This is another in our new series of short posts attempting to give straight answers to direct questions.
In our book Brew Britannia, we dedicate a chapter to mini histories of a number of breweries that we think have a claim to be the first modern microbrewery.
We specify ‘modern’ because most breweries began as microbreweries.
For much of its history, beer was brewed in domestic settings – either in ale houses for sale to the public or within country houses, colleges and other larger institutions.
Withi in the 19th century came bigger breweries, and then consolidation and mergers led to the situation where in the mid-1960s, most beer was being produced by one of the ‘Big Six’.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, a number of pioneers began to brew their own beer, independently of each other but all finding a niche and space to operate within an increasingly homogenised market.
The first of these, by a long way, was Traquair House, Scotland. Beer had been brewed on site for years, and at sufficient volume to warrant purchase of a 200 gallon boiler in 1739. In the nineteenth century, the house and brewery fell into disrepair. In 1965, the then Laird, Peter Maxwell Stuart, found the brewing equipment as part of his renovations, and started to brew Traquair House Ale. What began as an experiment became a product sold on site and then shipped elsewhere. It’s still available, and brewing continues under the lady Laird Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who grew up brewing alongside her father.
The next brewery that we cover in Brew Britannia is the Selby brewery, which had fallen dormant but survived into the 1970s as a bottling outlet for Guinness. Martin Sykes was living there when his uncle decided to close the business, and persuaded him otherwise, “mainly to safeguard my living accommodation”. He had the idea to restart brewing, and was fortuitously approached by Basil Savage, then second brewer at John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, who was looking for other opportunities. Sykes and Savage began brewing in November 1972, and enjoyed some success selling to student bars and local pubs.
Both Traquair and Selby operated on existing sites, although with newer equipment. The first microbrewery to open in a new location was the Miners’ Arms at Priddy, in Somerset. This was the brainchild of an eccentric scientist, snail farmer and restaurateur, Paul Leyton. In 1961 he took on the running of the Miners’ Arms. In 1973 he decided to add beer to his list of home grown products and brewed beer in 40 pint batches, which he bottled in nip bottles and sold alongside meals.
So, in conclusion:
The first of the modern UK microbreweries was Traquair, which began (or rather, re-started) brewing in 1965, and is still brewing today. The first microbrewery to produce beers for the wider market was the Selby Brewery, which began brewing in 1972, again, on an established site. The first ‘new’brewery microbrewery, that is the first one to be established in a new location was the Miners’ Arms in Priddy, in 1973.