So what WAS the first purpose-built lager brewery in the UK?

It’s a comment on the public perception of beardy beer buffs that people who know I like pongy ale* frequently look surprised when they discover that I drink lager too. My response, of course, is that there’s plenty of great beer not brewed to traditional British criteria, that often a cold one from the fridge is exactly what I need, and anyway, there is a growing number of British brewers committed to brewing top-quality lager.

So hurrah, there’s now a group dedicated to pushing the message that British-brewed lager isn’t all Stella and Carling, they’re called Lager of the British Isles (LOBI – can’t decide if that’s creakingly bad or rather clever) and their website is here. You can also join them on Facebook, here. Maybe if LOBI lobbies hard enough, fewer people will drop their beerglasses like bystanders in a Bateman cartoon when they see the one the beer buff is holding has a lager in it.

But whoops, the “historical inaccuracy” alarms have gone off: LOBI’s Facebook page claims that “Britain has a long heritage of brewing fine lagers, with the country’s first lager brewery, the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, open in 1864.” WRONG. A little investigation shows that LOBI has based this claim on, yes, bleedin’ Wikipedia, which has an article on the Anglo-Bavarian showing its usual mixture of inaccuracies, misunderstandings and historical assumptionism. However, one of the reasons I started this blog was to put proper historical details up on the web, and try to counter the mountain of misinformation available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection. So let’s state the facts: the Anglo-Bavarian brewery, despite its name, never brewed lager and it wasn’t Britain’s first lager brewery. And it wasn’t opened in 1864, either.

Well, to be accurate a brewery was built on the site of the later Anglo-Bavarian in 1864, in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, by a firm called Cox, Morriss and Co: in October that year the workmen digging out the spot where the copper was to go discovered the remains of a Roman pottery. It did not last long. In December 1870 the Bristol Mercury announced that the premises of the Shepton Mallet Pale Ale Brewery would be put up for auction on Friday January 13, 1871. It looks as if nobody bought the brewery at the auction, for on March 11 1871 the Mercury was reporting that “the extensive premises lately occupied as a pale ale brewery” in Shepton Mallet were being considered as a site for a barracks for the militia.

By November 8 1871, however, the Hampshire Advertiser was announcing that the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery Company of Southampton had “recently purchased the new buildings in Shepton Mallet known as the Pale Ale Brewery, and are taking active steps to get their arrangements complete as early as possible … it is expected that by Christmas it will be in good working order.” The Advertiser expressed regret that the Anglo-Bavarian would be leaving the district: for the firm, which was run by a brewer called William Garton, had been brewing for at least a couple of years in Southampton, on a system using a form of invert sugar he had invented and which he called saccharum. Garton’s methods were designed to make ales “which possess all the essential properties of the highest class ales of Bavaria and Burton-on-Trent”. It brewed English ales, not Bavarian lagers, however. An ad for its “Anglo-Bavarian Ales” from the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on March 27 1869 showed it was selling India Pale Ale, mild and strong ales, and amber ale. However, it had outgrown its Southampton site, where Garton also made saccharum for sale to other brewers, and acquired the Shepton Mallet premises to expand.

An advertisement for the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery Company, Shepton Mallet from the Daily News in London just before Christmas 1871 suggests operations were now fully transferred from Southampton, since it said that “orders can now be registered for the October Brewings of this Company’s Pale Ales, which are so well known for their soundness … also for their celebrated Amber Ales, as supplied to the leading London Clubs.”

(Incidentally, it looks as if one of the partners in Cox Morriss & Co continued brewing in Shepton Mallet, since the December 20, 1871 edition of the Daily News in London carried an ad for “Shepton Mallet Pale Ale – Leonard Cox and co, proprietors of the original Pale Ale Brewery, Shepton Mallet … their export ale, which is so well known in India and the Colonies for its delicacy of flavour.”)

Garton’s obituary in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing in 1905 says that he and his brother Charles, who was a brewer first in Bath and then in Bristol, invented not only the idea of using invert sugar but also the idea of treating brewing waters to give them the necessary chemical elements for whatever type of beer was being brewed, and also the “dropping” system of cleansing ales. He appears to be rather an unsung hero in British brewing history, and it is ironic that he is best known for something he didn’t do: for at no time in its history did the Anglo-Bavarian make lager.

‘The first Lager Beer Brewery erected in the United Kingdom’ – OK?

