Welcome to Adnamsland

Apples in Suffolk.

Introduction

We’d been want­i­ng to go to South­wold for almost a decade but, when we lived in Lon­don, could nev­er quite find the occa­sion – it was incon­ve­nient for a week­end jaunt, but too close for a full-on hol­i­day. There’s a per­verse log­ic in the fact that we final­ly made the trip to Suf­folk, England’s most east­er­ly coun­ty, only after com­ing to live with­in ten miles of Land’s End in the far west.

We were prompt­ed to act, first, by my fam­i­ly his­to­ry: hav­ing learned that many of my ances­tors in the 19th cen­tu­ry spent their lives in and around a hand­ful of towns and vil­lages in the coun­ty, I felt a pow­er­ful urge to retrace their steps.

And then, of course, there is Adnams. I first came across the South­wold brewery’s beer in the ear­ly 00s when I was just devel­op­ing a taste for real ale, and it was ubiq­ui­tous in pubs keen to demon­strate CAMRA cre­den­tials. At the same time, I was study­ing for my accoun­tan­cy exams, and read about Adnams in not one but two busi­ness man­age­ment text-books. It was used to illus­trate the con­cept of ‘bar­ri­ers to entry’ as part of com­pe­ti­tion the­o­ry, the gist being that Adnams, remote­ly sit­u­at­ed and with a com­pre­hen­sive dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work across its region, had been able to resist the onslaught of the Big Six monop­oly brew­ers in the 1960s and 70s and remain inde­pen­dent.

What fol­lows are some obser­va­tions and impres­sions of South­wold and the sur­round­ing area – lit­er­al­ly ‘what we did on our hol­i­days’ – and not much more.

Boak

* * *

Adnams's shield on a pub wall.

There is no train to Southwold and the nearest station is at Halesworth, a small inland market town of weathered red-brick.

Before catch­ing our con­nect­ing bus, we spent an hour wan­der­ing in the unsea­son­ably warm late Sep­tem­ber sun­light, past the old malt­ings by the rail­way line, and along the high street – or, rather, the Thor­ough­fare. It was busy, in a sedate way, pop­u­lat­ed with butch­ers, bak­ers and oth­er fam­i­ly busi­ness­es. There were also occa­sion­al reminders that this is a part of the world is rich in his­to­ry, such as the grotesque lions, fox, mon­key and oth­er ani­mals carved in naive medieval style over the entrance to an oth­er­wise non­de­script café.

We enjoyed our first pints of Adnams’s beer on home turf, more-or-less, at the White Hart. Star­tling­ly dif­fer­ent to how it had tast­ed so many times in lack­lus­tre Lon­don pubs, we found South­wold Bit­ter crisply hop­py, with an almost des­ic­cat­ing bit­ter­ness – brown, yes, but cer­tain­ly not bor­ing. We could not help but won­der with some excite­ment how much bet­ter it might taste in South­wold, under the watch­ful eye of the brew­ery.

* * *

A forklift truck on a quiet street.

Southwold isn’t merely by the sea – it’s at sea, as if it was designed to make naval captains on half pay feel at home while they awaited a new commission.

Gun­hill, at the top of town, has a row of can­nons point­ing out into Sole Bay, and there are white-paint­ed sem­a­phore posts at var­i­ous points along the seafront.

Most obvi­ous­ly, there is the light­house. It is no wave-bat­tered Wolf Rock, being, rather, a block in from the prom­e­nade and cosi­ly sur­round­ed by ter­raced hous­es. By day, it looks mere­ly pic­turesque. At night, how­ev­er, as its beams rotate silent­ly across the sky, pro­ject­ing far out to sea, it becomes impos­ing, reas­sur­ing, and rather mag­i­cal.

Pho­tog­ra­phers seem drawn to anoth­er local insti­tu­tion – the pas­tel-paint­ed beach huts which line the sea wall. They’re cer­tain­ly pho­to­genic but also hint at some­thing unnerv­ing about South­wold – it is a town mug­ging for Insta­gram, per­ma­nent­ly made-up and pre­sent­ing its pret­ti­est pro­file.

The town cen­tre has more than its fair share of busi­ness­es sell­ing an aspi­ra­tional vision of the coun­try-coastal lifestyle – design­er hunt­ing jack­ets, red trousers, pol­ka-spot­ted Welling­ton boots, and striped sailor shirts that wouldn’t last ten min­utes in a gale eight at Ger­man Bight.

