Last week, The Birmingham Post announced the return of Banks’s Mild, one of the iconic Midlands beers. This week, TOM SCOTNEY visits the Park Brewery, one of the few survivors of a proud brewing heritage – and now the new home for another brewery that wasn’t so lucky.
As life starts to return to normal in the flood-hit Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, locals might be forgiven for wanting to wind down with a pint.
But the floods have thrown a spanner in the works for people who want to drown their sorrows with the local brew.
The rising flood waters swamped the Jennings brewery near the side of the river, leaving multi-ton pieces of metal machinery floating through the building and everything that was still fixed down coated in a layer of grime.
So while the team at Jennings have a festive season of scrubbing ahead of them, it’s been turned over to brewers at Wolverhampton’s Banks’s brewery to try to keep the Cumbrian ale fans happy.
The brewery was drafted in as an emergency replacement for Jennings to keep the supply of ale going over Christmas. When I visited the Park Brewery, head brewer Richard Frost was nervously waiting for a visit from his counterpart at Jennings to see whether the West Midlands team could make something that would satisfy the picky Cumbrian ale drinkers.
But he said it was impossible ever to completely replicate a beer outside its original home. In the month or two that it’s expected to get the Cockermouth brewery back to operational shape, all bottles and barrels of Jennings sent out will have notes attached letting drinkers know that normal service has been interrupted and that their beer has come from the Banks’s brewery, rather than its normal starting point.
But while the Jennings brewery has been knocked out of action, last week Banks’s announced it was rebranding Banks’s Mild – the best-selling mild beer in the world – because people were starting to show more interest in the drink.
Ale drinking is back in vogue, with sales buoyant despite the recession as people get more interested in what they’re drinking. While the number of local ‘microbreweries’ is booming, regional brewers like Banks’s, which is owned by the Marston’s group of brewers, have seen sales of cask ales rise, as well as more people buying bottles to avoid high pub prices during the recession.
While Banks’s may be banking on the real ale revival for the success of the mild, Richard says there are encouraging signs even among the lads working at the brewery.
He says: “Thirty years ago, without exception, people from the brewery drank only beer from here when they went out. Now, when the young guys join, a lot of them are lager drinkers or like alco-pops. But now, quite a few of those say they are having a few pints of bitter or mild at the start of the evening.”
The process of making ale – and even the equipment used – has changed little since the brewery started. It’s still a matter of mashing, hopping, fermenting and racking, using the traditional balance of malt, hops and water.
While the pint of real ale might be a classic British institution, there’s one of the ingredients that’s altogether more exotic. Pressed like butterflies in cases around the tasting room at the brewery are some of the swim bladders of the south-east Asian fish which have always been used to clear the yeast out of barrels while serving.
But it’s largely a local thing. Despite having the best-selling mild beer in the world, you’d be hard pressed to find Banks’s beer on tap outside a well-defined area around the Black Country.
Banks’s is the largest surviving brewery in the West Midlands – an area that was formerly teeming with beer makers producing drinks for the region’s thirsty industrial workers. While big names like Ansells and Davenports closed down their breweries in Birmingham, Banks’s is still made on the same site in Wolverhampton city centre where the brewery was founded in 1875.
What started as a row of Victorian buildings on a small street turned into a closed-off corral of buildings surrounding a central courtyard filled with a maze of kegs stacked high.
Inside the brewery buildings on Lovatt Street, new equipment stands alongside old – stainless steel whirlpools that look like submarine engines next to huge unused Victorian copper kettles. But the oldest part of the process is still in operation – the live yeast which turns the sugar into alcohol.
In the days the beer spends fermenting, the yeast bubbles up into what are called ‘rocky’ peaks, which are then scraped off to be re-used in the next batch. This means the same culture of yeast has been on the go for more than 100 years, with none being replaced since the brewery was founded.
Richard says the brewery is finally starting to realise that the history, location and processes at the site are a draw in themselves. In the new year, a massive scrubbing and polishing session will start to get the old copper equipment – which has been standing around collecting dust since the new gear was installed – shining again.
The brewery is opening a new visitor centre, which is expected to be up and running by Easter.
* Timeline: How Banks's Became Marston's
* Banks’s beers have been made at the Park Brewery in Wolverhampton since 1875. The success of the beer turned it from a standalone brewery into one of the UK’s largest regional pub groups. After the purchase of Marston’s in 1999, what had previously been known as Wolverhampton & Dudley took on the name of it’s newly-acquired subsidiary.
* 1875: Banks’s and Company began brewing at Park Brewery.
* 1890: The Wolverhampton & Dudley Brewery was formed from an amalgamation of three local breweries, including Banks’s and Co.
* 1909: Acquired North Worcestershire Breweries.
* 1912-28: Acquired John Rolinson and Sons Ltd at Netherton, Kidderminster Brewery Co, City Brewery Co in Lichfield and the wines and spirits business of Robert Allen and Co Ltd of Worcester.
* 1943: Acquired Julia Hanson and Sons ltd of Dudley.
* 1960: Acquired the Broadway Brewery at Shifnal.
* 1964: Floated on the Stock Exchange for the first time.
* 1992: JW Cameron and Co Ltd of Hartlepool was acquired.
* 1999: Marston, Thompson and Evershed Ltd acquired
* 2000: Mansfield Brewery Co Ltd was acquired
* 2005: Acquired the Jennings Brewery in Cumbria
* Uncovering the brewing process
Barley is sprayed with water to start germination, then quickly dried by heat to make malt. There are a number of different kinds of malt, each of which gives its own flavour and colour to the beer. The malt is put through rollers that grind it into grist, and then piled up in a hopper ready to be used in the next step.
The grist from the hopper is added to hot water – or liquor – taken from the breweries wells. The combination of salts in the local water has a big impact on the flavour of the beer and is carefully monitored. The mixture is left in the giant Mash Tuns, while the enzymes in the malt convert the starch into sugar. The sweet liquid produced, known as wort, is then piped away, while the leftover grain is used for animal feed.
The wort is piped into copper whirlpools, where it is boiled while being swept around. The hops, which add bitterness and more complex flavours to the drink, are added at this point. Banks’s Mild uses Fuggles and Goldings hops, both grown in England. The whirlpool action helps to pile up the sediment from protein and the hops while the mixture is boiled for about an hour. The mixture is then pumped away into the fermentation vats.
The beer mixture is pumped into wide, shallow vats, where yeast is added, then left to ferment for about two days. The action of the yeast gets to work on the sugars in the mixture, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast creates a bubbling head of foam on top of the vats which has to be periodically skimmed away by the brewery workers. The yeast also multiplies, rising to the top of the mixture, where it can be used in a new batch of beer.
Beer from the fermenting vats is pumped down to a large dispenser, where it is pumped into casks, where it starts to ferment for a second time – one of the characteristics of cask ale. The finings, which clears yeast and sediment from the beer, is also added at this point. The beer is at its optimum condition for drinking around a week after it is put into the casks.