POST DEMOLITION YEARS & THE REVIVED BREWING BUSINESS
Litchborough 1974 -1986
At the time of the closing and demolition of the Bridge Street Brewery, the head brewer was Bill Urquhart. Bill had started out as a brewer in Alloa before heading south to Tollymache in Ipswich. From there he moved to Ely with East Anglian Breweries and then to Steward and Patteson in Norwich. They were taken over by Watney Mann in 1963 and as a result Bill was transferred within the company to Phipps in Northampton that same year.
Noel “Dusty” Miller, Bridge Street’s long serving head brewer, had moved over to Carlsberg a year before the final end of brewing and his deputy, Bill, took over to see out the last days of the Phipps Brewery. In the years running up to closure Bill had made attempts to convince the Watney Mann board to construct a small brewing plant at the new Lodge Farm, Duston Depot. He knew that there was still a demand for a local, Northamptonshire brewed draught beer. A small brew plant could easily add its casks into the distribution system being constructed to bring beers in from other surviving Watney breweries. Unfortunately his plans found no favour and Duston would never produce its own beer.
Bill Urquhart and Frank Kenna in the late ’70s Litchborough Brewery
Around Britain at this time many other traditional breweries were closing so finding similar employment with another company was going to difficult. Clearly there was to be no job for Bill in the new streamlined, state-of-the-art lager brewery in Northampton either.
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.
John Heaverman and Bill Urquhart in the brewery with halves of Northamptonshire Bitter
Bill, however, was a resourceful and practical man who decided to strike out on his own. With the help of former Bridge Street colleagues such as Chief Chemist Michael Henson, Bill set about transforming the Phipps IPA recipe into something he could brew on a small scale. He and Mike actually worked on this recipe at Bridge Street, under the noses of the Watney management. Mike remembers slipping out to Boots in his lunch hour to buy ingredients for the secret trial brews. Using his redundancy money and contacts within the brewing fraternity, Bill cobbled together the country’s first micro brewery in the small Northamptonshire village of Litchborough.
Bill had initially tried to interest other former Phipps brewers in becoming his partner but it was soon apparent that the business would only support one wage. However like many small businesses and microbreweries in particular, behind Bill stood his wife Nessie and sometimes daughter Elspeth who both chipped in when needed. By 1978 neighbour Frank Kenna had formally become Bill’s business partner after helping out since the early days and helping Bill to turn the odd collection of redundant cellar tanks into a working brewery.
At first the product range was sparse and simple, a traditional bitter in the Phipps style but it gained a loyal following. Initially it was only produced as a premium keg bitter since most of the area’s cellars and bars had lost their beer pumps in the dash to keg that Watneys had encouraged. As the decade rolled on Bill encouraged many independent outlets to re-install traditional beer engines which enabled him to begin brewing and supplying them with traditional cask ale.
The mid- ‘70s saw the beginnings of the real ale revival and Bill was to play a key role as consultant to many small independent brewers setting up at this time. At his brewery he took on apprentices and passed on his knowledge directly. One such was Richard Jenkinson who would go on to found his own company down the road in Aylesbury, and The Chiltern Brewery continues to flourish there today. Another, John Heaverman would eventually take over the Litchborough concern when Bill literally flew off to St. Helena to help the government there set up an indigenous brewery, again calling on former Phipps friends such as Peter Mauldon to help source the plant.
Bill came to be seen as the father of the new generation of small breweries which sprang up during the first wave of the real ale revival. CAMRA’s Mick Bolshaw said at the time: “Many a small brewer has beaten a path to Bill’s fermentation vessels in search of advice and expertise, which has been freely and cheerfully given. The man seems to have become a guru to the trade.” Chronicle and Echo, Oct 1980
In 1980 the brewery re-located to Daventry after planning permission for an enlarged plant in the village of Litchborough was refused. To mark the move and Bill’s retirement, Northampton CAMRA members rolled a 9 gallon firkin of the last brew 5 miles from Litchborough to the new site in Daventry.
In 1983 Liddingtons, Rugby-based beer and wine wholesalers, bought the company from John Heaverman although he continued working at the re-located plant with his sons. The new owner’s enthusiasm soon faded and the end finally came in 1986. Bill and his wife had by this time retired to their native Scotland but in the years following the demise of Bridge St. he had successfully passed on the Phipps way of brewing to the next generation.
The term Microbrewery hadn’t been coined when Litchborough started but it is now regarded as the first example in the world. Other claimants to the title are the Selby Brewery although this was a re-opening of an existing brewery in 1972, and Westbury Ales in 1973 which was a small brewpub based in the Miner’s Arms, Priddy, Somerset. Bob Hipwell, from another long line of brewers, stayed with Watneys and Grand Met and moved down to London to take up a number of senior positions within the brewing empire. Bill Urquhart, the last head brewer at Bridge Street, started arguably the world’s first micro brewery in Litchborough and became a consultant to many of the micros that set up in his wake. Mike Henson, Phipps Chief Chemist from 1964 to 1972 transferred his skills to Carlsberg and continued as their UK Chief Chemist at the new Bridge St. Brewery until 1996. Peter Mauldon initially went to Watney’s Mortlake Brewery but returned to his native Suffolk to re-establish the family’s brewery, Mauldons in Sudbury, his son still works there today whilst Peter is a consultant at Cask Marque.
