Monday 30 November 2020

Lennox Brewery Dumbarton

I don't know what it is - lockdown - getting on a bit, or just nostalgia, but I'm enjoying at least some of my time on Facebook - Dumbarton Memories in particular. I had held out against Facebook and its somewhat baffling layout for, well, forever, until earlier this year when I signed up. Nonetheless, I enjoy (mostly) the stuff I read and remember about the old town, even contributing and sometimes, shedding a little light, though my memory isn't quite as sharp as some who still live there. Not all mind, just some.

Of course beer and brewing isn't far away from my thoughts. There used to be a brewery in the town which I have mentioned on this blog before. It is a frustration that Dumbarton people have such little memory of it, or simply aren't interested, but that's just the way it goes. Still, one or two snippets have emerged and of course, I'm not entirely blameless myself. Despite living in the town for 20 odd years, I didn't know anything about Gillespie's Crown Brewery myself, until meeting Charles McMaster, the then curator of the Scottish Brewing Archive when I did some work in Edinburgh many years ago. I also refer you here to my previous post.

But I did know that a new brewery had started up in Dumbarton. In fact, it wasn't Facebook, but that haunt of the older social media types, Twitter that lead me to discovering it and I had intended to visit it on my last trip to Scotland in September, but alas the timings didn't work out. My subsequent planned visit to Dumbarton - my sister still lives there - was knocked on the head by the dreaded Covid-19. Another time for sure.

However, the idea of a new brewery intrigued me and while I rarely give individual breweries** a platform on this blog, I decided to do just that and got in touch with the two lads that run the show to find out what they are about. Firstly the name. This is something I do remember, as the local newspaper is the Lennox Herald. Lennox comes from the coat of arms of the county Dunbartonshire and can be described thus:

"The arms were granted on July 20, 1927. The arms are those of the historical region of Lennox, of which the town Dumbarton was the capital and the region thus was nearly identical to the county. The motto "Levenax" is derived from the Gaelic Leamhanach, or "Land of the elm trees".

Now I can't say that I remember many elm trees, but I am old enough to remember when Dunbartonshire had its own police force and the polis cars then had the above coat of arms emblazoned on the doors. You can see a photo of one here

The brewery has substituted hops for the roses and inserted a neat addition of its own motto. It doesn't need much translation and is a nice touch by owners Andy Jarvis  and Iain McLaren. It's nice too to see they at least are inspired by the town's brewing past.



So what's the skinny on the brewery? Here we have it in a convenient question and answer format:

         Who are you?

Founders are Andy Jarvis and Iain McLaren, we met while working together. Andy had been a keen home brewer and Iain had also done some home-brew in the past. We are currently the only two members of the company, so we share all the work including brewing, bottling and labelling.

Why a brewery in Dumbarton?

We'd read about the history of brewing in Dumbarton, and thought it was time that the town had a new brewery! Dumbarton, and West Dunbartonshire, has a rich history, and we wanted to tap into that in order to promote our local area as well as bring traditional Scottish beers with a modern twist to market.

Setting up wasn't difficult - it took a few months to find and secure a suitable unit. Once we had that we were able to fire up the kit and start developing our beers.

Where and what do you brew?

We have a very small unit in Dumbarton, close by the River Leven. Until recently we were brewing in 100L kit, but have recently upgraded to 300L vessels. Brews are generally two weeks in the FV, another week secondary fermentation, and then into bottles. We do casks as well, but due to the current pandemic we're concentrating on bottles.

What are the hopes, aims and ambitions?

Our ambition is to have a successful, well-known, small brewery. Brewing has been a learning curve for both of us, but we're getting great reviews and feedback. Our small batch size does mean there are variations in each run, but we see that as something unique and proof that we're not a mass-producer of genericness! Finding outlets has been a challenge - we've had support from independent retailers, but the pubs that are tied to a brewery are a hard nut to crack.

 Whose beers inspire you?

We’re inspired to see so many great, independent Scottish breweries doing so well these days and I think that pushes us to continue to try to improve - and expand upon - our own range of beers. As far as Desert Island beers - the list would probably be as long as our arms, but it would definitely have a load of stouts near the top; things like Sam Smiths Organic Chocolate Stout, Wild Beer Co's Millionaire, Thornbridge Cocoa Wonderland. I think I'd also need to temper the list with some lighter beers - pretty much anything from Sharps Brewery, specifically Doom Bar though and maybe some Innis and Gunn thrown in for good measure.

