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1872 And All That....

News has broken over the past few days that Elland Brewery, famous for their 1872 Porter which was voted the Champion Beer Of Britain in 2023 have ceased trading. And with other breweries also struggling, the upheavals I wrote about last month are showing no signs of letting up....

I was out with some friends last Saturday afternoon, celebrating one of our number's birthday. With the drinks and conversation flowing as we enjoyed a most enjoyable catch up, we were joined by another friend who mentioned that he'd been out a little earlier and had heard a story from a good source in one of the local pubs that Elland Brewery who, a mere 6 months ago had won Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival for their flagship 1872 Porter, had gone bust.

During a break in the conversation, I scoured Google for news about Elland Brewery. Nothing, apart from that win at the GBBF last year. I mentioned it to a couple of people when I was working at the Meandering Bear in Halifax when I was doing one of my Sunday shifts but nobody had heard anything.

But by Monday morning things had changed. Links appeared online to a notice that had been filed on Friday in The Gazette, aka the London Gazette. This is one of the official journals of record and government gazettes in this country, in which certain statutory notices are required to be published, and as such is used for announcing information on the likes of UK companies, insolvency, wills and probate, awards and military honours. It stated that a virtual meeting for the brewery's creditors was to take place on Friday, February 16th at 11.15 am where one of the resolutions will be to consider appointing a liquidator. A shareholder's meeting to take place beforehand will consider passing a resolution for the voluntary winding-up of the business.

The roots of Elland Brewery lead us to the former Barge and Barrel pub, the prominent old building of which is situated by the side of the canal that runs alongside the river Calder down the hill from Elland town centre. In the 1990's a brewery had been set up there by the avuncular John Eastwood in the former children's playroom, where he developed beers such as Nettle Thrasher, a popular bitter, and Myrtle's Temper, a strong dark ale allegedly named in honour of his wife. The beers were sold under the name of the Barge and Barrel Brewing Company in the pub and other local free houses and built up a popular following. In 2002, the Barge and Barrel Brewing Company merged with the West Yorkshire Brewery run by well-known brewer Dave Sanders, to form the Eastwood and Sanders' Fine Ales, which then became the Elland Brewery in 2006 as the two founders, finding it harder to work with each other, decided to go their separate ways. John eventually returned to brew at the Barge and Barrel, whilst Dave went on to work at several other local breweries over the following years.

Where it all began: the former Barge & Barrel in Elland

One of the beers that had originated in those early days at the Barge and Barrel was 1872 Porter, a 6.5% creamy, rich, and complex beer with chocolate and liquorice notes that was based on an original recipe dating back to 1872. This was the beer that really put Elland Brewery on the map, the beer winning multiple awards at CAMRA beer festivals up and down the country, culminating in being voted Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival in 2013, and then again in 2023.

After the original partners had gone their separate ways, the Elland Brewery moved to new premises in the town. It continued to flourish through the noughties under different ownership but around 2014 it was bought by Steve Francis and Mike Hiscock. The brewery went through a rebrand, and over the subsequent years built up a reputation as a reliable brewery with an expanding range of cask ales. The brewery had set up their own bar in the town, the Elland Craft and Tap, in 2018, but it became completely independent shortly afterwards with Mike severing all ties with the brewery to concentrate on building up what has become one of the local area's best-loved bars.

So to this recent development. When I'd been to meet the team at Elland on a hot and sunny day around 18 months ago, I'd found them to be positive, energised, and full of ideas for the future. Steve's son, Joe, had come into to run the business on a day to day basis and a new team had been brought in to re-invigorate things, after a previous period of uncertainty. So what went wrong? Clearly the current economic climate hasn't helped, with as we hear constantly plenty of other breweries struggling at the moment. Apart from 1872 Porter though, I had seen very few Elland beers around in recent months. And I think the success of 1872, which I have to say is a mighty fine beer, may well have been part of the problem, with the brewery giving it too much focus instead of building up a couple of more mainstream, contemporary beers which would have given them more potential slots on the bar and hence more volume and helped dissipate any perceptions that Elland had become a one trick pony. Unusually for a dark beer, it was the brewery's best-selling beer, but porter as a style generally is hardly a mainstream beer, whilst its high ABV of 6.5% means it is certainly not a session ale. And selling into Wetherspoons where margins are tight may have helped generate cash but not a sustainable bottom line. And of course independent free houses are hardly going to want to risk stocking a premium beer that they have to sell at more than twice the price it can be bought in the neighbouring Spoons.

