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Thursday, 18 September 2014

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Jennings: Beer with a distinctly Cumbrian flavour

Two years ago one of Cumbria’s most historic businesses was under water.

Jennings brewery photo
Brothers Michael and Patrick McHale sample some of the ales in the brewery bar

As floodwater gushed through the walls, engulfing the Castle Brewery, some feared it may be the end of Jennings’ production in Cockermouth.

But within three months of the November 2009 floods which devastated the town, locally-brewed ales were once again flowing from Jennings’ pumps.

The firm has since invested £375,000 in flood defences to prevent any repeat of the disaster and, two years on, the distinctive smell of fermenting beer which adds to the market town’s character continues to waft across Cockermouth most mornings.

For those visiting the town, a hand-pulled pint of Jennings has become a must-have.

And general manager Gaynor Green believes this is one of the reasons they are continuing to do well nationally.

“The brand has a lot of history and prevalence but I think a lot of our success is down to where we brew it, the Lake District,” she said.

“One of the first things people see when they visit is a Jennings’ beer pump. They then go home and see it in their local pub and it reminds them of their holiday, of all the good times they had in the Lakes.”

There has also been a recent revival for real ales nationally.

Younger drinkers are increasingly reaching for a pint of cask ale and Jennings continues to boost its appeal by launching guest beers to tie in with what’s relevant today, such as next year’s London Olympics.

But it is the brewery’s wealth of history that will always be the biggest pull for proud locals and visitors.

Founded in 1828 by John Jennings, son of maltster William Jennings, he initially produced beer for friends and family in his home village, nearby Lorton.

Popularity, however, soared and John had to look for bigger premises. He instinctively looked towards Cockermouth, which had the two ingredients he needed for success – a large population and abundance of pure water from its wells.

The Castle Brewery, named because it is situated next to the famous town landmark, was born.

By 1864 his three sons, Joseph, Isaac and John, were all playing their own parts in the business. He retired in 1881, dividing the business between them, which is when it became Jennings Brothers, how it was known for many years.

A Jennings Brothers logo can still be seen on the wall near the Gote Bridge, clearly visible to anyone driving into the town.

In the late 1880s, as a way of generating extra funds and following an example set by Guinness, the three brothers decided to sell off shares and form a limited company. However they always retained enough to keep control of the board.

For over a century the business and brand thrived, developing a strong collection of beers to be sold both locally and outside the county.

Then, in 2005, controversy hit. West Midlands brewer Wolverhampton and Dudley (W&DB) mounted a takeover bid.

Although no longer run by the Jennings family, locals felt their traditions were under threat and mounted a campaign to stop it.

Despite opposition, the acquisition went through as planned. There were fears W&DB – now Marston’s – would close the Castle Brewery and move production elsewhere.

Those fears proved unfounded and four years later, when the floods hit, the company proved its commitment to Cockermouth once and for all.

“We had the River Derwent coming through one door, the River Cocker through the other and water from both coming through the walls,” says Jane Fairey, one of the brewery’s tour guides.

“It was mayhem. There were beer barrels floating down the streets, but we are very grateful to Marston’s for their backing and for getting us up and running so quickly. We were brewing in Cockermouth again within three months.

“We may have been a casualty of the floods if it hadn’t been for them.”

Although the brewing process has moved on since John Jennings’ day, not least with the arrival of computerised equipment, tradition is still its strong point.

Jane says there are many things that haven’t changed because they work as well today as they did 100 years ago. When a big national firm came in, it was feared these little things – the things that give Jennings its identity – could be lost. But instead Marston’s lets the brewery play to its strengths. “They have not changed the way we do things. They like local breweries.”

Gaynor adds: “At the time when the takeover happened we were all quite sceptical, but Marston’s have been very good. The first thing they did was invest in the brewery here – that sent out the message that we are here to stay.

“Now they leave us to run our brewery and brew our beers, they don’t interfere. We are still Jennings but we have got the biggest cask ale brewer behind us, supporting us. We get the best of both worlds.”

For anyone who goes on the brewery tour, they will see the fusion between modern practices and traditional roots firsthand.

Old fashioned boiling coppers have been replaced with shiny stainless steel and hessian hop bags with vacuum packed boxes. But other details, such as the way they measure out the malt by hand and use simple chalk boards rather than computerised charts, add a scoop of romance to the brewing process.

Other features, such as the old maltings tower which can be seen from across the town, serve as further reminders of the brewery’s importance to the community.

And, although its beers are now available in pubs and supermarkets nationally, it is this local connection that Jennings works hard to retain by sponsoring traditional Cumbrian events, such as the World’s Biggest Liar contest, raising money for local causes and holding its annual family fun day in the town.

“A lot of our focus now is on supporting local events and being part of the community. Cockermouth has been through a lot, it still hasn’t fully recovered but things are getting better and we are really making an effort,” adds Gaynor.

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