breweries bristol

An incomplete history of Smiles Brewery of Bristol, 1977-2005

Smiles Brewery came and went, leaving small traces of itself all over Bristol. As is so often the case, however, it is the breweries that failed in living memory whose stories are hardest to trace.

When this post was first published in September 2022 it wasn’t intended to be definitive. We just wanted to put together the facts that were available, with a little digging, so that others could find them – and perhaps tell us more.

Then, in late June 2024, we got an email from John Payne who founded Smiles filling in some gaps and fleshing out the story.

Why does this story matter? Because Smiles was one of the first UK microbreweries, founded in the CAMRA-led boom of the 1970s.

And because – it does not feel an exaggeration to put it this way – it was the pride of Bristol.

It’s also a story familiar to those who’ve tracked the craft beer boom of the past decade or so, with idealism eventually giving way to commercial pressure.

Let’s go back to the start, to the back room of a restaurant, at the tail end of the 1970s.

Bell’s Diner in 2018. It is now Bianchis.
A fair haired man in a check shirt.
John Payne. SOURCE: YouTube (see below).

Smiles Brewery and Bell’s Diner

“It began as a plastic bucket effort,” John Payne, founder of Smiles, told beer journalist Brian Glover. “I ran a vegetarian restaurant with my girlfriend, and we thought we might as well sell decent beer with the meals.” [1]

In a note he sent us, Payne corrects the record here: “Vegetarian and fish and meat – ground-breaking at the time.”

He also confirmed that he was born in Scotland, in Glasgow, in fact, in 1951 and came to Bristol later in life, to be with his partner Shirley Anne Bell.

From November 1976 he was running Bell’s Diner alongside Bell and by 1977 was brewing on the side.

He was not by any means a professional. The official history of Bell’s Diner suggests that he “began brewing beer in a tea urn under the stairs”. Payne correct this slightly in his correspondence with us: “In the back yard.”

Another source, a 1980s promotional video for the brewery, of doubtful provenance, says in its voiceover that he “started brewing at university” and then got a “brewing bucket” for Christmas. The video says this happened in 1978 but Payne places the event much earlier:

“I lived on a malting barley farm whilst at St Andrews University. The chemist father of a friend of mine gave me a plastic bucket and some beer recipes for Christmas 1971. Inspired by him and ‘Boston on Beer’ I started mashing barley and brewing.”

‘Boston on Beer’ was a regular column in The Guardian by journalist Richard Boston which first appeared in August 1973.

Home-brewing was booming in the 1970s, with features in national newspapers and equipment increasingly easy to buy in high street shops.

In all accounts of these early days, there is a common theme: the reaction of restaurant customers to Payne’s homebrew was positive. That encouraged him to stick at it, and to think about going professional, on a larger scale.

He asked some pubs, free of any tie to the dominant local giant Courage, to try selling his beer over the bar and report back on customer reaction. [2]

In his correspondence with us Payne said:

“There were only five free houses in Bristol at that time: The Cutter, The Plume of Feathers, The Highbury Vaults, The Old Fox and the Seahorse. I started… selling directly in polypins and, later, beer boxes.”

The response was good. It was time for phase two.

The exterior of a pub.
The Colston Yard pub in 2017.

Smiles Brewery at Colston Yard

The back page of CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing for November 1977 contained a small story under the headline ‘Bristol Ale’:

The West country is to get its second new brewery within six months… John Payne has produced his traditional Smiles Bitter for his restaurant, Bells Diner, York Road, Bristol, for the past year. Now he has got permission to set up a new brewhouse in the heart of the city at Colston Yard. Production will be about 30 barrels a week and Mr Payne says he already has strong interest from the local free trade.

‘Bristol Ale’, p.12

Colston Yard was a Victorian industrial space off Upper Maudlin Street, behind and under a row of shops, where there is currently an Indian restaurant called Haveli.

Permission to brew was one thing but paying for the building of a new brewery was another. Payne mortgaged his house to find the £6,000 needed – about £30,000 in today’s money. [3]

The new brewery was ready by 1978 and Payne set about learning how to brew in this new, more professional environment.

