Written for Boak & Bailey's "Beery Long Reads" 29/11/14
|Welcome to Henley|
It is worth noting that the Brakspear family was distantly related to Nicholas Breakspear, who as Pope Adrian IV, was the only Englishman ever to become Pope. His reign was fairly short, lasting from 1154 —1159. Pope Adrian IV used the symbol of a bee on his mitre, the tall tapering headdress worn by senior churchmen, as a reminder of the ‘B’ at the start of his original surname; and a bee remains as the main element of the company’s logo and on their beer labels.
|The Old Brewery, Henley|
Like many local breweries Brakspear’s slowly expanded over the next two centuries, gradually acquiring pubs in the vicinity of Henley, but also by taking over breweries in Wokingham, Wallingford and Goring. It became a public company in 1896, primarily to raise the capital necessary to buy out its Henley rival, Grey’s Brewery. During the 1960’s Brakspear’s sought the protection of the infamous Whitbread “umbrella” as a means of self-defence against an outside speculator which wanted to buy the company, close the brewery and sell off the pubs. For a decade or so, Whitbread owned around twenty-seven percent of the company, but sold off its holding when it exited brewing.
On 17 October 2002 the Henley Brewery ceased production and closed. The site was then sold and part of it converted to become an up-market, boutique hotel, as part of the "Hotel du Vin" chain. 'WH Brakspear & Sons Ltd' while retaining ownership of the Brakspear beer brands, licensed the brewing of the beers to Refresh UK, also the owner of Wychwood. After months of looking for a suitable site near Henley (during which time much of the beer was brewed at Burtonwood, Cheshire) production was moved, along with some of the original historic Henley brewing vessels, to Refresh's Wychwood Brewery, in Witney, West Oxfordshire, also home to Prince Charles' Organic Duchy Originals range and Wychwood's Hobgoblin & Fiddler's Elbow beers. Subsequently, Refresh UK was bought out by the much larger Marston's group, reportedly for c. £10-11 million.
|Brakspears new home at Witney|
The now non-brewing Brakspear Pub Company concentrated on maintaining and expanding its growing pub estate,but in November 2006 the company was bought by pub chain JT Davies for £106million. Following the takeover, it was announced that JT Davies' pubs would be re-branded as Brakspears. The new company now runs around 140 pubs, spread over a wide area ranging from Brakspears traditional Thames Valley base, through the southern Home Counties, and into Kent. The number includes around 15 or so pubs within the Greater London area.
My own acquaintance with Brakspears goes back a long way; to the mid 1970's in fact. I had learnt of the company's existence late in 1973 after reading Christopher Hutt's excellent and pioneering book, "The Death of the English Pub". In those days the company's pubs were signed as belonging to the Henley Brewery, rather than Brakspears, and the company had a reputation for brewing some excellent beers. However, it was not until the spring of 1975, during my student days, that I first had the chance to sample them.
|Rural R&R at Eashing|
When we arrived at Waterloo Nick was waiting to greet us beneath the famous clock. He was enthusing over the fact that the nearby Hole in the Wall pub was selling Brakspears, and what's more both the Ordinary and Special Bitters were on tap. I was already familiar with the Hole in the Wall from previous trips to London, and knew it as a pioneering, real-ale free house. As trains to Godalming were fairly frequent, especially at that time on a Friday evening, it was unanimously decided that an adjournment to the Hole in the Wall was a good idea. I was thus able to sample the two Brakspears bitters for the first time.
From memory, both the beers tasted excellent, and it was with some reluctance that we had to leave in order to catch our train. Not long after, Brakspears beers began to make a welcome appearance in the London free-trade; I particularly remember enjoying them at the Tudor Rose free house in Richmond, after moving to the capital in 1978.
In 1980, I was involved with the organisation of the first CAMRA Maidstone Beer Festival. Prior to the event, a friend and I had the envious job of travelling to Henley to collect our order of Brakspears. This was in the days before the existence of beer agencies when it was necessary to collect beer direct from the breweries themselves. On the same trip we also called in at Wethereds in Marlow for the same purpose, but that’s another story.
This was my first visit, since childhood, to the lovely, unspoilt town of Henley-on-Thames. Back then, Henley formed a convenient stopping off point for our family, whilst en route to holidays in Wales. In the mid 1960’s the M4 extended only as far as Maidenhead, so a quick detour to Henley meant that we could enjoy a breakfast picnic down by the Thames, with any leftovers being thrown to the swans. I found, to my delight, that the town had not changed that much, and was still as attractive and appealing as ever.
