The origins of Webster’s ‘floral’ Pennine Bitter

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Savile Royd

Halifax

I write in response to Mr Roger Denton who was seeking information on Webster’s Bitter of the 1960s and 1970s (“What were these floral-tasting hops”, Your Say, March 6) and provide some background information which may be of use to him.

The year 1937 saw the appointment of a young assistant brewing chemist at Webster’s Brewery, called William J Baker. He had worked at the Medway Brewery of Style and Winch Ltd of Maidstone, Kent (by then owned by Barclay Perkins) from leaving school and had worked up to assistant chemist, occupying that position for a couple of years before joining Webster’s Brewery.

In his new post he came as assistant to Mr Francis White Bodger, the head brewer, who had himself worked at the brewery since 1910 and had succeeded to that role upon his father’s retirement in 1923.

I was fortunate enough to interview Mr Baker shortly after his retirement and he provided me with much useful information for inclusion in a history of the company which was commissioned in 1988. During the early sixties there had been a steady trend away from the established mild ales towards the consumption of bitter beers, though because of the overwhelming success of its light coloured best mild in its local trading area, and especially Halifax, Webster had never needed to produce a bitter beer. However, in markets further afield, where it did compete more vigorously with brewers possessing an established bitter brand, the company began to feel itself at a disadvantage, and in April 1963 introduced Pennine Bitter: a high quality bitter slightly stronger than most of its rivals.

In contrast to the introduction of a new beer today, where market research is undertaken to first obtain a ‘profile’ of the beer required from the brewer, the development of new beers in small and regional breweries rested largely upon the knowledge and expertise of the head brewer himself. Mr Baker had by this time succeeded to the role of head brewer and he explained to me the strategy behind the introduction of Pennine Bitter.

The new beer proved popular, especially in established bitter drinking areas, though it was not until the 1970s that it became generally available in the ‘Best’ drinking stronghold of Halifax. Mr Baker told me when the beer was first exhibited at a brewery industry exhibition, one of his colleagues in the industry had remarked that he had known as soon as he tasted it who was the brewer, since it had all the characteristics of a typical Kent bitter.

Although this does not specifically answer Mr Denton’s enquiry. I think that it might at least be inferred that the type of hops used in the brew was a variety of Kent Goldings. Unfortunately when the beer was subsequently reformulated and rebranded as ‘Yorkshire Bitter’ all that lovely floral character, which I too greatly enjoyed, was altogether lost. A copy of Not Disheartened by Difficulty, a History of the Fountain Head Brewery is held by the Reference Department of Halifax Central Library.

Peter W Robinson