Beer & Breweries of the Black Country

Beer & Breweries of the Black Country

Keith Hodgkins

Report of Meeting 13th January 2016

Mike Perkins, the Society’s vice-chair welcomed a large audience of members and new visitors to the meeting at The Ruskin Centre, thanking them for turning out in their numbers on a cold and wet evening. He then went on to conduct the AGM for which formal Minutes were taken by the Society’s Secretary Kathleen Grainger, before introducing Keith Hodgkin to an expectant audience.

Keith’s presentation started by him putting some context into his talk - it was not he said a definitive history of local pubs and breweries but more a personal reflection as a real ale fan on his experiences and memories of those establishments from the mid-1970’s to present day. The roots of his liking for beer and enthusiasm for the places where the amber nectar could be obtained, stemmed from a 1972 Calendar which pictorially featured Black Country Pubs, he then deciding to visit all of the pubs on the Calendar!

There were 9 breweries in the Black Country at that time (defining the Black Country in a politically correct sense). There were the independent family run breweries such as Ma Pardoe’s (Netherton), Simpkiss (Brierley Hill), Holden’s (Woodsetton), Batham’s (Brierley Hill) and the larger scale corporate breweries including Bank’s (Wolverhampton), Hanson’s (Dudley), Mitchells & Butlers (Cape Hill), Springfield (Wolverhampton) and Highgate (Walsall).

Mitchell’s & Butlers (M&B) is generally viewed as a Birmingham brewery but being based at Cape Hill is technically in Smethwick, just inside the border designated by Hockley Brook.

The talk proceeded with Keith reviewing each brewery in turn, starting with M & B which was founded in 1898 by William Butler. It became a massive plant, being extended in the 1920s. The logo featured in the branding of the brewery was a leaping deer - Keith jokingly mused that perhaps it was leaping over Hockley Brook!

Cape Hill Brewery in 1925

The company merged with Bass in 1961. With the brand currently under ownership of Coors Brewers, the brewery closed in 2002 with production switched to Burton upon Trent. Their most famous beer was Brew XI (using Roman numerals, and so pronounced Brew Eleven), advertised with the slogan "For the men of the Midlands". It is now brewed under license for Coors by Brains of Cardiff so if you really want a pint you can still get it. The site of the brewery is now a housing development.

Springfield Brewery first opened in 1873 when the William Butler and Company needed bigger premises than their existing site in Priestfield. Springfield had an abundance of water and the land had remained fairly undeveloped. The company acquired the seven acre site and built a new brewery with maltings, cooperage and stables. Production started at Springfield during the following year. With the new brewery located close to the canal and railway lines, the company could begin to trade outside of the local area. The good communications also made the acquisition of public houses in other areas a viable proposition. This opportunity was improved when the Great Western Railway extended a siding into the site which was continually expanding to cope with the success of the company. Between 1881-3 a new brewing tower was constructed, enabling William Butler and Company to increase production from 400 to 1,500 barrels a week. In 1960 Mitchell's and Butler's acquired the company and the Cape Hill brewery kept the Springfield Brewery open. The Springfield Bitter was not considered as good as the original Butler’s bitter and over time the pubs were consumed by M&B corporate branding. Brewing stopped around 1990 and the site was used simply as distribution centre. In 2006 a ‘mysterious’ fire destroyed much of the site but demolition was refused on the basis of the premises listed status. Currently plans are in place for the site to be sensitively redeveloped by Wolverhampton University for construction education. The University also has plans to relocate its own School of Architecture and the Built Environment to the site making it a local, regional, national and international centre of excellence.

Springfield Brewery

Highgate Brewery in Walsall started up in 1896 as a small independent business. In 1939 it was bought by M&B who wanted their pubs and saw it as a good source of wartime material rations, meaning that M&B kept the brewery open to produce Highgate Mild and at Christmas-time a fine Old Ale. Aston Manor brewery took it over in 2000 who used it to produce canned beer for supermarkets, and then so did Global Star in 2007 (who owned the Birmingham based Davenports of “Beer at Home” fame). They continued to brew Davenport’s beer at Highgate for a few years before sadly it closed down. The buildings themselves are now for sale and are falling into decay. Interestingly Keith advised that a new brewery, Blue Bear, has re-started production of Highgate Mild at a new venture based In Smethwick.