What was the first purpose-built lager brewery in Britain? That would be the similarly-named Austro-Bavarian Lager Beer and Crystal Ice Company, in Tottenham, North London. The Austro-Bavarian Brewery, situated between Tottenham High Road and Portland Road, close to the junction with Pelham Road, opened in 1881, using proper bottom-fermenting brewing methods. There is very little known about the Austro-Bavarian: the man behind its was evidently called Leopold Seckendorff, but we don’t know how he raised money to build what, judging by an illustration from 1884, was a fair-sized operation (though the size that brewers made their buildings appear in their advertising materials and the size they really were are seldom the same). The British Library claims, on what evidence I don’t know, that it was staffed entirely with immigrant German-speakers and their English-born families, and it seems to have been backed solely with German capital. It had its own 450ft borehole for brewing water.

We know that the brewery made four types of beer, in 1884, at least: Tottenham Lager, Tottenham Bock, Tottenham Munich and Tottenham Pilsen. The last two would be dark and light lagers respectively: my guess is that the first was a Vienna-style, solely because that’s the one well-known (at the time) sort not otherwise mentioned. Each kind cost three shillings and sixpence for a dozen pint bottles, when the standard take-home price for British beer was two shillings and sixpence a dozen bottles.

According to The Lancet, reviewing the company’s products in 1884, the Pilsner was “a light table ale”, the Bock and Munich “are akin to porter and stout”. The Lancet also revealed that the beers were available on draught, “aerated by a force pump, which brings it to the tap.” The Lancet liked the idea of lager being available in Britain: “considering its lightness and excellence, we are glad to see its popularity increasing so rapidly.” However, the “peculiar flavour” of the beers, The Lancet said, “compared by some to garlic and by others to curry, is, we believe, generated by the manufacture, and is liked by those who are used to it.”

Damned by this faint praise, perhaps, the Austro-Bavarian brewery was forced to reform as the Tottenham Lager Beer Brewery in 1886. Baedeker’s Guide to London in 1894 reported that “English-made Lager-beer is supplied in the Tottenham Lager Beer Hall, 395 Strand,” brewed, clearly, by the Tottenham brewery. An analysis that appears in the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry in June 1897 showed Tottenham Lager Beer at 4.52 per cent alcohol (by weight, probably), its Pilsener at 4.3 per cent and its Munich Beer at 4.92 per cent: “real” Munich lager, the Journal found, was between 3.7 and 3.93 per cent, generally, and Vienna lager was 3.89 per cent.

However, in 1895 the brewery collapsed into liquidation, tens of thousands of pounds in debt. It rose again in February 1896 as the Imperial Lager Brewery, but closed finally in 1903. All the same, an operation called the Imperial Cold Stores Co seems to have run on the site until the 1980s, a last echo of Britain’s first purpose-built lager brewery.

Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that the Austro-Bavarian, while the first purpose-built lager brewery in Britain, was the first brewer of lager in Britain. It was beaten to the pull by almost 50 years. But I’ll repeat that story another time.

Cooking Lager

5 thoughts on “So what WAS the first purpose-built lager brewery in the UK?

  1. I’ve never even heard the term “pongy ale”. Here in the States, I suspect it would be defined as “ale that is primarily consumed during the playing of beer pong – a popular, table-top drinking game.”

    We (the humble scribes at Aleheads.com) are thoroughly entranced by the depth and breadth of research you bring to bear in your writing. Thanks for fighting the good fight as you try to shine a light into the increasingly murky world of beer history. And yes, I fully recognize that bloggers like us are partly to blame for said murkiness. What can I say? Accuracy and beer blogging don’t always go hand in hand. At least there will always be a wealth of misconceptions for you to expose with your brilliant blog.

    In regards to British Lagers…what do you currently consider the finest in the Realm? Any that we would have easy access to Stateside?

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    • “Pongy ale” is an in-joke on Cooking lager’s blog, where the pretensions of cask ale fans are rightly held up for regular ridicule.

      I don’t get to try British “boutique” lagers (if I can use that term as a contrast to mass-market ones) often enough to say which are the best, and I don’t think many, if any, are available in the US: Schiehallion, from Scotland, might be. Asking LOBI is probably your best move.

      The history-telling will continue: it’s fun, I enjoy it, and I’d do it if nobody was reading.

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  2. I watched the demolition of the rather magnificent buildings at Tottenham from my office window in the 1980’s.
    The last to go were huge rounded cellars with walls many bricks thick, that must have been the cold stores. The legend ‘Tottenham Lager Beer and Ice Company’ was still visible on the wall facing North.

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