When I first became aware of such things there were five breweries in Norfolk; four in Norwich and Lacons in Yarmouth. In 1958 the first to close was Youngs, Crawshay and Youngs in King Street. Morgans was the next to go, also in King Street, but whereas the Youngs and Crawshay brewery became an adult education centre, the Morgans site was redeveloped as the modern facility of a national brewery. One by one the five local brewers all disappeared, to be replaced by the metropolitan behemoth of Watney Mann, but things did not end there. Having swallowed up all the independent brewers Watney Mann decided that in future all Norfolk beer drinkers would be supplied from places as far afield as Burton on Trent. For a few years this was the case. The traditional brews of Norfolk Bitter and Norfolk Mild (previously Steward and Patteson and Bullards) disappeared. Eventually Watney’s Red Barrel went the same way, but nobody minded seeing the back of that. The effect of these changes was mitigated to some extent by the growing popularity of European lagers.
In 1952, just before I became aware of breweries, that in the North Norfolk village of Trunch closed. This had been a throwback to the early nineteenth century, when many country villages had their own brewery. The Trunch Brewery was established in 1837, but there were many that sprang up a century before, when Letheringsett and Coltishall each had a brewery. Virtually all the towns in Norfolk had at least one brewer, sometimes several. They would each supply a handful of local pubs, the number increasing with time. Before that it had been the practice for each pub to brew its own ale. The economies of scale continued until by 1971 there were no independent breweries left in Norfolk. For those who still liked traditional English ale the nearest sources were in Southwold (Adnams), in Bury St Edmunds (Greene King) or Batemans in Lincolnshire. Although not remote, these brews were not available in Norfolk. Our county was a desert as far as local beer was concerned. Although it did better than its northern neighbour, Suffolk also lost the brewery in Ipswich, where Tolly and Cobbold was absorbed about this time.
It was not long before a new trend of small artisan brewers began to appear. Woodforde’s was one of the early ones, with their brewery at Woodbastwick. Back in the 1990s I organised a special brew to be served at the Longe Arms, to publicise my book on Spixworth. The recipe we used was based on one that I found in the archives in Ipswich Record Office, dating from the 18th century. When I was at Woodbastwick I was given a tour by the head brewer, who arranged for the fermenting of the ale. He used commercial yeast, unlike the Longe family of 200 years ago, who left the must out in the meadow overnight to pick up whatever the local wild yeast was!
Woodforde’s is now about the largest brewery in Norfolk; there are lots of others, many attached to a single pub. It is a return to the situation in the middle ages. At first the local brews were only available as draught ales, because it is much easier to supply barreled beer to be served on tap than bottled beer, but this means you must go to pub to have a drink. All these miniature breweries now have a range of bottled beers, so you can drink at leisure. The product is much more expensive than draught, but these artisan brewers have learned a thing or two about the art of marketing.
One of the early examples of clever marketing in Norfolk is the Bullards Publican logo of a hundred years ago. This picture of the bluff eighteenth century character appeared everywhere that Bullards Beer was sold until the brewery itself disappeared. It was designed by the renowned East Anglian artist Sir Alfred Munnings. After he had qualified at Norwich Art School, and long before he got his knighthood, he was employed on mundane tasks as a commercial artist in the city. One of his jobs was to design a logo to adorn all the pubs belonging the Bullards brand. The result was a minor masterpiece. The use of a colourful picture on the beer bottle labels has since become a standard tool in the marketing of ale. It all helps to obscure the fact that you may be paying slightly above the odds for your alcohol. If I want an inexpensive beer I can buy 4 cans for a pound from our local supermarket. That certainly is cheap but it is not exactly cheerful. I prefer something with a little more taste, even if I am also paying for the label.
With the growth of the small breweries has gone the growth of the annual Norwich beer festival, where their ales and beers all come together. This autumn event was a great favourite with my postman colleagues. You have to queue to pay your entrance fee at St Andrew’s Hall, but for this you get a glass with the year’s symbol on the side. You then wander round the casks, selecting from a huge variety of beers. As the afternoon wears on you remember less and less of what you have been doing. Eventually you float home somehow for a good night’s sleep. Remember you are a postman, and must be up bright and early the next morning; unless it is Saturday, and I think most of our expeditions took place on that day. Some of the more popular ales had run out by then, but the possibility of a lie-in made up for that.
For those who wish to learn more of the history of brewing this country I recommend reading the book by one of my tutor while I was at university, Peter Mathias: The brewing industry in England, 1700-1830 (1959).