Banks’s, based in the Wolverhampton Park Brewery since 1875, has always stuck to the adage of producing traditional draught beers though the reputation of their tipples has changed overtime in line with market trends. It was certainly held with high regard by beer aficionados when historically compared to the ‘fizzy beer’ offerings of some producers. Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries was formed in 1890 by the amalgamation of Banks & Co. with George Thompson & Sons and Charles Colonel Smith's Brewery. In 1943 Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries took over Julia Hanson & Sons, with 200 pubs. The Park Brewery itself has expanded dramatically and actually bought a through road from the Council to expand across the highway. Banks’s actually malted their own barley using a handy malty to turn over the grains in premises based in Langley and near Lichfield. The Langley site also suffered a ‘mysterious’ fire and suffered considerable damage but again demolition was refused. Keith’s personal view of Banks’s popularity seemed to be heavily influenced by the introduction of “those awful ‘squirty’ pumps” which were made compulsory in all of their pubs, compromising their original standards of making and serving real beer. Some private pub tenants delayed the inevitable introduction of the pumps but in 1986 the Pyle Cock in Wednesfield was the last pub to pull a pint of Banks’s by hand pump. Ironically after 6 years Banks’s returned to the good old-fashioned hand pull pump.

Bank's beers

Hanson’s operated with some independence despite being part of the Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries empire from 1943. The Hanson's story started in 1847 in Dudley's Priory Street. Julia Hanson was the daughter of maltster and victualler John Mantle of the Saracen's Head in Stone Street. In 1846 she married Thomas Hanson, a wine and spirit merchant from King's Bromley. During the following year the couple established a wine and spirit business in Priory Street. By the end of the decade Thomas Hanson had formed a partnership with William Hughes, a local pub owner and maltster. Together they traded as Hughes and Hanson. When Thomas Hanson died his wife Julia took charge of the business and moved to premises in Upper Tower Street. Her sons William and Thomas worked in two of the company's pubs to gain valuable experience. Julia Hanson died at the age of 78 in 1874 and her sons took over the family concern. Within 12 months they acquired the old Peacock Hotel and Brewery in Dudley's Upper High Street. They redeveloped the site in 1897 and five years later registered as Julia Hanson & Sons Ltd. By this time the company had an extensive tied estate of almost 100 pubs throughout the Black Country. Sadly however, the brewery closed in the early 1990's as beer consumption was in decline and production was moved to Wolverhampton. The basic recipe for both Banks’s and Hanson’s was allegedly the same but you could, all agreed, tell the difference - apparently the water, yeast used and of course the brewery was different. The Hanson brewery site was cleared for a supermarket - and Dudley has never smelled the same again!

Simpkiss at its peak had 16 pubs, mostly in the Brierley Hill / Southern Black Country area with the brewery itself being at the rear of The Foley Arms (now The Wellington) in Brettell Lane. Following the sale of the original home brewery Joseph Paskin Simpkiss bought the Foley Arms at Silver End [between Brierley Hill and Amblecote] in 1921. Within four years he had increased production of beer to the rear of the pub to 145 barrels per week. In 1934 the brewery was rebuilt to the designs of son Dennis Simpkiss and it was even named the Dennis Brewery. A five quarter brewery, production of 40 barrels a day was now possible. The company acquired more pubs in which to sell the popular Simpkiss ales. In 1936 a bottling plant was installed at the Dennis Brewery and two years later the business was registered. Joseph Simpkiss died soon after this and Dennis Simpkiss took over the company.

His son Jonathon Simpkiss would later lead the company which, in the 1970's, even had a kegging line installed by Ansell's. The brewery had a somewhat acrimonious demise as managing director, Jonathon Simpkiss sold the Dennis Brewery in 1985 to Greenall Whitley in a cash a share deal worth £1.9m without apparently informing the employees who found that their jobs had gone by reading it in the Express & Star. In July 2003 it was reported that Jonathon Simpkiss was a tax exile living on the Isle of Man! Simpkiss beers were last produced in July 1985 and Greenall's demolished the brewery three years later. Keith had enjoyed Simpkiss ale to the last by sampling a bottled variant on the Severn Valley Railway who sold it on their trains until supplies were exhausted.

Holden’s only last year celebrated their 100th anniversary and have 24 pubs (the Amblecote History Society paid homage to this achievement by way of a visit as part of the 2015 meeting programme - see report on website). Edwin Holden took over the Park Inn on George Street, Woodsetton, in 1915, and the pub is still owned by the Holden family. It was built in 1892. The brewery used a traditional tower approach to brewing, still being run by the fourth generation of The Holden Family and whilst they all enjoy a very much hands on approach to the business, they remain just as committed to their proud history and heritage and to the generations to come. There are four regular beers; Black Country Bitter, Black Country Special Bitter, Black Country Mild, and Golden Glow ranging in ABV from 3.7% to 5.1%, as well as a stout and winter warmer.

