The chances are that if you have heard of Mortlake, it is because it marks the end of the University Boat Race. If you have watched the event attentively, on the river bank you may have noticed the Mortlake brewery or Stag brewery as it became in 1959 when the original Stag brewery in Pimlico was demolished. Brewing started here in1487 when John Morgan arrived, his father having been appointed steward to Henry VII. At this time, one of the Palaces of the Archbishop of Canterbury occupied the site alongside the Royal Palace at Shene, and the beer produced was consumed here. Although there was continuous production of beer on the site, commercial brewing did not commence until the 18th century, so the title of Britain’s oldest brewery is held by Shepherd Neame in Kent which dates back to 1696.
Steam power was introduced in the early 19th century which allowed an expansion into lucrative overseas markets supplying the army in the Crimea and India, and by the end of the century it was the largest brewery in Southern England and had become part of Watney, Coombe and Reid and company Ltd.
In 1931 they carried out experiments that changed the face of beer consumption when they determined that pasteurisation was practical, and tests showed that despite subjecting the beer to extreme hot and cold rooms, the flavour and condition of the beer was quite unimpaired, even after several weeks, (their assessment, not mine). This was the genesis of keg beer, and the first consignment was sent off to India on 7th March 1933. Further innovations were developed, such as continuous fermentation techniques, and in the 60’s they developed Watney’s Red Barrel. It is probably true to say that it was not the overwhelming success that they had hoped for. They tried to rebrand it as Red to appeal to the disaffected Vietnam generation and used advertising featuring lookalikes of Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev quaffing ale, but it gradually faded away, with its greatest contribution to the world of drinking perhaps being the spark that led to the formation of CAMRA.
The world of brewing was becoming dominated by large international groups. Watneys teamed up with Carlsberg, and by 1977 Holsten lager was being brewed at Mortlake followed by Fosters in 1982, and as the face of the brewing industry continued to change, the operation was totally turned over to producing beer for the Anheuser Busch group, such as Budweiser, with production reaching well over 1,000,000 barrels per year by the mid-90’s.
And now it is all over. In 2015, The site, including millions of pounds of brewing equipment, was sold for £158m by global drinks firm ABInBev to developer Reselton, part of the property empire of Kwek Leng Beng, and at a stroke over 500 years of continuous beer production came to an end. The plan for the site is for a luxury riverside residential development and the contents of the buildings, such as vats, pumps and bottling lines were due to be sold at auction in January.
Will its passing be mourned? Not for the brews it produced recently, but maybe the brewing historians will shed a tear. Perhaps they will bid for some of the contents. Breweriana is quite desirable – I noticed a couple of Wisbech pub signs in Landles recent auction, but I’m not sure where you could put a 2,000 litre brewing vat.
As for me, perhaps I will raise a glass in memory of one of the great British breweries, but it won’t be a glass of Watney’s Red.