Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Brewery Life

Despite all my obsessing on the subject, my professional contact with brewing has been achingly brief. Just a few weeks between school and university, back in 1975.

I'd been looking forward to a summer on the dole and was a bit miffed when the Labour Exchange found me a job. Bastards. On the plus side, it was in a brewery and the money wasn't bad. On the minus side, it was shift work and it brewed no cask beer.

There's a particular smell that all breweries have. A mixture of fermentation and disinfectant. As soon as I catch a whiff, I'm transported back to James Hole's 1975. it permeated the whole brewery. Even the kegging line, where I worked.

My work was relatively simple, but physically demanding. Put six kegs in the rack and set the washer going. While that went through its cycle, I'd fill another six kegs and roll them over to a corner of the bay or straight onto a lorry. By the time I'd filled the kegs, it was time to take the six others off the washer and start the whole process again. Not exactly varied.

I'd been taken on because of increased sales due to hot weather. Not something you always get in England. That had affected what was going into the kegs, too. More lager than usual. Most of what I filled was lager, AK and, to a lesser extent, Mild. There was also the odd keg of IPA. It was a former Warwick's beer and at that time was sold in just one Newark pub, The Vine. I can clearly remember that the IPA sticker was blue - just like the bottle label had been for decades before.

We had two 15 minute "tea" breaks and half an hour for dinner. These were spent in a dank and dingy cellar, with a couple of kegs standing in the corner. I put tea in inverted commas because no-one drank tea during breaks. The kegs were full and you could help yourself to as much beer as you wanted. The regular staff could easily knock back 5 pints in 15 minutes. My intake was far more modest. Firstly, I couldn't physically drink that fast. Secondly, because I wasn't that keen on the beer. Typical. Get a job in a brewery and it's one whose beer you dislike.

I'm sure no brewery still allows its workers to slurp down as much as they like during the working day. We were working pretty heavy machinery and lugging weighty full kegs around. It can't have been very safe if you were half (or three-quarters) cut. Though I have noticed that hard, manual labour soon wears of the effect of alcohol.

I never got to see most of the brewery. The mash tuns, coppers and fermenters. All the interesting bits. I did once go up into the malt loft. Shafts of sunlight from the tiny windows illuminated the thick dust and the air was filled with the sweet, comforting smell of malt.

It was just as well that I'd been issued with a pair of industrial steel toe capped wellies. A couple of times I dropped a full keg on my feet. I'd have had a full set of matching broken toes, if not for those wellies. And there was water all over the place. I remember the floors being permanently wet everywhere I went in the brewery. From my viewpoint, it seemed to exist exclusively of gloomy, damp spaces. Except where we worked which, being next to the loading bay, was open to the outside on one side.

Though it never brewed anything decent after I started drinking, it was still nice to have Hole's in Newark. It spread the delectable smell of mashing across the town every day. Every day until 1982, when it was closed by Courage. And that was it. The end of Newark's brewing industry. Today the town has no brewery of any kind. I'm glad that, in some small way, I got to participate in the trade that had once made Newark famous. Before just its memory remained.


Tandleman said...

Nice post. Well written and evocative.

Alan said...

I remember the story making the news when Moosehead in Nova Scotia turned off the workers' tap in the 1980s.

Boak said...

I really enjoyed this post. Liking the tea break idea.

Boak said...

I really enjoyed this post. Liking the tea break idea.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. I do love the smell of breweries-- at least from the outside. I wish beer labels still looked like the Cavalier IPA.

Ron Pattinson said...

impymalting, a wonderfully minimal label, isn't it?