Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all?

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear.

What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

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Beer that’s proud to be cheap

Moles VFM beer pump clip.

A while ago, we wrote a post suggesting that ‘craft’ brewers should take on the challenge of making a beer with the intention of knocking it out cheap. Moles of Wiltshire, founded in 1981 at the height of the ‘real ale craze’, have done just that, with a seasonal brew called VFM — value for money.

We came across it in the Crown, one of few Bridgwater pubs with a bit of life, and a commitment to ‘real ale’. ‘It’s brewed to be sold at about £2.20 a pint,’ said the landlord, ‘for February.’ (Their brochure actually suggests an even lower price-per-pint: £1.99.) He certainly seemed grateful for a product which gave him half a chance to compete with Wetherspoons, and the ability to keep up his real ale offer through the post-Christmas doldrums.

It wasn’t a great beer, but it wasn’t bad, either, at least by the standards of a town where Butcombe Bitter and Wadworth 6X are considered adventurous, niche products. In good nick and served cool, just how we like it, we were happy to drink more than one. It wasn’t especially weak (3.8%) and was about as obviously hoppy as many other beers of the same style. Its made, they say, with First Gold hops and Maris Otter malt, rather than floor-sweepings and bag-ends. So how did they achieve the target price point? Damned if we know. (We’ve emailed them to ask and will update this post if we get a reply.)

Keith Reynolds from Moles says: ‘We significantly lower our margin in order to provide a good price to the retailer so it can be passed onto the consumer, at a particularly slow time of the year in the trade, to generate sales.’

It has certainly helped us clarify our thinking on something: beer brewed to be cheap isn’t a bad thing; but cheap beer marketed as a premium product, at a premium price, is a con. VFM doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is.

A perfect pub in Salisbury

summerlightning2

The Wyndham Arms in Salisbury, Wiltshire,  is somewhere we’ve longed to go ever since seeing its bright yellow, Hopback Brewery branded frontage from a speeding car a few years ago. It’s where the brewery began, before moving to bigger premises. This weekend, we finally made it, and what a treat it was.

Four Hopback beers from casks, several in bottles in the fridge, plus a Guinness-baiting stout on the keg font, kept us there for most of the evening. There’s also a tasteful selection of German and Belgian bottles.

But the real pleasure was in the balance the management had struck between a normal, cosy pub serving the locals (lots of them were in) and something that geeks like us would go out of our way for. That’s canny business from which other landlords would do well to learn.

Having sussed us as geeks, the barman understood completely when we wanted a bottle of Entire Stout from the fridge and a half of the keg to compare. For the record, they were both much better than Guinness, but the bottled version seemed more bitter, emphasising chocolate, whereas the keg was more sour (in a nice way).

Tip: to really blend in, order a pint of Crop or Summer, rather than using the full names (Crop Circle and Summer Lightning). And Kronenbourg 1664 is simply “Numbers”‘.

It’s at 27 Estcourt Road, near the London Road.