On Thursday 26 February 2009, Chris Marchbanks managed to get twelve members of the Brewery History Society to gather at the Beamish and Crawford Brewery in Cork to bear witness to what turned out to be the last ever brew of Beamish at their South Main Street site.
New owners Heineken had decided to concentrate their Cork brewing activities at the Lady's Well brewery of Murphy's and we had been invited over to view the Beamish brewery one last time before its sad demise, 217 years after its founding in 1792. Good news for Beamish lovers however, as the brand will continue to be brewed at the younger Murphy's site.
Nearly half of the members of the BHS group were former brewers and the tour was conducted by Ed Hinchy who had a wealth of knowledge to complement that of the party from Britain. A few of the members carried their trusty copies of 'Barnard' - the Victorian brewing bible that featured Beamish in its volume 2. With a superbly detailed map of the brewery dated to just before Barnard's visit, and with original brewery pictures that Barnard had used for his engravings, we were able to get an idea of the site's layout before being shown around.
The removal men had already commenced work and after gathering in the old board room we proceeded to a room stacked with Beamish and Crawford memorabilia - old advertising signs, boards and mirrors, fantastic gallon jugs with unique pictorials, glasses, decanters, old measures and piles of old, extremely valuable, brewing and distilling manuals and books. Most poignant of all perhaps, being the pile of former chairman portraits which would have once taken pride of place.
The old brewing hall had been closed down in the 1970s but still contained some massive old coppers, and from there we progressed to other areas of the brewery that had stayed much as they were since the 1890s, including some ancient belt-driven malt hoppers at the top of the brewery.
All the while Ed our host answered all questions with aplomb and showed us parts of the brewery rarely accessed by anyone. This culminated in us being allowed right to the apex of the brewery, above the massive liquor tanks and alongside the brewery's wind sock!
This allowed us unrivalled views of Cork and showed to me how the place had evolved since the 6th century, in my mind very much echoing Bristol in its development as a city; whereas Bristol had to tame two main tidal rivers, Cork had to tame one, the Lee, but this has led to many similarities. Both cities founded on high ground with an old crossroads surrounded by water, strategically placed for maritime trade. Both cities ancient trading partners with one another.
The reclamation of marshland, fortifications to make it a safe haven for merchant ships, victualling yards to support the growing British Empire and supplies for the hazardous journeys across the world – and the provision of generous amounts of beer, gin and whiskey (Bristol had a distillery as well) made them both popular places. In fact the Bristol coat of arms is strikingly similar to that of Cork's; a sailing ship carried forth from a protective tower, in Cork's case, two protective towers!
The location of Beamish and Crawford's brewery even bore this out, under the shadow of the Elizabeth Fort; two empty gun ports seemed to be aimed at the brewery, a subtle reminder to get the brew right. Although started in 1792, Ed reckoned brewing on the site could have gone on right back to when the Danes ruled, and it faced one of the venerable roads that made up the city.
It is also situated next to one of the earliest crossings of the Lee, not far from St Finn Barr's Cathedral named after the man who had originally founded the city in the 6th Century. Burgage plots containing shops and ale houses originally fronted the street but these were absorbed into the brewery in the 1920s when offices and a boardroom were built in the Tudor style. When doing this they didn't forget their history and incorporated one of the original old ale house lintels dated 1602 into the fireplace and laid out one of the massive mash tun floors to become a major welcoming feature to the building's lobby area.
Ed was delighted when I told him about a major 1708 Bristol privateering venture led by Woodes Rogers that called in to Cork to replenish its supplies and change half of its crew (whom Rogers had found to be incompetent). This voyage famously brought back a Spanish Treasure ship and rescued Alexander Selkirk - Defoe's model for Robinson Crusoe. Coincidently the cruise was partially sponsored by Bristol brewer and former Lord Mayor Sir John Hawkins.