What’s your ambition for Lennox Brewery? Hobby? World domination?

We're hoping to be able to expand so that we can take some staff on and continue to produce excellent beers that put brewing in Dumbarton back on the map!

So what of the beers? The current production, as you'd expect, covers all the bases. One delight to this ex season ticket holder, is that the brewery produces the official beer of Dumbarton FC. This pleases me greatly as I remember all too well drinking in the Dumbarton FC Social Club - like the then football ground, but not the club - long gone. Then, we drank without a great deal of enthusiasm, beers from Drybroughs who had rather a monoclastic* view of brewing, each beer being parti-gyled from a base beer which wasn't great to start with. Mind you, we knew nothing of that then. But I digress. The brewery produces an Amber Ale called Sun of the Rock (see below), a lager, IPA, Oatmeal Stout, Golden Ale and, more adventurously, a Cranachan Ale. So plenty to go at.  I'm looking forward to trying the stout as I note the lads mention a favourite beer which is also one of my mine - Thornbridge Cocoa Wonderland.  As an aside, I remember - not too well  - discovering it in cask form and on top blob in Sheffield before the CAMRA AGM.  The bar is therefore set extremely high for the stout, and if  a fan of the UK's largest selling cask beer, Doom Bar, the Amber Ale may well be on the money for you. 

The Scottish brewing scene has been a thriving one in recent years and the success of BrewDog (obvs), Harviestoun, Stewart, Fierce, Williams Brothers and of course, nearby Loch Lomond, just announced as Scottish Brewery of the Year, gives a great aiming point for any newcomer. There are now over 100 Scottish Brewers, so, Covid aside, the scene is thriving and for many, success can be achieved.  As Chairman Mao said, the longest journey starts with a single step.

Finally, it is, to this exiled Son of the Rock, very pleasing indeed to see brewing returned to the town. As with all breweries at the moment, given where we are with Covid-19 restrictions,  this must be a bit of an uphill task, but I wish them success and look forward to visiting when Boris and the Wee Nippy Sweetie allow it.

* It appears I have made this word up, but I like it, so I'll dictate the meaning. "Producing many variations from one original."

** OK. John Willie Lees excepted

A native of Dumbarton can be referred to as a Son of the Rock. Not sure about the gender aspects here, so I'll just move on. 

The lads kindly sent me a few beers to try, but that of course doesn't influence me in any way. I'm just doing my bit for the return of brewing to my home town, so if you can, give the beers a try.  You can have a look at the website here and the boys will sort you out with local delivery.


Wednesday 11 November 2020

A Little Bit of History

 I tend - no - firmly avoid - writing in any detail about beer history. Firstly I'm a lazy bugger - I tend to paint things with a broad brush and leave the finer points to others - and secondly - I know for sure that I'd get a lot of it wrong and haven't the will or application to research to ensure I don't. I know myself fairly well. 

When I was working and the boss of quite a few, I liked to think I saw the big picture and then had others apply the fine detail. The attractions of this method of operation became clear to me in one of the few actual epiphanies I have ever had. When I went to see,  a long time ago, the Three Graces statue in Edinburgh, the accompanying pull up description told me that Antonio Canova, the sculptor did not, as I'd originally supposed simply take a suitably sized lump of stone to meet what he had in mind and fashion it into a magnificent statue, by chipping away at it over a long and tedious period. Rather he drew it roughly, had someone better at drawing firm it up into something precise, added dimensions and then set all his apprentices and other trainees do the hard work. Eventually, having supervised the operation, he trotted along at the end with his daintiest chisel and some sandpaper and finished it off. Well - more or less.  Not that bad a way to operate I thought. It helped my career a lot.

So back to beer history - of a sort.  When I lived in Dumbarton we had a small, but very old pub at 1 High St, called the Elephant and Castle. Named after the town's coat of arms, it was when I lived there, operated and probably owned by Scottish and Newcastle Breweries. I used to go there on occasion and invariably drank pint screwtop bottles of McEwans's Pale Ale, a beer for which I have an abiding affection. And why not? It was the first beer I ever tasted. The pub wasn't that big and certainly, as far as I recall, had no particular architectural features to accompany its venerable years.  Anything of any antiquity that had been there had long since gone, but it was always one of the friendliest pubs in the town and so worth, as they said then in these parts, "throwing your heid roon the door" now and then.

