Tomson & Wotton: Classic Seaside Brewery

Of Ramsgate, I knew it to be in Kent and by the sea, but little more. Making inquiries online, the following magically appeared, 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.

The anonymous response forms an apt introduction to Ramsgate. The town had its glory days in the 19th century but was well-frequented in the last, as well. Londoners sapped by the heat took refuge there, into the postwar period.

The travel tome All About Ramsgate and Broadstairs (1864) offered a social grading of the Kent resorts. Ramsgate was typed as a refuge for Russell Square, Broadstairs, for Cadogan Place, while Margate earned the Kennington and Camden Town trade. This complements the primer from the ether.

For a Dickens-like description of a hot London summer, read the page before the one linked. Its cinematic clarity derives from a time when the written word meant 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. (Beer always “warm” over there? Not).

Ramsgate in its Victorian salad days (via Wikipedia):

 

 

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

Recently, I mentioned that “seaside” breweries were known for particular trading features. These are brought out in an article on Tomson & Wotton Brewery in a1962 issue of The Brewing Trade Review.

The article described two high seasons for this type of brewery, Christmas and summer, with summer the main peak. It noted that the brewery’s equipment reflected this pattern. Three aluminum, and one steel, glass-lined fermenter supplemented the main stock of Kauri wood fermenters.

We learn that most Tomson & Wotton draught was naturally-conditioned, placed in wood casks for the trade. A little was “keg” beer, the filtered, fizzier form often served chilled. Keg became popular in the ’60s and ’70s, until the rise of lager.

Two bottled “pale ales” were brewed, these would have been Allbright and the stronger Cavalier mentioned in the article.

There were also (per the article) two brown ales, a barley wine, and a stout. The brewery also bottled Guinness, brought by tanker from London where Guinness had a second brewery at the time, at Park Royal.

No lager is mentioned, although the brewery’s pubs in town probably carried a well-known brand or two. Tomson & Wotton had a spirits and wine division, which perhaps distributed some lager. The ability to offer such drinks must have been extra-useful in a summer resort.

This image is courtesy the Brewery History Society Wiki:

 

 

The Brewery History Society Wiki contains a good label selection, from different periods. With draught mild not mentioned in the article, maybe it wasn’t brewed by this time, but I can’t be sure.

Mild ales, regular and strong, were certainly brewed in earlier years. A public bar price list in the Brewery History Society Wiki page shows this.

The brewery did its own malting, as well.

I mentioned Kauri wood. Kauri pine was once favoured around the world for brewery fermentation vessels. It had workability, durability, and resisted decay despite the constant humidity. It came from New Zealand and other parts of the Antipodes, and New Guinea.

A southern conifer, Kauri was extensively felled for construction and industry uses. Although protected today, some is still sold in New Zealand, under controlled conditions.

A few more points, on the brewing. It combined, as many British breweries then, Victorian and modern features. An early-1800s malt mill was still in use although in course of being replaced.

The kettle to boil wort and hops was open to the atmosphere, direct-fired by coal. Not many breweries do open boiling now, even craft breweries. Tomson & Wotton liked the results from its kettle, pictured in the article.

Barley for malt mainly came from nearby Kent fields, as did hops. We call that terroir today.

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 pubs, but did they know it?

Tomson & Wotton was a classic regional brewery of particular type, selling largely in its own territory, using old-fashioned methods, with materials mainly locally sourced.*

People in British towns often “drank local” then. To a degree craft brewing brought this back; the circle comes round.

Sadly for Tomson & Wotton trends in beer were moving in the opposite direction, then. The smart thing increasingly was keg brands and finally, lager, abetted by the kind of blanket advertising only large brewers could afford.

Starting in 1957 Tomson & Wotton had an “association” with London giant Whitbread Brewery. That meant Whitbread probably had a stake in the business, of some kind.

Soon Whitbread would buy out Tomson & Wotton lock, stock, and barrel (!), in 1968. The brewery gate was forever shut a few months later.

If the old copper kettle did its good work after, it was somewhere else.

But in 1962, when things still seemed hopeful, eighth and ninth generation Tomsons presided over the business. The family ran the brewery all the way from 1680 until the year The Beatles’ White Album came out. A pretty fine record, most would agree.

*By this time, most U.K. breweries used some sugar in the process to supplement the malt. Probably Tomson & Wotton did as well although sugar is not mentioned in the Review‘s account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

  1. I adjusted text today to clarify that Tomson & Wotton did brew mild earlier. As mild is not mentioned in the 1962 article but pale ale is, perhaps no mild was brewed by 1962. It’s speculative but I wonder if Ramsgate’s self-image by the period was such that mild, with its cloth-cap associations, was felt not to “fit”.

    As well though I am not primarily concerned here to eluciate the brands sold in 1962. The treatment, as I hope is evident from the text, is broader than that.

    Reply
  2. 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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