Categories
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.

This post isn’t intended to be definitive. We just want to put together the facts that are available, with a little digging, so that others can find them – and perhaps tell us more.

Why does it 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]

Payne was born in Scotland in 1953 and came to Bristol later in life. When? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know. If you know, let us know in the comments below. And actually, was he Scottish? This is only mentioned in one source.

What we do know is that from November 1976 he was running Bell’s Diner alongside his partner, Shirley Anne 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”.

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; it was more likely 1976.)

This makes sense. Home-brewing was booming in the late 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] 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 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.

By April that year, he 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]

In November 1978, with winter coming, Payne added a second beer to the line-up: Champion, at 1051 (around 5.3%).

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] 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.

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 £125,000 for the pub – a shocking price for a small neighbourhood boozer at the time. [8]

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:

There’s not much information on its source, why or exactly when it was made, or who uploaded it. Enjoy it while you can.

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.

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.

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. We think that’s Nicholas Martin, the pub’s designer, on the right.

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 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.

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. [10]

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. [11]

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.

Notes

  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. CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1992, published in 1991.
  10. The Times, 17 November 2000.
  11. ‘Smiles Brewery Closed’, Richard Brooks, Pints West, Spring 2005.
Categories
Brew Britannia

FAQ: What was the first UK microbrewery?

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. 

Categories
Beer history Brew Britannia

The Shake Out, 1983-84

We’re intending to spend a bit more time pondering the health of the UK beer industry in 2016 but, for perspective, here’s a bit of history around the first micro-brewery ‘shake out’ which happened back in the 1980s.

Brian Glover wrote for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper for many years providing a running commentary on the rise of the microbrewery which would eventually form the basis of his essential 1988 New Beer Guide. In 1982 he produced a multi-page report on the microbrewery boom cheering on the then 100 or so new breweries that had flowered since the mid-1970s. The tone was triumphant with only one closure to report, though a profile of Bourne Valley Brewery run by James Lynch (former CAMRA chair turned brewer) and John Featherby highlighted some challenges:

Back at the brewery, they are drawing in their horns to weather the recession. ‘We have just withdrawn from supplying London (and the West Country) on a regular basis,’ said John Featherby. ‘We are restricting our trading area… to cut our transport costs.’

Featherby also admitted that the brewery hadn’t made any money in its three years of trading and said, ‘In fact, we would not set up a brewery now. We could not afford to.’

Then, throughout 1983, there were rumblings, such as an article that appeared in What’s Brewing in April that year headlined THE GREAT BEER CRASH. It reported on the collapse of a London-based distributor, Roger Berman’s B&W, taking with it the associated micro-brewery, Union. In December, Brian Glover was observing that Devon’s micro-brewery scene was thriving with five then operating in the county.

But it could soon turn sour if they crowd each other out… ‘It’s certainly getting tight in the free trade around here,’ admitted Paul Bigrig [of the Mill Brewery], ‘especially with the appearance of Summerskills and Bates.’ Already Swimbridge Brewery in North Devon has gone under this year.

Then, in February 1984, in another special supplement, Glover called it: SMALL BEER CRASH.

The expected ‘shakeout’ of new small breweries has finally arrived with 12 having closed since July [1983]… All were free trade brewers, most struggling to sell their beer without the protection of their own pubs… The only surprise is that so many survived for so long, given the harsh recession, stiff competition and dearth of genuine freehouses…

The most famous of the failed breweries was Penrhos, founded by Richard Boston and Monty Python star Terry Jones in 1977 and run by Martin Griffiths. (His computer brain didn’t work out.) Griffiths reckoned he and Jones had lost £70,000 (going on for a quarter of a million quid in today’s money) over the course of the brewery’s life.

Another brewer, Geoff Patton of Swimbridge in Devon, cited aggressive discounting by larger breweries. The owners of Swannells in Hertfordshire acknowledged that poor quality control and marketing had contributed to its failure. Tisbury fell when its sister pub chain, on which it relied for the bulk of its sales, went into receivership.

Brian Glover said, in conclusion, ‘The small brewery boom… looks to be over.’ His final prediction?

The future, it would seem, lies in the consolidation of the surviving free trade brewers; an expanding number of [brew pubs] — and increasing involvement in small-scale brewing by the major brewers… A few new independent free trade brewers will appear in the next couple of years. But sadly, they will almost certainly be outweighed by the number that give up the unequal struggle.

As it happened, the paltry c.100 micro-breweries of 1984 have become c.1,500 in 2016, which just goes to show how difficult it can be to predict anything.

Categories
Beer history beer in fiction / tv Brew Britannia

Holding the Fort: a Sitcom With Added Beer

From 1980 to 1982 one of London Weekend Television’s top-rated sitcoms was Holding the Fort in which Peter Davison played a microbrewer.

We spoke to the writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, to find out more.

