For those of us old enough to remember, Ruddles were one of the early “darlings” of the CAMRA-inspired “Real Ale Revolution”. During the mid to late 1970’s, their premium beer, Ruddles County, achieved “cult status” amongst real ale drinkers, and rightly so for this full-bodied and heavily-hopped ale was once a yardstick against which other beers were judged.
Now “Ruddles” is just another lacklustre Greene King brand, acquired by the Suffolk giant following a series of take-overs and sell-offs during the 1990’s. Why did things go so disastrously wrong for the Rutland-based company, and what caused their spectacular fall from grace? This article, whilst not providing all the answers, describes how I first became familiar with Ruddles beers and gives some pointers as to why the company lost both its way, and eventually its very existence.
The first time I ever sampled Ruddles was in the legendary Becky's Dive Bar, close to London Bridge Station. The year was 1974 and I was on a crawl of London pubs with an old school friend. Acting as our guide was a copy of the first Guide to Real Ale in London published by CAMRA and the Dive Bar was the fourth pub on our itinerary. I still remember walking down the carpeted stairs leading down to the dimly lit basement bar. The stairs were so rickety that they had an unnatural springiness to them, and once inside our nostrils were met with the mixed odour of dampness and tom cats! Undeterred though, we scanned the bar in order to see what beers were on offer.
According to my friend's guide, Becky's had Thwaites Bitter all the way from Blackburn, on sale, but on enquiring we were told that this particular beer was no longer on sale but they had Ruddles County instead. We opted for a pint each of this revered brew and waited in eager anticipation as our drinks were dispensed from a one of the casks perched up on the bar counter. However, even in the dingy light of the bar the beer looked cloudy. I was somewhat more fortunate than my companion in so much that I chose the first of the two pints dispensed from the cask; mine may well have been cloudy but at least it didn't contain an inch or two of sediment! Despite its cloudy appearance the beer still tasted superb and was certainly a revelation to my young and relatively inexperienced taste-buds (I was 19 at the time). My friend managed to drink most of his pint but in view of the amount of solid matter in his glass we wisely decided it was time to move on to our next port of call.
It was to be sometime before I next had the pleasure of sampling Ruddles County, or at least Ruddles County on draught. I say that because not long after our crawl, the company started selling their beers in both canned and bottled form through supermarkets, so for Christmas that year I persuaded my father to get in a good supply of this excellent beer.
I spent most of the next three years as a student living in Greater Manchester, so apart from vacations, plus occasional trips back to Kent, I was busy sampling such delights as Robinsons, Boddingtons, Marstons and Holts (to name but a few). It was therefore some time before I next had the pleasure of enjoying Ruddles in cask-conditioned form, but I have a feeling that my next pint of Ruddles County was enjoyed at either the Anglesea Arms in London's South Kensington, or the Shires Bar at St Pancras Station. Both outlets were pioneers in their own way, although as the Anglesea was a couple of years at least ahead of the Shires in this respect, it is most likely it was there that I next drank Ruddles.
I eventually moved back to the South East, initially to London and then to Kent, but the availability of Ruddles in the area was not that extensive. In the meantime the company had sold off all but one of its tied thirty or so tied houses in order to concentrate on the free trade and sales to supermarkets. Not long after my return, Ruddles entered into a supply deal with Grand Metropolitan (the owners of Watneys), which saw Ruddles County being sold in a substantial number of Watney pubs. As I was living in Maidstone at the time, a part of the country where there were no Watney pubs whatsoever, this deal had no effect so far as I was concerned. More to the point, it was unlikely that I would have ventured into a Watneys pub anyway. I was also somewhat suspicious of the fact that Watneys were storing the beer in converted kegs - having scrapped all their casks when they converted to keg beer during the late 1960's.