In a 1981 interview he said:

In the early weeks I relied heavily on a friend of my father’s, a brewing chemist… He was like a doctor. I would tell him everything I had done and when I had finished he would tell me where I had gone wrong.

‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Payne, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.

Filling in details more than 40 years later Payne told us that this was actually his godfather, Dick Heron of Heron & Comrie, a firm of brewing chemists based in Stockport.

By April that year, Payne was happy with the quality and consistency of the beer being produced.

That first beer, Smiles Best Bitter, was brewed without sugar or malt extracts, with an original gravity of 1040 (about 4% ABV). It was fermented with yeast from the Courage brewery in Bristol. [4] As Payne recalled in his correspondence with us in 2024: “I walked in with a bucket to get the yeast… I only did it once.”

In November 1978, with winter coming, Payne added a second beer to the line-up: Exhibition, at 1051 (around 5.3%), which briefly also had the name Champion. Then came Old Vic, a 7% special beer – “Very rare,” recalls Payne – and Brewery Bitter at 1036.

He took on his first employee, Harry Mansfield, the former cellarman at the Bristol Student Union, initially as a part-timer. [5]

They worked flat out through 1978 and 1979, including a particularly hectic Christmas in 1979, which saw them working 18-hour days to brew “265 barrels” in four weeks. [6]

Payne claimed to have drawn no salary himself in this period [7] and told us in 2024 that he propped up the business with his wages from waitering at Bell’s Diner.

But it was clear the business was on the right track. As Brian Glover wrote in his decade-on retrospective:

By 1981 demand had out-stripped production, and the self-made brewery was completely re-equipped to increase capacity three-fold, backed up by a new laboratory.

New Beer Guide, 1988.

In 1982, Smiles acquired its own pub, The Highbury Vaults at the top of St Michael’s Hill. This was a response to the disappearance of freehouses in Bristol as larger brewers such as Allied, Marston’s, Eldridge Pope and Devenish snapped them up.

Payne was especially frustrated by CAMRA’s decision (or rather, that of CAMRA Real Ale Investments) to sell its own Bristol pub to Marston’s:

[They] said they were pulling out of The Old Fox as their job was done. But they sold out just when they were needed as the free trade was beginning to disappear then.

‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, David Jarvie, What’s Brewing, October 1983.

Writing to us in 2024, however, he recalls that there was an upside to this change:

It strangely enabled us to sell to the CAMRA pub, The Salisbury Arms, Cambridge, which was taken over by The Old Fox landlord. We made a two-weekly exchange of Greene King beers brought to the New Inn, Waterley Bottom, by a friend of Rick Sainty its owner. That lasted several years, filling Greene King casks for delivery to Cambridge.

Until this time the brewery’s de facto brewery tap had been The Sea Horse, across the main road from the brewery. When it began to seem under threat, Smiles entered a bidding war with Marston’s and Allied for The Highbury Vaults instead.

They were rumoured to have paid Simon Stevens, who also owned The Plume of Feathers [8], £125,000 for the pub – a shocking price for a small neighbourhood boozer at the time. [9]

Payne doesn’t seem to have wanted to buy a pub, or to have much enjoyed being responsible for it. “It diverts a lot of our attention,” he told CAMRA’s David Jarvie in 1983.

But it was vital because, according to Payne, there were only four other suitable outlets in the city.

A glance at copies of the Good Beer Guide from the period backs this up: almost every pub listed was selling beer from Courage, or was tied to an out-of-town brewery such as Wadworth or Davenport’s.

A vintage lorry outside The Pickwick Inn.
The Smile’s Brewing Co. dray c.1994 by Mark Shirley.

Real People making Real Ale

The brewery continued to grow through the 1980s, as recorded in this rather marvellous artefact – a promotional video apparently from 1984:

The source of this video was a mystery until John Payne contacted us in 2024 and confirmed he had uploaded it: “This was used at beer festivals. I had it on VHS.”