Sadly, while I did pop in again sometimes over the years when I visited my old mother when I had long since lived in England, it somehow had managed to close in my absence and became a rather sorry sight, with copious weeds growing out of its roof and gutters. It was finally demolished in 2017, having been closed for over ten years, to make way for a new walkway to the River Leven from that side of town.

It was however brought back to my mind by this photograph which shows the pub in 1946, the staff resplendent in their starched long aprons and suitably serious expressions. The photo was posted on the Facebook site Memories of Dumbarton and there is an accompanying article written in 1986 describing it in a little detail.  Of course, those contributing tended to comment on how they knew or were related to the subjects in the photo, rather than the pub. Sadly there was little insight into the pub itself, but it was referred to, somewhat obviously, as Nellies, something I never did, or in fact, had ever heard. To me, it was always just the Elephant and I don't ever recall it being called otherwise. But I don't doubt it.  The local newspaper covered its demolition, but shed no real light on its history, except to say that the council accepted that despite the pub's being built around 1807,  it had no architectural merit or features.  One interesting point was that in common with the Irish way of pub naming, when the front was torn off, it revealed it had been called Galbraith's at one time. Again something I didn't know.

Dumbarton also used to have its own brewery. The Crown Brewery aka Gillespies, which was further along the High St than the Elephant, or rather, just off it. Oddly enough, that's something I didn't know for much of my Dumbarton life, but how that changed is another story and is mentioned here.  There isn't much detail on the Crown Brewery that I can find, but various labels and scant information are to be had fairly easily. In short though, the brewery was wound up, according to the Edinburgh Gazette in 1952. Sadly I have not been able to find out what subsequently happened, but it does seem that Scottish Brewers bought some liquidated assets, as they used "Gillespies" as the name of a stout, a beer which some may even remember.  I've often wondered if Crown/Gillespies ever owned any pubs in the town or indeed, elsewhere, but I have never been able to find out.  Of course if I was a proper historian - hold the press - any sort of historian at all - I'd delve more into that, but I refer you to my earlier paragraph above.

So the tale ends there? Not quite. When I looked at the photo above, I noticed behind the bar, on the gantry, a mirror. It is hard to say, but it looks like a Crown Brewery mirror. The shape of the crown on the mirror matches the crown used as the company logo. Was the Elephant and Castle supplied by Crown Brewery? It would seem so. Was it owned by them? Maybe. We need a historian to work that one out.

The Coat of Arms for Dumbarton is the Elephant and Castle. The elephant allegedly for the shape of Dumbarton Rock and the castle; well, the castle that sits upon the Rock. The Rock, 240 feet high, is allegedly the oldest known fortified site in Scotland and perhaps, Britain.

 I am grateful to Margaret Rose Black of Memories of Dumbarton for permission to use the photo of the staff in the pub and for the article I refer to.

Monday 2 November 2020

Book Review - The Family Brewers of Britain

The Industrial Revolution brought about huge changes, as Britain moved from a largely agrarian economy to a manufacturing one. Brewing, which had previously been a mainly small scale, domestic operation, changed as workers poured into towns and cities and saw demand exceeding supply.  To meet this demand, common or commercial breweries sprang up to meet the need for beer to be produced in volume. As Roger Protz emphasises in his latest book, The Family Brewers of Britain, almost without exception, the new commercial brewers were family businesses.  All the big names from the past, Bass, Barclay Perkins, Courage, Greene King, Truman, Whitbread and Worthington started out this way before becoming public companies.

As time went on, these businesses bought the pubs they supplied, tying them to buying only the parent company's beer, a practice that continues to this day.  Over the years, many breweries were taken over or merged with others. As pub ownership became more and more profitable, merger mania continued until the vast majority of pubs were owned by six giant companies.

Perhaps surprisingly amongst the rash of takeovers which saw many family brewing companies, give up the ghost and cash in their assets, a number of companies stood out against the tide, eventually forming the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) to protect their collective interests. It is these companies that are the subject of this book, which describes in detail how the families had mixed fortunes and how they arrived at where they are today. All had the shared problems of war, deaths, economic depressions and more, but while some overcame these by good management and internal agreement, others saw bad management, fraternal fallouts, splits, disagreements over money, policy and more. All are faithfully chronicled in Roger's usual meticulous style.

