Jennings beers return home

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Jennings brewery, Brewing

Protz: welcoming back Jennings Brewery
Protz: welcoming back Jennings Brewery
Jennings brewery is back in action after the Cockermouth floods, says Roger Protz. When you consider that Jennings Brewery has been out of action...

Jennings brewery is back in action after the Cockermouth floods, says Roger Protz.

When you consider that Jennings Brewery has been out of action for 10 weeks, it could be considered an act of foolhardiness in the extreme to get me to start the first brew. I'm a renowned fumble-fingers who can black out an entire city when I change a light bulb and this column could have been headlined "Jennings — my part in its downfall".

But in truth I was surrounded and marshalled by head brewer Jeremy Pettman, assistant head brewer Rebecca Adams and brewer Eldred Burns, so that even my best efforts couldn't ruin the day. All I had to do was turn a wheel above the mash tun and malted barley, and hot water came gushing into the vessel. A brew destined to become Jennings Bitter was underway.

And that's nothing short of a miracle. At the end of November, the brewery, along with the rest of the small Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, was devastated by floods that ruined homes and shops and swept away bridges. The brewery was especially badly hit because it stands on low-lying ground at the meeting point of two rivers, the Cocker and the Derwent.

Brewery manager Gaynor Green points to a line on a ground-floor wall that marks the height of the water that came smashing into the brewery on 19 November. The mark is six feet one inch high. It's a horrifying thought that the water would have been just one inch from the top of my head.

Green recalls — and will never forget — arriving at the brewery to find the ground floor, including the visitor shop, knee deep in water. By the time she had evacuated the entire staff a few hours later, the water was waist high and vehicles in the car park alongside the rivers were bobbing around like corks.

Along with the shop, the cooperage, the yeast store and the power system were destroyed. Fortunately, the mash tun and coppers are one floor up and were saved, but 50 tonnes of malt turned to concrete. Casks of beer had floated out of the brewery and ended up in Workington, which must have brought some much-needed relief to the town.

Closure

Without power, malt and yeast, the brewery was at a standstill. Once the waters had receded, Green called the entire workforce together and told them there was no question of Jennings, founded in 1828, closing for good.

She added that she had received a phone call from Stephen Oliver, boss of Marston's Brewing Company, which owns Jennings, assuring her the brewery would re-open and asking her just one vital question: "Do you want to brew beer off-site or wait until the brewery opens again?"

Gaynor says she was nervous about brewing Jenning's beers elsewhere, but if the closure lasted for a month or more she needed supplies for the tied and free trade in Cumbria as well as for bottling.

Richard Westwood, Marston's director of brewing, arrived two days after the flood, surveyed the damage and told Green he could arrange to have the Jenning's beers — Bitter, Cumberland Ale, Cocker Hoop and Sneck Lifter — produced by Banks's in Wolverhampton and Marston's in Burton-on-Trent.

There was no attempt to pass the beers off as genuine Jennings brews. Attachments to pump clips — known as "wobblers" — explained why the beers were being brewed elsewhere and that 10p from every pint sold would go to the flood relief fund. That has so far raised £178,000 and is the biggest single contribution to the fund.

"We've had no negative reaction to the beers," Gaynor Green says. "Customers said they didn't taste the same as when they were brewed in Cockermouth — and that was music to my ears, proving that cask beers have a unique taste due to their location."

Sneck Lifter, a dark Porter-style beer, was brewed at Marston's and had the famous Burton whiff of sulphur on the aroma from the local water, never encountered in the Cockermouth version of the beer.

Green has nothing but praise for her workforce. "They came in their wellies and old clothes and cleaned the brewery up," she says. "BT fixed the phone lines within a week so the telesales girls could start moving beer again." There was sufficient stock in the system to enable Jennings to supply its customers until new beer was ready.

The mash tun and coppers were not damaged and the fermenters had been cleaned of ruined beer, but production could not start again until the buildings were dry and passed as safe.

Environmental Health insisted that brewing water from the on-site bore hole had to be cleaned out three times before they would allow it be used again. The power panels have now been moved from the ground floor to the first and should be safe even if the Cocker and the Derwent misbehave again in the future.

Back in business

And beer can't be made without yeast. A batch of every British brewery's yeast culture is stored at the National Yeast Bank in Norwich. A sample was taken to Marston's laboratory in Burton and a sufficiently large batch was made to start the first few brews at Cockermouth.

Jennings is a sizeable brewery, able to produce 50,000 barrels a year. It supplies 50 of its own pubs in Cumbria as well as other pubs in the Marston's chain in the north-east, Lancashire and Yorkshire, plus a large free trade and a growing bottling business.

Not every pub in Cumbria has re-opened since the floods. In Cocker-mouth alone, Trout Hall, Manor House, Bush, Hunters, Brown Cow, Black Bull and the Conservative Club are still shut.

But by the time you read this, the first new batch of Jennings Bitter will be ready to drink, with Cumberland Ale hard on its heels. Life and beer are returning to Cockermouth.

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