Brewing is an ancient occupation. Our Neolithic ancestors were brewers, and brewing continued during the Iron Age and into the Roman period.
In medieval times brewing was a domestic chore, generally carried out by women (brewsters), who might sell some of their surplus ale commercially. The industrial scale breweries as we know them today, like the former Shipstone’s Star Brewery in Nottingham, originated in the late 1500s; ‘great bere-houses’ were spotted in London in 1603.
However, it was not until Georgian times that brewing was transformed into an industry. Its buildings, often ornate Victorian piles, could be found in every English town and city. Traditionally, every brewery was known for its range of beers with differing strengths and flavours, all made from local ingredients using the brewery’s own yeast, so there was a direct link with the surrounding countryside.
But the 20th century was not always kind to brewery buildings. The rationalisation of brewing companies and consequent demolition left a diminishing number surviving from the late Victorian boom years.
Beer and architecture are intimately connected via brewing and breweries. Here we celebrate some of the more distinctive buildings that were built to brew, most of which still survive today.
Hook Norton in Oxfordshire must be a candidate for the perfect English country brewery. It was built in 1898–1900 to the designs of William Bradford (1844–1919), the leading brewers’ architect of the late 19th century.
He built or altered well over 70 breweries and maltings throughout England and Wales, leaving his mark on many major town and cities. Of course, there were other architects in this specialist field, but Bradford’s breweries are the most distinctive and ornamental.
2. Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery, London
Just look at the chimneys at London’s Horse Shoe Brewery which once stood on Tottenham Court Road, signs of a power-hungry process with several boilers providing steam for the engines. This was the site of a disastrous beer flood in 1814, when over a million pints of liquid crashed through the brewery’s back wall flooding nearby streets and cellars and killing eight people.
In spite of this terrible accident, the brewery continued to produce beer until 1921 but was demolished the following year, when the Daily Telegraph described the dirty brick building as ‘frankly hideous’.
3. Black Lion Brewery, Brighton
The Black Lion Brewery in Brighton is said to date from the mid 16th century, although the buildings we see in this late 1960s view are probably early 18th century. Door openings on first and second floors allowed brewing materials to be hoisted up and into the brewery.
It was once owned by Flemish refugee Deryk Carver who was burnt at the stake in Lewes in 1555 for refusing to recant his Protestantism. He was put in a barrel before his execution in order to mock the brewing profession. The Black Lion was rebuilt as a facsimile in 1974, but the cellars beneath, which may be 16th century, still exist.
4. Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, Somerset
The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, was the first British brewery to incorporate the word ‘Bavarian’ into its name as a sales ploy. It used an unusual German-style brewing process, but produced only English ales.
Founded in 1870, it moved into this splendid building a year later and was the first brewery in Somerset to be lit by electricity, in 1889. Since the Second World War this Grade II* listed brewery has been used as a warehouse and it is currently on the Heritage at Risk Register.
5. Greene King’s Westgate Brewery, Bury St Edmunds
Greene King’s Westgate Brewery in Bury St Edmunds is a rare example of an inter-war brewhouse. Built between 1936 and 1939, the £80,000 neo-Georgian building was designed by the company’s head brewer, Colonel B E Oliver and consultant engineer Mark Jennings. Between 1914 and 1939 the number of larger brewers had declined dramatically and most brewery construction was restricted to modernising existing sites, such as that at Westgate.
6. Bentley’s Old Brewery, Rotherham
Bentley’s Old Brewery in Rotherham with its splendid tower, brewed beer until it was taken over in 1956. Sadly demolition followed in 1965 and only two street names, The Maltings and Maltkiln Street, remain to remind us of the brewery and its extensive maltings nearby.
7. Portslade Brewery, Brighton
The middle of the 19th century was a crucial period for the development of brewery architecture. With the introduction of steam power around the start of the 19th century came the professional brewery engineers who rapidly rose to dominate the field of brewery design and construction.
One such practice was Scammell and Colyer who designed the Portslade Brewery in Brighton for Dudney & Sons in 1881. The most distinctive feature is its tall, detached, decorative chimney with a massive base sporting the company logo entwined with barley stalks and bunches of hops.
8. Anchor Brewery, London
Although large-scale brewing has gradually disappeared from many urban centres, fortunately many of its buildings have survived. Since the 1960s, conversion to other uses has become common-place rather than demolition. One such example is Courage’s Anchor Brewery on the Thames, which was partly rebuilt in 1895 to designs by Inskipp & Mackenzie following a fire.
After closure in 1981 its conversion to luxury flats in 1990 was part of a masterplan for the area, which is next to Tower Bridge and overlooking the Tower of London, devised by architects Pollard Thomas Edwards.
9. Royal William Yard Brewhouse, Plymouth
The monumental Royal William Yard at Stonehouse in Plymouth, built between 1825 and 1833 and designed by John Rennie junior, is a unique example of early 19th century industrial state planning on a vast scale. This huge food-processing centre for the Royal Navy included a massive stone-built brewhouse which was completed in 1831. However in the same year the Admiralty discontinued the beer ration, so it was never actually used as a brewhouse.
It remained empty until 1885 when the west wing was used as a repair workshop and a rum store. It finally closed in 1992 and was then restored at a cost of £9 million between 2005 and 2006 by Urban Splash. The award-winning conversion of this Grade I listed building includes apartments and mixed commercial uses.
- Read more about beer and breweries in Built to Brew: The history and heritage of the brewery, written by architectural historian Lynn Pearson and published by Historic England in 2014.
- Find out about other titles published by Historic England.
- 11 Listed Pubs with Fascinating Histories