Each brewery gets its own chapter and these are grouped geographically. The oldest, Shepherd Neame, kicks us off. This is one of the more straightforward tales. After a series of partnerships, the Neame family have been in charge since the 19th century, surviving both wars rather unscathed.  The brewery expanded, often by takeovers of local rivals, innovated by introducing keg beers, was one of the first to produce foreign beers under licence and is now a vibrant and successful company producing nearly 200,000 barrels of beer a year.

Others weren't so lucky. Family fallouts abounded, including Samuel Smith, Batemans, Theakstons, JW Lees and Mc Mullens. All survived family disputes, or the ever present question of selling out to rivals, but often at financial and personal cost. In the case of Batemans, huge loans were taken out and pubs sold, while at Lees, Dick Lees-Jones, a renowned philatelist, sold his valuable stamp collection to help buy out other family members. In each case the wish to remain independent was the driving force and it is this striving for an autonomous future that is perhaps the common thread that links these businesses.

Roger also highlights the role of women family members. While many a boardroom is adorned with bewhiskered Victorian gentlemen, with doubtful haircuts and grim expressions, in some cases it was women who ruled the roost. Hester Parnall, the matriarch of St Austell, so scared the workforce, that when she visited the brewery, a warning was tapped through the pipework to advise employees to be on their best behaviour. That was child's play however compared to Mary Ann Lewis, who ran Felinfoel Brewery in Llanelli in the 20s and 30s. She actually carried a big stick and wasn't averse to clobbering recalcitrant workers with it. It is still on display in the brewery, as Roger wryly remarks "as an example of different times and attitudes to employee relations."  Other women who ran breweries such as Thwaites and Robinsons seem to have managed more conventionally, including the remarkable Annie Hyde, who ran Hydes Brewery for an astonishing 56 years.

Given that so many families are involved, it isn't at all surprising that many diverse tales occur throughout. A rescue of a prisoner in the Tower of London; an inveterate gambler, who shot himself at his brewery desk; long serving staff;  German bombs; unexpected deaths; innovative thinking; idiosyncratic behaviour; takeovers of rivals and much more. Interestingly too, the book explains that many of these old companies have now left their original, grand - but expensive to maintain and inflexible in brewing terms - Victorian sites, despite their sentimental value and moved to greenfield sites.  The business and its longevity means overcoming emotion.  This isn't just a dry tale of business so much, as an exposition of a particular way of life. 

When you read this book you can see that with twenty-nine member companies, producing over half a billion pints a year, owning over 4,000 pubs and sustaining nearly 70,000 jobs, that family brewers are still a force to be reckoned with. The history of each, clearly laid out by the author, weighs heavily on each family.  They see themselves as custodians for future generations and in almost every case there is another generation ready to take the baton from the current one. Having seen off their rivals, resisted the blandishments of others, they are in this now for the long haul. As William Lees-Jones, Managing Director of JW Lees explains "When we look at buying a pub, the first question we ask is will it be good for at least 50 years?"

The book itself is well laid out, with side panels and boxes breaking up the text, an explanation of the background to modern British brewing and a nod to the future with mentions of newer brewers such as Titanic. Inevitably there is a potted explanation of how beer is brewed. The book is lavishly illustrated with old photos and beer adverts throughout and is written in a clear, easy on the eye, font.

This book is a valuable contribution, not only to the beer lover's bookshelf, but it cleverly pulls together a vital part of our brewing heritage and puts it in context.  In this excellent book, Roger Protz, with his extensive knowledge of Britain's brewing history, has been the ideal conduit for this distinct group of breweries to present their own narrative in a cohesive way.  

This book will no doubt become a "go to" source for beer historians and should be set against the wider background of a country, which for all our current problems, is still one that identifies strongly with beer, pubs and breweries. 

ROGER PROTZ is a campaigner and broadcaster and the author of more than 25 books about beer and brewing. He was the editor of CAMRA's market-leading Good Beer Guide for over two decades and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the British Guild of Beer Writers and the Society of Independent Brewers.

Published by CAMRA Books. 9th September 2020. Hardcover 224 pages.

Roger's book is available from CAMRA Books