After calling in at the brewery and loading up our hired van with casks of Brakspears, we set about sampling the beer for ourselves. First port of call was the unspoilt Three Tuns, in the middle of the main street. Here Brakspears Ordinary was sampled, along with their mild; this being the first time that I had tried the latter. Before departing for Marlow, we found our way to another Brakspears pub, the even older Bull Inn. The company's Old Ale was on sale here, so I was able to sample yet another Brakspears beer for the first time.
Three years later, along with a group of friends and fellow CAMRA members, I attended the 1983 CAMRA AGM which was held that year in Reading. As we were travelling in two cars, we arranged to rendezvous for a lunchtime drink before carrying on to Reading. The hostelry chosen was the Crooked Billet on the outskirts of Wokingham. The pub took some finding, but we managed it in the end, and were rewarded by an unspoilt alehouse offering a friendly welcome, good food plus excellent, Brakspears beers.
The Reading AGM afforded several opportunities to enjoy Brakspears Henley Ales. The most memorable, and definitely the most enjoyable, was a visit to another Crooked Billet. This one was situated in the tiny Oxfordshire hamlet of Stoke Row, and was as fine an example of a totally unspoilt country alehouse as one could wish to find. We had read about the unspoilt, time-warp Crooked Billet, so the opportunity of visiting it on the Saturday evening seemed too good to miss. It was well worth the drive through the narrow Oxfordshire lanes, and despite getting lost on a couple of occasions we eventually found ourselves outside the pub shortly after dark.
|Crooked Billet - Stoke Row|
We spent a most enjoyable evening in the pub, and had the room nearest the serving area virtually to ourselves. The other two rooms appeared to be the preserve of regular customers, an excellent arrangement all round. The fact that I wasn't driving that night made the evening even better, and towards the end of the session things definitely got a little hazy.
The night in the Crooked Billet, described above, took place over thirty years ago, and even back then, simple country alehouses, were fast becoming an endangered species. I knew that some time ago, the Crooked Billet featured on CAMRA's national inventory of outstanding unspoilt pubs, but wasn’t certain whether it was still trading. Pubs listed on the inventory are national treasures, and are ones which must be protected at all costs.
After checking, I am pleased to report that it is still open, but according to the national inventory, the Crooked Billet now primarily functioning as a restaurant. It is possible to have only a drink at some tables and in the garden. The pub was reported as being run down with a tree growing through the floor and out through the ceiling, weekly takings of just £500 and no hot water, when self-taught chef, Paul Clerehugh bought it in 1989.
It was to be some time before I next enjoyed a pint of Brakspears. A change of job, plus different domestic circumstances meant that I had precious few opportunities in which to travel. It was not until Whitbread began selling the beer as a “guest ale” during the early 1990’s that I renewed my acquaintance with the company’s beer. It was normally Brakspear’s Ordinary though, rather than the Special that was stocked in local Whitbread houses.
|Anglesea Arms South Kensington|
At the time I took pleasure in the fact that the taste of both Brakspears beers had not altered over the years. This was in stark contrast to many former favourites which at the time had become mere shadows of their former selves. Boddingtons, Youngers XXPS and King & Barnes were amongst several former, once revered beers that fitted this bill.
During the rest of the 90’s, Brakspears continued to appear as a guest ale in many Whitbread pubs; hardly surprising really considering the stake the latter had in the Henley company, but moving forward into the new century, Brakspears started branching out on their own. This was probably around the time that Whitbread began their exit from brewing following the fallout from the "Beer Orders".
In the autumn of 2001, my wife and I opened our specialist beer shop and a year later managed to secure an account with Brakspears. This was quite a coup as the company were not well represented in Kent at the time. We had already began stocking Brakspears draught beers whenever they appeared on the Beer Seller’s list, but by this time the company had diversified into offering a good range of interesting bottled beers, and these were the items which particularly interested us.
As we were quite small scale at the time, and unable to accept pallet loads of beer, we reached an arrangement with the Brakspear’s free- trade sales rep, whereby he would drop a few cases of bottles off to us when he was in the area. This worked quite well until the autumn of 2002, when the rep turned up looking very ashen-faced to tell us about the changes which would be taking place at Brakspears. The Henley Brewery faced imminent closure, and Brakspears would become a pub-owning company, rather than a vertically integrated brewing company with its own tied estate. The Brakspears brands were to be sold to Refresh UK, who would contract brew the beers elsewhere.
|The much missed Special Bitter|
Starting last September, we’ve prompted four rounds of ‘beerylongreads’ in which we and others aim to produce something longer and more in-depth than usual.The next is scheduled for Saturday 29 November. Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog