At first glance this his probably reads like a polemic against Marstons. It’s not really, it’s more a series of observations from a pub tickers outing to Banks’s Brewery in Wolverhampton.
Even the tour guide pointed out that it shouldn’t really be called Banks’s, some guy called Thomson took it over in 1890, essentially starting out on a course of acquisitions on which it remains. And everyone knows that it’s only Marston’s these days because Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries PLC didn’t quite have the ring their marketing people wanted.
One of my many faults is that whenever I go somewhere new I automatically think it’s crap, unless it’s somewhere really cool, and obviously Wolverhampton doesn’t fall into the latter category.
To Wolverhampton’s credit, I soon got used to it and ended up liking it; wonderfully friendly people, beautiful Parish Church, Art gallery, Some splendid late 19th century buildings, a super modern footie stadium, sunshine, spring flowers and the first scent of newly mown grass.
Anyway lets get to the gist, or should it be the grist of the tale. Banks’s Park Brewery is a good old fashioned Victorian brewery with giant wooden fermenters, albeit lined with plastic, and even more traditional open, square fermenters. There’s long defunct coppers waiting for the price of scrap to rise sufficiently to make removal cost effective and some nice painted tiles in the room housing the newer (1997) copper whirlpools.
The brewing process begins with lorries delivering the grains, tipping it down a very tiny chute, considering some bulk tippers hold 25 tonnes or more. Marston’s are 3 years in the future with the grain buying and they come from all over the world. Hold on, I thought this was traditional brewer, nicely regional, with grains coming from the broad hinterlands of the west midlands metropolis?
None of us pressed the tour guide too much, we didn’t want to appear all clever dicky, and in any case he was only doing his job. We left the questioning to the ex-pat over from Australia who glowered at me when I suggested he might take the shine off things? To be fair he asked some relevant questions and didn’t morph into what I didn’t want to be.
Alex the tour guide, also an ex-pat (Sunderland) was charming and had a nice patter, explaining he was not a brewer, but would find out for us anything he didn’t know. I was dying to ask about FastcaskTM. He did mention and explain that Marston’s beers could be racked and tapped within 24hrs of delivery. But we mysteriously went from the fermenting room to the casking plant, missing out the bit where the magical stripping out of the yeast takes place. And the obvious question of, ‘How much ‘suspended in globules of jelly’ yeast do you actually put back in?’ and things like ‘Is it the yeast from the same gyle?’
Alex told us they were probably brewing about thirteen or fourteen beers at that time in the brewery. Banks’s have a range of three plus two less popular brews (Barley Gold and Dark Mild), so whose beers are the others? Any and every beer from the Marstons’ portfolio apparently. Although brewing continues in the many regional breweries they have bought out, capacity issues dictate that your Hobgoblin might not be brewed in Wychwood, you might not have to go to Cockermouth to have your sneck lifted, and Thwaites don’t brew the brands they sold off to Marston’s, Wolverhampton and Dudley, sorry Banks’s do.
Essentially Banks’s is a massive contract brewing operation for Marston’s many in-house brands and for other breweries. Alex said their chemists could accurately recreate the water from anywhere in the UK. He said it took them a good month to accurately synthesise Leeds water for Tetley’s, but eventually they got it right. I nearly bit my tongue off then, but I kept my gob shut.
The low point of the tour was when Retired Martin broke ranks and asked a searching question. I thought he handled it well, but as he turned and pretended to wipe his glasses, I saw a tear slowly roll down the side of his nose … Yes, we have brewed Pedigree and Bass here in Wolverhampton.
The brewery staff were impressive. Obviously they’ve got their jobs to do and bunging up an, often very constricted, old brewery with a group of middle aged beer geeks is inconvenient at best. Words like polite, pleasant and charming spring to mind. I mean the staff don’t even smile and say hello in a lot of pubs these days. A credit to their good selves they were.
The tour is pretty good value, an informative and interesting two hours for just short of nine quid and a nice change from the shiny stainless, can’t really see much, of most of the modern micros. They even show you the pigs ears, sorry dried sturgeon fish swim bladders, well they look like those dried pigs ears in the pet shop don’t they.
After the tour there is a smart little, echoes of Sam Smith’s, bar and I wouldn’t be surprised if Worralls had fitted the tap room out. We had the option of three half pint tokens or as much as you could sup before 4.30pm. Obviously we took the second option and drank three halves?
Banks’s Mild – nice, but developed a barky aftertaste after a couple of swigs. Banks’s Amber (was Bitter, but got rebranded by their clever marketing people) – fruity and nicely old fashioned, and Sunbeam – grapefruit and citrus in the sort of modern way that a traditional brewer seeks to reproduce without quite pulling it off.
Goes without saying they were all perfect, some even pulled their own which might not have just been as good as the experts, who were closely watching. They even had a copy of the album cover that The Jam were going to make until common sense prevailed.
Obviously there’s a lot of people out there drinking beers from the Marston’s portfolio, and you hear people waxing lyrical about Pedigree, and the Bass they contract brew. Fair play, if people like it then that’s cool.
Me? I don’t have to like it and I’m not going to. In these days of revitalisation I think there are a lot of real ale drinkers out there who should have a real good think about what Marston’s really are doing and what they are all about. I reckon if some of the Dinosaurs really work it through, they might realise that it’s not the rain that’s making their backs wet.