, but I wanted to see what lay in the other direction. At the end of my aunt's road, sited on a junction, was a pub whose name now unfortunately escapes me. It belonged to a brewery that was totally unknown to me - Frederic Robinson & Son Ltd.

I chose the saloon bar, in the belief that the natives would be friendlier than in the public (or vault as they prefer to call it in Manchester). It was comfortable without being overtly plush. Adorning the bar were a number of metered electric dispensers, with Best Bitter and Best Mild as the beers on offer. Opting for the former once I had drunk my way through the thick creamy head so beloved by Northern drinkers, I found it quite aggressively hopped, and not at all unpleasant.

These days when visiting a strange pub I would have no trouble in striking up a conversation. Back then though I was a lot more self-conscious, but I nevertheless stood my ground at the bar and stayed for a couple of pints. I also purchased some bottles of brown ale to take home with me, so as to have something to drink the following evening. I made a few other visits to the pub over the course of that first term getting quite to like the Robinson's Best and taking note of the fact there were several other pubs belonging to the brewery in the town.

By the following term I had found myself lodgings close to the town of Eccles. The lodgings were only a short bus ride away from the university, and whilst they were somewhat spartan, and the food dull, lacking in nutrition and extremely un-imaginative, the lad I shared a room with liked a pint. Howard shared my love of a pint, and coming from the Lake District was a Hartley's devotee. We soon discovered that the nearest pub to our lodgings was a large, modern Robinson’s pub called the White Horse. We ended up going out most evenings as there was precious little in the way of entertainment at the digs. Although we often ventured a bit further a field into Eccles itself, we still spent many an evening in the White Horse enjoying the Robinson’s beer.

At the end of the academic year I became actively involved in researching and compiling a guide to local pubs. The guide was to form part of the Student’s Union Handbook for the forthcoming academic year. One of the pubs we visited was the unspoilt Star Inn, situated in a quiet and almost forgotten backwater of Salford. The following year I managed to secured accommodation in one of the university halls of residence (with a room of my own as well!), and the Star became one of my regular haunts. The fact that the Star was home to a thriving Folk Club added to the pub's attraction, as did the Robinsons' beers.

The Star was one of only 20 or so outlets selling Robinson's Ordinary Bitter. This was out of a tied estate that approached 400 pubs. Even rarer, was the fact that the beer was dispensed by hand pump, rather than the much more common electric pumps. The Star also occasionally had Old Tom barley wine on draught; the legendary strong ale, with an alcohol content of 8.5%. At the time it was the strongest beer I had tasted, but it was certainly a drink for helping to keep out the cold on a frosty winter's night. So far as I know, Old Tom was originally a winter drink, but it is now brewed all year round, and is made available to those pubs who wish to take it.

My close friend and drinking buddy, Nick normally accompanied me to the Star. He lived in a rented house, close to the halls of residence, which he shared with a group of fellow students,. Halfway through the autumn term Nick and his housemates decided to throw a party, and wishing to offer something different from the usual Party Seven fizz thought that a cask of Robinson's would be a good idea for the party. The order was duly placed with the brewery, and a couple of days prior to the party we persuaded the girlfriend of one of the housemates to drive us there in her Land Rover in order to collect the cask.

Having located the brewery, and paid for our purchase, we carefully transported one firkin of Robinson's Best Bitter back to Salford and set it up on the kitchen table, venting and pegging it as instructed. This was my first experience of looking after cask-conditioned beer, something I have become quite adept at over the years. The party was a great success, due in no small measure to the excellence of the beer.

During my four years in Manchester I enjoyed Robinson’s ales on numerous occasions and ironically, for my last six months in the region, I ended up moving back to Romiley. This time though I was not staying at my aunt's; instead a girlfriend and I had rented a small flat above the local butcher’s shop. Unlike my previous stay in the town, I managed to explore most of the local pubs. The Railway was one fairly frequent haunt, but it was another Robinson’s pub that ended up becoming our local. The pub was called the Friendship Inn and we became regulars there, playing the locals at both darts and cribbage. It was therefore with some sadness that we had to say goodbye when the time came to move back down south.

It was to be some time before I next had the chance to enjoy a pint of Robinson's again, although occasional business trips to Manchester did provide a few opportunities. I also drank the beer on visits to the Derbyshire Peak District during the early 1980’s; the Manner's Arms in Bakewell serving a particularly fine pint. When I first tried a pint of Best Bitter in the Manners, the beer appeared much paler in colour than I remembered, but this was probably just my memory playing tricks on me.

