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Ten years since Phipps NBC brewery came back to life

Alaric Neville tells the story of how a Northamptonshire brewing tradition was restored and revived along with some much loved beers…

Ten years ago on December 7th 2008, The Mayor of Northampton pulled the first pint of Phipps IPA to be seen in any pub for 40 years, fittingly the venue was the Sir Pickering Phipps!

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Phipps famously lost its independence in 1960 when London keg beer giants Watney Mann took over the company.

Many local voices were raised in anger when Watneys announced the end of Phipps cask ale in May 1968 with the IPA particularly lamented.

For a few more years it was available in pint bottles but by late 1972 even they were consigned to history, or so Watneys thought.

The story of the beer goes back to the 1860s and chairman Pickering Phipps’ attempts to beat the upstart Northampton Brewery Company at their own game.

NBC were the new boys in town, founded by the Phillips Brothers from Burton on Trent in 1864.

They arrived with the know-how to produce pale ales which immediately made Phipps’s dark heavy brews look like ancient history.

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In response Pickering rebuilt his brewery and modernised the Phipps beer range under head brewer Tim Mannings.

Topping off the new range was Phipps IPA, a sweet amber beer with a generous combination of Fuggles and Golding, Dixons enzymic malts and some Californian maize for good measure.

It was strong, expensive and relatively limited in its appeal in an age when Milds and Stouts were the main drink of choice.

All that was to change in WW1, when Chancellor Lloyd George announced;

“Drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together. Fighting Germany, Austria and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these three deadly foes is Drink.”

The government ramped up taxes on alcohol in an attempt to dissuade the unruly working classes from drinking heavily, hindering the war effort through absenteeism and worst, providing drunken mobs who might spark a Bolshevik revolution. Phipps reduced their IPA to 4.3% making it a session strength beer for the first time.

The county’s boot and shoe workers soon took this new brew to their hearts as it offered a tastier pint that cut through the tannin rich taste of leather after a hard day’s work. From this point on Phipps IPA became the county’s favourite beer and was sold as the company’s best bitter right through to the late ‘60s.

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The memory of Phipps IPA and the other popular brews like Stingo No 10 and Ratliffe’s Stout stayed clear in the minds of many long after Watneys killed the beers and demolished the Bridge Street brewery.

In subsequent years The Campaign for Real Ale altered the perception of traditional cask ale and following in the footsteps of former Phipps Head Brewer Bill Urquhart, the world’s first microbrewer, new craft breweries sprang up around the country to champion this complex and rewarding drink.

The Phipps NBC company continued to operate as a pub chain after the brewery closed and by the turn of the century was owned by Scottish & Newcastle.

Two of the Northampton directors, Quentin Neville and Edward Theakston, began working on a plan to bring back Phipps IPA to their pub chain.

This was a difficult task as Watneys had meant to destroy all the brewing records. Thankfully a few brewer’s books survived, pulled from skips and taken home as souvenirs.

It was even more fortunate that the revival project happened just in time to benefit from the wisdom and experience of a number of former Bridge Street brewers; Charles Robinson, Bob Hipwell, Peter Mauldon, Pat Heron and Phipps’ chief chemist Mike Henson all chipped in to add the vital human angle to the written records.

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In 2004, before a pint could be brewed, Scottish & Newcastle pulled the plug on the project and started selling off assets in a bid to stay afloat. Edward Theakston left Northampton to revive his own family brewery in North Yorkshire and Quentin along with brother Alaric took over the Phipps revival project. Under the controlling eye of Pat Heron, Grainstore Brewery was chosen to supply the beer.

Its head brewer Tony Davis had been a young brewer at Ruddles working under Dusty Miller, the former Phipps head brewer and Pat’s old boss so the chain of apprenticeship was unbroken.

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Phipps ales soon found favour in the county’s freehouses again and other brews followed; NBC’s Red Star, Phipps Diamond Ale and the legendary Ratliffe’s Stout.

By 2013 Grainstore’s capacity to supply the ales was strained with over half of their brewing going to Phipps.

Clearly Phipps needed to come home to its own dedicated brewery. Initially plans focused on converting Towcester Mill, taking Phipps back to the town of its birth in 1801.

However fate stepped in as the last historic brewery building left in Northampton became vacant.

The chance to move back into a genuine brewery which Phipps had owned and brewed in from 1899 to 1919 was too good to miss.

Funds were raised with the Phipps and Ratliffe family buying back into their hereditary business and on April Fool’s day 2014, the first pint of Northampton brewed IPA left the restored 1884 Albion Brewery.

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Since then more heritage brews have returned; Gold Star, Bison Brown and Stingo No 10 and Cobblers Ale. New brews have also appeared among them Beckets Honey Ale, Midsummer Meadow, Steam Roller, Black Star, Kinky Boots and now Snow Plough. Part of the brewery has been converted into a gin distillery reviving Phipps Gin which disappeared before WW2.

In late 2015 a brewery tap bar was added to the Albion. In partnership with CAMRA, Phipps also took over the running of the Northampton beer festival, growing the event in size and scope over the past 4 years.

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To celebrate 10 years of Phipps’ revival, Friday 7th December at the Albion Brewery Bar saw IPA at 2008 prices, a pre WW1 IPA served from direct from the wood and “Sunshine and Rain” IPA and Stingo blend available on the bar.

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