In 1986 Grand Metropolitan went a stage further and acquired outright control of Ruddles. Seasoned observers of the trade were not surprised at this turn of events, for having committed a large proportion of their trade to Grand Met, Ruddles were hardly in a position to refuse an outright takeover. It is open to question whether or not Grand Met would have pulled the plug on Ruddles, had they refused, but certainly the Rutland based company now had no pubs of its own to fall back on.
Ruddles chairman, Tony Ruddle was pleased with the deal though and was widely reported at the time as saying that his company's beers were now available to a much wider audience. However, this increased availability was at the expense of many of Watney's local beers, particularly in London and the South East, and when Grand Mets other subsidiary - the London brewers Truman were merged with Watneys into one brewing division, the former's excellent beers also began disappearing in favour of Ruddles. This was a great shame, as the Truman range of cask beers had been launched in a blaze of publicity some five years earlier, and represented a strong commitment to cask beer from a company which had completely abandoned it during the previous decade.
In the February of 1988, just over a year after the Grand Met takeover, I received a phone call from Nigel, an old friend from Maidstone CAMRA, asking if I would like to accompany him on an all expenses paid trip round Ruddles brewery. The only snag was that the trip was scheduled for the following day! By this time I was living in Tonbridge and working in nearby Tunbridge Wells, but an opportunity like this was too good to miss so I persuaded my boss to allow me the day off, and arranged to meet my friend on the train at Tonbridge the next morning.
On the journey up to London, he was able to fill me in on more of the details as to what the trip was about, why it was free and the reason for it being arranged at such short notice. The people behind the trip were a PR agency handling the launch, on behalf of Grand Met of a new Best Bitter for Ruddles. They had decided to invite along members of CAMRA such as Nigel and I who were involved in the editing or production of Branch Newsletters.
I had edited Maidstone Branch's "Draught Copy" for some four years and had recently been involved in the production of a newsmagazine entitled "Inn View" on behalf of Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells CAMRA Branch. Nigel had stepped into my shoes with regard to "Draught Copy" so we both qualified in that respect. All we had to do was obtain receipts for our train journey and the PR agency would re-imburse us.
On the train from Kings Cross we met up with another CAMRA member who performed a similar function to ourselves for the Brighton and Southdowns Branch. Our instructions were to alight at Peterborough in order, I thought, to catch a local train to Oakham, close to where Ruddles brewery is situated. However, PR companies aren’t slow when it comes to throwing other people’s money about, and instead a fleet of taxis had been laid on to convey us the not inconsiderable distance to Oakham and the brewery. After some initial confusion as to who was footing the bill we set off, and after an uneventful journey through the East Midlands countryside, which looked particularly drab during February, we were deposited at the imposing, but attractive Ruddles brewery in the village of Langham - just outside Oakham.
We were led straight to the hospitality centre, situated in converted cellars beneath the brewery, where we were offered our first taste of the new Best Bitter and introduced to the brewery chairman, Tony Ruddle. Following a brief introductory chat, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the new beer, the philosophy behind the launch of the beer was explained. It was intended as a replacement for the old Rutland Bitter, known universally as "Ruddles Blue". The company had decided to go for a stronger beer, with a gravity of 1037, to be called Ruddles Best Bitter. This move would have been fine providing Ruddles had retained the old "Blue", for although this was a relatively weak beer with a gravity of only 1032, it was full of flavour, very refreshing and was an excellent "quaffing bitter".
We were then given a guided tour of the brewery, conducted by a member of the brewing staff. The brewhouse had been extensively modernised - the new parent company having invested substantially in the plant. To their credit, Grand Met had given Ruddles a free hand in the design of the plant which, although modern, was still designed on traditional lines. The copper may have been constructed of stainless steel but it was still a copper. Equally, the sparkling new mash tuns were traditionally designed mash tuns, rather than the more modern Lauter tuns favoured by most European brewers. Ruddles had also been allowed to retain control over the purchase of the raw materials used to brew the beers and, very unusually, they were still using whole hop cones, rather than the hop pellets favoured by many modern brewers.
