Ruddles Brewery - A History

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Ruddles Brewery Ltd Burley Road.

Richard Westbrook Baker, originally from Cottesmore, a local farmer and substantial landowner, founded the Langham brewery in 1858. He died in February 1861 and his younger son Edward George took over the brewery. The eldest son William Henry inherited the family estates at Glaston and Exton. The executor of Baker’s will was his friend Richard Thompson of Stamford, who had also provided finance for his businesses.

The Bakers employed 10 men at the time, together with a brewery agent James Edward Harris, later described as the manager. William Jones, from Stratford on Avon, was the brewer. In 1863, Edward George Baker’s home was Manor House and he was the owner of much of the local land.

The directory entry for Langham also listed two brewery agents, Joseph Powell and Thomas Nettleship, but they are not though to be connected with the Baker’s brewery.

The previous property division had it seems been reasonably equitable, since in 1871 E George Baker of Langham, was shown as owning 79 acres with a gross rental of £289. W Henry Baker owned 76 acres in the county, with a gross rental of £245.

EG Baker may have retired around 1875, since by 1876 George Harrison owned the brewery. He had started as a maltster in Leicester and owned a variety of breweries and maltings there (see entry). He also seems to have had an interest in a maltings on Wharf Street in Oakham, possibly through family connections with the Wingfields who owned property in the area. In 1876 Tom R Rudkin was his manager at Langham. The Rudkins were local farmers and maltsters.

By 1881, the year he died, Harrison may have sold the Langham brewery to Boys & Styles, who were also shown as brewers at 16 Southgate, Leicester, that year. An entry for 1877 seems to show Boys & Styles from the Shakespeare Brewery in Leicester (see entry). In 1881, Boys and Styles were still shown at Langham, but the following year the partnership was dissolved. The Brewers’ Journal in 1882 included an entry for Henry Weirs Boys, late brewer at 16 Southgate, liquidated and moved to Langham. Augustus (?) Styles was living at 13 New Walk in Leicester by that date.

Certainly, in 1884 part of George Harrison’s malting business was taken over by Needham & Crick, which became a component of LB&M (see entry). By 1886, Boys & Styles seem to have passed the Langham brewery on to Harrison’s nephew, Henry Harrison Parry. The Parry family may have retained some connections with Harrison’s other property, in that the Duke of Bedford, an LB&M house, was mortgaged to a Joseph Henry Parry.

In 1891, John Munday was listed as the brewer to Parry. In 1894, Parry was trading from 17 Christow Street, and Langham. Henry Harrison Parry was listed as the brewer, whilst John Key was the brewery manager.

Oakham Ruddles Brewery.jpg
The brewery offices

In 1896, George Ruddle became Parry’s brewing manager. He had trained at Fordham’s brewery in Ashwell and married Nora Fordham. The Ruddles were farmers at Netheravon, but they also ran a small brewery at Bradford-on-Avon. However, in 1846, Bart Ruddle was a boot and shoe manufacturer at Cottesmore, suggesting possible earlier family links with Rutland. In February 1898, Parry paid LB&M £4,250 for three pubs:-

  • Old Greyhound, Billesdon
  • Queen’s Head, Billesdon
  • Fox & Goose, Illston on Hill

He also bought the Golden Fleece at South Croxton. LB&M had bought the Malt Shovel in that village in May 1893, in order that they could close it and concentrate trade at the Fleece, which they had leased, until they bought it in October 1893. However, LB&M had then decided on a policy of concentrating on the town trade and Parry seemed to be concentrating on the county trade. He also took the lease of the Cheney Arms at Gaddesby from LB&M as part of the deal. In contrast with the LB&M policy, they also seem to have sold him the King’s Head on Abbey Street for £570.

In 1900 the business was shown at Langham and 19 Cank Street, Leicester. However, the Parrys seem to have sold off the Leicester properties around this time. An entry for the Duke of Northumberland in 1899, describes the owner as “George Ruddell trading as HH Parry, Langham Brewery”.

In 1909, the total sales of beer wine and spirits amounted to £9,588. The bill for wages and salaries was £1,388, of which George Ruddle, as brewery manager, seems to have received £400, indicating the importance of his role. The net profit for the year was some £1,185, The estate was valued at £28,635 (Mitchell 1985).

