Tuesday, 19 February 2008




One might be excused for believing that the story of brewing in Reigate is now complete. However, one could not be further from the truth.

With the revival of independent brewers over the last two decades, Reigate has not been left untouched. From small beginnings, The Pilgrim Brewery, a new brewery in West Street, Reigate, is struggling to meet a demand for good traditionally brewed beer not found in the area since the demise of Mellersh & Neale Ltd in 1938. The Pilgrim Brewery was born in Woldingham on January 8th 1982 and whilst it was conceived some three years earlier its origins can be traced to the cellars of pubs in South Wales. In order to provide an accurate history the Author approached the Proprietor, David Roberts, for information and some artwork for this book, and the following is the result of several interviews with him. The greater part is indeed his own words on the subject.

David Roberts, who started Pilgrim single handed, was a civil servant whose career took him from Cardiff to experience the fascination of power in Whitehall in the late 70’s when the then, Labour Government was reaching the end of its tenure in office. The looming election of 1979 concentrated David’s mind as he had by then come to the conclusion that he did not want to return to the land of his fathers. The Welsh Office was a “spending” department and throughout the time of the Labour Governments of the 70’s money was available to modernise and develop the Welsh infrastructure. However it had become clear that with a Conservative Government life would be considerably different and it was that realisation that caused David to turn his back on a stable yet interesting career and set off on his own.

His maternal grandparents ran pubs in Newport and Cardiff and it was the memory of lines of casks in dark cellars together with the bonhomie generated by their contents that gave David an abiding love of the retail side of brewing and his political mind found the industry structure intriguing. These thoughts were to direct him later in life when he became involved in S. I. B. A. (The Society of Small Independent Brewers). But more of that later.

So the decision had been made: to be self-employed, quite a common thought now but in those pre-Thatcher years that alone was unusual. Even more unusual was the decision to open the brewery that had taken almost two years of thought. As David said “All the business books told you was to do something that you were interested in and knew about. All I knew about was pubs, beer, and brewing. No good to anyone!”

The idea materialised when his father returned from Devon having bumped into the founder of the Blackawton Brewery. The moment the idea that a new brewery could be founded arrived, there was no stopping David. Again it was something that many people have now done but at the time there were only a tiny number of new breweries, hardly known about but starting a revolution that was to spread world wide. Another piece of luck occurred for just as David had made his mind up on a future life, a friend mentioned that some guy had just started a brew pub only a couple of miles away. The pub was in Lewisham and the guy was none other than David Bruce, some guy!

The initial conversation, David recalls went something like this:
Dave Roberts: “I want one of those but bigger!”
David Bruce: “Where is the pub you’re putting it in?”

The idea of a new free-trade pub was something that was unusual even for David Bruce and it took our David some ten years to work out why he had asked that particular question. So not only was a new brewery born, but a new company had to be formed to make it and the other breweries that sprang forth over the next few years.

But what to call the new business? Robert’s Brewery? The Poplar Brewery? Even the Surrey Brewery was contemplated, but when the first premises were found exactly half-way along the Pilgrim’s Way, the name became obvious. As with Pilgrims of old, David commenced on a long journey that continues today as he had just celebrated the brewery’s 19th birthday.

However, to return to the early days. The equipment, a David Bruce supplied twelve barrel Bruwell plant, was due to arrive at the end of 1981 but production delays and then heavy snow prevented the arrival, ironically in a village with no pub, until the first week of January. With furious activity to stave off the cold all was installed and the first grist was mashed in on the 8th.

The beer was brewed at a gravity of 1042 (42 being the answer) and was called Progress, strangely not after Pilgrim’s Progress as the reader may surmise, but after a locally grown hop. The hop was subsequently dropped but the name remained. Progress, a malty best bitter full of flavour and body with a refreshingly “clear” palate, became the first in a series of beers that were developed as David developed the art of brewing.

Surrey Bitter (gravity 1037-39), a pale ale with a light hoppy flavour, quickly arrived on the scene and then Talisman a strong winter ale, which heralded the move to a range of several seasonal ales. It should be remembered that in those early years the traditional breweries traded on the basis of two bitters with little difference between the two. Very often the standard bitter was simply a diluted version of the stronger brewed beer. The development of a winter beer together with beers that were brewed with individual malt, water and hop grists was in itself unusual but nevertheless good brewing practice. It was indicative of how low brewing quality had dropped in the U.K. years of the cosy non-competitive market caused by the tied estate system had had its toll on quality and variety.

Quality therefore was at the forefront of David’s mind as he went about trying to sell his beers and developing a complete product range. The early days were marked by problems of consistency as during the early 80’s brewing was being reinvented at the local level and there were no resources to draw upon. The concept of craft brewing had all but been lost. However these experiences developed in David the ability to create genuinely different beers as the brewing plant allowed great flexibility and being a batch system each part of the beer could be altered to suit that particular style.

By the early 90’ that range was complete. The regular beers Progress and Surrey were complimented by Talisman (5%) during the winter and Crusader (4.9%) during the summer. These beers were totally different despite the almost identical strengths and it seems extraordinary nowadays when golden bitters are two-a-penny that Crusader took over 2 years to become accepted. Autumnal, a fruity coppery coloured and more bitter than the usual Pilgrim beers, appeared and the quest for a beer for the spring was brought to mind. But what and how? Autumn was easy - the colours were all beer. But the spring? Yellow and green are the colours but in beer?

