London: from brewing hero to practically zero

Those few of you who caught my 15 seconds of fame tonight on the London ITN regional television news, talking about the announcement that AB InBev is going to close the Mortlake brewery, I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t the Thames at Mortlake behind me. It was actually about nine miles down river at Wapping, which is where I was when ITN got hold of me and asked if I’d be interviewed about the history of the brewery.

I was still within a short distance of two once-huge London breweries, though, Courage, hard by Tower Bridge, closed 1981, and Hoare’s, between Wapping and St Katharine’s Docks, which had been one of the “Big Twelve” London porter brewers, and which shut in 1934. Hoare’s has, effectively, vanished: Courage’s brewery still stands, a monument to London’s former position as one of the great brewing cities; probably, in the 19th century, the greatest brewing city in the world, which was the point I was trying to make to the ITN man.

The closure of Mortlake means the disappearance of the last big brewery left in London. In 1971, the year Camra was founded, the capital boasted a still-magnificent line-up of well-established giant brewers: Whitbread, on the edge of the City, founded 1742; Truman’s, in Brick Lane, dating back to at least 1666; further out in the East End, Mann’s in the Whitechapel Road, built 1808, and their near-neighbours Charrington’s in the Mile End Road, first recorded in 1770. Courage was still brewing at Southwark after more than 180 years, Guinness, the newest big brewer to open in London, was producing a river of stout at its 35-year-old Park Royal brewery. Out in the suburbs to the East, Ind Coope was making beer at Romford, and Watney’s still had Mortlake, renamed the Stag brewery after the company’s original Stag brewery in Westminster, closed 1959.

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Takeover bid for London’s biggest brewer

It’s a little-known fact that the biggest brewer in London is Anheuser-Busch. Far more people have seen the brewery than know it’s run by A-B: it’s right by the finishing line on the Thames at Mortlake for the annual Oxford versus Cambridge University Boat Race, one of the televised highlights of the British sporting year.

A-B acquired a lease on the brewery in 1995, four years after its previous owner, Grand Metropolitan, had sold off all its brewing assets after the government’s Beer Orders of 1989 saw all Britain’s then big brewers begin to split brewing from pub owning.

The site already brewed, under licence, all the Budweiser sold in the UK, where the beer is one of the leading premium bottled/canned lagers, with something like three per cent of the UK beer market, and Anheuser-Busch obviously decided it was worth running its own production facility. While the other Grand Met breweries went to Courage, therefore, which was then bought by Scottish & Newcastle in 1995, Mortlake flew the A-B flag, albeit leased from S&N.

Grand Met had inherited the Mortlake brewery when it took over Watney Mann in 1972, and Watney’s had acquired it more than 80 years earlier, in 1888. The brewery is sometimes said to descend from the monastery brewhouse at the Mortlake Manor House, owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury, and to date back to the 15th century. However commercial brewing on the site does not appear to have started until some time after the Manor House was pulled down in the 18th century.

The brewery that Watney’s acquired had developed out of two separate small breweries both mentioned in 1765. These were amalgamated in 1811, and after several owners had come and gone the business was being run in the mid-1850s by Charles John Phillips and James Wigan.

Under Phillips and Wigan the brewery prospered, gaining a high reputation for its bitter ales, and it was extended and rebuilt in the late 1860s: a roundel with the initials “P” and “W” can still be seen on the high brick wall that faces Mortlake High Street. Wigan left the partnership in 1877, and the Phillips family continued to run the brewery until Charles John Phillips retired in 1889.

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