In 1909, Parry died, resulting in the sale the following year of the brewery with its 13 pubs, 3 beer-houses and 6 off-licences. LB&M considered buying, but decided against it. George Ruddle bought it on 20th June 1911 for £19,500, paying an initial 10% deposit and £750 each year after that (F2492). The pre-war business was mainly private trade to the “gentry and local farmers”, but George increased the trade considerably and cleared off his debts in the 1920s. Interestingly, in 1922, the listing for the business still included the phrase “late HH Parry”.

In 1919, Eric Munday, a great nephew of John Munday, joined the business. He was to spend fifty years with the firm as a traveller, head brewer and finally as a director. Unfortunately in 1923, George Ruddle died aged only 48. The business was initially looked after by the executors of his will, Sidney Fordham and Ted Ruddle. The latter was George’s brother and had been running the Bradford-on-Avon brewery, which the family had bought around 1906. Then in 1924, George Kenneth Fordham Ruddle, later Sir Kenneth, took over the business. He had trained at LB&M. The death also involved a stock transfer of shares in LB&M, with whom Ruddles had maintained a close working relationship.

An entry in the 1930-31 trade directory states “high class mild and pale ales, noted for their excellence; two silver and three bronze medals and diplomas awarded; first and second prizes taken in 1929 Exhibition”.

The 1930s brought investment in a mechanised bottling plant, including metal crown corks replacing the traditional corks. There was also expansion of the estate. At the time, draught County was brewed as a mild.

In December 1945, G Ruddle & Company Ltd was formed, with Sir Kenneth as Chairman. There was further expansion in the 1940s to 38 pubs.

In 1950, County was re-introduced as a strong bitter. Langham water is similar to that of Burton and the new brew had a similarity to traditional IPAs; hence, there was an increase in its strength from the pre-war brew. In 1952 County gained a Brewex win for best cask beer. They also had a stronger ale called Old Bob. In a more innovative mode, Ruddles also made some attempts at introducing their own lager in the fifties.

In 1957, a new bottling hall was built with assistance from Whitbread as part of the latter’s umbrella of holdings in country breweries. Then in 1959, Sir Kenneth’s son Tony joined the company after two years training with Whitbread.

In 1963, Ruddles introduced Rutland Barley wine at 1080° to celebrate the independence of Rutland. As a result, it was initially called Victory Ale. In the 1960s, two-thirds of total output was to their own tied trade, with the rest to the local free trade. However, 1968 saw the first supply of own label beers to supermarkets, the same year that Tony Ruddle became the joint MD. A sign of later events was the decision to sell the Bewicke Arms at Hallaton to finance expansion. The old Parry family house became the offices in 1969.

In 1970 Sir Kenneth retired as MD, aged 70, and Tony Ruddle was solely running the business. In 1973, “Ruddles Fine Ales” were still mainly distributed within 40 miles of the brewery.

Tony Ruddle, as the new chairman, looked to expand further, including sales into the lucrative London market.

In 1974-75, output was doubled, reaching 32,000 barrels pa. The products at this time were Bitter and County and the Barley Wine for Christmas. County was also available as a brewery-conditioned container beer known as Classic, and mild and bitter were also supplied in containers, which delivered the beer on a free-flow CO2 system. They also produced “Keg”, regarded as hoppier and stronger than that of many of the nationals. Perhaps surprisingly, for one of the smaller regional brewers, they now produced their own lager, called Langdorf.

The bottled range was :- Light Ale, Export, Bob Brown, County, Rutland Ale. Around this time they also introduced bottled Strong Brown, described by Frank Baillie as a full-bodied beer of 1048°.

Richard Boston, in his book Beer & Skittles, rated Ruddles in the top half dozen beers in 1976. In July of that year, the Sunday Mirror’s first national survey scored County as 10 out of 12 and described it as “full-bodied sweetish and strong”. The average price was 29p per pint. Interestingly, their choice of champion beer was Tetley’s brewery-conditioned Drum bitter.

In 1976 Sir Kenneth died. In June, whilst planning further expansion it was rumoured that they had considered buying Wethered’s brewery at Marlow.

In 1977 they were employing 72 staff, with an estate of 39 tied houses. They produced 1,750 barrels per week or 50,000 barrels pa and that year capacity was doubled again to 100,000 barrels pa. The expansion took them to 100 workers. However, in the September, they withdrew from supplying beer to Norfolk, some 5 free houses, because of the small amounts involved.

They invested £700,000 on extending the brewery:- new silo, mash tun, copper and hop back, cask washer. This also included 5 new open fermenters - Tony Ruddle stated that he was very wary about the use of conicals “I believe open fermenters are important to taste. Our policy is traditional techniques plus hygiene” (What’s Brewing September 1977 p6). The new plant was opened by Christopher Holmes, then chairman of CAMRA.

