Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Cumbrian beer - brewed in Stockport

The Mason's Arms in Anchor Street, Southport, was very busy last night. There was a large contingent of us singers and musicians gathered for the (unamplified) acoustic song night, but the rest of this small pub was busy too. The Mason's is a Robinson's pub which keeps its beer well, and while the usual real ale is Unicorn, last night it was Hartleys XB. Hartley's Brewery of Ulverston was taken over by Robinson's in 1982 and closed in 1991, when production was moved to Stockport.

I remember at the time asking Graham Donning, now one of the organisers of the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival but who in 1991 lived in Ulverston, what the takeover had done for the beer. He replied that overall it was an improvement: the beer had become much more consistent, whereas the Ulverston-brewed version had been extremely variable. Robinson's say the beer is brewed to the original recipe, formulated in 1949. I'm unable to judge because I never drank Hartley's beers when the brewery was independent.

The brewery's own description of the beer is here, and it includes the phrase, 'pale, tart beer, with its rich body and subtle tang of malt'. To me it tastes like just another product from the Robinson's stable, unremarkable but unobjectionable, which is slightly surprising if it complies with the original recipe.

Then there's the pump clip which gives the name as 'Hartleys Cumbrian XB', displaying a picture of the Lake District and the slogan 'Brewed to Eric Simpson's 1949 Recipe'. They are clearly pushing the beer's Cumbrian origins, even though it hasn't been brewed in the area for nearly a quarter of a century. There is no mention of Stockport or Robinson's.

Is this another example - attractive design notwithstanding - of deception, similar to that by Sharp's Brewery who got a lot of flak last year when it was discovered that the production of bottled Doom Bar had quietly been moved to Burton on Trent two years previously? I don't think so: the situation with XB isn't comparable because Robinson's has never made a secret of the fact that Hartley's isn't brewed in Ulverston any more, and this is quite clear from their website. In contrast, I could find no mention even now (post-scandal) on the Sharp's website that some Doom Bar is not brewed in Cornwall.

XB is one of those standard regional brews that is acceptable, but it isn't a beer you'd actively seek out, and it certainly wouldn't impress those who live a life full of hop. 


  1. Bottled Doom Bar now says something like "Brewed in Burton upon Trent in conjunction with Molson Coors" on the bottles.

    1. Looking on Sharp's website, there is a news announcement from June 2015 innocuously titled "Our beer, our brewing and our home" which confirms the Burton upon Trent situation."
      There is nothing on the Robinsons website which states that Hartleys beers are no longer brewed in Cumbria and the acquisition is omitted from the history of Robinsons.
      If place of origin is important, I think it should be at the point of sale ie the bottle or pump clip. Most people don't look up beers in a pub or supermarket on the internet when they're there.

  2. That's good, but it must be a recent development. For more than two years, they kept quiet about it.

  3. Hartleys is an example of a family brewery that people look back on through rose-tinted spectacles, but in fact in its last years seemed to suffer from a severe lack of commitment, with inconsistent beer and tatty, run-down pubs.

    We rarely see XB around Stockport, but the rather paler Cumbria Way (which I don't think was an original Hartleys brew) is often spotted.

  4. Back in the mid-1970’s, when I was a first year student at Salford University, I was in lodgings in Eccles. The lad I shared a room with was a final year student, called Howard, who hailed from Barrow-in-Furness. Howard was a confirmed Hartley’s XB drinker; in fact he swore by the beer. He would drive back to Cumbria every weekend in order to get his fix; although I also think there was a young lady waiting for him back home.

    This, of course, was nearly a decade before the Robinson’s takeover, and like you Nev, I never sampled Hartley’s whilst it was still independent. However, if my room mate’s behaviour was anything to go by, I would Hartley’s had a strong and loyal following in its local area, and it was a shame to see it disappear.

    On final point; I seem to recall there was a family connection between the Hartley’s and the Robinson’s, which may have had something to do with the takeover. Does anyone else remember seeing this?

  5. Not much point drinking it any more. There's a load of better beers actually made in the county.


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