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Country brewer heads for the Smoke

Added: Saturday, March 8th 2014

Old Bank of England

McMullen, the family brewery based in Hertford, is making a major drive to expand its presence in London. It has dug deep to buy four pubs in the capital, to add to two pubs it has run for many years in Covent Garden and Theatreland.

With all the talk these days about small independent breweries and craft beer we tend to forget the great contribution older, long-established brewers contribute to our pleasure. There are around 30 family brewers still practising in Britain and without them our pubs would be poorer places.

Many of them – such as McMullen – have been around since the early 19th century. In Hertford, Peter McMullen, with some Irish ancestry, became a master cooper and in 1827 he thought it would a good idea to fill the wooden casks he made with beer. He opened a small brewery and flourished, moving to a bigger site in the county capital later in the century.

The McMullen family assiduously built an estate of pubs, including several in St Albans. Horse-drawn drays were limited to the number of miles they could cover in a day and St Albans marked the outer edge for deliveries from Hertford. Today Macs – as the company is fondly known to employees and drinkers – has three pubs in the city: the Blue Anchor in Fishpool Street, the Camp in Camp Road, and the Peahen at the junction of London Road and Holywell Hill.

The company has also spread east and has pubs in Essex, including Chingford, Epping Harlow and Theydon Bois, Sevenoaks in Kent, Windsor in Berkshire,  Marlow and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire and Fleet in Hampshire.

Family brewers are distinct from non-brewing pub companies and small independent brewers as a result of the powerful link between their beer and their pubs. The “tied estate” – pubs owned by brewers and supplied with their products – is the bedrock of the family brewers’ business. McMullen’s estate currently stands at 137.

“Pubs are the seed corn for the future,” production director Fergus McMullen says. “We aim to buy two to three pubs a year and we’ve spent more than £40 million buying and improving pubs.”

The company has dug deep to buy the new outlets in London. It already owns the Nags Head in Covent Garden – conveniently opposite the exist to the underground station --and the Spice of Life in Cambridge Circus. It has now added the White Swan in Pimlico, the Old Crown in New Oxford Street, the Kings Arms in Great Titchfield Street in the West End, and the Old Bank of England, a prime site at 94 Fleet Street, next to the Law Courts (pictured above).

A dozen or more of Macs pubs have been transformed into Baroosh style bars for over-21s. The Peahen in St Albans falls into that category but is not called Baroosh as that wouldn’t fit with the history of the galleried building. There’s been an inn on the site for centuries and it grew to its present stately size at the height of the coaching period in the 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Peahen St Albans

St Albans was the first stop on the road from London to the North and inns such as the Peahen (above) offered food and accommodation for travellers, and stabling for horses.

Today both the Peahen and the Blue Anchor have a good reputation for food and Fergus McMullen says the Peahen has not been affected by its close proximity to such new arrivals as Jamie’s Italian and a Raymond Blanc Brasserie.

Fergus says all his outlets, whether style bars or traditional pubs, are doing more food. But he’s quick to stress that the brewing side of the business is growing and sales of cask beer are strong.

When I first started to drink Macs beer in St Albans in the late 1970s, there were just two regular cask ales, AK and Country Bitter. They have been joined in the past few years by Cask Ale and a stronger IPA. I remain a fan of AK, a beer with an intriguing name. McMullen now calls it a bitter but it was originally a light mild.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when mild ale was the most popular beer style, brewers would produce several versions, ranging from light to dark. Nobody is certain but it’s thought that while casks containing pale ale and bitter were branded with Xs, mild casks carried a K, with the first in the range marked AK.

Whatever the truth behind the name, AK remains a delicious amber beer with spicy and floral hops balancing rich biscuit malt and an orange fruit note from yeast and fermentation.

The family ownership at Hertford is strong and will survive for years to come. Fergus has been joined by his young cousin Tom and Fergus hopes that his sons Rory and Hugo may also decide to join the brewery. As Rory works for Savills, the estate agents specialising in the pub sector, and Hugo works for a wine company, they are clearly moving in the right direction.

As for Fergus, he will be honoured as the next High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, a fitting tribute to someone who has worked so hard to boost brewing and pubs in the county. I think there should be a celebration in the Peahen, with the High Sheriff arriving by horse-drawn dray carrying several casks of AK.