Young's Brewery leaves Wandsworth
Young's ales in the Alma
Last month Young, eschewing any notion or terroir, romance or even obligation to his workforce, ended the story of independent brewing in Wandsworth, happily admitting ‘my head has ruled my heart’ as he did it. The day after his announcement I visited Wandsworth town. Young’s dominates the area and its pubs offer markers that point to Wandsworth’s social divisions. Pubs near the one-way system, often impressive Victorian drinking palaces embellished with etched glass and scrolled woodwork, are resolutely working class. Go closer to the river and you find establishments that cater to Wandsworth’s young professional classes: the eastward spread from Putney and Fulham that in ten years has turned the north side of the borough alongside the Thames into a hideous, bourgeois Legoland and made millions for the council and developers.
In the Alma by Wandsworth Town railway station, manager Ian, an Australian, said: ‘None of my customers have mentioned the closure.’ Ian couldn’t say any more than that as, like all the other Young’s managers I asked, the Brewery had instructed him not to talk to journalists. At The Ship, a short walk away by Wandsworth Bridge, the manager Dave admitted, ‘It’s the end of an era, it’s very sad for Wandsworth.’ But he couldn’t stop as there were wine-sipping professionals in the front bar waiting for their lunch. Back on the one-way at the Spread Eagle on Wandsworth High Street the mood was different. It was filling up with some of the Young’s workers who had just heard they’d lost their jobs.
A few of them have worked there for 25 years, many have very specific skills and none were likely to be re-employed in the brewing trade. Only the head brewer, Ken Don, seemed certain of keeping his job when the management moves to Bedford. Don, I was told, was already up at Charles Wells’s with the live Young’s yeast attempting to recreate the beer’s unique properties in an alien setting. The men gathering round the bar of the Spread Eagle didn’t hold out much hope. ‘It can’t be done, you can only make Young’s in Wandsworth.’ Thick set and strong-armed, they looked like ship builders or steel workers – and like ship builders or steel workers England no longer needed them. ‘We’ve been sold down the river’ said one, ‘right down the fucking Wandle.’
The river of that name was only a few feet away, passing under the one-way system before slapping against the brewery’s side. The Charles Wells Brewery where Ken Don was coaxing his yeast is one of the most up-to-date in the country, a concoction of steel and concrete that stands in 96 acres of land. The Ram Brewery sits on 5.5 acres, and looks like the template for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: an eruption of higgledy-piggledy Victorian brickwork, chimneys, towers, gable ends and, famously, several geese to keep guard. And in case you still don’t realise this is the Ram Brewery, at the top of a giant flag pole stands an oversized golden ram.
The brewery dominates the area
The brewery dominates Wandsworth town. Even the street names reflect its presence: Ram Street runs along the eastern side of the brewery and on the north-western comer of the one-way a giant ram’s head with a horn extended in the direction of the brewery, declaims ‘Young’s we’ve been around the bend since 1831.’ But no longer. By this September the Brewery will be silent and the air on Wednesdays, when the fumes from the new mash would cloud Wandsworth with a rich and malty stench, will be like any other day of the week, dominated by car exhaust.
‘Family firm?’ said one man at the bar of the Spread Eagle, ‘I’d rather be an orphan.’ The workers are always the losers, but in this case so are beer drinkers and, less tangibly but perhaps more importantly, a sense of separateness and cultural pride in south London. When Young’s goes the last barrier between working-class Wandsworth as it was and a yuppie barracks with pockets of poverty dominated by motor vehicles will be gone. Then it will be the pubs. Rumours have already wrecked The Ship, predicting it will be sold off to a property developer to flatten for more apartments. You need only look at Lister’s monuments, the monstrous buildings on either side of The Ship to realise how likely this is.
A pint of ordinary
Later in life, when my career had moved on from toilet cleaning, I was responsible for a particularly juvenile men’s magazine article which challenged British breweries to organise a piss up. Some breweries laid on rock ’n’ roll bands, one brewery bussed a coach load of women in from the coast and another had fish and chips delivered by limousine. Young’s’ response was to lock us in their small, secret bar in an old stable at the back of the Ram Brewery and give us free Ram and Special until we had to stop. Their point being: this is Wandsworth, we don’t do bollocks, we do beer.
Not any more.