Frank Kenna Interview
Frank moved back from Australia in 1973 and found himself living next door to Bill and Nessie Urquhart in Litchborough, Northants. Bill had bought a property from Watney Mann, an old pub with barns in the rear and was in the process of getting his microbrewery together. Frank was an engineer and was enlisted to help with the construction of the plant. In these early days, long before an industry grew up to support microbrewing, every thing had to be made from scratch or adapted from other sources of parts.
Bill had got hold of a number of redundant cellar tanks from Watneys and these formed the basis of the Litchborough operation. Frank remembers drilling 1000’s of holes in a sheet of stainless steel to make the mash tun filter floor, In the early days the ingredients also had to consist of whatever was available at a price and quantity that matched Bill’s 5 barrel plant. Originally Wheat syrup was used along with malt but soon Frank was able to cobble together a small malt mill from two redundant CO2 bottles and a washing machine motor. The pair only managed to find one large propane burner for the kettle which often led to a slight charring on the bottom of the vessel. Bill found this added a slight burnt, smokey note to the beer which he kept as part of the flavour. 4 varieties of hops were used, the idea being that if any one wasn’t available Bill could blend a close enough brew from 3, or supplement a different fourth. The beer was always cold filtered but then dry hopped and yeast added in the cask. Over the 6 years with Bill at the helm, Litchborough’s Northamptonshire Bitter evolved and improved but remained 3.8%. It is odd to think now in an era when light, golden beers dominate the trade that Bill coloured his naturally light brew with burnt sugar to make it appeal as a traditional, dark bitter.
The very first customer was Farthingstone Golf Course where Bill was a member, the beer delivered in kegs. As the 70s wore on more free houses broke away from the strangle hold of national chains and trad cask Litchborough grew as a proportion of production. Bill was not a crusader for real ale in the purist CAMRA sense, he was trying to brew a beer of traditional character but was always a pragmatic and prudent man. Nothing illustrates this more than his willing attempt to brew a lager. Carlsberg, like Watneys before them, experienced a plant shutting strike in the ’70s. One of Bill’s customers who also served Carlsberg lager, asked him if he could supply an alternative during the strike and Bill happily dusted off the old Phipps Stein formula and produced a brew or two of “Litchbrau”. When Carlsberg resumed production Bill returned to a bitter only brewery.
Bill, or Morris as his close friends and family knew him, was often likened to Dad’s army’s Captain Mainwaring and not just for his physical resemblance, like Captain Mainwaring he was no push over. His day would start at 8.00 am with an opening drink and at mid day lunch was always served with full silver service, napkins and a finishing glass of whiskey. Generally, afternoons at Litchborough were not quite as industrious as the mornings.
Frank had initially been an occasional engineer, drayman and brewer at Litchborough as the turnover was small and variable in the first years of trading. By 1978 the business had established itself and Frank came on board full time. Although Bill had wanted him to stay on after he retired in 1980, Frank decided to return to his main profession and after pursuing a few avenues, eventually started an engineering company with two other partners which took up most of his working life. He remained a good friend of the Urquharts for the rest of theirs.
Today Frank is back working in a brewery as a director of Phipps Northampton Brewery Company, acting as our chief brewery engineer
The Dry Years 1974 – 2004
Watney Mann’s new owners Grand Metropolitan were a large, sprawling company that seemed to understand hotels and real estate more than it did brewing. The plans they inherited for the remaining part of the old Phipps NBC business, a pub chain without a brewery, involved building a new distribution centre at Lodge Farm in Duston which would bring in beer from other breweries and brewers to serve the estate. Later the pub chain would be run from offices in Brackmills, Northampton, not far from the old Bridge St. Brewery site. Although the new brewery only brewed Carlsberg lager, it was still part owned by Grand Met until 1985.
Watney Mann had entered the ‘70s as a motley collection of old breweries servicing a number of separate pub estates, headed up by a brand that had quickly gone from being the dashing modern hope of brewing to the butt of radical humour and one of the hate figures for the emerging real ale movement.The famous Monty Python travel agent sketch where Eric Idle’s Mr Smoketoomuch rants on about Spain being full of tourists drinking “bleeding Watneys Red Barrel” was first aired on 16th November 1972 and captures the moment the tide turned against Watneys. Sweetening the brew and re-branding it simply “Watneys Red” only delayed the end.
Ironically, only 8 years after ending traditional “fined” bitter ,Watney Mann Midland were trailing “new, traditional gas free real ale” in autumn 1976. Stung by the success of CAMRA and Litchborough and with an eye on market share, 30 rural pubs were chosen to re-introduce this type of beer. Although it was brewed in Norwich, new managing director Robin Harston announced it was the first step towards catering for local tastes:
” We have a lot of homework to do and part of that involves finding out what people really want from their local brewer… for even if we no longer have a brewery in Northampton, we are still looked upon over a wide area as the local brewer.” Chronicle and Echo September 1976.
It is possible to imagine the directors and managers at Watney Mann Midland realising their hasty discarding of Phipps might have been a mistake and that although sterile gas-filled keg beer had its place, there would always be a market for a more complex and crafted beer. CAMRA had labelled Northamptonshire a “Real Ale desert”, largely thanks to the efforts of Watneys in dismantling the county’s beer engines, and the label stuck.