There was also £300,000 to expand production of bottled beer, with a new bottling hall and line. The expanded output of 2,000 barrels per week was split 40% traditional draught and 12% keg, with the rest packaged, especially in the new wide-mouthed non-returnable bottles for Sainsburys, Waitrose and Key Markets. In 1976, they were the first brewery to use wide-mouth bottles. They also developed a relationship with Wells of Bedford, as Ruddles stopped brewing their own lager in favour of kegging and packaging Kellerbrau. The production manager was Dusty Miller, previously at Phipps NBC, and who had joined Ruddles after the Watney take-over of the Northampton brewery.

In terms of draught sales, County outsold another of their ales, Blue, in a relationship of 65:35; although more Blue was brewed in total because of bottling. They were switching from own label bottling to increased use of the Ruddles name, helped by the high regard for the draught beers. Some 1,000 off-licences in the London area were being supplied. Tony Ruddle’s view at the time was “We are totally safe from take-over. More than 50% of the shares are owned by the family. The other aspect of our survival is producing a quality product that drinkers want”.

The 15 months sales to March 1978 saw profits of £64,000. They had their own 36 tied houses with average prices of County at 36p per pint and Blue at 30p. However, in 1978 London prices of Blue at 36p per pint at 1032° were compared unfavourably with Bass at a strength of 1044°. It was argued that Blue was pricing itself out of market and to some extent was subsidising County which was selling at 38p. They now owned some 38 tied houses, of which 32 provided cask-conditioned beer.

However, Whitbread owned 31% of the business. This was part of the “umbrella”, but unlike the earlier provision of funding for the bottling hall, Whitbread were looking to rationalise their financing arrangements. Hence, they sold their share to the Ruddle family and friends, which meant that the latter had to generate the cash to fund the purchase. They also had to consider how they would generate capital for investment in the brewery or the tied estate. Despite some internal disagreement, in June 1978, Ruddles decided to sell all but one of its 38 pubs, since they accounted for only 15% of the output. They retained the Noel Arms at Langham, but the rest were disposed of as follows:-

  • 24 to Everards for £730,000
  • 5 in Lincs to North Country Hull Brewery
  • 6 in southern area as free houses

In the September, the Sunday Mirror’s second national survey seemed to suggest that, although the original gravity of County had been slightly reduced from 1050.4° to 1048.9°, the alcohol content had risen from 4.64% to 5.34% abv. This may explain the change in description away from sweetness to a “good strong powerful beer with hoppy flavour”. Nevertheless, it still rated a score of 10, despite a price of 41p per pint.

However, County did not succeed in the choice of champion beer of Britain, which was won by Thwaites’ brewery-conditioned bitter, although both the keg and cask versions of the Bitter scored well in their individual classes.

The panel of 18 judges was composed of 12 members of the Incorporated Brewers Guild and 6 independent laymen representing the trade and the drinker. Roger Protz of CAMRA declared a personal interest in cask-conditioned beer and withdrew from judging in the final “drink-off” in which 3 brewery-conditioned beers were matched against 3 cask-conditioned ones. A sign of the times was that in the Mirror’s corresponding survey of lager, Grolsch was one of only two beers to score 11 out of 12. However, Scottish & Newcastle’s Cavalier was rated at 12 out of 12, which may say something about the judging of the two journalists who had undertaken the survey. The average price of lager was 37p per pint, compared with 33p for bitter, despite lager being generally weaker in strength. Grolsch was the strongest lager in the survey with 5.24% abv, but it was also the most expensive at 62p per pint. Lager had grown in 13 years from 1% to 25% of the market.

In September, Ruddles withdrew from supplying about 5 pubs in the Tring area, because of distribution problems with low sales in the free trade. However, December 1978 saw them supplying British Airways with cans of County for trans-Atlantic flights.

The following March saw problems with demand outstripping supply, causing difficulties with disposing of the effluent. Indeed, they were having to tanker it off site. After cutting back on distribution to outlying areas, Ruddles stated that they would stop supplying those free houses which took less than 50 barrels per year. In May 1979, Wells bought out the Ruddle’s share in the Jarvis Canning Company at the Bedford Brewery. Instead, Ruddles would concentrate on sales of beer in wide-mouth bottles.

