Thursday 27 November 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Seven - Brakspears of Henley-on-Thames

Written for Boak & Bailey's "Beery Long Reads" 29/11/14

Welcome to Henley
At the time of CAMRA’s founding during the early 1970’s, the firm of W.H. Brakspear & Sons plc, owned around 130 pubs in a fairly compact area of the Chilterns and Thames valley. Today, the Brakspear Pub Company is a non-brewing, pub-owning chain, which runs around 140 pubs, spread over a much wider area, so how did this change come about?

To answer that question, we must first travel back to the company’s founding in the late 18th Century, when Robert Brakspear, formed W.H.Brakspear and Sons Brewery in Henley, Oxfordshire in 1779. Robert was formerly the landlord of a coaching inn in Witney, before buying a brewery on the town’s Bell Street. In 1812 he transferred the business to the Thames-side location on New Street. In a quirk of fate, when the Henley Brewery was closed for re-development in 2002, a new site was found back at Wychwood Brewery in Witney for the re-establishment of the historic Brakspear brewing tradition

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
I had travelled down from Manchester by train, in the company of my then girlfriend and her friend Mary. Mary happened to be dating my friend Nick who we had arranged to meet up with at Waterloo Station. The plan was to travel to Godalming in Surrey, where Nick's mother, and her partner, owned a small, “weekend cottage”. This was situated in a tiny hamlet called Eashing, roughly halfway between Godalming and Milford. After the hustle and bustle of Manchester, the idea of a long and relaxing weekend in the peace and quiet of the country had a particular appeal to me, having grown up in a small village. 

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
To say that time had stood still at the Crooked Billet would be an understatement. There was no bar as such, merely a number of rooms leading off from either side of a central corridor. At the far end was a stable type door, the top half of which was open revealing a small, low-ceilinged room where the casks of beer were stillaged. The bottom half of the door was topped by a flat board, which had just sufficient space to stand the drinks on as they were served from the area behind.

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
It was during this time that I found myself reflecting on how good Brakspears beers were. I was on a pub crawl around some of London's finest pubs and at my last port of call, the charming and unspoilt Anglesea Arms in South Kensington that I spotted Brakspears Special, nestling amongst the bank of hand pumps. I ordered a pint and, despite having consumed a fair number of other beers that day, was not disappointed with my choice. The beer was a superb blend of malt and hops, with just the right balance between the two. It made a pleasant change as, at the time, it was normally Brakspears Ordinary that was seen on sale in the West Kent area.

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
So now the story has turned full-circle, and we are back where we started at the beginning of this post. The upshot is Brakspears beers are still brewed; albeit not on the original site, but not that far from it. Much of the original brewing kit was saved, including the famous “double-drop” fermentation vessels, and installed in its new home at the enlarged Wychwood Brewery in Witney. With the emergence of the enlarged Brakspears Pub Company, and the purchase of Refresh UK by national brewing group, Marstons, Brakspears beers are now available to a much larger audience and are sold across a much wider area. Most importantly, the beers still taste as good as they ever did, although it would be good to see Brakspears Special become a regular beer again, rather than just a seasonal.

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


Anonymous said...

The Brakspears brewery in Henley is now one of the Hotel du Van chain. They have done a beautiful job of retaining many of the industrial heritage features. Some of the 'rooms' are quite large and quirky and unusual.

Curmudgeon said...

When I lived in the South-East in the early 80s I used to really enjoy Brakspear's and at the time would have said their ordinary bitter was probably my favourite beer.

I had the privilege of visiting the Crooked Billet when it was still unspoilt - and the other one near Wokingham. At the time they had a lot of small unspoilt pubs in the villages and countryside around Henley - another one I have fond memories of is the now-closed White Hart at North End.

Ed said...

I was never keen on Brakspear's myself.

Paul Bailey said...

Anonymous, the Hotel du Vin chain do have some nice places, and seem to concentrate on preserving and bringing out the best in old historic buildings. I had a very nice meal last week at their Tunbridge Wells hotel; a Grade II-listed mansion over-looking the ornamental gardens of Calverley Park.

I would still have preferred the Henley site to have remained as a brewery though!

Mudge, I believe quite a fw of Brakspear's smaller and more basic rural pubs have been closed over the years. A shame, but probably inevitable, given the changes that have taken place in rural areas. I'm pleased that you managed to visit the Crooked Billet whilst in its "time-warp" state, and before it became a restaurant.

Ed, you don't know what you are missing!

Ed Beck said...

I lived in Reading in the 70s and regularly visited the Crooked Billet. Even all those years ago it was like going back in time. The Landlord was called Knobby, brought the beer to the table as there was no bar and kept geese which used to attach the customers when they got a chance. I left the area in the 80s but heard that it had become a restaurant

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