Sometimes historical research can be an arduous business. Research for this blog post necessitated extensive field work, initially at Kingston Workingmen’s Club and Institute, venue for the Surrey town’s annual beer and cider festival, held each May. The festival is organised by the Kingston and Leatherhead branch of CAMRA, the ‘Campaign for Real Ale’.
Founded in 1971, CAMRA’s aim was to promote the production, distribution and sale of beer better in quality than that produced by major brewers at that time. In that endeavour it has been very successful. A not-for-profit, voluntary organisation, with a current membership estimated at 185,000, CAMRA claims to be one of the most successful British consumer campaigning groups ever. Apart from campaigning, it organises beer festivals all over the UK, most of the year round. The Kingston festival, for example, has run for eighteen years.
There is a long history of brewing in Kingston-upon-Thames, dating back about 500 years. There may at one time have been as many as 10 breweries in the area, most of them very small indeed.
The most notable was Hodgson’s, originally based in the City of London. As well as brewing its own beers, it bottled those produced by other brewers, such as Guinness. In 1854, Hodgson’s acquired an existing business in Brook Street, Kingston (see photo). The company subsequently expanded, buying up other businesses. In fashion typical of the British beer industry, it was eventually brought up in turn by the much larger Courage and Co. But Hodgson’s finally closed in 1965. Sadly, no trace of the brewery, or of its beer, remains.
Over the following half century the only commercial brewing in Kingston-upon-Thames seems to have taken place in a short-lived micro-brewery in a pub on the London Road in the town, currently closed and awaiting redevelopment as a boutique hotel.
In 2014, however, the Park Brewery started up in Elm Road, Kingston. At the local beer festival, I met Josh Kearns, who owns and runs the business with his wife, Frankie. Two days later, I visited their premises, a converted terrace house. Typical, it seems, of many such recent ventures, the Park Brewery’s origins lie in home brewing – beer brewed at first for friends and family, then, in ever greater quantity, for sale (in keg and bottle) at local pubs and off-licences. I asked what made that transition possible? Josh acknowledged the important role played by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), set up in the UK in 1980. A trade organisation, SIBA campaigned successfully for the introduction of progressive beer duty (PBD), in 2002. Breweries are taxed according to the quantity of beer they brew. That idea, apparently borrowed from Germany, aims to encourage small-scale, local ‘craft’ beer production. In that aim, it has been extremely successful.
According to one source, the UK now has the most craft breweries per capita of any country in the world. In 2002, there were fewer than 500 breweries, of all kinds. Now there are about 1,700. Beer is very big business.
Breweries in Britain continue to close nevertheless. The most recent example in London is the huge Stag Brewery, at Mortlake, which produced Budweiser. It will make way for luxury, Thames-side apartments, located by London’s famous River Thames. Paradoxically, given the overall increase in the number of breweries, the number of pubs in the UK is falling. People are drinking less, in pubs at any rate. Various causal factors are attested: changes in British consumption habits; the smoking ban of 2007; higher alcohol prices. The recent Labour Party 2017 general election manifesto included a pledge to investigate the ‘large-scale demise’ of local pubs. Beer is nothing if not a political issue.
Medium-sized breweries, who do not benefit from PBD to the extent of their smaller counterparts, now lobby government for review of the scheme. Meanwhile, as some micro-breweries become successful, they attract the interest of larger concerns keen to benefit from the profitability of their product. It is not easy to know precisely what will be the shape of the British beer industry in, say, 10 years’ time.
Most visitors to the 18th annual Kingston beer and cider festival were probably not too concerned. Brewers such as Josh Kearns and Ben Norman, of Twickenham Fine Ales, whom I also met there, are beer aficionados, but they are not business people. They benefit from PBD, and their products are currently in demand, locally. For the drinker, there has never been as much choice of beer, whether brewed in Britain or abroad. In a small way, the Park Brewery has revived an almost forgotten but important part of Kingston’s social and cultural heritage.
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)