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Reincarnation of the real brewers

Michael Jackson gives a welcome to the rebirth of a Merseyside brewery

Whatever your political sympathies if you enjoy a good pint there is good news from Liverpool. This follows good news from Heywoods Greater Manchester, Aspatria near Carlisle; Edinburgh; Innerleithen near Peebles; Selby, North Yorkshire; Wakefield; Hull; Ipswich; Sudbury in Suffolk; Oakhill and Wiveliscombe, Somerset, Witney Oxfordshire and Sedgley in the west Midlands

In all these places, a brewery that died has been reborn. Not only has a local flavour been restored but in most instances it has been accentuated, adding to the national cellar of great British beers. Had such reblrths occurred in Bordeaux, the French would be having celebration banquets and firework displays. The most spectacular of the born-again breweries is Robert Cain's an ornate Victorian tower that is a Merseyside landmark. The brewery is back in production, and its issue is a lusty Liverpudlian bittersweet beer that bursts with malty flavours, yeasty fruitiness and spicy hoppiness.

This robust character is an intentional reminder that Cain's comes from a time when everything was made to last.

This robust character is an intentional reminder that Cain's comes from a time when everything was made to last. Robert Cain, born in Cork, son of a soldier, married the Lord Mayor's daughter, travelled the oceans, settled in Liverpool and in 1848-50 took a pub where he brewed his own beer. By the 1880s he had 200 pubs and had built his six-acre Victorian pile (with his monogram carved into every window-arch).

Thanks to the palatial pubs that Cain commissioned, with flourishes of Queen Anne, art nouveau and neo-Renaissance design, no other city can match Liverpool by the square mile in the architecture of alcohol. His monuments include the three most famous manifestations: the Philharmonic, the Vines and the Central.

When he died, 3,000 people attended his funeral. I bet he didn't drink Carling Black Label or build theme pubs. Could many of today's brewery chairmen inspire such a send-off?

Cain's brewery became Higson's in the twenties and in that incarnation gained a reputation in the Seventies and early eighties for an assertively dry bitter. Had Higson's concentrated on this product, he might have lasted long enough to benefit from the opening of the pub trade in the Monopolies and Mergers Commision report.

Instead, like some other regional brewers they invested several millions in lager making equipment and over stretched themselves. Lager drinkers have thus far shown little inclination to appreciate a local brewer's entrant, however good it may be. They did not support Higson's which sold out to Boddington's of Manchester in 1985.

Five years later, Boddington's decided to concentrate on pub ownership and stop making beer. It sold its breweries to Whitbread. Higson's closed last May and beer under that name for the Liverpool market is now made by Whitbread in Sheffield.

An unlikely saviour for the Liverpool brewery (now pub-less) emerged in the form of northern entrepreneur John Hughes who made his money on Humberside with frozen fish and food processing and, later, soft drinks for the supermarket own-brand sector.

Within weeks he had the brewery open again, making own-brand lager and ale for the same market. This brought volume but is not very profitable. At least one national brewer and several major regionals with capacity to spare are already in the market, and the beer has to be produced cheaply to sell at own-brand prices.

What the Liverpool brewery needed was a product to call its own. While some of the less enterprising regional breweries are experiencing difficulties, others have dramatically increased their sales of a "real ale" since the changes wrought by the MMC.

Inspired by this, the Liverpool brewers decided to restore to its building and its product line, the name of Robert Cain and make a draught cask-conditioned ale.

The previous head brewer at Higson's, Phil Linley, returned from Boddington's to be operations director at Robert Cain. Given that the Yorkshire-brewed version of Higson was still in the local market he decided to distinguish Cain's by making it two or three points higher in alcohol at 4.1 per cent, fuller in aroma and body, maltier, slightly sweeter and darker.

Sensibly the brewery is selling it at a price premium of a few pence. The beer is made from three different malts and five varieties of hop.

The Camra branch has already presented a special award "for the re-establishment of the finest quality brewing on Merseyside" and the certificate is proudly displayed in the sample room.

Three prototypes were offered for sampling to local publicans and the Merseyside branch of the Campaign for Real Ale before the final version of Cain's Traditional Bitter made its bow. The Camra branch has already presented a special award "for the re-establishment of the finest quality brewing on Merseyside" and the certificate is proudly displayed in the sample room. Two more ales are now being developed.

Managing director Steve Holt was a brewery history buff long before he worked in the industry, and takes obvious pride in havinc restored an old hop-store at Cain's. overlooking the Mersey for the launch of the Traditional Bitter in March.

Robert Cain's great-great-grandson, the splendidly named Lord Brocket, ceremonially drank the first pint. Cain's Traditional Bitter it sold often alongside Higsons in more than 100 Boddingtons pubs in Liverpool and the North-west. It is also available in a sprinkling of pubs in the South-east, soon to include the Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire.

The brewery is now making considerably more beer than it was in its latter days as Higson's. Supermarket beers still account for 90 per cent of production, but sales of the draught bitter are exceeding expectations and Cain's has recently taken the precaution of buying 1,500 casks.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: JULY 6, 1991
In: The Independent

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