Almost a year since production ceased in Leeds, beer writer Simon Jenkins travelled to the Black Country to see Tetley’s being made in its new home.
THE Banks’s Brewery motto is “Fide et Fortitudine”. Faith and strength are virtues they have needed by the barrel-load since they agreed to brew Tetley Bitter in Wolverhampton.
Carlsberg’s decision to close the Hunslet Brewery was announced in November 2007. Its four-year wind-down gave protesters ample time to marshal their arguments and rally powerful opinion to their cause. It should also have been more than sufficient to find a new home for Yorkshire’s favourite brew, but this troublesome transition was achieved only in the nick of time.
While public opinion would have favoured keeping the brand in Yorkshire, Carlsberg embarked on a national beauty parade of those breweries with both the capacity and the inclination to take on this fallen icon. It proved a small field. Few combined the capabilities of producing both real ale for casks and pasteurised beer for kegs and cans, along with the space to add 14 million gallons to their annual production, virtually overnight.
Step forward Marston’s, once a small family-owned concern in Burton-on-Trent, but now the biggest brewer of cask ale in the world, custodian of great names such as Mansfield, Wychwood, Jennings, Banks’s and Bass, as well as their own ubiquitous Pedigree.
Brewing and logistics director Richard Westwood explains why Marston’s was keen to add another name to its proud CV: “We wanted to be involved with a brand as strong as Tetley’s and we knew we could do a good job with it. And by shifting production of some of our other brands around Marston’s five regional breweries, we’ve been able to create the dedicated capacity to brew Tetley’s here at Wolverhampton.”
The Banks’s Brewery stands little more than a couple of goalkicks’ distance from Molineux, where another Leeds legend, Terry Connor, has found the going rather tough of late. But the move makes some sense. Banks’s has been brewing traditional cask ale for more than 130 years, the brand every bit a symbol of quality in the West Midlands as Tetley’s has been in Yorkshire since 1822. Banks’s Mild has been the Black Country working man’s refreshment of choice for generations.
So while Tetley’s had increasingly become an anomaly in the Danes’ portfolio of European lagers such as Holsten, Tuborg, Kronenbourg and Special Brew, this crafted British product had far more in common with the fiercely-traditional Banks’s.
But agreeing the deal was only the start of the battle. Replicating the Leeds taste in the Black Country was never going to be easy, not least because the single-decked fermenting vessels at Banks’s are quite different to the traditional twin-decked Yorkshire Squares used by Tetley’s and other northern breweries since time immemorial. Ask Theakston, ask Black Sheep, ask Sam Smiths – and they will all say that the squares are crucial to the taste and character of traditional Yorkshire ales. That faint rumbling sound you could occasionally hear near Hampsthwaite churchyard was Joshua Tetley slowly turning in his grave.
The hint of sulphur which is a hallmark of the Tetley aroma and taste – yet quite anathema to West Midlands drinkers – was another headache, and required calcium sulphate to be added to water drawn from the brewery’s 330-foot borehole. Even the finings proved problematic. These products are derived from the swim-bladder of several species of large fish, and simply used to create a clearer, brighter beer by helping the spent yeast sink to the bottom of the cask, as it settles into the pub cellars after delivery.
It was only at the testing phase that the team realised that the different types of finings used in Leeds and Wolverhampton were actually making a difference to the taste, too.
But it was the unique twin strains of Tetley yeast which proved the most reluctant to adapt to their new home. As a living element of the brewing process, key both to the fermentation and to the distinctive clovey, bitter nature of the beer, it was critical to recreate the conditions in which these temperamental yeasts thrive. It took the combined expertise of Marston’s and Tetley’s – plus a new process to gently rouse the beer as it ferments – to finally persuade the yeast to weave its glorious, delicate, alcohol-creating magic, far from home.
“Past experience of contract brewing told us it would take five or six brews to get the beer right,” says Richard. Perhaps exhibiting some characteristic Yorkshire stubbornness, Tetley proved far tougher to replicate: “We went through all kinds of theories about what was going wrong and all the time we had this big deadline hurtling towards us. A lot of midnight oil was burned.”
The 10-day lag between brewing the test batches and then being able to test them at their pub-ready best was a serious frustration for all involved.
“I think I wore a groove into the M6,” adds Andy Kenyon, contract quality manager for Carlsberg, who oversaw the transition from the Tetley side, despite being still based in Leeds while production continued there. “There were times when we wondered if it would ever happen.”
The hard work finally paid off. By the 17th attempt, both companies were sufficiently confident in the product to allow the first casks to leave the premises, with beers from both Leeds and Wolverhampton being sold side-by-side in Yorkshire pubs for a while.
Paradoxically, it was at this point where the arrangement was at its most vulnerable. The protests against Carlsberg were reaching a belated crescendo; hardened Tetley drinkers were eager to hop all over any perceived fluctuations in the quality of their favourite beer. Casks were returned to Wolverhampton undrunk; obdurate customers vowed never to drink it.
Yet now that the Leeds brewery has completely closed and Banks’s are up to full-scale production, they are confident they are achieving the kind of consistency which was difficult to create with small batches of trial beers.
And mindful of the warm feelings many drinkers have towards the brand, Marston’s are determined to be careful guardians of the brand, its quality and its image. Tetley’s representatives travel monthly to Wolverhampton to review the products, further testings are carried out regularly across the Tetley heartland – in Harrogate, Bradford and, of course, Leeds.
“We go into places like the Scarbrough Taps, the Palace, the Templar and the Victoria,” says Andy. “We get feedback from the licensees too, but so far the overwhelming reaction is positive. Hardly any casks are being returned now.”
They are expanding the range too with a changing list of seasonal Tetley ales. The latest, Hop and Glory, is a firm and fruity alternative, brewed specially for the Diamond Jubilee, and I try out the full-bodied Father’s Day special during a whistle-stop tour of the sprawling brewery.
As ever, the proof is in the tasting – and I have the curious experience of drinking hand-pulled Tetley bitter from Banks’s glassware under the watchful eye of representatives of the two old breweries, and their parent companies Marston’s and Carlsberg.
It seems on fine form, but more importantly, 150 miles north from here, the famous Tetley Bittermen are giving the beer the seal of approval too, according to Toby Flint, licensee at real ale paradise the Scarbrough Taps: “I’ve got guys who have been drinking Tetley’s for 30 or 40 years. They were never going to change if they didn’t have to – and they love it. There were some issues at first but now the quality is as high as it ever was.”
There has been some drop-off in sales: “The people who decided they weren’t going to buy it after they had stopped brewing in Leeds, have done that. So sales did drop – and most of them went on to drinking Leeds Brewery beers instead. Tetley’s used to completely out-sell Leeds Brewery, but now they are pretty much neck-and-neck. But I’m still selling six or seven hundred pints of Tetley a week.”
It seems Joshua can sleep easy after all.