Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Nine - Adnams of Southwold

Adnams, who brew in the genteel Suffolk resort of Southwold, are known as the “seaside brewery”. Their Bitter, to my mind, is one of Britain’s finest “quaffing beers”, and on top of this, the company own some excellent and unspoilt pubs.

I first became familiar with the name of Adnams after reading “The Death of the English Pub”; the excellent, and pioneering exposé of Britain’s big brewers, written in the early 1970’s by Christopher Hutt. Adnams were praised by Hutt for retaining traditional cask beers, brewed to suit local palettes, and for their policy of keeping open many marginal rural pubs. This was in stark contrast to the activities of Watneys, who as well as phasing out traditional beer, had also closed scores of village locals throughout East Anglia.

The Brewery
Shortly afterwards I met up with an old school friend of mine, who was studying at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. My friend informed me that the bar in the Students’ Union at UEA sold Adnams, and it was on a subsequent visit to my friend’s university that I first sampled Adnams. I must confess that it didn’t strike me as anything special at the time, but I put this down partially to inexperience on my part and to possible poor cellarmanship on behalf of the students union. More to the point if the students’ union bar was using plastic “glasses”, as was the practice at Salford where I was studying, then even the best kept pint would have tasted pretty dire.

Several years later, I visited Southwold itself, in order to sample Adnams ales on their home territory. This was not my first visit to the town however. As a child, I had been taken there, on a day’s outing, along with my sister. We had both been spending part of the summer holidays with our grandparents, at their bungalow in Friston; a small Suffolk village not far from Saxmundham. Towards the end of our stay, our grandmother announced that she would be taking us to Southwold, by bus.

Where's the sand?
Apart from the journey seeming to take an absolute age, I remember little of our visit. What I do recall though is that there was precious little sand at Southwold, a fact that came as something of a disappointment to two children used to the sandy beaches along the Kent coast.

When I returned, nearly twenty years later, it was not sand but some of Southwold’s finest ales that I was after. En route to Southwold, I had stopped in the coastal town of Aldeburgh, famous for its connections with the composer Benjamin Britten. Here, in the unspoilt Cross Keys, my companion and I enjoyed an excellent seafood lunch, washed down with Adnams Bitter, before travelling on to Southwold itself.

The Sole Bay Inn and Southwold lighthouse (Ian Brereton) / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Sole Bay Inn, which acts as the brewery tap afforded the opportunity of sampling Adnams Old Ale for the first time, as well as being an excellent pub in its own right. Later, during that same visit to Suffolk, the classic and unspoilt Jolly Sailor in the tiny town of Orford was visited, which again afforded the opportunity of trying yet more Adnams, including their mild. Orford is a quaint little settlement on the River Alde. It is over-looked by an imposing medieval keep; all that remains from a once extensive castle. As a child, I had visited the castle with my parents, and my sister and I had also fished for crabs from the jetty, using hand-lines baited with bacon rind.

Subsequent visits to Southwold, this time in the company of my new wife, allowed more time for exploring this well-preserved Victorian town. On one occasion we enjoyed a superb lunch, plus some excellent Adnams, in the Lord Nelson, overlooking the seafront. Another visit showed just how much the Adnams Brewery had been expanded. Walking back from the seafront, along a side street, we were surprised to notice a gleaming row of fermentation vessels behind the window of what appeared to be an ordinary terraced house. A closer inspection revealed that the whole row of houses had been adapted for brewery purposes. As much of Southwold is a designated conservation area, where redevelopment and new building are subject to strict planning regulations, Adnams had simply bought up the houses, and converted them to the purpose described above; a neat solution to a tricky problem.

It’s been 20 years or more since I last visited Southwold, and since then there have been even more changes at Adnams. For example new fermenting vessels were installed in March 2001 to cope with increased demand, and the brew-house was completely re-equipped in July 2006, making it one of the most energy efficient in Europe. In addition the company opened a brand new, eco-friendly, distribution centre in the nearby village of Reydon, in order to expand its business

The beer range has also been substantially expanded, and now includes a keg beer called Spindrift, alongside a range of seasonal beers, plus a whole host of one-off commemorative and collaborative beers. Unfortunately, Adnams Extra, my favourite of the company’s beers, was inexplicably dropped several years ago. The decision to axe this beer was all the more puzzling in view of the fact that it was awarded the title of Champion Beer of Britain at CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival in 1993. From memory it was a lovely hoppy beer with a tremendous depth of flavour.

In 1999 Adnams introduced its famous "ribbons" logo and successfully relaunched Broadside in award-winning bespoke 500ml bottles, and in 2005 the company refreshed its brand with new-look pump clips and a stylish bespoke pint glass. In 2013 a new range of beers was introduced under the Jack Brand label, including Adnams first ever lager – Dry Hopped. The company have also produced a range of exclusive beers for Marks & Spencer, including both a Summer and a Winter IPA. Both are excellent, but after many samplings I still can’t decide which of the two I prefer.