Whilst in Bavaria investigating wheat-beers, David chanced upon a pilsner which, in a slim and elegant glass, was golden yellow when viewed through the centre and a pale green around the edge of the glass. The idea was born; Spring Bock a very pale wheat-beer mimicking the colour of the pilsner but introducing a beer using wheat for the spring. David believed that one of the two strains his yeast culture consisted of could create the traditional wheat-beer flavours of banana and vanilla. And so it turned out: the first true wheat-beer brewed in the U.K. Fifty percent malted barley, fifty percent malted wheat. David proved that the English malt and mashing system could brew a genuine wheat-beer. Unfortunately the high gas content could not be maintained in a cask so after the first year or two his mind went to a bottled product. He did not believe that the British customer would accept a cloudy beer so by cunning brewing he created a clear wheat-beer that had the flavour characteristics of a true wheat-beer. The market was really not ready for this beer and he had to wait until winning the 2000 wheat-beer championship to really launch the beer. Time had passed and the public had become used to drinking cloudy beer so by that competition the beer had reverted to a Hefeweizen style but still retained the greater lightness of style and colour originally dreamt of. By now a true wheat-beer yeast was used and aromatic hops used to increase the “nose” of the beer. A classic had been brewed and as this is being written sales are growing substantially through the sponsor of the Wheat-beer Championship, Safeway supermarket. All the effort to create the beer should pay off this year, 2001. As Springbock became a bottled and ultimately keg beer alone the spring was missing an ale, Excalibur was born the compliment to the autumn’s 4.5% bitter. Again showing the flexibility of the brewing system this was in all ways a bigger beer than Autumnal: a macho best bitter living up to its name.

The experience of brewing with wheat led David to brew the Great Crusader. At 6.5% in midsummer not exactly a session beer! It was again brewed with a high percentage of wheat, 25% but proved to be a very delicate beer but the British insistence on drinking in pints limited the appeal so it is brewed only occasionally. To balance the seasonal ales David introduced the magnificent “Pudding” claimed by one leading beer writer as the best seasonal ale he had ever drunk. Bottled, this is a beer worth lying down with! 7.3% on draught, 6.8% in bottle.

The final beer in the portfolio is the magnificent Saracen Stout. Brewed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the brewery this is only available in the winter and is claimed by some to be the best draught stout in the country. Only brewed once or twice a year this beer has never gained the recognition due.

With David’s experimentation and development of this superb range of brews, he quickly found, early on in his venture, that the Woldingham premises were insufficient to absorb this kind of expansion. Therefore, in 1985, the decision was made to move to the present site in West Street, Reigate, where he installed a purpose-built ten barrel plant and later a laboratory and administration block. He recommenced brewing in May of that year. It must be added that David had also become the Small Brewers Association chairman, and remained so until the name changed to the Society of Independent Brewers. During his tenure he developed a professional image for the body, which included the name change and promotion of the acronym SIBA.

As we draw our short history of Pilgrim to a close it is worth mentioning The Rising Sun, Epsom, the first Pilgrim pub. Run by David’s wife Ruth, this Epsom pub is really worth seeking out for it must have the finest selection of beers in the country. In addition to the range of Pilgrim ales we find the beers imported from Bavaria, Reigele and Surtaler lagers, O’Hanlons draught stout and the best part of 40 different beers from all over the world.

This then, brings the tale round full-circle, for of all the beers dealt with in this book, the author believes that one brew, Talisman, is the most poigniant, because the oyster-shaped talismen were tokens or charms which the pilgrims carried with them for good luck. The author cannot think of a more appropriate subject to conclude with, representing, as it were, a “Talisman” for the future of the Brewing industry in Reigate. David’s dedication to quality remains and whilst the future for small breweries looks as cloudy as his Springbock we wish him and his wife: Good Ale and Good Luck.

Postscript: -

The above notes were written in 2001, but since then, circumstances have changed with regard the Rising Sun. David Roberts, (who is in the throes of redesigning his website which can be accessed on: http://www.pilgrim.co.uk/ gives an account of the demise of choice at the pub and the circumstanced behind it which forced David and Ruth to leave.

In his own words, I relate the story here:

The Rising Sun or “Riser” as it was affectionately known is no longer run by Dave and Ruth Roberts of the Pilgrim Brewery.

On May 30th 2006 the pub was bought by Young’s pub company:The very next day Dave was told that his freedom to buy beers “free of tie” was being rescinded with immediate effect.

Despite a vigorous customer-driven campaign, (see www.savetheriser.org) which garnered 1000 signatures in the first week alone, protests outside the (now defunct) Young’s brewery, presentations to the Directors and widespread press coverage Dave and Ruth were left with no option but to leave on August 14 2006. An era of choice and variety had ended.

The pub subsequently re-opened and is now run as a tenancy tied to Young’s.

Despite requests made by the customers no products were retained and as the PR representative of Young’s was quoted in the local paper.

“If people don't like it, they can drink somewhere else.”

Sadly the marvellous community that was the “Riser” is, as a result of this corporate vandalism, no more. The community was destroyed by people who risked shareholders’ money, not their own, and we can only watch with interest what the outcome of their actions will be.

For Dave and Ruth it was a privilege to have been, for seven years, the custodians of a pub which first opened its doors almost 200 years ago: a time when the licensee could choose what beers he and his customers wanted.

For a short period the pub returned to those days of freedom of choice.