Most shoots offer a variety of alcoholic refreshment — from the finest claret down to a heart-warming slug of port. However, if you’re planning on potting a few high pheasants at the Earl of Halifax’s Garrowby estate, you can expect something rather different — and rather special. What marks out Garrowby is its continuation of a noble tradition that almost died out in the 19th century: country house brewing. ‘Bugthorpe Brew’ is made just once a year and only 120 gallons of it are brewed. So only the very lucky and selective few — estate workers and lucky shooting parties — ever taste this beer. Word has it that the Earl of Halifax enjoys a drop, but is sensibly cautious of its powers. It’s staggeringly strong — at 6% it’s nigh on twice the strength of your average bitter.
Once upon a time, when all big houses had proper staff (rather than pushy National Trust matrons badgering you to join), brewing was a natural part of estate life – no different from baking bread and churning butter. Beer was considered so crucial to the well-being of all, that in the golden age of country house building in the 18th century, owners thought it crucial important to get the brew-house up and running as soon as possible. Some of these brew-houses were pretty fancy too. The brew-house of Kimbolton Castle, built in 1764, was designed to blend in with the house’s Vanbrugh façade.
The 18th century saw ale become a fashionable tipple at the tables of the well-heeled as French wine was hit by duty and the Portuguese alternative was deemed a bit too rough for refined palates. It was the height of fashion to have your own home-brewed ale, served at table in super-model thin glasses (often beautifully engraved with delicate designs incorporating hops and grains of barley). A footman would hover about the table, with a tray, waiting to replenish your glass. This was the age of ‘beer is best’ with Hogarth’s prints showing the evils of gin versus the health-giving joys of beer.
Below stairs, beer was also King. The word buttery, you might be surprised to learn, has nothing whatsoever to do with butter, and everything to do with beer — it was the place where butts of ale used to be kept. Butler has the same origin – he was the good chap who looked after the beer. Unsurprisingly, butlers developed a reputation for being notorious soaks.
So why was beer so vital to the old estates? The importance and ubiquity of John Barleycorn has its origins in the days before proper sanitation (and mains water). Tea and coffee were still rare so everyone — high and low — drank beer. Because beer is boiled when brewed, it was inordinately safer to drink than water, which might have passed over the odd plague-ridden corpse or bloated sheep upstream. Low gravity (weaker) ales were drunk like water. ‘Small beer’, weakest of all, was supposedly reserved for children and women. This really was of the ‘weak as dishwater’ variety, being the output of the third brew from the same amount of malted barley (imagine a teabag being squeezed out for the third time). There was barely any alcohol left but at least it was clean and free of bacteria and there was no chance of the chambermaids passing out on the beds.
Strong beer, however, was reserved as a favourite tipple for the aristocracy and their royal visitors. And they did like their strong brews. One early writer described a fierce brew rather eloquently as ‘the sort that would make a cat speak’. Good Queen Bess’ favourite tipple was apparently a strong beer, of which she was able to down several noggins before a meeting with her ministers. Before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, a three-day visit to Shugborough House saw her party polish off 450 gallons of strong beer. The Halifax estate has records of one beery celebration at the family’s old home of Hickleton getting totally out of hand, thanks to a super-strong ale brewed for the 21st birthday of Lord Irwin. ‘There were bodies laid all over the place,’ wrote the brewer Clarence Hellewell.
However, by the time the 19th century was halfway through, the practice of big house brewing was dying out as the likes of Whitbread and Bass went national and railways delivered their products around the country. Attitudes towards alcohol also changed and it was considered bad practice to offer beer to staff as part of their wages.
Fortunately, the last few years have seen a revival of the brewing fortunes of the country house. David Lord, who manages the Halifax estates, explains that beer has been a continuing thread through the history of the family. ‘Beer used to be brewed on a more regular basis at Hickleton,’ he tells me, ‘but the family moved from there in the 1930s. However, the brew-house was retained and used until 1989 when that was sold. The brewing equipment was then brought here to Garrowby.’
‘Bugthorpe’ continues firmly in the old tradition of estate brews. You won’t be able to get your hands round a pint in the local. ‘The beer is usually served to shooting parties and guests at the house,’ adds Lord. I downheartedly put my copy of the Good Beer Guide back in my pocket. ‘The retired head forester was the initial head brewer, but he was replaced by a couple of chaps from the estate with help from the Samuel Smith brewery. It is put into cask and quite a talking point for those who try it. The old copper vessels from Hickleton are still in use.’