What I find most fascinating is the company’s decision in 2010, to open their own distillery, which sits in the room where the old brewing coppers once stood. Initially set up to produce gin and vodka, two additional still were added in 2015 to allow whisky to be distilled. This surely is a first for any UK brewery.

Adnams have only around 50 pubs, but their beers are quite widely distributed. A number of free-houses in this part of the country stock the company’s beers, and Broadside seems to be a permanent fixture on the bar of our local Wetherspoon’s. Adnams Ghost Ship also seems a pretty regular guest ale in the same outlet as well.

So there we have it; Adnams have become one of the country’s most innovative and forward-thinking brewers, whilst at the same time maintaining a fine range of traditional ales and traditional pubs, in which to drink them. They have achieved this by invest heavily both in their future  and the people who work for the company, so long may they continue to brew their fine Suffolk Ales!

For a much more detailed look at the company, its history, its philosophy, its beers, its pubs and now its spirits, log on to Adnams excellent and highly informative website.


David Harrison said...

I was at UEA at the time,Paul,and though we quaffed the(Top Pressure) Adnam's bitter with abandon, it wasn't a patch on the real stuff as tried in Southwold on very rare occasions.Still a classic beer,though with competition from the likes of Ghost Ship.

Curmudgeon said...

I read somewhere that the bottled Adnams Southwold Bitter, which is a bit stronger than the cask, actually uses the recipe of Adnams Extra. As you say, it's puzzling why this was dropped, as it would surely be a good competitor for beers like Bombardier and London Pride.

The standard bitter and Ghost Ship are both very good, though I find Broadside a bit too heavy.

Paul Bailey said...

David, top-pressure dispense would certainly explain why I wasn’t over-impressed with the Adnams at UEA. I probably didn’t pay much heed at the time, as top-pressure was fairly common where I came from in Kent, but all the same, it was good to see a student bar supporting a local brewery. Back at Salford, where I was studying, it was a diet of keg Tetley’s and Scottish & Newcastle; although towards the end of my time there, the student bar did switch to Thwaites.

Mudge, I remember reading the story about bottled Southwold being based on Adnams Extra. Why the brewery dropped it, remains a mystery, especially as it was a much better beer than the heavily promoted Broadside.

Neville Grundy said...

Southwold Bitter, Broadside and Ghost Ship all from time to time appear in my local here in Southport. Of the three, I think I prefer Ghost Ship.

Ian Worden said...

I was also at UEA in the mid 70s and the reason for using top pressure was that the 'cellar' was some distance from the bar, so as to be on a delivery road which was located on the other side of a row of banks and shops. I think other beers on sale were from S & N, but Adnams was most popular because it was the cheapest.

It wasn't actually a Student's Union bar at UEA - the building and facilities were in fact run by the university itself, although the Union was the main user and had it's offices there. The bar was open to the public, although few ever ventured there. The busiest weekend at the bar was in August, when the university hosted a convention of Catholic priests. The staff had a lot of stories about what happened when the priests tried to find their way back to their rooms, or fell out of the window when trying to open it...

Adnams was quite rare in Norwich at the time, but the bar at the Maid's Head hotel did a good pint served on gravity. Despite the opulent surroundings, I seem to remember that the price was little more than a 'normal' pub in the centre.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for the explanation about the Adnams at UEA, Ian. Those lengthy beer lines must have been a nightmare to keep clean, and the amount of beer sat in them probably explains my poor quality pint!

You mention that Adnams was quite rare in Norwich at the time. My experience was that any real ale was rare; given Watney’s domination of the city. On that same visit to UEA, my friend and I called in for a few pints at the Wild Man, which was listed in the 1974 GBG as the only Tolly pub in Norwich selling beer by approved methods.

ps. Glad I didn’t encounter the drunken priests!

Unknown said...

Absolutely love reading your blog entries. I am based in Sittingbourne and have just taken over the production of Swale Ale, Swale CAMRA's branch magazine.

I would be really keen to run a few of your posts in the next few issues. Of particular interest are the Family Brewers of Britain series and also one I spotted but can't appear to find again which took a look at the Good Beer Guide through the years.

Is this something you would consider allowing us to do with suitable crediting?

Matt Deller (swaleale@gmail.com)

James Thompson said...

Paul, I've just returned from a few days in Suffolk and enjoyed Southwold bitter both from the keg and bottle. Keg strength is 3.7% vs 4.1% in bottle so it may be true that the Extra lives on in bottle form. I can also vouch for Adnams gin for those partial to a G&T......the stronger First Rate really is excellent. I was able to try it back to back with the cheaper lower alcohol Copper House gin in their Southwold shop and it's definitely worth the extra couple of quid. Looking forward to reading a bit more of the blog