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Bill Urquhart – the brewer who started a micro revolution

Alaric Neville of the modern Phipps brewery tells the story of the last head brewer of the old Phipps brewery and his determination to keep beer real…

In the 1950s and ‘60s, many of Britain’s traditional regional Breweries were taken over by larger national brewery businesses. The patchwork of family brewers that had grown up to cover the country was ripped apart by aggressive, industrial giants.

Chief villain amongst them was the notorious Watneys, inventor of keg beer and purveyor of the bête noir of Real Ale enthusiasts, Watney’s Red Barrel, a name that still provokes horror for those that know anything about beer.

In 1960 Watneys took over Phipps Northampton Brewery Company in a hostile battle of unequals. Despite assurances of a marriage and inward investment, Watneys were essentially asset strippers and followed the same business pattern at 19 other similar breweries they also bought and closed over the post war period.

The last day’s brewing at Phipps brewery in Bridge Street, 1817 to 1974, Bill is eighth from the left on the front row

They rode roughshod over any local traditions or products, ran down any “old fashioned” brewing, foisted Red Barrel and other company brews on their acquisitions and their pub chains, pursued a policy of centralized control which would see all local breweries eventually shut and their pub chains subsumed into a giant London based business selling only Watney and Mann products.

They did this against the advice of most local management and landlords because Watneys believed in the bright shiny future of crisp, clean, clear keg beer.

Bill Urquhart stands at the very pivot of that change in public perceptions and his story is emblematic of the shift in appreciation of handmade, quality, organic, wholesome products; a battle we are still fighting but which is now a mainstream interest.

The last head brewer at Phipps Bridge Street brewery was Bill Urquhart. Bill tried to reason with the remote London Watney board, pointing out the folly of their plans to end all real ale brewing, pointing out that Phipps Brewery was profitable and its products popular in the area unlike Watney’s Red Barrel.

The initial turning point in Bill’s conversion to rebel from loyal company man came when Watneys announced in 1968 that they would finally end all draught Phipps, axing the region’s favourite pint beloved by the shoe workers in particular for its hoppy flavor, Phipps IPA.

The landlords gathered at the brewery and demanded a public meeting with the board, handing in a petition urging them not to end traditional cask ale in their pub chain. Voices were raised, tempers flared but Watneys were unmoved.

Next Watneys sent teams of engineers out to all their pubs in the region to forcibly remove all the traditional ale hand pumps so no landlord could buy or serve real ale through the back door. This being the age of tied estates with little autonomy of action in each pub.

The old Phipps brewery with Carlsberg taking shape in the background

Two years later it was announced that the sprawling and beautiful Phipps brewery would be closed, demolished and the site handed over the Danish lager brewer Carlsberg who would re build it as a giant concrete lager factory.

Bill made one last attempt to persuade his bosses that the company should still retain some semblance of traditional brewing, that even if the large Phipps brewery had to close, a new, smaller, efficient brewery could be built to serve the evident market for cask draught beer.

From that moment he became a trouble maker in Watney’s eyes and unlike other management and brewing staff, he would not be offered employment anywhere within their extensive empire after the demolition of Phipps.

Bill was a pugnacious and resourceful man who believed in what he did and knew his ideas were right even though he appeared to be out of step with the times. With the tacit backing of many of his soon to be ex colleagues and much of the local Phipps work force; he resolved to strike out on his own and bloody well build the small brewery he had designed to show Watneys and the world they were wrong and he was right.

No new ale brewery had been built in Britain for 100 years; there was no industry to support what would come to be known as Microbrewing. Bill began working out methods and procedures to brew beer on a small scale with ingredients he could cajole the large brewing supply industry to make available to him in appropriate but unheard of small quantities.

Bill also began to “liberate” pieces of equipment from the soon to close Phipps brewery. The workforce colluded with him in this endeavor; his plans were an open secret among the men but hidden from higher management.

The county’s great showcase of artisan drinks Northampton Beer Festival, will take place in Beckets Park on June 1-3.
Visitors will not only get the chance to sample the area’s fine craft ales but also gins, ciders and wines. Watch nenequirer.com for updates as the festival approaches.

Bill lived in the quaint Northamptonshire village of Litchborough and his stone house had an old barn in the back. Luckily his next door neighbour was a young engineer recently moved back from Australia, Frank Kenna.

Bill and Frank Kenna

Bill enlisted Frank to help him built this new fangled micro brewery using old Phipps kit and some improvised items from old washing machines and caravan gas burners. It presented a Heath Robinson face to the world but eventually worked well, although not before Bill blew the roof off the barn at one point!

In late 1974, a month or so after Phipps brewery was torn down to make way for the lorry park of the new Carlsberg plant, Bill began brewing a beer called Northamptonshire Bitter, closely related to Phipps IPA of course. Bill named his mini brewery as he initially called it, “Litchborough Brewery”, the world’s first microbrewery!

Today there are tens of thousands around the world with over a 1500 in the UK alone. The fledgling Campaign For Real Ale, CAMRA, embraced Litchborough from the start. The local branch who had suffered more than most under the hostile Watney regime, did all they could for Bill, sending word out that a local ale could be bought once more, getting in touch with landlords and facilitating back door sales under the noses of Watney reps.

From around the country young men and a few brave women came to Litchborough to learn the art of brewing from a time served master brewer and to get Bill’s advice on building their own microbreweries.

Bill’s business partner Frank Kenna says it was maddening working with Bill in the ’70’s because he was always driving off to help design and build new breweries or showing trainees how to operate them.

American film makers discover the Bill Urquhart story from Alaric Neville

A number of Americans also came over and did work experience with Bill, travelling back to the states to spread the word and taste for English Hoppy IPA. A Hollywood film crew recently visited Phipps and Frank Kenna to film a section of Bill’s life and work, for their film “Pioneers of the Craft Brewing Revolution”. In Britain, Bill’s story is only known to a few select brewing historians, a great shame for a man could reasonably claim to have changed the world in his chosen art or craft.

In the 1980s Bill sold up at Litchborough but was immediately hired by the British government to build a microbrewery on St Helena in the wake of the Falklands war. He travelled to the South Atlantic and managed the task before finally retiring quietly to Edingburgh, living without fuss or fame until he died in 2006. If you seek his monument, look around you at any bar in any good pub in the country and thank the small, quiet man who turned into a rebel and changed the way we think about beer and brewing for the better.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.


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