He was killed in the month of October and it’s fitting that Nelion Ridley has chosen this month to launch three beers and announce the return of the family to brewing. The beer is on sale at the Compasses in Littley Green in Essex. And this is where the sad element of the story comes in, for the pub was once the brewery tap for the original Ridley’s brewery just a mile away at Hartford End.
The brewery was opened by Thomas Dixon Ridley, a farmer and maltster, in 1842. It built a good reputation for the quality of its ales and the 67 pubs in its estate. Then came the devastating blow in 2005 when another Nicholas Ridley, the chairman of the company, announced he was selling up for £45m.
Greene King bought Ridley’s, closed the brewery and added 67 pubs to its estate. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and Essex County Council attempted to get the brewery, with its magnificent copper vessels, listed as a building of historic and architectural interest. But Tessa Jowell, the government minister responsible, took three months to decide to reject the request, by which time Greene King had gutted the interior.
To get to Littley Green I drove past the old brewery. The site is derelict, boarded up and surrounded by protective hoardings and barbed wire. A developer plans to build 36 luxury apartments and town houses there, a two-fingered, 21st-century salute to England’s proud brewing heritage.
I needed a beer when I got to the Compasses and Nelion Ridley was happy to oblige. His new company is called Bishop Nick as Greene King owns the rights to the Ridley name and brands. The three new beers are Ridley’s Rite (3.6% ABV), Heresy (4% ABV) and 1555 (4.3% ABV), all with a deep bow in the direction of Bishop Ridley.
They are currently brewed at the Felstar Brewery at Felsted in Essex, but Nelion Ridley plans to build his own plant and hopes to add more outlets. Greene King is selling off some of the former Ridley’s pubs and he would dearly love to take them back into family ownership. The Compasses, the local CAMRA Pub of the Year for 2011, was bought back from Greene King by Nelion’s brother Joss, who is building bed and breakfast accommodation alongside.
When Ridley’s Brewery went on the funeral pyre, Nelion Ridley worked for Greene King for nine months, but admits he found it hard to adjust. He trained as a teacher, but when Joss Ridley bought the Compasses Nelion “got the brewing bug again”. He went on an intensive course at the Brewers’ Laboratory (Brewlab) in Sunderland to learn the brewing skills, but, back home in Essex, he couldn’t get planning permission to open a brewery and sought sanctuary at Felstar.
“But I will definitely have my own brewery — Felstar is the launch pad,” he says. “Felstar is limited — it’s a four to five-barrel plant. Within 18 months to two years, I will have my own 24-barrel plant — but I don’t want it to be on an industrial estate!”
The beers are excellent, full-tasting and, above all, professional commercial brews. Nelion Ridley says his experience of working with the old family brewery taught him what drinkers in the Chelmsford area want.
Ridley’s Rite (named in honour of the bishop, Greene King please note) is a fine example of an English bitter based on pale and crystal malts and hopped with those good old English varieties, Fuggles and Goldings. It has a fruity aroma and palate of bitter oranges, spicy hops and nutty malt, and a long, clean finish packed with hop resins, tangy fruit and juicy malt.
Heresy is a golden ale brewed with just pale ale malt and hopped with Challenger and Goldings. It has a pale bronze colour and a big spicy hop aroma, balanced by sappy malt and a delicious fruitiness reminiscent of tangerine jelly. Peppery hops dominate the palate and finish, balanced by citrus fruit and juicy malt.
The 1555 is Bishop Nick’s premium bitter, brewed with pale and crystal malts and hopped with Styrian Goldings. It has a pale copper colour and a big nutty and malty aroma with peppery hops and a hint of roast chestnuts from the crystal grain. There’s rich, slightly toasted malt in the mouth, balanced by bitter hops and dark fruit, while the bittersweet finish offers toasted malt, dark fruit, bitter hops and a hint of roast chestnuts.
They are fine beers served straight from the cask in the beer store of the Compasses. The Ridleys are back, with history on their side.
As Bishop Ridley was tied to the stake in Oxford in 1555, his fellow martyr Hugh Latimer said: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
That’s quite a legacy to live up to.