Tomson & Wotton: Classic Seaside Brewery

When checking up on Ramsgate, which I knew to be in Kent and on the sea, but little more, this came up under “People ask”:

Of the three towns on Kent’s Isle of Thanet, Ramsgate is often seen as the underdog: somewhat over-shadowed by the time-warped charms of genteel Broadstairs or the gaudy glory of artsy Margate. … By reputation, it’s a bit rough, a bit run-down, but Ramsgate used to be posh.

The term rough, and posh for that matter, are not used this side of the Atlantic in quite the same way, but we get the meaning.

I don’t know who authored the text but it is compact and well-written. Ramsgate had its glory years in the 19th century but was well-frequented in the last century as well. Londoners sapped by the heat regularly took refuge there, into the 1950s.

In 1864’s All About Ramsgate and Broadstairs, the author typed Ramsgate as seaside town for Russell Square; Broadstairs, for Cadogan Place; and Margate for Kennington and Camden Town, which complements my quotation above.

For a Dickens-like description of a hot London summer, read the page preceding; its cinematic clarity derives from a time the written word counted for everything to convey experience to people.

So hot was it, “warm fingers made marks on the new novel”. And bitter ale was “iced” in London (always “luke” over there? Not). I can go on, but read it for yourself.

Below is an image of Ramsgate in its Victorian salad days (via Wikipedia):

 

 

The Kent resorts were much boosted by the burgeoning South England rail system in the 1800s.

Recently I mentioned that “seaside” breweries were noted for particular trading features. This is brought out in the article on Tomson & Wotton brewery in the 1962 volume of Brewing Trade Reviews I’ve referenced.

The article explains there were two high seasons for trade: Christmas and summer but summer was the main peak. A number of features of the plant description pertain to this, especially the three aluminum and one steel, glass-lined fermenter that complemented the main stock of wood Kauri fermenters (more on Kauri below).

Most draught produced was still naturally-conditioned, racked in wood casks. A little was “keg” beer though, the filtered, fizzier draft often served cold that became popular later in the Sixties.

The range of beers offered likely too reflected the summer trade, when T & W needed to cater to a wider range of tastes than local conditions would dictate. It made two “pale ales” (probably two draught bitters), a stronger, bottled pale, two brown ales, a barley wine (the strongest), and a stout.

It also bottled Guinness stout, brought by “tanker”, meaning likely by truck in bulk from London where Guinness had a second brewery, at Park Royal.

No lager is mentioned, although town pubs probably carried a few brands from Continental or UK producers. Tomson & Wotton also had a spirits and wine division, as many regional breweries did then, but being a seaside brewery, this extra capability was essential.

Mild ale is not mentioned. Mild drinkers had to be satisfied with bottled brown beer. Michael Jackson (1942-2007), the great beer writer, called mild “cloth-capped”, a description not applicable to Ramsgate in its fullest meaning, by my gleaning, at least in its summering heyday.

Following image is courtesy the Brewery History Society Wiki on T & W.

 

 

Kauri pinewood was once favoured for brewery fermentation vessels. It had workability, durability, and showed resistance to decay despite the heavy impact of humidity. It came from New Zealand and other parts of the Antipodes, and New Guinea.

A southern conifer, it was extensively felled for British and Empire uses in construction and industry. Yet some is still available, in New Zealand, under controlled conditions.

A couple of points now on other aspects of Tomson & Wotton brewing, which combined both Victorian and modern features. An early-1800s malt mill was still in use but in process of replacement. The kettle, to boil mashed wort with hops, was, unusually even by craft standards today, open to the atmosphere.

T & W brewers liked the results better than a more modern closed kettle. Today, brew kettles are generally closed when in use, although some have manholes or traps that may be opened.

Barley for malt came from nearby Kent fields, as did hops. Fragrant Kent hops were, and are, some of the best in the world. Beer drinkers in Ramsgate had a world-class product in front of them, in those salt-sprayed old pubs, but how many knew it?

This was the classic, local English brewery of yore, selling largely in its own territory, mainly using old-fashioned methods, with raw materials mostly sourced locally.*

They still “drank local”, back then, in many parts of Britain. Craft brewing has brought this back, especially where locally raised grains and hops are used.

Sadly for T & W, trends – and brewing has them as any business – were going the other way in the 1960s. It was increasingly the era of nationally-advertised, smart-looking brands. There is another word we don’t use here in the same way, but it fits somehow.

By 1962 Tomson & Wotton already had an “association” with London giant Whitbread, which probably had an investment in the firm, or loaned money to it. In time Whitbread’s took the firm lock, stock, and, well, barrel.

According to the BHS Wiki, the buy-out was in 1968 and the brewery was shut a few months after purchase.

Although it had started even earlier, the brewery endured in the same Tomson family from 1680 until the White Album came out. A pretty fine record.

…………….

*By this time most U.K. breweries used some sugar in the process, to supplement the malt. Probably T & W did although sugar is not mentioned in the Review account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Tomson & Wotton: Classic Seaside Brewery”

  1. Gary,
    As I read this article, I was puzzled as to why Whitbread would make a partial investment into T&W. Then I remembered the tied houses. According to
    http://breweryhistory.com/wiki/index.php?title=Tomson_%26_Wotton_Ltd, T&W had 102 in the early 50s. I’m guessing that Whitbread put their products into the pubs on the initial investment, and let the T&W brewery limp on for a few years.
    Interesting reading here and in the two Bass pieces which follow.

    Reply
    • Thanks Arnold, there may be readers who have more specifics on what form those associations took. They seemed usually to end in total takeover, somewhat like now when large brewers take a large stake in a craft operation.

      I think the estates of the local brewers was a big part, because as you say, a channel for a “non-competing” product of a Whitbread was opened, say eg. a bright keg beer, although T &W did make a little keg on its own.

      Let’s see if another reader can offer more perspective.

      Reply
      • Mackeson is the obvious product – in its heyday in the 1950s and a “local” brew that originated in nearby Hythe before succumbing to Whitbread in the 1920s. Since Mackeson originated in 1669, it’s weird to think of Shepherd Neame (1698) as the “baby” of the Kent brewers! Kent drinkers must have been glad to see the back of the Puritans.

        The success of Mackeson gave Whitbread the financial firepower to take advantage of family brewers struggling in the tough times after WWII. I guess Boddies was the most famous one, although that took them 20-odd years to go from partial shareholding to complete takeover. It did work both ways though, Whitbread’s pubs represented a big market for Boddies to go into, in the same way as eg Theakston today is well represented in Heineken’s extensive estate.

        Reply
        • This is helpful, thanks for this. Good point about the two ways.

          I guess a question is, did any family brewery take Whitbread’s help but remain independent? There may be one or two that were bought out 100 per cent but re-gained independence after.

          Reply

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