Session #100: The Return of Porter

It’s the 100th beer blogging session, hosted by Reuben Gray, on the subject of ‘resurrecting lost beer styles’.

Though he has asked for people to think specifically about the last ten years, and to choose ‘an obscure style you don’t find in very many places’, we couldn’t resist getting historical and looking at what was arguably the first such resurrection of the modern era: Porter.

In the mid-1970s, it had become extinct, having been hard to find for some decades before that, but was brought back to life by one of the first of the new band of what later came to be known as microbreweries. Because the 100th Session is a special occasion, and with the kind permission of our publishers, Aurum Press, we’ve decided to share a slightly edited extract from chapter four of our book Brew Britannia that tells the story.

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Another sign that the ‘real ale revolution’ was seriously under way appeared with the arrival, also in 1977, of Britain’s first celebrity brewery. It was foreshadowed by the revelation, in the previous year, that two of Britain’s best-known entertainers, even then on the path to becoming ‘national treasures’, were real-ale devotees:

Two men who think that real ale is Something Completely Different are stalwart Monty Python writers and actors Terry Jones and Michael Palin . . . The busy pair . . . are lovers of traditional beer and always carry the Good Beer Guide with them . . . It is a much-thumbed document, for location shooting takes the team to some obscure parts of the country.

This should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had seen Palin in the famous 1974 ‘travel agent’ sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which Eric Idle delivers a ranting monologue with repeated disparaging references to Watney’s Red Barrel. Of the two, Terry Jones was the more enthusiastic about beer. When his accountant, Michael Henshaw, introduced him to another of his clients, Richard Boston, they entered into partnership on two projects. First, an ‘alternative’ magazine, The Vole, to be edited by Boston; and second, a brewery, which they initially intended to open in Berkshire. Boston announced the project in What’s Brewing in January 1977:

There are a number of free houses in the area that might take our beer. We have found a farmhouse with sheds that could be converted into a brewery . . . We have got the capital and the place – all we need is a dissatisfied brewer working for some anonymous combine who would like to run and plan his own business, explore retail outlets and work with us to see if the scheme is viable.

[Peter Austin] saw Boston’s cry for help and abandoned a failing sea-angling business in Hampshire to design and build a brewery. By this time, Terry Jones had become acquainted with businessman Martin Griffiths, who in 1972 had bought a ramshackle medieval farmhouse, Penrhos Court in Herefordshire, for £5,000 and turned it into a successful restaurant. The plan to brew in Berkshire was abandoned, and Austin was set to work in the farm buildings at the back of the property.

I remember the first brew very well. It was five o’clock one morning with bats flying about as we got up. It was the last possible day for brewing because the grand opening had to be before Terry Jones went to America . . . We got the mash in at six. The plumbers were ahead of us connecting up the next vessel. By 8 a.m. we were in the copper – it took hours to get it to boil . . . It was a twenty-hour marathon in all, but we did it.

The brewery was officially opened on Saturday, 16 July 1977, with Michael Palin, a compulsive diarist with an eye for detail, in attendance.

At Hereford Station by one. A minibus drives us to Penrhos Court . . . The beer is tasted and found to be good. Jones’ First Ale it’s called – and at a specific gravity of 1050 it’s about as devastating as Abbot Ale. But the weather has decided to be kind to us and the collection of buildings that is Penrhos Court – basically a fine, but run-down sixteenth-century manor house with outbuildings housing the brewery, restaurant and Martin Griffiths’ office and living accommodation – look well in the sunshine and provide a very amenable background to the serious beer-drinking.

Jones’s primary contribution seems to have been publicity. He opened the 1977 CAMRA Great British Beer Festival at Alexandra Palace. In his opening address, he said that beer shouldn’t be tasted, like wine, before dumping six pints of beer over his own head. This ‘showing off’ won coverage in several newspapers and a front-page photo in What’s Brewing. Jones, a globally renowned film director and comedian, was by far the hippest celebrity to lend his name to the Campaign: subsequent festivals were opened, with rather less glamour, by Labour minister Roy Hattersley and TV naturalist David Bellamy.

Jones seems to have spent much of this period wearing a Penrhos Ale branded sweatshirt, and, by 1978, it had paid off, and he declared the brewery a success: ‘It can’t be all that bad . . . After all, we’ve only been going for six months and already fourteen pubs are buying the stuff from us. And selling it.’

Penrhos wasn’t just a bit of celebrity dabbling, though. For one thing, it gave Peter Austin the opportunity to test himself before building not only his own brewery, Ringwood, in 1978, but also many more in Britain and around the world. For another, it was the first brewery to revive a type of beer which had last been brewed in 1973 – porter, the dark beer upon which British brewing dynasties had been established in the eighteenth century and from which stout was descended. Being extinct gave porter a certain mystique, and its very name evoked a romantic image of the nineteenth century at a time when books such as Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld were best-sellers.

Porter also offered something different – it was black and robust when, back then, most ‘real ale’ was brown bitter. Penrhos’s ‘dark, pleasant’ example was the surprise hit of the 1978 Great British Beer Festival, and was soon followed by a much sweeter version by Timothy Taylor of Keighley in Yorkshire, based on an 1873 recipe. When a cask of that went on sale at the Eagle, the CAMRA Real Ale Investments pub in Leeds, it sold out in less than three days. The excitement with which these unusual beers were greeted signalled a long, slow return to diversity in British brewing.

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Brew Britannia (cover)

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Peter Austin is Dead

Peter Austin, from CAMRA's What's Brewing, March 1986.

We’ve just heard that Peter Austin, founder of Ringwood Brewery, died yesterday. He was 92 years old.

We were lucky enough to correspond with Mr Austin last year, albeit briefly. He was charming, patient and very kind, despite his frailty. On the phone, he made it very clear that he didn’t have the energy for a long conversation, before proceeding to answer the questions we’d sent him by post with military precision:

I was born in North London and went to the Highgate School, which I left in 1935 when my family moved back to where it had originated, the New Forest. I then spent a couple of years on the HMS Conway on the River Mersey – the idea was a career at sea. I eventually went to sea with P&O and then joined the Royal Navy during World War II. I was invalided out rather early in the war… My father was a director of Pontifex & Sons who were big in producing steel fittings for breweries, until stainless came along, when they were a bit slow off the mark. Going into brewing wasn’t my idea – it was through my father’s connections. He got me a pupillage with Roland Storey at the Friary Brewery in Guildford in Surrey… After my pupillage, I went to the Hull Brewery as third brewer.

After retiring in the late seventies, he got dragged back into the world of brewing because, as he was happy to admit, he needed the money.

His first triumph was building and getting established the Penrhos Brewery on behalf of Martin Griffiths, Terry ‘Python’ Jones and writer Richard Boston. He then launched his own brewery, Ringwood, in 1978, and thereafter came to be the ‘go to’ guy for advice on setting up similar operations.

When David Bruce was setting up his first Firkin brewpub in 1979, it was Austin who vetted his designs for a miniature basement brewkit. The two were both founder members of SIBA, which then stood for The Small Independent Brewers Association, and Austin was its first Chair.

He was particularly proud of his contributions to SIBA’s submission to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission which fed into the Beer Orders of 1989.

Throughout the eighties, as well as running Ringwood,  Between 1978 and 1986, he installed 32 breweries in England, as well as many more in the far corners of the world, often working alongside another famous name in UK brewing, Brendan Dobbin.

We’ll raise a pint to him at the earliest opportunity.

There’s a detailed piece about Austin’s career by Brian Glover in the Summer 2013 edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine which is well worth reading.