Restoring brewing to historic Young's site
Added: Friday, August 9th 2019
Beer is coming home to Wandsworth. By spring 2020, Sambrooks Brewery will have moved from Battersea to the historic Ram site where brewing ceased in 2006. That was the year Young’s pulled up the drawbridge on centuries of beer making dating back to the reign of the first Elizabeth.
In 2008, Duncan Sambrook gave up a career in the City to fill the yawning gap left by Young’s when he opened his brewery close to Clapham Junction. He loved Young’s beer and was keen to restore brewing to South-east London.
Young’s had been a true icon. Back in the 1960s and 70s, under its ebullient chairman John Young, the company had refused to go down the keg route and remained true to cask beer. John Young was derided at the time by fellow brewery owners, but he had the last laugh.
The “real ale revolution” of the 1970s led by CAMRA saw cask beer bounce back. Beer lovers beat a path to the Ram Brewery to marvel at the traditional brewing vessels, the giant horses that pulled drays through the streets to deliver to local pubs, the belligerent ram mascot and the famous Sample Room where Young’s Bitter and Special could be tasted fresh and bouncing with ripe malt and hop character.
And when visitors left the brewery, there were a dozen palatial Young’s pubs in the vicinity where further sampling could continue.
Both the history and the beer seemed lost when, following the death of John Young, directors from outside the family closed the brewery and turned the company into a pubco. Young’s beers moved to Charles Wells in Bedford where the Eagle Brewery is now owned by Marston’s.
Now Duncan Sambrook is restoring brewing at the Ram. He is seen, top, at the base of the old brewery chimney.The sprawling old brewing site, dominated by its tall and imperious chimney, is now called the Ram Quarter. The 7.7 acres site has shops, small businesses and 300 apartments but the centrepiece will be the new brewery. Below, a model of the Ram Quarter with the brewery foreground left.
Duncan has raised £1.5 million to develop a complex that will include a brewery, a tap room and a museum. The museum will include many of the old vessels from Young’s, including the enormous coppers (below) where malt and hops were boiled and the equally large beam engines that once provided the power to drive the entire brewing process. The engines will be run once or twice a year.
The brewery site is Grade II-listed and pays homage to Victorian design and engineering. Great iron beams and stanchions hold up the large rooms once occupied by mash tuns, coppers and open square fermenters. The former cooperage, where oak casks were built and repaired, will house a new maturation area for Sambrook’s while the mezzanine will be home to the new brew house.
Duncan Sambrook says: “The brewing kit for the Ram site has been built in China but it will be a traditional ale brewery, based on a mash tun and copper system rather than the modern mash mixer, lauter tun and brew kettle method.
“But I will use conical fermenters and will be able to add lager at some stage.”
The main beers will continue to be his best-selling Wandle Ale, along with Pumphouse Pale Ale, Junction Ale and Powerhouse Porter. Wandle Ale celebrates the River Wandle that runs through the borough and gave its name to Wandsworth.
At present, production at Battersea is split 60 per cent cask to 40 per cent keg but Duncan says keg sales are growing fast. The new brewery will have an annual capacity of 12,000 barrels and will be able to carry out 15-barrel batches six times a day. Brewing will continue at Battersea until Duncan and his brewing team are satisfied with the beers from the Ram.
In keeping with the traditions of Young’s, Wandle is brewed with England’s finest malting barley, Maris Otter, along with Boadicea, Fuggles and Goldings English hops. If Duncan departed from the true path, John Young would come roaring out of the grave to admonish him.
The Tap Rop will offer food as well as beer and there will be regular outdoor events, such as beer and music festivals, in the central square of the Ram Quarter.
“The museum will be a history of brewing in London,” Duncan says, “but the emphasis will be on Young’s – brewing has been going on here since 1533.”
And once brewing starts, Duncan is keen to maintain the historic presence of brewing at the Ram.
“I aim to be on this site for 30 years,” he says with quiet determination.
•Brewing has not stopped at the Ram brewery, even though Young’s closed in 2006. John Hatch has run a nano-brewery, the Phoenix, in the old stable block. The beers are not for sale but visitors can sample them and place cash in a charity box. John will eventually move to the new museum, which he will run alongside tours for visitors.
This means brewing has been maintained on the site since the 16th century. It started as the Ram Inn and grew into a large commercial brewery alongside the Wandle. The Young family arrived in 1831.
Young’s and its successors claim it’s the oldest, continuously working brewery in Britain. Shepherd Neame in Faversham, Kent, which dates from 1698, says it’s the oldest family brewery still in operation. In common with the dispute over which is Britain’s oldest pub, this is an argument that will rumble on.
Below: an artist's impression of the Ram Quarter with the brewery and chimney across the square.