It tells us that by the mid-1980s Smiles was brewing more than 3,000 gallons of beer each week (about 83 barrels) with Harry Mansfield now as full-time head brewer.

We also meet three other new employees: Sue Pinnell, a brewery assistant; Nicholas Martin, a spectacularly bearded drayman; and Peter Taylor, a rather dashing marketing and sales executive.

As Payne recalled in the notes he sent us in 2024:

“Nicholas Martin (later Otto Faber) who had been an art teacher at Filton, joined Smiles as a drayman and then later developed all the sales, graphics material and interior design and fittings – often recovered from skips whilst he delivered beer.”

There are various clues to the brewery’s brand identity in this video: old-fashioned barroom piano music; the vintage Bedford dray of c.1950; and faux-vintage hand-painted graphics on every surface.

The slogan at the end is: “Smiles – real people making real ale.”

A second video from the same source is an out-and-out advertisement, attempting to compete with those from, say, Courage, or Whitbread.

This has more of the same, including flat caps all round, knitted vests and ten-sided pint glasses. Smiles, the advert implies, has been serving Bristol for years – for generations, even. 

Never mind the facts.

“This was made by a student at Bower Ashton Art College for an MA project,” recalls John Payne today. “Made on a Sunday when the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Wilson Street, St Pauls, were empty.”

Four young people in 1990s clothing stand slightly awkwardly around the bar in a pub.
A promo photo for the newly launched Brewery Tap (Colston Yard) via What’s Brewing for February 1992. Nicholas Martin, the pub’s designer, is on the right, and the pub’s manager, Tim Gilroy, is at centre.

The Pride of Bristol

In 1992, when the brewery was approaching its 15th anniversary and owned multiple pubs, John Payne gave a rare interview to Stephen Cox for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing.

Cox was a fan of Smiles and the piece is celebratory, not only of Smiles 15 years’ of success but also of Payne’s approach to the business of beer.

“I dream of locking some brewery executives in the Tap for a week with John Payne”, he wrote. “But I doubt the common sense would rub off.”

In the interview, Payne attempted to articulate “the Smiles Way”:

All you can do is be committed to a quality product, put out your stall, and let them decide. If it’s any good, it doesn’t need advertising.

A colleague, Martin Love, expanded on the idea: “It’s something to do with not forcing things down people’s throats.”

We learn that Smiles’ pubs didn’t serve stout (Guinness specifically, Payne clarified in 2024) or draught lager on principle, only the brewery’s own beer, along with guest ales from other independents.

Nor did they have gambling machines.

“If you measure the space they take up,” Payne is quoted as saying, “and fill that space with drinkers, you make as much money. Besides, pubs are about talking to people.”

This preceded similar policies and rhetoric from the micropub movement by about 20 years.

All of these principles were put into practice in a brand new pub, The Brewery Tap, constructed in front of the brewery premises on Upper Maudlin Street in 1991. (It was later known as The Colston Yard.)

It was notable for opening at 8am to serve breakfast, extending the business’s viable hours beyond those when it could legally sell alcohol. [9]

In 1992 it won CAMRA’s pub design award – the first time any pub had proved worthy of the prize since 1985. An article in What’s Brewing described its “clean cut, attractive appearance”:

Ash wood and a slate bar, together with a black-and-white tiled floor, give an impression that is reminiscent of a good Belgian café. The Brewery Tap manages to be in the mainstream of the traditional pub without resorting to tiresome alehouse clichés.

Behind the scenes, though, the brewery was struggling.

“Struggling because I had become more of a personnel manager without enough hands-on time,” recalls Payne today, “but sales were climbing.” He credits Martin Love, formerly sales manager at Wadworth, another West Country brewery, with beginning to turn things around.

But it was apparently too late.

Four men in suits outside a pub.
From left to right: Martin Love (sales manager), Ian Williams (new owner), John Payne (founder), Nigel (Harry?) Mansfield (head brewer).