Other aristocratic ales, however, are less picky about their drinking public. Some houses which brew their own beer, sell them on the premises; some even deign to flog them to the local pub. Take the beautiful Cotswold manor house, Stanway, for example. Brewing had ceased in 1913, but local brewer Alex Pennycook persuaded owner Lord Neidpath to resurrect the old brewery. ‘I had been made redundant from a brewery,’ says Pennycook, ‘and I had said I’d never brew again. But an old friend told me about the dormant brew-house and I approached Lord Neidpath about it.’ Pennycook now runs Stanway Brewery from the old brew-house, an historic building built in 1700 and fuelled by log-fires. Lord Neidpath has been so delighted with the success of beers such as Stanney Bitter and Lords-a-Leaping that he has caught the historical bug and is now working on resuscitating the old mill.
Another commercial brewing concern bringing back the old ways can be found at Thornbridge Hall in the Derbyshire village of Ashford in the Water. The Hall is pure House & Garden — all sweeping staircases, high-ceilinged rooms and drop-dead gorgeous views over ornate gardens through windows by William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones. If you can tear yourself away however, make a beeline for the old stonemason’s. Here the Hall’s owners, Jim and Emma Harrison, have set up a small brewery whose excellent beers are going out to local pubs and winning barrel-loads of awards.
It’s a very modern set-up – all glistening copper and spotless steel. But Thornbridge is harking back to the past with its Imperial Russian Stout, a strong and potent dark stout. Simon Webster, who runs the brewery, says: ‘we are looking back to the sort of beer that might have been drunk in the house’s early days.’ This style of beer was imported regularly to the Baltic, with Catherine the Great reputedly a big fan. ‘It has a connection with onetime owner John Morewood who made his fortune in the 1790s selling linen to Russia,’ continues Webster. Thornbridge also makes use of its extensive gardens for additions to the beers. ‘We use the land for sourcing our raw materials,’ says Webster, ‘with elderflowers from the garden for one of our beers for instance.’
Further north, over the border, Traquair House was one of the forerunners in this modern rebirth of country house brewing. History is at a premium here. The house dates back to the 1100s and Queen Mary of Scots reputedly drank the homebrewed ale during a visit in 1566. Bonnie Prince Charlie also visited and since then the house’s main gates have been clammed shut. Legend has it that they will only be opened in the event of a Stuart on the throne. Catherine Maxwell Stuart (a descendant no less) is the current lady of the house, but it was her father, Laird Peter Maxwell Stuart, back in 1963 who came across what he thought was a pile of old junk. He looked closer and found it was actually old brewing equipment.
‘Brewing had stopped here in the early 1800s,’ says Maxwell Stuart, ‘because the introduction of duty made it quite unviable to brew. Commercial brewers were also becoming more active. At the time beer from Traquair supplied the estate and it was given to workers as part of their wages. It was a remarkable find, just lying there and forgotten about.’ Her father started brewing rich and dark Scottish-style beers as no recipes from the past survived. Bottles of these beers are now become much sought after by connoisseurs, especially in the US. He died in 1990, but his daughter has continued to manage the house and brewery. Both are a major must-see in this part of the world — don’t forget to try the beers, one of which, not surprisingly, given the allegiances of the family, is called Jacobite Ale.
To get an idea of what brewing was like in the old days you could do worse than visit Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. This was once the ancestral home of the Lichfields (who still have a sizeable complement of rooms), but it is now leased to the county council by the National Trust. Historical records from 1827 point to a gallon of beer being allowed to each male member of staff per day, while women had to contend with just half a gallon. Now, with the help of local microbrewery Titanic, Shugborough’s airy and cool brew-house is frequently filled with the aromas of malt and hops.
‘What we try and do here is show exactly how it happened in the past,’ says general manager Richard Kemp. ‘We mill our own flour, do the laundry the old-fashioned way, look after a rare breed of cows who provide milk for cheese and so on. The brew-house is vital to an understanding of how people used to live in a country house.’ At the moment, personnel from Titanic come in and brew a selection of beers, but Kemp has time-travelling plans. ‘We want to brew once a week, producing beers based on recipes from the 1870s, brewed by someone in the costume of the time. We would do small beers that children could try and other brews that could be sold in the café and used for authentic food from the time. We are a living history attraction and something like this and our dairy are multi-sensory, you can smell it, taste and touch it. I see the brewery as more than something just working for profit just as I see a stately home as a place which is more than just a house.’
So there you have it. Stuck with a pile and looking to raise funds for keeping the gazebo in good shape? It’s very tempting. No hordes of day-trippers fondling your ancient drapes; no National Trust tyrants telling you how to trim your topiary. What better way to pay for new corbels than by setting up a brewery. You never know what’s lying around. Just make sure that what happened at Chatsworth doesn’t happen to you. When the beer was brewed it was piped to grand carved casks in the cellar. However, some enterprising under-gardeners found the pipe, drilled a hole and stuck a plug in it so they could fill their buckets on brewing day. Oh, and by the way, there’s a brewery there now as well…