As most beer enthusiasts will recall, Young & Co. of Wandsworth were a staunchly traditional company which stood virtually alone, during the late 1960's and early 1970's, against the keg tide which threatened to engulf the capital’s pubs. Young’s houses stood out as bastions of good beer and traditional values, when all around them other brewers were busy tearing the heart and soul out of their pubs, and replacing cask ales with fizzy and insipid keg versions.
Young’s persistence with traditional values paid off though, and drinkers began to actively seek out their pubs and their beers. They were eventually forced into the enviable position of having to re-build their brewery in order to meet the increased demand for their beers. So in mid 2006, why on earth did the company announced the closure of their historic brewery in Wandsworth, and the formation of a joint venture with Bedford brewers, Charles Wells; a move which, incidentally, left industry analysts and ordinary drinkers somewhat dumbfounded.
Young’s claimed the closure move was forced on them by plans announced by Wandsworth Council to redevelop the town centre, but their decision to act so swiftly, and throw their lot in with Charles Wells did not tie in with what the company had been saying just a few months prior to the closure announcement. Their position back then was that they had entered into talks with Wandsworth Council, but were at pains to point that there were no immediate plans to relocate the brewery, and that a feasibility study was in place that may take years to complete. This suggests that the council were in no hurry to eject Young’s from their historic Ram Brewery site, and were certainly not about to issue a compulsory purchase order!
Young’s claimed that the Wandsworth site was too small to allow the expansion they required, and that no suitable alternative site was available in the London area. This was complete and utter nonsense as, from what I remember of the brewery site, there was plenty of room for growth. The tie up with Young’s may have made sense for Charles Wells, as their Bedford brewery was reported to be running only at 50% capacity. However, there was little in the deal for Young’s, unless they valued the development potential of the brewery site, right in the centre of Wandsworth, above that of a heritage which stretched back for several centuries.
Up until the deal was announced, Young’s seemed to be doing perfectly well. They were retaining a healthy respect for their roots without being afraid to move with the times. This was evidenced by a wide-ranging portfolio of beers which included two lagers of their own, an Oatmeal Stout, a Wheat Beer, available for the summer months, plus the introduction of their rather splendid Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. As its name suggests, the beer contained a high percentage of chocolate malt, and was also rumoured to contain some actual chocolate as well. It tasted superb, and was available in both draught and bottled form Their range of cask beers had also been expanded, with the appearance of Ram Rod, which was formerly a high strength bottled, pale ale, in cask form, along with a number of seasonal specials as well.
I’m not going to try and explain what made the company abandon their heritage, and sell the family silver, but I wouldn’t mind betting money played a major role in their decision. I do wonder though whether they had lost their passion for brewing, even before the closure was announced, as to my mind at least, both their Ordinary and Special Bitters seemed to have lost quite a bit of character. Certainly they weren’t the distinctive beers they once were. What I want to do instead is describe my introduction to Young’s, and my experiences of drinking their beers during the mid to late 1970’s when, I feel, they were at their peak.
My acquaintance with the brewery, and its products, goes back to my late sixth form days. This was when I first sampled Young’s beers at the now sadly closed, Three Horseshoes pub at Lower Hardres, near Canterbury. I had been taken there by a school friend, who knew a lot more about beer than I did. When he first mentioned Young’s, I assumed that he was referring to Younger’s - the Scottish brewers well known at the time for their Tartan keg bitter. Myself, plus a group of other friends, thought that the latter was the beer to drink, but my friend Roy obviously knew better.
Another friend who owned a car, (or rather a Reliant Robin to be precise!), was persuaded to drive us the fifteen or so miles to Lower Hardres. I am not quite sure how Roy got to hear about the Three Horseshoes, but on arrival we found an unspoilt country inn, boasting a traditional public bar, plus a comfortable saloon. However, it was the beer that was the main reason for our visit, and I was soon initiated into the delights of Young’s.
Roy’s family came originally from south London, which was why he was so familiar with Young's ales. I had never heard of them myself, but soon got stuck into the delectable Ordinary (PA as it was called in those days), plus the equally delightful, but stronger Special. Both beers were served direct from wooden casks, kept behind the bar, by a landlord who was very proud of his beers. He even had some membership leaflets on display for an organisation called CAMRA! My friend joined on the spot, but I was slightly more sceptical about handing over 50p for something I had never heard of before. After all, 50p represented the price of nearly four pints of beer back in 1973!
It was to be a couple of years later that I got the chance to sup Young’s beers on a regular basis. This was when I started dating a girl whom I met at university. She hailed from the Wandsworth area, so visits to her parents’ house, during vacation time, gave me ample opportunity to sample Young’s Ales on their home patch. It also afforded the chance to enjoy the beers in some excellent and unspoilt pubs. The Leather Bottle, in Garratt Lane, Earlsfield was a particularly fine pub, and a favourite spot for a Sunday lunchtime drink, but I also have fond memories of the Crane and the Grapes; both in Wandsworth itself.
During these visits I sampled the company's Winter Warmer, (a beer with a truly apt name) for the first time, but on most occasions I was drinking either Young’s Ordinary or their Special Bitter. It was often difficult to decide which of these two beers to go for, as it tended to vary according to my mood, the time and also the place. I found that the Ordinary Bitter was a fine refreshing drink at lunchtime or in a pub garden on a hot summer's evening; whereas the Special was a beer to be enjoyed on other occasions, or to round off a session on the Ordinary. The latter occasion, of course, also applied to the Winter Warmer (when in season). This full bodied, dark ale was not so strong that it made you fall over; instead it was a fine, mellow beer, just right for supping as the autumnal gales heralded the approach of winter. It was also equally welcome as the cold March winds continued to blow, and one was beginning to feel that spring is never going to come.
Now, of course, all that is gone. Young’s beers are brewed by Charles Wells, at their Bedford plant, and are all the poorer for it. On the odd occasion I try a pint I am invariably left feeling disappointed, so unless there’s no other choice then I leave the company’s beers well alone. Probably the only good thing to come out of the brewery closure is that Young’s have invested much of the money they got from the sale of the Wandsworth site into improving their pubs, and to acquiring new ones. Many of their London pubs now have a vibrant and contemporary feel to them, and are very pleasant places in which to drink. Fortunately, for the beer lover, quite a few of them now offer a beer from Sambrook’s; a Wandsworth based micro that have taken up Young’s mantle and run with it. Their beers are well seeking out, being full of both flavour and character, and are living proof that something good and well worth drinking, is still coming out of Wandsworth!