The management buy-out trend

A month after Stephen Cox’s gushing interview with John Payne, and in the same month the design award victory was announced, Iain Loe’s regular column in What’s Brewing for February 1992 included this item:

The first brewery news to reach me is another brewery takeover – the first of 1992. But the deal doesn’t feature a well-known company whose shares are traded on the Stock Market but a micro-brewer who has sold his company to someone who liked the brewery enough to stump up £2 million… The purchaser, Ian Williams, has an accountancy background… and has financed the £3 million deal, which includes covering bank borrowings of £1 million, with the help of a £½ million input from [private equity firm] 3is.

Williams had worked for the accountancy firm which managed Smiles’ accounts and he knew the business well. So, although not part of the Smiles management team, this was nonetheless reported as a form of ‘management buyout’.

Management buyouts were a big thing in the 1990s – see the Redruth Brewery for another example.

More usually, they involve people already working in a business to acquire it from either the founder (perhaps a hippy hipster brewer) or a larger corporate owner (such as Whitbread) which had lost interest.

They offered a route for businesses that were stumbling or failing to go on, with new leadership that was either more money-minded or more passionate about the product, depending on circumstances.

Smiles continued to expand under Ian Williams until it eventually had 17 pubs – a substantial estate for a regional independent less than 20 years old.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable. In November 2000, most of the pub estate was sold to London brewery Young’s for £5.8 million. [11]

Thereafter, what was at that point Bristol’s only remaining brewery seemed to be in retreat, though local real ale drinkers continued to regard the beer fondly.

The brewery was sold again in 2003 to City Centre Breweries Ltd, a new company run by Ron Kirk, formerly managing director of Mansfield Brewery.

Then, in December 2004, it was announced that the brewery had gone into administration. Staff were laid off and production of Smiles-branded beer was moved to the Highgate Brewery in Walsall. [12]

Smiles-branded beers seem to have disappeared from the market altogether after 2007, at least as far as we can tell from online beer review websites.

Tatty old posters on a brown pub wall.
Smiles memorabilia at The Highbury Vaults.
A tatty photo of men drinking beer.
A still from the 1984 promo video on the pub wall.

Just about remembered

There are still occasional reminders of Smiles to be seen around Bristol, most notably at The Highbury Vaults.

Beneath 20-plus years of Young’s branding can be seen the odd bit of Smiles signage – and a photograph from that early 1980s promo shoot still hangs on the wall in the snug.

We’re frustrated by the bittiness of the story we’ve been able to tell above. It feels unfinished – and we’re certain people are going to have additions and corrections.

To which we say, bring it on!

We’d love version two of this post to have more human voices, more pictures, and more detail from the frontline.

If you worked at Smiles, or, indeed, founded it, we’re contact@boakandbailey, or @boakandbailey on Twitter, if you want to get in touch.


  1. New Beer Guide, 1988, p.52.
  2. ‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Pryce, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.
  3. Pryce, 1981.
  4. ‘Selling beer: it’s Payne and Love’, What’s Brewing, January 1992.
  5. Promotional video, 1984.
  6. Pryce, 1981.
  7. Pryce, 1981.
  8. ‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, 1983.
  9. Correspondence with John Payne, 2024.
  10. CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1992, published in 1991.
  11. The Times, 17 November 2000.
  12. ‘Smiles Brewery Closed’, Richard Brooks, Pints West, Spring 2005.

This post was first published in September 2022. It was updated in June 2024 with new information from John Payne.

breweries opinion

The danger of being a quite good brewery

Buxton calling in administrators got us thinking about breweries that are merely quite good – and how that’s a tricky space to occupy.

Buxton used to be top tier. Their beer was in all the beer geek pubs. People raved about them and recommended them.

But that doesn’t seem to have been the case for a few years, at least from what we’ve seen and heard.

It’s not that people are going round saying, “They’re terrible!” If asked, in fact, they’d probably say: “Oh, yeah, Buxton – they’re all right.”

But “all right” isn’t ideal in a hyper-competitive, crowded market.

