Ashburton Pop: What We Know

Illustration: a cork flies out of a stone bottle.

This lost Devon beer style came to our attention flipping through A Scrapbook of Inns a few weeks ago and we’ve since done a bit more digging. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

The best single description of Ashburton Pop comes from John Cooke, born in Ashburton in 1765, whose autobiographical pamphlet England Forever was published in 1819. We can’t find a copy of the original but fortunately is quoted at length in William Hone’s Table Book from 1827. Cooke wrote:

I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bottle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report louder than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its contents would fly up to the ceiling if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bottle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an afternoon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bottles, their reckoning bit eight-pence each, and a penny for tobacco. The pop was but twopence a bottle.

A footnote to the 1817 edition of Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health confirms that high carbonation was a defining feature:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself.

For what it’s worth J. Henry Harris speculated in 1907 that “it was probably some concoction intended to rival white-ale”, another famous Devon oddity.

Our attempt at Cornish swanky beer, which we reckon is in the same family.

Ashburton Pop was said to have died out between 1785 (Cooke, via Hone) and 1804, the latter date being given by an 1816 source. Cooke also says that the recipe was lost with the death of the brewer. Later sources mention surviving Ashburton Pop bottles bearing the name of what was probably the brewer, Richard Halse, and dates of 1771 or 1773. It was apparently revived in some form by William Michelmore, landlord of The Royal Oak at Ashburton, no later than 1835. He died in September 1846 aged 68. (Western Times, 12/09/1846.)

In the later 19th century references to Ashburton Pop only turn up in political commentary, like this from the Western Times for 03/06/1881…

Sir Stafford Northcote delivered his long-bottled speech at Manchester on Wednesday…. [He] was primed accordingly; but a more flat and vapid effusion was never poured forth in public than the oration of the Conservative Leader, on Wednesday. “Ashburton Pop” is a brisk potation, taken at the right moment, but a brief exposure to the air takes all the life out of it. Sir Stafford’s “pop” won’t stand the open air of public utterance.

… or this coded satire from the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette from 17/07/1852, signed ‘John Barleycorn’ and addressed to the town’s voters ahead of an upcoming election:

By the bye they say, good ale is drunk at Barnstaple, but his Lordship’s brewery turns out tipple too bitter even for his family circle there, and certainly would not suit the taste of you my friends, accustomed to excellent Ashburton Pop, of which with your permission, I will now drink to our next merry meeting, never ceasing to reiterate the common-sense patriotic principle that “England and every English Interest ought to be protected against the rivalry of the rest of the world.”

Assuming that, even referenced jokingly, these are accurate descriptions of the beer itself, we might gather that it (a) foamed quickly but didn’t retain a head; (b) was sweet rather than bitter; and (c) was to some degree still a topical reference, i.e. still in production as late as 1881, or at least generally remembered.

After this references to Ashburton Pop only appear in the context of historical notes and queries columns, often repeating the Cooke quotation above, and sometimes suggesting that it was a precursor to modern bottled beers.

So, for now, we don’t have much solid advice for those wanting to recreate Ashburton Pop, but as none of the sources mention unusual ingredients, e.g. ginger or raisins, you could probably do worse than this:

  1. Brew something along the lines of a fairly basic golden ale.
  2. Then follow the method for Cornish swanky beer given here: ferment with baker’s yeast; allow a short fermentation in a larger vessel before bottling with corks; when the corks start wanting to escape, after a day or two more, drink it, while it’s fresh.

The Mystery of the Rock House Tavern

We spotted the above post one one of our favourite Instagram accounts the other day and thought it ought to be a doddle to track down the history of the Rock House Tavern. Well, it wasn’t, but we think we’ve got there, and the solution offers an intriguing glimpse into the past.

First, yes, Liz is right– there is no useful information online, or in our copy of the 1975 pub guide, or in newspapers archives. Searching for mention of pubs around that location in more general terms, though, did point us to a 1986 book called City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner by Fred Moss. It might surprise some people to discover that Bristol had coal mines but it did. Fred Moss was born in 1906 and started work as a miner in 1921. Here’s what he has to say about drinking, on p.37:

[Let] me tell you about “The Long Bar”. This consisted of a lane running from Deep Pit Road to Holly Lodge Road. There were just a few houses in Holly Lodge, only a couple of miners lived there. Now about half way up this lane there was a pond called the “Lilly Pond”. It was a pool consisting of water pumped from the nearby pit. In this lane there was also a single railway track, which was used to carry trucks of coal from Speedwell Pit to the main Great Western Railway line and of course the Midland Railway line. The track was also used to take trucks of small coal to the coke ovens and washing plant.

Now, near this lane there was an off-licence beer house. The afternoon shift miners would buy beer at this off-licence and on a nice sunny day would to to this lane and have a chat and a drink before descending the pit…. There would be twenty or thirty men either sitting on a grass bank of leaning against a wooden fence drinking and chatting before working and when the morning shift came up from work, some of them would buy a drink and stand or sit in the lane before going home. Yes! I would say that was the longest bar in the world.

We find this fascinating — another reminder that people enjoyed beer in all kinds of ways in the past, not only in what we would now recognise as pubs, and following all kinds of patterns dictated by their work.

Fred’s memoir gives us some hard information to work with and we are blessed in 2018 with easy access to historic maps, satellite imagery and Google Street View which means it’s quite easy to pin all this down.

