They may be big, but they're not that clever
Whitbread - Bass - Highgate

Whitbread, a company determined to buy up only those companies brewing beer of the highest quality. Then destroy them. Turn the beer, no matter how good, into total rubbish, then move it to Cheltenham, where they really knew how to stick the boot in. They were the terminal ward of British brewing. There was no getting away, once you got under the umbrella.

It can't have been a mistake, because they kept on doing it. Fremlin's, Brickwood's, Wethered's (what beers they brewed - obviously before they went to Cheltenham . . .) a whole string of breweries in Yorkshire and Lancashire - Dutton's, Bentley's, Chester's. (In the North, Whitbread played a particulalarly clever trick. After many years of bright beer, finally, cask was re-introduced. After waiting just long enough for you to get attached to it, they'd shut the brewery.) Most of the country's drinkers got to suffer, over the years. It's as if some evil genius, with a pathological loathing of cask-conditioning, had methodically set out destroy our best beers.

If there is one action that ought to get you house-hunting in Frankenland, it's when a company closes its home brewery. Like when a football team decides to move to Milton Keynes. They can't even be bothered to pretend to care.

Samuel Whitbread's brewery on Chiswell street hasn't seen any mashing or fermenting for quite a while.

My plan (hatched after another fruitless attempt to get a twat of a Dutch manger to stop being proactive and customer-facing for a few minutes and actually listen to what I was saying. I've learned in my time on this planet amongst you earthlings, that some humans possess a brain only only capable of containing a single thought at a time. These harmless fellows do no harm if left to pursue suitable careers, where not too much thinking is required - like scarecrow, goldfish or town planner. Some poor unfortunates, who should really evoke our pity, are mentally challenged to such a degree, that they are unaware of their tragic lack of aptitude for management tasks. If only a close friend or relative had the courage to let them know the truth - or to put a bullet through their brain - much suffering could be avoided.) for a son's football career falls into the same category.

I see my son being spotted at an Ajax open day. He works his way up through the youth teams - A1, B3 or whatever the hell they are (why does nothing in this country ever have a name made up of words rather a code?) - and finally breaks into the first team squad. After one dazzling season as a regular, he's the hero of the F-side. He doesn't have to wait long for an international call up. He debuts in a crucial World Cup Qualifier, a tricky away game against a confident opponent, bent on revenge. Three - one down and just ten minutes away from World Cup exit, the manager decides he has nothing to lose: he gives my son the nod. What follows is the stuff of legend - with a display of clinical finishing that belies his tender years, he scores three times in the last five minutes to clinch qualification. The ArenA is deathly silent, as my son is carried on a lap of honour by his ecstatic German teammates.

It's a betrayal of the cruellest sort.

The Highgate anomaly

Bass must have forgotten about Highgate. Look at the facts - it's a small, traditional brewery whose only regular product is a dark mild. You can just see that executive grabbing the axe and shaking with excitement at the thought of a little corporate right-sizing before lunch. Why else would it have stayed open?

Unless an accountant had been able to hold the meddlers back, because I'm sure that it was economically viable. The compact Victorian tower brewery, was surprisingly productive. Sold - and very willingly drunk - mostly around Wallsall, it had low transport costs and could take advantage of Bass's bulk buying. If it had lost money, it would have been closed without a thought.

What is so puzzling about the story of Highgate, is that it is so rare. I'm now trying to think of another example of a small, traditional brewery left to brew what its customers wanted, that survived long under the protection of a philanthropic national contender. There must be examples to spare of effecient, local breweries that would have made money for their owners, if left to get on with it.

The Highgate story
I needed to consult "The Highgate Brewery" (by Keith J Lloyd, The Black Country Press) to get the facts. My book-buying sprees, fueled by an afternoon of mild in the Olympia greenhouse, usually earned me a few harsh words once home. Yet there is always an occasion, sooner or later, when I discover that one of my ale-induced impulse buys holds just the information I need. Even though the thin volume only me one pound, my wife saw it as a very non-essential purchase. Don't dare think that this is a criticism of her, far from it. Had she been in charge of the finances five years earlier, we would have had far fewer worries today. But that's enough about me, here are some relevant dates, numbers and that sort of thing.