In 1997 I tasted Robinson's Dark Mild for the first time. This particular brew is a very rare find indeed, normally being available in only a handful of pubs. I had been thwarted, by the weather, in a previous attempt to track it down, so after spotting it on sale at the Great British Beer Festival, I just had to have a pint.

My first attempt at sampling this beer, had taken place some nineteen years previous, in 1978, when I was still living in Romiley. My girlfriend had already moved back to London, in order to start a new job, and had moved back in with her parents until she managed to find a flat for us both to live in. I was at a loose end, and knowing this, my friend Nick suggested that a trip out to Derbyshire, with the express purpose of trying a pint of Robinson’s Dark Mild would be a good idea. He had recently passed his motorbike test and offered to drive me out to the Old Pack Horse in the small Derbyshire town of Chapel-en-le Frith, which was listed in the Good Beer Guide as stocking the beer. Unfortunately the day chosen for our trip was a bitterly cold Saturday in the middle of February. Heavy snow had fallen the previous week, and although there was little sign of it when we set out from Romiley, by the time we got into the foothills of the Pennines we became aware that much of the snow was still lying in the surrounding fields.

As we climbed higher into the hills, the roads became more and more treacherous, until eventually we reached a spot where the wind had blown a substantial drift off the fields, right across the road. To have continued any further, on two wheeled transport, would have been foolhardy in the extreme, so we had no choice but to turn round and head for the warmth of home.

Shortly after that expedition I too departed from Greater Manchester, so it was especially satisfying to complete my sampling of  Robinson's then range of cask ales by enjoying, at long last, their excellent Dark Mild.

So there you have it, a traditional brewery with an excellent range of traditional beers. The only blot on Robinson's copy book is their take over, and eventual closure of Hartley's Brewery during the 1980's. What my former room-mate, Howard made of that heaven only knows, but then again nobody is perfect all of the time!

Having said that, Robinson's must definitely be one of those beers that doesn’t travel well. When my wife and I had our real ale off-licence during the first half of this decade,  we featured Robinson’s Best (now re-badged as "Unicorn").as a guest ale on several occasions. I must say that both my customers and I found it rather bland and somewhat disappointing. It might possibly be one of those beers that benefits being served through a sparkler, with a tight, creamy northern-style head. Alternatively like a host of other once distinctive and well-regarded beers, it may have deliberately have been “dumbed down” and made blander in order to appeal to a wider audience. I don't think this is the case, but until I re-visit the North-West I really won’t know for certain.


2013 saw Robinson's celebrating their 175th birthday and they used the occasion to enlarge and re-build their Victorian Brewery, turning it into a state-of-the-art modern Brew- House. They also re-vamped their beer range, re-naming some of the beers and dispensing with others, and launched the hugely successful Trooper, a 4.8% golden ale created with heavy-metal rock group, Iron Maiden. The latest innovations have been the opening of a new Visitor and Training Centre in the heart of Stockport, plus the introduction of a brand new line-up of seasonal ales, giving drinkers in the North West, a well as further afield, the chance to sample something that little bit different.


Anonymous said...

Excellent write up as always. Cheers!

Ed said...

Robinson's is one I normally avoid, maybe I need to try it closer to home.

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you liked the article, anonymous; there are several more, buried in the archives where this one came from.

Ed, like I said in the article, I think Robinson's is definitely a beer which is improved by being pulled through a sparkler - even though as a southerner it pains me to say it!

ChrisM said...

Excellent write-up, Paul - I look forward to the next installment.

This one makes me almost home-sick, though; I grew up just up the road in Bredbury and drank bucket-loads of Best and Mild between the ages of 14 and 18.

My local (Greyhound in Bredbury) now only sells Unicorn (I've been away about 8 years now, they lost the seasonal beer 18 months ago and the mild 6 months ago), but when I was visiting my parents at Easter I had the best pint of it I've had for a few years.

Interestingly, the Railway by the station in Romiley is now a Free House.

Martin, Cambridge said...

Good article Paul. I'm a devotee of Robbie's fantastic pubs, but even in Stockport beer quality is highly variable. On the rare occasion I had the Hatters Mild from the barrel (handpump issues) it was one of the best beers I've ever had.

Guess you rarely see their beers, even Troopet round your way ?