Here’s the lane we think Fred is describing as pictured in an OS map from the immediate post-WWII period, via Know Your Place:

Map showing the lane, 'Brook Road'.

The Rock House is at the very bottom left corner, marked “BH” for beerhouse; the lane is Brook Road which runs off immediately opposite passing a reservoir (the pond Fred mentions?) and crossing a small railway line on the way to Holly Lodge Road, which also fits with Fred’s description. One small wrinkle: there is another beerhouse marked on the map, also near the point where the lane spits out, so maybe he didn’t have The Rock House in mind. But we still reckon all this, especially the BH designation on the map, explains why The Rock House is so obscure: though it may have started as a proper drink-in beerhouse c.1830, it probably became a purely take-out premises in the wake of the 1869 Licensing Act.

But that’s just somewhat informed guesswork. If you know otherwise, drop us a line or comment below. We’ll keep an eye out in books and archives as we go and, as Google Maps satellite imagery suggests the lane is still there and now a public footpath, we’ll also go exploring and see what we can see.

Main image, top: Bristol miners c.1906 via City Pit.

GALLERY: Malt, 1955-1969

‘The Other Fellow’s Job No. 10: The Maltster’ by Richard HiltonHouse of Whitbread, Spring 1955, with photographs by P.M. Goodchild.

“In these modern times, when machinery has largely replaced the hands of the craftsman, one might think that the ingredients of beer are largely subjected to numerous mechanical processes in the course of their evolution. And many of them are — but the malting process is one that has stood the test of time, and remains the secret of the craftsman who transforms the corns of barley into that most valuable ingredient of all — malt.”

A man with a specially designed wheelbarrow.
“C. McCabe carries the barley in a specially designed malt barrow.”

“When a new load of barley arrives at the maltings, the first men to handle it are the granary hands. It is their job to dry the barley to about 12 per cent of moisture so that it can be kept in bulk without deterioriation; next, they clean and ‘screen’ it to extract the small or broken grains… Typical of the granary hand at the Whitbread maltings in East Dereham in Norfolk is Chris McCabe. An Irishman, 64-year-old McCabe started with Whitbread’s eleven years ago, and takes great pride in his work…. Before he came to East Dereham he worked in large maltings in Ireland.”

A man in flat cap and overalls.
“As foreman of the East side of the Dereham maltings, Walter Lambert has many responsibilities. Here, he is adjusting the oil burner on one of the barley kilns.”

Continue reading “GALLERY: Malt, 1955-1969”

GALLERY: Women Working in Pubs and Breweries, from the Archives

It’s International Women’s Day which seems like a good reason to share this collection of pictures of women working in breweries and pub we’ve been bookmarking in old brewery magazines.

There’s an editorial choice being made here, of course: to find these pictures of cool women doing cool stuff we had to wade through a lot of photos of secretaries sitting on men’s laps, booth babes, hop queens, cheese maidens, and bikini competitions. Don’t think from what you see below that Whitbread, Watney’s or any of these other firms were bastions of feminism.

You’ll also note that the pictures back up what we said in the post we wrote on women in British beer a few years ago: there’s not much evidence of female brewers in the post-war period, women being generally confined to administrative functions, bottling lines and laboratories. In fact, why not start in the lab?

Continue reading “GALLERY: Women Working in Pubs and Breweries, from the Archives”

Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two hometowns to think about, of course, both very different to each other: Ray grew up in a small industrial town in Somerset, Jessica in east London. That led us to reflect on what they might have in common and that, we realised, was the long absence of any breweries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brewery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien – geograph.org.uk/p/2098447)

Walthamstow was once home to the Essex Brewery, founded by the Collier brothers in 1871 and taken over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brewery operated until 1972 after which it was demolished but retained a presence in the form of the brewery tap pub which traded in one form or another until relatively recently when it was converted into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brewery Tap in 2014.

So for the entirety of her childhood and youth, there were no E17 beers — not one beer brewed in a district of around 100,000 people.

The SKF brewery in Bridgwater in 1969. (Via the Brewery History Society.)

Bridgwater was similarly once home to a large ‘proper’ brewery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF prancing horse symbol on their faces, with his Dad sighing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as wasteland, then an unloved swimming pool, and finally a car park. A town with a population of around 30,000 had no brewery to call its own, and loyalty to no outsider brewery over any other.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some conclusions to be drawn from what happened next, though. Things began to change in Walthamstow when the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, just over the boundary into Leyton, began trading in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 — a serious, well-regarded brewery whose beers actually turned up in pubs, and whose bottled beers were everywhere for a while. (Disclosure: very early on in the life of this blog, and their brewery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bottle of everything they made.) As of 2018 there are multiple breweries in Walthamstow proper including Wild Card and Pillars, as well as several on industrial states in its borderlands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridgwater, meanwhile, still has none. There was briefly a Bridgwater Brewery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actually in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t widely available in town. There are some in the countryside around but (as of Ray’s last survey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their products. In fact, we see more beer from Quantock at our new local in Bristol than we ever have in Bridgwater.

You can look at this two ways: optimists will see small provincial towns as the next stopping point for the rebrewerification (which is a word) process already experienced by even the outerest (also definitely a word) of outer London suburbs. Cynics, on the other hand, will suggest they’re being bypassed, perhaps muttering something about metropolitan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Walthamstow could support one or two more breweries yet, and that Bridgwater surely has room for at least one, even if like the (currently out of action) Ashley Down Brewery here in Bristol it exists primarily to supply a single micropub.