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Peter Austin: father of micro-brewing

Added: Thursday, January 9th 2014

Peter Austin

One rain-swept day in 1978 I went to Ringwood in Hampshire to meet Peter Austin and encounter a new concept in beer making: a micro-brewery. At that time brewing was dominated by six giant national brewers who were converting their pubs to keg beers and taking over and closing many of the remaining independent breweries.

It seemed unlikely that Peter Austin’s tiny plant in a former bakery would dent the power of the Big Six nationals. But Ringwood Brewery proved to be a catalyst. Camra – the Campaign for Real Ale – had been launched in 1971, its membership had soared and its beer festivals were packed.

Rebellion was in the air and Peter Austin, who has died aged 92, was ready to meet the challenge. When he eventually retired from Ringwood he helped set up some 40 new breweries in Britain over 10 years at a rate of one every three months. He then toured the world, repeating the exercise in countries as diverse as China, France, Nigeria, Russia and the United States. In total he built some 140 breweries in 17 countries.

Peter Austin was born in Edmonton, north London, and educated in Highgate and on the Merchant Navy training ship HMS Conway. His family was closely involved in the brewing industry. A great uncle ran a brewery in Christchurch while his father worked for Pontifex, a major supplier of brewing equipment. As a result of the Hampshire connection, his first love was boats not beer and he sailed in Poole Harbour during school holidays. He joined P&O from the Conway but contracted TB and had to be invalided home from Australia.

He was not fit enough to fight in World War Two and moved into brewing. He did his “pupillage” or apprenticeship at Friary, Holroyd & Healy in Guildford, worked briefly at Morrells in Oxford and joined the Hull Brewery in 1945, where he became head brewer. He left in 1975 following a takeover by Northern Dairies.

He moved to Hampshire, bought a boat and took visitors on fishing expeditions. But the brewing bug had bit deep. In 1977 he accepted an invitation from Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Guardian writer Richard Boston – both passionate believers in the concept of small is beautiful – to build a tiny brewery in a former cattle byre at Penrhos Court in Herefordshire. He was back in brewing and a year later opened Ringwood. With business partner David Welsh, he produced Ringwood Best Bitter, Fortyniner and XXXX Porter. The strong ale Old Thumper put Ringwood and micro-brewing on the map when it won the Champion Beer of Britain award from Camra in 1988. Peter was the first chairman of the Small Independent Brewers’ Association (Siba), now the Society of Independent Brewers, which became a powerful lobbying voice for the sector.

In 1986 Peter and David Welsh moved from the original site in Ringwood into bigger buildings in the town that had once housed Tunks Brewery. Ringwood was now a substantial business, producing 80 barrels a week for pubs throughout the south and south-west. Peter sold his share to David Welsh and became a consultant, adviser and builder to aspiring brewers in Britain and then worldwide. 

Pusgley & Austin

His biggest impact was undoubtedly in the United States where 74 breweries were built using his brewing system. Alan Pugsley learnt the brewing skills with Peter at Ringwood (pictured above with Peter) and emigrated to the U.S. where he helped set up the D L Geary Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, in1986, one of the first new-wave American micros. Pugsley opened his own Shipyard brewery in Portland in 1992 and Peter gave him permission to brew Old Thumper under licence. He supplied a sample of the Ringwood yeast culture for authenticity. A new brewery using Peter Austin’s system will open this month at the Four Mile Pub in Victoria, British Columbia -- a fitting memorial.

Peter Austin married twice. His first wife, Joan, died in 1972 and he married Zena, who pre-decased him. He had five children, Roland, Jane, Henry (who died in 1992) Jeremy and Sarah, and two step-children, Philip and Leah.

His impact on good beer is immeasurable. There are more than 2,000 craft breweries in the U.S., 1,200 in Britain, 150 in Australia, 70 in New Zealand and a growing number in Italy. Beer drinkers have never had greater choice – and much of that is due to Peter Austin. Alan Pugsley at Shipyard in Maine says: “He was an inspiration” and Terry Jones hails him as “the grandfather of micro-brewing”.

Peter William Austin, born 18 July 1921, died 1 January 2014.

*An edited version of this obituary has appeared on the Guardian Online, 9 January 2014 and in the print edition 30 January..