The Grounded History of Brakspear Gravity

It was May 2019 that it got its new name as Brakspear Gravity, as a nod to the brewing technique used to make this fine ale. It took a long time to decide on this name as we wanted to make sure we chose a name that would be around for many, many years to come, so that’s a lot of pressure. Read on to find out just how much history this traditional cask ale has, thanks to our good friend Roger Clayson for sharing this story with us so we thought we’d share with you:

Brakspear Gravity, Brakspear Ordinary, Brakspear PA, and Brakspear Bitter are all names that Gravity was called at various times in the recent past and referred to by the famous beer writer, Michael Jackson as Ordinary, even when he was describing it as the best beer in England. He was tasting it in the Sample Cellar at Henley but the compliment was meant.

John Mortimer, our famous local author, QC and playwright, talked about draught Brakspear, but again, he described it as undoubtedly the best bitter in England.

Many of us today who drink Brakspear Gravity (and have been drinking the various alliterations of the name for the past, who knows, how many years), think it is one of the finest beers one can drink. It has however, over time, gone through many changes in materials, brewing methods and this rich history has resulted in one of the true classics of British brewing.

In 1777 when Robert Brakspear bought a pub in Witney, The Cross Keys, and began brewing, beer would have been brewed at inordinate strengths, say 7% from the first run right down to 2% for the small beer which was produced either on the second, third or even fourth run offs from the mash.

Even in 1812 when the brewery moved to its Thames side location in New Street, Brakspear’s would have been brewed at a hearty 5% ABV, which was the common alcoholic content for the day in most of England and many parts of Europe.

The history of our favourite beer starts properly when the New Street Brewery had a brand new tun room (fermenting
room) installed in 1903. A modern double dropping system was installed. The most important job in a brewery is the fermentation and there are two major components of ale fermenting controlling the yeast temperature, and batch viability, ensuring a good clean wort at the end of the process. This means the trub created after the first 24 hours of vigorous fermentation has to be removed.

In the Victorian era there were four main systems for controlling yeast viability and skimming. The Union System, the Stone Square and the South Skimming System
and in the East of England the Dropping System was predominant.

All yeast in the Victorian and Edwardian eras always needed cleansing, taking place around 24 hours after the yeast was pitched on the newly created wort. The first lively fermentation creates a trub on the top of the wort, when live and dead yeast cells vigorously feed on the sugars in the wort converting it to alcohol. Vacuum pumps, which do the job today, did not exist. Medieval (and latterly Victorian and Edwardian brewers) thought of many a way of skimming the yeast. One method allowed for the wort to be dropped to the vessel below the trub and leave the active yeast in the wort.

The Brakspear yeast can be traced to that of Mann, Crossman and Paulin who brewed in London. It needed invigorating after the first hectic 24 hours of the brew and therefore the dropping would have aerated the wort, allowing the slightly oxygenated yeast to form on the surface of the wort, gently macerating it for the next 6 days.

Of the Brakspear’s brewers I contacted to gain as much information as I could about the our Bitter, one told me that its only one drop, it’s nonsense about the double drop and where this came from nobody knows.

However, I would make the point that since 1903 the yeast has been constant and the drop has also been constant. The only time the fermentation missed this dropping and aerating technique was when it was brewed by Peter Ward in Burtonwood after the closure in 2003 of the brewery and the start of brewing in Witney in 2006. The continuous use of using the dropping system, and the square fermenter since 1903 until today must be a key part of why Gravity has much flavour for a 3.4% ABV beer.

The drop system is not unique to Brakspear and was the one used by Morrells in Oxford Youngs, Fullers and even Whitbread in the past, and today is in use at Flack Manor.

The next influence on Brakspear Gravity amazingly would have been a politician, Lloyd George. There was not sufficient barley in the country for brewing purposes during the First World War.
Lloyd George was keen on keeping the workforce sober and ensured that the twin aims of sobriety and sufficient quantities of beer was available, and legislated that beer had to be brewed
below 4%. The higher the alcohol content, the more malt is needed because you need to produce the sugars for the yeast to work on to produce the alcohol.

The big challenge for the British brewer was producing tasteful and fullflavoured beer under 4% with limited supplies of malt. They rose to the challenge and we have with Brakspear Bitter at 3.4% alongside Youngs Bitter, Adnams Southwold, and Marstons.

Not all brewers managed to create beers with a low ABV, flavour, hoppiness, sweetness. Many turned out one dimensional and thin. Brewers allowed the beer to ferment right down converting nearly all the sugars in the wort to alcohol, therefore they could use less malt and create more beer. These brews have not survived, as Brakspear has.

With the turbulence between the two World Wars and shortages experienced after the Second World War, one suspects that Brakspear Bitter was somewhat variable. Traditional hops
grown in Kent were affected by wilt and lack of labour to pick them. Barley for malting would have been variable.

The problems would have been alleviated by the fact that Brakspear had their own maltings until 1972. From then on, they would have been buying malt from Maltsters. They settled on a mixture of pale ale and crystal malt which remains in use today in Witney.

Moving back again to Fuggles and Goldings hops produced in Kent on wilt free vines: when Michael Parsons, became brewer in the 1980’s (coming from Whitbread) they began a rolling programme of investment in the brewery until it closed in 2002. He recruited Peter Scholey to the brewing team during these years and one suspects the 3.4% masterpiece of a beer was refined.

2002 saw the brewery close, when production move to Burtonwood which never had a great reputation for cask beer. The last ever-changing brick was put in the wall of Brakspear Bitter. Beer enthusiast, Rupert Thompson, who was the youngest ever Marketing Manager for Carling lager, came on the scene Headhunted by Morland, he progressed and developed Old Speckled Hen at
Morland. When Greene King brought Morland he moved on, set himself up as Refresh Drinks, and in the end bought the Wychwood Brewery, not too faraway from the famous Cross Keys where it all began in 1777.

Rupert persuaded the Board at Brakspear Pub Company to franchise Brakspear to him. He took the dropping system at New Street up to Wychwood, along with Peter Scholey (the last Head
Brewer at New Street) to do his first critical brews of Brakspear Bitter. After a few years of stability, change was on the horizon.

Refresh was later brought by Marstons, and enter Richard Westwood, a titan of Cask Ale Production. He babysat our beer. Then last year Marstons merged the brewery with Carlsberg. Fortunately, from Rupert to Richard Westwood, the Brakspear quality was retained, and a pupil of Richard’s, Emma Gilleland, is now in charge or production at Carlsberg Marstons Brewing
Company, safeguarding the Brakspear brand.

From Mr EJ Fryer, the Head Brewer who persuaded the Brakspear Board to invest in the new tun room in 1903 to Lloyd George and the steadying hand of Mike Parsons, though to Rupert Thompson and Peter Scholey, Richard Westwood and Emma Gilleland, we are able to enjoy a pint something unique – a flavoursome, sweet, hoppy beer with enjoyable alcoholic strength.

Roger (on the right) deep in conversation with a pint of Gravity.