The Highgate-Walsall Brewery Company
1895 founded
1899 first brew
1939 (July) bought by Mitchelss and Butlers, of Cape Hill
1995 management buyout
2000 bought by Aston Manor

Back at the start of WW II, a couple of hundred quid put on Highgate outlasting M & B would have provided you with a very comfortable retirement. You could have been one of those irritating bastards in their oversize yachts and overtanned hides, that regularly pass along the Schinkel (a pretty industrial-strength canal that never seems to be far from my addresses in Amsterdam. . . . . Just by where I used to live, they once found two suitcases full of body parts in it, but you probably don't want to hear about that). They cruise through Amsterdam looking at us as if we're expected to bow our heads as they pass. (My opinions do not, of course, apply to those pursuing a genuine interest in a vessel of reasonable proportions.).have kept you well away from . I'll go out on a limb here - I bet they brought more to the union than Highgate's 50 tied houses.The men from M & B were quite keen on the Walsall pubs that came along with the brewery. They were in good nick, easy to supply from Cape Hill and, from the quantity of beer being brewed for them, had some pretty thirsty customers.

Lloyd provides us with some figures to compare:

year 1939 1982
staff 65 30
weekly output (barrels) 1000 2000
tied houses (GBG 1983) 50 200

When looking at the numbers employed, remember that when independent, Highgate brewed more beers, bottled itself, ran a wine and spirits business and did its own distribution. After 1956, when Butlers of Wolverhampton joined M & B and the last non-brewing activities were moved there, Highgate became a dedicated mild-production plant.

I've often speculated about a secret Highgate Mild fan hiding in the Bass boardroom. I can just about swallow the story of WW II reprieve to hold on to its allotted supply of scarce raw materials. Malt and hops were handed out by the government, much like the dole. But rhere are still another 50 years to explain away (mmm . . . that's too long for one man - I now see a dynasty of mild-drinking directors, slipping into Walsall in disguise to slake their hidden passion, father initiating son).

Why did Highgate survive?
Marked for closure before the ink dried on the contract with M & B, Highgate somehow found a very specialised niche for itself within the Bass empire. It provided Walsall with the dark mild it liked. Perhaps the narrow and unfashionable nature of their operations - getting mild into the town's pubsl - saved them. I can't imagine that the other breweries in the group were queueing up to send mild, a product with the appeal of a sweaty sock, according to the marketing chaps, to the Black Country.

Looking back, Wolverhampton's Springfield brewery, which I don't ever remember brewing a mild, wasn't that likely as a replacement for Highgate. Does anyone else remember DPA (Dunkirk Pale Ale)? It's a beer that was petering out as I did my first drinking in the West Midlands. A search on the web not long ago could hardly find a mention of it. I was disturbed to see how little trace of it remained. I'll be honest with you - I can't remember a thing about what DPA was like, other than being a bitter.But I still don't want it forgotten.

If Springfield's not our man, then the only prospective purveyor of mild left is Cape Hill. I drank the standard M & B mild often enough to understand why drinkers wanted to stick with Highgate. Cape Hill mild was crap. How much did beers like this, not downright nasty, but dull and characterless, contribute to the downfall of mild? They can't have done much for the image.

Whatever the precise reasons - and luck seems to have quite free with her favours down Walsall way - Highgate survived under Bass and eventually outlived it, along with Cape Hill and Springfield. Highgate even last longer than any of the concerns (M&B, then Bass Charrington, Bass Breweries and probably a few more I've forgotten) that owned it.

The call of the mild

I've always been a sucker for the underdog. So it won't surprise you that I became an ardent advocate of mild, the moment I found out how unfasionable it was. My student days were an endless whirl of mild, mushy peas and rented rooms colder than Santa's outside bog.

Say "Summer of 1976" and I'm back there on the balcony of North Hill Court, sipping a pint of iced mild as the Ramones threaten to rip Pete's speakers apart. It's no wonder I failed my first year exams. I spent part of the oh-so-brief university hols trying to cram enough Chinese into my head to fool the examiners. My meagre finances only ran to a single half of Tetley's mild, which I consumed with great pleasure, my foot tapping to the funky disco beat of "Dancing Queen". Do you think that it's my unashamed love of Abba. I can't remember the names of hardly anyone at Leeds, outside of my close friends. But I am quite confident about being able to list all the milds I drank that year. Don't worry I won't actually do that. I've spent enough time gabbling into blank faces to realise that not very much at all is how much people want to hear about mild.

Where are they now?
Since parting company with Bass, Highgate has broadened its activities again. I try not to let the irrational attraction of a whole brewery, totally dedicated to mild, blind me to commercial reality. Though, it is sad to think that we are unlikely ever to see again a brewery of this size comitting itself so completely to mild.

No doubt Aston Manor will decide to close Highgate down next week, just to piss me off. I hope that they don't. The irony would be too cruel.

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© Ron Pattinson 1995 - 2010