In 1980 the business was still independent with one pub. That year saw County voted as the best cask-conditioned beer at Brewex 80 in Birmingham. June saw profits doubled, as new free trade outlets replaced the tied trade.

Dusty Miller, the former Head Brewer, became the production director. At the time, County was described as an all barley mash, with minute amounts of flaked maize to adjust the nitrogen content of the barley to prevent haze. The brew used whole hops, primarily English, but some Yugoslavian. The heavy hop rate was to balance out the sweetness which could result from the high gravity of the beer. It was now on sale in 11 British Railways station bars in London. Total output had risen as follows:-

  • 1979 64,000 barrels
  • 1980 74,000 barrels

Ruddle’s beer production represented only 0.2% of the total UK beer trade, but 2% of the Take Home Trade. Hence, 65% of the output was packaged. Sainsbury sales grew by 21% on the previous year and they also supplied Safeway and Waitrose.

However, in May 1981, the Hennekey (Trusthouse Forte) account for 8 bars was lost to Greene King. Tony Ruddle admitted that they had recently lost one or two other accounts because of the relatively high wholesale price. Further problems arose when the plans to expand on to a 3 acre site next to the brewery were resisted by the district council. In May 1982, Ruddles joined the Unlisted Securities Market and on the 1st August the AGM noted profits up from £717,000 in 1981 to £833,000 for the year end to March 1982. In the October, Watney agreed to take County in 150 houses.

At the time, there was a fleet of 8 lorries for distribution:- 3 for delivering draught beer to customers within 100 miles of the brewery (agents covering anything beyond this distance), whilst the other 5 were for delivering palletised loads of packaged beer. However, in June 1983, the contract to supply about 1,000 barrels per year to BR train buffets was lost to Boddingtons. On the plus side, a further 350 pubs of Grand Metropolitan (owners of Watney) were to take draught beer. The London price was 89p pint. In November, Halls (an Allied subsidiary) signed to take County for pubs around Bristol.

In March 1984, Blue was renamed Rutland Bitter at 1032° OG and in October, the Head Brewer Tony Davies was hoping to introduce a mid-range draught beer. They already produced a 1042° Export for Sainsburys, but County still took 60% of draught sales. To cope with the changes, the brewhouse tower was rebuilt and the first conical fermenters were introduced. This was part of a 3 year expansion, to be completed by early 1986, which planned to double production to 5,000 barrels per week. In addition, the brewery tap, the Noel Arms was sold.

The Sales Director, Andrew Harter, stated that profits for the year to March 1984 were £1,021,462 on a turnover of £10m, 2/3rds of which came from Take Home Trade. This was compared to £705,087 in the previous year.

In June 1985, the Bitter was increased from 1032° to a more standard gravity of 1037°, at the same price. They were exporting some 400 barrels a year. However, County was now over £1 per pint in Watney pubs.

In July 1986, Grand Met bought the business for £14.2m, although Tony Ruddle was to continue as the chairman of what would now be a subsidiary of a major drinks company. The aim was to build a national quality brand sold in 3,000 outlets and it was felt that Ruddles would not be able to fund the advertising costs as an independent concern. Output was now 170,000 barrels per annum of which 70% was Take Home Trade, with 20% to Watney, some 20,000 barrels for 750 outlets in London & East Anglia. Grand Met had previously closed their Norwich brewery.

Tony Ruddle: “We’ll be the Guinness of the ale world. If Bass put all their marketing behind lager, then Ruddle could become the number one premium ale” (What’s Brewing September 1986 p3). They were also looking at the possibility of the Best Bitter going national. However, ominously, the 10% which went to the free trade was declining. In December 1986, Grand Met’s Midland arm, Manns, agreed to take County in their 580 pubs, at £1.03 to £1.10 per pint. This was linked to a £5m doubling of capacity in 6 months. In 1987, the name was changed to Ruddles Brewery Ltd and in the November, Best was to go into 700 pubs of Manns & Norwich, with a £1m promotional campaign. The shortage of casks meant that the beer had to be sold in converted kegs.

However, the £1.7m “Campaign for Real Ale” used advertising which included cans and bottles and was criticised as being misleading. In January 1989, the £3m racking plant was opened, taking capacity to 250,000 barrels per year. Draught now took 70% of output of which Best now outsold County some 60:40. This switch away from bottles to draught sales took place just as the market for specialist beers was going in the opposite direction.

