On the trail of old favourites

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I called the Scottish & Newcastle press office last week to find out where two beers - Webster's Yorkshire Bitter and John Smith's Magnet - are...

I called the Scottish & Newcastle press office last week to find out where two beers - Webster's Yorkshire Bitter and John Smith's Magnet - are currently brewed. The press people must have been incredulous.

The press was full of rumours of S&N being taken over by SABMiller or Heineken. The company main's interests are selling Kronenbourg in Europe and vast amounts of lager in Russia. And yet here was some oddball living in a time warp asking about two almost redundant ale brands.

However, I was phoned back within 24 hours and given the information I needed. In case you're interested, Webster's Yorkshire Bitter is brewed at the Burtonwood Brewery near Warrington, Cheshire, while Magnet comes from Cameron's in Hartlepool, Cleveland.

It's the time of year when the new edition of the Good Beer Guide is being prepared and I need to keep track of all cask-ale brands. Sightings of Webster's and Magnet are rare, but if a pub listed in the guide mentions the beers then I must say where they are brewed.

Webster's was once a massive national brand. It was advertised on television with the support of two legendary Yorkshire cricketers, Fred Trueman and Ray Illingworth. They were replaced - I kid you not - by talking dray horses with Yorkshire accents.

I visited the brewery in Halifax. It was outside the town and up on the moors in order to have swift access to the fine water stored there. It was a wonderfully traditional brewery with open fermenters, mash tuns and coppers.

I noticed a man was hitting the thick, foaming head of yeast on the fermenters with a large wooden paddle and asked why he was doing that. Without pausing, he replied: "Dunno - but we've always done it".

In some breweries, they rouse the yeast. At Webster's they seemed hell-bent on killing it. That was fitting, as the brewery was owned by Watney's and eventually was closed. Webster's Bitter became an S&N brand and, unloved and largely unwanted, has suffered the final indignity of being brewed on the Red Rose side of the Pennines.

John Smith's Magnet was a dray horse of a different colour. Unlike Webster's or Smith's Bitter, it never became a national brand.

I rarely drank it, but when I was in Yorkshire I always sought it out as I thought it was a brilliant drop, bursting with pungent hop and tart fruit character. This will be considered heresy in some quarters but I have never subscribed to the view that big brewers can't make good beer. They can - if they first shoot the accountants and marketing people.

I never cease to marvel at the strange behaviour of giant brewing groups. When S&N sold its Courage brands to Wells & Young's on the grounds the volumes were too small to bother with it was discovered they accounted for more than 100,000 barrels a year. They are the kind of volumes regional breweries can only dream of and they take the Bedford brewery to full capacity.

A decade or so ago, when Bass was operating, it got Shepherd Neame in Kent to brew Charrington's IPA for it. IPA was once the biggest-selling cask beer in the London region but Bass was more concerned with Carling and alcopops and hived the beer off to Sheps.

The Faversham brewery is a far cry from being a micro. It can produce 200,000 barrels a year of ale and lager. But Charrington IPA was easily the biggest-volume brand it had ever handled. But, in the manner of big breweries, Bass pulled the plug on the brand.

At least Webster's and Magnet still exist and I wouldn't wish to remove them from Burtonwood or Cameron's. On the contrary, their fortunes could revive if S&N put a bit of promotional money behind them, as Wells & Young's are doing with the Courage brands.

Coors, worried by the state of the lager market, has brought back Stone's Bitter, brewed for it by Everard's. There are probably some redundant dray horses with Yorkshire accents available for TV work if Coors is interested.

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