Brewing at Forehill Brewery, Ely, 1930s

The name Ely for beer, in the annals of British brewing, has resonated relatively little among beer historians, at least by my surveys.*

Not a surprise really as the last (pre-1970s) brewery of Ely was one of thousands with roots to the 19th century, one of many hundreds to survive into the 1950s albeit by continual regional merger, only to expire with acquisition by a national giant, Watney Mann.

The Forehill Brewery made Ely ales, and was forever closed in 1969 by Watney’s.  An abbreviated history of the brewery is given by Simon Knott in this Flickr page with an evocative 1960 photo linked. Bits and bobs of information are spread online, but not a great deal as far as I know.

East Anglian Breweries, a later incarnation of Forehill, is a name still remembered of course by brewing historians, but Forehill’s own production, unless I mistake, has not been recalled with any great attention.

But there is always some, and two examples come to mind.

The first is that Briton Karl Bedingfield has memorialized Forehill brewery as it operated in the 1930s. He had worked with the Ely museum to create its website, found a local news piece limning 1930s brewery operations, and reproduced it in this link.

The article originally appeared in 1938 in the local paper, the Ely Standard. Many interesting points are brought out, some of which, as historical markers, are echoed over time in my writing.

One is that c. 1930 the brewery, which dated to the 1890s, was completely revamped, essentially built new. In the 1930s, the ruling idea for business success was technological benchmarking, or so we would call it today.

There was no sentiment expressed about moldering old buildings and equipment. Too many old plants had fallen into disuse via bankruptcy, cessation of operations, or takeover.

New investment was critical to stay ahead of the game. Money was not always easy to come by in the period, but the then owners (see the account) injected enough money to ensure evidently a quality production and continued market.

Despite this, the account was careful to spell out traditional features. The company malted its own grain, clearly in an old-fashioned floor maltings although temperature control was bolted on, to preclude finished malt from humidifying.

In brewing, they did a full two-hour boil, about twice the norm today. No sugar or grain adjuncts such as corn are mentioned in the process. Their absence is unusual by this period, so perhaps sugar was used but omitted from the article from tact. I’d like to think the products were still all-malt.

The beers were conditioned for relatively short periods, the pale ale longer than the mild ale and “dark ale” (probably brown or strong ales),  typical late-1800s practice. Conditioning, at least for bottled beer, followed a careful regimen of warm and cold phases.

You see at Brewery Trays a handsome Forehill serving tray with signature cathedral of Ely highlighted. This was likely from the last phase of operations.

Another special notice of Forehill history dates from 1969 in the journal Brewing Trade Review & Bottling. A valedictory nod it was, sadly, but attention nonetheless, symbolized to boot by a one-off brewing called Bona Cervisia.

The article outlined early monastic brewing in Ely, which the special beer was meant to memorialize, that and the looming closing of the brewery. Certainly in the monastic brewing period Ely beers enjoyed a high reputation.

Brewing Review explained that brewing had continued within cathedral precincts into the late 1800s, until finally the audit ale, brewed by one Southby,** was discontinued in favour of beer sourced from Burton-on-Trent.

The brewing room in the church was tidied up and turned into a grammar school. But commercial brewers carried on in Ely, of which Forehill was the last in the pre-craft period.

Finally, where were Ely’s ales sold in the heyday? In many houses, as then termed, controlled by the successive owning groups until the brewing door clanged shut for good. These were in Isle of Ely itself and often a good deal beyond due to the scope of the owning groups.

One outlet was in Lincoln Central, called the Sloop, probably as it bordered a river. You can view it in this YouTube link, a recent upload.

The images of then and now alternately appear, a feature that reinforces what is forever past. The melancholy soundtrack only adds to the impression.

Sometimes I would trade all the craft beer I ever drank to drink English beer in a place like the Sloop, when the image shown was taken.

If my supping was to be in Ely itself – and probably no better place, as for any local beer – I might choose a pub on the high street shown in this jaunty 1943 Pathe clip. Maybe I would have been in the army, enjoying a respite from training and the unknown to follow.

What would I have selected? Probably the bitter or bottled pale ale, the first glass anyway. In the 1950s the label looked like this (source: the always-excellent Brewery History site):


*This post deals with Ely, Cambridgeshire, not Ely in Cardiff, where an eponymous brewery also operated.

**A notable brewing writer of the period, not sure if there is a connection.




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