Looking at their published accounts, it’s not clear why they’re in particular trouble now. It could be interest rates and loan repayments, or any number of other things.

But a loss of reputation and stature can’t help.

Years ago, when we lived in Goldsithney in Cornwall, we had a couple of dinners at a nearby country pub with incredible food.

It’s hard to say why it was so great. Perfectly judged seasoning, perhaps? Or a better command of the Maillard reaction?

Either way, we’d sit there making “wow” and “mmmmm” noises the whole time.

Then, one day, the food lost its sparkle. What had seemed rich began to feel greasy. What was savoury became merely salty. The triple-cooked beef dripping chips no longer shattered like glass.

We later learned that there had been a change of chef.

The food was fine, but not transcendent. So, we stopped going, and stopped recommending it to people.

If it had been awful, we might have complained, or felt moved to leave feedback somehow. But as it was, what would that feedback have been? “Make it more special”? “Give it a certain we-don’t-know-what”?

Bad feedback, unpleasant as it might be to hear, is at least possible to act upon. But what do you do in the face of silent shrugs?

This is what we think sometimes happens with breweries like Buxton.

They’re not bad enough to have anything specific to fix, but not good enough to generate word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

People don’t mind drinking their beer, but they don’t seek it out, or detour to drink it.

They might have one pint but won’t stick on it for a session, or stay in a pub to have one more pint than they ought to.

And they won’t order it by the box from the brewery shop.

What can middling-to-good breweries do about this? (If they have the clarity of vision to identify themselves as such.)

We might suggest tasting panels in which drinkers are given their beers blind, alongside acknowledged classics.

If someone tastes their lager against Augustiner Helles, how does it stand up? How does their IPA compare to Thornbridge Jaipur? Or their mild to Holden’s?

If your beer is only “quite good”, how do you give it that extra zing?

Marketing and branding will only get you so far.

For beer, the wow factor probably lives in those small gains achieved through technical excellence. The equivalent of fresh ingredients, confident seasoning, and hot pans.

breweries marketing

The secret language of Young’s is being lost

Young’s was an important London brewery, and remains an important London brand, but it might be losing its place in the city’s language.

Back in the 1970s, Young’s, under the leadership of John Young, was a holdout against keg beer and its beers were championed by the Campaign for Real Ale. It even had its own fan club.

But when we first started blogging about beer, in 2007, things weren’t going so well.

The beer, people said, had been declining in quality for years, and wasn’t what it used to be in those early days of CAMRA.

In 2006, Young’s had sold a majority stake to Charles Wells, John Young died, and the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth closed. Production moved to Bedford.

It felt like the end of an era, especially as it took London down to just 9 breweries, 5 of which were brewpubs.

In the decade that followed, Charles Wells bought out Young & Co and the brewing brand and pub company became totally separate entities, though Young’s branded beer was still generally found in Young’s branded pubs.

What surprised us was the persistent fondness for the brand in London, and especially in South West London.

People really didn’t seem to care where it was brewed, or whether it was any good, as long as they could still buy a pint of ‘Ordinary’ (bitter), a pint of ‘Spesh’ (Special, the best bitter), and perhaps a bottle of ‘Ram’ (Ram Rod bottled strong ale).

Practical linguistics

That traditional insider vocabulary has always delighted us, and its persistence was a sign that Young’s fandom was clinging on as an idea and a sort of subculture.

Back in about 2013 we tried to order “Half a pint of Special in a pint glass and a bottle of Ram Rod, please,” only for the teenager behind the bar to reply, witheringly, “I do know what a Ram’n’Spesh is.”

At a Young’s pub in Wandsworth in 2022, with the pandemic still distorting the pub going experience, we were delighted to find Ram’n’Spesh as an option in the Young’s app we used to order beer to our table.

And even in Bristol, at The Highbury Vaults, we still seem to be able to order Ordinary and get a pint of Young’s Bitter – despite the fact it’s been renamed London Original.

But there are worrying signs.

A pint of what?

In more than one pub on recent trips to London we’ve found that the secret language of Young’s no longer works.