We heard hard­ly any Suf­folk accents. The ripest belonged to a farmer sell­ing apples on the mar­ket square, although he was so square-jawed and stereo­typ­i­cal­ly rugged that we weren’t entire­ly con­vinced it wasn’t Rupert Everett prepar­ing for a role.

While we were buy­ing apples, a Lon­don cab sailed by, but it wasn’t black – it was pur­ple, and cov­ered in slo­gans in yel­low type. It was the cam­paign vehi­cle for the right-wing pop­ulist polit­i­cal par­ty UKIP, no less, and we lat­er saw it parked in a dri­ve­way on the edge of town.

What saves South­wold from feel­ing com­plete­ly twee is the pres­ence of a thump­ing great work­ing brew­ery. Peo­ple in boil­er suits shared the streets with well-to-do sec­ond-homers up from Lon­don; the smell of mash­ing malt and steep­ing hops was always on the air; and when­ev­er the scene began to resem­ble too close­ly an episode of the Vic­ar of Dib­ley, a fork-lift truck would come skid­ding out of the brew­ery gates, head­ing for one of the many ancil­lary work­shops or ware­hous­es.

* * *

The window of the Lord Nelson, Southwold.

For a small town (its population is officially only 800), Southwold has plenty of pubs, most, if not all, owned by Adnams.

The Lord Nel­son is the most imme­di­ate­ly eye-catch­ing. Only a few steps from the sea, its hang­ing sign con­stant­ly creaks in the breeze, and frost­ed win­dows break the warm light inside into gleam­ing, flick­er­ing spots. We vis­it­ed on Fri­day night and found it busy but not quite crowd­ed. There was a group of young peo­ple drink­ing the sea­son­al dark Old Ale from dim­pled mugs and a table­ful of white-haired locals on lager, bit­ter, whisky and wine. The walls are cov­ered in nau­ti­cal mem­o­ra­bil­ia and legal doc­u­ments relat­ing to the pub’s own­er­ship in years gone by. It is the kind of Olde Inn tourists look for, but is by no means insin­cere.

The Red Lion is sim­i­lar­ly cosy, but the ser­vice was more busi­ness-like on our vis­it, with two pro­fes­sion­al bar­men despatch­ing drinks with effi­cien­cy, and as much ban­ter as nec­es­sary, but not a word more. A man at the bar who had over-indulged on Broad­side was lec­tur­ing them about some­thing or oth­er, obnox­ious­ly and only semi-coher­ent­ly, but they took it in turns to lis­ten to and humour him.

The Sole Bay Inn is a cor­ner pub in what looks like an ear­ly Vic­to­ri­an build­ing with­in sight of the brew­ery gates. Recent­ly made over in bright-and-breezy beach­side style, it felt mod­ern and fresh when busy, but rather ster­ile when qui­et. We saw it in the lat­ter mood on a week night as we sipped Adnams’s own whisky and sloe gin while the man­ag­er pol­ished the bar, deter­mined to stay open until clos­ing, despite the end-of-sea­son atmos­phere. When it was busy, a large part of the crowd seemed to be brew­ery staff, which must say some­thing.

The Har­bour Inn, on the way out of town towards Wal­ber­swick, sits on the edge of the Riv­er Blyth and, as pub­lic­i­ty for the pub wry­ly observes, ‘some­times in it’. It has lots of lev­els and small rooms and the one in which we found our­selves had a hatch open­ing on to the floor-lev­el of the upstairs bar through which pints were passed by crouch­ing staff. All the elec­tri­cal points were mount­ed around the ceil­ing, out of reach of the aver­age flood, and the floor­ing and fur­ni­ture were all designed to with­stand an influx of mud­dy water.

But Adnams also has the drink-at-home mar­ket sewn up with two out­lets in town – a small cor­ner shop near the Red Lion, and a vast mod­ern show­room where beer plays a sup­port­ing role to wine, spir­its (Adnams pro­duces its own vod­ka, gin and whisky), retro post­cards and high-end kitchen­ware.

* * *

Flat marshlands in Suffolk.

We spent much of each day tramping from one village to another, or around suburbs that had once been villages, searching for family names on headstones and war memorials, and following the folk footpaths they might have used, from churchyard to pub.