Batham’s Brewery is somewhat unique as it remains pretty much the same size as the original site (though the audience understood that there were plans for some imminent expansion). Keith described it as a “one beer” brewery making predominantly bitter (OG 1043) and a small quantity of mild but it is so popular they can’t brew enough of it!

Each of the Batham’s pubs is steeped in character and history but none are more so than the famous “Bull and Bladder” - the brewery tap and formally known as The Vine Inn, Delph Road, Brierley Hill which provides a colourful frontage to the brewery behind. Its well-known frontage emblazoned with the Shakespearean quote “Blessing of your heart: You brew good ale” has provided a warm welcome over the years for the many who have travelled to sample the Delph Brewery ale produced by one of the last surviving family brewers in the Black Country.

The Vine Inn - Bathams Brewery, Delph

They are one of very few breweries that use the large hogshead barrels holding 54 gallons (standard barrel being 36 gallons) and it is most unusual to see these nowadays. Beer usually lasts about 3 days once the barrel is tapped so it is testimony to Batham’s quality and therefore demand that they can use such large vessels. Their beers have a massive following and are revered amongst real ale fans. A Batham’s dray lorry manufactured by Bean is preserved and stored at The Lamp Tavern in Dudley.

Keith then related a true personal story of “The Batham’s Nine” which in the 1980’s involved visiting each pub for a pint during the course of the day “under your own steam - bicycle or Shanks’s pony”. He had achieved completion of this challenge but had an auspicious start after cycling with two friends from Dudley to the first pub, The White Swan in Chaddesley Corbett, for the traditional 11 o’clock opening. There was no sign of the landlord despite repeated knocks on the door when suddenly they were approached by a gentlemen who enquired of them “so what do you know about the landlord who’s done a bunk?” He turned out to be a reporter from the Express & Star seeking a scoop for the local press - this is when the three lads themselves became ‘the story’ given their planned activity for the day. So, they compromised on the Batham’s and had a pint in another hostelry in Chaddesley Corbett before continuing with the “Batham’s Nine” route back towards the finishing line in The Lamp Tavern. On arrival at the 5th pub, The Exchange in Stourbridge, they sensed that a man reading the paper was repeatedly looking at them and then glancing back to his newspaper before he loudly exclaimed “yo’m them chaps in the paeper!” The lunchtime edition of the Express & Star had caught up with them! They eventually arrived safely, if not a bit wobbly on their bikes, back at The Lamp for their final pint at 9.10pm. Interestingly and to his credit Keith repeated the journey in 1993 when beer had risen to £1.16 a pint. Batham’s now has a chain of 12 pubs, the twelfth being in North Wales which makes “the Batham’s Twelve” much more difficult though the Welsh pub does offer B&B so it’s first pint with your breakfast and a hard cycle back to the Black Country before further liquid consumption - it has been done ! If you fancy the Batham’s Eleven (excluding Wales) then the distance to cycle/walk is 28 miles but the audience couldn’t decide which was more difficult - the walk or the drinking! For a complete history of Batham’s Black Country Brewers this book is highly recommended.

Ma Pardoe’s Brewery was one of only four pubs in the country that was recognised by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) in 1972 as brewing its own beer at The Olde Swan in Netherton.

Ma Pardoe’s – The Olde Swan in Netherton

In 1985 the family sold the business as Ma Pardoe had died in 1980 and real ale lovers feared the worst but fortunately another company, Venture Ales, was set up who restored the premises to their former glory and converted an adjoining shop into a new lounge area. It was then sold on a few times before disastrously closing for a few years in 1997. It has now re-opened under a new consortium and has never looked back, being described by The Good Beer Guide as: “A Victorian tavern full of traditional character and known locally as Ma Pardoe's after a former long-serving landlady; wonderfully unspoilt front bar with big swan centrepiece in patterned enamel ceiling dating to 1864, engraved mirrors, traditional furnishings and old-fashioned cylinder stove, other rooms including cosy back snug and more modern lounge”.

Holts was one of the ‘new breweries” being established in 1984 as a sub-set of Ansell’s (Allied Breweries) of Birmingham. The brewery itself was based in Oldbury supplying 30 pubs in and around the Black Country. Holts Entire was the flagship beer selling well for 10 years under the marketing strapline of “Tek’s yer back a bit”. The brand however suffered and petered out somewhat anonymously and ultimately closed.