At The Lamb in Leadenhall Market, for example, asking for Ordinary baffled the bar staff. Asking for Ram Rod confused them, too.

Perhaps that’s because these days it’s less a pub for City clerks from the Surrey Side and more of an Instagram-worthy tourist attraction.

Or maybe Carlsberg-Marston’s, which owns the brewing brand, has started to enforce brand discipline.

Starbuck’s coffee shop staff are supposedly to repeat your order back in the correct brand language:

“A small black coffee, please.”

“A tall Americano?”

Something like that, perhaps.

After all, when you’re spending money marketing London Original you sure as hell want people to call it that, and ask for it by name.

And while ‘Ordinary’ strikes us rather a lovely bit of self-deprecating understatement, it’s perhaps not where you’d start if you’re naming a beer to stand out in the crowded market of 2024.

What’s your experience?

Have you successfully ordered a pint of Ordinary recently?

Or, on the flipside, encountered a member of bar staff who didn’t know what you were talking about?

We’ll keep testing the water when we’re in Young’s pubs, asking for Ordinary, and seeing what we get.

breweries Generalisations about beer culture opinion pubs

The state of beer in 2023

Another year begins and, once again, things feel uncertain and unsettled for pubs, breweries and beer drinkers.

For most of 2020/21 there was a sense that if businesses could survive the worst of COVID-19, and make it out the other side, things would get better.

There was evidence of pent-up demand. Consumers were keen to get out and about and had perhaps learned not to take hospitality for granted.

Government grants and loans, though inevitably regarded as miserly by those on the receiving end, helped keep businesses afloat and even to invest in improvements.

Others were given the nudge they needed to develop online sales and delivery capability.

Then 2022 happened, with a whole new set of challenges on top of a lingering long-tail of pandemic-related problems.

It’s no wonder we’re entering 2023 with people saying things like “I have a generalised bad feeling about what 2023 will bring to the small and independent brewing sector”.

We’re not completely pessimistic – more on that later – but it’s certainly worth facing the facts head on and sitting with them a bit.

A brewery.

We’re not used to breweries closing

In 2022, especially towards the end of the year, a number of UK breweries closed. Steve Dunkley has taken on the administrative job of maintaining a log. At the time of writing, he lists more than 80 closures, including:

  • Box Steam
  • Exe Valley
  • Leeds Brewery
  • Newtown Park
  • Twisted Wheel
  • The Wild Beer Co

It feels mean to say what’s going to come next but if we’re not here to be honest, what’s the point?

The breweries above were known to us but many of the others that have closed so far were relatively obscure and/or second-ranking.

We’d never heard of most of them, and we do pay attention somewhat. Those we did know weren’t necessarily highly regarded, or “hyped” if you prefer.

That’s not to say they were bad, only that they were no doubt already having to work harder to stay afloat without word-of-mouth and national profile.

Kelham Island is an interesting example. It closed and was then saved by Thornbridge. Kelham Island is a beloved brand with plenty of clout behind it; and Thornbridge is clearly not struggling if it felt able to make this move.

And we’ll never get any brewer to say this on record but surely there’s a certain sense of relief that comes with a thinning out of the field, at last.

“There are too many breweries” has been a constant refrain for the past decade and we’ve heard plenty of off-the-record complaints about undercutting and amateurism.

There’s a general expectation that more closures will be announced in January, when breweries tot up their Christmas take and decide whether slogging on is worth it.

Each individual closure is, of course, sad. Jobs gone. Someone’s dream shattered.

But if we try to float above all that, aloof and objective, if 2023 ends with half the number of breweries in the UK, that’s still more beer than we’ll ever get round to drinking. And certainly more than there was in 1984.

Watch out for…

  • brewery closures to be announced in January 2023
  • the number of breweries listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide in autumn 2023
A jumble of pubs.

When were pubs ever not under threat?

