Sunday, 1 March 2015

Beer In Essex: An Introduction To Beer In Essex

Beer In Essex
An Introduction To Beer In Essex 

The beer landscape of Essex is a complex one. Pulled in different directions, fiercely proud but sometimes easily led, the history of brewing and drinking in the county is long and often turbulent. Cheek by jowl with London to the South West, at its Northern edge it looks expectantly towards Cambridge to the West and Ipswich to the East, whilst the Eastern coastline has been viewed hungrily by invaders and traders from the Low Countries.

The county town, Chelmsford, granted city status as recently as 2012 and still its only city was once home to more than seven breweries with the largest, Gray and Sons (Chelmsford) Ltd still owning 50 public houses and involved in beer distribution although sadly no longer brewing. Colchester to the East, known by the Romans as Camulodunum, has a claim to being Britain's oldest town as the first known reference to any settlement in the country appears in Pliny the Elder's (someone who has a much sought after beer named after him) Historia Naturalis in 77 AD. The Roman civilisation's love for wine is well known, however there is much evidence that they also brewed beer, and even though there is a possibility that they brewed beer in Essex this is pure speculation.

Essex is a predominantly rural county, with much of the land given over to agriculture, with wheat, barley and turnips being the major crops, and much of the wealth of local parishes was derived from wool trade and weaving. There are records of hop growing in the county as far back as the mid-sixteenth century, and this rose steadily with hops being cultivated in isolated areas although this was not unique to Essex as by 1700 there were twenty-five counties in England and Wales growing them for brewing.

With the coming of the industrial revolution Essex was well placed to provide for the growing population in the capital and the outlying areas, and whilst industry itself did come to the county this was mainly limited to the South, particularly along the Thames. This increased populace also required beer and lots of it, facilitating the establishment of bigger breweries more able to service this need rather than the local brewpubs, or more accurately inns with an attached brewery, and as a consequence the acreage given over to hops expanded too. In fact, there were just under 650 acres of hops being cultivated in the county by the late-eighteenth century, although this was pinnacle of growth as by 1834 there were only 207 acres turned over to them as Kent to the South, with a climate more suitable to production, became established as the main provider for the large breweries in London.

The original boundary of the county was much larger than it is today, with its South Western corner reaching along the Thames right up to the City of London and the county of Middlesex, an area now referred to as East London, including other areas incorporated into Greater London with it's establishment in 1965. This swallowed up the towns of Barking, Dagenham, Ilford, Chingford, Woodford and Romford, and it is the latter of these in which was the largest brewery the county has known was founded, one which would leave a legacy of beer that continues into the present day.

In 1708, the Star Inn and brewery was established in South Street, Romford close to the River Rom by Mr George Cardon. It wasn't until 1799 however, when this moderately successful establishment was purchased by a Mr Edward Ind with a Mr Grosvenor, that it's would really become a place of some significance in the history of brewing, not just that of Essex but the whole country too. Seventeen years into their partnership Mr John Smith took Mr Grosvenor's place, but soon after he left to form his own brewery in west London with a Mr Fuller, taking with him the Star's Head Brewer, a certain Mr Turner.

 The Eastern Counties Railway built its station close to the brewery in 1839, and this was to prove significant in the growth of the Romford brewery, and certainly influenced the decision of Mr C. E. Coope to join the firm in 1845 with its name changing to Inde, Coope and Company, shortly afterwards. The access to the railway network enabled the brewery to expand quickly and the beer was soon distributed throughout throughout the county, with a wagon hoist being built from the brewery's own railway sidings in 1853, although this was soon replaced by an incline, finally culminating in the purchase of a steam locomotive in 1872.

So successful was the brewery that Ind Coope Limited, as it was by this time, had already bought a half built brewery (in 1856) in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, adjacent to that of Messrs. Allsopp and Sons Limited, just as it became the centre of brewing in England and arguably the world, due to the properties of the local water.

The late nineteenth century saw the company at the height of it's powers, but by 1910 it had got into financial difficulties, before merging with its close rivals, Samuel Allsop and Sons Ltd, in 1934. The Romford site still continued in production although its emphasis had shifted and a new bottling plant was built on the old cask storage area in 1961, the year it became part of Allied Breweries. The final change of name was in 1980 when a new company was formed, and the Romford Brewery Company was slowly wound down, switching to keg-only production, which included such brands as Skol, Lowenbrau and John Bull Bitter, before it was finally closed in 1992. The site is now part of The Brewery shopping centre, with only the old tasting room and one of the coppers, (as well as the name) left to ever show it was there.