Though almost every vil­lage we passed through on bus­es had white­washed Adnams pubs at their hearts, it became appar­ent that the brew­ery does not entire­ly dom­i­nate this part of Suf­folk.

Dun­wich is famous pri­mar­i­ly because the old­est part of it was swal­lowed up by the sea. It used to have a supe­ri­or har­bour until the sands shift­ed sev­er­al hun­dred years ago, and South­wold gained the upper hand. There is a lin­ger­ing pride in Dunwich’s his­tor­i­cal sta­tus – in the vast num­ber of her­ring it used to pay in tax­es each year, for exam­ple – and per­haps also, even today, some bit­ter­ness. The Ship Inn, a safe dis­tance from the frag­ile coast­line, is all dark wood and cor­ners. It serves Adnams, but also beers from Nor­folk. Its large, slop­ing gar­den is home to sev­er­al decrepit fruit trees, and the grass was thick with rot­ting apples and pears.

In Kess­ing­land, we found more apples, clut­ter­ing up bus stops, rolling in gut­ters, and for sale in plas­tic bags on tres­tle tables on dri­ve­ways and lawns. Anoth­er town which is no longer as impor­tant as once it was, it lacks Southwold’s prim cute­ness, being more the kind of place where pen­sion­ers in anoraks hud­dle under shel­ters eat­ing sand­wich­es from Tup­per­ware box­es, and where work­ing peo­ple actu­al­ly live. There is no fresh­ly-paint­ed Adnams house, either. One pub is board­ed up, while anoth­er looked rather down-at-heel and was closed, and so we killed 30 min­utes in Livingstone’s, a ‘fun’ pub on the site of the local wildlife park, ‘Africa Alive!’ Cav­ernous and dim­ly lit, it throbbed with dance music play­ing for the ben­e­fit of the bar staff and two young men at the pool table. There was Adnams’s ale but it was served along­side beer from a local micro­brew­ery.

At Carl­ton Colville, now on the edge of Low­est­oft, but once a vil­lage in its own right, we enjoyed pints of Elgood’s from Cam­bridgeshire at the Bell Inn, and helped the pub­li­can round-up a gang of dogs which had escaped from the gar­den and were caus­ing chaos on the main road into town. As we wait­ed for a bus, we noticed that the hedgerow oppo­site was over­run with wild hops.

In Low­est­oft prop­er, we knew we weren’t in Adnam­s­land any­more. The town expand­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly as a fish­ing port in the 19th cen­tu­ry and again in the 1960s with North Sea oil exploita­tion, but has since declined con­sid­er­ably along with those indus­tries. Its high street is now too long for the num­ber of busi­ness­es in oper­a­tion and what should be a quaint old town feels run down and rough. Adnams, with its Coun­try Liv­ing style, doesn’t seem to ‘do’ decline, and is bare­ly present.

* * *

Pumpclip for Adnams Old Ale.

What is the secret to Adnams’s success, and why is it not held in the same contempt as its near neighbour, Greene King?

For one thing, Adnams’s beer is, on the whole, good.  Though none of the pints of bit­ter we drank in South­wold were as tran­scen­dent as our first in Halesworth, they were always sat­is­fy­ing and inter­est­ing, with a sug­ges­tion of salty shrub­bi­ness which evoked the marshy land­scape. Old Ale, real­ly a sort of ‘best mild’, was res­olute­ly old-school – all caramel and brew­ing sug­ars. But, as well as sat­is­fy­ing the needs of tra­di­tion­al ale drinkers, it has also dipped its toes into the (not lit­er­al­ly) murky waters of ‘craft beer’. The extrav­a­gant­ly per­fumed, cit­rusy Ghost Ship is Adnams’s take on the ‘pale-n-hop­py’ cask-con­di­tioned gold­en ale, and sits along­side new keg beers such as Dry Hopped Lager and Inno­va­tion IPA – the lat­ter more suc­cess­ful than the for­mer, but both bet­ter on draught than from bot­tles.

Adnams has also avoid­ed gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for ruth­less busi­ness prac­tices: if it has been in the habit of tak­ing over oth­er brew­eries and their brands, either it hap­pened a long time ago, or we haven’t being pay­ing atten­tion.

While we were in town, we learned that the firm has expand­ed into Holkham in North Nor­folk – geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tant, but cul­tur­al­ly sim­i­lar – which con­firmed our feel­ing that its ambi­tion has been direct­ed not into indis­crim­i­nate expan­sion, but into becom­ing part of a gen­teel mid­dle class lifestyle: the brew­ing equiv­a­lent of John Lewis.

