Revolution brews in Cumbria

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Good beer guide Brewing Beer Furness

Bottling it: entrepreneur Alex Brodie has won awards and plaudits for his beers at Hawkshead Brewery
Bottling it: entrepreneur Alex Brodie has won awards and plaudits for his beers at Hawkshead Brewery
If you want to see at first hand the British brewing revolution going full bore, you should spend a few days in Cumbria. I was the guest speaker in November at the Cumbrian branches of the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) annual dinner, held in a large hotel in Kendal.

There were close to 200 people at the convivial gathering, among them representatives of the 29 breweries active in the region.

Compare that figure to the breweries listed in the first edition of the Good Beer Guide in 1974. There were just four: Hartleys, Jennings, Lion and Workington. A short time later, Theakston, from Yorkshire, briefly took over part of the former Carlisle State Brewery.

With the exception of Jennings, they have all disappeared, mainly resulting from takeovers and closures. Jennings is now part of
the Marston’s group while Theakston retreated back to Masham across the Pennines.

The loss of Hartleys is especially poignant. In the late 1970s, on an early foray into the Lake District, I had my first taste of Hartleys XB in a pub in Coniston.

If memory serves me well, I recall a darkish bitter with a strong malty character, quite different to the paler and hoppier bitter brewed by Jennings. The two beers strengthened my belief that British beer offers an amazing diversity of styles and flavours.

Much to the dismay of beer lovers in the north-west, Hartleys was bought by Robinsons of Stockport and the Ulverston brewery closed in 1991.

The morning after last month’s Cumbrian dinner, I went with Dave Stubbins of the Furness branch of CAMRA to Ulverston and was astonished to find that the brewery still stands, the old family name picked out on the brewery tower. But today it’s just a depot for Robinsons’ beers, trunked up from Stockport.

It won’t be there for much longer. Robinsons plans to move to a new depot and Hartleys will be replaced by a supermarket that will sell cut-price beer and endanger even more pubs in the area.

Brewing, I’m happy to report, is alive, well and funny in Ulverston. Funny? Ulverston is the birthplace of Stan Laurel and there’s a statue of Laurel and Hardy in the town centre.

The Ulverston Brewing Company has a strong Laurel and Hardy theme. The beers have such evocative names as Lonesome Pine, Laughing Gravy, Another Fine Mess and Flying Elephants, while two brewing vessels are labelled Stan and Ollie.
The brewery, run by Anita Garnett and Paul Swann, is in a spacious, cool and whitewashed former livestock market. Anita and Paul have a custom-built, 12-barrel brewhouse that produces six regular beers and several seasonal ales.

There’s a well-appointed area called the Laughing Gravy Bar where visitors can sample the beers, buy beer books and watch a video of Stan and Ollie lookalikes ‘making a fine mess’ of brewing a batch of beer.

Craft brewing in Cumbria was put on the map in 1998 when Bluebird Bitter was named Champion Beer of Britain at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.

At the time, Ian Bradley was brewing in a shed behind his parents’ coaching inn, the Black Bull in Coniston. The brewery has expanded since then to meet demand.

Bradley brews 40 barrels a week, has 70 local outlets for his draught beers while wholesalers distribute them nationally. Bottled versions of the beers are also widely available.

Bluebird Bitter is named in memory of Donald Campbell who was killed in his speedboat on Coniston in 1967. Campbell and his crew stayed in the Black Bull and the pub is a shrine to his memory.

The biggest success story in Cumbria is Hawkshead Brewery. It was founded in 2002 by Alex Brodie and produced 30 barrels a week in an old barn.

Five years later, Brodie was forced to move to new premises at Staveley, near Windermere, where he now brews 100 barrels a week of beers.
Brodie is an unlikely entrepreneur. For years he was a top BBC correspondent. He covered the Middle East and was one of the presenters of the Radio 4 Today show.

When he tired of dodging bullets, he settled down to his second love — beer — and has thrived at Hawkshead. As well as winning awards and plaudits for his beers, he has added bars and a visitor complex called the Beer Hall, where diners can look down on the brewing process. Backed by a large staff, Brodie supplies 150 outlets and, in common with Coniston, also bottles his beers.

Among all the minnows and no-longer-minnows of the Cumbrian brewing scene, Jennings remains the major player. It dates from 1828 and was a family-owned firm for most of its life before joining Wolverhampton & Dudley in 2005.

Wolves — now Marston’s — invested £250,000 in the site and was called on to pump millions into the company after the Cumbrian floods of 2009, which did terrible damage to the brewery. It’s much to Marston’s credit that it has kept open a legendary Lake District brewery.

As I left Cumbria, I was told yet another brewery was in the pipeline. Thirty breweries! The great beer revolution rolls on.

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