Beer Blog

Banks Beer Factory

Banks-14

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.

 

 

 

 

 

30 replies »

  1. So as I understand it from the post, Marston’s admit that the website contains ‘untruths’….
    “Pedigree is unique – not only is it still brewed in oak casks, but it’s the only beer left in Britain that’s brewed using Burton well water.”

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  2. Not arguing here and I hope that is clear. I am curious about this statement: “recreate the water from anywhere in the UK.” My understanding is all brewers work to balance or recreate water types. This does not seem unique to Banks. Am I wrong on this fact?

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    • Dave you are indeed correct and this is common practice. The issue I have is when someone starts to produce en-masse a beer, like Tetleys, that originates in a specific place and still call it Tetleys. It isn’t it’s just an imitation, although there is much more to it than just the water. You would never get away with something like this under the French Appellation laws, neither with cheese and other regional food products under EU law, so why is it acceptable with beer?

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      • You could, because most British beers don’t include a place name. It’s different with something like Jersey Royal potatoes or East Kent Goldings, which most people don’t realise is actually a protected designation of origin rather than a variety of hop – to qualify as EKG they have to be specific clones of the Golding variety, grown east of the M20 and meeting certain chemical specifications.

        The idea of appellations for beer was rather discredited in this country as the only time it was really done seriously was when they created an “appellation” for Newcastle Brown to say it could only be brewed on Tyneside. Fair enough, “Newcastle” is in the name. But as soon as a certain company wanted to move production to Tadcaster, the appellation was mysteriously uncreated.

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      • I’ve quite fixed views on this myself, because although British Beers don’t often include place names it is implicit according to the Brewers location – Bass of Burton, Smiths of Tadcaster, etc. If a brewer is located in a specific locality them I expect their beer to be brewed in that locality, not here there and everywhere.

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      • I feel much the same way you do on this topic. I think there is a deception in the practice. I am more interested in what I should think about the practice though. Clearly water can be reproduced to a fairly specific degree. They obviously can use the same malt, hops and possibly the same yeast. If they can recreate the beer with equal quality, why should I care? Banks’ attempted precision in recreating the beer can be viewed positively. They could just use any water and slap the Tetley label on it. I have sensed though that you believe the beer’s quality has changed. I am curious if you do believe quality has dropped? Also, did you see any quantitative sign as to why on the tour? (I also don’t see anything wrong with just not liking the practice. I am merely looking at it from a strictly brewing angle with this question.) I look forward to sampling a Tetley on our tour while hearing your historical view of the beer. Very interested.

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      • Dave, don’t drink it it’s NOT Tetley’s. All the Tetley Bitter Men turned into Bitter Tretley Men, as soon as they stopped brewing in Leeds. To be fair, it had been going down hill for a long time before and had been part of an ever larger trading group for a good while.

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      • I used to be like that, and while I’ve got generally more localist in my outlook over the years, the big breweries are one where I’ve got less bothered by it. Dog being manufactured by the Dutch sticks in the craw, but that’s as much about the way a multinational acts as anything, and it’s a bit different because like Brie and Camembert it’s got the name of a place in its name.

        Unlike wine and cheese, beer is generally an industrial process, using bought-in ingredients that are not produced on site. The local identity thing is manipulation by the marketing men as much as anything when the beer might be made with US hops, Belgian yeast, pilsner malt from Germany and sugar from the Caribbean. And it’s nothing new, brewing was one of the first industries to have global supply chains, they were buying from around the world even in the 19th century. Despite that the marketing men have done a great job in identifying beers with places, in a way that the makers of biros and washing machines have failed to do. The only thing local that affects the taste is the water, and that can be taste-matched by lobbing lumps of rock and battery acid into the wort.

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      • I’m researching things around the John Smith’s maltsters. The brewery had their own malting and contracted out growing to local (Yorkshire anyway) farmers, they went to examine and quality control and generally had a close connection to the grower. I see a definite link to ‘terror’ here that is sadly lacking these days,

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      • It’s easy to get romantic about this kind of thing, but if they’re getting barley from across Yorkshire, then does it really matter if they’re in Tadcaster or Bradford? (Courage moving from London to Reading whilst buying barley from Hertfordshire might be a better example) The way Boddies go on about their Manc-ness you’d expect the barley to be grown on the prairies of Cheetham Hill, but there’s been times in the 20th century when they were getting nearly half their barley from California, along with some of their hops.

        Also part of the point of terroir is that it affects the taste – even an inexperienced drinker can tell the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Bordeaux and California for instance. How many drinkers could spot the difference between say Propino grown in Suffolk and Conrad grown in Idaho? If there’s no difference in taste, then does the drinker really care whether the barley comes from Suffolk or Idaho?

        As I say, I’m very much into the whole localism thing, but big brewery barley makes a poor case for it.

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  3. Richard,
    I took Alex’s “can do and have done” reply about Bass and Pedigree to be one of several errors that came from us being shown round by someone who “was not a brewer”.
    Without doing anything for Marstons, Jennings, Ringwood, Wychwood or Brakspear I would have thought the “thirteen or fourteen beers” brewed in Wolverhampton to be something like Banks’s Mild, Banks’s Amber, Banks’s Sunbeam, Banks’s Barley Gold, Mansfield Original, Mansfield Smooth, Tetleys Mild, Tetleys Bitter, Tetley’s Gold, Lancaster Bomber, Wainwright, Shipyard American IPA, Shipyard Pale Ale, Shipyard Rye, Devils Backbone.
    Yes, “there’s a lot of people out there drinking beers from the Marston’s portfolio” and they’re doing a lot better with that than they would with the portfolios of the multi-nationals which is who Marstons are really competing with.
    I certainly wouldn’t suggest Marstons is without its faults but if they were only about money they would have got rid of their Burton Union system like Bass did yonks ago.

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    • Like I say Paul, you pays your money and takes your choice and a lot of people do like Marston’s brands, but it’s not for me and my belief is that what they do is akin to what the big breweries were doing when CAMRA set up to counter their homogenisation. Good day out though.

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      • I’d agree with TOM – Marston/Wolves have plenty of faults, but I’d rate them one of the less bad of the big brewers, certainly compared to Greene King. Any brewing business has a tension between the brewers and marketing/accounting, and you probably need both to be successful in the long run. They both win some of the battles but generally a company’s culture tends to be dominated by one side or the other. One good indicator is whether they package in clear glass bottles, another is whether they keep open breweries that they buy. Compare Marston and Greene King on those two measures and Marston shines in comparison. I also give them brownie points for not just sticking with the Union when all around them abandoned it, but for actually building another one.

        Don’t get me wrong, I seldom drink their beers (I enjoy Pedigree when on form though) and I’d rather see ten £100m companies than one £1bn company, but it does feel like Marstons have got their heart a bit more in the right place than say GK, who have no redeeming qualities apart from 5X….

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  4. Richard, it certainly wouldn’t do for us to all like the same beers – and maybe there’s more chance of agreement on pork baps and beef stews.
    It was most definitely a very good day out though, and you will probably remember for quite a while what you could have had for £1.

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