Holts Entire Ale.

Sarah Hughes Brewery has the original Victorian brewery at the rear of The Beacon Hotel in Sedgley. The hotel which is now a listed building and its brewery date from 1850. Sarah Hughes herself presided for 50 years from 1921. The brewery fell out of use in the late 1950s but was revived in 1987 by Sarah’s grandson, John Hughes, who still owns the pub today. John dug his grandmother’s recipe out of a bank vault and resolved to stick to it as closely as possible, recreating an authentic strong early 20th century Black Country mild of the sort that once slaked the thirst of local workers in the days when this area earned its uninviting name from the smoke of a thousand factory chimneys. Dark Ruby (ABV 6%) is an original cask beer of robust strength and character. For beef buffs the beer is brewed from Maris Otter pale and crystal malts, caramel, invert sugar and a very traditional blend of Fuggles and Goldings hops. The result is indeed a rich dark ruby brown, with a creamy yellow head.

The establishment has become an iconic brewery tap and shrine to Victoriana close to the highest point in the West Midlands. Entering from the front, you are immediately confronted with the central serving hatch - and I do mean hatch. It was obviously built when people weren’t so tall, so you have to bend down a way to see in. The pub retains the classic 4 room layout. To the right on entering is the Tap Room, which is very basic with dark wooden settles, and not much else. To the left is the snug which is also fairly plainly furnished, but contains a piano. Straight on past the hatch is another open plan drinking area, but the most ostentatious room is to the left beyond the server - full of items of Victorian splendour.

Whilst in the vicinity, just down the road Keith briefly referred to The Britannia pub in Upper Gornal as having had a really tiny brewery servicing a traditional pub which for a while sold Whitbread ale. In 1995 Philip Belfield (the same man who ran the pork sandwich shop in Dudley) re-installed the brewery but spoiled the traditional features through modernisation. Batham’s eventually bought the pub and closed the small brewery.

The Britannia has a nationally important historic pub interior because of the tap room at the rear named after legendary former landlady Sally Perry, with its hand pumps set in the wall and not behind the usual bar counter.

Approaching the end of the talk now, Keith came forward in time to the 1990’s when new breweries were starting to open as publicised in the Express & Star through articles about the Toll End brewery (2004) and Black Country Ales (2004) in Lower Gornal at the Bulls Head which now supplies 30 pubs in the Black Country and beyond. They have adopted a marketing plan of also serving other guest beers in their pubs which is a good attraction for those wanting to sample different and new brews.

Keith also mentioned the Sadler’s Brewery (2005) which is having great success in Lye. They have adopted the approach of having just one pub (plus the new brewery outlet by the railway station) and supplying as free trade and bottling for retail in supermarkets. The bottling is actually undertaken by Holden’s. Sadler’s brew what Keith described as “challenging” beers using hops from New Zealand and Slovakia which help to create modern, different tastes in the beer such as Mud City Stout and Thin Ice. The Windsor Castle also provides excellent food and now B&B.

Other local breweries referenced included the Backyard Brewery in Walsall, Craddocks in the Duke William Stourbridge, Brough’s Brewery in Wolverhampton, Angel Ales in Halesowen, Fownes Brewery at the Jolly Crispin Sedgley, Green Duck Brewery (Badelynge bar) in Lye ,The Fixed Wheel in Black Heath (Shell Corner) an finally the Pig Iron Brewing Company in Brierley Hill.

So, in summarising Keith was pleased to hear of 13 new breweries starting up since he was a young man despite experiencing many tragic losses. There are now more active breweries (17) in the Black Country than there were in the early 1970’s, offering a lot more choice and generally some fantastic beers, brewed by people who are proud of their Black Country location and heritage. So all in all he felt that we have arrived at a heathy situation with regard to the availability of fine beers near us.

Mike then formally thanked Keith for his informative talk, concurring with his perspective of beer making in the area by advising that in the 1880’s there were 20-25 pubs in Amblecote but now there are only 5. Mike had also, over the years, migrated from being an Ansell’s Mild drinker in 1958, to now brewing his own stout, and having developed a liking for Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild.

The evening concluded with generous applause for Keith and finally the drawing of the raffle which, most appropriately, included a range of bottled ales. Cheers!


Lance Cartwright, Amblecote History Society, PR Officer


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