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Ridleys Brewery - leaping The North/south Divide

Added: Wednesday, December 1st 2004

On a crisp autumn day, I found myself in deepest rural Essex tasting a Yorkshire beer produced in a brewery founded by a family from Northumberland.

The brewery in question is Ridley's at Hartford End. Its postal address includes Chelmsford but there is no glimpse of urban sprawl as your car tops a slight rise in the flat, East Anglian countryside and you suddenly come across a huddle of brick buildings topped by a tall chimney, with the rich aromas of malt and hops wafting into the air.

The Ridleys have a bit of history. They can be traced back to the rugged land of Northumberland in the 10th century and the family includes Bishop Nicholas Ridley who was martyred in 1555 for refusing to recant his Protestant beliefs during the reign of Mary Tudor. The present chairman of the brewery is also named Nicholas in memory of the bishop.

A branch of the Ridley family set up as farmers in East Anglia in the 18th century and William Ridley ran a mill at Hartford End. His son, Thomas Dixon Ridley, expanded the milling business alongside the River Chelmer and in 1842 he added a small brewery that is still known as T D Ridley in his honour. Today Ridley's owns 76 pubs and supplies 450 free trade accounts. In 2002 it bought and closed the Tolly Cobbold brewing and wholesaling business in Ipswich, which gave it a large warehousing facility to feed its tied and free trade accounts in eastern England.

The brewery at Hartford End is a magnificent example of 19th- century skill and ingenuity. While the copper and hop back are modern stainless steel, many older vessels are still in use, including wooden fermenters, a cast iron mash tun, and a malt weighing machine that is the oldest piece of weighing equipment in the country.

The brewery can produce 300 barrels of beer a week. As well as its own IPA, Prospect, Rumpus and Old Bob, it brews Tolly Original for the Ipswich area and XX Mild for Greene King. There is also a clutch of seasonal beers, including one of the finest revivalist porters, Witchfinder.

And it has just taken on a contract to brew for Kelham Island in Sheffield. My visit coincided with the unveiling of Kelham Pale Island, overseen by the Yorkshire brewery's founder, Dave Wickett.

The reason a Yorkshire beer is being brewed in remote Essex is a result of Kelham Island being awarded Champion Beer of Britain by Camra back in August. The Sheffield micro was inundated with demand for the winning beer, Kelham Island Pale Rider. It can knock out 25 barrels a week, woefully insufficient to cope with the clamour for the beer.

Dave Wickett was approached by Ridley's, which said it could produce up to 60 barrels a week for Kelham Island. Wickett and his head brewer Paul Ward met Ridley's head brewer Philip Downes and talked through the possibilities. Wickett, a long-standing member of Camra, was determined to avoid any criticism of "passing off" with a Yorkshire beer brewed in Essex. While the two brewers planned how to reproduce a beer made with different malts, hops and yeast to the Ridley's brews, Wickett decided to go down the path of total honesty by renaming the version of 5.2% Pale Rider. When the beer won the champion's accolade at the Great British Beer Festival, an initial Camra press release called it Pale Island instead of Pale Rider. The mistake was quickly put right but Wickett decided to use the name for the beer brewed by Ridley's. He is saying, honestly and clearly, that it's brewed under contract by a different brewery and he is not claiming it's identical to the Sheffield original.

In the Riley's sample room, I tasted the Sheffield and Essex versions of the beer and could not detect the slightest difference. But honesty is always the best policy and I have no doubt that Dave Wickett is right to make consumers aware that Pale Island is not brewed at Kelham Island.

The advantages for Wickett are that Ridley's can supply him with much-needed beer and can also distribute Pale Island to new outlets throughout the South-East. What price the North-South divide?