Pilgrim's way is to brew fine beer
Added: Sunday, November 21st 2021
Pilgrims are by nature wandering folk but the Pilgrim Brewery in Reigate has put down deep roots in the Surrey town and has no plans to go walkabout.
It’s a brewery that has played a key role in the history of modern brewing in both Surrey and beyond. It was founded in 1982 by Dave Roberts who used his skills as an engineer to build the county’s first brewery in what had been a beer dessert for decades.
And as a former civil servant he was able to direct members of SIBA, the Small Independent Brewers’ Association – now the Society of Independent Brewers -- to the most important policy makers in government to discuss reform of excise duty. The result was Progressive Beer Duty that cut beer tax for small producers and enabled the micro section of the industry to flourish.
The brewery’s name marks the Pilgrims’ Way that links Winchester with Canterbury and the tomb of Thomas Becket. Dave Roberts celebrated this history with such beers as Progress, Talisman -- named after the shells pilgrims carried for good luck -- and a strong ale of 8.7 per cent called Crusader.
Dave retired in 2017 and the business was bought almost by chance by Adrian Rothera and Rory Fry-Stone. Rory lives close to the brewery on West Street and dropped in one day and heard that Dave Roberts wanted to sell the business.
“I only went into buy some beer and I left having made an offer on the brewery,” he says.
Both Rory and Adrian had worked for local family firms. They shared a love of beer and had discussed the possibility of joining forces to run their own business.
They threw themselves into a much-needed upgrade of the plant and they added a taproom that has enabled locals to enjoy the beer on site. They were joined by head brewer John Fridd, who had previously worked at the Cottage Brewery in Somerset, and he has busily enlarged the beer range and added craft keg, bottles and cans to the cask beers. Cask accounts for 85 per cent of output and John stresses that his keg beers are unfiltered and as close to cask as possible.
“In January 2018 we closed the brewery for a month for a refurb,” John says. “We put in a new floor and drainage and installed air conditioning in the cold store where we keep 300 casks.”
The original mash tun and hot liquor tank have been retained but the plant has a new copper and cask washer while the number of fermenting vessels has been increased from three to five. It’s now a 12-barrel operation, producing 200 casks a week, and the growth has been necessary to keep up with demand.
As well as selling to around two dozen pubs in the area, the taproom has been a runaway success.
“People in Reigate didn’t realise they had a local brewery,” Rory says. The taproom put Pilgrim firmly on the map, to such an extent that at one stage the brewery was close to running out of beer. As well as drinking on the premises, customers can take beer home and the take-home side of the business has boomed as a result.
Pilgrim has formed a lucrative deal with Surrey County Cricket Club. The club takes Pilgrim beers and at one five-day Test match at the Oval it sold 300 casks.
“Not bad for a micro-brewery!” Rory laugh with great satisfaction.
When the Covid pandemic struck, Pilgrim survived the lockdown by brewing twice a week and building take-home sales. It’s now working full bore again and supplying free trade pubs.
“We’re maintaining the heritage of the brewery with our core range but we’re also developing new beers,” Rory says.
Dave Roberts’ Progress remains the best-seller in cask and keg, with the keg version supplied mainly to local clubs. But it’s been joined by IPA, an American-style NEIPA, a golden ale, stout and a lager and many seasonal and occasional brews.
Whatever the style, Rory insists that only the finest malts and hops are used: “It’s all about the beer,” he stresses.
In the spick-and-span brewhouse, John Fridd says he uses Maris Otter as his base malt along with Flagon and Propena, with Pils malts for his lager. For a smoked beer he imported special grain from Weyermann Malt in Bamberg in Germany. Depending on the style, John has a malt store holding crystal, chocolate, rye, oats and wheat malts, along with roasted barley.
Hops include Whitbread Goldings Variety and Challenger from this country, with Hersbrucker from Germany, Bobek from Slovenia and American Cascade, Chinook, Citra and Mosaic.
The pull of the taproom was evident as I was talking to John at around one clock. A car came down the narrow courtyard leading to the brewery and two men got out.
“Can we have some beer?”one of them asked.
“You want to take some beer home?”John queried.
“No, we want to drink some now,” the man said.
“Sorry, mate, the taproom isn’t open until the evening,” John said.
The men left, disappointment on their faces. But I had no doubt they would be back.
•Pilgrim Brewery, 11 West Street, Reigate, Surrey, RH2 9BL. 01737 222651. Taproom open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 4-10pm, Saturday and Sunday 12-9pm.
Pictured below, left to right: Adrian Rothera, Rory Fry-Stone and John Fridd witrh members of their team in the taproom. Image courtesy The Drinks Business.