Friday, 10 February 2017

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Ten – Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster

Samuel Smith’s are the oldest brewery in Yorkshire and are the only surviving independent brewery in the famous brewing town of Tadcaster.  The company began brewing at the Old Brewery in 1758, and water drawn from the well 85 feet beneath the brewery, is still used to produce their beers today.

Traditional methods of brewing are very much to the fore at the Old Brewery, and the company prides itself on brewing beers from purely natural ingredients without the use of additives, adjuncts, artificial colourings or flavourings. The majority of the company’s beers are fermented in stone “Yorkshire squares”; fermenting vessels made of solid slabs of slate, which give the beers a fuller bodied taste. The same strain of yeast has been in use since the nineteenth century.

Samuel Smith’s still employ a cooper to make and repair the oak casks used for their naturally conditioned draught Old Brewery Bitter. As well as this renowned cask beer, the company produces a wide range of highly respected bottled beers; even reviving such brewing styles as Imperial Stout, Oatmeal Stout and Porter (Taddy Porter). Samuel Smiths have also received praise for the tasteful way in which they have renovated, or indeed restored, many of their pubs.

Although most Samuel Smith’s pubs are in Yorkshire, they have quite a sizeable tied estate in London. (Some of these pubs as well are prominent London landmarks, such as the Old Cheshire Cheese, the Cittie of Yorke and the Princess Louise).

Despite this emphasis on tradition, the company have never shied away from controversy and  in the mid 1990’s came under fire from CAMRA when they suddenly withdrew cask-conditioned, Old Brewery Bitter from the majority of their London pubs and replaced it with nitro-keg Sovereign Bitter. Sam’s stated that the reason for this withdrawal was that cask-conditioned beer does not “travel very well". At the same time they announced that the stronger Museum Ale was being discontinued. The latter beer had only appeared in the mid 1980’s, alongside the weaker Tadcaster Bitter, but neither received much promotion, and Tadcaster Bitter disappeared at the beginning of the 1990's.

The withdrawal of these beers left Old Brewery Bitter as the sole cask ale produced by the company; a situation which still persists today, but the irony is that despite the marketing which surrounds it, Old Brewery Bitter is not a particularly old brew. It was introduced in 1974, as the replacement for a range of beers sold under the "Taddy Ales" banner. At the same time Sam Smiths began re-signing their pubs with the White Rose of Yorkshire, and making great play of the fact that they were Yorkshire's oldest brewery.

Older drinkers will remember that for many years, Samuel Smith's used the brand name Ayingerbräu for its lagers and wheat beers. Bräuerei Aying is a family-run brewery situated in the Bavarian village of Aying; about 18 miles south of Munich.  The brand was best known in the UK for its "man-in-a-box" bar-top dispense mounting, used for Ayingerbräu Lager, which featured a model Bavarian man inside a plastic box.

In 2006 Ayingerbräu Lager reverted to being called, Alpine Lager; its original name from the 1960s. Production of both the Ayingerbräu D Pils and Prinz Lager brands also ceased. These have been replaced by Samuel Smith's Pure Brewed Lager.

Another change took place a few years earlier, when in 2000; Samuel Smith's began phasing out other branded products from its pubs, meaning that no large-corporation spirits or soft-drinks are available. The company took the “phasing out of brands exercise” a stage further by only selling their own Samuel Smith's Old Brewery branded crisps, nuts and pork scratchings in their pubs. 

In 2004, Sam’s took the decision to ban music in its pubs, which saves paying the fee demanded by the Performing Rights Society. Many customers irritated by “piped music”, welcomed the move.

Personal involvement

I have been a fan of Samuel Smith's, after stumbling upon one of their pubs during my second term at Salford University. This would have been in 1974, when I discovered that the Prince of Wales, in the Lower Broughton area of the city, served a very acceptable pint of Old Brewery Bitter

A couple of years later, I ended up renting a house almost within shouting distance of the Prince of  Wales, and spent many an evening in there enjoying the beer. As I later found out, from people who knew about such things, the beer in the POW was "bright" (filtered), rather than cask-conditioned. It was still very palatable, although as a member of CAMRA I would have preferred to have been drinking the "real thing".

I read at the time that whilst Sam’s refused to supply cask-conditioned beer to their tied estate west of the Pennines, they were quite happy to supply pubs in London with the genuine article. Towards the end of my stay in Manchester, the company relented, and slowly began re-introducing cask beer to selected pubs in the area. They even brought 4X Mild back in cask form, for a few years, at least.

When I moved back to Kent in 1980, Samuel Smith’s beers were a common sight in free-houses to the west of the county; but not long after they became confined to an area within the M25 motorway. Forty years later, OBB is rarely seen in Kentish pubs. I actually came across it more often in Norfolk during visits to the village where my parents retired to. With their large tied London estate, Sam's now only seem to supply their own pubs; possibly because of the extra work involved in looking after a beer which is solely supplied in wooden casks. There is also the problem of getting the expensive empty casks back as well.

I still really enjoy Old Brewery Biter and, when in London, I often make a point of calling in at the Chandos, close to Charing Cross station, for a final pint before catching the train home.

A couple of points to finish up on; first, I had commercial dealings with Samuel Smiths, just over a decade ago, when my wife and I had our off-licence in Tonbridge. We stocked the complete range of Sam’s bottles, and were very pleased with the service and help we received from the company. Although they would only supply mixed cases by the pallet load, this wasn’t a problem as the beers used to literally fly off the shelves.

Second, and a real bonus at the time, is the fact the company refuses to supply supermarkets and multiple-outlet off-licences. This was a major plus point for a small business, such as us, as it meant people had to come to buy their beers from our shop, rather than heading off to Sainsbury’s. Samuel Smith’s prices were also pretty keen as well.


Curmudgeon said...

Sam's did supply supermarkets in the 1980s but you're right that they haven't done so for many years now. The Bottle Stop off-licence in Bramhall near me stocks a good range of their bottled beers.

Also see this recent post on my blog: The Sam's factor. Every Sam's pub is a proper pub. Few other brewers and pub operators, and certainly none with an estate of similar size, can say that.

Paul Bailey said...

The lad and I were up in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago. Roy’s of Wroxham, who now have outlets in several other parts of the county, are stocking Sam Smith’s bottles, so of course, I picked up a few.

Unfortunately there aren’t any shops in this part of the country selling Sam’s beers, and no free-houses stocking the company’s beers either. London isn’t too far away though, and like I mentioned in the post, I normally try and grab a pint before catching my train home.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this piece, and your generally positive dealings with Sam's. They get a relatively negative press from the beer blogging community, despite (because) of their cheap prices and attractive working-mans pubs. Their beer isn't always fantastic, but recent pints have been superb.

Paul Bailey said...

As I said in the post Martin, I’ve always enjoyed Sam Smith’s beers, and I also like their pubs. They are often criticised by CAMRA for only producing one cask ale, but surely it’s better to do one really well, than to struggle with several mediocre ones.