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The Passing Of Eldridge Pope

Added: Friday, October 1st 2004

A few weeks ago I was on a train to Weymouth. It's a trip I have made many times and I have always looked up when the train stops at Dorchester, for alongside the station stands the impressive, red-brick Victorian pile of the Eldridge Pope brewery.

I had always marvelled at the mountain of casks hard by the rail tracks. Here was evidence of a busy, thriving brewery. But now all the casks have gone, leaving behind empty, forlorn and unused brewery buildings. Eldridge Pope ceased to be a brewery in 1996 when the Pope family took the calamitous decision to become a pub retailer. The skills of the Pope family in running an integrated brewery and pub estate didn't transfer when the company became a standalone pub company.

Disaster followed disaster. The company failed to make money. It eventually dumped its own beers, brewed by the Thomas Hardy Brewery on the Dorchester site, in favour of national brands.

As the pub company struggled to survive, the brewery, which was part of a curious amalgamation with Burtonwood in far off Warrington, lost its key brands and closed in July last year. No doubt some wiseacres in the media will blame the closure of the brewery and the sale of the pub company last week as another example of the "collapse" of the real ale sector. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Eldridge Pope saga is one fuelled by a hopeless misunderstanding of the retail sector, and the desire by shareholders to shove as much gold in their mouths as possible.

Every brewery closure is an arrow in the heart but I feel especially saddened by the final end of Eldridge Pope. Ten years ago I spent a day in the brewery as the nominal head brewer, put in charge of producing a strong version of Royal Oak for Christmas called Old Spiced Ale.

Head brewer Dan Thomasson - now at the Hampshire Brewery - and his team guided me through every stage of production, like tugs bringing a rusty old hulk safely into harbour. My memories of the day are good: of the camaraderie of the team, the rich humour, the attention to detail at every turn, and the amazing brewers' breakfast when the mash was underway, a gargantuan feast topped by a glass of Guinness to give us strength.

The brewery built by the Eldridge and Pope families in the early 19th century was a joy to behold, with its vast mash tuns, gleaming coppers and high-sided wooden fermenters. I managed to spill most of the hops destined for the copper on to the floor, but the brewery survived my visit and Old Spiced Ale was the hit of the Dorchester beer festival a few weeks later.

Eldridge Pope brewed magnificent beers: fine bitters, a memorable porter and the world-renowned Thomas Hardy's Ale, a 12.5% bottle-fermented beer that improves with age like a fine wine. I could scarcely believe it when chairman Christopher Pope announced the company was quitting brewing because he had once taken a small group of beer writers through a tasting of several vintages of Thomas Hardy's Ale. I had been struck by his remarkable palate, his ability to conjure forth brilliant descriptions of the beers' aromas and flavours - "fresh tobacco and old leather books" sticks in the memory - and his evident passion for the subject. We will never know why Christopher Pope decided to turn his back on the noble traditions of brewing in Dorchester because he has since died. Fortunately, Thomas Hardy's Ale continues, now brewed by O'Hanlon's Brewery in Devon. The beer is named after the Wessex writer, who once described the beer of Dorchester as "the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness in taste; but, finally, rather heavy."

It's a finer epitaph than I can manage. In future, when the Weymouth train stops at Dorchester I won't bother to look up because soon there will be nothing left of that great Victorian business and its inspirational beers.