When the tour was over, we were taken back to the hospitality centre, where a substantial spread of food had been laid on for our benefit. Tony Ruddle acted as "mine host" over lunch, the beer flowing freely from jugs which were replenished as soon as they became empty. The food was excellent, consisting of such local delicacies as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Red Leicester and Stilton Cheeses, with chunks of freshly baked crusty bread to soak up the beer. The beer too was very good, but I couldn't help feeling that it lacked something. I personally thought it a shame that a unique beer such as the 1032 Rutland Bitter had been replaced by yet another, bog-standard 1037 bitter. Besides, a gravity of this strength is not worthy of the name "Best" anyway!
This aside the brewery chairman answered all our questions; some of which were more difficult and probing than others. He had no qualms about the Grand Met takeover; so far as he was concerned it meant a much wider availability of his beers, and if other beers were being elbowed off the bar then it was because they were not as good as Ruddles. With regard to the loss of the "Blue" he felt that the new beer would appeal to a wider market.
The time for us to depart came all too soon; the fleet of taxis having turned up to whisk us back to Peterborough. Before leaving though, we were each presented with a bag containing a boxed, glass tankard, plus a sweatshirt both emblazoned with the new motif for Ruddles Best Bitter. The return journey was uneventful, although most of us were of the same opinion regarding the new beer. Stopping off in London, en route for Charing Cross, Nigel and I, plus Rob Wells from Reigate and Redhill branch opted for a couple of pints in the Nags Head, Covent Garden; one of the few central London pubs belonging to McMullens of Hertford. Here we enjoyed some excellent Country Bitter and A.K. Mild before making our way home to Kent.
Ruddles have had a troubled history over the last few decades in the hands of a succession of big brewers. In 1991, as a means of circumventing the government’s Beer Orders 1989 legislation, Grand Met entered into a "pubs for breweries" deal with Courage, whereby control of Grand Met’s breweries passed to Courage in exchange for the latter’s pubs. These were to be administered by a joint company known as "Inntrepeneur Estates".
The outcome of the deal was that the Ruddles brewery rapidly became "surplus to requirements". It was eventually sold to Dutch Lager brewers Grolsch for a sum reputed to be well in excess of £30m. The deal at least secured the future of the Langham site although Tony Ruddle opted for retirement, thus severing the last links with the family after whom the brewery took its name.
Grolsch struggled to make their purchase a success, as despite a multi-million pound marketing campaign, sales of Ruddles beers continued to decline. Just five years after Grolsch acquired the company, the value of the brewery and its brands had dropped to £4.8m, and in it was sold to Morlands of Abingdon. . By this time production at Langham had fallen to just 100,000 barrels a year from a total output capacity of 300,000 barrels. Morlands moved production to Abingdon only for that site to be closed by Greene King when they took over Morlands in 2000.
These days, of course, Ruddles County and Best Bitter are just two of a number of Greene King brands. Both are nothing like the original beers, and whilst they still have their devotees, neither are beers I would go out of my way to drink. Ruddles Best Bitter has had the indignity of becoming Wetherspoon’s “budget brand” bitter, and can be found on sale in most JDW outlets.
All this is very sad and, somewhat ironically the difficulty in reproducing elsewhere the taste of the beers has led to the premier beer being jocularly referred to as "Ruddles Counterfeit". Perhaps this is appropriate as the local Langham well water was said to give the beer a unique character and quality which enhanced the brewery's reputation..
Rutland bitter is one of only three UK beers to have achieved Protected Geographical Indication Status; following an application by Ruddles. Since Morlands closed the Langham brewery Greene King, the current owners of the brands, cannot take advantage of the registration. However in 2010 former Ruddles head brewer Tony Davis revived Rutland Bitter, as a beer brewed in Rutland, at his Grainstore Brewery, based in Oakham. He later followed it with a beer called Ten-Fifty - the gravity of the original Ruddle's County.