Changing the Rules

Hewitt’s Maltings in Grimsby, demolished in 1976. (from the Grimsby Telegraph)

On a recent visit home to my parents in Grimsby, my Dad handed me a clipping from the local newspaper’s ‘Bygones’ section.The article, originally printed in 1954, was about the Hewitt’s brewery (1874-1968) in Grimsby, for whom my maternal great-grandfather once worked, at the brewery’s maltings on the corner of Frederick Ward Way and Victoria Street. The article describes the brewery’s rise to prominence under the leadership of William Taylor Hewitt, an ambitious, forward-thinking man, who bought up several other small breweries in the area.

When WT Hewitt started Hewitt Bros Ltd with his brother Thomas Hewitt in the 1870s, many publicans still brewed their own beer on-site. WT Hewitt, with increased brewing capacity, his own maltings and the logistics to deliver across the region, travelled from door to door of the pubs in Grimsby, persuading landlords that it would be more economical for them to simply get their beer from the modern and prosperous Hewitt’s Brewery. His personal approach became his trademark, and made him extremely popular, and probably quite rich. From owning just a few premises in 1874 when Hewitt took over, by the time the article was printed the brewery owned 300 across Lincolnshire and as far as Yorkshire.

William Taylor Hewitt of Hewitt Bros Ltd. (from the Grimsby Telegraph)

From the article, there is something of James Watt to WT Hewitt’s carnivorous business practices, seeking in his own way to change the beer landscape and the way the game was played. Whilst undoubtedly reducing the locality and individuality of the beers brewed in Grimsby at the time, he perhaps (and this is speculation) improved the overall quality, or at least the consistency of the beer available.

The image of WT Hewitt going from pub to pub and arguing that he could make things easier for brewing publicans reminded me of a conversation had in Dublin at the European Beer Bloggers Conference. During the session on the benefits of cask, keg, bottle or can, we learned of mobile canning lines in the US, which, mounted on the back of large trucks, could serve the canning needs of several small breweries in one area.

Several of us looked at each other with very much the same thought in mind: with a growing appetite for the freshest possible beer, and craft beer in cans, could breweries too small to consider the purchase of canning lines (or the space to accommodate them) find a solution in a mobile canning line? If the brewers can provide the cans (admittedly, a space issue in itself), the mobile line could be just the thing to change the rules of the game. I’d be very surprised if something like it doesn’t appear in the UK in the next two years. The question is, who will do it first?

 

[UPDATE 18/07/14 – 16:42: I’ve just learned of the existence of ThemThatCan, “The UK’s 1st and only mobile canning company to the craft beverage industry” which intends to start canning at the end of this summer. So there you go.]

 

I‘m going to do some more research into Hewitt’s Brewery for further blog posts and would be really grateful for any help. There’s an out-of-print book called ‘Beer, Hope and Charity’ by Graham Larn that I’m interested in tracking down, and  pointers to any other good sources of information would be greatly appreciated.

Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

13 thoughts on “Changing the Rules”

    1. I think small breweries might be reluctant to get into contract canning after the rollercoaster that BrewDog have been on with their arrangement with Thwaites.

      Also, assumedly a canner would can a beer batch of a certain size for a certain price? If the brewer doesn’t have the capacity to produce a batch of a certain size, then maybe it wouldn’t make economic sense for them. Especially if factoring in cost of transporting the beer etc.

      Given that a lot of the quality problems the smallest brewers have is because of bottling by hand reducing the shelf life, I think quite a few would be open to the idea of having the canning line brought to them, depending on the price of using it.

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      1. Surely the issue with BrewDog and Thwaites was that Thwaites were actually brewing some of their beer for them.

        I’d expect the results of small-scale canning to be as dodgy as those of small-scale bottling. If you can’t brew enough for third-party canning, then you probably shouldn’t be canning in the first place.

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      2. Yes, initially they were contract-brewing, then BrewDog were tanking stuff down to them, to come back in cans, then be distributed elsewhere. Messy. That was what I meant by rollercoaster, I should have been more clear.

        But how small is small-scale? The canning line used by Camden, Fourpure and Beavertown is an impressive piece of kit but it’s nowhere near macro or even regional brewer-sized. All the canned beers I’ve had from those breweries have been great.

        I take your point that brewers shouldn’t exceed their grasp, though. I still think there will be small brewers hitting consistent quality but lacking space who would benefit from a mobile canning line. Of course, I’d be even happier if those same brewers grew sufficiently to have their own canning lines. Whilst they might seem to be just another London beer trend, I think craft cans are here to stay.

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      3. There’s certainly business for a good canner who can handle small runs. There was a mobile bottler in the UK a while ago, I don’t think there is now. As regards transport costs, it *has* to be cheaper to move n litres of beer (even twice) than a whole truck loaded with a proper canning line. While there is now cute little manual canning kit (which it would be quite neat to have a hire of), there’s no reason to suppose that canning by hand is going to be better than bottling the same way. Except cans are hip.

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      4. Yeah, can’t see canning by hand taking off, defeats the point of bothering with it. Cans certainly *are* hip, but they’re also really good. If someone owned the mobile canning line as a separate concern, ie, not a brewer, I’m sure that a) someone would come up with a business model that sees them and a few small brewers benefit and b) that small brewers would be interested in having their hoppier beers last longer and taste better.

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  1. Well, sure, if someone can come up with a model that adds up it’ll work, by definition.

    I’d be surprised if having kit being hauled around the country (costing whatever per mile), when it should be sitting still canning (and earning), would work. I can get beer to anywhere in the UK (pretty much) in a day or so for a reasonable charge from a number of pallet firms – it’s a very competitive market.

    Looking at the number of mobile canners in the states (15?) you’d guess that there might be an opening for one or two in the UK. But a couple of “stationary” canners (capable of handling small batches) would likely pick up so much of the work that the mobile business wouldn’t be viable. Which is, I think, what happened with the mobile bottling thing.

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    1. Interesting. In my head, I see it happening in London where there are plenty of small brewers with not a lot of room to expand, and many are relatively close to each other. But, a stationary canner in one place shared a few brewers could be just as if not more viable.

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  2. my granny Minnie Metcalfe, was hewitts oldest tenant she lived at bluebell cottage gringley on the hill next to the pub now part of the pub she used to pay 2 bob 10 p a week rent they never put the rent up in over 60 years, and she used to say the buggers never do any repairs the bluebell was named after the flower and used to have bluebells on the sign and not a blue bell as it does now

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  3. In the late 60s I had a part-time job at Siddle’s tool shop on Victoria St. in sight of the brewery. Now and then I delivered tools or invoices . Just inside the yard there was a huge barrel of bitter in a metal caged room minded by a big lad. I guess it was for the dray-men and staff—I wasn’t a fan of Hewitts but always downed the pint he offered me.

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