Beer Matters

Another one (and not just any old one) bites the dust

Apologies for going on about my local brewery yet again, but I’ve been drinking Young’s for about 35 years now (ever since I left my native Hampshire and came to work in London as a very young man), so the news from Wandsworth last month came as a bit of a blow to say the least. Brewery closures are never good news but some hit harder than others. They say production is to be moved to Bedford and I have nothing against Charles Wells, but it just won’t be the same beer - it never is.

The official announcement contains some predictable management gobbledegook (“Young’s will continue to be a vertically integrated business”) and states “The merger ... creates a major new force in brewing... and sufficient scale to compete at a national level”. Is this necessarily a good thing? Remember the 60s and 70s when there were six major brewing companies, mostly churning out unmitigated rubbish (Whitbread Tankard, Watney’s Red, Younger’s Tartan, all thankfully long gone). At that time, Young’s acquired its loyal following by continuing to supply quality ale to the local market. Doubtless it was a similar story for Wells in Bedfordshire.

John Young is quoted as saying that the decision was taken “with some reluctance”. Those words, spoken with the stiff upper lip of a former officer, must be the understatement of the year, coming from a man who has devoted his life to the family business and now, well past normal retirement age, has to witness the dismantling of 400 years of history involving generations of his forbears. How he must wish he could stand down knowing that that heritage was safe in the capable hands of a nephew or grandson.

Doubtless his hand has been forced by others who have an interest in the business but little interest in beer – predatory investors, venture capitalists and the like, pusillanimous bean-counters who know the price of everything and the real value of nothing. Don’t they realise the primary function of a brewery is to make beer, not money? Beer, the “true and proper drink of Englishmen”, the nectar that has sustained this nation for centuries. What use is money if you can’t even buy a decent pint with it?

I get the impression that a significant factor in this decision has been the potential value of the land. Wandsworth Council talks of “opportunities for regeneration in the town centre”, meaning the site is to be redeveloped. Into what? Shops, flats and offices, apparently. It seems to me there are plenty of shops, flats and offices in Wandsworth already (including that ghastly blue and white thing). But there is only one ancient, working brewery. Young’s IS Wandsworth. Take away the brewery with its Victorian mill chimney, imposing gates and cobbled yard and the beautifully tiled brewery tap next door and there won’t be much of character left in the High Street *.

I don’t suppose the new shops and offices will be much consolation to the 100 workers who are about to lose their jobs. And what is to become of those splendid shire horses and the ram in his battered pen (I think there were some geese, too)? Young’s not only brews damn good beer and is steeped in history and tradition, it’s an old-fashioned business (in the best possible sense) that works on a human scale. Its loss is nothing short of a tragedy – for beer lovers and for the locality.

And now I’m going down to my local, the Hope, for a pint or three of “ordinary” while I still have the chance.

Maximus Bibendus

* Except of course All Saints church. At least half the towers in the Surrey Association Northern District retire to a Young’s pub after practice. The least Wandsworth Council could do by way of compensation is to put up the funding for the restoration of All Saints’ bells - preferably in time for us to ring a half-muffled peal when the brewery closes in October.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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