At one point nearly every major town, and even some of the smaller ones, had their own brewery, or indeed a place of brewing of some size or another up until as least the early twentieth century, although it was the bigger breweries that managed to survive the longest before they were bought by larger concerns and closed, or closed of their own accord with the national breweries struggle for dominance in the middle of the twentieth century. Signs of these breweries can still be found if you know where to look, for example The Brewery Tap pub where I live in Brentwood was once the actual brewery tap of Fielder's Brewery before it closed in 1923.

 The other brewery of significance in the history of beer is Essex is that of T.D. Ridley and Sons, which established in 1842 in Hartford End, 8 miles North of Chelmsford, by the descendants of Nicholas Ridley, an outspoken Protestant Bishop and one of the Oxford Martyrs who were burnt at the stake as part of the persecution of Anglicans under Mary I. The brewery had a considerable presence in the county, they were known as 'The Essex Brewer', with beers such as Bishops Ale, Old Bob and latterly, Rumpus, being regular fixtures in pubs throughout Essex and further afield. Originally started of the site of an old watermill, by the 1970s it had an estate of around 65 tied houses, and this inevitably caught the eye of larger breweries, most notably that of Greene King across the county border in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk as they sought to establish a strong foothold up and down the country. In August 2005, it bought the brewery and the site with the full co-operation of the Chairman, another Nicholas Ridley, who gained the position of Executive Chairman of Greene King, and despite initial assurances that it would continue to brew, production soon ceased and the brewery was dismantled. This isn't quite the end of the story however as in 2011, Nelion Ridley, the son of the last Chairman, set up his own brewery, Bishop Nick, just outside nearby Braintree (the Ridley name is still owned by Greene King) and so the legacy continues.

The oldest brewery that is still brewing in the county was, it may surprise you to know, was founded as recently as 1981. Crouch Vale Brewery was set up by two beer enthusiasts, Colin Bocking and Rob Walster, in South Woodham Ferrers, and takes its name from the nearby River Crouch. With a capacity of around 5000 barrels per annum, they rose to national prominence when Brewers Gold, their flagship ale accounting for just over half of their production, won the title of CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain in both 2005 and 2006. They have four regular beers alongside this; Blackwater Mild, Essex Boys Bitter, Yakima Gold and Amarillo, as well as the occasional short runs and seasonals, many of which are hopped with single varieties. Their beers are widely available in Essex and the outlying counties and their bottles are carried in some major supermarkets.

Another winner of CAMRA's Champion Beer Of Britain can also be found in Essex. When Mighty Oak won the accolade in 2011 with Oscar Wilde Mild it was the first time that a Mild Ale had won the competition, and put a strain of the the small brewery, originally formed on an industrial estate in Brentwood before moving to Maldon, with demand far exceeding supply. It is still a popular beer and is a regular guest in many of the county's pubs, and often sells out quickly at local beer festivals.

There are currently 29 breweries in Essex. They are: Billericay Brewing, Bishop Nick, Brentwood, Brightlingsea, Colchester, Crouch Vale, Deverell's, Dominion/Pitfield, Famous Railway Tavern, Felstar, Georges/Hop Monster, Hart Of Stebbing, Harwich Town, Highwood (Can Do Beers), Hope, Indian Summer, Maldon (Farmers), Mersea Island, Mighty Oak, Mr Majolica's, Nethergate, Red Fox, Round Tower, Saffron, Shalford, Sticklegs, Vens, Wibblers, and Witham. All of which are dedicated to the production of cask, or real ale if you prefer, and the counties pubs are very much dominated by this method of dispense, although there are signs that things are beginning to change.

Wibblers Brewery for example have a craft keg lager, Odyssey, brewed with East Anglian malt and Czech hops, and properly lagered for 4 to 6 weeks (and bottled as Essex Blonde), and have recently developed Dengie IPA exclusively to be sold as a keg beer, and these have been picked up by a few outlets locally to much acclaim. They have also bottled two stronger beers, Wobbly Croc a barley wine, and Wobbly Mouse, both at 12% abv and in very limited supply, as well a Dengie Sour, a beer brewed in the Lambic style.

This trend of discovery and experimentation, influenced in part by what is happening in London currently, is starting to spread to some other breweries in Essex, and having taken the time to talk to a couple of the brewers in the county about what they are planning for 2015 and beyond I have quite a degree of optimism and excitement about what will be available in the not too distant future.