Mr Hinchey wouldn't be outdone however, as he pointed out one of the original capping stones from nearby South Gate Bridge that had been the brief home of a well known local pirate whose head was impaled on a spike on the bridge when he had been captured after yet another misdemeanour. This stone has subsequently been incorporated into the balcony of the brewery leading into the foyer of the Tudor building.
We then went on to see the modern brew hall and associated bottling and keg filling sections which had only been modified at great expense just 10 years previously. Again this had echoes of home where the same thing had happened to Courage's Bristol Brewery, where within 10 years of modernisation Scottish and Newcastle decided to close it down for its land value. Clearly the moral of the story is not to get modernised! Amazingly both breweries were also original porter breweries, with Bristol and London supplying Ireland until Beamish and its brethren switched to the black stuff.
Before completing our trip, which lasted over three hours, Ray and Paul enthralled us all with a technical talk about the virtues of a unique fermentation block system Beamish employed. This was followed by a presentation to Ed by Jeff Sechiari of BHS to thank him for his excellent tour. We were then wonderfully entertained at the nearby "Wandering Worker" (I couldn't hope to pronounce its Gaelic name) pub with great food and copious amounts of Beamish. It certainly is true to say that the Irish are tremendous hosts.
Before leaving and jetting off to our various home airports, the party rendezvoused later at the Franciscan's Well microbrewery for a hastily scheduled brewery tour. We'd met in this brew-pub the night before, and it was great to see the extent of this small operation, the closest you could get to the cask-conditioned ale of home.
Visiting Ireland at this time is quite expensive due to the exchange rate, and stout works out at about £4.50 a pint. The four giant pizzas we bought to soak up the excellent beer cost £65!
After the party split up, Mike Bone, Industrial Archaeology guru, and I were left to enjoy Cork for a further 18 hours. Our next port of call being the city's Crawford Art Gallery, founded by the original Mr Crawford of Beamish and Crawford way back in 1818. And what a tremendous asset it is to the city, possibly one of the reasons Cork was chosen as European Capital of Culture in 2005, with some, mostly Irish, top notch art.
The next morning, we partially explored some of the other breweries Beamish had acquired over the years, Lane's on the waterfront is now a car park with hardly any original features left, and Arnott's further inland is now the site of the 'Crawford Institute of Art and Design' - this site bought and redeveloped at the turn of the last century; Mike imagined the wry smile on Sharman Crawford's face when the Institute was opened where a competitor once stood.
You can't fault the Crawfords for being great benefactors though.
Onward around some rare industrial archaeology now rapidly disappearing, and back to the hotel to collect our bags and await the airport bus. Luckily for us, right by the bus stop, was a 'James Joyce' registered pub called the Dan Lowrey Tavern, replete with an original bar-back and old brewery signs including two external slate Bass plaques and a huge Bass mirror inside. The relief moulded James Joyce sign denotes Irish pubs with outstanding original interiors.
On our departure Mike very kindly gave me his copy of Colin Rynne's excellent "The Industrial Archaeology of Cork City and its Environs" which really put flesh on the bones of my visit. To my amazement, the two massive Victorian coppers that we'd seen had been made by Llewellyns and James of Castle Green, Bristol.
Unlike my colleagues, I'm no brewery expert, but I know of no other survivors, not even from Adlams, the other great Bristol brewery engineers, both major players in a key Bristol industry that was started by Abraham Darby and finished off by the Clean Air Act.
Bristol's Brass industry is of national significance, from the birth of the Industrial Revolution, through the Slave Trade (with Guinea Goods) and up to modern times, and I wondered if one of these coppers - Ed has since contacted me to say that each copper had a capacity of about 390 barrels or 14,040 gallons - could be rescued and built into the new Museum of Bristol. The copper would make a stunning centrepiece to a Brass Industry display and it could easily lead on to other major parts of Bristol's past, such as brewing and pub life. As you can see in this article, the influence of brewing runs throughout Cork and the same is true for Bristol.
Many thanks must go to Beamish and the Brewery History Society for such a fabulous trip.
© 2009 Mark Steeds