The rise and fall of the Stag

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Beer Keg Brewing

Protz: sorry to see Stag brewery close
Protz: sorry to see Stag brewery close
The demise of the Stag Brewery has evoked mixed feelings among the cask fraternity, says Roger Protz.

The news that InBev, the world's biggest brewer, plans to close the Stag Brewery in Mortlake, London, has not led to the usual outbreak of weeping and wailing from the ranks of beer lovers.

One email to me from a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) spoke for many: "It only made keg beer, so we won't mourn it."

But the loss of a brewery is a sad occasion and the Stag, despite its infamy in the late 20th century, is yet another loss. Those rushing to point the finger of derision at the plant should bear in mind that around 200 workers stand to lose their jobs in an industry that is not exactly bursting with new opportunities.

As the local MP Susan Kramer said last week, the Mortlake plant is part of our industrial heritage and deserves to be preserved. It dates from 1487, when it was attached to a monastery. It became a substantial commercial brewery in 1765 and was rebuilt 100 years later by John Phillips and James Wigan. They created the sprawling, 100-acre site that stands today and was acquired by the large London brewer Watney in the 1890s.

It's the Watney's link that is the cause of derision. It was the first to make keg beer in the 1930s with Red Barrel. In the 1960s it re-branded the beer as Red and launched it with a frenzy of advertisements aimed — ludicrously — at radical young people marching against the Vietnam war.

Look-a-like figures of Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro were used in an attempt to give the beer what was called at the time "radical chic". Radical cheek would have been more appropriate. Young militants shunned the sweet, gassy beer and it was soon abandoned. Watney's pubs, all painted a glaring red, were quietly redecorated in green.

Peter Mauldon was at the heart of Watney's brewing empire. He was head brewer at Mann's in Whitechapel, in London's East End, and when Watney's bought and closed the plant he moved to Mortlake. Mauldon, who went on to found the highly successful Mauldon's craft brewery in Suffolk, has a fund of stories about the bizarre goings-on at the Stag site.

In the mid-1970s a director of the company walked into his office and said: "Mauldon, I see cask beer is making a comeback as a result of these Camra people. We need to brew some. See to it, will you?"

Nobody would dare speak to a head brewer in such terms these days. He took a deep breath and ran after the director. "There's only one problem with brewing cask beer, sir — we don't have any casks," he said. While the other big brewers of the day — Allied, Bass and Whitbread — still made large amounts of cask beer, Watney had gone hell-for-leather down the keg route and phased out all cask production.

The result was a beer with the awful name of Fined Bitter — the joke in Camra circles was that the name reflected the fact it was hard to find — served from converted kegs. A curious device was welded to the keg so that a spile or venting peg could be inserted to allow the beer to breathe. It didn't deserve to breathe because it was a truly dreadful concoction, though another beer from the Watney's subsidiary Truman produced a rather good beer called Tap Bitter, also served from converted kegs.

Neither lasted long — Watney's became part of Grand Metropolitan leisure group and lager became the buzz word in the brewing division.

The Mortlake plant reached an agreement to brew the leading German beer Holsten under licence. Mauldon said he was impressed with the German brewers who came to see him and told him in meticulous detail how the beer should be brewed and stored in the correct tradition.

It was rather different when Watney's took on the Australian lager, Foster's. He recalls a large body of Australians taking him for a long, boozy lunch. They dropped him off back at the brewery in Mortlake and bid him a cheery "G'day, mate".

"Hang on," Mauldon called out. "Aren't you going to tell me how to brew Foster's?"

The Aussies looked bemused. "Brew it? Just make it up as you go along, mate — that's what we do."

Not surprisingly, Watney's eventually gave up the will to live and sold all its plants to Courage. It became part of Scottish & Newcastle, which leased the Mortlake plant to Anheuser-Busch (A-B) when the American giant planned to brew Budweiser in Britain. A-B makes much of the fact that its beer is "matured over beechwood chips". This didn't impress one Mortlake worker, who asked: "Why are we putting bleeding planks of wood in the beer?"

Good question. The next is: will Susan Kramer MP succeed in her bid to keep the plant open? Sadly, I doubt it. The merger of A-B and InBev has created a giant with too much capacity at a time when global lager brands are in serious decline.

The Stag is at bay and, Watney's aside, I'm sorry to see it go.

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