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Three Tuns Weighs In

Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011

It's good to report that a famous brew-pub - the Three Tuns in Bishop's Castle, between Ludlow and Shrewsbury - has been saved and is doing a roaring trade with the pub next door and the free trade in Shropshire and surrounding counties.

In the early 1970s, when the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was launched, the term "micro-brewer" was unheard of. But there were still four pubs with breweries attached, some of them ancient, that were still brewing delectable beer. They were the All Nations in Madeley, Shropshire, the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, the Olde Swan in Netherton, West Midlands - better known as Ma Pardoe's after the matriarch that ran it -- and the Three Tuns. All four are still going strong today but 10 years ago the future of the Three Tuns was in doubt.

When a brewery dates from 1642 it demands a bit of respect. The Three Tuns is arguably the oldest brewery in Britain, though Shepherd Neame may have thoughts on the subject. But it's undeniably ancient, a Grade II-listed building and a superb example of a Victorian tower brewery.

If the year 1642 and Victorian sound like a contradiction, the reason is that brewing started in a small, half-timbered building in the 17th century. That was replaced in the late 19th century when the owner, John Roberts, built the new brewery alongside the Three Tuns pub, an old coaching inn on Salop Street.

Both the All Nations and the Three Tuns brewed and still brew exceptionally pale bitters long before the trend for modern golden ales. It was a type of malty, not overly bitter beer that suited agricultural workers after a long, hard slog in the fields.

In the 1990s, both the Three Tuns pub and brewery were bought by a small consortium that included members of London's Islington set who had second homes in Shropshire. They were fond of the pub but had little interest in the brewery and they decided to close it and turn it into holiday homes.

The plan didn't go down well in Bishop's Castle. As a result of a quiet but vigorous campaign, the brewery was bought in 2003 by Bill Bainbridge (right of picture), Samantha Edwards and John Russell (left of picture). In common with the Islington set, Bill and John are incomers to Shropshire but they have a love of good beer - Bill is a long-standing CAMRA member - and old buildings, and they were made welcome by the locals. The three raised the considerable sum of 1 million to thoroughly overhaul the old brewery and install new brewing equipment.

They found that the roof, rotting floors and crumbling brickwork needed to be replaced. Windows had to be taken out to allow new hot and cold liquor tanks as well as additional fermenting vessels to be hoisted up and taken inside. 100 tons of steel were inserted to keep the old building from falling over.

The major job was putting in a brand new copper, which came in - miraculously - in one piece through a louvered window.

The brewery closed for a year and half while restoration work was going on. Meanwhile, Bill Bainbridge, a lawyer by trade, took himself off to Sunderland for a two week course at the Brewers' Laboratory (Brewlab) and can now talk about mashing, sparging, parti-gyling and late hopping with the best of the brewing fraternity.

The Three Tuns has been brewing again for some time but this month a celebration was held to mark the success of saving and restoring the ancient building. Publicans came from Shropshire and surrounding counties while local CAMRA branches were well represented. The brewery now has a maximum capacity of 140 barrels a week and is currently brewing around 60 barrels. A total of 12 people work in the brewery: they help Bill to mash, boil, ferment and rack beer into casks. In a small town such as Bishop's Castle, 12 jobs are not be to sneezed at.

The brewery continues to supply the Three Tuns pub, though that is now a separate business: it's owned by a bank and run for it by Scottish & Newcastle. The pub is managed by Tim and Catherine Curtis- Evans, who keep it at the heart of the community with live music - jazz, rock and classical - and Morris dancers. The Three Tuns retains the old bars that date from its time as a coaching inn, but a new open-plan room has been added upstairs for diners, with excellent food and fine views of the brewery below.

The brewery uses its own truck and such wholesalers as Beer Seller and Flying Firkin to deliver to around 300 other outlets in the Midlands, the North-west and Welsh borders.

The core brand, XXX (4.3%), is still brewed. It's a pale, all malt beer, hopped with Fuggles from Worcestershire, soft and malty, with a fruity nose and hop bitterness coming through in the mouth and finish. Other ales include 1642 (3.8%), Cleric's Cure (5%), Solstice, a delicious golden summer beer, and a dark and luscious Old Scrooge (6.5%). Cleric's Cure is also available in bottle-conditioned form.

A wonderful piece of brewing history has been saved. Go and pay homage: 01588 638392; threetunsbrewery.co.uk