Saturday, 18 February 2017

More Robinson’s reminiscences

There were obviously some things I left out from my recent blogpost about Robinson’s Brewery, otherwise it would have fallen into the category of TL;DR. Some would have amplified my points, while others were entirely tangential. So here are a few more memories and thoughts on the subject.

  • In my university holiday drinking days, we were based in Greenall Whitley Land, but a cluster of Robinson’s pubs in mid-Cheshire were just within reach, most notably the Rising Sun in Tarporley. A trip to one of these was always considered a bit of a treat.

  • In the mid-80s, the core of Robbies’ beer range was Best Mild and Best Bitter, which were available in virtually all their pubs. Plus there was the famous Old Tom, sold in selected pubs during the winter months. But there was also the “ordinary” bitter, basically a weaker version of Best, which was only in about 20 pubs (including the Queen’s in Cheadle), and a version of Best Mild darkened with caramel, which was in even fewer, at one time down to two. This underlines the rather quirky and idiosyncratic way in which the company was run. Ordinary Bitter was later relaunched as Old Stockport, with little more success, and it is only recently that Robbies have produced a proper standard bitter in the form of Wizard, which is an entirely different beer from Unicorn.

  • The company remained a bastion of old-fashioned family brewer management practices, with the three directors always referred to as Mr Peter, Mr Dennis and Mr David, and having car park spaces at the brewery labelled as such. It was their practice, as recorded in the brewery history, to open all the post, and you would get a personal reply from Mr Peter to even the most trivial query. Apparently Peter Robinson always used to order “Best Mild” long after it had been renamed Hatters, and even 1892. I’m not sure whether the staff now speak of Mr William and Mr Oliver.

  • During the 1990s, the brewery introduced a cellar competition, which had the effect of dramatically driving up standards of cellarmanship across their estate. In the bad old days, there were always some pubs where the beer quality was, to be charitable, highly variable, especially if you chose to drink anything but Unicorn, but that has long become a thing of the past.

  • In the period between the era of “Robinsonisation” and the current “Farrow & Ball” phase, they did actually carry out a number of sensitive and well-judged refurbishments. Some examples that spring to mind are the Railway at Rose Hill, Marple, the Armoury in Edgeley and the Red Bull on Hillgate.

  • Over the years, while they developed some flagship pubs, much of the estate, both rural and urban, consisted of what might be called “the ordinary Robbies’ local”. It might serve a bit of food, but had a strong core of regular customers, and very often a strong character as landlord. The interior often fell into the category of “opened out a little, but retains distinct areas”. A couple of good examples were the Waterloo just off Hillgate in Stockport, and the Traveller’s Call at Lane Ends on the road from Marple Bridge to Glossop. Both are now closed, and sadly the typical local boozer doesn’t seem to have much of a place in Robbies’ current thinking.

  • In the mid-2000s, Robinson’s installed an entirely new set of German-built brewing kit within their existing buildings, which represented a substantial investment in the future. Some people observed that it was a good way of dressing up halving their maximum brewing capacity, but apparently it still didn’t have the flexibility to brew sufficiently small batches of mild. Maybe they also need to set up a small pilot plant, as some of their competitors have done.

  • Dizzy Blonde is an excellent example of the modern “blonde ale” trend – hoppy enough to avoid blandness, but not so much that it frightens the horses. It’s very popular in the free trade, and on my recent pub tour of central Manchester it was in two of six non-Robbies pubs. I’ve heard talk that it now actually outsells Unicorn.

  • People often say of the latest seasonal “it just tastes like another Robbies’ beer”. Maybe it does, but every brewery has a house character, and to me that’s a good thing. Their beers are often dismissed as typical bland family brewer fare, but to my palate they’re very good indeed, with great depth and complexity. I don’t know for sure, but I reckon that over the years I’ve probably drunk more of Robinson’s Unicorn than any other beer. A few years ago, I often made a point of buying bottled Wychwood Goliath precisely because it was at that time contract-brewed by Robinson’s and had their distinctive flavour stamp.

9 comments:

  1. Robbies was not alone in terms of its old school/reactionary practices.
    The MD of Holts in the late 80s/ early 90s did not employ women and there was no female toilet at the head office. He at one time had a female secretary who had to use the directors' toilet and the complaint was that the toilet "smelt of scent" after her presence.
    I was told this by a colleague at Tetley Walker.

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  2. Rumour has it that Sam Smith's currently have a similar attitude to female employees!

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  3. I did well over 300 Robinsons tied houses in the 80s and early 90s and well pleased i did before they started closing a lot of them down,i have photos of most taken at the time of visit so well pleased with that,i thought the Lane Ends was a really nice looking pub and decent on the inside,the Robinsons bitter went down well in there and lots of other Robinsons tied houses i did on the same day.

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    1. The Traveller's Call was *at* Lane Ends, where there was also a Tetley's pub opposite actually called the Lane Ends, which closed a few years earlier.

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  4. A friend of mine, now in his eighties, worked as Mr Peter's chauffeur and it is more than my life is worth to criticise Robinsons. The word which crops up most in his talk about the directors is "gentleman". Although he has been retired for over twenty years he still receives a Christmas card and several bottles of beer every year.

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    1. I've never actually met Peter, but both Dennis and David have given talks to the local CAMRA branch and the first word that sprang to mind to describe them would be "gentlemanly". When I say their approach was old-fashioned, I mean it in a good way.

      Hopefully it comes across that both this blogpost and the previous one spring from great affection for the company, its beer and its pubs, which makes the current scorched earth policy even more of a bitter pill to swallow.

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  5. My fondest memories of Robinsons would include many happy evenings in the Castle in central Manchester, and also the distinctive typeface used on all their pubs in the 70s/80s, which I now can't find any examples of online.

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    1. I loved the old typeface too, and the pub signs.

      Here's a couple of examples (not brilliant photos though) of the old style lettering:

      http://www.beerintheevening.com/pubs/s/14/14791/Anchor/Hazel_Grove

      https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10200975243196470&set=g.29775691441&type=1&theater

      Many more can be seen in the Robinsons book, which is available from the brewery shop.

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  6. I was in the Crispin at Great Longstone at lunchtime. Four of us and three had Dizzy. Surprisingly only other cask beers were Unicorn and two specials. The long standing landlord was as friendly as ever. It always has that feel of a proper pub. Refurb coming in next two weeks.

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