UPDATES: the first ver­sion of this piece incor­rect­ly stat­ed that Land’s End was Britain’s most west­er­ly point; and that Elgood’s are based in Essex.

14 thoughts on “Welcome to Adnamsland”

  1. Sure­ly the rea­sons for the back­lash against Greene King are their his­to­ry of brew­ery clo­sures, devel­op­ment of char­ac­ter­less “con­cepts” such as Huun­gry Horse and the removal of char­ac­ter from many of their beers,particularly IPA?

    NB. Pedants’ cor­ner, Elgo­ods is in Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, not Essex.

  2. Good arti­cle. A few points:

    Explor­er (2004 onwards) deserves a men­tion as an ear­li­er har­bin­ger of Adnams’ inter­est in what would now be called ‘craft beer’, being paler than their out­put hith­er­to and brewed with US hops – though per­haps it went under the radar in the gold­en ale cat­e­go­ry at the time. Their first for­ay into ‘craft keg’ was Spin­drift which has also help­ful­ly got them into out­lets that have no or lit­tle room for cask ale, such as the restau­rant on South­wold pier.

    Adnams’ rep­u­ta­tion is per­haps not so benign in coastal Suf­folk as it is nation­al­ly, though per­haps that is the inevitable con­se­quence of their hav­ing such a vast tied estate in the area. There are the usu­al sto­ries of their some­times heavy-hand­ed treat­ment of land­lords and per­haps occa­sion­al­ly off­hand treat­ment of some vil­lage pubs.

    Also their recent open­ing of a shop in the coastal town of Alde­burgh was swift­ly and non-coin­ci­den­tal­ly fol­lowed by the clo­sure of the excel­lent inde­pen­dent Marc 1 Wines a few yards away, which among oth­er things was an ear­ly and rare (in Suf­folk) stock­ist of Ker­nel. I don’t per­son­al­ly crit­i­cise them for this – they are a busi­ness after all and go where trade takes them – but oth­ers felt that they should have respect­ed the most­ly inde­pen­dent char­ac­ter of the high street there and stayed away.

    Final­ly I think the actu­al per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion of South­wold is more like 1500, to which you could add a few hun­dred more sec­ond homers at week­ends – not that that affects your point about the dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large pub trade it sus­tains. My impres­sion is that the same is true across the area, with some vil­lages that aren’t much big­ger than ham­lets sus­tain­ing a pub, the larg­er vil­lages often hav­ing three, and the towns hold­ing a trade much big­ger than towns of com­pa­ra­ble size else­where in the coun­try.

    1. Thanks for the insight, Simon.

      I have to admit that our research into the pop­u­la­tion fig­ure didn’t go any fur­ther than check­ing Wikipedia, which cites 2013 cen­sus data.

      EDIT 01/12/2014: we start­ed think­ing 800 couldn’t be right and did a bit of Googling, turn­ing up this hous­ing report from the local coun­cil which says: “From 2001 to 2011, the res­i­dent adult pop­u­la­tion of South­wold has reduced from 1328 to 974 (27% decline) while that of Rey­don has reduced from 2240 to 2192 (2% decline).” So 800 prob­a­bly right for 2013.

  3. becom­ing part of a gen­teel mid­dle class lifestyle: the brew­ing equiv­a­lent of John Lewis.” – haha, this! So much this.

    1. There you go – I was just going to cav­il at that very line, which seemed to me like a weird bit of gra­tu­itous snark dropped in out of nowhere. De gustibus.

  4. Love­ly town, love­ly brew­ery. Did the tour on a stag, the guide was the guy who used to dri­ve the horse and cart deliv­er­ing beer – they kept him on. He was almost in tears talk­ing about how proud he was to work there, it was real­lu quite remark­able.

  5. An “old ale” that’s real­ly a mild is an inter­est­ing one, at least for the his­tor­i­cal­ly mind­ed! I won­der if Mar­tyn has a view.

  6. I may have missed the boat on peo­ple still com­ment­ing on this, but I am con­vinced that about 7 or 8 years ago I had an Adnams Old and it was a black beer, kind of dry and smokey and I loved it. And now it’s very dif­fer­ent. Can any­one con­firm if that’s the case or am I just incred­i­bly con­fused…

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