PHIPPS NBC OVERVIEW
Like the River Nene, the boot and shoe industry, The Cobblers, The Saints, Jimmy’s End Lighthouse, Bassett-Lowke, picture perfect villages of iron and limestone, Phipps is lodged deep in the county’s collective memory. The idea of a pint of Phipps stirs up evocative associations in those for whom the past is not a foreign country: the smell of the shoe factory and leather works, pounds shillings and pence, steam trains, spires and squires, rolling green fields and hedge rows, open roads, warm and welcoming pubs selling local beer… a gone but not forgotten world.
Founded in Towcester in 1801 and opening a second brewery in Northampton in 1817, Phipps NBC became part of the Watney Mann Empire in 1960, ending 159 years of independence. Despite assurances of a bright and prosperous future, the company’s beers and brewery were steadily run down over the next 14 years. Phipps draught disappeared in 1968 with bottled IPA and Jumbo Stout lasting another four years. The Bridge Street brewery continued to produce beer sold under the Watney and Manns brands until May 1974 when Carlsberg took full possession of the site and built their lager plant there, still brewing today.
The last wooden casks of Phipps IPA ready to leave Bridge Street in May 1968
Tuesday 20th May 1968 was the final brew day of Phipps traditional, fined, draught beer, what we would know as real ale today. This was timed to give the publicans the whit weekend bank holiday to clear the last stock of Phipps, it fell between June 1st and 3rd in 1968. The weather was warm, throats were dry and news of the finale had come from the press so some pubs had sold out well before.
Pubs around the region chalked up notices, “Last Phipps today”. Men who had followed in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as Phipps drinkers shook their heads at the cruel way the modern world had taken away their birthright. A time- tested product of quality swept away in the name of modernity and progress. As the last wooden barrels gradually emptied in the days that followed, a small piece of Northamptonshire’s unique character drained away.
Celebrated Ales & Stouts
Like the majority of brewers whose business started in the late 18th or early 19th century, Phipps’ original Towcester and Northampton Ales were thick, dark and strong, a style of beer close to today’s porter. In the mid 19th century the Burton style of brewing began to make inroads into the national market as the railways made transportation of bulky, heavy goods like beer possible for the first time. At the same time advances in glass manufacture technology meant drinkers would be able to see the beer they were drinking in the glass unlike the older pewter, ceramic or leather pots.
When the Phillips Brothers moved in next door to Phipps and immediately began brewing Burton style clear, sparkling beers sold under the “Star” sign to emphasise their clarity, Phipps were jolted into re designing their range. Chairman Pickering Phipps II put his family fortune into rebuilding and enlarging the Phipps brewery between 1864 and ’68, allowing the company to brew pale ales. Phipps chose the name “Diamond” to attach to their new Burton Ales. Later on the exclusive use of this name would be fought over by Bass, Davenports and Phipps with Bass eventually coming out the winner although Phipps was allowed to continue to calling their original pale ale Diamond.
From the 1840s a style of beer had emerged to serve the colonial trade, in particular the export of ales to British India. Hops in beer not only give flavour, they act as a preservative and the more hops you add and the stronger the beer, the longer it will last. Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, a cargo of cask beer would take 4 to 6 months to arrive in Eastern Indian ports. The East India Company picked up on the early successes of Hodgsons Bow Brewery’s heavily hopped ales in India and in 1822 commissioned Allsop’s of Burton to produce an India Pale Ale specifically for export. Even stronger and hoppier brews came to be known as East India Pale Ales as they had 1000s of nautical miles further to travel in the tropical heat to reach Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.
Phipps in landlocked Northampton never had pretension to become a major exporter but by the late 19th century India Pale Ales were becoming a popular style of beer in Britain. To mark to opening of their new enlarged brewery in 1868, Phipps added an IPA to their range. They developed a strong brew with an Amber tint unlike many paler IPAs. Although highly hopped, a characteristic of Northampton brewed beers lead to a slight softening of the tarter edge making the IPA “a most drinkable pint” as one old brewer described it, full of flavour without excessive bitterness. Up the road at NBC, as Phillips had become, their best bitter was proving the company’s best seller, a darker, nuttier brew than their neighbour’s offerings.
Both Phipps and NBC beers were noted for their higher than average hop content which gave a fuller flavour to the beers in comparison to the competition. The gradual success of these two companies in out selling other local ales and in seeing off neighbouring brewers, was often put down to the tastes of the core market, namely shoe factory workers. A working day spent in an atmosphere steeped in tannin rich leather aroma drove men towards beers which could cut through the clag; flavour and bitterness became prised attributes in their pint mugs. The reduction in strength of the IPA to 4.3% during WW1 also helped to turn drinkers to it on a regular basis. It was no accident that Northamptonshire’s chosen session bitter was uniquely an India Pale Ale, a beer with a higher hop content than standard pale ales or bitters.
As a comparison, in areas where the main industry was a hard physical one such as mining iron and steel or shipbuilding, the nature of the work would push drinkers towards dark, heavy, maltier ales and stout that put back the calories at the end of the day; hence Newcastle Brown’s long reign in the heavy industrial North East. Yorkshire and Notts miners took to thicker, darker bitters for the same reason. In the West Midlands Milds were more popular than bitters, perhaps light engineering oil didn’t produce the same need for bitter flavours as leather dust. In areas where agriculture was the mainstay of the drinking population, lighter, clearer fruity ales often did well. Even today ales from rural regions are often described with terms like “Floral” or “Fruity”, attributes that would have drawn men who spent their working days outdoors.
The link with locality and flavours, along with one industry dominating employment in a town or county, started to fade in the 1960s. National brands developed that needed good transport link and national advertising to make sense. Watney’s purchase of Phipps in 1960 is a text book case; the M1 had just arrived from London and ITV had taken to the Midlands airwaves in 1956. Another separate development was the arrival of lager. British Forces returned from WW2 and later national service tours of Germany with a taste for Pilsner and the availability of refrigeration to cool the beer facilitated its arrival in British bars from the ‘50s on. The increasing material wealth of the country allied to the beginning of foreign holidays meant lager drinking initially became a badge of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan, how times change.
Today the resurgence of traditional real ale brewing, often led by that Northamptonshire invention, the Micro Brewery, has put the full range of styles and flavours possible with craft brewed ales within reach of the whole country. This is undoubtedly a good thing, let many flowers bloom and many pints be pulled. No one would want to go back to a time where one brewery had a monopoly in an area and where in towns like Northampton, if you didn’t drink either Phipps or NBC, you were likely to be a child or tea totaller. Those days will never return but we felt it was a worthy project to bring back Phipps’ range of beers, developed over decades and even centuries, tailored to the tastes of an industry and way of life that might not be the regional giant of old but is still a part of the particular heritage of our town and county.