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Bobby Neame, stalwart of Kent beer

Added: Thursday, December 5th 2019

Bobby Neame

Robert Neame, who helped safeguard the independence of Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery, has died aged 85. He was a director of the brewery from1957 until 2006 and steered it through the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s when many family breweries were taken over by new national brewers keen to acquire more pubs to fill with keg beer and lager.

Bobby Neame, as he was known, joined the family business as marketing director in 1957. Shepherd Neame, founded in 1698 in Faversham at the heart of the Kent hop fields, enjoyed a good reputation for its beer while its large estate of pubs was tempting bait for bigger brewers. In 1967 Shepherd Neame’s rival in Faversham, Fremlins, was bought by the national brewer Whitbread and Bobby and his family were determined not to suffer a similar fate.

Bobby was born in Westminster and Chelsea Hospital, the son of Jasper Neame and his wife Violet Evelyn Cobb. Jasper was chairman and managing director of the brewery until 1961. Bobby went to Harrow School where he became head boy. Before he joined the family firm he went on a grand tour of breweries in Europe and Scandinavia to gain experience of both making and selling beer. He finished the tour at Hürlimann in Switzerland that led to the Swiss lager being brewed at Faversham.

One of Bobby’s first tasks at the family brewery was to add keg beer to its cask and bottled ales. Such filtered, pasteurised and carbonated keg beers as Watney’s Red Barrel and Worthington E were taking sales away from traditional beer and Shepherd Neame knew it had to respond with its own version.

Bobby was given £1,000 to set up a keg plant and he recalled buying two tanks from a Mr Roberts in North London. Bobby said it was like a scene from Steptoe & Son, with the deal sealed in a shed behind Tottenham Hotspur football ground over a lunch of greasy chops on a tablecloth of newspapers. At the brewery the new keg beer was pasteurised in a primitive fashion with kegs lowered into two zinc baths filled with hot water.

Bobby was able to add more distinguished beers than the keg version. One of his great achievements was to launch in 1990 a new cask and bottled beer called Spitfire. It commemorated the Battle of Britain when the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe in the skies above Kent. Spitfire went on to become the brewery’s best known and biggest-selling beer.

In the 1990s Bobby and the brewery faced the threat of a new invasion. The European Union’s open borders policy led to hordes of British drinkers crossing to Calais on what became known as “booze cruises”. They returned with boxes of French beer that cost half the price of British beer as a result of far lower rates of duty in France.

Shepherd Neame, close to Dover and Folkestone, was badly affected by the cheap imports and Bobby Neame hit back by exporting his strong ale, Bishops Finger, to Calais and other parts of Northern France. The beer, first brewed in the 1950s, takes its name from ancient road signs directing pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury cathedral. Bishops Finger became a cult beer in France and helped counter the impact of cheap imports.

Bobby Neame and his fellow directors lobbied British governments over the punitive rates of duty imposed on British beer. The campaign had only limited success, with some freezes on duty in recent years, but Bobby was able to use another government policy to build his pub estate.

In the early 1990s the Thatcher government, following advice from a report by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission into the brewing industry that had castigated the national brewers – the Big Six -- forced the nationals to sell off large parcels of their pubs. As a result, Bobby was able to snap up a number of pubs from Whitbread.

When Bobby Neame retired as chairman in 2005, he remained as a non-executive director until he was given the honorary title of president. He passed to his son Jonathan a company producing 200,000 barrels of beer a year, with 320 pubs and hotels, and substantial free trade.

Bobby Neame was active in Kent life. A one nation Tory, he was leader of Kent County Council between 1982 and 84. He was Deputy Lieutenant of Kent in 1992 and High Sheriff in 2001. A passionate supporter of cricket, he was president of Kent County Cricket Club in 1992. He was appointed CBE in 1999.

He was married twice, first to Sally Elizabeth Corben in 1961. They had three children, Charlotte, Jonathan and Sarah. The marriage ended in divorce and in 1974 he married Yvonne Mary McKenzie and they had one daughter, Moray. A son, Richard, died in 1968.

He leaves his wife Yvonne, his four children and nine grand children.

•Robert Harry Beale Neame CBE, born February 1934, died November 15 2019.

Roger Protz

First published in the Guardian