Although there is no large local brewer today, Northamptonshire has a long history of brewing. You can see physical remains of the industry across the county. For example, in Oundle, the McKee’s Anchor Brewery building still stands today.
In medieval England, weak ale was the staple drink because it was safer to drink than water. It was brewed domestically – in the home, or in country estates and institutions for their own use. Home brewing continued for centuries.
Later, brew pubs, or ‘brewing victuallers’ who sold out of pubs, emerged and co-existed alongside home brewing. However, both domestic and pub brewing began to decline at the end of the 19th century as larger ‘common brewers’ replaced them. Common brewers sold to pubs and often owned ‘tied estates’ of pubs who only sold their beer.
Improved water supplies reduced the need for beer and public tastes moved from dark, cloudy ales to lighter, clearer ones. These were made using new methods of brewing, requiring too much investment for smaller brewers. Furthermore, the development of canals and railways made it cheaper and easier to transport ales, bringing increased competition. Publican brewers could not keep up. Brew pubs produced 40% of beer in the 1830s, but only 10% by 1890.
In Northamptonshire, many common brewers opened their doors in this period. For example, Dulley’s Swan Brewery was built in Wellingborough in 1802 and Manning’s Castle Brewery in Northampton opened in 1878.
However, their number shrank as larger breweries took over smaller ones. In 1906, there were 24 common breweries in Northamptonshire, but only eight in 1940 and five in 1960.
The last one was the Phipps Northampton Brewing Company (NBC). Both Phipps and NBC started as independent breweries in the 1800s, but expanded and bought up smaller businesses. When they merged in 1957, they became the largest brewer in the Midlands and one of the largest companies in Northamptonshire. They were later acquired by Watney Mann and replaced by a Carlsberg plant in 1974.
However, in the late 2000s, Phipps NBC was revived. It now brews in the restored Albion Brewery (an independent brewery opened by Ratliffe and Jeffrey in 1864, but taken over by Phipps in 1899). The real ale and craft ale movements have also led to the appearance of several other microbreweries in Northamptonshire.