Death of a brewery

Words: Trevor Gulliver   Illustration by Sam Bristow-Bell

Death of a brewery

London bitter

This is a London tale, of horses, of ale, of craft and expertise, history and of Mammon, but firstly we should talk about London bitter.

It is hard for people to imagine Victorian London, a city of millions, the world’s greatest port, the centre of the world’s greatest empire, of the world’s greatest industrialised nation, of the financial powerhouse that was the City and more, and yet more. Nothing quite like it was ever to exist again. Some estimate up to 50,000 horses at any one time would be working in the streets, and in the winter, plentiful coal brought in by sea and by barge heated the city, the rich and the poor, and powered the steam that powered industry.

A beer once upon a time reflected its place; in London it was not the creamy head favoured by brewers up North in Masham, or the hopless beers of Glasgow: a London stout was nothing like Guinness. In London we liked real bitter, so bitter that when dabbed on a child’s lips the resultant face could be likened to “a bulldog chewing a wasp". Dried horseshit dust in the summer and coal particulate and fog in the winter meant our beer had a job to do — the first was to get through the atmosphere that pervaded the working man’s body. This was the heritage of Young’s, the last of the London family brewers.

Now don’t confuse Fullers as a London brewer; theirs were always beers made out west in the market gardens that supplied produce to the city, some would say richer in texture and more country in flavour… as you wish. Young’s beers were London beers, drunk in Billingsgate and Leadenhall and along the river to the west. There was Ordinary and there was Special and old John Young, last of the true “beerage” bosses and a gentleman, would never allow their bitter to be called “ordinary”, even though we always ordered a pint of Ordinary at the bar. I remember a certain Steve Goodyear, who, on joining from one of the then fast coalescing big brewery groups, complained to me (after we’d opened the Fire Station at Waterloo) that he “could never get the old man to call it Ordinary”. For Steve, this was marketing gold going to waste.

Fast forward to today and to those for whom the Brexit vote was a display of anger, frustration or worse, and who are now looking elsewhere to vent. High street food retail chains and their oft TV/food media personality “bosses" are a target in this latest zeitgeist of frustration it appears — it seems Brexit just hasn’t delivered. After all, it’s they that are making us fat, selling factory delivered ready-made food, paying minimum wages, delivering us food and cans of cheap beer through zero hours contracts, to our settees, innit.

Young’s withstood the corporate raids of some of the best in the business; the perhaps infamous New Zealander Ron Brierley’s (who had more than one go to break the Young’s) A and B share defences comes to mind. In the end, the end came from within, and just as John Young’s life was being celebrated at a memorial service in Southward Cathedral, monies changed hands and the end hove into sight. Charles Wells tried to brew the bitter in Bedford but it became a brew in name only, a badge beer. Young’s headed off to the world of the listed managed pub estate and hotel group.

Many moons ago, one of our young sons (who perhaps had heard Young’s being discussed at home) told me the brewery was closing. When I asked how he knew, his answer was simple: "The horses are gone Daddy”. With a child’s eyes, he had noticed what I had not.

The brewery stables were always open to the public on Saturdays, with the big shires, the drays and yes, the magnificent Young’s Ram on view too. The drays were a regular sight in our part of town, averaging 11 miles per hour, as was annually recorded by one of the London newspapers — efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly, and I’d suggest, psychologically friendly too.

The Young’s Brewery site is today part of that endless ribbon of residential money box developments that reach downstream to the far stretches of the Docklands. Capital sums were made by shareholders and other vested interests, who no doubt found a most satisfactory personal use for the money they “earned".

Today my mission is to recreate the London bitter once again; not a fashionable ale with some loose connection to a district or another marketing hook, and not a brewery that I can sell to Coors or Inbev, if it all works out. Just a decent London bitter, fit for purpose.

Where the River Wandle flowed into the Thames, there was once a brewery that began building a great local reputation when they opened in 1831. Their brews came alive from the very fabric of the brewery, they had craft and expertise. Employing hundreds of folks, they were sustainable and local, and everyone loved the dray horses and the very idea of the brewery in their midst… just such a waste. By the way, there are plenty of flats for sale if you are interested and opportunities for retail food chain operators. Deliveroo and all other local services available.