Buckley's Last Days

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BUCKLEY’S LAST DAYS A report of the final brew by Brian Glover

Buckley's Brewery Ltd

When venerable brewery chronicler Alfred Barnard visited Buckley's Brewery in Llanelli more than a century ago in 1890, he was not impressed by the tinplate town.

"Although containing a population of nearly 30,000 we found it a rather slow place, with little or nothing to interest us; and our only reason for staying a couple of days was to inspect Messrs Buckley's great brewery, which in striking contrast to its surroundings, we found full of animation and interest."

If his ghost returned today, he would find the old stone buildings deathly quiet.

Buckley's Brewery, taken over by Brain's of Cardiff early last year, mashed its final brew in December. It shut down earlier than planned to thwart a mounting campaign by CAMRA to stop the closure of Wales's oldest brewery.

It was already as quiet as the grave when a small party led by BHS secretary Michael Jones toured the ancient site just before it brewed its last. Where in the late 1960s some 230 people had worked, there were less than 30 left. It was being rapidly wound down, with most of the production already transferred to Cardiff.

Buckley's is reputed to date back to 1767 when founder Henry Child is said to have bought a small brewhouse. But there is no evidence of this. The first records of Child's involvement in the brewing trade occur two years later when he leased the Talbot's Head inn, before buying an old malt-house and then the Falcon pub, which still stands as offices on the corner of the brewery site.

Some of the present buildings date from 1799 when he leased the land and built a large commercial brewery. These were expanded during the nineteenth century to form the array of solid stone structures which impressed Alfred Barnard.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Buckley's Brewery was its close relationship with the anti-drink Methodist movement in its early years. Henry Child was a prominent Methodist, building Llanelli's first chapel, and the famous preacher John Wesley often stayed in his home.

When Child died in 1824, his son-in-law, the Rev James Buckley, inherited the business. This surprisingly close connection between the gospel and the glass was celebrated in 1991 when the brewery launched a premium ale called The Reverend James.

Another distinction is that Buckley's is the only Welsh brewery to gain royal approval. It was appointed brewer to the Prince of Wales in 1903 and then, when he ascended to the throne in 1910, became brewer by appointment to King George V.

During this period the company won a string of gold and silver medals for its beer at brewers' exhibitions in London and Paris. It was especially known for its Special Welsh Ale. The party of six BHS members met brewer Tony Crossman in Gilbert Road which was once a notorious thoroughfare with local motorists. It runs through the centre of the site and once barrels had to be rolled across the road, holding up the traffic, to reach the racking room.

As most members in the party - Michael Jones, Mick Jagger, Peter Barlow, Dave Cox, Norman Tandy and myself - had travelled a long distance, the traffic was again held up by a cask. Only this time it served pints of Buckley's Best Bitter in the reception room, along with a welcome buffet lunch.

Tony Crossman explained that the last brew was going through the following week, with the offices finally closing at the end of February. The fate of the five-acre site and buildings was unknown.

They had been producing Buckley's beers at Brain's Old Brewery in Cardiff for a number of months, and he said had achieved “an excellent match”. They had been ready to close down the Llanelli operation for a while, but had stayed open to help out with the Christmas rush. In fact, the pints we were enjoying had probably been brewed in Cardiff!

Buckley's yeast is being retained at Cardiff alongside Brain's own yeast, each having separate sets of fermenting vessels. Buckley's Dark, Best Bitter and Reverend James are being brewed with the same recipes, though whole hops are now used instead of pellets.

Until the late 1980s, Buckley's produced a typical range of low-gravity beers for South Wales. There were two milds - a Dark and an Extra Dark - as well as a Bitter, all with the same original gravity of 1032, besides the stronger Best Bitter. Now only the Dark remains of the weaker brews, mainly sold in keg smooth form.

In contrast to the stone buildings, most of the brewing plant at Llanelli is relatively modern. The brewhouse was completely renovated by Adlams of Bristol in the 1950s and then reconstructed again by Briggs of Burton-upon-Trent in 1982 with the introduction of two 80-barrel stainless steel coppers.

But one item attracted attention. It was an old mash tun which had been brought to Llanelli from Neath in 1972 following the closure of the Evan Evans Bevan brewery by Whitbread.

Tony Crossman remembers it with affection. Until its arrival Buckley's only had one mash tun and to meet demand he had to start the first mash in the single vessel at a quarter to two in the morning. The installation of a second cast iron tun, meant he gained an extra few hours in bed.

In those days Buckley's was a busy brewery, producing around 70,000 barrels a year. It was also very much a family concern, with its own idiosyncratic traditions.

Tony Crossman recalls that when he first started as a junior brewer in 1968, one of his duties was to pour out a pink gin for Lt Col W H Buckley when he visited the brewery, before the Chairman went to the nearby Thomas Arms for lunch. Now, nearly 30 years later, he was pouring out the final drops of Reverend James in the sample room.

The last workers, most of whom had been employed at the brewery since they were 16, had hung up a few Christmas decorations. But the festive trimmings failed to lift the gloom. In the malt store the few remaining sacks looked lost in the empty, echoing room.

It seemed fitting that the final batch of Buckley's Best Bitter should be going into fermenting vessel No 13.