We were first tipped off to the existence of Holding the Fort by a comment from ‘Dvorak’ on something we posted back in September. We watched as much as we could find on YouTube and were amazed by how accurately it portrayed the then embryonic British microbrewing scene. On the off-chance, we emailed Marks & Gran via their website just as the success of their revival of Goodnight Sweetheart hit them and they became very busy. We heard nothing until this week when we got an apologetic reply and an invitation to phone them at their office.

Because the way the timing worked out Bailey made the call, speaking to Laurence Marks while Maurice Gran made muffled interjections somewhere in the background. We’ve slightly edited the transcript for clarity and to remove some umm-ing and er-ing.

Two young men with facial hair.
Laurence Marks (right) and Maurice Gran in the 1970s. SOURCE: Marks & Gran.

From what we’ve been able to see Holding the Fort is a pretty accurate portrayal of what was going on in British brewing at the time.

Microbrewing had just started and we had met the man… What was his name? This was 40 years ago, our very first commissioned sitcom, so it’s hard to remember. He was the man who started a chain of pubs… What were they called?

David Bruce — the Firkin chain?

That’s him! He was always our adviser on brewing and, in fact, he provided all the brewing equipment for the production which was in the basement of our fictional brewer’s house in Tufnell Park, North London.

Our central character, our male central character, who we join in the first episode, is a brewer. The brewery where he works is closing and moving to the North. He and his wife, played by Patricia Hodge, have just had a little baby and they don’t want to move North, so she goes back to her old job as an Army Captain and he decides he can run a small brewery from his house.

And his assistant, played by Matthew Kelly, he’s a kind of stereotypical real ale drinker with the beard and so on.

No, Fitz, he’s not a brewer — he’s just kind of a layabout, but he starts to learn to brew. Peter Davison, who’s the brewer, is very clean cut. David Bruce always looked alright to me! Very smart.

Peter Davison was in Doctor Who at the same time you were making this series — is that right?

Well, yes and no. We made the first series in 1980 then he got cast as Doctor Who between series, so he was alternating between our series at LWT and Doctor Who at the BBC.

It’s odd that you’re so well-known but that this show is so obscure — we’d never heard of it and it’s quite hard to get to see. But there were three series so it must have been popular.

Oh, yes — hugely successful. It was, at one time, LWT’s top-rated comedy show. I have no idea why it’s out of circulation — I don’t understand the machinations of TV networks.

Were you into beer yourselves? Were you CAMRA members or anything like that?

I was a journalist at the time, in the mid-1970s, and was invited along to the first CAMRA beer festival at Covent Garden in 1975. I went along to what is now the London Transport Museum and there was every beer in the entire country, barrels everywhere. People were walking around vomiting, falling over… It was the closest we’d come to the Munich Oktoberfest, I suppose.

I was with a friend who was a much more learned beer drinker than me, and we worked our way round deciding which was the best beer there. We both agreed it was Hook Norton. In fact, we loved it so much, we found out where the brewery was, took a day off work and drove out there. There were three pubs near the brewery, supplied directly, and we drank in all of them. And funnily enough, it’s now my local brewer.

* * *

Marks & Gran are still writing together. You can read more about their long career at their website, Marks & Gran, and they are also on Twitter @marksandgran.

Categories
Beer history Brew Britannia

Bill Urquhart: A Footnote to a Footnote

Urquhart in glasses and flat cap raising a pint.
Adapted from ‘Bill Urquhart at Litchborough’, via Wikimedia Commons.

In our recent trawl of the Sunday Times archive we found something we could have done with three years ago: a killer quote from Britain’s first microbrewer.

Well, sort of first — terms and conditions apply, and the ins and outs are all in Chapter Four of Brew Britannia. At any rate, when Bill Urquhart founded the Litchborough Brewery in 1974 he helped kick off a revolution.

In his splendid and essential 1988 book New Beer Guide published in 1988, Brian Glover (not that one, the beer one) used a wonderful quote from Mr Urquhart that would have fit perfectly into our narrative of the birth of the small-is-beautiful, anti-corporate tendency in the alternative strand of British brewing:

Brewers have been edged aside in favour of people who talk about economics rather than beer. Everyone now has to be trained in the concept of marginal profits. They’ve swamped out the people who want to make good beer. Once the head brewers used to decide what the beer would be. Now they make what they are told.

He cited its source as the Northampton Chronicle which we in 2013 duly called up from the stacks at the British Library’s newspaper library, then based at Colindale in North London. We read several years worth of issues, several times and… Nothing. (Though we followed a couple of grim murder cases with interest.) Either Mr Glover got the name of the paper wrong or there was some other confusion.

We contacted Mr Glover directly but his notes were left with CAMRA and have since gone missing, and he couldn’t remember any further details.

Finally, a bit glum at hours of wasted time, we sought the advice of one of our mentors who said our instincts were right: without a source, we shouldn’t use it. With a sigh, we agreed, and didn’t.