Built to Brew: 9 Historic Breweries in England

Our Neolithic ancestors were brewers, and brewing continued during the Iron Age and into the Roman period.

Beer and architecture are intimately connected via brewing and breweries. Here, we celebrate some of the more distinctive buildings built to brew, most of which still survive today.

A brief history of brewing in England

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 we know 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 its 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.

1. Hook Norton Brewery, Banbury, Oxfordshire

Hook Norton in Oxfordshire must be a candidate for the perfect English country brewery.

The brewhouse was built between 1898 and 1900 to the designs of William Bradford, the leading brewers’ architect of the late 19th century.

A photograph of a massive ornate 5-storey brewery.
The Grade II listed Hook Norton Brewery in Banbury, Oxfordshire. © Lynn Pearson.

He built or altered over 70 breweries and maltings throughout England and Wales, leaving his mark on many major towns and cities.

Of course, other architects were in this specialist field, but Bradford’s breweries are the most distinctive and ornamental.

Hook Norton Brewery is open to visit.

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.

Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road, London, in 1906. Source: Historic England Archive. View image BL19305,

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.

Despite 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. The Black Lion Brewery, Brighton, East Sussex

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.

A black and white photograph of a 2-storey brewehouse.
The Black Lion Brewery in Brighton, East Sussex, in the 1960s.

Door openings on the 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 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.

The Black Lion is open to visit.

4. The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, Shepton Mallet, 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.

A black and white photograph of a massive 4-storey brewery.
The Grade II* listed Anglo-Bavarian Brewery in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, between 1880 and 1920. Source: Historic England Archive. View image OP05545.

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, the brewery has been used as a warehouse.

5. Greene King’s Westgate Brewery, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Greene King’s Westgate Brewery in Bury St Edmunds is a rare example of an inter-war brewhouse.

Greene King’s Westgate Brewery in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. © Lynn Pearson.

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.

The Greene King Brewery is open to visit with booked tours.

6. Bentley’s Old Brewery, Rotherham, South Yorkshire

Bentley’s Old Brewery in Rotherham brewed beer with its splendid tower until it was taken over in 1956.

A sepia photograph of a massive brewery.
A postcard view of Bentley’s Old Brewery in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

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, East Sussex

The middle of the 19th century was a crucial period for developing brewery architecture.

With the introduction of steam power around the start of the 19th century came professional brewery engineers who rapidly rose to dominate the brewery design and construction field.

A photograph of a 5-storey brick former brewery.
The Portslade Brewery in Brighton, East Sussex.

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. The Anchor Brewery, London

Although large-scale brewing has gradually disappeared from many urban centres, fortunately, many of its buildings have survived.

A photograph of a massive former brewhouse on a river.
Courage’s Anchor Brewhouse on Shad Thames, seen from Tower Bridge. © Lynn Pearson.

Since the 1960s, conversion to other uses has become commonplace rather than demolition. One example is Courage’s Anchor Brewery on the Thames, partly rebuilt in 1895 to designs by Inskipp & Mackenzie following a fire.

After its closure in 1981, its conversion to luxury flats in 1990 was part of a masterplan for the area, next to Tower Bridge and overlooking the Tower of London, devised by architects Pollard Thomas Edwards.

9. Royal William Yard Brewhouse, Plymouth, Devon

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.

The Grade I listed brewhouse at the Royal William Yard in Plymouth, Devon, in 1994. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. View image BB94/09835.

This huge food-processing centre for the Royal Navy included a massive stone-built brewhouse completed in 1831. However, the Admiralty discontinued the beer ration in the same year, so it was never 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 restored for £9 million between 2005 and 2006 by Urban Splash.

The award-winning conversion of the building includes apartments and mixed commercial uses.

Further reading

8 comments on “Built to Brew: 9 Historic Breweries in England

  1. Hook Norton is my local

  2. Even if you are a teetotaller (or, perhaps, especially if you are a teetotaller!) you cannot fail to find this beautifully illustrated book absolutely riveting reading also. And not just the illustrations of the buildings. I was fascinated by the advert for the WR Loftus Ltd Revenue Saccharometer (p.31) to give just one example. Real social history.

  3. Excellent photos and good information. Thanks, Lynn, for your solid work! There are interesting parallels between British and American breweries, yet the English examples have their own flavor, and it’s very tasty, to say the least. I, too, recommend the book, enthusiastically.

  4. artandarchitecturemainly

    Not always kind? Ruthless, I would say 🙁
    Until I saw the Royal William Yard in Plymouth, I would have said my favourite was the Red Lion Brewery and shot tower, next to the Thames River.

    Thanks for a great link

  5. Beautiful buildings, thanks for sharing

  6. Memories of Harvey’s Brewery at Lewes. The wonderful smell on Tuesdays.

  7. dsimmering95

    Where is the old Grain Belt brewery in Minmesota???

    • Susan Appel

      The original Grain Belt is in Minneapolis, Minnesota – preserved beautifully, if converted for corporate use. The current Grain Belt operates out of the former August Schell brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. Details are on Google.

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