Tony Allen - Beer Pioneer
HE early 1980s were boom and bust years for the burgeoning micro-brewery industry. Many of the companies that started up at that time failed to last the course, three or four years being the typical lifespan.
Some however did flourish and prosper. 1982 was something of a vintage year with 26 new brewery start ups. Twelve remain today and among them are some famous names – Burton Bridge, Clarks, Moles, Mauldons, and RCH have all stood the test of time and their beers are often found in the local free trade.
However there is one survivor from that year that has really made its mark on the local scene. In August 1982 Tony Allen opened his Oak Brewery on an industrial estate in Ellesmere Port. Nine years later he moved to a location more central to his growing free trade and the Phoenix Brewery, based in Heywood, was born. Few micros today can occupy such impressive premises, but more of that later.
LIKE many successful micro-brewers Tony started his career with a rather larger concern. In his case it was Bass where he spent 13 years working first at Sheffield and then, from 1973, at Runcorn. It was in 1980 that he read an article by the late Richard Boston talking about the pioneering Penrhos Brewery in Herefordshire. Their stated aim was to make a small amount of top quality beer. “That sounds like a good idea”, Tony recalls thinking and so he used to travel down there on his rest days from Bass, averaging about four days a month. He recalls working on Penrhos Porter, one of the first revivals of what was by then an almost extinct style, when the brewery was visited by the famous Peter Austen, who helped set up many new wave brewers. “What are you doing?” asks Peter. “Making porter” comes the reply. “Oh, how do you do that?” asks Peter, who went on to make Ringwood Porter at his new brewery in Hampshire.
IN 1981 a round of redundancies at Bass prompted Tony to leave and initially spend three months full time at Penrhos. This led him to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that he could do something similar for himself. And so, Oak Brewery was born. Living in Frodsham at the time, the search for suitable and not too distant premises began. Rejecting a former whale oil processing factory (complete with all its equipment!) in Runcorn, premises were found in Ellesmere Port. Setting up in those days was rather different to today when a whole industry has grown up to support micro-brewers. Tony recalls that the Customs office in Chester didn’t even have a form to register a new brewery. Malt could only be bought by the ton (and had to be crushed by a local farmer) while hops came in huge pockets or half pockets.
A key to Oak’s success was the intention to be as professional as possible from the start. So began nine successful years brewing such beers as Oak Best Bitter, Old Oak Ale and Double Dagger plus the powerful, and cult-ish, Wobbly Bob (6% ABV).
However as trade built up, the Oak Brewery premises were badly situated for the main trading area and in 1991 came the move to the old Phoenix Brewery premises in Heywood, prompting a name change from Oak Brewery.
Phoenix Brewery today
THERE has been considerable investment at Phoenix Brewery in recent years, with a new malt store, fermenting vessels and conditioning tanks, although some equipment from the old Oak Brewery is still giving faithful service.
Production is around 100 barrels a week supplying 400-plus outlets with the large range of beers produced throughout the year. This comprises a core range along with many monthly specials, usually repeated on a yearly basis. Look out for the seasonal Christmas Kiss and Humbug in the coming weeks.
Additions to the range are occasional, the latest being Spotland Gold (4.1%) a crisp hoppy beer initially brewed to mark the centenary of Rochdale FC. Indeed, clean, hoppy blond beers are something of a Phoenix characteristic. Few “brown” beers are made apart from the now-legendary Wobbly Bob, but there are however quite a few very dark beers – ranging from the excellent Monkeytown Mild to the rich Phoenix Porter. A notable success has been Black Bee, a honey porter initially brewed as a one-off but now another regular.
FEW micros have premises as impressive as Phoenix, occupying as it does part of the old Phoenix Brewery premises, with the prominent tower still displaying the old (and new) company’s name. The old company was registered in 1874 and had something of a chequered history, going bankrupt three times. The last occasion was in 1939, when about 120 pubs were owned, prompting its purchase and closure by the Cornbrook Brewery of Old Trafford. The equipment was sold off to aid the war effort but the tower today remains an impressive sight both inside and out. Within everything is in place, apart from the various vessels – even painted signs denoting the hop rooms . The current brewery occupies the old maltings while the Victorian offices are being restored to be used for occasional functions. All in all Phoenix looks set fair for the next 25 years – we’ll certainly drink to that, perhaps with a glass of Wobbly Bob!
( With thanks to John Clarke. Taken from an article published in the Opening Times back in 2007)