Earlier this year CAMRA published statistics on pub closures during 2021. The numbers aren’t entirely dismal and this table in particular might suggest reasons for cautious optimism:

RegionNet change
East Midlands+4
East of England-3
Greater London+14
North East-1
North West-11
South East+3
South West+1
West Midlands0
Yorkshire and the Humber+36
Long-term closures July-December 2021 based on data from

Stats from the Office for National Statistics published a few weeks ago were similarly uncooperative in the decline-and-fall narrative:

“There are 1.6% more high street pubs and bars since the first Covid lockdown… The data, which tracked the percentage change in the number of establishments between March 2020 and March 2022, was conducted by the Ordnance Survey and the BBC.​ The Ordnance Survey data found 700 more pubs and bars were operating after the pandemic.”

But even if you take these figures at face value (and not everyone does) things feel very different in January 2023 than they did in March 2022. Increased fuel bills are just now beginning to bite both drinkers and drinking establishments.

And many pubs will have been hanging on for the combined World Cup, Christmas and New Year take before deciding on their future.

There’s no doubt it’s going to be tough. But perhaps a combination of tactical closures – shutting early if it’s quiet, going into hibernation – and temporary adaptations to the offer can help fundamentally healthy pub businesses weather this, like they weathered COVID.

Watch out for

  • CAMRA’s pub closures report in spring 2023
  • ONS business demography report in autumn 2023
A neon sign reading TAVERN in a pub window.

Yes, but how does it feel?

As you probably know, we’ve been blogging about beer since 2007.

We a book subtitled “the strange rebirth of British beer” and another about the state and fate of the English pub.

We’ve also provided a couple of hefty updates, in 2015 and 2018, covering notable developments on the scene.

All of which is to say, we think we’ve been watching pretty closely, and thinking about the mood as much as the facts.

In a nutshell, we think pubs feel at marginally less risk now than a decade ago, but brewing feels deflated and tarnished.

Accepting that the plural of anecdote is not data, and so on and so forth, anecdotes are helpful when it comes to checking the vibe. In Bristol, it feels as if pubs are back – at least in the city centre, and more affluent suburbs.

The reopening in November of The Kings Head near Temple Meads under the stewardship of Good Chemistry is perhaps a sign of a fundamental shift. It’s a proper pubby pub with a low-key craft beer offer and has been constantly busy. And they’re not daft; they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t good business.

Micropubs might be an evolutionary dead end, the jury’s still out, and of course they’re not all wonderful. But those that work really work. In our old neighbourhood on the other side of Bristol, The Drapers Arms, now seven years old, has become a fixture of the community, varying from full to uncomfortably crowded on our recent visits.

Further afield, in London and Sheffield, we keep finding ourselves unable to get into, or find seats in, pubs that have any kind of reputation.

If a pint of beer has become a luxury, perhaps it’s at least a relatively affordable one. And if what your soul needs is to be out with friends, even £5 pints are a cheaper way to achieve that than a £60-a-head restaurant dinner.

Brewing is different and perhaps the feeling there is tied to the rise and fall of BrewDog, and the other members of the United Craft Brewers:

Beyond that, there’s also the uncomfortable business of the Cloudwater redundancies, and bitterness over the Wild Beer Co crowdfunding problem.

There was perhaps some naivety a decade ago, but anyone who got the tattoos and joined the fan clubs has surely now had that shaken out of them.

Maybe it’s good for us all to have the rose-tinted spectacles off… but things do look nice through rose-tinted spectacles. That’s why they tint ‘em.

And consumers feeling upbeat and enthusiastic is good for business.

breweries london

Notes from a Godson’s dogsbody c.1980

When Robin Davies stumbled across a mention of Godson’s Brewery in one of our blog posts, he got in touch to tell us he worked there as a young man.

Godson’s was founded by Patrick Fitzpatrick in East London, in 1977. We’ve previously described him as “the original Hackney hipster brewer” and interviewed Fitzpatrick for our 2014 book Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer.

Now, we have another angle on the same story – not from the boss’s perspective but from someone who really got their hands dirty. Here, in his own words, are Robin’s memories.