All change, however small, is resisted however. The regions CAMRA magazines (of which there are three) are full of splutter and outrage when mentioning the likes of BrewDog, with Tap room describing Meantime's recent Thames Hop IPA brewed with hops grown on the banks of the Thames as 'a fizzy bottled beer'. Andy Skene of the Dominion/Pitfield Brewery has noted that whilst he can sell his unfined beer in London, there is a huge resistance to it from Essex pubs, and in a recent conversation with Trevor Jeffrey from Billericay Brewing he admitted his frustration at pubs not wanting dark beers and only asking for his lighter brews, despite his darker ones selling out quickly at beer festivals. In fact it was the dis-enchantment comments and attitudes such as these, as well as the standard of local beer that was available to me that prompted me to write and publish An Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries back in January of this year, although I now realise this is as much, if not mainly down to the pubs in the county rather than the brewers themselves.

This isn't to say that all pubs in the county are the same, and although it might be a little self-aggrandising, this was the main reason that Ed Razzall and I started Beer East Anglia (which will be expanding soon), enabling us to highlight and celebrate those pubs that are daring to think differently.

Over the next year I plan to champion Essex beer, Essex breweries, Essex brewers, Essex pubs and maybe even Essex drinkers, talking to those involved and reviewing what is happening in the county right now. I am proud to say that I am from Essex, I was born in Barking and currently live in Brentwood, and this is despite the frivolous and ridiculous way the county is portrayed on television and in the national press, although I will admit that much of this is self inflicted. I hope that you will come with me on my journey, or at least look in from time to time, and hopefully you will get a better idea of what beer in Essex is really all about.

Sources, Bibliography and Further Reading:
The Romance Of Essex Inns: Glyn H Morgan, Essex Brewers: Ian P Peaty, A Pub Crawl Around Essex: Graham Dover, Titbits And Tales Of Essex Inns: Mavis Sipple, History Through Essex Public House Signs: Keith Lovell, Hidden Inns Of East Anglia (2002 and 2005), Alka-Seltzer Guide To The Pubs Of Essex, The CAMRA Regional Inventory For East Anglia, Real Ale in Essex (1977), Real Ale In Essex 79/80, 8th Essex Beer Guide, 9th Essex Beer Guide, CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2015, plus various Essex brewery websites.


  1. Ipswich to the "south" of Essex ? more like the other way around isnt it :)

    its also worth noting that Ridleys werent averse to the old merger acquire cease production approach either as thats how they acquired Tolly Cobbold and immediately closed Cliff Quay brewery, which is arguably what then made them a more obvious and larger target for an expanding Greene King.

    a sidenote there being the Cobbolds actually started brewing in Essex first, in Harwich, and opened one of their first ever pubs there too.

    1. That should have read 'East' as I was referring to the Northern edge of the county, but have now corrected that, thanks for pointing it out as I missed it.
      I was aware that Tolly Cobbold was started in Essex, I came across that while doing some research into the Harwich Town Brewery, but not that it was acquired by Ridleys, I had thought that it was Greene King, but I see that you are right on both counts, and that would indeed make it more attractive to a buyer.

  2. Definitely your best piece so far. I agree entirely with your judgement. Pubs are the key of the problem here. Apart from AleHouse I don't know any pub which actively promotes and goes out of its way to find unfined beers. I also don't know any pub which has as much diverse range-of-choice from dark beers to session goldens and that's definitely why it's the standout local for me.

    The most infuriating thing about drinking in Essex is the lack of good and reliable keg beer. Sure some bars have taken on keg with the latest being Thornbridge Jaipur and Beavertown's Gamma Ray but do they know how to keep it? As you witnessed first-hand you saw how untrained bar staff won't change beer which should be changed. This is a big problem here still. The scene has exploded recently and is improving but there is far too much cynicism and the local CAMRA publications don't help at all. There is a lot of jaded knowledge about beer styles and beer dispense. It's very frustrating to deal with as a consumer but we must do our utmost best to change those perceptions. I too am very proud to have Crouch Vale and Round Tower as stand-out local breweries which I chase again and again. I just wish we had more diverse options. It's insular but it's changing slowly.

    Chelmsford is a feeder town for London commuters so it has to have a good place for keg ale soon. I also know that Chelmsford would not exist without the Romans. Many small villages were originally from Roman camps set-up via their epic journey throughout England. The A12 is a classic example of a Roman transport network.

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