Flashback to happier times: the Elland team with their trophy at the 2023 GBBF

So with the company seemingly having taken the decision to shut the brewery down, it seems that sadly it is the end of the road for Elland Brewery. Whether it is the end of the road for the 1872 brand, it remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that all those who have been affected by this decision - the staff, suppliers, customers, business partners - come out of this situation as well as possible.

Meanwhile, over 200 miles to the south-east of Elland, another well-known brewery has just announced it has called in a team of advisors to explore a range of options to fund its future growth plans. Adnams, based at the Sole Bay Brewery in the picturesque Suffolk seaside village of Southwold, say these could include an injection of private capital or selling off some of their pubs in order to reduce bank debt and fund further growth initiatives. The brewery in its current form dates back to (ironically) 1872, although it built on a tradition of brewing in the village that goes back for several centuries. The traditional family-owned brewery's main focus until the early 2000's was unashamedly on cask beer, devoting 85% of production capacity to it, with the main market being the tied houses they operated predominantly in the neighbouring towns and villages of rural Suffolk. However, the company were forward thinking and took the decision to expand into the free trade, spearheaded by their 4% pale ale Ghost Ship which consequently became their best-selling brand. More modern beer styles were developed in both cask and keg to liven up the Adnams brand as the wave of new craft breweries began to become more popular. New equipment was bought so they could do their own canning and bottling in-house, they built a distillery to allow the company to produce their own spirits, and opened a new eco-friendly warehouse, all of which cost a lot of money. And so with cask sales down at 35% of their overall production with their more diverse portfolio and the company increasingly reliant on the fickleness of the free trade, they have taken the decision to seek some outside assistance.

And finally, moving back up North, the other day I spotted an advert in the Newcastle Chronicle which highlighted the features of the Big Lamp brewery and the associated Keelman pub which estate agents Christie and Co have been instructed to put on the market with an asking price of £995,000. It seems the owners want to retire and hope to sell it on to someone who will keep the business going. It is to be hoped this is what happens as Big Lamp is the oldest microbrewery in the North East, starting up in 1982, and then relocating in 1997 to a former water pumping station by the side of the River Tyne in Newburn, around 6 miles from the centre of Newcastle. The brewery produces around 40 barrels a week and sells to pubs across the UK as well as locally. The Keelman has its own restaurant and private function room whilst also included in the price are a number of nearby cottages offering accommodation. 

Now I have never been to the Keelman, but last year I did visit the brewery's other pub, the delightfully old-fashioned Wheatsheaf in Felling, near Gateshead. The pub is situated at the end of a terrace with an attractive exterior and dates from 1907. As I wrote at the time "I walked into a scene that was like stepping back into another time. There was a long attractive bar on the right as you walk in. At the far end of the room, a lit fire offered a warm welcome as the evening air outside chilled following the relative warmth of the day's sunshine. There was the reassuring tick of a clock. It was immaculately clean and it felt very homely, and there were a few people sat nursing their drinks near the fire or at the bar". In these difficult times it is to be hoped that a suitable buyer can be found which will enable the Big Lamp brewery to continue to brew its fine beers and maintain their two pubs including the wonderful Wheatsheaf....

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  1. Excellent read as usual Chris. You've identified the key points in the Adnams section; falling cask sales, expansion of range from core products, fickleness of the free trade.

    Bar the 1872 in West Yorkshire Spoons (for about £2 !) I last saw Elland beers in 2021, and that was in the Elland Tap. No Elland beer in the Barge & Barrel that day, pushed out by newer micrrobrewers. Too many small breweries chasing too little trade.

    I stayed in the Keelman's lodges 20 years ago, lovely location.


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