* * *

It was the early 1980s when I left school which was just up the road from the brewery.

I’d messed about my whole time at secondary school and came out with next to nothing other than having learnt how to swear, fight and play drums – all useful stuff in the East End right?

Even though they were plentiful at the time I’d no idea how I was gonna get a job.

A mate of my brother in law said that he knew or had met Patrick Fitzpatrick, the Godson’s owner, and that he’d put in a word for me if I fancied it. After bumming around for a few months I was just about ready to work so why not?

I wasn’t  really expecting anything to happen but I said “Yeah, if he’ll have me I’ll give it a go” As if by magic, a couple of days later, I was off to meet the main man.

On meeting Patrick he seemed like a nice bloke, and indeed he was, always friendly, sometimes firm, made the odd joke or two, a decent boss and I guess he thought I was OK because he offered me the job.

Dogsbody? No, not really, but I did do a bit of everything from making tea to cleaning out the mash tun, all for the sum of 80 quid a week, and I loved it.

I got up early every day and couldn’t get there quick enough. I loved the work, I loved the smell of the place, which in the beginning had the effect of making me feel slightly drunk.

It was great and I was learning loads, the whole brewing process from start to finish. I watched and soaked everything up like a sponge. I soaked up the odd glass of the brewery’s finest, too, and after a hot day’s work it tasted amazing.

It was a very small team at Godsons. There was Patrick, of course. Chris and Lorraine, I think their names were in the office. There were the two dray men, tough old East Enders that I’m pretty sure were both called Roy. The older one appeared to hate my guts from the off and talked to me like dirt but I could just about handle it and every now and then I got the guts to tell him where to go.

From time to time Patrick’s brother Finnian would show up. If I remember rightly, he would normally be out and about trying his hardest to sell the various ales. A real nice bloke that used to brighten the place up whenever he returned to the brewery.  Always a big smile on his face.

Once or twice my least favourite of the brothers would turn up for a bit of work when he had nothing better to do.

About a year before I left we got a new brewer who also happened to be called Robin, again a real nice bloke who I was more than happy to work with. I often wonder what he’s up to but he was a smart bloke so he’s probably retired and living in luxury somewhere. I hope so anyway.

Robin picked up the workings of the brewery pretty quickly and soon I think we were teaching each other a thing or two.

One time Robin went on holiday which left me doing the lot. I did the week’s brew completely alone from start to finish, plus all my usual work. This all went perfectly and I was left feeling pretty proud of myself – had I really learnt all this from nothing? I decided to call myself the assistant brewer and if I felt like impressing someone I’d say I was a brewer. No one else ever called me that but to be fair I got a few compliments. Happy days!

How did it all end? 

I worked as hard as I could for the place, and at times felt I was running myself into the ground, so I did the inevitable and asked for a pay rise. My 80 quid was no longer going very far at all so I had to go for it.

A week or so later, Patrick called me into the office and said that he’d had a good think about it; he would give me a raise; and at this stage he considered the raise to be a substantial one.

I was excited so didn’t even ask how much but instead just carried on as normal and waited until Friday for my new super-massive pay packet.

Come Friday, I opened up my little brown envelope to find an extra fiver inside.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very happy. Being young and stroppy, I decided there and then that this would be the last day at the brewery. Not the way to leave a job, especially one I loved, but it seemed like the thing to do.

Sadly, some months later, I heard that things had gone south and the brewery was toast. I didn’t know the full story of what had gone wrong but I felt quite sad for the place and maybe a little angry towards Patrick for allowing Godson’s to fail, though I’m sure it wasn’t his fault.

I can’t actually remember how long I was there myself but it must have been around three years.

If anyone out there gets the chance to work at one of these little breweries, grab it, you’ll love it. It can be hard work but there’s something special about it!

These are Robin’s words with some edits for style and clarity.

If you want to learn more about Godson’s check out our book Brew Britannia.

And if you worked at a brewery at any time in the past 60 years, please write something down and, ideally, publish it somewhere.

Main image via the Brewery History Society Wiki.