The 1991 Grand Met “breweries for pubs swap”, meant that Ruddles became owned by Courage, who were suffering under the debt burden of their own Australian owners, Fosters. They perhaps did not need the additional capacity of nearly 300,000 barrels per year.

However, in January 1992, the second largest Dutch brewers, Grolsch, were looking to build a European collection of specialist breweries, having previously bought Wickuler. This had been the first purchase of a German brewery by a non-German concern. They now bought Ruddles. This was seen as a management strategy to fit the European open market. They were thought to have paid £20m for the business. Dermot Magee of Grolsch was to run the new business. Tony Ruddle was involved part-time with marketing and PR for a few months and then retired. The business became Grolsch Ruddles Brewing Company, with its headquarters at Andover in Hants. They had a total staff of 140 in the UK. Tony Reynolds, who had brewed for Greenalls for 30 years until Warrington closed, would become the Technical Services Manager. They were trying to regain the quality image after Grand Met, but the perceived problem was not seen to be Langham, but the number of outlets with poorly trained staff.

They owned no tied estate. Instead they were selling beer to Courage who then sold it on to Grand Met and Inntrepreneur pubs, as part of a 7 year deal. Grolsch were looking for new markets in the growing pub chains and wholesalers, supported by freelance technical agents to maintain quality. They would also re-brand the product, with new livery, beer engines and casks. They had a 420,000 barrel capacity of which 70% was draught, in proportion 70:30 Best to County. Tony Reynolds, the Head Brewer, aimed to improve the beers and in October 1993, their advertisement in What’s Brewing used the “We are what we brew” motto. In terms of the brewhouse, they had 2 mash tuns, using pale and crystal malts and 10% sugar syrup. The 3 stainless steel coppers involved late hopping with whole Goldings hops for aroma.

However, there was a switch to using only 18 conical fermenters, each of 350 barrels capacity. The previous yeast strain, which originated with Allied at Burton, was phased out in favour of a culture, which bottom fermented in the conicals! It has been mentioned that the local water has similarity with that of Burton and the popularity of County can be seen in terms of the IPA. The changes at Langham did not seem to take account of either the previous production strengths, nor the management comments supporting them.

Although the beers were still separate brews, under the new duty system they were shown as 3.7% and 4.9%, in each case 0.1% below the previous strength. In Grand Met they had brewed out to 1010°, but now they brewed to 1014°, with the intention of giving more body to the beer; hence the change in alcoholic strength. However, none of this quite fitted with the original 1950s County, which had made its name as a Burton style IPA.

Grand Met had brought in upright converted kegs called FBIC Fined Beer in Casks - and these were still supplied to Courage, being filled at Websters of Halifax. Alumasc developed new stainless steel casks which could be used in either traditional horizontal fashion or upright for Courage. These contained exactly 11 gallons of beer without the risk of drawing any sediment due to the Save All system. In addition, the casks used plastic rather than wooden plugs. The plugs were hinged to reduce the chances of contamination. The new beer engines to deliver the beer were effectively “swan necks”, which produced a tight creamy head, unlike the previous “flatter” head, associated with this type of beer. There was an improved delivery system based on tele-sales at Andover. There was also a TV campaign stressing the difference of the brand! The 1995 campaign which was based on taking the mickey out of the size of Rutland, was not well-received by the locals. However, they were somewhat mollified by the introduction of Independence Ale, 6.5% in 330ml bottles, to celebrate the return of the county after 21 years. Brewery tours re-commenced after an absence of 3 years, but were no longer free, instead there was a charge of £10. December 1995 figures:-

Sales £17,578,000 Profit £466,000 Capital Employed £66,712,000 Net Worth £33,954,000 85 employees

However, in April 1994, Grolsch had been facing distribution problems in both the UK and Germany. This was resolved with joint ventures in which Bass would brew and distribute Grolsch lager in UK, whilst Brau & Brunnen would distribute Wickuler in Germany. The sales and marketing staff would relocate from Andover to Langham.

In 1997, Best was an award winner at the CAMRA organised Great British Beer Festival, but they were operating at 60% of capacity and facing the end of the arrangement to supply the Courage estate; hence, Grolsch decided to sell to Morlands. The latter’s intention was to use Langham for contract brews and develop the brand as a national one. However, six months later they announced the brewery was to close in October 1998. Problems with matching the brew at Abingdon delayed the closure until early 1999. The plant and equipment was sold in May 1999 and the site emptied awaiting further development (SK845110). Partly as a result of the failed investment, Morlands themselves were bought by Greene King and closed.