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Victoria’s Lesser-known Reign

Written by Les Middlewood

Forty years ago, the great swell of British brewers that we witnessed in the 1990’s and 2000’s was merely a pipedream. True, there were some green shoots in the late 1970’s – the likes of Ringwood and Butcombe were starting out and making a name for themselves, notably in real ale circles. But the industry was still strangled by the overbearing grip of Britain’s big brewers of the day – the marauding, faceless giants of Whitbread, Grand Metropolitan, Courage, Allied and Bass-Charrington who were still remorselessly acquiring, ransacking and then closing smaller breweries as they grimly tried to asphyxiate us all into drinking their appalling tasteless keg beers. Today, how good it is that younger beer drinkers have been spared the curse of Double Diamond, Tankard and Watney’s Red! During the 1970’s interest in real ale grew quickly with CAMRA as a vanguard, giving enterprising Hertfordshire Free House owners confidence to seek out interesting cask beers from smaller breweries – often long-established family brewers – from outside of the county. Beers from Ruddle’s, Adnams, Brakspear, Everard’s, Theakston’s and Sam Smith’s were just some of the favourites that could be found.

The early 1980’s saw a number of beer enthusiasts try their luck at brewing commercially in Hertfordshire including CAMRA members Tony Burns and Alan Swannell who set out to find a base for their brewing ambitions – settling on the Victoria Maltings in Broadmeads, Ware. The building was in the ownership of Paul and Sanders, East Anglian maltsters, who had constructed a more modern maltings next door, built in 1965 and which had long rendered the Victorian maltings mostly redundant – much of the old building by 1980 leased to small businesses. With the support of associate Chris Storey, around 40 shareholders and an army of keen friends and helpers, 3000 sq.ft of the southern end of the building, mainly on the first floor, was prepared for the arrival of brewing vessels. The adaptation of electrics and water supplies and full decoration of the disused space took place over a number of weeks and the hoist to the delivery bay was overhauled.

Incoming brewing equipment was mostly second-hand, Alan particularly proud that the acquired brewing copper was actually made from copper – now a rarity in these ‘stainless steel’ days. Some of the casks were obtained from Courage’s brewery at Horselydown in Bermondsey, London and others from Greenall Whitley in Warrington, Cheshire. The “Victoria Brewery” was primed and ready.

Brewing commenced in 1981 using malt from next door, hops from Sussex and Herefordshire, mains water and yeast kindly lent from Rayments of Furneux Pelham. There were to be no additives. By July the first beer, a traditional English-style quaffing bitter brewed at an Original Gravity (OG) of 1037 was ready and heading for the Cambridge Beer Festival.

Initial responses were encouraging and Victoria set out to brew 25 barrels of Victoria Bitter per week – soon to be supplemented with a heady winter strong ale – at OG 1063 – initially aimed for the Christmas period. A friendship was made with the lads at Crouch Vale who were also starting around that time and whose empty barrels were often found next to those of Victoria in pub yards around Essex, Herts and London. In December 1981 a firkin of Victoria Bitter, fresh from the brewery, cost £28.08p, that’s 39p per pint.

By late 1982 Alan Swannell had left to form the short-lived Swannell brewery in King’s Langley and brewing at Victoria was taken over by Paul Tweedale, sometimes aided by Tony’s brother Dave and with Tony concentrating on marketing and deliveries. Colin Mercer became Victoria’s Chairman and Ralph Lawday took a financial role. The strong ale had a new recipe and was renamed Hellfire and a further beer, Victoria Special Bitter (OG 1041) emerged. Thoughts of naming it Albert Ale were initially withdrawn as Andover’s Bourne Valley brewery had already bagged the name. As with many nascent breweries a yeast infection stalled quality and progress for a time but this was meticulously overcome and in March 1983 a promotional evening was held at the Buffalo’s Head in Puckeridge to provide new impetus – the three beers by now a standard offering regularly reaching pubs in the Home Counties. To name a few, in Hertfordshire, familiar outlets were the White Horse in Hertingfordbury, the Chequers and Wareside and the Crooked Billet in Colney Heath. In London, Victoria had won a contract with the pub chain Nicholsons – their beers regularly appearing at the Argyll (opposite the London Palladium), the Westminster Arms (near the Houses of Parliament) and the Blackfriars, close to the Thames.

Victoria eventually did rename their Special Victoria Bitter as Albert Ale (OG1043) and the three beers, with their distinctive steel pump clips, ticked over. Yet sadly all was not quite well. Many landlords were tardy with payments whilst still making new orders and Victoria eventually fell into the trap of chasing and chasing non-payments and then not having the capital to buy more malt and hops to brew beer or even pay their own bills. Attempts were made to recover the situation and Victoria also moved into the world of wholesale, their beers travelling through distributors such as Scott Grange to pubs far and wide in Britain. But soon this too presented a problem. At that time there were no cask distribution and collection agreements with other breweries and Victoria were losing one cask in four, each wiping out profits made on a number of casks. The financial position had become irretrievable and by June 1985 Victoria Brewery was no more. Its beers had won awards at CAMRA Beer Festivals and it had gained a good reputation for consistency and quality with Herts drinkers but, along with some other young breweries at the time, cash-flow had become an immovable albatross.

It is a shame that Victoria Brewery only survived for 4 years – it deserves to be more than a brewing footnote. Its existence was spurred by the optimism and exuberance that existed as Britain discovered pride in its brewing tradition and enjoyed newfound interest in the whole world of brewing. Victoria were one of the first to leap from the springboard that has led to the rich brewing landscape and wide range of resultant beers which we all enjoy today.

Cheers to its memory.

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